Sunday, March 31, 2013

An Idle Tale

Luke (23:55-56) 24:1-12
March 31, 2013
The Resurrection of the Lord!

            Once upon a time in a land far, far away there lived a gentle man, full of life and love and grace.  From his first breath this man was special.  An angel told his mother, just a young woman – only engaged, not yet married – that she would have him.  When it was time for him to be born his mother and father were traveling.  No inn, no hotel, no house with rooms to rent would give them shelter.  He was born in a cave surrounded by animals instead of the midwives and other women from his mother’s family who should have been there.  Shepherds tending their flocks in the surrounding hills came to make him welcome, telling stories of angels singing his praise and all the heavens shouting for joy. 
            When he was just learning to walk on unsteady legs, strange men from the East arrived at his door, led by a star that proclaimed he was really a king.  But another king trembled at the wise men’s visions and ordered death to make a sacrifice of life.  The little boy and his parents escaped to Egypt, coming back when it was safe.  But for this child, it would never really be safe.
            When he was not a boy, but not quite a man, he left his parents during the festival and went to the temple.  He didn’t consider the anxiety he might cause or the worry he might wreak.  He just knew that he had to be in his Father’s house.  So there he was.  His questions challenged the teachers.  His wisdom confounded the learned.  But when his parents arrived, scared, angry, panicked, he went home with them without arguing.  He was as obedient to them as he would be to his call. 
            The stories of the boy stop there.  But the stories of the man begin a few years later.  He is baptized by his cousin in the River Jordan.  Unbelievable stories of temptations in the wilderness emerge.  They couldn’t be true, just legend and myth.  Yet this man walks by the sea and calls fishermen to follow along.  The men leave their boats and drop their nets, give distracted goodbyes to bewildered families and go.  They just go. 
            The man heals the sick and the lame.  He gives strength to the weak.  He tells them stories about God and the Kingdom.  He challenges dusty practices and holds the leaders accountable for what they do, and what they don’t do.  He blesses and feeds and loves.  He loves the scorned.  He loves the forgotten.  He loves the despised, the sinful, the wasteful, the worried and the lost.
            The crowds with the man and his disciples grew.  More people heard of him.  More people needed him.  More people believed he could save them.  He was their warrior, their champion, the One God sent to lift them from their bondage and their misery. 
            And the leaders didn’t like it.  Not one little bit.  They were afraid of him and his message of love, his stories of grace.  The sinners felt loved in his presence.  The outcast felt welcome.  Some were beginning to say that God loved equally, extravagantly.  God loved even those that no other right thinking person would love.  This man must be stopped.  This man with his love must die.
            So the leaders planned and schemed and strategized.  And the man knew but didn’t stop it.  He saw where his path was leading but he didn’t change direction.  He just kept walking and loving, one foot in front of the other, until finally he arrived in the great city.  The city where he’d once sat in the temple as a boy.  The city of his ending.  The city of his beginning. 
            When he first arrived the crowds thrilled with excitement.  The throng of people there to make him welcome shouted and waved and wept with joy.  At last!  At last!  Their hope, their salvation was among them.  Now would be the final showdown and might would finally make right. 
            But the man did not do what they thought he would do.  He did not seem to be the one they were waiting for after all.  He would not stop preaching love.  He would not take up arms.  He challenged the people he wasn’t supposed to challenge.  When he first set foot in the city, they thought he was pure silver, but now he seemed tarnished. 
            crucify him.  Crucify Him!  CRUCIFY HIM! 
            So they did. 
            Even the ones who loved him thought that all was lost.  They locked themselves away during the Sabbath and mourned, wondering how it had all gone so terribly, horribly wrong.  But the women, delayed by the Sabbath, kept their appointment to anoint his body with spices.  He might have died a criminal but he would be buried as one of their own, as one they loved. 
            They went looking for death.  Instead they found life!  The stone was rolled away.  The tomb was empty.  Men in dazzling cloths questioned while they were there at all.  Life could not be found in a tomb.  Love could not be contained by death.  Why did they look for the living among the dead?
            The women ran.  They ran back to the men.  Breathless, exhilarated, stuttering and stumbling over their joy, they told them what they had seen, what they now knew.  Their Teacher, their Friend, their Lord was risen!  He was risen indeed!
            Their words were dismissed as an idle tale. 
            An idle tale. 
            Once upon a time in a land far, far away. 
David Lose, preacher and professor at Luther Seminary writes that if we’re not a little incredulous about the story of Jesus, especially the resurrection, than we probably haven’t been paying enough attention. 
            No matter how much we hesitate to admit it, it’s kind of easy to understand how those not of our faith can see it as the stuff of fairy tales.  Even the ones who were closest to Jesus, the ones who followed him, sat with him, ate with him, learned from him, heard from his own mouth that he would suffer, die and rise again dismissed the women’s witness as an idle tale. 
            Many people, of all different backgrounds, classes, colors and creeds, can affirm that Jesus of Nazareth was a good guy with a good message who was martyred because of greed, ambition and political deceit.  But that this Jesus of Nazareth was the Son of God; that he died and came back to life?  That they can’t swallow.  It’s too much of an idle tale.  When people die, they die.  The end.  To use Anna Carter Florence’s great quote, “if the dead don’t stay dead, what can you count on?” 
            And yet what we count on, what our faith is grounded upon is the belief that Jesus did not stay dead.  Jesus was resurrected.  For Christians, this idle tale, this foolishness, this fantastic, incredible, unbelievable event, is the core of our faith.  Jesus died.  Jesus rose again.  New life.  For him and for us.
            Yet even saying that, I have to acknowledge that it sounds like an idle tale.  And I say that as a one who believes.  Because I realize that a life of faith does not preclude doubt.  As strong as my faith may be at times, my doubt is always there.  There’s a reason why the words, “I believe, help my unbelief,” resonate with so many of us.  Faith and doubt live in tension.  My faith and my doubt walk hand in hand.  I believe in the resurrection and yet I also know that it sounds nuts.  That’s essentially what the men say to the women.  What is translated as “idle tale” in Greek is leros.  We get our word “delirious” from that.  When they hear the women’s story about the tomb being empty, they look at them and say, “You’re nuts.”  Peter runs to the tomb to see for himself.  He sees that stone pushed aside.  He sees that the tomb is empty.  Luke writes that he leaves amazed, but that doesn’t mean that he believes.  Even physical evidence did not completely penetrate his unbelief. 
            It’s nuts!  Yet still we believe.  Still we raise our voices and proclaim that Christ is risen, he is risen indeed.  And it’s not because we can prove it as fact.  It is because, in one way or another, we have experienced the resurrection as truth.  Fact and truth are not synonyms.  Crazy as it may seem to others, in my life I have experienced the power of the resurrection, I have experienced its truth.  I have had moments, albeit fleeting ones, when not only have I recognized God’s presence in my life, but I have stepped out of my fear and embraced the abundant life that Jesus spoke of.  I’ve seen what was dead in my life give way to something living.  I’ve felt the love that Jesus was, is and will be.  I cannot prove it as fact, but I can claim it as my truth. 
            The story of Jesus’ death and resurrection, the idea that God died on a cross and was resurrected from that death to new life sounds pretty nuts.  But in spite of my unbelief, I believe.   Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed!  On that day long ago.  On this day.  On every day.  Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed!  And we and this world are forever changed because of it.  Let all God’s children say, “Alleluia!  Amen.”

Thursday, March 28, 2013

To Love Is to Serve

John 13:1-17, 31b-35
March 28, 2013
Maundy Thursday Service

“Gotta get out of bed and get a hammer and a nail
Learn how to use my hands,
Not just my head, I think myself into jail
Now I know a refuge never grows
From a chin in a hand in a thoughtful pose
Gotta tend the earth if you want a rose.”
                That is the refrain from one of my favorite Indigo Girls songs, Hammer and Nail.  The basic message of the song is about the importance of doing; about giving back.  It’s not just about talking about making the world better place or thinking about making the world a better place; it’s about acting in a way that brings that better world into reality. 
I interpret Amy and Emily’s verse about thinking themselves into jail as seeing that living only in your head makes it easy to forget what it means to do, to act.  And along that line, I would say that forgetting what it means to do means that you can forget what it means to serve. 
I assume that the Indigo Girls were probably not thinking specifically about service based on faith, but I think there is a connection to be made with their song and our passage from John’s gospel; the passage on which we base our tradition and observation of Maundy Thursday. 
It is the festival of the Passover and Jesus is at table with his disciples.  According to John, Jesus is fully aware that his hour of departure from this world has come.  Jesus knows that he is going to the Father.  He has come to the world as the living incarnation of God’s love, and that love is there until the end.  So knowing all this, he gets up, ties a towel around himself, and pours water into a basin, then begins washing the disciples’ feet.  As he washes he wipes the water away with the towel around his waist. 
This is the job of a servant – literally.  In that hot and dusty climate feet would have gotten extremely dirty on a regular basis.  The laws of hospitality, which were all important in that culture, would have dictated making a guest comfortable.  One way to do that was to wash the grime and grit away from your guest’s feet.  So who else to bring the basin of water than a servant?  Who else to lower himself to the chore of washing another person’s feet than the one in a position of serving?  In a traditional Jewish household, or any household for that matter, the master of the house would never stoop, literally or figuratively, to wash a guest’s feet. 
But Jesus, the Master, the Teacher, bends low to wash the feet of those who follow him. 
Once the disciples recovered from their astonishment at this unexpected turn of events, I imagine they were horrified.  The Master should never wash the feet of the servant!  Then Simon Peter, in a moment of in for a penny, in for a pound, declares that if Jesus is going to stoop to wash his feet, then why not wash all of him.  But Jesus tells him that isn’t necessary.  His whole body isn’t in need of washing.  What Jesus is doing isn’t just about making the feet of the disciples clean; it is about demonstrating what it means to serve.  
Yes, he tells them, he is their Teacher.  He is their Lord.  But he was willing to wash their feet.  He wasn’t too good or too superior to do this simple, humble act for them.  And if he is willing to do that for them, then they should also be willing to do the same for each other.  They should also be willing to serve as he has served.  No one is greater than another.  No one is too good to serve. 
At the end of the verses selected for tonight, Jesus gives them a new commandment.  “That you love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” 
How did Jesus love them?  He served them.  To love is to serve. 
To love is to serve. 
As many times as I have observed this night, I only learned this week that in the Roman Catholic tradition, Maundy Thursday is the time when priests recommit themselves to their calling.  Priests believe that reading the story of Jesus’ humble example of and commandment to love is an appropriate time to reexamine how they are living out their call and their vocation to love as Jesus loved. 
On the heels of learning this information a dear friend of mine from high school sent me an article about a priest in Nashville who has found his call in serving the homeless of that city.  Father Charlie Strobel began his service to the homeless when he opened the church door to a group of homeless men sleeping in the parking lot.  They were literally under his window, and though he knew full well that a consequence of giving them shelter for one night would be that they would return the next night and the next, Father Strobel could not leave them out in the cold.  So he invited them in and his ministry and his life’s work began at the moment. 
In the article I read he recounted the story about a man named Doy Abbott.  To quote Father Strobel, “He was my terrorist.  He kicked in the screen door.  We had to have that door replaced three times.  He cussed out everyone in the parish.  He expected everything to be done for him.  My mother used to say to me, ‘Doy is your ticket to heaven.’ And I’d tell her, if he’s my ticket to heaven I don’t want to go.  Everyone in the parish was afraid of him.”
Everyone except one woman named Mary Hopwood.  She was the housekeeper, secretary and bookkeeper for the parish.  She had raised 12 children of her own, and when she spoke to Doy she was quiet and respectful.  Her tone of calm, quiet respect made Doy respectful in kind.  Strobel recalled that at the time he was reading Dorothy Day, who wrote that “what she wanted to do was love the poor, not analyze them, not rehabilitate them.” 
Father Day said that reading that was like having the proverbial light bulb flash on above his head.  He told novelist Ann Patchett, the writer of this article, “I realized that Doy was not my problem to solve but my brother to love.  I decided on the spot that I was going to love him and not expect anything from him, and overnight he changed.  He stopped the cussing, stopped the violence.  I feel we became brothers.  I was his servant and he was my master.  I was there with him when he died.” 
This homeless man, this child of God was not a problem to be solved.  He was a brother to be loved.  It was that simple.  H was a brother to be loved.  The homeless who come into contact with Charlie Strobel know that he loves them.  He loves through his service to them.  Because to love is to serve. 
“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.”  To love is to serve.  How will we love?  How will we serve?  Let all God’s children say, “Amen.”

Song lyrics from Hammer and Nail, The Indigo Girls
Quotes by Father Charlie Strobel excerpted from "The Worthless Servant" by Ann Patchett from Not Less Than Everything: Catholic Writers on Heroes of Conscience, From Joan of Arc to Oscar Romero, edited by Catherine Wolff.  Reprinted on

Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Stones Will Shout

Luke 19:28-40
March 24, 2-13/Palm Sunday

            One of the things I strove to do this past week in Nashville was take Phoebe around to as many of my old haunts as I could.  First on that list was a trip to the neighborhood I grew up in:  Green Hills.  When I was a kid Green Hills was just fine.  It was a modest but nice neighborhood with big lawns and lots of trees.  The hills around it were definitely green.  It was bordered by some wealthier neighborhoods, such as Belle Meade, which was originally the Belle Meade horse plantation, but Green Hills was just nice. 
            Mighty changes have been taking place in Green Hills over the last several years.  The family friends we stayed with described Green Hills as “trendy.”  Other friends said they tend to avoid the area because the traffic has gotten outrageous.  But I charged over there, determined to show Phoebe as many places from my childhood as possible.   
            Well trendy is a bit of an understatement.  My high school, which is in the middle of Green Hills now has a refurbished gym and looked a little fancier than the last time I was there.  The stores around the school have changed, becoming more upscale and gentrified with each transformation.  I was happy to see that the Donut Den, which sits right next to my high school and was the site of an infamous “bust” by the school administration of students who weren’t supposed to be off-campus during school hours is still there.  But even that once non-descript little store has taken on a fancier sheen and polish.
            But the trendiest of all the places in my old stomping ground is the Green Hills Mall.  Or, if I refer to it by its proper name, The Mall at Green Hills. The mall at Green Hills was not much more than a strip mall when I was a kid.  The one store of note in my eyes was the Game Store and that’s because they sold doll houses and doll house furniture.  There were two department stores which were Nashville institutions, Cain Sloane and Castner Knott’s, a shoe store that sold Buster Browns and the site of my first penny loafers purchase, and not much more than that. 
            But as Phoebe and I walked around the Mall at Green Hills I realized we were not in the mall I once knew.  There is a Louis Vuitton, which I associate with Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills and Fifth Avenue in New York.  Tiffany’s has a store there!  Tiffany’s!  I say again that trendy is probably an understatement. 
            But here’s the thing about trendy.  What’s trendy today may not be trendy tomorrow.  I doubt that the mall or Green Hills for that matter will go from upscale to slum overnight. I don’t know that Green Hills will ever be anything but upscale from now on.  Yet I do know that trends are fickle because people are fickle.  What’s hot and hip and cool now may not always be so.  People are fickle.          
The word fickle has been on my mind this past week.  It’s a word that is often used to describe the crowds that greeted Jesus as he entered Jerusalem.  The fickle crowds laid their cloaks on the ground before him.  It was a fickle crowd that welcomed Jesus, hailed him as King and Savior one minute, then angrily shouted “Crucify him!  Crucify him!” the next.  The crowds that met Jesus as he rode into Jerusalem were fickle indeed. 
            If you’ve been paying attention to the specifics of Luke’s version of this story, you’ve probably realized that there are some differences from the other gospel accounts.  Luke makes no mention of palms or leafy branches, just cloaks.  Matthew and Mark both recount that the people laid down their cloaks and leafy branches they’d cut in the fields.  Matthew has Jesus commanding the disciples to bring a colt and a donkey.  John just has palm branches and it’s a donkey’s colt that is brought for Jesus to ride on.  I mention this because I think we sometimes fall into the habit of assuming we know the story when actually each gospel tells its own unique version of the events surrounding Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.
            Yet whether its cloaks or palms, a donkey, a colt or some combination thereof, all the gospels tell how Jesus made his way into Jerusalem surrounded by great crowds of cheering, confident people.  They are confident in his kingship and their greeting expresses all of their faith, their hope and their expectations.
            However these aren’t just general groups of people gathered to see what all the fuss is about and getting caught up in the moment.  These are described as the “multitude of disciples.”  Luke doesn’t give us any clear understanding as to whether this multitude was also part of that fickle crowd who called for Jesus’ death later in the week.  Perhaps these are disciples who stayed loyal to Jesus until the end.  Perhaps not. 
            One significant difference from the other gospels in Luke’s telling comes at the end of the story.  As Jesus is processing, and as the people are shouting and cheering, some dismayed Pharisees along the route try to pressure Jesus into making his disciples stop the yelling, the cheering, the acts of adoration.  I don’t think it’s fair to just assume that the Pharisees were being the spoil sports of the day, trying to rain on the parade.  Perhaps the Pharisees were concerned that all of this commotion and hubbub would draw the attention of the wrong people.  Maybe they were worried that the Roman government wouldn’t see this event as something to be pleased about, and their wrath would rain down on every Jew.  These were not impractical or ludicrous concerns on the part of the Pharisees.  Yet Jesus’ response does nothing to reassure them.
            “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”
            Even if Jesus were to enter Jerusalem in absolute silence, the multitude of disciples hailing his approach with only mute stares and glassy eyes, the noise from the stones would still be deafening.  If the human creation would not proclaim the coming of the Lord, the rest of creation would.
            The stones would shout.
            Although Luke does not give us palms in his version, it is still Palm Sunday; the day when we commemorate the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem.  Whether it was with palms or cloaks or something else, the practice of people laying down something before a coming hero or king was not uncommon in that culture.  It was a customary Roman tradition to hail the coming of a royal or a great conquering warrior with branches or cloaks.  A procession through the streets signified that the coming one was great, a hero or king who was conquering and powerful and mighty.
            And the crowds who hailed Jesus that day believed that he was their king, their long-awaited Messiah, the victorious champion who would change everything for them from that point on.  They were expectant and eager and hopeful for all that Jesus was about to do.  But we who know the rest of the story know that Jesus did not meet their expectations.  We know that the kind of conquering Jesus did was not military or political or a form of violent overthrow.  I guess the claim could be made that Jesus did come to conquer, but it was accomplished through sacrificial love, not military might or worldly power. 
            But if you were a part of the crowd that day and you expected military might or hoped for worldly power, then the kind of conquering Jesus brought was a disappointment.  So these fickle crowds turn their backs on Jesus when they realized he was not the warrior they wanted.
We know differently.  We know who Jesus was and is and what he really accomplished in Jerusalem.  We know the truth that was found on that cross and when the stone was rolled away from an empty tomb. 
            But even if we didn’t, the stones would shout.  Maybe what Luke is trying to get across to his readers and us is that even if we don’t always get it, even if we’re sometimes as fickle as those crowds or as prone to misunderstanding as the early disciples, it doesn’t matter.  The stones would shout.  Even if no one turned around to hail Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, the city where God’s greatest triumph would take place, it doesn’t matter.  The stones would shout.  Even if we miss the opportunity to proclaim Jesus; if we just push our way through this Sunday and this week as quickly as possible, trying to get to the joy of Easter without the pain of Good Friday, it doesn’t matter.  The stones will shout.
            Nothing can stop the glory of God.  Nothing can hinder that glory from permeating the world and transforming it.  The glory of God, the triumph of Jesus has set all of creation free.  Even if we remain silent, never raising our voice or even clearing our throat, the stones will shout.
            The stones are shouting that God has come, God is coming, the Lord is at hand, our Savior soon dwells among us.  Let us join with all creation on this day of days and shout our joy that the Lord is coming.  Let us make the foundation of this church ring with our cries and our hosannas.  Jesus is coming!  Let the stones shout!  Amen!