Wednesday, April 30, 2014

What if we said, "Jesus rose for you" instead of "Jesus died for you"?

Maybe it was because it is Easter.  Maybe that's why I wrote it.  It is still Easter, you know, and we are still hearing these resurrection stories.  Today, at our early Matins service, I told the one about Jesus appearing to the disciples, and breathing on them, and later to Thomas, and letting him touch his hands and his side.

Because it is still Easter, when I went to visit Oscar at the nursing home, I took two Sunday bulletins with me, which contained the very same gospel story. I took the two bulletins because it seemed like a good thing to do, and because Oscar is deaf.  I mostly converse with him by using his white board, a marker and eraser.  We do pretty well that way.

After visiting for awhile, finding out that he is moving to another care facility (which is happy about), and that it's no fun to get old, I asked him if he wanted to have communion.  He said yes.  We said the confession together, and then I gave him the bulletin so that we could read a portion of the gospel reading, the resurrection story from John, just the part where Jesus came into the room and said, "Peace be with you."

Afterwards, I wrote the main points on Oscar's white board:  "Jesus is with us.  He rose from the dead for us, to give us life and forgiveness.  Because he loves us."

Maybe it was because it is Easter.  Maybe that's why I wrote those words, "Jesus rose for you".  And after I wrote them I just looked at them for a long time, something settling and unsettling in my head, but not just in my head.  But maybe that was because it is Easter.

Or maybe it was because the familiar phrase "Jesus died for you" was stuck in my mind, had been stuck in my mind ever since that morning, ever since Matins.

Actually, it was right before Matins.  I was getting ready for the service, finding my place in the book, turning on the microphone. A couple of people were early, one 90 year old woman who always sits near the front.  She caught me as I was going down the aisle, showed me her iPhone (do not ever underestimate or stereotype the 90 year olds in your congregation).  A young woman she knew had posted this status update:  " I wonder if the history of christianity would've turned out differently if our central image of it was Jesus healing the sick and feeding the hungry rather than being violently tortured to death (because God loves you!)"

She seemed upset that her young friend had said something so cynical.  I reminded her of what Sarah Palin had said recently about baptizing terrorists by torturing them.  I said that some people find it hard to understand how God torturing God's only Son could have anything to do with love.

Here's what I believe.  God didn't kill Jesus.  And God certainly didn't kill Jesus because God couldn't forgive us without first extracting his pound of flesh.  After all, what did Jesus do?  He just went around giving away forgiveness, mercy, food, healing.  He just went around loving people, eating with them, setting them free.  No, Jesus died because human beings put him to death, because human beings were threatened and scandalized by him, religiously and politically.   And when he died, even the people who loved him, abandoned him.  Even the people who loved him, betrayed him.  Even the people who loved him, denied him.

But he rose.  He rose from the dead.  He came back.  And when he came back, did he come back vowing revenge?  Did he come back to even the score?  Did he come back to make sure that his enemies paid for what they had done, that his friends atoned for their failings?

No, he rose for us, to be reconciled to us.  He rose to make friends out of enemies, create life out of death, build a future out of dead ends and regrets.

What if we said, "Jesus rose for you?" instead of 'Jesus died for you"?  Because he loves you.

Monday, April 28, 2014

I Can't Help Thinking...

I didn't preach last weekend, which is sort of unusual for me.  I have come to identify the 2nd Sunday of Easter as "Associate Pastor Sunday", and Thomas and his story have gotten really really familiar to me.  I have defended Thomas from allegations of doubting, and pointed out that if all of the other disciples got to see and touch Jesus for themselves, why should it be a big deal for Thomas to get to see and touch Jesus too?  I have pointed out that Thomas was not with the other disciples on Easter Evening 1, but that he had returned to them on Easter 2.  I have noticed how the disciples cowered in that locked room, and how ultimately, those locked doors could not keep Jesus out.

I didn't preach last weekend, but I was listening, and I was studying anyway.  I got together with my Bag Lunch Bible study to read and reflect on this gospel reading.  As we were reading, I heard Thomas' voice, saying, "I will not believe.  Unless I see his hands, unless I can see those marks, unless I can touch them, I will not believe."

And I thought I could hear the whole world in Thomas' words.

There is a lot more skepticism in the world than there used to be.  There are more doubters than their used to be.  I know a fair amount of young people who say they are agnostics or atheists.  Or they are skeptical of organized religion, if not the existence of God.  Sometimes, it's hard to blame them.  Look around at the world for awhile.  Look around at the church, too.  I know a lot of good people in the church, but I know there has been a lot of hurt too.

So I heard Thomas' words, and I imagined that the world is looking at us, bearers of Jesus' name, carriers of his mission.  I imagined that the world is looking for marks, for some sort of sign.  Not nail-holes, but some signs of love, that we are willing to do something, bear something, suffer something, for the sake of love:  something real, something they can see and touch.

Sunday afternoon I was at a meeting at my church.  It was a rainy afternoon and there were about 130 people in our fellowship hall, from about a dozen different churches.  There could have been more, but people had many other commitments.  Some were actually setting up for homeless families to stay in our church.  But the meeting at my church was unusual for a couple of reasons.   People were telling stories of their lives, hard stories of juggling jobs and trying to make ends meet, stories of foreclosures with no recourse, stories of people living in fear of being deported.  There were representatives of both Latino and Anglo churches in the room, and they were leading together, and we were listening to each other, stories that could transform us, if we let them.

"Unless I see the marks, I will not believe."

Who can blame him?  Who can blame them?

And where are my marks?  That is what I am asking myself, while I am listening to stories, and praying that I will let them transform me.

Every Sunday is Easter

It has been a long time since I have gotten to preach regularly on Easter Sunday.  For the first four years of my ministry in rural South Dakota, I preached every Sunday.  But since coming to my current call, Easter has usually been the senior pastor's gig.  I have had mixed feelings about that.  I have felt wistful at never getting the experience of preaching to the large crowds at the first light of Easter morning every year; and I have felt (occasionally) a sort of relief that I didn't have the pressure of meeting my own extremely high expectations of an acceptable Easter sermon.

So, this year, the new senior pastor told me that I would be preaching on Easter.  Excitement gave way to apprehension as Sunday drew nearer.  I wrote and re-wrote, and thought and re-thought.  I considered the large crowds.  I am not proud to admit it, but I was having a mini-breakdown about my sermon, and how excellent I thought it ought to be.

I was doing a little pep talk with myself about it, trying not to think about the large crowds, and rationalizing, even.  "it's just like every other Sunday, really," I told myself.  Someone overheard, (perhaps even the senior pastor) and said:

"Every Sunday is Easter."

I've heard that before  Every Sunday is Easter, a little celebration of the resurrection.  Yep.  That's why we don't count the Sundays in Lent as being "of Lent".  That's why the early Christians designated Sunday as their day or worship in the first place.  All right.

But that's not what we meant.  At least, it's not what I meant, the more I thought about it.

Apart from the large crowds, what is it that makes the Easter sermon seem so daunting for some of us?  Is it what we imagine is the more diverse crowd, perhaps containing more skeptics than usual?  Is it that we might feel the need to prove the resurrection, somehow?  Is it the sense that, just as the choir has been practicing and building up for this day, we also need to save 'our best stuff' for this occasion?

"Every Sunday is Easter."

There might not be large crowds every Sunday; in fact yesterday's diminished crowds have already proved that at my congregation.  There might not be large crowds, but I'll wager that every Sunday you will have skeptics in your congregation.  Every Sunday you will have people who don't want to be there, are wondering why in God's name they are there, and are daring you to say something that will make them think, or feel, or change.

Every Sunday is Easter, and there will be skeptics every Sunday, some of them daring you, and some of them praying that you say something that will make a difference.  Every Sunday is Easter, and it is never possible to prove the resurrection, but it is always a good idea to testify to the difference that the resurrection makes in your life.  Does it?  That is the question to wrestle with, every day, every sermon, and in every part of our ministry.

Every Sunday is Easter, and you can't prove the resurrection, and there will always be skeptics, and sometimes the skeptic will be you.

And sometimes, the music is enough to get you through.

Not just on Easter.  Every Sunday.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Easter Monday

Tonight I went to worship at my husband's church.  He is one of the church musicians at a large suburban congregation.  For many years they have had a small evening worship service every Monday evening without fail.  No matter if it is a Monday holiday, or if the 4th of July happens to fall on a Monday, or if Christmas Day is Sunday morning, there is always a Monday evening worship service.  It's always a small congregation on Monday evening, but some Mondays are smaller than others.

Easter Monday is one of those days.  It seems like the point of Easter is to worship with a large congregation.  The point is to go and be with the large crowds and the trumpets blasting and the choirs singing.  Somehow this affirms the truth of the resurrection, because people show up in large numbers, and you have to get out the folding chairs.

This evening, the extra chairs were still all set up in the narthex from the morning before.  The large crowds had come and gone, and now it was Easter Monday.  The numbers were thinner even than a usual Monday evening service, but the music was wonderful; the trumpeter hit every note perfectly.  I remember looking around at the faces during the opening hymn and smiling at a few of the people.  The rest of the world doesn't know it, I thought, but we are listening to a perfect trumpet solo right now.

The large crowds are exciting, but there is something true about Easter Monday.  There is something true about a few people gathered together listening to the Easter gospel, not because they want to be with the large crowds, but just because they need to be together:  they need to taste the wine and share the bread and encourage one another.  There is something true about coming together, when it's not even Sunday any more.  There's something truthful about coming back together after an ordinary day's work, after making lists, buying groceries, adding up numbers, talking on the phone.

Somehow the evening Easter gathering reminds me of the first Easter evening, with the disciples gathered together in the upper room.  They are not an impressive bunch.  There are just eleven of them.  But the Lord appears to them and sends them out.

Not all churches have large crowds on Easter morning.  I suspect that it is not standing room only everywhere.  But perhaps the large crowds are not the point.

Maybe the point is this:  that the Lord appears to us, and sends us out, sends us back out into all the dying world.

Easter: What Difference does it make?

Starting on April 1st, I have been trying to write a poem a day.  It's National poetry month (I admit to knowing this).  At first I thought that I would find a favorite poem for every day of the month.  But then I threw caution to the wind and decided to write a poem a day instead.  I have never considered myself much of a poet, but I did it anyway.

I have been writing and posting the poems on Facebook, which is odd in a way, but for some reason I am the sort of person who writes a poem if she knows that she has a commitment to post it publicly every day (sort of the anti-Emily Dickinson.)  

Late on Easter evening, I had not written or posted a poem yet.  But here's what came out:

what difference does it make?
on this Easter evening
this question I take to sleep with me.
You rose.
what difference does it make?
what difference to my
lying down,
dying every day

You rose.
on this Easter evening
I take this prayer to sleep with me.
What difference will it make?
lying down,
dying every day,
make me an instrument
of your love.

As I reflect back on this Lent and Easter, the question I want to ask is not “What is the meaning of Easter?” but “What does Easter mean to me?”  Not just “What difference does it make that Jesus rose from the dead?”  but, “What difference does it make to me?  What difference does it make to us, the church?  And what difference does it make to the world?”

The more I think about it, the more I want to reflect on this question for the next fifty days.  For I suspect that there is not just one answer to this question, "What difference does it make?"  Perhaps there are fifty answers.  

What is your reason?

What difference does Jesus' resurrection make to you?  


Wednesday, April 16, 2014

To Begin the Three Days: Eat Standing Up

Tomorrow is Maundy Thursday, the beginning of the Great Three Days leading to Easter.  As usual, I am not ready, despite forty days warning, although I will say that I'm doing better tonight than I was this morning.  I am preaching on Maundy Thursday, which will also be first communion for a few of our fifth graders this year.  I have my sermon all written, or, more precisely, mostly written, and Holy Communion is a theme:  bread and wine, body and blood, room at the table.

Despite this, I couldn't help taking some illicit glances over at the Exodus reading, the instructions for preparing the passover feast.  There is the year-old lamb, or goat, and there is the unleavened bread, and there are the instructions for spreading the blood on the doorposts.  And then there is the curious instruction to eat with your staff in hand, your sandals on your feet, your 'loins girded' -- as if you are about to take flight, according to Exodus.

Of course, this makes a certain sort of sense, in the context of the story.  They had to be ready to go as soon as the word came down that Pharaoh had given in to the demand:  "Let my people go."  They were on full alert, waiting and listening for the word that would set them free.

Of course, it is fascinating to me because in our day and time, we eat 'on the go' more often than is healthy for us.  We are urged to sit down and eat together more often, to take more time, to not be in such a hurry.

But this meal was meant to be eaten in a hurry, by a people who were setting out from slavery to freedom.  They were waiting for a word that would set them free, but also set them into a future they knew almost nothing about.

There is something profoundly disorienting about this.  This particular story of eating-in-a-hurry is not about meeting our own deadlines and setting our own agendas:  it is about waiting for a Word from outside ourselves to call us to action.

There is something profoundly disorienting about Lent, and the Three Days.  I never feel ready, even when I am prepared.  I never feel prepared for the bread, the body and blood, placed in my hand, the violence of the cross and all that it means.  I never feel ready for the empty tomb, the stone rolled away, the Word I have waited for, that calls me to action, to travel a way not my own.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

What I Learn From Funerals

The last funeral I officiated was on a Saturday afternoon in Lent.  The woman who died was too young, had cancer, fought valiantly, put her life in Jesus' hands.  In many ways her funeral was like many other funerals where I officiate.  There is so much that is the same.  There are certain songs that almost everyone sings, certain scriptures that occur over and over.  The liturgy we use is very simple, and so much is nearly the same every time, although, since my father's funeral last fall, I have taken to tweaking the prayers some, using different prayers than the ones that are in the book.

There was this one unique moment, though, at the beginning of her memorial service.

The woman who died had been a day care provider in our community for many years.  She was well known to parent and children for her firm but kind nurture, unapologetic discipline and boundaries, and unconditional love.  It was a powerful combination.

At the beginning of the service, at the direction of her family, I asked all of the children and young adults who had been cared for at this woman's day care to come to the entry to the sanctuary.  Forty or fifty young people stood up and met me and the doorway, where our funeral coordinator gave each of them a small bouquet of white carnations.  At the opening hymn, all of these young people processed in behind me, but before the family.  They each placed  their carnations in the baptismal font, where they stayed for the entire service.

The woman's husband explained why he wanted to do this, "I wanted everyone to have a part."

Not long before this, at another funeral, there were similar words.  A woman, helping to plan her husband's funeral, said, "There are nine grandchildren who all need jobs."  At that service, we had readers, eulogists, and intercessory pray-ers.

This is very wise, I thought.

The more I thought about it, the wiser I thought it was.

I thought about all of those carnations in the baptismal font, and I thought about the fact that, at the most recent funeral, all of the eulogists were participants in the woman's day care:  two parents, and one of the former day care children.

It took me a while to realize that there was a powerful message being spoken that day, not just the message about the love of God, more powerful than death.

It was the message that so much of our society disbelieves:  that we belong to one another.  Our family is wider than we think, wider than we know, wider than we see -- except, sometimes at funerals.  All around us there is the message that we are on our own.  We draw our circles closer and closer, and are told to care only for a few who are closest to our hearts.

But here is the truth:  we belong to one another.  We are members of one another.  Our fates are intertwined.  Life and death and love and pain bind us together.

Perhaps it is why there is so much similarity in funerals:  our common humanity and hope finds words and sighs.  There is bound to be overlap.

And yet:  here is the other thing I learn from funerals.

Despite their similarities, no two are really alike.  They are like fingerprints.  I can't say exactly why, when we sing so much "Amazing Grace" or "Love Divine", and we hear so much about the many mansions, or the resurrection and the Life.  But somehow each funeral embodies the hope of a particular child of God, ordinary and extraordinary at the same time, and they are not the same.  Sometimes they are small things that matter:  a particular story shared, a Scripture verse in German, or a baptismal font full of carnations.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Prayer and Poetry

I'm not that good at either one.

I know, this is an odd confession for a pastor to make.  You don't like to hear your pastor saying, "I'm no good at praying."  And don't get me wrong, it's not that I don't pray.  It's just that I am apt to compare myself with people who seem to be able to go on and on, pray aloud for hours with no notes.  When I pray aloud, I admit, I'm always afraid I'm going to get myself into a sentence I can't get out of. My prayers tend to be short, inelegant, a little undisciplined.  

I love both poetry and prayer, even though I confess to being good at neither one.  I love the formal prayers in my prayer books, eloquent and elegant.  I notice that some of these prayers are poetic, using literary devices and structures:  metaphors, allusions, alliteration.  I love all kinds of poetry, too:  from the deceptive simplicity of Robert Frost and Mary Oliver, to the complex rhymes and dense metaphors of Gerard Manley Hopkins and John Donne.  And I have tried writing a little poetry too.  Though I admire sonnets from a distance, and have even memorized a few, the complexities of rhyme and meter have so far eluded me.  Like I said, I am not good at it.

Some of my favorite poets (though not all by any means) have been the devotional ones.  Some of John Donne's Holy Sonnets were really prayers, addressed to God -- the same can be said of Mary Oliver, Denise Levertov, and others.

For the past year or so, I've been writing occasional "haiku prayers" -- not quite "sighs too deep for words", but at least trying to pray using as few words as possible.  It has made me think that perhaps prayer and poetry have some things in common, some things beyond the eloquence of the prayers in my hymnal:  something more basic, more elemental than literary devices, something that goes beyond tradition or eloquence.

1.  Both prayer and poetry have a necessary honesty.  A good poem is, above all, honest.  It doesn't pull punches.  It tells the truth.  In fact, poetry is one way of getting deeper into truth, an expression of joy or lament or love that strips off artifice and reveals the depths of pain and hope.

2.  Both prayer and poetry are elliptical.  They are honest, but they leave some things unsaid.  Perhaps there are 'sighs too deep for words'.  Poems make you read between the lines.  They do not say everything.  Prayers do too, but in a different way, and perhaps for other reasons.  Prayers a elliptical, because it is impossible to say all that is on our hearts.  The apostle Paul has it right, "We do not know how to pray as we ought," and so prayers will always leave some things unsaid.  And yet, not saying everything, a poem or a prayer somehow becomes more than the sum of its parts.

3.  You don't have to be good at it.  That's right.  You don't have to be good at praying to pray.  Just say a name.  Cry.  Rejoice.  Stumble through a few words.  Don't let the eloquent prayers discourage you.  You don't have to be good at poetry to write a poem either.  In this era of the professional poets with their bound books, we have forgotten.  In the past writing poetry was a hobby for some, like knitting or collecting stamps or playing the piano.  But you didn't have to be good at it, to enjoy writing limericks, or rhymed couplets, or blank verse.

Prayer and poetry.  I am not good at either one. Still, I will lift my voice, my heart, my pen.  I don't have to be good at it.  Just honest.  That's the harder thing, anyway.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Poetry is Prayer/Prayer Is Poetry

A prayer is not a poem, and a poem is not a prayer.  But they do, somehow, have something in common, both in theory and in practice.  For today, it's just practice.

O Lord, look kindly
on my heart, broken, bruised, black:
backward, still, but Yours.

what do you mean
"I shall not want"?
I want, O Lord, 
so many things
softness, color, weight
a mountain to climb
and strength to climb it
sleep when I am tired
an unexpected sunrise
to thirst and to be sated
what do you mean
"I shall not want"?
Teach me how to lie down
in righteousness, to love the
still waters, to eat what is
set before me
to live in the valley

of the shadow of death.

God questions me.
O mortal, what do you think?
Can these bones live?
Can these tears flow?
Can these hearts of stone break?
Can these barren bodies bear life?

Why ask me, Lord?
You know.
You know I am dust.
I have cried oceans
and all I have left is salt.
I have no breath in me.

O Lord, you know.
My hands are empty.
I open my mouth
and no words come out.

But hear, again, at midnight
my mourning morning prayer:
O Lord, Open Thou my lips
And my mouth shall declare your praise.