Saturday, March 26, 2016

March 27, Easter Sunday 2016: Glimpsing a Whole New World

The Empty Tomb, by Virgilio Tojetti, in the Sanctuary at Old First

Isaiah 65:17-25, 1 Corinthians 15:19-26, Luke 24:1-12

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

On this most glorious day of days, would you allow me to start off on the wrong foot, and speak of Donald Trump . . . and Bernie Sanders? The pundits have noted their common appeal in being anti-institutional. But to my mind their more powerful appeal is that they are the visionaries in this campaign.

Sanders offers a vision of society, a society of equality and equity and social justice.

What Donald Trump offers is a vision of himself, an √úbermensch, a man who is powerful and totally free, free from policy, free from veracity, free from consistency, and free from courtesy and decency—in his freedom is his consistency.

Both of them are visionaries. That the two of them have dominated the debates in this campaign tells you how important vision is to us as human beings.

Other animals might well have visions. We know they do have dreams. But human beings are the visionary animals. We humans live our lives ahead of where we are, we are the animals with far-away eyes, we gaze into the future in order to live today. We are the animals who convert our visions into reality, and we do this by our creativity, artistry, invention, and culture. We are those animals who change the world, for better and for worse. People without vision perish.

The mother of vision is imagination. Allow me to shift here. Imagination, for human beings, is a matter of life and death, especially for children. I may tell you that nurturing the imaginations of our children is a governing value of our wonderful Sunday School teachers here at Old First.

Just last Sunday, the primary class was studying the resurrection, and the kids were invited to respond to it by coloring the wings of butterflies. One eight-year-old covered his butterfly with mathematical equations and math problems with answers. The teacher asked him about it, and he said that the resurrection is both the question and the answer! Creative imagination expressing remarkable insight.

It’s true. The resurrection of Jesus is an answer that poses its own new questions. It answers questions no one thought to ask, and it does not answer questions you might have. It was certainly not the answer his disciples were expecting. His bodily resurrection was of no use to them. It was not in their apparent interest and it did not solve the problems they were looking at. If they were expecting him to rise again, or even hoped for it, they would have kept vigil at the tomb, or at least believed the women who told them it had happened.

So it isn’t merely a case of man-splaining that Peter went to check it out. He had to go see this thing which had come pass but made no sense, he had to face this great surprise, and if only from what it left behind, he tried to catch a glimpse of it.

I think of Galileo peering through his primitive telescope and seeing the moons of Jupiter, and extrapolating therefrom a whole new cosmology of the universe. He looked through a lens with an aperture of less than an inch, and in that glimpse he imagined the world in a whole new way. He had been looking through his telescope for answers to questions he had. His questions were regarded as illegitimate by everybody else, but by now we’ve all accepted his questions and his answers.

As often in science it goes the other way. We recently got all those photographs of Pluto, full of absolute surprises, and astronomers suddenly had answers they did not know the questions for!

And then, in the case of quantum physics, you can only discern the existence of an elementary particle from its tracks, from what it leaves behind! The scientist has to work out the implications of its absence, and for that she must employ her imagination, no less than our eight-year-old Sunday School student. No less than Peter would have to do in the weeks and months and years after his visit to the empty tomb. He and the other apostles would have to imagine the reality of a whole new heaven and earth on the basis of its tracks inside this old one, on that resurrection morning.

The women got a better glimpse of it than Peter did. They were at the tomb much earlier, and they got to see and even converse with those two mysterious men in dazzling clothes. In Luke’s account they are not angels—they are human beings, earthlings, but of the new earth.

They are people from the future, from the other side of death, they are already-resurrected human beings, they are citizens of the kingdom of God as that kingdom is unmixed, unsullied, fully come on earth, untainted, no longer only partial and passing, no longer compromised by death. The women get to see it. And in those two dazzling humans they glimpse what they will be themselves, on the other side of death. A glimpse of a reality though still a mystery.

Easter offers you no proof; what it offers is an invitation. Easter invites you to be a Galileo of your own, Easter invites you to extrapolate from your glimpses in order to envision your whole world differently, already, in these centuries of overlap between the dying of the old world and the springing of the new. To make your reality out of your visions is natural to you as a human being, and so by your creativity, or your artistry, your invention, and by your culture you will change the world toward what you see. The message of Easter is an invitation to your part in its transformation.

Of course it’s not only your glimpses that you do this from. You also factor in the images and stories of the Bible. It’s always difficult to know when they’re meant to be literal or not, and very often they are not literal. Like in Isaiah, the wolf and the lamb living in peace, and the lion eating straw like an ox. A lion doesn’t have the teeth for it, nor the multiple stomachs. But still you get the point. You can easily imagine life within the city that Isaiah envisions. And you can even imagine the vision of First Corinthians, of life in a world where death is destroyed, although that is more difficult when you try to imagine that life as embodied, as physical, as cultural—but you can.

Yes, these visions leave us with questions, because the resurrection is an answer that raises its own questions. But these are good questions, questions to make you reconsider all the dominant opinions in the world right now, about power and success and how to ensure your future. These visions question the reigning political and economic certainties that do not solve but only exacerbate the misery and violence and planetary destruction of our global dance with death today.

You envision a society which is described by the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount and in his positive interpretations of the Torah and the prophets. He said “blessed are the poor and blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” But weren’t we hoping instead that everybody would be rich, equally rich, and everybody could be proud and stand up for themselves? Well, how about if everyone were equally poor, but as poor as birds, as poor as elephants, as poor as whales, and just as satisfied with life. Imagine yourself as meek as an oak tree, and just as selfless and as strong. You can envision such a society, and you can fashion signs and specimens of it.

You will have company with your visions, and not only among Christians (and maybe not all Christians!), but also among other believers and even among humanists. But if your vision is through the telescope of Our Lord’s resurrection, then you’ll envision a society of praise and worship. You will want to offer praise, praise without self-consciousness, and that may challenge your imagination. You will need some converting fully to enjoy that life. But isn’t that what you want anyway, some transformation?

You are invited to a vision of the world, a vision of society, and finally to a vision of yourself. As free! But not as free from policy, veracity, consistency, courtesy and decency, rather free from death, because you’re on the other side of death. Frankly I don’t know what that all means, to be free from death, I have so many questions still unanswered, but I believe it, because I believe in him.

So I invite you to envision your soul and body free from death. I invite you to transform your own life now so that, despite that you must still die, you live your life as free from the power and shadow and curse of death, free from the shadow of shame and guilt, free from payback and revenge, free from the binding of fear, especially the fear of other people and their judgment.

Don’t worry about coloring your butterfly outside the lines, because of the reconciliation of the cross, which is the guarantee that your death is not your end nor are your mistakes or your fumbles your binding chains. The crucified one is the one who is resurrected, and you too, dying one, so there is your comfort and your freedom too. Freedom is the fruit of love, and comfort is its flower, and new life is the root of love. So, finally, what we glimpse today is the love of God, and we only begin to imagine how vast and expansive is the love of God for the world, and the love of God for you.

Copyright © 2016, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

March 13, Lent 5: Admit to Your Judas, Submit to Your Mary

Isaiah 43:16-21, Psalm 126, Philippians 3:4b-14, John 12:1-8

"I want to know Christ, and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings, being conformed to his death, that I may attain somehow the resurrection from the dead."

This story happens the night before Palm Sunday. The next day, Jesus will ride into Jerusalem, declare himself, and set the events in motion from which there was no turning back. In seven days he will be dead. So this is the next-to-Last Supper. This is the foot-washing before the foot-washing.

Jesus can feel what’s coming. He knows what he must do, and he can foresee the opposition. He is doing his Messiah-thing in an unexpected way—not taking up weapons, refusing to fight, hoping that he might somehow attain the resurrection from the dead. But to gain that resurrection he has to lose some lovely things, like nice dinner parties, like hanging out with friends, like being touched. He had a real life he was losing. He was gaining God’s goal, but he was losing the life he loved.

This is in the house of his best friends, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Lazarus sits next to him because they were so close. When Lazarus had died, Jesus cried. When Jesus raised his friend from the dead, that sealed his own death-warrant. So he’ll be losing Lazarus again, but this time by his own death. He’ll be losing Mary and Martha too.

This is their last meal for him. They had always been good to him. They supported him; he often took refuge in their house. He let down his hair with them. They, unlike the disciples, wanted nothing from him. So tonight, before his impending ordeal, he accepts the lavish love that Mary pours on him. It comforts him that she wants him in her hair.

Mary violates propriety by letting down her hair. This is reckless potential sexuality. It will have been electric, everybody watches. The room is filled with fragrant sensuality. Should Jesus allow this? She is a wealthy woman, she could have a servant wash his feet. And why not use a towel—why her hair? When she wipes the lotion off his feet, the dirt and his sweat come into her hair. Why does she want to wear the smell of him? Yes, it is love, even physical love, but this physical love isn’t sexual, it’s grief. She can feel she’s losing him, she wants to hang on to him, she wants a part of him.

The perfume was the same stuff she had recently used on her brother’s body when she washed him for burial. And now, as the two men sit together, she intuits the link between the living of her brother and the dying of her Lord. If she could have foreseen that getting Lazarus back would cost her Jesus, would she have stopped him from raising him? What a choice. And so her grief is great. She had just learned to know him as the resurrection and the life. She had heard his voice command the dead to come forth. If they kill him, if they silence that voice, then who will raise the dead?

Mary is reckless, but Judas is tight. Mary is open and indiscreet, and Judas is closed off and duplicitous. He is a disappointed man. He used to admire Jesus; here was the Messiah, who should restore the nation of Israel. But by now, Judas thinks that Jesus has lost it altogether. He’s angry at his leader, and he’s turning against him. He’s faking it, and he’s doing little acts of sabotage along the way. Even when what he says is true, like about the poor, it’s really an indirect attack. He’s really saying, “How can you let this happen to yourself? How can you throw this all away?”

Don’t think of Judas as a monster; he is a frustrated idealist. He represents a part of all of us, our frustration at the way that God does things. Especially at the losses in our lives in spite of our belief in God. Like when you thought that God was leading you but things did not turn out. Like when you had rejoiced in something as a gain, that turned out as a loss. The new job you got that turned out worse than the job you had left it for. Your vision that proved to be only a mirage. The dream that had inspired you has been deferred, and “dried up like a raisin in the sun.” What are you embittered at? How do you vent? How do you transfer it on to others? What do you hold against God? In this case repentance means this: Shall you nurture your frustration, or can you give it up to God?

Judas is like Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello. His anger will lead him to the destruction of both Jesus and himself. But not just yet. He still has a choice. He isn’t playing out a script. Jesus’ rebuke is also an invitation. Judas can still surrender to this Messiah, even if he’s not the kind of Messiah he was hoping for. He can stop being double, and own up to his anger and his unbelief.

He’ll have to make his confession. But of course that will feel like a loss. It will be a grief; there’s grief in every letting go, even in letting go what’s troubling you. There’s always grief in giving in to God, accepting the world the way God runs it; there’s grief in giving up the feeling of empowerment that anger gives. There’s grief in surrendering your frustrations, and giving up the justice that you deserve. There’s grief in just having been so wrong. Can Judas go down to grief along with Mary?

All of you have both Mary and Judas inside you. Lent is the season that reminds you to admit to your Judas, and submit to your Mary. And if the only perfume that your Judas has to put on Jesus’ feet is your anger or frustration or disappointment or your unbelief, God takes that as well. I give you permission to be mad at God. It’s better than faking it. God can take it, God works with it.

What God does not work with is our refusal to work it. We may not say it’s not that bad. We may not say he did not need to die for us. What we may not do with Jesus is keep him only as an inspired leader or teacher or example, disavowing the necessity of his death, and avoiding his hope in his resurrection. You can’t know Christ without the desperate side, without the sharing of his sufferings. You can’t know Christ without the perfume of his death and resurrection. But you can know Christ by letting your Judas die with him, and by clinging like Mary to the power of his resurrection.

I have three take-aways for you. First, the Christian faith has an impractical side, like Mary with the perfume. That has to be a part of your worship. You should not expect that all you do here in the liturgy is practical. Much of what you do, you do because it’s fitting for God, it’s the service of God, not yourselves. The worship service is an end in itself, and it’s hard to explain this to people who are not driven by a love of God or a desire for God. It looks like a “royal waste of time” (Marva Dawn). But it is worship. It’s perfume on Jesus’ feet. Let yourself be Mary.

It’s a fair question to ask how can we spend money on renovating our sanctuary and our pipe organ when we could give that money to the poor. But let me tell you—in all my work with the poor, I have never heard a poor person speak resentfully of a sacred sanctuary or beautiful music. Indeed, the opposite—it is poor people who appreciate these things more than prosperous people do. So if people ask you how we serve this community, you can answer that we offer worship! Not an answer they expect, or even accept, but you can rest in that answer for yourself.

Second is the importance of the poor for us as Christians. Not from a stance of philanthropy, like Judas, but a stance of solidarity and identity. Not only that we help them, but that we include them. The poor need justice and the poor need money. Where you begin is first to be with the poor. Eat with them. Sit with them. Wash their clothes. Wash their feet. Pray with them. Worship with them. Accept their love. What Jesus says to Judas is a parable: In order to know Christ, serve the poor. And knowing Christ is the key to loving God and loving your neighbor.

Third, if you struggle with this whole thing of the importance and meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection, don’t do it logically but symbolically and emotionally. Let yourself be Judas and Mary. Let yourself be Judas, meditate on Judas, explore his feelings, what he represents about humanity and yourself. Go down with him and join him in being a “miserable offender.” And then also be Mary. Meditate on her, explore her feelings, what she represents for the hopes of humanity and yourself. Judas for death, Mary for life.

In our liturgy which follows today, be Judas in the prayer of confession. This is for grief and letting go. And then at communion be Mary—touch the body of Christ, put it in your mouth. I’m going to put some perfumed oil on the bread. Don’t worry, it’s completely edible. The bread is for life and the perfume is for love. Take the perfumed bread into your mouth, into your body, as the sign and seal of God’s great love for you.

Copyright © 2016, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.