Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Third Sunday of Easter [Year B] - April 22, 2012 (Luke 24:36-48)

I am appreciative of the stories we have in the New Testament of Jesus’ appearances after his resurrection. On the one hand, I appreciate them for the good news they give us. These accounts of Jesus with his disciples show us that the crucifixion was not the end of the story. The fact that Jesus appeared to his disciples and others several times shows that Jesus lives, death has been conquered, and the great gulf of sin that separated us from God has finally been bridged.

On the other hand, I find that I’m also appreciative for these stories because they’re so honest about the way those disciples and friends first respond to that news. They show us, for example, that the disciples never  coolly accept what is being presented to them, casually coming to terms with what it all means—“NBD,” as they might text it today. These accounts also never show the disciples and friends of Jesus slamming their hands against their foreheads in a “duh”-like expression. “Of course he’s risen from the dead!  What were we thinking?”

"Christ's appearance on the mountain" Duccio di Buoninsegna (1308-11)
Neither do these accounts show the disciples particularly revved up to tell anyone about it. Granted, the Holy Spirit has not yet been sent to help the believers make sense of it all—we get that story in the book of Acts and, boy, let me tell you, they eventually get pretty revved up—but even here, in the days fresh after it’s happened, you might expect the disciples to show some immediate faith and interest, some compulsion to spread this unbelievable news. But the word “faith” isn’t even mentioned, and the disciples are mostly overcome with terror and confusion. Even in their joy they still struggle to believe. Instead of being some biblical version of a rubber-stamp, “happily-ever-after” ending, these resurrection appearances do a good job of showing that the disciples have been presented with something that they can’t quite get their head around, that the whole concept of Jesus’ miraculous and mysterious rising from the dead was pretty hard to grasp...not to mention getting revved up about so as to serve as witnesses.

There is great irony in this because Jesus spends much of his time during these appearances going about trying to show that he is, in fact, something to be grasped. And I’m not talking about grasping just the concept or idea of the resurrection or the theology of it all or grasping the underlying Scripture that tells its story…but his actual body, himself.  It can be grasped. “Touch me and see,” he says to his followers, “for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have  By the way…Do you have anything to eat?” The risen Lord spends a good bit of his time after the resurrection finding his friends, searching out community, doing what he can to convince his followers that his body is real and that he is not a supernatural spirit. So Jesus offers, then, what a real human can offer: flesh and bones. Skin, supposedly with wounds.  And an appetite.

Interestingly, this story from Luke does not mention Jesus’ wounds directly. We often assume he shows wounds here because he does so in other gospel accounts and we know that the crucifixion would have left marks in his hands and feet, however here the emphasis is on the hands and feet themselves. In the ancient Middle East, men typically wore (and still wear) a tunic that covered the entire body, leaving only the hands and feet exposed. Here he offers them as proof that he has bones and skin, that he literally takes up space in this universe and is not just an image.

The fact that Jesus can be physically grasped may eventually help the disciples understand that what they are seeing is real. He establishes his reality—his graspability—so he can get to the point of his resurrection: that repentance and forgiveness of sins may be proclaimed in his name. The entire gospel story has been working toward this point. Way at the beginning John the Baptist came preaching repentance and the forgiveness of sins. Jesus’ whole ministry was based on seeking out the lost and least, ensuring them—and others, at the same time—that God’s forgiveness was offered even unto them, despite what the religious leaders were saying. Now that death, the last barrier separating God from creation and creation from itself, has been defeated, full forgiveness in God’s name may be proclaimed and made real to all nations.  
In fact, if this is what the community of Jesus’ followers is to be about—to offer forgiveness and embody it with each other—it must be a real community, a physical presence. In being emphatic about his own physical presence, Jesus is, in a way, conveying to them the importance of their own lives, their own bodies, their own flesh and blood, in the ministry of his gospel. That is to say, as witnesses, they will also need to be a community that can be grasped, a group of people that actually takes up space in the universe. They will not just have thoughts about God and God’s forgiveness and the Bible and all that jazz, or just speak words about repentance or theories about binding up the broken-hearted. They will do it. They will practice it. They will exert real, physical energy to attempt it. These followers of the risen Lord will allow themselves to be touched and even wounded in order for it to be made real.

I recently ran across an incredibly uplifting obituary (imagine that: an uplifting obituary!) in one of my favorite magazines for a British woman named Lyn Lusi. I had never heard of her before until her death, but reading about her life made me wonder why I never had. Lyn Lusi was a Christian missionary’s wife who worked almost her whole life in the most remote and dangerous corners of Congo, the country formerly known as Zaire. Her husband was a doctor and a hospital builder; she was his main administrator. There, in one of the harshest and darkest places of the universe, Lyn and her husband took up space, working through the years to train thirty doctors and tending countless sick and injured. When Lyn Lusi discovered that many women in her area had been brutally sexually assaulted by militia men and then disowned by their families, she responded by offering them all the love and compassion that she possibly could. Together, she and her husband founded an organization called HEAL Africa, the letters in HEAL standing for Health, Education, Action, and Love.  She died last month from cancer at the age of 62, but not before she and her husband had helped treat, often with surgery, over 5000 of these cases.

Lyn and Jo, her husband
One of the most remarkable aspects of their ministry of healing was her recruitment of local “mamas,” women from surrounding villages who would stand ready to welcome the injured, forsaken, often filthy women with open arms as they got off the buses in front of the hospital. It was a ministry of grasping and being grasped: the life of resurrection faith that takes up space in the universe, one that does not just sit around dreaming about things like forgiveness and a world without pain, but puts its flesh and blood on the line to embody it.

The world will dearly miss Lyn Lusi, but she is far from the only example of this grasping, graspable life of faith. I caught glimpses of it yesterday as volunteers here stretched and sweated as they set up the fellowship hall for our CARITAS guests, hooking poles together and unloading sleeping mattresses on a sunny Saturday. We see examples of it all the time here as people lug food donations into the HHOPE pantry and then sort it, weigh it, bag it, and lovingly hand it to real people in our community who need it. Then there’s Cecil McFarland, chaplain to state prisons, physically going to the incarcerated to share the news of forgiveness.

This graspable faith is also put into motion by the tireless volunteers who do their best to make sure that this particular place of bricks and mortar is locked and secured on a regular basis, outfitted with the best and cleanest facilities for our ministries, grass and altarware shined up.

And this same faith is embodied by those who come to sit their real, flesh-and-blood hineys down in pews at some point during the week to hear about this Jesus who has been risen from the dead. These and more are instances of people who are living in their own bones the reality of a world set to rights by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, people who are working out what it means to offer forgiveness of sins, repentance to a life of serving others in Jesus’ name.

I often get wind of anxiety, especially in our country, about the future of the church and whether it will be relevant amidst the new challenges of technology and science. I hear of anxiety about how people of faith can or should adapt to changing cultural mores and attitudes about everything from sexuality to politics to economics. There is a sense that we’re losing ground, or that we’re losing influence. While the challenges that face us are real, sometimes I think the anxiety is much ado about nothing. What place will the church have? Will we thrive? Will we be—dare I say it?—relevant?

Friends, the church will always have a place in this world because it has been given to proclaim and embody the forgiveness and repentance in Jesus’ name, because it is the community dedicated to standing there, offering words of healing and real arms of embrace as the world gets off the bus, looking for hope, looking for a new start. The church will always be relevant not because it’s just acquainted with the concept of new life, but because it allows itself to be present, grasped, touched—and, yes, wounded—as it proclaims the forgiveness of sins, as it offers repentance, a life in the direction of God.

And to do so, we must not forget our appetite—our appetite for his meal. We’re going to need some nourishment. Let us be strengthened by the promise that Jesus is somehow still with us, God’s little children, breaking his body and pouring out his blood to bind up the brokenhearted and restore us to God’s heart. And even when we cannot explain it, even when this meal, this moment, this mystery cannot be grasped by our minds, let us at least grasp it with our hands. May the joy of this news—He is risen!—then grasp us and empower us, once again, to take up space here in this universe, to proclaim his forgiveness and serve as witnesses to the life he offers.  Relevant…now and forever.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Second Sunday of Easter [Year B] - April 15, 2012 (John 20:19-31)

Norman doorway at Aberdoran, Wales

Christ is risen…and a community is formed. Such a concept is so commonplace to us now, so second-nature. As a matter of fact, it probably doesn’t even register with us as essential because we’re so accustomed to practicing our faith together, in a group, but it still needs to be said. Christ is risen…and a community is formed. A community is formed because that is what we humans do when calamity strikes, when momentous events occur, when we’re hit with news that knocks us down.

The most recent example I can think of to explain this was the Louisa County earthquake last August. Like many of you, I was alone when it struck. Sitting in the office here at church, I first thought someone was on the roof working on the air conditioning again. But as the rumbling wore on, getting worse, it dawned on me what might be really happening. For a split second I thought, “Am I supposed to get in a doorway or in a bathtub? One of them applies in this situation…the other applies in a tornado.” But then I couldn’t resist: I rushed to find other people. It was a natural reaction, an instinctive consequence to tragedy: go find others. Hanne, our administrative assistant, was out in the main office. Together, we looked into the Commons for others. Two women we didn’t even know who had just left a meeting in the church had also felt the earth move and began asking us questions. Within moments, we were all trying to call family. Unfortunately, but for obvious reasons, the networks at the time were either down or busy. And then, of course…the Facebook and Twitter posts began. All afternoon people were checking in with one another—whether on-line or in person, or both—to verify stories, to soothe fears, to clarify facts.

This is precisely the scenario with the disciples after Jesus’ resurrection. They gather. No stopping to stand in the doorway or get in the bathtub first. The New Testament is clear that the news about Jesus’ resurrection from the dead immediately brings about community. In John’s gospel this community of disciples, which was in all probability not limited to the main Twelve, meets behind locked doors. A community is formed for sure, but it is a community based in doubt and fright. They gather to verify the story, to soothe fears, and to clarify facts. Can’t you just hear their questions as they consult with one another?

“Did this really just happen?”
“What’s going on?”
 “Hey, are you OK?”
“What, in God’s name, do we do now?”

I imagine you can hear those questions because they are essentially the same ones we are still, in some ways, asking. Maybe I should speak for myself, but I have a hunch that many of you are here on Sunday because of the same mix of doubt, faith, and astonishment. Each of us feels somehow compelled to gather…almost as if someone might be gathering us. And we come and hear the story of that unique early morning after the Sabbath when the women went to anoint his body with spices and the body wasn’t there. And although almost 2000 years separate us from that first earthshattering morning, and although by now we’ve come to understand that Jesus’ resurrection does not constitute a calamity for us, we gather and we hear and we share our stories with one another and, even when we don’t say a word to each other, on some level we still seem to be asking,

“Did this really happen?”
“What’s going on?”
“Hey, are you OK?”
“What, in God’s name, do we do now?”

Ever since that first night in that locked room, it has been apparent that the news of Jesus’ resurrection doesn’t only mean something to individuals. That is to say, Jesus doesn’t rise from the tomb simply so that individual believers can rest in peace that their souls are somehow sealed for heaven, although that is certainly how it has often been interpreted. No, Christian faith is never a completely private affair. It is a community event. The news about Jesus resurrection is something that happens to us; it is something we hear and respond to. And even if, like Thomas, we are not, for whatever reason, immediately drawn to community when we hear the news—even if we are left out because of our doubt or other circumstances, we are still at some point pulled in to verify, fact-check, possibly even poke holes in the theories. The news about Jesus’ resurrection brings us together because that it where we will find solace. That is where we will be able to question each other and sustain each other with hope.

But more than that, this news of Jesus’ death and resurrection forms a community because that is how Jesus is going to continue to work in the world. Jesus does three things in that room with his followers on the night of his resurrection: he grants his peace, he sends them in the same way his Father has sent him, and he breathes on them the Holy Spirit, giving them—as a group—the power to forgive and retain sins. All three things—living in God’s peace, spreading the message about God’s love in Christ, and embodying forgiveness—all but require gathering and living as a community in order to live out and practice. Jesus does not return to say, “Be at peace with yourself and find enlightenment on your own.” He gives them commands that will necessitate community living and gathering. When in our confusion we gather and ask the question, “What, in God’s name, do we do now?” the answer becomes clear: this community’s life and work will be an extension in the world of Jesus’ own life and work. As Jesus is sent by the Father, so are we sent to bear to the world this unconditional love. This is what we do…and we do it in God’s name.

Perhaps most importantly, however, the community that is formed as a result of Jesus’ ground-breaking resurrection helps make room for those who doubt, helps those who linger on the border between faith and disbelief, those who still want to ask those questions, “Did this really happen?” The community of disciples becomes a borderland between the disbelieving world and the true existence of God, a place where God’s Spirit is very alive and active, drawing people in and opening hearts. As it turns out, we do find ourselves standing in a doorframe.

It is a funny thing about this story: Thomas seems to get all the credit for being the doubter, for needing to see with his own eyes that Jesus is risen, when, in fact, all of the disciples are actually shown Jesus’ wounds as proof that it was him. The gospel writer John makes sure to tell us that it isn’t until after Jesus shows them his hands and his side when they rejoice in his presence. And when Thomas finally finds his way that next week to the community of the disciples, Jesus addresses his doubt with love and patience, offering up his body once more for the sake of another.

"The Incredulity of St. Thomas" Rembrandt (1634)
When the church becomes a place where doubters are condemned or shunned, where questions about faith are not welcomed and lovingly dealt with, then the church remains frozen in fear, locking its doors to the very world to which Jesus has sent it. Jesus will still be able to enter and appear, just like he does that first evening, but it will be difficult—if not impossible—for others to find the hope and comfort in the community that his resurrection has brought about. Likewise, that community of fear and suspicion will never be able to practice fully the mission of forgiveness and peace that Jesus’ Spirit has given it. Yes, Jesus is risen and a community is formed…a community that is gathered to hear, time and again, the stories of their faith, ask their questions, and hear the promise of Jesus’ constant presence even when our fear and confusion have locked him out.

Each spring I give the seniors of the youth group a letter I’ve written. It changes a bit from year to year, but the basic message is still the same. It is a letter trying to explain, in my own words, why the Church is important (This year’s group of seniors could have written such a letter to me.  I’ve learned so much from them). We all know that those first years of independence—away from parents and out of the Epiphany bubble—are times of testing, changing, dealing with all kinds of new challenges and excitements. Statistics show that many young adults fall away from the faith entering some period of doubt and less than regular church attendance. I’d like to think I might get one last word in there before they go off, sent like Jesus was sent by the Father into new horizons. The letter is probably too rambling and preachy (like this sermon), but, for what it’s worth, this is one of the paragraphs I’ve included:

“There is another big reason why we become anxious that you may wander away too long from this imperfect but nevertheless gracious community: we don’t want you to forget the stories…the stories of our faith—like how God gave Israel manna to eat in the desert on their way to the Promised Land even though they complained about it, and how God once saved Noah and the animals with the ark. Or the one about Jesus’ feeding the five thousand with five loaves and two fish, and the one about the shepherd who goes after the one lost sheep. The church tells and re-tells itself those stories not simply because they are powerful and fun, but because they help us remember the most important thing of all: through Jesus, God gives true meaning for the entire world and rescues it from sin. Let me tell you, there are times you will feel like that lost sheep (as we all do, from time to time), and you will need to know God has come for you and will carry you back on his shoulders.”

Given this morning’s readings, I should add, And there are times when, when you are wracked by unbelief, hearing these stories will be like reaching your hands into the Risen One’s wounds.  You will need to be with others who are grappling with the same and wonder together at what this all means.  I propose that is one big thing the church is doing every week, doubters and believers and everyone else gathered in the doorway: hearing the story of his resurrection, allowing his words to fall fresh on us once again, and asking ourselves, once again, those same familiar questions:

 “Did this really happen?”
“Are you O.K.?”
“What, in God’s name, do we do now?”

And, because we’re here, and because we’re together, we hear the responses as they resound:

“Peace be with you.”
“This is my body, given for you.”
 “You are sent…just as I have been sent.”
“Do not doubt, but believe.”

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Palm Sunday/Sunday of the Passion - "The Cry of the Whole Congregation" - April 1, 2012 (Mark 1:1-11)

As they say, everyone loves a parade. Richmond loves a 10K.

How about a quick show of hands? How many of you participated in some way in the Monument Avenue race yesterday—or any year, for that matter—either running, jogging, walking or cheering folks on? Race officials tell us that just over 40,000 people registered for the event of the year yesterday, which coincided, somewhat appropriately, with the weekend of Palm Sunday this time. Many thousands more stood and cheered on along the route or waited at the finish line to support friends, family members and colleagues, or to enjoy the free-handouts of bananas and water bottles. Rain and chilly weather would not deter them, because, after all, everyone loves a parade.

To a degree, that’s what it felt like, at least to this participant. Maybe I just had Palm Sunday on the brain, maybe I got too caught up in the moment, but as I ran along the tree-lined avenue, the well-manicured lawns of the stately homes on my left and right, my mind drifted to the similarities and stark differences between what we were doing and the procession Jesus made into Jerusalem around 2000 years ago.

I looked hard, but I didn’t see anyone waving palm branches or “leafy branches” yesterday, not even the Jimmy Buffet cover band and fan club that was stationed just before mile marker 1. Instead, people waved things like signs and held out cups with water and Powerade. Some of the signs included messages to those I assumed were fighting cancer or signs made in memory to those they had lost. No one was strewing articles of clothing at our feet, but when I saw the elaborate and well-coordinated costumes that some people wore, I realized clothes did play an important part in the event for many people.

And about all those people! It’s difficult to pin down specific numbers, but historians tell us that during Passover, the population of Jerusalem could swell by an extra hundred thousand or so. In the gospels, it seems even Jesus can’t find a place to stay within the city walls and keeps going out of the city each night and then returning during the day. Jews would come in from all over the place—from as far away as Libya, Crete, Babylonia—to participate in the annual Jewish festival. You couldn’t stir ‘em with a stick yesterday in downtown Richmond, and I know for a fact there were runners from Ethiopia, Kenya, and Morocco because they won the race. To celebrate Passover according to Jewish tradition, hundreds of thousands of lambs would be sacrificed within the city and in its immediate environs. There is no telling how much enjoyment of junk food and hours of morning sleep over the past year were sacrificed to the modern idols of health and fitness to complete yesterday’s race. And although I didn’t hear anyone shouting “Hosanna!” (which means “God save us!”) we runners and walkers felt a little heroic, symbolizing for many of those on the sidelines the hope of beating a life-threatening disease, or the power and grace of the human body, or simply the promise of setting goals and achieving them. Then it ended, and we left feeling justified, upbeat, tired perhaps…but happy.

And, as you can guess, that’s about the end of the similarities between the two parades. For as excited as the people of ancient Jerusalem were that day when Jesus sat atop a borrowed donkey and made his way along Jerusalem’s monument avenue, the feelings of joy and accomplishment would not even last a week. By the way, Jesus was not riding that donkey because it was April Fools’ Day or because Jesus was being made to look like one. The sturdy pack animal was actually the beast of burden that kings traditionally rode during times of peace. It may have symbolized humility, to some degree, but it was not altogether humiliating, as I’m afraid we’ve made it out to be. Jesus was being hailed as “King” by the people of the city, and therefore a donkey ride would have been appropriate.

In his recent book about the history of Jerusalem, Simon Sebag Montefiore paints a vivid picture of a Jerusalem that, with the exception of about a hundred years here or there, never was able to rule itself. Greeks, Romans, Persians all took turns ruling the city from the colonnaded fortresses in and around it in the centuries leading up to Jesus. Even the Hasmonean dynasty—a dynasty of the Jewish people themselves, which ruled for not even 100 years—relentlessly repressed the people who actually lived in the city. The people in power always feared those masses, and Montefiore explains that the Romans during that particular Passover were more jittery than usual. A recent Galilean rebellion around the Tower of Siloam, put down by Pilate, had resulted in some casualties. The people were ready for someone to save them and, at long last, let them have a go at power. Jesus of Nazareth symbolized that hope, that promise. They were there to acclaim him as king and help prop him up as the next strongman. But as the story plays out, enthusiasm turns into disillusionment and then bloodthirsty anger: voices that cheer him along his route and offer him Powerade start shouting “Crucify!” instead.

So, if our Monument Avenue 10K means for us a chance to gather together and celebrate a noble medical cause or a chance to make a personal record—a “P.R.” in runners’ jargon—what does Jesus’ Palm Sunday procession mean for us, especially if it turns out so badly in the end? Are we still gravitating to forms of power that dominate and control? Are we still enamored with force and symbols of oppression and military security? Are we still prone to look for salvation from a superhero god of glory, one with the abilities to outsmart the opponents who shows no weakness in defeating them? How can we look at the events of Holy Week, which begins with such promise and fanfare, and be anything but disappointed in what God has sent us in Jesus of Nazareth?

Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote, “the God of Jesus Christ has nothing to do with what God, as we imagine him, could and ought to do.”[1] For us, remembering Holy Week gives us a chance to remember, once again, just that: that the reality of who God is and the ways God loves us are, more often than not, different from the ways we want God to. And by that I mean that in Jesus of Nazareth, God gives up traditional forms of power and success and joins us in our suffering. He doesn’t impress us with earthly glory. He comes not to control or even beat the occupiers at their own game. He comes to experience what it’s like when things go horribly wrong and show us God is still present there. He comes to undergo tragedy so that the power of tragedy may ultimately be undone. That God chooses to identify himself with this man, this story—when a relative nobody enters the city to cries of hope only to be denied, betrayed, and crucified—is something that we would never, ever imagine. Whereas in most parades the main focus of attention is on the person moving along the course, in this parade it’s different: his attention is focused purely on us. You might say it’s God’s own P.R. in humility. He “empties himself, taking the form of a slave…and humbled himself…to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2).

Therefore, with the script in hand, provided by gospel writers who themselves were so taken with the peculiarity of this God’s love that they recorded it in remarkable detail, let’s join the crowds on the sidelines.  Let's cheer, then mock him with scorn, then demand his death.  In the process, let us be reminded not so much of our love for parades, but of this parade’s love for us.

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison.