Sunday, April 26, 2015

Good Shepherd Sunday

What follows is a portion of the sermon I preached today, on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, at St. Andrew's Church in North Grafton. The gospel reading for the day is from the fourth gospel, John 10:11-18.

Do you remember that time when Jesus was talking with the tax collectors and sinners when the scribes and Pharisees come grumbling. They don’t like it that Jesus is so indiscriminate about the company he keeps. So Jesus tells them three parables that are intended to help them to see the world from another perspective—by imagining what it feels like to be lost.

First, he tells them the story of the ninety-nine sheep and the one who gets lost. Remember? And the shepherd goes out to find the lost sheep and bring it back to the flock. And then he tells the story about the woman who loses a coin in her house and turns the whole house upside down until she finds it. And then as he builds to a crescendo he tells the story about the man who had two sons and one of them lost his way, but in the end he came to himself and came home. All three stories: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son are offered as a kind of explanation by Jesus as to why he spends so much of his time with sinners and tax collectors; because he sees them not as bad people to be shunned but as lost people who are yearning to be found.

It’s from the first of those three parables that most of us can probably see in our mind’s eye an image of the “good shepherd” carrying back a wayward little lamb to re-join the rest of the flock. This image is a powerful one, and you don’t need to have been raised on a farm to recognize that there is good news in it. I do sometimes wonder if it isn’t just as easy to get lost in our fast-paced world in front of a computer screen or tethered to our IPhone than it is in an agrarian society. In either case, the good news in every time and place is that God seeks out the lost ones and binds up their wounds and makes them strong again. 

It’s great to be among the ninety-nine and feel plugged in and connected and munch on good grass all day. But sometimes we are that one who feels lost and confused and scared. And when you feel lost and confused and scared it can become a vicious cycle, because it seems so obvious that everybody else must be found and put together and happy. So maybe you wander a bit further away even, until you are more lost and more scared and more confused. Pretty soon you may even find yourself walking through the valley of the shadow of death. But God doesn’t give up on us even then; especially then. God goes out on a search and rescue mission, and by the grace of God we may even allow ourselves to be found.

The imagery in today’s gospel reading draws on this same life experience with shepherding and sheep, but comes at it from the other side. The Good Shepherd is still Jesus, the risen Christ. But the perspective is from the other side of the equation: rather than the one who is lost and needs to be carried back to join the rest we see why it is important to stay part of the ninety-nine. It’s talking about why being part of a flock matters in the first place.  The larger goal of keeping the flock together is simple: it’s a dangerous world and one little lamb off by herself is likely to become a leg of lamb dinner for a hungry wolf family. It’s a wolf-eat-lamb world out there after all, and a flock that is together is safer than a flock that is disbursed.

This is the key, I think, to understanding what Jesus is talking about in today’s gospel reading. A flock that is together can be led to greener pastures and still waters and the wolves can be kept at a distance and therefore they can all have more abundant life. Sometimes people tell me they are very good Christians who don’t need the church to practice their faith and I have no reason to doubt their sincerity, but I would respectfully challenge their assumptions. If we really are made to part of a flock—members of Christ’s Body, the Church—then we need each other. Yes, community can be hard. But even at it is most challenging, healthy communities give us a space to grow into the full stature of Christ that a privatized spirituality can never offer us.

Now, just so that we are all clear on this: in today’s opening collect we prayed:  O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of your people. In the twenty-third psalm, we prayed, the LORD is my shepherd… And in the Gospel we hear Jesus say, "I am the good shepherd.” So who is the Good Shepherd again?

Sometimes we expect the Bishop to be the good shepherd, or maybe even more likely our pastor – that word even comes from this same imagery. Sometimes congregations start to baah a lot and go out and get lost and so pastoral ministry starts to look like the pastor is supposed to keep running around gathering up the one, and the one, and the one, and the other one. But somewhere along the line we got a little confused. At best, bishops and priests, serve the Good Shepherd like faithful sheep dogs. They are not the Good Shepherd; there’s only one of those and whether or not we carry a staff or wear a collar, all of us are in this together.

At the heart of this powerful metaphor about the Good Shepherd is a claim about what the church is for and a reminder that we need one another, and when we make time for each other to gather and to reflect on God’s Word and break the bread and share the cup we give ourselves a much better chance of staying well in body, mind and spirit. The church is crazy sometimes, no doubt. Community takes work. But so do marriages and parenting and friendships.

But it is good for our spiritual health to make time to be together. It’s good for our spiritual health to assess where we are from time to time and figure out where God is leading us—especially when there are greener pastures and more still waters ahead. Sometimes the Good Shepherd says “follow me” to that new place and we just say “baah.”  All we like sheep have gone astray and we probably will do so again.

The call of this Good Shepherd Sunday is for trust to trump fear. When we are found, and part of the whole, we are stronger. And when we do get lost and we go astray, we are not abandoned. There is a good shepherd, Jesus, who seeks us out – and plenty of sheep dogs to help. Each week we are called to come back together so that we can give ourselves a better chance of being found by the love of God that casts out all fear—a love that forms us as an Easter people.

One last note: apparently the Good Shepherd has other flocks as well—that recognize his voice even if they do not know his name. I like that a lot. But for those of us who are gathered here, as these fifty days of Easter continues to unfold we pray for the momentum to build toward Pentecost, as we keep listening for the voice of the One who calls us by name. May we respond with Easter hope: “my Lord and my God!”  

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Open Eyes

" our eyes to see your hand at work in the world about us." (From Eucharistic Prayer C, The Book of Common Prayer, page 372)

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Easter is not confined to a day, to that Sunday morning that falls each year after the full moon that occurs on or after the spring equinox. Easter begins at the empty tomb but does not end there. It unfolds over fifty days, culminating at Pentecost.

The claim that Jesus was raised from the dead - that his body is not there but is to be found in the world, is the beginning of a journey, not a litmus test of belief. Trusting that claim sends us out into the world. Every time a loved one dies we have a choice to renew the claim that Jesus' death is the first fruits of resurrection, and that in death our lives are changed, not ended. Resurrection is a way of life.

This Easter Season, I've been reflecting on a thread that begins at the empty tomb as the fourth gospel writer remembers it, and then continues on the road to Emmaus as Luke tells that story.

First, from the twentieth chapter of John's Gospel: there is this exchange between Mary and the man she mistakenly believes to be the gardener, but who is in truth the resurrected Christ. Perhaps Mary does not recognize him because she is till in shock, and grieving. Whatever the reason, she is blind to who is right before her very eyes, at least until he speaks, calling her by name. Only then are her eyes opened.

Something similar happens on the road to Emmaus. In fact in this case the two disciples are walking along with a stranger who is telling them all sorts of important stuff. But still, their eyes are kept from recognizing him, at least until he stays with them and takes, blesses, breaks, and gives the bread. Then, Luke says, "their eyes were opened." And then, of course, he is gone; the recognition is fleeting.

I find my prayer this Easter season to be rather simple: open my eyes, oh Lord.  Let me see what is right before me - not trying to see too far down the road, or behind me, but open fully to the present moment where You are. 

Spring is finally arriving in New England, where we had a very long winter. There are signs of life all around me. I spend a lot of time in my car these days, but I have to say it is a very different experience when my roof is open than when it is closed. I'm trying to pay attention, to keep my eyes open, to see God's hand at work in the world around me.

Not just in nature. I work closely with congregations, but in a very different capacity than I did as a pastor. Now I am everywhere and nowhere. I come in and then I leave. But I'm finding that if I work at it, I can be more mindful and more present - I can come in with a curious heart. Sometimes as an "outsider" I can see things that those who are too close to it all (especially if there is conflict) cannot see. I'm learning that the goal is not usually to tell them what I see so much as it is to ask the questions that help them to see for themselves. "Look over here...what's up with that?"

Here is the faith claim I want to make: the empty tomb is a metaphor that keeps reminding us that Jesus is not there, but he's everywhere else. By metaphor I don't mean it isn't true or it didn't happen that way. I just mean that we can't turn the empty tomb into a golden calf. That's the last place we go to find Christ! The invitation is to find the risen Christ at every table where the bread is broken - not just sacramentally, but at every meal where we give thanks for our daily bread. The invitation is to find Christ out in the garden (or talking with a stranger we presume to be the gardener) or walking along the way with your bishop on a pilgrimage through the holy ground of a diocese. Or even sitting next to a stranger on an airplane and instead of putting earphones in or staring at a book, turning to engage in conversation when she introduces herself. (This last one is especially challenging for me.)

Brian Wren puts it so well, and I'm trying to live like I believe it -  with open eyes, an open heart, and open hands:
Christ is alive! No longer bound to distant years in Palestine, he comes to claim the here and now and conquer every place and time. // Not throned above, remotely high, untouched, unmoved by human pains, but daily, in the midst of life, our Savior with the Father reigns. (See the full text of the hymn here.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Good Friday Meditation

Later this morning I am going to walk the "Way of the Cross" through the streets of Worcester with Worcester Fellowship, an outdoor ecumenical ministry. Below are some reflections on the meaning of this day, an abridged and edited version of a sermon I preached three years ago during the ecumenical liturgy in Holden. The original post can be found here.

As we come once more to familiar words from the fifteenth chapter of Mark’s Passion Narrative,  I am struck at how quickly we tend to simplify this narrative. Underneath all of the betrayal and denial and running there is raw fear, as the violence escalates and the mob gets louder and more hostile. 

This is a complex story that has people divided up into camps and shouting at each other. It all happens so fast, including the speedy trial that it is my task to reflect with you on today. In the end, an innocent man is going to end up dead.

You know that is how it ends, right? I would be very surprised if there is anyone in this church today who is so new to the faith that she has never before heard the story. We come here—and this is especially true among the clergy types—with our settled atonement theologies and our Easter sermons mostly written already. We are ready to be on with that part; no need to linger over the death, right? We think we know the story. But we tend to hear it—all of us—through the lens of our preexisting narratives; through what we are certain we already know. And yet so much of what we assume we know would come as a big surprise to Mark—or for that matter Luke or Matthew or John or Paul as well.

Some will say this was the whole plan all along, from Genesis 1: God sends his Son to die for the sins of the world, because of the Sin of Adam. But if we aren’t careful, that simple narrative can sound like God is a child abuser. Others will play the blame game and say that the Jews killed Jesus. But that narrative scapegoats and demonizes God’s chosen people and makes it sound like God hasn’t kept God's promise to the children of Abraham. It also forgets that the man on the cross is a Jew, born to Jewish parents, and that his friends were all in that Upper Room in Jerusalem to celebrate Passover, not Easter.  

It seems to me that our presumed theologies about what makes this Friday good can keep us from entering into the raw drama of the story itself, which is complex. It's complex because life is complex. Every year someone in my congregation would say to me, "I just don’t get it." And my response was always the same: “Good! When you think you do, that is the time when I’ll start worrying! In the meantime try to live more fully into the questions.” 

So what might happen to us if we step back and breathe: if we slow down and wait and reflect until new and better questions emerge?

This day asks us to focus our attention on the Cross—not on our theologies about the Cross. It asks of us that we come and simply stand at the foot of the cross to gaze upon this dying man. And in so doing, to see ourselves and one another in a new light. We gather together on this day at the foot of the Cross, and that is something: young and old, male and female, evangelicals and progressives, gay and straight. In our differences we will no doubt see it all unfold from different angles and perspectives.

We do well to remember that none of us as individuals and none of us as separate congregations possess the whole truth about the meaning of this day. Do we dare to open ourselves up to this crucified God and to each other—to be that vulnerable? Do we dare to let this complex story to take hold in our lives—this Jesus on this Cross who in some ways will always remain a mystery to us. Will we allow the Story itself to transform us and help us to write new, more authentic (and yes!) more complex narratives?

It is much easier, of course, to simplify the narrative so that it neatly fits into our Episcopal or Baptist or Lutheran or Roman Catholic or we-don’t-have-a-middle-name presumptions.   But if we seek a larger purpose on this day, if we really do mean to be one in Christ at least for a few hours, then what would it take for us to hear this story in new ways, through a fresh set of ears, and to see what we may not have seen before through new eyes?  How are we changed simply by hearing it in the presence of one another?

One of the things I am truly grateful for in this day is the slower pace and the quite time and the space that gives us to ponder such things in our hearts. Because it is in slowing down that we may gain new insights and perspectives on a familiar storyline.  I like it that we stand in strange pulpits and sit in different pews. The de-centering can be a good thing, especially if it gives us eyes to see and ears to hear.

As soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council. They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate.

It all unfolds so fast. According to Mark, Jesus never says a mumblin’ word. Why is that? Why doesn’t he set the record straight and tell Pilate that he’s only talking about something spiritual, that he is no threat the rulers of this world because he’s only interested in heaven?

Well, of course, the truth about the Reign of God that Jesus came to proclaim is far more complicated than that, isn’t it? Jesus never suggests that it is something merely spiritual, nor that it is a merely a place we go after we die. Like the mustard seed, God’s Reign of justice and love is present here and now, even if in small ways that need to be tended to and cultivated. It breaks into our everyday lives, like when a lost son finds himself making his way back home to a father’s embrace. Except that even as the veal piccata is being served to everyone, sibling rivalry rears its head and the so-called good boy, the dutiful son, suddenly experiences the shadow side of forgiveness and mercy. That’s how families are sometimes. Complicated.

What do you do when a person you fear and mistrust—a Samaritan—behaves like a neighbor, even as the people who go to your church rush on by and pretend they don’t see you. Such moments have the potential to rock our worlds and throw us into temporary disequilibrium. And yet they also open us up to the possibility of real grace and the new and abundant life that Jesus came to offer. That is the Reign of God. And when it breaks in and takes hold of us it changes our lives, and all things are made new again. It changes the way we live and think and act.

So, in fact, the Way of the Cross is actually a very real threat to Pilate and to all imperial power, and to all of our simple narratives and to all the forces of evil in this world that would corrupt and destroy the children of God. The Way of the Cross is a very real threat to the rulers of this age who think they are ultimately in charge. Jesus is a threat because he challenges his followers to ask big questions like, “how much of my life belongs to Caesar anyway? And how much of it belongs to God?” The powers-that-be don’t want such questions asked. And so, as we will soon see, they are about to silence the messenger.

My job today is to talk with you about this trial, but here’s the thing: the trial is a sham. There is no evidence. But that doesn’t mean that in the midst of all that false and conflicting testimony people aren’t certain about what needs to happen. I wish I could tell you that was the last time it happened in human history but it was not: an innocent man is going to death row. End of story. Minds are already made up.

Perhaps the nastiest side of human nature is this tendency to blame and scapegoat others. It is one of the ugliest things human beings do, in my opinion. None of us are immune from the temptation, either. In fact we seem to be living in times that have almost “normalized” this—talk radio and cable television seem to be more about shouting and yelling than informing.

And so when tragedy strikes, it must always be the fault of the liberals, or of the conservatives. Someone is to be to blame: Bush or Obama, the godless atheists or the religious fundamentalists. Gay people, who are a threat to the sanctity of marriage; or homophobes, who want to push all gay people back into the closet. Black people, white people, the third world, the first world, the young, the old, the lazy, the greedy, the unemployed, the Wall Street Bankers. Simple narratives, in which it is so clear who is at fault. Crucify them. Crucify them.

Jesus doesn’t say a word to Pilate. He doesn’t blame anyone. Instead, he silently stretches wide his arms of love to embrace the whole world: all of us saints and sinners. No one is exempted from the reach of that saving embrace. Or as another first century theologian put it: "For God so loved the world…” No exceptions. Not just the Catholics or the Episcopalians or the Baptists. Not just the good Christians who come out to Church on Good Friday. Not just Republicans or Democrats, or Americans…but all the little children of the world, and their parents and grandparents too.

God so loved the world. Breathe that in today and if you take nothing else away with you, take that. Jesus dies even for cynical old Pontius Pilate, who plays the whole thing like the brilliant politician he is. God so loved the world that Jesus dies for Barabbas, a murderer who gets a get-out-of-jail free card. God so loved the world that Jesus dies for the crowd that cried out for blood and for the authorities that lied about him under oath. God so loved the world that Jesus dies for you and for me. No exceptions.

How can we possibly respond to a love so amazing, so divine? It demands nothing less than “our souls, our lives, our all.” It requires of us that we try, with God’s help, to love as we have been loved—as a forgiven and reconciled people. Let us then pray: 
Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross, that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your Name. Amen. 

Thursday, April 2, 2015

A Mandate To Love

The name of this day in the Christian calendar, "Maundy Thursday," comes from the Latin version of the 34th verse of the thirteenth chapter of John's Gospel. Jesus, gathered with his friends, washes their feet and then gives them a new commandment - a new mandate to love. "Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos" ("A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another;even as I have loved you, that you love one another," RSV.) 

In my reading of the gospel, this first day of the Triduum takes us to the very heart of the gospel. It's way more than a "thread" in the teachings of Jesus - it takes us right to the center. What is the whole of Torah? Love God, love your neighbor. Who is my neighbor? Well, once there was this man walking along the Jericho road...

My heart has been heavy in these latter days of Lent with the news out of Indiana and the legislation that I believe clearly discriminates against LGBTQ people. That is bad enough. This is not the place to debate gay marriage, but I'm weary of "Christians" who claim to be reading the Bible and then impose on that sacred text a reading of marriage that is rooted in 1950s America. A simple word search of marriage in the Bible would make it clear that (as in our own world) that it's kind of complicated. Ask Abraham and Sarah and Hagar for their takes on it. Ask Tamar. Or Rachel and Leah. Or Bathsheba. 

I get it that Christians will disagree about this. I get it that religious people interpret their sacred texts differently, and we have a right to those differing interpretations. But what I do not get, or excuse, are people who claim to be Christians acting like bigots and ignoring the heart of the gospel, which is this commandment to love one another. Even for those who feel they must hate the "sin" - what about loving the "sinner?" How did this uncompassionate, fear-of-the-other bigotry get to call itself "Christian" and then insist on a religious "right" to discriminate against neighbors? Truly I don't understand that. I think it is taking the Lord's name in vain...

On both the left and on the right we can be guilty of cherry picking our texts - of proof-texting to insist that God is on our side. All of us need to guard against that. Our goal is to try to make sure we are on God's side. As I read the whole of the Christian tradition, that would suggest erring on the side of grace over judgment, on the side of compassion and love over fear and scapegoating. The mandate that Jesus gives us is to love one another because we have first been loved. That's not just some obscure text. It takes us to the heart of the matter - on this and every day - and to the deepest truth of the Paschal mystery. 

God so loved the world, after all. No exceptions.