Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Easter Sunday

The resurrection of Jesus Christ is God’s once and for all statement to the world that he cares about this world and our lives in it. Frankly, it is easy for me to think otherwise. How about you? Just turn on the radio and your ears fill with awful stories of human suffering and much of it happens to babies and children which is especially hard for most of us to bear. When we see and/or experience terrible suffering we cry out to God sometimes with our fists in the air - God, why don’t you do something!? This is often the voice and tone the Psalmist used. God, wake up! and work for the cause of righteousness says the Psalmist in one place; and in another place the Psalmist cries out, “my God my God why have you forsaken me”. Remarkably, those words from Psalm 22 are on the lips of Jesus as he takes on the sins of the world and the full brunt of the physical agony of crucifixion, making it clear that the cross is a God forsaken place. It is important to remember that as we celebrate Easter. In the resurrection of Jesus Christ, God says many things to us. What he doesn’t offer in the resurrection is a polished treatise defending his benevolence in the face of evil and in response to all of our frustration with him and this world. Rather, his statement in the resurrection is the person of Christ who, on the cross, brings God into the mess of this fallen world for the purpose of redeeming it. The resurrection is not less than God’s vindication of what happened to Jesus on the cross. To paraphrase theologian Mike Lloyd, “God owns the cross of Christ and it is where he deals most powerfully with the evil and sin in world, defeating them in Christ's sacrifice. On the cross God entered the world of chaos, evil, failure, and defeat and claims the entire arena to be a place where he is at work. It is in Jesus’ moment of being forsaken by the father that God's love is most powerfully at work. It was when the hopes of the disciples were dashed that their salvation was being accomplished. And when we experience failure and chaos in our lives and we imagine that we have come to a place where hope is irretrievable God says NO! Quite the opposite is the case: through God’s son on the cross, God has entered into the chaos of this fallen world so that it is not an alien place for him. So, whatever the case may be for us (e.g. whatever terrible thing befalls us because of evil at work in the world, or, whatever calamity we have brought on ourselves through the selfishness of sin - God is not alien to us in these circumstances). His presence with us is for the purpose of reconciling us to himself and doing something new in our lives. His resurrecting love is always there for us in the very worst of circumstances.” And this is a fitting thought as we move into the baptism portion of our worship service. Through the cross, God is not alien to our experiences of hopelessness, pain, suffering, and doubts; he is not alien to our dark nights of the soul. In baptism today we portray the promise of God to always be near Matthew Bushman Jr. and William Lovell - there is no time in their lives where his love will be alien to them and that is one thing baptism says to us always, but quite loudly on Easter on Sunday!

We have already taken comfort that the resurrection is God’s vindication of the cross; now I want to talk with you about how the resurrection is not most importantly an encouragement about life after death but rather, in the words of NT Wright, an encouragement to “bring the life of heaven to earth, in actual physical, earthly reality.” In this way, we see the resurrection of Jesus as the beginning of God’s answer to a portion of the prayer Jesus taught his disciples: “your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven”. To be sure, the resurrection is an encouragement that our bodies are meant to be made new so that we might reign with Christ in the world to come; this is tremendous comfort to us when we face the prospect of our own death and when we are faced with the death of loved ones! But most of the teaching about the resurrection in the New Testament is focused on the difference Jesus’ resurrection makes in our lives right now. The resurrection is foremost God’s encouragement to us that the new creation has begun in the resurrected Jesus Christ.

This is the point of what Saint Paul was saying to the church at Corinth and through them to us. He is not saying get me out of this terrible world God - give me heaven; what he is saying is that your work here in this fallen world is not in vain. Again, to quote NT Wright on that passage “What you do in the present - by painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbor as yourself - will last into God’s future. These activities are not simply ways of making the present life a little less beastly, a little more bearable until the day we leave it behind altogether.... They are part of what we may call building God’s kingdom.... You are not oiling the wheels of a machine that’s about to roll over a cliff … all of this will find its way, through the resurrecting power of God, into the new creation that God will one day make.” (From his book, Surprised by Hope)
I don’t know about you but I need the promise of the resurrection to meet me in the moments where I am tempted to regard all my work here on this earth as vain and pointless. I need God to speak to me through the resurrection when I am tempted to turn in on myself and walk away from my responsibility, as Jesus’ disciple, to bring the life of heaven to earth. The power of the resurrection speaks to us at the point where we are about to give up hope and say so what!?! God knows us - he knows that all too human moment when we say in great frustration, "what difference does it make if I serve God and others in the self-giving love of Christ... look at what a mess things are... what difference will my faithfulness make?!".

The gospel speaks to us in these moments of our self-absorption when either simple selfishness or despair have choked out the hope that spurs us on to serving others in the love of Christ; when we say to ourselves, "what difference does it make if I confess my sin"; when we say to ourselves, "what difference does it make when our children need us to make sacrifices to spend good time with them during the week"; when we ask ourselves, "what difference does it make when my friend needs me to help her with a problem"; "what difference does it really make if I leave work early and go serve at the homeless shelter; what difference does it make, really, if I sign up to tutor a child". In all of these moments, when we teeter towards apathy or unbelief, the resurrection speaks to us this truth, as one preacher has put it - and I paraphrase a tad: “ the deepest truth of the universe is God’s indestructible love as shown forth most powerfully in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead... and because of that great power, even the smallest act of service or compassion is worthwhile, a way of being in contact with the truth. It may seem to make little difference, it may not guarantee success as we usually understand it, but it becomes part of the current of truth flowing eternally against the lies and injustices of a world in which our own interest or safety takes precedence over everything (Rowan Williams from his Holy Week Letter).”

Questions for discussion:

1. How much of an impact does the suffering in the world have on your faith and faithfulness? Can you think of examples of terrible things that happen in the world that cause you to call into question whether God is at work in the world? Can appropriating the truth of the resurrection help you build a bridge back to faith in these circumstances?

2. When Mike Lloyd (see above) says that, on the cross, God was entering into the chaos and pain of the world and goes on to say that this chaos and pain is not an alien place for him he obviously thinks this should be a comfort to us. Is it a comfort to you? Can you imagine God wanting to be near to you in moments where you are out of control and really at your worst? Should you be able to imagine his love for you and his nearness to you in those moments?

3. Do you think that you sometimes fall into a place where your own interest or safety takes precedence over everything else (see Williams quote above)? When thinking about your spiritual formation, what sorts of disciplines (individually and in the context of community) can you embrace that would help you avoid placing your interest or safety before the mission of the Christ’s church?

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Palm Sunday: Exceeding our Expectations

It was the great author JRR Tolkien who coined the word eucatastrophe; he meant by the word this - an event that occurs at the end of a story that suddenly and amazingly results in the well-being of the protagonist. Tolkien surely had many occasions to point out eucatastophes in his myth-making for which he is famous and for which so many of us are extremely grateful. However, what I want to remind you of, tell you for the first time, and bring to your attention is the way he applied this word to the Gospel story. Tolkien said that the incarnation was the eucatastrophe of human history and that the resurrection was the eucatastrophe of the incarnation. Bless him for putting it this way. I can think of no more succinct, yet, imaginative way of seeing the really big picture of what Jesus came to do than as a wonderful eucatastrophe; Jesus came to undo the work of human sin and selfishness.

Rowan Williams puts it this way in his comments on original sin:
“In humanity's history, the ingrained habit of turning inwards, turning in upon ourselves, is passed on. We learn what we want.... by watching someone else wanting it and competing for it. Before we begin to make choices, our options have been silently reduced in this way. To speak of original sin.... is to observe that our learning how to exist is mixed in with learning what does not make for our life or our joy. And every failure and wrong turn in the history of a person as in the history of our species locks us more and more firmly into ourselves. No wonder we drift further from peace, become less and less free to give. Something needs to reverse the flow, to break the cycle..... Only a human word, a human act will heal the process of human history; it isn't ideas and ideals that will do this, but some moment in history when relations are changed for good and all, when new things concretely become possible."

Jesus’ came, in the mystery of the incarnation, to reverse the trajectory of human history and to set us on the path of human flourishing which God has always intended for us. He came so we might overcome everything that diminishes the glory of our humanity so that we might be fully who we were made to be.

I got a letter recently from someone who shared with me a story that I have permission to tell you. He told me that he had been struggling with a certain pattern of acting and thinking that he knew to be sinful. His struggle was of the sort that it was known only to him, yet he could see its effects on those around him. He realized, sadly, that this pattern of living had gotten the best of him and was causing him not to have the love or patience that he wanted to have for those dear to him in his life. He said that he no longer felt the desire to confess, repent or ask forgiveness because he thought to himself, “what good would it do?”. Then he said he found himself sort of backed into a situation where he promised to do something sacrificial for a friend. He said that, at first, it felt like drudgery to help but that his heart changed when he saw how happy and grateful he had made his friend. He said that was a turning point: “I was happy too and then I thought to myself that this is what I really want to feel like more often than I do. I thought about my besetting temptation and sin and I thought I doubt I will be perfect when I bring all this back to God and ask him for his forgiveness and help but if I can just make some progress and feel a little more like I did today when I was helping this other person then I will count that as worthwhile.”

Though the person who shared this story just recounted does not use the words human flourishing he certainly describes it. This person has come to see a certain pathology at work in him that he recognizes as robbing him of human joy and he wants more human joy instead of it. That he realized all of this in relationship to loving others... well, I can’t recall a better way of recognizing human flourishing than by being able to tell what it is when seen in relationship to others - Paul’s remarkable words describing the profound interconnectedness of Christian community come to mind: “Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to stumble, and I am not indignant?

When our capacity to love others as we ought to is diminished by certain patterns of thinking, doing and being, we have a pretty good clue that we might just be dealing with sin doing its destructive work.

I share this story on Palm Sunday to remind us of the deep work that Jesus is setting out to do by entering Jerusalem at the beginning of holy week, what we celebrate on Palm Sunday. As Jesus prepares for the cross, he is in the midst of working out a eucatastrophe so that we might be fully alive to the love of God in every nook and cranny of our life, especially in the places that are secret that all too easily can be places where we have given up hope. Let the sacrament of communion remind us that “The glory of God is a human being fully alive (Iranaeus).”

On Palm Sunday we re-enact the initial enthusiasm among Jesus’ contemporary followers - he is heading to Jerusalem and he is beginning to act in ways that indicate that he might just be going to take King David’s throne for himself - maybe he is the Messiah who so many wanted to come and deliver them from the oppressive Romans. Ben Witherington writes of this moment as follows: “Notice this peaceable king does not come into town driving a Humvee, or riding on a war charger as a conquering hero. He comes to declare peace for the world, not war on the Romans. And here is a profound truth--- Jesus did not come to meet either his earliest followers expectations or ours. He came to meet our needs. Oh but the expectations were exponential. They were off the chart.... The cry Hosanna (see Ps. 118.25) seems to in fact be a plea in Hebrew meaning “Save Now!”. The crowds were crying out for a particular kind of political liberation it would appear on the spot, but Jesus had another idea in mind entirely of what made for peace, what made for pacification of our warring madness, what made for liberation and redemption. The real enemy was not Romans or Greeks, or foreigners in general. The real enemy lurked within the hearts of every fallen person—it is called sin.”

In the course of our mundane lives how many times do we demand that God meet our expectations, rather than slowing down and asking him to help us understand our deepest human needs in light of the Gospel, so that we might ask him to meet them and ask him to shape our daily lives according to their priority - according to our deepest human needs instead of making our expectations what is most important to us. Let me offer an example of what I am trying to get at. Recently, we have been stressed and anxious about what we will do about our daughter for school when she is ready for kindergarten. Pretty soon you come to realize that this issue will consume about all the time you give it. And pretty soon it becomes clear that that issue can become what you proclaim to God to be the most important thing going on in your life.... but really what you have missed along the way is enough time and energy to love someone who needs love, serve the homeless, or ironically play with your child. Or, take another example: you may be in a situation with colleagues or others in your community wherein you are consumed by anxiety over some aspect of your relationship with them. Maybe you are overwhelmed by worry that you are not valued properly at work or consumed by whether or not certain people like you. Very easily we can take these concerns and worries and proclaim to God that we expect him to change these situations in our favor. We get so worked up about these worries and concerns that they become pretty much all we talk to God about (note well: God cares about all of this stuff and we should pray about it but he cares more deeply that we be conformed to the image of Christ). Meanwhile he wants us to place a bigger priority on praying for and yearning to be the very incarnation of Christ’s love in all of these contexts; we have trouble seeing that because all we can think about is how much we want him to change our circumstances to our favor. Rather than asking to be made new from the inside out we settle for yearning for and praying for a mere rearranging of our circumstances and leave it that. Craig Barnes puts it this way: “Whenever pastors gather for continuing education seminars, it isn’t long before an expert gets up to warn us that people resist change. That isn’t exactly true. What we all resist is unwanted change. But most of our wanted changes are really nothing more than efforts at rearranging our lives. We leave one job and start another with a similar company that only has a different
name. We sell one house and buy another. We stop dating one person and start
dating someone else. Things may look a little different for a while, but it’s the
same person who keeps showing up in the mirror. Sometimes people begin to look into spirituality thinking it’s another opportunity to rearrange our lives. But he wants to change us, transform us, and give us a new identity. He wants to give us his own identity as a beloved child of God. According to the Scriptures, everything is now different. The old has passed
away. Behold all things have become new. You are no longer manipulated by
guilt, compulsiveness, hurts from the past, or fantasies about the future. All of
that is in the past. Your life is free for a new future.”

May God grant us during this Holy Week the grace to long for transformation instead of mere rearranging.

Questions for discussion:

1. Do you often think of how well you are appropriating God’s love and grace according to how well you love others? Can you think of one or two friendships or family relationships which, when looked at in this light, could offer you a good read on how you are doing with God? How would you measure how well you are doing?

2. What sorts of expectations have you put on God so as to cause you to not think and pray enough about your deepest human needs in light of the Gospel?

3. If someone were to ask you what God cares about in this world, how might the conversation develop if you began by quoting Iranaeus’ maxim: “The glory of God is a human being fully alive”? Would it develop differently than if you started the conversation by saying something that is equally true, like.... “God hates sin”? (This discussion question is meant to spark conversation about how we tell others about the love of God in Christ.)

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Disturbed, Weeping and Deeply Hopeful

New Testament scholar, Scot McKnight, tells the following story: “A parishioner once informed me that if he had been in Jerusalem when Jesus was put to death, he would have been crucified along with him because, as he trumpeted, ‘I would never have allowed my Lord to be even arrested without fighting for him! Nope, not me. I’m not like the rest of these faint-hearted Christians!’ The claim astounded me. His self-promotion was masked as self-perception. Here was a 60-year-old who hadn’t looked in a mirror for a long time."

In the same article entitled Spiritual Snobs, Scot argues, “If we judge the children of Israel, whom the psalmist says had hard hearts, we also must judge the apostles. After watching Jesus feed a village of people, the disciples are challenged to think through what Jesus should do -- he’s afraid to send the crowd home lest they collapse on the way. But Mark says the apostles had hard hearts (Mark 8), so we condemn them for their faithlessness. But should we?” McKnight thinks not. “When we look within ourselves or at others, we are prone to self-promotion or blame or judgment. When we see who we really are, we see hearts struggling and minds fighting and souls doubting. And then we are like both the children of Israel and the apostles.”

Lent has been a time when the readings from Scripture have invited us to take a long, hard look at ourselves and the fallen world in which we live. We have considered the faithlessness of God’s people, particularly the wilderness generation and we have been reminded of the steadfast faithfulness of God in spite of their hard hearts. In terms of our spiritual formation it is very important for us to look at our failures and the failures of others in the light of the gospel in order to avoid the temptation to spiritual snobbery that McKnight warns against above. It is all too easy to look at our failures and the failures of others and react in self-righteousness and anger, or in self-loathing and despair (particularly in the case of our own failures). I wonder how different things might be if our emotional energies and passions towards God, each other, and ourselves, became mainly thoughts and passions about God’s power to forgive, and power to make us new, rather than thoughts and passions of self-condemnation and harsh judgment of others....?

Also, it is tempting to imagine God as a spiteful adversary when our sin and lack of repentance is leading us away from human flourishing; instead the gospel reminds us that he opposes us because of his great love for us. The discipline of God never comes from anger and is always for the purpose of reminding us of his love for us

* “The Lord disciplines those whom he loves (Hebrews 11:6)”
* “if we are faithless, he remains faithful—
for he cannot deny himself (2 Timothy 2:13)”

Now, at the end of Lent, the readings of the common lectionary invite us to set our gaze upon the promise of God to deliver. In Ezekiel we meet dry bones that are given new bodies and new life. In the Gospel of John we meet Lazarus and are given a foretaste of the promised resurrection. These readings remind us that our faith grows stronger not when we try harder but when we put our hope in God’s power and resources and not in our own. This comes from our new birth in the spirit and we grow in our new birth when we turn daily from our own resources and learn to rely on God’s power and not our own. In response to Lazarus’ death, Jesus was disturbed, he wept, and he was deeply hopeful. He knew he could raise the dead. May this be our response to our sin, or any tragedy - to be disturbed, saddened and deeply hopeful, for the God who raised Jesus from the dead has bound himself to us in unconditional love.

This is familiar territory for those of us who have been versed in Christian teaching for a while but our hearts are prone to wander and so every once in a while it is good to remind each other of the basics.

Discussion Questions:

1. When we sin or when those around us sin it is hard to respond in a way that is shaped and informed by the Gospel. Can you offer three practical approaches you might take with yourself that will lead you to a place where you are more likely to have a gospel shaped response to your failures and the failures of others?

2. Is it easy for you to think of God disciplining you with a 100% loving and well-intended purpose in mind? For many of us this is a tough concept. If it is tough for you, does anything leap to your mind as to a reason for why it is a hard concept? For those of you who don’t have a hard time with this, share a story or two that will help us understand how you have been able to grasp God’s goodness in this way.

3. What role does Christian community play in the way you think of God’s discipline?

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Blind Man Sees

In the story of the blind man who is healed it is hard not to think of that old saying, no good deed goes unpunished. Jesus heals the young man; joy and wonder come upon him. Next comes perhaps a desire to celebrate, but before he can plan a party he finds no one who will celebrate with him. The response of his neighbors, friends, and family are a poignant reminder to us that in this fallen world even our experience of joy in the wake of God’s grace is not necessarily shared by those among us, and sometimes not shared by those dearest to us. What happens with the young man’s parents is perhaps the most painful aspect of the unfolding drama of the story. They distance themselves from their son by saying, “he is of age, let him answer for himself”. There should have been light and joy in the community, and a celebration with friends, neighbors and family. With the religious leaders there should have been at the very least a joyful response to a blind man who has been healed. But instead there is only darkness, anger, fear and gloom.

But let’s turn again to the blind man who can see. There is something so raw and so guileless in this young man’s response to Jesus. The drama of the narrative, in the way it unfolds, invites us to see the man’s faith deepen as he sees the darkness of those who oppose Jesus. The man who had been physically blind is now the only one in the story who can see God’s light at work in the world. The contrast between seeing and not seeing is presented as an either/or existential crisis, light or darkness, life or death. The confession that Jesus draws from the young man towards the end of the story reminds us that when Jesus is recognized as God’s Messiah that there will be light; when he is denied, there is only darkness.

Noted author and preacher, Fred Craddock, invites us to see ourselves in this story:

”Jesus heals the man, disappears from the narrative and reappears at the end to receive, confirm and vindicate the blind man now healed and a disciple. Most of the action occurs between Jesus’ two arrivals. It is difficult to believe it is coincidental that the form of the narrative corresponds to the form of the story of the church: Jesus comes with blessing and instruction, Jesus departs, Jesus will return with vindication for his church.”

Just like the blind man who can see we live now in the time between Jesus’ first advent and his next. In our journey of following Jesus in faith and repentance there will be many times where we will hear the voices of skepticism that would put the work of Jesus in our life on trial. Those voices may be the actual voices of friends and family, or, from our cultural worlds. Tragically it is often the case that darkness will creep into us as we doubt and lose heart in the face of our own sins and lack of faith; we will hear a voice - the voice is hissing even if it sounds calm and rational - and these are the sorts of things it will say. “You have confessed this same sin as long as you can remember and you still struggle with it. Just give up. There is no healing work of God going on”, etc. ad nauseam. I suspect that what is going on when we speak to ourselves this way is that are treating ourselves the way we have been treated by others and the way we often treat others, rather than allowing ourselves to be embraced by God and to be energized by his forgiveness.

In our “in between times” the communion table is set for us by God to remind us that confessing our sins always brings us to the light and away from the darkness in spite of what the enemies of the light will screech at us. The sacraments remind us that there is one who has been vindicated already and in his vindication we share.

Questions for discussion:

1. Do you have people who are close to you who celebrate the work of God in your life? How can you foster those sorts of relationships - how deliberate do you need to be in doing that?

2. Do you have people in your life who you perceive to be people who are always putting God’s work in your life on trial? Is it possible to help him or her move to a posture of being one who celebrates with you instead of doubting? Is it possible you could be mis-perceiving their attitude (how would you know)? How should you related to such people?

3. In light of Craddock’s suggestion about Jesus’ absence (see above) how important to our spiritual formation is regular involvement in church and regular reception of the sacraments? Why is it so important?