Monday, April 21, 2014

do not hold on to me

Easter Day, Year A, 2014
St. George’s Chapel

“On this day the Lord has acted; * we will rejoice and be glad in it” (Psalm 118:24). Amen.

In the early hours of the morning, before the sun has risen, Mary Magdalene and some other women approach the tomb where Jesus has been buried. They speak distractedly in hushed tones, their breath visible in the chilly night air, their minds heavy with the events of the last few days. Jesus, their teacher, the man whom they followed, has died. A week ago, he had ridden triumphantly into Jerusalem on a donkey, to waving palms and shouts of “Hosanna! Hosanna to the King of Kings!” But three nights ago the atmosphere had shifted. There was another procession, but this time on foot; with the cross on his back, Jesus had become the beast of burden, carrying the instrument of his death. Instead of palms, whips. Instead of hosannas, jeers. The echoes of these insults still ring in Mary Magdalene’s ears. She had followed along with Jesus’s mother and aunt to the top of the hill. There the three of them had huddled at the foot of the cross, keeping vigil for what seemed like ages. She had heard his last words, she had seen him take his last breath, she had heard Mary’s cries of anguish. He was gone. 

Mary Magdalene had promised herself that she would remain faithful to him in his death. She and the women have come as soon as the Sabbath was over to anoint Jesus’ body. After he died, all the preparations for his burial had been rushed, so out of love for him and his mother they want to make sure that he is properly buried. 

The women ahead of her round the corner and then stop abruptly, their conversation forgotten. Mary Magdalene snaps out of her grief and peers around their shoulders to see why they aren't walking. The stone in front of Jesus’ tomb has been rolled away. 

Horrified, they run stumbling back into town. Mary heads for the homes of Simon Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved. “They’ve taken the Lord out of the tomb,” she gasps, “and we don’t know where they’ve laid him” (John 20:2). The three of them take off running. The other disciple is faster than Peter and gets to the tomb first. He peers in, but Peter walks past him into the tomb, panting. All that remains are the linen wrappings his body was wrapped in and the cloth that had covered his face, rolled into a ball in the corner. “Someone has taken his body” Peter thinks. The other disciple comes in and it slowly dawns on him all that Jesus had been trying to tell them about his death and resurrection. Then the two of them go home. 

But Mary remains. All that she had left of Jesus had been his body, but now even that has been taken away from her. Overcome with grief she begins to weep. She peers into the tomb, her vision blurred from the tears. But the tomb is no longer empty—two angels dressed in white greet her. She tells them that she’s looking for her Lord, and, beginning to cry again, turns around. A man is standing there. He asks her why she’s crying and whom she’s looking for (v. 15). Not recognizing him, she assumes he is the gardener, asks him if he took Jesus’ body, and if he has, to give it back so she can take it away. She’s broken and mourning, and just wants to know where the body of her beloved teacher is. 

In her grief and pain Mary had held on to the only thing she had left of her beloved teacher: his body. She could manage, could cope with his death as long as she had some part of him with her. She may not have had the power to save him from death, but she could take care of him and his grave, make sure everything looked nice and was done to her satisfaction. As long as she was doing something she didn't feel as if she had abandoned him or that her ministry had ended. So when she discovers that his body is gone, her walls come crumbling down. What little control she has over the tragic situation has been taken from her, and she is devastated. 

But then she hears her name, “Mary!” (v. 16). She recognizes that voice; she would know it anywhere. She runs into Jesus’ arms. “Do not hold on to me,” he tells her gently, “go to my brothers and sisters…” (v. 17). 

“Do not hold on to me.” When Jesus returns he reminds her that she cannot control what happens to him. She should not get stuck at the tomb; the tomb is not where his story ends.  

From the vantage point of hindsight, it is difficult for us to grasp how lost and frightened and confused Jesus’ followers were after he was crucified. We know how the story goes, and we’ve been retelling it for thousands of years. But as far as they knew, people were born, they lived, and when they died, that was it until some time way in the future, when everyone would be judged. But Jesus turned everything around. When Christ, a sinless man, died on the cross, he voluntarily took on himself the sins of the world. When we are resurrected, we will no longer have to fear judgement, because the only one with the power to judge chose to sacrifice himself so that we might be free. 

In our daily lives we mess up over and over again. We hurt each other. We hurt God. We neglect each other. We neglect God. We fail each other and especially God. We don’t do the things we should and instead do the things we shouldn’t. By all accounts we deserve punishment for our sins, but through the sacrifice of Jesus, our punishment has been removed. This is the Good News: God loves us so much that God became human to reconnect with us when we had gone astray. After teaching and healing and preaching, God volunteered to take our punishment upon himself. God has never abandoned us; God has always been faithful. Throughout the Bible are countless stories of God’s saving work, and most clearly in the person of Jesus Christ. 

My sisters and brothers, the tomb is not where our story ends, either. While death is still a part of this life, it no longer has the final word. Because of Jesus, the Word made flesh, we are able even at the grave to make our song, “Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! the Lord is risen!”

The Empty Tomb by He Qi

Saturday, April 19, 2014

never shall the cross forsake me

St. George’s Chapel

May the words I speak and the words you hear be God’s alone. Amen.

Rembrandt's Sterbeworte Christ 
(literally translated: "death words of Christ"--found here)

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1). In the Gospels according to Matthew and Mark, this is the final thing Jesus says from the cross before he “breathes his last” (Matt 27:46-50, Mark 15:34-37). 

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The question is understandable, coming from the mouth of one who has been betrayed, arrested, abandoned, interrogated, sentenced, beaten, taunted, and crucified. The mouth of one whose request to remove the cup from him is refused by God, even though he kneels, begging, sweating tears of blood (Luke 22:42-44). The mouth of one who out of his closest friends, all but two flee at the moment of truth, and one of them even denies his affiliation with Jesus three times (John 18:15-18, 25-27). It is not difficult to imagine how completely alone Jesus feels as he hangs upon the cross. 

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The question is understandable, coming from the mouth of someone who is bullied at school. The mouth of someone whose home is destroyed by a natural disaster. The mouth of someone who has been diagnosed with a terminal illness. In our own times of grief, betrayal, and pain, we may feel that God has utterly abandoned us, or that the distance between us and God is too great.  

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The answer to the question is in the question itself. When Jesus asks this question, he is quoting from Psalm 22. Being well versed in Scripture, Jesus knows the psalm in its entirety. The psalm starts out with the feeling of abandonment: God, why are you “so far from my cry and the words of my distress?” (Psalm 22:1). “I cry...but you do not answer,” the psalmist continues (v. 2), but the psalm does not end there. 

The psalmist is working through his or her grief. It’s as if he or she is saying, “I feel like I can’t get in touch with You, God, like You aren’t listening to me as I sit here in so much pain. But I know that You aren’t always deaf to the cries of my people; I know You have helped us in the past, and we trusted in You to come to our aid. I need you to be close to me right now; things are getting scary down here, and I’m having difficulty handling it on my own. Actually, come to think of it, you really are a pretty awesome God; you pay attention to the lowly and the downtrodden. You’ve helped in the past; you’ll help now. Praise the Lord!”

In Jesus’ death on the cross, we come to understand that God is not absent in our suffering. God is not just there in moments of joy; God did not just create the world, claim it was good, and then leave us here to figure things out on our own. No, God in Jesus Christ came down to earth and experienced life as one of us. That meant in addition to joy, love, peace, and silliness, Jesus felt fear, anger, grief, and pain. He understood loss. He understood loneliness. And he understood--intimately--what it means to suffer. 

Psalm 22 covers a wide range of emotions the psalmist is experiencing. Many psalms are classified as laments, but this one does not fit that mold exactly. It moves from total abandonment toward trust in God’s saving help. It is fitting, then, that Jesus should quote this psalm while on the cross. It reminds us that in the midst of our struggles, we are loved completely by a God who grasps the meaning of suffering.

“When the woes of life o'ertake me, 
hopes deceive, and fears annoy, 
never shall the cross forsake me
Lo! it glows with peace and joy.” 
--In The Cross of Christ I Glory, H441, verse 2

vulnerable before God

All Saints’ Church

May the words I speak and the words you hear be God’s alone. Amen.

One of the things that liturgical churches like the Episcopal Church do really well is incorporate not just our minds but our whole bodies into worship. Think about it: we stand, sit, and kneel during the service, actions often fondly titled “pew aerobics.” Our ears and voices join in as we listen to, recite, chant, and sing hymns, psalms, and readings from the Bible. We shake hands with or hug one another during the peace. We cross ourselves to receive absolution and blessing. We taste bread and wine before a colorful altar lit by flickering candles. On certain occasions we hear the sloshing of water as it is poured into the baptismal font. Or we watch the curling smoke of incense as it lifts our prayers to God, the powerful aroma lingering in the church (and in our hair) long after the service has ended, a reminder of God’s continued presence with us.  

On Maundy Thursday we remember especially two sensory experiences that Jesus participated in before he died: the Last Supper and foot washing. Food is a major part of most of our relationships. Dates usually happen over meals. Hanging out with friends typically involves eating. We celebrate holidays, birthdays, and other special occasions with various types of food. As we saw tonight, church relationships are no different, after all, our motto is “Ya Gotta Eat.” Every time we gather for the Eucharist we remember Jesus’ last meal. In the Holy Communion, we consume the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Now, I’m not going to go into whether or not it really becomes Jesus’ body and blood or if it’s just a practice we do in his memory. But if we stop to think about it, the image of Communion can be disturbing; there’s a reason why the first Christians were thought to be cannibals. Yet Communion is also a deeply powerful and moving image; when we eat the bread and drink the wine, Christ becomes a part of our bodies. His blood flows in our veins. His body gives us nourishment. We are intimately connected with God.

Foot washing is a common practice in Jesus’ time and the centuries before then. As a sign of hospitality, a very important value in most cultures, a host provides water for the guests to wash their feet and hands. Along with the water is a slave who does the washing. What makes Jesus’ act so incredible is that he does the washing himself. Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God, takes off his cloak, wraps a towel around his waist, and washes all of the disciples’ dusty and smelly feet. Even those of Judas, the man he knows will betray him just a short while later. In this action, the disciples are intimately connected with God.

Intimacy is not something Americans are really comfortable with. In fact, it tends to make people want to run screaming in the opposite direction. To be intimate is to be vulnerable, and vulnerability is equated with weakness in our society. When we get injured during a sporting event, we are often encouraged to play through the pain. When we dare to show emotion by crying, we become the object of pity and a source of embarrassment. If we are struggling with insecurity or depression or anxiety, we are told to “suck it up” or “just get over it already.” We hide our true selves from others because we convince ourselves (and society tells us) that no one cares. 

Back in December my friend Becky wrote a blog post about what she called the “Facebook Christmas Trap.” For those of you on Facebook, you probably had friends posting pictures of their newly decorated Christmas trees. In the pictures, everything looked beautiful and put together, and so naturally it felt like their whole lives were also beautiful and put together. Like everyone else, Becky took a picture of her lovely Christmas tree. But then she took a picture of the rest of the room, which still had boxes everywhere because she had recently moved. What most of us share with the world is only a portion of ourselves, a carefully positioned photograph that only captures a limited perspective of who we truly are. 

In John’s Gospel account, Simon Peter tells Jesus, “You will never wash my feet” (John 13:8a). He is probably embarrassed, mortified that the Son of God is offering to perform a servant’s job. He would rather do it himself than let Jesus see his dirty and smelly feet. But Jesus replies, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me” (v. 8b). 

Jesus is essentially saying, ‘If you are not completely open with me, then you are not letting me in and you won’t be able to fully appreciate what I have to offer. Being in right relationship means receiving as well as giving.’

God, through Jesus, is calling us to share all of who we are, the messy and smelly parts as well as the beautiful and clean ones. God loves us and wants to be in relationship with us, and an intimate relationship with God requires us to be vulnerable. 

Tonight is an opportunity for you to be vulnerable before God. I invite you to pay close attention to your senses for the remainder of the service and see what new things you experience. I invite you to take off your shoes, wash the feet of a fellow brother or sister in Christ, and let them wash yours. I invite you to come before the altar in all your brokenness and imperfection, receive the body and blood of Christ, and accept the forgiveness and love that comes with it.  

Where is God calling you to open up and be vulnerable in your life? Where is God calling you to receive as well as give? As we go out into the night, remember the intimacy of this service. Carry with you the experiences of foot washing and Communion. Know that they are signs of immense love from a God who was willing to be vulnerable “to the point of death--even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8). 

“As in that upper room you left your seat
and took a towel and chose a servant’s part,
so for today, Lord, wash again my feet, 
who in your mercy died to cleanse my heart” (WLP 730). 

sketch of foot washing by Rembrandt

Sunday, April 6, 2014

deeply moved

Lent 5, Year A, 2014
All Saints’ Church

May the words I speak and the words you hear be God’s alone. Amen.

Every time I hear somebody say that they find the Bible boring, I think to myself, “I wonder what Bible they’re reading?” Sure, there are some parts of the Bible that take some effort to wade through (like the lists of “so-and-so begat such-and-such” and the book of Leviticus, in particular), but the Bible is also full of stories of adventure, espionage, forbidden love, giants, miracles, and--depending on which translation you’re reading--even unicorns (also check out the book of Kings; it’s the biblical version of the Game of Thrones). Today’s readings are also exciting; Ezekiel tells the story of a valley of dry bones growing flesh and becoming human again, and John recounts the raising of Lazarus. For all you Walking Dead fans out there, yes, the Gospels include a real-life zombie.  

Martha and Mary, sisters who are friends of Jesus, send word to Jesus that their brother, one of Jesus’ best friends, is really sick. They are at their wits’ end; nothing seems to work and Lazarus’ health is rapidly going downhill. In desperation, they call for their friend Jesus; he will know what to do, he will make sure that their beloved brother gets better. 

The text tells us that “Jesus love[s] Martha and her sister and Lazarus” (John 11:5). But for some reason he waits around another two days before making his way to their house. Is he scared of the authorities? When Jesus tells the disciples that it’s time for them to go back to Judea, they protest, “Woah now, Jesus. We just got back from there. Remember what happened? Remember how they tried to stone you and then arrest you? You can’t go back there! Stay here; it’s safe here. You can do your ministry from right here, out of harm’s way. There’s no need to go back; wait until things cool down a little.” The disciples still have vivid memories of the angry crowds, arguing with and yelling at Jesus, snatching stones, hurling insults, grabbing at Jesus to arrest him, the mad dash to get away from the crazed mob (10:22-40). They are not ready to face death; they are not ready to lose their beloved teacher.  

When Jesus tells them that Lazarus is dead and so he absolutely has to go back, it is Thomas--good ol’ doubting Thomas--who speaks up. Even though he doesn’t expect they’ll make it out alive, he dramatically calls on the other disciples to act in solidarity with Jesus, to follow him to the bitter end: “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (11:16). The disciples have eaten with, slept next to, walked dusty roads beside, and learned from Jesus. They have given up normal lives in order to follow this man, and they are determined to follow him now, even if it means their death.

Martha meets Jesus when he arrives in town. She seems disappointed in him; she knows that her brother would still be with them if Jesus had come sooner. She doesn’t understand Jesus’ reasons for waiting, but she hasn’t lost her faith in him--she still calls Jesus “Lord,” still believes that he has a special relationship with God, and openly proclaims that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God. 

There are many people gathered at Mary and Martha’s house to help them mourn; they don’t leave the sisters alone in their grief. Death is a communal event; we gather to show our love and support, to honor the life of the person who has died, to grieve the loss of a loved one. When Martha returns to the house and privately tells Mary that Jesus wants to see her, Mary immediately leaves to find him. Concerned, the people follow Mary to the tomb because they don’t want her to be alone. 

Mary has the same thinly veiled accusation as her sister Martha, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (v. 32). But Mary openly shows her grief; she kneels crying at Jesus’ feet. The people who have followed her are crying, as well.

Up to this point in today’s reading, Jesus has seemed rather aloof. He takes his time getting back to Judea. He even awkwardly makes a joke about Lazarus being asleep, before matter-of-factly stating that he’s actually dead. But when he sees Mary crying at his feet and hears the weeping of the crowd, something changes. The text states that he is “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved” (v. 33). The phrase “deeply moved” can also be translated as groaning or angrily snorting like a horse (v. 33). Whatever it is, he has a visceral reaction to their tears, and begins to weep himself. Lazarus’ death is real. His sisters, having lost their protector, must now fend for themselves in a world not kind to women. Jesus knows what is going to happen next, and yet he still is intensely affected by the sorrow of his friends. “See how he loved him!” (v. 36). The Son of God is not immune to suffering. 

Jesus approaches the cave where the body is laid. He commands the people to remove the stone blocking the entrance. Martha protests; Lazarus has been dead for four days. In Jewish belief, the soul waits around for 3 days before finally leaving the body. Since four days have passed, Lazarus’ soul has already left; he is officially gone. Undaunted, Jesus calls out to the Father, showing the crowd that what is about to happen is not a magic trick but an act of God. Jesus calls his friend, and Lazarus comes out, still wrapped in the strips of cloth they buried him in. It turns out that death is not the victor, in this case. Jesus tells the people to release him from death’s captivity: to take off the cloths, leave that part of his story behind, and then begin again, restored to humanity and the life of the community. 

In John’s Gospel this is Jesus’ final sign before his crucifixion. He is probably aware that his days are numbered, and he perhaps even knows that this act is a pivotal moment; after he raises Lazarus, people tell the Pharisees about what happened and they plot to end Jesus’ life. Perhaps this is why Jesus waits so long to go back to Judea; so that his disciples will finally understand that death is not the end of the story, that love ultimately wins.  

Throughout this story wind examples of love: the sisters’ love for their brother. The disciples’ love for Jesus. The crowd’s love for the sisters. Jesus’ love for Lazarus and his sisters. Their love for him. Jesus’ love for his disciples. But all of these examples of love foreshadow an even greater love; that of God for God’s creation. In the Gospel, momentum is building up to the events of Holy Week. We’ll start with the high of Palm Sunday next week, celebrating Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem surrounded by excited crowds of supporters. But then everything will quickly come crashing down on the eve of Good Friday, when Jesus is handed over to the authorities, put on trial, and condemned to death by the same crowds who supported him a few days earlier. It will appear for a few days that death will have the upper hand, that darkness will rule the day as well as the night. But after three days a stone will once again be rolled away from a tomb entrance, and the only evidence of death will be the strips of cloth left behind. 

The biggest sign of God’s love is that God became human, experienced life from our point of view, taught us how to love one another and to reconnect with God, and then gave up life so that we might have eternal life. In Christ, death is vanquished and love rises victorious from the grave. May we be so “deeply moved” by this love that we respond in faith with love. 

image found here