The Ultimate Word

"The ultimate Word is not a paragraph but a person. If Jesus is the Word of God incarnate, then the heart of proclamation is personal and relational, not propositional."

Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki * God, Christ, Church, page 135

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Christians behaving strangely

 The Easter Altar at St. Paul's Church in Bergen, Jersey City, NJ

Easter Day A
Matthew 28:1-10

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

This time of year must seem sort of strange to most people: we Christians gathering; spending lots of money on flowers; spending lots of time to make sure everything is as beautiful as it can be; eating good food; going to church - even at times when we might not normally.

But the strangest thing of all isn’t what we do, but why we do it.

It’s been said that the only sure things in life are death and taxes, and we, in the church, are saying that we’re not even sure about that.

Don’t get me wrong. Death is real. You only needed to be at church on Good Friday to realize that the church doesn’t doubt death. We take it seriously. We believe in it. And how could we not? We all encounter death out there, in the real world, every day. Whether it’s in its more literal forms - the physical death of loved ones, or world tragedies with mass casualties, or our own gradual awakenings to the reality that our bodies simply won’t last forever; or whether it’s more metaphorical - the death of relationships, or the death of once-held hopes or dreams - either way we can’t escape the reality of death.

And the Bible doesn’t ask us to.

Just listen to the words of the angel who greeted the women at the tomb: he descended from heaven, rolled away the stone, and SAT on it. I imagine him almost smirking as he sat there, perhaps reclining, relishing in the shock they must have felt at that first Easter.

Through the kind of grin that barely holds back a giggle he said, “I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified…”

The angel didn’t deny the crucifixion. The power of God didn’t undo the crucifixion. It was still as horrible and traumatic as the women had witnessed and could still remember. Their pain as mourners was still very real. But it wasn’t all there was.

That’s why today is so strange. We know that death is real. But we believe there’s something more.

It reminds me of the story of the old preacher from down South. He was preaching an Easter sermon and trying to talk about the difference between knowledge and belief. Lost in the moment of his sermon he suddenly pointed down to his wife and five children who were seated dutifully in the front row just under the pulpit. He pointed to them and called out, “See all those children gathered up on the front row? My wife, she KNOWS they’re all hers. I BELIEVE they’re all mine!”

Yes, we know that death is real. But our faith pushes us to believe that there’s something more.

It’s a hard truth.

One of the most persistent questions in any faith is why bad things happen to good people. I’ve thought a lot about that question. I’ve studied the great thinkers, who have wrestled with it. I’ve prayed about it and wrestled with it, myself. But, the truth is, I’ve never found an answer - at least not a satisfying one. When I’m confronted with suffering - either my own or the suffering of those I love and care for - I still don’t know why.

And the truth is, in the agony of the moment it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter why we suffer. It doesn’t even matter that we won’t be suffering forever.

But we WON’T be suffering forever.

That’s what Easter is about. It’s about putting aside - even if only for a moment - the suffering, and the pain, and the agony of the moment - whatever that moment may be in our own lives - so that we can remember that it’s not the end of the story. So that we can remember that, despite whatever we may think we know, we can believe something more.

Earlier this week, while I was getting my hair cut here in the neighborhood, the man cutting my hair asked me, “So why do they call it ‘Good’ Friday, anyway? It seems to me like it was pretty bad.”

Well, he was right. It was a pretty bad day. But today is why Friday was “Good”.

You can’t get to Easter without passing through Good Friday. You can’t get to Resurrection without enduring death.

I don’t know why. But it is the way it is.

You may have come in here thinking the world has somehow passed you by. Perhaps you’re still stuck on Good Friday. But that’s okay. In here, things are strange. It’s okay if you’re strange, and it’s okay if we are.

Those women at the tomb - the first witnesses of Easter - they probably weren’t ready either.

You don’t have to fully embrace Easter before you’re ready. We’ll be celebrating here for fifty days. And even after that, we still have some Easter every Sunday. So take your time. Come to your own Easter when you’re ready. And in the meantime, take this day as a foretaste of the promise: Easter is coming; new life is breaking through. Alleluia!

Sunday, April 17, 2011

I decided not to preach today

**NOTE -- This isn't a word-for-word reprint of the sermon I preached today as they usually are.  I didn't use a manuscript (very out of character for me).  And I also preached before the Gospel, instead of after.  Very unusual for the liturgy of my tradition, and as such, very unusual for me.  But I read a rationalization for doing this - particularly on Palm Sunday - in a Feasting on the Word commentary, and it made a lot of sense to me.  So I thought I'd give it a try.

As I said, I didn't prepare a manuscript, but focused my attention, as one of my friends has put it, on preaching from a prepared heart.  I wouldn't do it often - either rearrange the liturgy or not use a manuscript (not right now anyway) but I think it worked for today.  Here's my best memory of what I tried to say.**

Sunday of the Passion, Year A
Matthew 24:14-27:66

I decided not to preach today.

At least not like I normally would.

One thing you've probably noticed right up front is that the sermon usually follows the Gospel.  But we haven't read the Gospel yet, and here I am.

There's not a priest alive who hasn't, at one time or another, been grateful for the liturgy.  You see, even when words fail us - even when we feel utterly incompetent when facing the task of expounding upon or unraveling the words of the Gospel - even then, the liturgy never fails to preach.  When we fail (and we all do at one time or another) we can always count on the liturgy to find the message that we couldn't find.

That's true every Sunday and every other time we gather to worship God.

But perhaps it's even more true today, on Palm Sunday - the Sunday of the Passion.  The liturgy always says more than any one of us could ever say, but today it seems to be saying even more.

Most of you know that four years ago I had the amazing good fortune to be able to study in Jerusalem for Holy Week and Easter.  It's always an incredible time to be in Jerusalem, but that year it was particularly so.  It was one of the rare years when the Orthodox observance of Easter coincided with the Western observance of Easter.  It was also Passover for our Jewish brothers and sisters, as well as the celebration of the Nativity of Muhammad for our Muslim brothers and sisters.  All three Abrahamic faiths came together in a single holy time.  The atmosphere was electric with the anticipation of encounters with the Holy Spirit wherever we went.

I was there, specifically, to study the Holy Week and Easter liturgies of the Orthodox traditions represented in Jerusalem.  The experience changed my life in many ways, but I'll never forget the words of our lecturer near the beginning of the course, when he was trying to help us to wrap our minds around what would be, for many of us, our first experience worshiping in an Orthodox liturgy.

He explained a simple difference that would forever shape how I understand what we're doing here in worship.  He said, "For most of us in the Western churches, even the most catholic among us, it's hard to think of liturgy as something other than a commemoration.  When we do liturgy, we usually think of it as a remembrance of or an homage to things that happened very long ago.  But our friends in the Orthodox churches see things a little differently.  They see themselves as a part of the story more clearly than we usually do.  They see themselves as active participants in the ongoing drama of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus."

It changed my life.

With this view, liturgy can never be outdated, or archaic, or irrelevant.  Jesus wasn't just a great guy who did neat things a long time ago.  Life, death, and resurrection are happening around us all the time.  It's happening right now - in this city.  Even in this room.  It will be happening tomorrow, and every day in the future.

I've come to believe that that's always true.  But perhaps never in our liturgical lives do we act it out more clearly than we do today, on Palm Sunday.

Think about it.  We started in the Parish Hall.  We started today by shifting our focus, and doing things a little differently.  We drew attention from our neighbors as we foolishly walked across the front lawn of the church and gathered at the church door to pray again.  We joined our brothers and sisters of those many centuries ago in their joyful shouts and songs of "Hosanna!".

But somewhere along the way today - I'm not sure exactly where - the mood shifts.  We go from the excitement of a fun-filled parade in a different place and with a different focus, to - just a few minutes from now - joining our brothers and sisters of those many centuries ago in their hate-filled shouts of "Crucify him!".

How did it happen?

How did it happen then, and how does it happen now?

I don't really know.

But today things are a little different.  Maybe even a little uncomfortable.

We'll even read the Gospel a little differently.  Usually some of us walk into the congregation to proclaim the Gospel in the midst of you - but today, it's your job to take a share in the proclaiming.  We have readers who will read the parts of the Narrator, Jesus, the Disciples, Pilate, the Priests, and the Pharisees.  But your job is a little harder.  Your job is to fill in all the blanks - to be the voice of those unnamed characters that made up all the others.  You'll have to follow along.  You'll have to pay attention - maybe a little more so than your used to having to.

But the truth about our lives as Christians is, we all have a role to play.  Sometimes it takes some work, and sometimes it's uncomfortable, but we all have a role to play.  We all take part in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Think about that as you read these difficult words.  Think about it in the long silence which will follow.

What is your part in the story?  What has it been?  What do you hope it will be?

We all have our roles to play in this drama.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

It takes my breath away

**NOTE - I'm back after a bit of a hiatus.  We had a guest preacher on the Second Sunday in Lent, and then I missed the Third and Fourth Sundays in Lent to recover from back surgery.  Today was my first day back.  Thanks for your patience!**

Lent 5A
John 11:1-45

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Lent can be one of the times of the Christian year that, I think, tends to make the most sense to many of us. During the rest of the year we’re asked to celebrate or to hear about miracles, and it just doesn’t always make sense. But during Lent, we’re asked to move into a deeper understanding of suffering, of the darkness that can so often envelop us.

That makes sense.

We’ve all been there. Even - maybe especially - if we find ourselves somehow forgetting celebration and joy now and then, most of us can always identify with suffering.

Lent can sometimes feel like falling into a large, overstuffed chair - not exactly “comfortable”, per se, but secure, surrounded, understood.

A few years ago, I had to the good fortune to study the words of the gospel lesson appointed for today on Monday in Holy Week while traveling through Jerusalem. In the chronology of John’s account of the life of Jesus, the story of Lazarus comes just before Jesus heads into his suffering and death in Jerusalem. We all know how everything progresses, but the lesson today tells us that his disciples must have begun to get the hint also: “Let us also go, that we may die with him,” says Andrew, almost snidely. The story of Lazarus stands as a kind of foreshadowing of how the story of Jesus would unfold in Jerusalem, and the disciples seemed to think they could see it coming.

The suffering and the death seem to have loomed like writing on the wall, but I don’t think the disciples could have imagined what they would find. I always find myself a little surprised by what I find in this gospel lesson, too.

Death is expected. We all die. But life bursting through the bonds of death? No one could have seen that coming.

But truth be told, that’s not even what really surprises me when I hear these words. The thing that never fails to take my breath away is the way Jesus’ humanity breaks through his divinity so clearly in this passage. It’s probably some kind of heresy to say so, but I’m always so much more impressed by Jesus’ humanity than by his divinity. We’ve all heard the words of the doctrine - fully God and fully human. But it’s the human part that makes me a Christian. And I think it’s the human part that can set our faith apart from all of the other pursuits of spirituality in its many forms and understandings.

There are countless ways to interact with God.

While I was bed-bound over the past few weeks I watched a lot of movies. One of the last ones was “Eat, Pray, Love”. The main character, played by Julia Roberts, sets out on a yearlong expedition to find something that seems lost in her life. She begins with four months in Italy for a little “self-care therapy”. She makes friends, she learns the language, she eats decadent food and drinks in the wine and the culture. Then for the next eight months she visits India and Bali to practice Eastern spirituality - a stark contrast from the decadence she had come to love. There’s no question that she finds some understanding of God in that process. But in each of her destinations, it’s not the “spirituality” that helps her to really find what she’s looking for. Instead, it’s the relationships that she forms. It’s the love that she encounters. In short, it’s the humanity. The spirituality certainly helps her to be more open to those beautiful things in life, but she can’t really grasp them until the deeper truths of spirituality are uncovered through her relationships.

It’s always humbling when I remember that about this faith of ours: that God does not just work from the great beyond - whatever that may be - but that God works through people. People just like us. The creator needs the created. And it’s through our encounters with Jesus that this becomes most clear.

Through so many of the stories of our faith we forget that. We spend our time in awe of Christ, our Lord at the expense of really embracing and understanding the humility and the humanity of Jesus, our brother.

If all you remember from the story of Lazarus is that Christ brought him back to life, you’re really missing something. Jesus was not JUST God. Jesus was a human being. He was a part of a community. And when encountering the suffering of one of his own, he suffered, too.

“Jesus began to weep.”

The whole experience was a lesson for Mary and Martha and all the community - Jesus is always a teacher. The raising of Lazarus was a miracle, certainly. That divine essence is recounted time and again through the gospels. But beneath the teacher and the miracle worker is something more. Something we too often forget. Something human.

And though we rarely think about it in exactly this way, perhaps that’s why Lent can make such sense to so many of us. Lessons are often lost on our feeble attempts at understanding and the kinds of miracles we read about seem too outrageous to fully wrap our minds around the concepts. But humanity is real. We have no doubt.

It’s that humanity that connects us to God.

It has been a great sadness for me to have missed so much of this Lenten journey with you in the way that I’d imagined we would share it. But unfortunately, my own humanity got in the way for a little while. But I’m glad to be back with you - my community - as we take these final steps through the wilderness on the road to resurrection.

We’re getting close now. Bethany is just two miles away. Jerusalem is just over the next hill.

These last steps will long and tiring, but together, we can make it. Together, our community is stronger than anyone’s humble humanity.

On we go. Amen.