6th in Easter (5/9): “Joy is Abiding in Love (not Ego)”

1 John 5:1-6 ; John 15:9-17

         At the end of this sermon, I’ll come back to that outrageous claim in First John: “This is the victory that conquers the world, our faith! Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” “Really?” you say. How is my little faith going to conquer the world? Do we even want to conquer the world? We’ll get to that. But let’s start with not conquering the world, but with love right here in the church, which is what our Gospel reading talks about.

After over a month being here, I have gotten to know some of you, and observed more of you at church together, mostly on Zoom. There definitely is love for one another here in the First Congregational Church of Hadley. I know you all find being together in church pleasant and meaningful.

But on those other, hopefully rare occasions, what makes church unpleasant for you? I bet it’s when you find yourself locked in a struggle with a fellow member (or maybe the pastor). She wants it her way, you want it your way. And one or both of you try to game the system to have your way. We all recognize this as “church politics,” and it is be found in every church I’ve known. But conflicts in church do not all go that way. Sure, people inevitably disagree—it’s our human condition. But we can value those who disagree with us. One wants resources to go to the building, one to Christian Education or Mission—for example. But all of these are important. We can value each of our commitments like Paul values the many gifts of the Spirit. And then disagreement becomes exciting and illuminating; disagreement expands my vision: “Wow, I’ve never thought of it that way!”

Well, why does disagreement not always feel that way?  Here’s a simple reason: It’s because of ego. Human beings have a strong tendency toward self-assertion for its own sake. We say that we really only care about the church clock, or Take and Eat, or protecting the minister, but our ego gets involved. And so we get locked into struggles, often repeatedly, with the same person. Some personality types even thrive on that kind of struggle (although it doesn’t actually make them happy). It’s a disease of the ego, that we all are probably infected with (even if we are “asymptomatic”). Martin Luther described the unhappy ego as “curved in on itself,” and usually that means walled up like a citadel, at turns defensive and aggressive.

Now, I’m still new enough here that I can be authentically innocent about if and where this problem with ego exists here. So I’m not talking about anyone in particular. But I also know that the problem with ego exists everywhere, and sometimes is even worse in churches, despite the fact that no other organization on earth, except the church, hears its founder say, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” The ugliest fight I’ve had in as long as I can remember happened with a church member (not here). This person chased me to my car in order to hound me and blame me for everything wrong with the world, forcing me to defend myself, which I can do if I have to. But I left with that churning feeling in my stomach, and a shaky feeling in my knees. And the other person probably did not feel great, either. When people are curved in on themselves, defensive and aggressive, you have the very opposite of joy. Our bodies cry out against it.

No one should ever have to leave church with a churning stomach and shaky knees. There’s no excuse for that kind of behavior and the conflict-prone ego that causes it, here in the church: because being released and liberated from your ego is at the very heart of what it means to be a Christian (as in many other religions as well). The letter of John tells us that whoever believes Jesus is the Christ has been “born of God.” This phrase refers back to what John said in chapter 4: “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God. Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.” Jesus is our prime example of love, as our gospel reading shows: “No one has greater love that this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Perfect love involves giving up something of oneself—at the extreme, one’s own life. But more ordinary loving also involves self-giving: every romantic lover and parent knows something of self-giving—and Mother’s Day is the perfect time to remember this. But Jesus lives perfect love to the point of laying down his whole life, and in doing so he shows us that God is the source and the reality of this love. In other words, God has no ego. Everything God does is for our good, not for God’s—including judging our self-centeredness and freeing us from our egos.

This is the open secret of the Christian faith, the pearl of great price that anyone with any sense should be searching for. Here is a place, and a community, where you can lay down your ego, and we can all lay down our egos and our hang-ups and our hostilities and know real peace with one another. It’s at the heart of what we are as a community, it’s the stuff of our sacraments and our worship. This communion of selfless love is what the world so desperately wants and needs, because deep down everyone knows it is right, that selfless love represents a pinnacle and perfection of human life.

But of course, we are distracted from this knowledge, and blinded to this need, because we live in a culture that likes to tell us “it’s all about me,” at least for those who are white and privileged (like me). We are taught above all to guard and exercise my rights and my personal liberty to do whatever I want. And so we guard our privacy, the private citadel of my ego. And we resent anyone who wants to invade it. Sometimes we even resent God for invading our privacy.

I may sound un-American to question our obsession with personal liberty. I’m not, really. Liberty and self-interest has its place in the created order, especially given the colonial tyranny of the British in the 1700s. But our jealously guarded, American sense of freedom—as relatively justified and economically useful as it is—finds almost no support in Scripture. (If I’m missing it, please comment in my blog.) Real freedom, according to the Bible, isn’t doing what you please. Jesus defines real freedom in John 8: “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” That word is above all the command to love one another. True freedom is obeying that command.

Personal liberty can lead to the unhealthy stress that comes with always having to advance your own agenda and assume that everyone else is doing the same. The church can be a sanctuary from personal liberty and its discontents. It can be a safe place to heal from the pressure of trying to make it on your own. The church should be a community where I can let go of self-control and not fear that I will be exploited, be someone’s sucker (which is a real danger, given human sin). The church should be a place where instead of looking out for myself, we look out for one another. It should be in short a place of love first, not liberty first. (Paul speaks beautifully of this in Corinthians.) And if you have real love, you don’t need to fall back on your private citadel of personal liberty. I see that love at work here.

But of course the church can fail terribly in this regard, and it has. The church and the church alone stands condemned by God whenever we violate the trust that has to be rock solid in order to be a community of selfless love. That should scare us, and especially scare any clergy who have ever abused that trust.

So if we are to risk being a community of love, we must be transparent and vigilant to protect the weak from abuse. This congregation has a fine Safe Church policy. You have also made developing a communication covenant one of your top priorities. This is wise. Law and policy are important and a good start. There are practices we can adopt that will make sure conflict is addressed constructively, and that everyone in the community, especially those most vulnerable, are respected. Respect is a minimum, and law and policy can be good at preserving respect and dignity for all.

And respect is satisfying, but I don’t find it fulfilling. Respect brings contentment but not ecstatic joy. And joy is what Jesus is going for. The verse before our gospel reading says, “I have said these things to you so that…your joy may be complete.” Completion, perfection, and joy come from perfect love, perfect egoless love. Friends who lay down their life for one another. Who doesn’t want that?

I had a great conversation this week with Jean about all this. “Yeah, but,” she replied, “selfless love is really hard.” Of course it is. I mean, Jesus did it. And he tells us that this kind of love is not just what God commands but who and what God is and what human perfection is all about. But my goodness, I am just about constantly stuck in my ego, more attentive to my own thoughts and feelings than to those around me. Stuck in my so-called freedom. There have been precious few moments in my life when I really felt and acted out of egoless love—and this did not make me anyone’s sucker, by the way. These moments were the most joyful I have ever known. They are real; they are the most real. No ethical principles or policies or rules did this for me; only giving myself to Jesus took me out of my ego. Maybe you know what I’m talking about, maybe you don’t. Either way, we’re probably in the same boat. I know of no one aside from Jesus who lived that kind of selfless life to its perfection. But that’s why we need him, and that’s why God raised him from the dead. We don’t need to be perfectly egoless, although being so is absolutely beautiful. We only need to believe, as individuals and as a community, in what perfection is, because mostly the world doesn’t believe in it. In our words and sacraments and worship, we testify to this belief; a little later on, First John says “Those who believe in the Son of God have the testimony in their hearts.” We believe, we testify, we try to live it out together through loving one another, because trying to be egoless all by yourself doesn’t make a lick of sense, if you think about it. And when we fail to love one another, as we will, again and again, we practice mercy and compassion with one another. You know, policies and laws are necessary but complicated; love really is very simple. And my friends this is how our faith, our belief in and testimony about selfless love, becomes “the victory that conquers the world.” Amen.

Selfless, egoless love is our goal. It is what it means to share in God’s own being. But belief and testimony are all that is required to begin. We confess our faith and testify to Jesus by praying in his name.  So let us turn now together in prayer.

Fifth in Easter (5/2): “Vine Before Branches”

1 John 4:7-21; John 15:1-8

       Most all of us have tried to do just about everything on Zoom or other online venues for the past year: school, family visits, work, conferences, hanging out with friends, church. Some people have had to say their last goodbyes on facetime or whatever. Not all of this has been bad. My family has enjoyed a weekly Zoom chat with Jessica’s parents and her brother’s family. But this week we all agreed that there’s something about being together physically that cannot be replicated online. Grand-Pam, as we call my step-mother-in-law, said this of retreats she helps lead at a Buddhist center—to hear each other chanting in meditation is irreplaceable.

The same is certainly true for Christian worship. There’s something special about being in the same place and sharing the same bread and cup, the way a family shares a meal. We are deeply social creatures. We need togetherness. As much as we chafe against it, we need to immerse ourselves in a social body that is bigger than us. And a little screen just doesn’t do that. If we need this togetherness in social bodies in general, it is even more true of spiritual communities, whether it’s a Buddhist retreat or our Christian worship. Why is togetherness so important for spiritual communion? Why does spirituality require physical togetherness and the physical presence of sacraments—the water of baptism, the bread and cup of communion?

       Well, this should not be so mysterious to us. We are by nature social creatures. This is how God created us. We are born completely dependent on our parents and community. We eventually come into our individual identity and exercise our own will, but always within the matrix of a community and language, without which there could be no “I.” If I had no Word, no language that I did not make up, but inherited from a community, I could have no self, no me.

And so it’s no surprise that God calls us as a social body, because there are no individuals without a social body. God calls Israel as a people, and even as personalized as Psalm 22 (our call to worship) is, it still comes back to address us as “the offspring of Israel.”  And think about Jesus. He was no personal therapist, working with people one-on-one; he came proclaiming the Kingdom of God, a social body, and he gathered his disciples as a social body to instantiate that Kingdom.

How about the First Letter of John? “Let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. …for God is love.” Note what he is saying here. You cannot love God without loving other people. There is no private love affair with God. “Those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” We participate in God’s love by loving one another, we become part of God’s very being by loving. I was talking with someone this week who struggles with very sensible confusion about believing Jesus is divine, but maybe it just means this: Jesus loved selflessly, even to the point of what John calls being “the atoning sacrifice.” To love selflessly is to be divine. And we can do it too. (Well, sin gets in the way; more on that next week.) But you can’t be God by yourself; you need others to love, to be love.

As a student of scripture, it seems obvious to me that faith in God requires others, requires a community practicing love. So the real question is: why do so many say, “I am spiritual, but not religious?” (Which I think usually means, I have my own spirituality, but I don’t want or need the community that goes with it.) Or why have I heard so many people say (most of them Christians), “I find God in nature, not in church?”

       All of this says to me that we’ve been infected with this modern fallacy that the individual takes precedence to the social body. We think the individual is primary, or more authentic, than the social body or than some tradition—above all when it comes to religion. And I say this despite the fact that I am a modern, free-thinking guy who is very aware of how knowledge keeps progressing and how corrupt tradition can be—no wonder people have been turned off of institutional religion. But still, I choose strong words—we are infected with this modern fallacy—because it is killing the church. Most everything wrong with the church today has something to do with this modern attitude that says the church as here for me. Church is a consumer decision I make. Church is another service-provider for me. This attitude has infected our whole approach to religion, even to God! Many think that what religion is all about comes down to my private spiritual journey, my needs, my opinions. And the reason we come to church, apparently, is express and fulfill my private spirituality. I’ve been told by so many people (elsewhere): religion is a private thing. You can’t teach someone religion. What’s the point of talking about it? This is exactly wrong. Religion is not about my private me; it’s all about getting beyond myself.

I won’t go into all the problems this attitude creates for Christian education, for spiritual practices, for church governance, and for understanding Scriptures. Today I just want to talk about what conceptual chaos this individual-first approach to the church creates for how we see the sacraments of the church. Thanks to our cultural infection, we are inclined to think that the sacraments are just there to help my personal faith. Baptism is simply a rite to mark membership in the church. For most Protestants, the Lord’s Supper is a reminder of what Jesus did. There’s nothing real in the supper, it’s just symbols that only take on meaning inside of me, thanks to my private spiritual remembering.

       This approach—which goes all the way back to one of our 16th century Reformation forebearers, Huldrych Zwingli—makes me and my spirituality more real that the sacrament, and by implication, makes me more real than the church. The individual part is greater than the whole, apparently. But our reading from the Gospel of John suggests just the opposite. Jesus is the vine, we are the branches. We are not individual trees, standing proudly alone. “The branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine.” But “those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”

That, by the way, is so true in general: we can do nothing by ourselves. I see so many people today, especially the young but not only them, who watch helplessly as day after day more shootings arrive, whether mass shootings or another dubious police shooting. People who watch as the environment groans under our abuse; as our politics spirals out of control. And there are those who watch as abortion continues. Regardless of the issue, they so want to make a difference in the face of these great national and international crises. So they’ll do anything to make a personal statement—sign a petition, join a protest, go raise a fuss on Facebook. There’s a lot of good intention there, and mass action can achieve temporary results. But an individual can do next to nothing. You need a church, or something like it. You need a community that can act out of common principle and commitment, and act locally in concrete ways—not just make statements to make ourselves feel better. But this modern attitude that I individually matter and I have to make a difference is not only killing the church, it’s killing us, because it throws each of us individually up against these global problems that are way too big for us. It leaves us feeling helpless and hopeless.

Jesus is the vine. We are just branches.  Jesus is more real than I am—remember that from Easter? Jesus has united our human flesh to God, he is that very union in its completed, fulfilled, perfected form. Thanks to Jesus, we don’t have to play God as individuals. Unless you want to take on responsibility for the sins and failures of all humanity. I can’t even take responsibility for my own sin and failures. But thanks to Jesus and the grace of God, we can be just human.

But we don’t have to be just human. As a church body, as a vine, we can tap into Jesus’ divine power, God’s saving power, God’s eternal life. Individually, we’re just human, limited to our personal gifts, limited by our small perspective and short years. But engrafted into the vine, we bear fruit within a living vine—the church—that is, like God, everywhere and spanning the ages.

So try this out: The sacraments are not just a symbol, a personal mnemonic device. These actions that we participate in, along with all Christians everywhere, are that greater reality, the reality of the church that, because it is the body of Christ, is greater than you. When we have communion, we are sharing with each other, and with the living and risen Christ, and with all the saints, with the whole church of all times and all places. We are partaking of something far greater, bigger, and more real than me. The sacrament is the real presence of Christ.

But maybe you’re thinking, “Wait a minute. That smells Catholic to me!” (Especially if you heard about my censer.) Well, you’re right. It is. The primacy of the vine to the branches is one of those things that Catholics have often been truer to that we Protestants. They have better understood the organic nature of the church; as Paul says, “You (all) are the Body of Christ, and individually members of it.” The church is more real than its members.

Where Catholics have gone wrong, sometimes with truly horrifying consequences, is to mistake the top-down, even “infallibly” hierarchy of the church for the body of Christ. The same Christ who said, “You know how the rulers among the Gentiles lord authority over them. It shall not be so among you.” We Congregationalists, by rejecting hierarchical authority, have understood these words of Jesus much better than our Catholic siblings. But then we go wrong with it and think that I never need go beyond and my personal opinion and private spiritual life.

You see, we need each other to be the church. That goes for within this congregation, but also for the one, ecumenical church. We cut ourselves off from some of the true vine whenever we say: “We’re not like those Catholics,” or, “We’re definitely not those evangelicals.” I can explain more clearly than any of you why I am not Catholic and not evangelical. But Catholics and evangelicals, each in their own way, have something to teach me and you. It’s never wise to define yourself against some other—we’re not them! At its worst that leads to blind prejudice and violence.

Let us today, even though we are not in the same room together or maybe even sharing the same moment, let us remember that this sacrament of communion is for us the true vine, truer than I, who am just a branch. Not in the physical bread or juice itself (I think Catholics are wrong about that), but in the act of communing Jesus is present and more real than we who partake. And this act—“do this in remembrance of me”— binds together not only you and I on opposite sides of a screen but all Christians everywhere at all times—one vine, one Body, one faith, one Lord. May it be so.

Articles about increased alcohol use and resources for reducing

We pray this fifth Sunday in Easter for the wisdom and insight to take stock of our drinking and whether it has increased during the pandemic. Here are some articles and stories with resources for reducing. God has claimed us for God’s own–so let’s take care of ourselves!

https://www.wbur.org/hereandnow/2021/04/28/covid-alcohol-drinks-stress

Fourth in Easter (4/25): “Victory Prayer”

Ephesians 1:15-23 John 10:11-18

         Victory has a very familiar face for us, primarily because of our celebration of sports. Just this month the UMass Men’s Hockey team became Division I champions, a first for this local team. We all know the signs of victory: at a minimum, you raise your arms in the air, make a number 1 sign, and shout, “Whoop!” And the whole town got to share a little in that whoop.

When have you experienced a clear victory? When have you raised your arms and shouted, “whoop!” It’s a great feeling, that we are right to enjoy. But how long did the good feeling last? Did that victory change anything, or was everything else pretty much still the same?

         Unlike sports, life rarely comes packaged with rules designed to clearly allow one side to win and another to lose, with the excitement of victory that comes in that sporty way. I was trying to think when I’ve had victories in life that made me go whoop. Not many, frankly. Receiving the call from Shari about this position was one of my best victory moments in some time, meriting a nice night out. You see, I rarely celebrated by raising my arms. I’m more inclined to raise a glass and fork with some gourmet food on it. / But often the moments that I expected to feel victorious were tainted with mixed feelings. Comprehensive exams for my doctorate come to mind. These waere four written exams in various areas taken over the course of two weeks, each of them four hours long, ending with a two hour oral exam. I studied for about two years, for the last three months of which I existed on four hours of sleep. I thought with these exams I would finally prove myself as a scholar, but instead I did fine, I passed, and it was clear from my committee that this was just a formality. I remember coming out of the concluding oral exam on a fine spring day, physically and spiritually exhausted, and lying on a bench I stared into the sky and wondered, what was it all for? Definitely not a whoop.

         Jessica and I received our first vaccine this week—and just scheduling it felt like a victory. I’ve heard from many of you that the second vaccine is emotional and liberating—enjoy it! (If you don’t feel as sick as Rick did.) But even though things are getting better here, I doubt there will be a great victory moment over covid-19 that will make the whole world go whoop. While we are winning, India is losing; and the two are related. I believe eventually covid will just peter out. In our pastoral prayer I’ll also mention the whoopless end of the Afghanistan war.

         No wonder we like watching sports, where there is always a clear winner. No wonder we like novels and movies with tidy and usually happy endings. And sometimes life is like that, and it’s a glorious opportunity to give thanks. But the more I get to know this congregation, the more I see how weighed down so many of us are with grief and recent loss. I see no weakness of faith here, no defeat. It’s not like we have failed to rally, that we let our opponent get the better of us. I just see, so far, a lot of losses of dear ones, some of which is inevitable as our natural human years reach their limit, some of which happened tragically too soon, leaving us to ask “why?” “Why did it have to go this way?” And it’s the kind of “why” that isn’t satisfied or made any better with even a well-intentioned answer that begins, “God lets bad things happen so that…” I mean, it’s great our young folk are thinking like that. But I wouldn’t expect them to know how to sit with us during our dimmest moments of tears and asking why.

         You know, the Bible never says anything like, “God lets bad things happen so that…” It shows just about no interest in answering our why questions with some kind of general explanation or theory. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ask and try to answer these questions. But I think the wisdom of Scripture recognizes that those answers don’t satisfy us when we are really hurting, when the grief and suffering does rest on the cerebral cortex but goes all the way down to our gut.

         But the Bible does have something to say to us in our sorrow, something that goes all the way down. And it says it loudest and most clear right now, in the season of Easter, in the season of resurrection. The season when God’s own being, God’s own plan, encountered sorrow and loss and heartache. When God in God’s own being, the one we call God’s son, knew defeat personally. And yet also victory. In Jesus God knew ultimate loss, but also conquered. That’s not victory in our usual, fist-pumping sense.

         This unique victory of Christ is what Paul or the author of Ephesians calls “God’s great power.” And Ephesians is definitely talking about victorious power: “God put this power to work in Christ when [God] raised Christ from the dead and seated him at God’s right hand in the heavenly places”—the victor’s seat, we might say. A few sentences later it continues: “God has put all things under Christ’s feet.”

         But here is where we need to be careful. Christ is no ordinary victor. You really wouldn’t want to cap this rousing passage with a big whoop, and a “Jesus is number one!” (And sometimes some praise songs kind of sound like that.) Victory is a dangerous concept, because usually it means there must be a loser. Here is where we need some discerning wisdom to see just what kind of victor Christ is, what kind of power God has put to work in him. This is why Paul prays (and prayer is my topic today) that God “may give you [that’s us] a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him,” so that you may set your hopes on the right thing.

         So God put God’s power to work, when God raised Christ from the dead and seated him in the victor’s seat. Then he continues [counting on fingers]: “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion.” What’s he talking about? These are the “powers that be,” the way the world usually works, what we nowadays call “politics as usual.” (And yes, Paul is talking politics here, but not in anything like the way we usually do, and so please don’t get all worried and worked up about where I’m going with this.) The “powers that be” is politics as usual, where there is a winner and a loser, where someone has to be in charge, where it’s dog eat dog, where domination is the name of the game. In raising Christ from the dead, God did not defeat or conquer the powers that be, all the structures of domination that rule our world. (And let me digress. These powers today keep shifting so that they look like exactly the opposite of domination, even though they are still playing that game. That’s why you can have populism that suddenly takes a fascist turn, or why advocates for liberalism and free speech who sound like they want to hear from everybody in fact suppress others with their elitist attitudes. The world of domination is messy and complicated and always dissembling, that is, always trying to appear different from what it is. It is rife with hypocrisy, and we know how Jesus felt about hypocrites.)

         You see, we’ve learned that domination should never call itself domination. So instead of saying, “I want you to shut up and do what I say,” we say, “I’m just expressing myself, you’re entitled to your opinion.” Or, “I’m just doing what’s in your best interest.” But it’s all still one big, messy game of power. (And by the way, that mess also happens in marriages, and between parents and children, and in pious church meetings too; it’s a big reason we get so irritated with one another, because we’re actually trying to exercise power over each other while pretending we really just love each other). (You know, once you realize that in Christ God defeated all our nonsense, it becomes kind of amusing.) No matter how you slice it, the world is not completely about, but very much about power and victory, the power that wins and defeats.

         But God didn’t take all that, that whole mess of power trying to pretend to be something it’s not, and defeat it. Smack it down. Shellack it, slay it, spank it. Christ didn’t defeat power on our terms, however amusing they are. Instead, “God raised Christ…far above all rule, and authority and power and dominion.” Far above. God showed Christ to be not the best, not number one, top of the heap, but of a different order altogether. And there’s a lot we more we could say about what makes Christ different, but very simply: the power of love has nothing to do with winning and losing, with victory in any normal sense.

         And this is the revelation, for those who receive God’s wisdom. This is the revelation of our victory for the church. God in Christ has risen above power, making Christ head of all things,  So that we can be a different kind of power. A different order. Not politics as usual, but politics of a different order. The Ephesians passage concludes: “God has made Christ the head over all things, as Ephesians says, “for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” The unique victory of Jesus, a victory without defeat, is exactly what we are to be as a church, or more precisely in the words of Ephesians, it is “the hope to which God has called you.”

         To be a victory people far above all win-lose power changes everything about us. But let’s come back to prayer. It changes how we pray in light of Easter, especially when we do not all feel victorious right now. When so many of us are hurting, sad, grieving, feeling defeated but not even by anything in particular, or just by life in its cycle with death. Let us note that this whole passage has been about how we pray. Paul early on said: “I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ…may give you a spirit of wisdom” to understand all this and the power that is in that wisdom. Because prayer should connect us with power. Not “rule and authority and power and dominion,” the false power of the world, but real power that gets us through.

         Prayer is how we unite ourselves with Christ and rise above all that. We rise above everything that is supposed to spell our defeat and to make us confess the futility of life. We rise above it as individuals praying, and as the church praying together as the body of Christ. For as his resurrected, raised, lifted up body, we touch upon a victory that is eternal and not “number one,” but all in all.

3rd in Easter (4/18): “Praying for Miracles and More”

The seven weeks of Easter begin with astonishment and confused praise. Then we can turn to thinking about what the risen Christ means for who we are and for our world. In this way, Easter is a time of centering ourselves in Christ, before we more actively move out into our world and focus on the Spirit moving in our own time.

As part of centering ourselves in Christ, this is the first of two sermons on prayer.

Acts 3:12-20a ; Psalm 4

         Maybe it’s just me, but somewhere along the line I got this idea in my head that I’m not very good at praying. Because I had this idea that people who are good at praying—including some people described as “prayer warriors”—are constantly asking God for things. They bring a long list of petitions and have total confidence that God will respond. And the people like that I have known most all show many other fine gifts of faithfulness: they are God-centered, humble, loving, joyous. I do think I should be more like them in these ways.

         But recently I was reading about the three types of prayer according to the Christian mystical tradition. They are: vocal prayer, which can include personal petitions but also many other things; meditation; and contemplation. Now, not to boast, because I think my prayer life could be much richer, but meditation and contemplation I do a lot of! So I’m probably overly intellectual about it, but I spend much of every day meditating on and contemplating God and Christ, and on myself in light of God and Christ. (I mean, of course I do, it’s what I’m trained in, it’s my profession.) And it turns out, that’s prayer too, even though I’m not asking for things.

         Then I considered the Lord’s Prayer, which is definitive for us as Christians. And it doesn’t fit many of our assumptions about prayer. First of all, it’s not said in the first person. It’s not “My Father,” it’s “Our father.” I have this idea that real prayer is something done privately and personally, and Jesus talks about that in Matthew’s gospel. But praying together in community means a lot to me, and apparently it was important to Jesus too. No surprise: In Judaism, proper prayer is done in a minyan, a group of faithful. Where did I get this idea that a prayer warrior (who, again, are impressive and admirable) prays as a solo act, with that direct pipeline to God—that’s the real deal. Secondly, the Lord’s prayer is a kingdom prayer. A former teacher of mine wrote, “all of our petitionary prayers should be prayers for God’s kingdom to come.” That means I shouldn’t pray just for my personal needs or those I care about. Our scope of prayer should extend to the whole cosmos. Well, there is one purely petitionary prayer for something in the Lord’s prayer: “Give us (us) this day our daily bread.” A prayer for just the simplest gift of sustenance. That’s certainly a far cry from the name it/claim it school of prayer.

         That kind of asking God for wealth and prosperity is what our Psalm 4 is talking about when it refers to some scoffers: “There are many who say, “O that we may see some good!” Sounds innocent enough, but then the psalmist responds: “You [O God] have put gladness in my heart; more than when their grain and wine abound!” You see, the scoffers were praying for wealth. But the psalmist, like Jesus’ own prayer, is content with simple gladness of heart.

Indeed, when I look at the Psalms, which are beautiful examples of prayerful encounter with God, I see a lot more going on than petition. First of all, the Psalms are often not nearly as polite and deferential in praying as I was taught to be. Psalm 4 launches with this: “Answer me when I call, O God of my right!” A friend of mine who taught Old Testament liked to talk about the chutzpah (or audacity) of the Psalms. They are not afraid to provoke God. Maybe we should try it sometime.

         But in this prayerful psalm, God is allowed to have chutzpah right back at the one praying—David, presumably, praying on behalf of the whole people. It is God’s voice that answers, “How long, you people, shall my honor suffer shame? How long will you love vain words, and seek after lies?” We should have this kind of back and forth with God in our prayer. When we ask God for things, we should also be able to hear God questioning us. We should provoke God, but also let God provoke us. Do we ever hear God, riffing on this psalm, saying, “Yeah, I hear you. I’ve set apart the faithful for myself. I hear you when you call. But did you stop to think how your words might sound to me? The vanity, even the lies? Maybe that’s at the very root of these problems you are asking me to fix.”

         Beyond petitioning, prayer should be our opportunity to be completely honest before God; it’s when we let God see right through us. That takes trust and faith in God’s grace, so that we don’t try to hide in shame in prayer, but freely open ourselves for God’s all-seeing penetrating eyes to look upon us./

         Some people might write off petitions to God as superstitious or magical. I don’t think so. The African American church where I was ordained offered heart-felt prayers of petition to God, inevitably adding somewhere, “Lord, we know that our needs are known to you before we ever ask.” We know that petitionary prayer is not literally informing God of our wish list. It’s a very subtle thing we are doing, that involves raising our needs and desires into God’s perspective on things, which itself changes how we see those needs and desires. So let’s not dismiss petitionary prayer as a selfish attempt to manipulate God; petition can do much to give us higher wisdom, and peace, and to be reconciled to our unfulfilled longings—much as Jesus’s prayer “if it is your will, remove this cup of suffering” did for him.        

Nor should we dismiss petitionary prayer as a failure to accept the dictates of science and natural law. As much as I respect science (and I told you, I believe Christian faith is fully compatible with natural science), I’m not at all committed to saying: “Everything has to have a scientific explanation.” I have personal experience here—just a little, just enough. When I first really turned to God at age 16—I was still quite ignorant, by the way. But I’ve probably never been more open to God—and those teen years are really a critical period for coming to faith. One evening I turned to God with great awareness of my unworthiness and in genuine humility, like I have too rarely felt—I did what Peter in our Acts reading is telling his fellow Israelites to do, truly repent, and when I did I felt the “times of refreshing” he mentions. Still, I was tearful, and said to God and to myself, it would be nice to have a little company now. I didn’t exactly pray for it. But I thought about my friends, and about the particular friend whom I would most like to see. And within a few minutes, he showed up. Later I told him about this, because he was a person of faith, and he said, I was just driving around and thought I’d stop in. (So, not like God commanded him, You must go see my servant Bill.) And by the way, it was a nice visit, not particularly amazing or revelatory.

         Interesting, huh? Now, is that the kind of thing I should be praying for? For little signs that God is looking out for me? That God will step in and give me little treats from time to time? Is that what it really means to have faith? I don’t think so at all. First of all, that’s the closest I’ve ever come to a miracle. The only time in 35 years. If that rather unimpressive miracle was what faith was all about for me, I’d have very little to show for it. What we receive from God first of all is not little signs of favor, but truth, the truth that we can all share. Second of all, I’m not sure I want a God who intervenes only when you ask sincerely. If God could intervene in every situation of suffering or need but only did when asked nicely, then how is God not morally culpable for so much suffering? And how many people, including Jesus himself and Paul, have prayed to God to take this cup of suffering from me, or remove this “thorn in the flesh,” and God has not? Paul is ok with that: “My grace is sufficient for you,” he hears God say.

         On the other hand, there are a lot of strange things that happen in our world that don’t conform to our current scientific understanding. And often prayer has nothing to do with it. Cancer has from time to time disappeared, leaving doctors awkwardly perplexed. My mother in law has had premonitions of the future, beyond the déjà vu that I have experienced. But her premonitions were mostly trivial. Once when Jessica was young, she and her mother were on a team playing Pictionary, and her mother got the clue and drew two little lines, and Jessica instantly knew it was a giraffe. So she said giraffe. And O did her dad and brother cry foul! Weird, huh? Jesus had nothing to do with that. It may be that our minds, our spirits can connect, either randomly or when the time is right, in ways that we can’t yet explain scientifically. Maybe that’s what happened that night when I longed for my friend to come and he did. And I’d like to think that my spirit’s openness to God at that moment had something to do with that mysterious connection to my friend. And so maybe if we pray for something with spirits turned completely to God, we can unleash powers of connection or healing that we cannot yet explain. Science is getting weirder and weirder, by the way, if you’ve studied quantum mechanics and such. Maybe these powers of connection and healing will eventually be borne out scientifically, rather than miracles strictly speaking. Jesus, after all, almost always says when he heals someone, “Your faith has made you well.” Our spirits, created in the image of God, have powers we do not yet understand. One thing we do know, with lots of scientific backing, is that feeling supported by a caring community makes a huge difference in our health and wellness. So for many sound reasons we should ask for prayers and pray for one another.

         But when you consider Scripture, you hardly arrive at the idea that petitionary prayers, and more specifically, praying for miracles, are the pinnacle and very point of faith. There are miracles in Scriptures, like the way Peter and John healed a man unable to walk; this is recounted just before our reading in Acts begins. But like the gospels, Acts directs the audience away from the miracle itself and to the story of Jesus and its meaning. “You Israelites, why do you wonder at this” miracle, Peter says. Jesus also was a worker of wonders, no question. And there were other wonder workers in the ancient world. But only Jesus brings us the story of the cross and the resurrection, and that’s exactly where Peter goes in his speech, too.  

         And so miracles and prayers all come back to this story and what it means for us: first of all, that now we can be honest with ourselves. We can face what we have done. This is what Peter begins with. Look, my brothers, my friends. You did this. You sold out God’s chosen. You handed him over to die, you and your leaders. (And look, friends, we also have done some bad stuff too, individually and through complicity with world around us.) Peter adds, none of this shocks God. God foretold through the prophets that God’s messiah would suffer. God knew that we would fail, even we who were called to be God’s own people. You’d think being God’s chosen people would inspire us to perfection. Guess what, it doesn’t. I know this for myself. But God is not surprised that even the presence in our midst of one who can speak for God with perfect faithfulness does not keep us from our sin. We still fail.

Now, sometimes the Bible says we sin because of our pride, or our faithlessness, or our hard and stubborn hearts. Here Peter says it’s because of our ignorance, which is certainly true too. Even we who are an Easter people, a resurrection people, remain ignorant. We don’t completely get it. The truth of this amazing story doesn’t entirely take hold. We still continue living like people who sometimes don’t, like the Psalmist, have “gladness in our hearts.” Who don’t have his confidence that we will lie down in peace. Who don’t have that ultimate sense of safety, security, and purpose. And a lot of that is ignorance, and not even willful ignorance: we just aren’t so sure about this faith we inhabit. Is it real? What does it mean? Does it really make us any different from those who have no faith? Does it really give us a truth that is any better than plain old common sense? Well, I know it does. But I confess I don’t always live like it does.

We should always lift our petitions to God in prayer. But we should do much more than that. And Easter is the season to remember that in raising Christ God has already fulfilled our deepest and most universal needs and longings. In some way that is mysterious but undeniable, the Kingdom has already come. And so let our Easter prayers begin with thanks and praise. Let us begin where we usually end: with an Amen to what God has already done.

2nd in Easter (4/11): “Believing and Worshipping”

Acts 4:32-35 ; John 20:19-31

My message on Easter Sunday was that “nothing really matters” and that’s good news; because God has already completed God’s purposes in Jesus the Christ, and there’s nothing more that we absolutely must do. We can just witness and testify in pure joy.

Now, that Easter message presumes a lot of faith—faith that I went years without holding very firmly. Only in my recent decades have I come to see clearly that something final and unsurpassable happened on that Easter morning. I count myself blessed in that faith. There are so many good reasons to harbor doubts, or at least to feel some reservations, about the resurrection; and I wonder how much those doubts, even when they are out of mind, hold us back from living into our Christian life. Someday I’ll be able to offer adult classes where we can talk about those doubts at length. But I said last week that I’d talk about doubts this week, even if briefly.

 Well, by the blessing of Providence, our gospel reading for this week is about doubting Thomas! Thomas’ problem is not that he is exceptionally skeptical; he just wants the same physical proof that Jesus is risen that all the other disciples benefitted from. And when he receives it, he believes most profoundly: “My Lord and my God!”

         This disciple’s need for physical proof speaks to us. When people today think of doubting the resurrection, their doubts often center on the physics of it: what happened to the body of Jesus? The easy answer has always been: a miracle. Jesus was brought back to life by God or the Spirit of God; then he came to visit his disciples before being literally lifted up to heaven. Fortunately, a very competent scholar has made the best possible case for that miracle based on all available evidence. Tom Wright (no relation) is an evangelical-minded professor at Oxford. He makes the case for what is essentially Jesus’ reanimation—Jesus’ body was brought back to life by a miracle. Well, whether you find his argument convincing or not, one way or another you have to account for a dramatic turnaround: Jesus was a complete, unexpected failure; nonetheless, very soon his disciples were risking everything on the conviction that he was alive and risen as the messiah and God’s Son. Something more than a con game happened.

         But the accounts of Jesus’ resurrection appearances are stranger than Tom Wright can account for. “The doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked,” we are told. Then Jesus came and stood among them. Jesus walks through doors, apparently. So is this the same physical body he had before?

         For these and other reasons, Michael Welker (one of my favorite theologians) disputes Tom Wright’s picture of a reanimated body. Now, Welker very much believes in the resurrection. But the biblical texts don’t support Wright’s picture of a body brought back to life. They support something more like a collective spiritual experience. The disciples really encountered Jesus alive, but spiritually—no longer in the flesh. Let’s be careful, here. Welker is not saying the disciples merely had a private hallucination. It was an objectively real vision, not because it was physical, but because it was a socially shared experience full of meaning and power. So it is an important part of the story that the disciples are together when Jesus appears.

         Anyway, the biblical accounts taken as a whole direct us away from the physics of the resurrection, (despite Thomas sticking his finger in wounds) and toward the spiritual significance of it. So let’s set aside, for now, the doubts about the physics of the resurrection. (One day we’ll talk more about that.)

But I think our doubts go beyond just the physics. I think many of our remaining doubts probably have to do with the way the resurrection confirms a kind of divine status on Jesus. When Thomas does get to see for himself, he confesses: “My Lord and my God!” The disciples came to have faith in the risen Christ the same way they had faith in God. And what is critical here is that they worship Jesus as God, or along with God. In Matthew, we are told directly that the disciples “worshipped” the risen Christ. That just sounds funny to many of us, doesn’t it? And even there, we are told, “But some doubted.” Which kills me. Come on, you can’t possibly doubt he is risen. He’s right there in front of you! But they might doubt what this resurrection meant to the first Christians: that God forever exists in this one. God and Jesus are one. Perhaps they doubted the Trinity that is implied by the resurrection, which we might very well have our doubts about too. Ah! those I can put off until Trinity Sunday, which is right after Pentecost.

         But I’m not convinced all our doubts about the resurrection can be shunted off to later discussions of the physics of it all, or of the Trinity. Maybe a little doubt remains because we’re not really sure why we worship God, period. One very nice comment I received last week took my message that “nothing really matters” because of what God did in Christ to mean: what matters is the doing, not the results. We could say that the intention or effort matters, not the outcome, which we can never control. And that’s very helpful and true. But what I was saying went beyond that. For Easter itself, our doing doesn’t matter. There’s nothing for us to do in response to Christ’s resurrection, but receive it with joy and even awe, maybe terror, like the two Marys did. We are passive on Easter. At most, we respond by acknowledgement and praise. Really, we’re talking about worship here. Easter is for worship, not doing.

         Why do we do this passive thing called worship? Easter makes us ask that question. I think we get Lent no problem, because in Lent we are trying to become better persons. The first message of Easter is: your becoming a better person is nice, but it doesn’t really matter. (Which is good, because I usually don’t get very far in Lent.) When the disciples meet the risen Christ, they don’t exclaim: “That does it. Now I’m really going to try even harder!” Instead, it says they believed in him; they worshipped him; they exclaimed, “My Lord and my God!”

Does this faith and worship have any meaning in itself? Does God need or desire us to worship God, we might wonder? Isn’t that kind of vain of God, do want to be worshipped? I mean, who does God think he is? (That’s supposed to be funny.) Why then do we worship—whether it’s the risen Jesus or God? Do we worship just to make ourselves feel better? Or just to motivate ourselves for doing good things?

This is a really important question for mainline Christians, like us. We understand the importance of doing good. But we might not be able to explain why it really matters that we worship. (Except worship means that nothing really matters, remember.)

There are many reasons to worship God. Worship does make us better persons. It helps us put life in perspective. It reminds us to live out of gratitude. It restores our soul. It reminds us of the ultimacy of love. It binds us together in a divine bond. And more. But I worship God ultimately because God is more real than I am. I worship God because God matters more than I do. And if Christ is risen and one with God, then what God did in Jesus Christ really matters and is more real than I am.

But that’s what can be hard for us. To really get worship, we have to confess that my reality is not ultimate. All the things I obsess about and stress about and which seem to matter, and which my peers and my boss and my culture tell me really matter, don’t matter, not the way God matters. It can also be frightening to admit that I and my sphere of influence and my moment in history are not ultimately important—we just think we are. The disciples doubted, or were terrified, when they encountered the risen Christ. No wonder. To be confronted with the reality of God can make us feel small and vulnerable.

But if we can let go of our frightened grasp on what I think matters and live into the objective, divine reality of the risen Christ, like Thomas did, Easter can be so very liberating! Take the classic case of someone who has spent all his life in vain pursuits, on self-seeking, and has known nothing of life but a game where everyone uses everyone else. And then as he lies on his deathbed, he realizes that it has all been a lie. And as he lets go of everything he has been mired in his whole life, perhaps remembering the Sunday school message of Jesus that he long ago abandoned, he catches a glimpse of the beautiful grace and truth of God. What if this happened only moments before his death, and he wasn’t able to do anything about it, but briefly confess in a moment of worship: Yes, Amen, God was true. God is real. Would that moment mean anything? Tolstoy created a beautiful moment like this in his short story, The Death of Ivan Ilych. It’s a great read. To believe that worship really matters is to believe that even a brief moment of realization like this is of eternal value.

When Thomas can really accept the objective reality of the risen Christ (let’s just say, symbolized by the gross act of putting his finger in the wounds and his hand in the side), Thomas is liberated to declare, “My Lord and my God!” Why is genuine worship so liberating? I think we have to remember how much we despair because we fail to live up to the enormous expectations that come from thinking this life of mine, this current moment of history, really matters—everything is riding on this! But worship reminds us, no, not everything is riding on this. Everything is riding on God alone, and God’s revelation; and the very center and eternal presence of that revelation is God’s act of raising Christ from the dead. Not the physics of it—the meaning of it: that God alone is really real, and God brought our reality to completion once and for all in Jesus the Christ.

I want you to have your doubts, your unbelieving, and your confusion, as I have had mine. The story about Thomas assures us that it is perfectly ok to doubt. Jesus doesn’t say: “Shame on you, Thomas!” But Jesus adds: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet come to believe,” those who do not need the physics of the resurrection to realize that God’s reality is objectively complete in Christ, quite apart from us. God is more real than we are. We have to have our doubts about all that so we also might have that great aha! moment of Thomas, and exclaim My Lord and My God! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

But that’s not the end of the story. And as absolutely central as Easter is to our life as a church, it is not the end of the liturgical year. Once we let go of our obsession with my reality, and turn over any real claim to reality to God and to Christ, we become ready to really participate in God’s reality. Because our faith should be so much more than a deathbed realization; don’t wait until then! And that participation in the reality of God in Christ is the gift of the Spirit.

I hope you’ll come to appreciate, as I have, the inestimable wisdom of the liturgical year. There is no one truth or formula to the Christian faith. Instead, there are the many different enunciations of truth in Scripture, and there are the different seasons of the liturgical year that reflect those truths. Easter lets me say something surprising and even off-putting that only fits now, like “Nothing really matters.” We have to take that truth seriously, and let it ring in our ears, just like we take spring seriously and enjoy its seasonal truth, rather than rushing into summer. But the seven weeks of Easter will prepare us to move on to the next truth: the Ascension of Christ and the coming of the Spirit, by which our lives really do matter in God. Stay tuned. Amen.

Easter Sunday (April 4): “Nothing Really Matters”

It was a lovely Easter, thanks to so much hard work by folks behind the scenes. I’m taking the day off! So this is my only church-related task for the day.

Genesis 1:1-13 ; Acts 10:34-43

I know what you are thinking, especially now that you have the bulletin in your hands again and may have already glanced at my sermon title: “’Nothing really matters?’” Who is this flunky we hired? Worst Easter sermon title ever.” Well, that would be some accomplishment, after 2000 years of sermons on Easter. But you’ll see. Easter is the surprise that erupted, with much confusion, from what appeared to be the worst defeat ever, even the very death of God. But suddenly the disciples realized that this cross was the greatest victory ever.

So let’s take the phrase, “Nothing really matters” to be the ultimate expression of resignation, defeat, depression. It may call to mind, as it does to me, Queen’s swaggering, progressive rock tour de force, Bohemian Rhapsody, which ends with a plaintive, self-pitying sigh: “Nothing really matters, to me.” I’m not going to talk about what that song was supposed to mean, with its nihilistic strains of murder and suicide. (And I still hear you: “O, thanks a lot, pastor.”) I’m not interested in what that song means, but I do respect its subject matter. You see, Easter is about life and death, nothing less. It’s not just eggs and bunnies and spring. So what if that listless motto of defeated thinking—“nothing really matters”— were to be turned around to become a total affirmation of life that has been set free in joyous rapture? Would you believe it?

         Let’s start with what Easter is all about. It’s about God having the last word. God’s decision stands alone. God’s judgment is final and eternal. And God decided quite unequivocally that Jesus the Christ was in the right. It’s that simple. “They put him to death by hanging him on a tree.” Human authorities, both religious and political, used every perversion of justice to silence this true voice of God forever. “But God raised him on the third day….” That’s God’s way of saying to those human authorities, “All of your power, your bluster (much like politicians today, as this past year has reminded us); and the way you self-righteously wield the power of death (like Myanmar’s military Junta today, or so many lone gunmen who have appointed themselves one-man judges and executioners): none of that really matters. None of your murderous self-assertion amounts to a hill of beans or a hill of Calvary. This is my world, thus says the Lord. And what I say, goes–ultimately. And I say, this one you condemned to death was righteous, was my own. And by the way, I am appointing him “as judge of the living and the dead,” just like Peter said. You will be measured and judged by his perfection and righteousness, because now we know it is possible. But it’s ok. You will also receive forgiveness of sins in his name, as Peter said.”

         So you see, all the stuff that threatens us, that makes us anxious, that oppresses us, including our own guilt; everything that even threatens our life—none of it really matters. Because God has accomplished everything that matters already, in Christ Jesus.

         There’s a wonderful op-ed piece about Easter in the New York Times this weekend by Esau McCauley. Drawing on his black church roots, He says so rightly, “Christians, at their best, are the fools who dare believe in God’s power to call dead things to life.” I couldn’t resist reading the comments. There were of course many who said, “Oh, that sounds nice, if you believe in fairy tales,” and so on. And I respect that sentiment too. There are serious questions about what happened that Easter morning. Maybe I’ll talk about that next week; so if you have questions, try to tune in then.

         But for this day, this eternal day of Easter, none of our doubts really matter. God has accomplished what God intended, whether or not you or anyone believes it. Of course it’s incredible. The biblical stories about Easter Sunday are mostly about astonishment and confusion and even the fear of the women when they find the tomb empty. It’s not a day for serene, pedantic explanation. So I’m going to avoid that, not for your sake—I do want to be helpful—but for my sake.

You see, I all too easily think that my ability to explain our faith and to make it intelligible and meaningful really matters. Now, I’ve long worked very hard thinking about the questions arising from the empty tomb and such things. And I’ve accomplished something, at least to my own mind. I’ve come to see that faith and science really are perfectly compatible. But that has not come easily. I have had to go very deep into science, remembering that science is a work in progress; and I’ve had to rethink how we popularly understand God, or more like it, how we don’t understand God. And hundreds of books-read later, and after many scrawled pages of occasional insights, and lots of blind alleys, here I am with what might be something helpful. But how do you open up people’s minds on the topic of faith and science, when almost everyone has decided one way or the other—either you “just have to have faith” or “science has no place for religious dogmas”—so say the familiar two sides. Woe is me, how do I get people to start thinking again about something that they long ago concluded was hopeless?

That’s what I am dealing with. What about you? What are you beating your head against wall about these days? Maybe this: “How are we going to get people back to church after covid? How are we going to survive as a church in a post-Christian world? How are we going to pass this faith along to our children in a way that sticks? In a way that gives our children hope and life and purpose that no failure can take away? How do I help my kids just keep hanging on until life is back to normal? Geez, what about myself—how do I keep hanging on? Amid so much grief and loss. There is a lot there that matters. It makes my personal worries seem kind of small.

When I think about how I deal with my personal worries, and I read our scriptures for today, it just shows how completely unlike the original apostles I am. Peter and Paul and the others encountered no end of troubles—that is, until they met a similar fate as Jesus. And they could express great anxiety and distress. Look at Paul in 2nd Corinthians chapter 11. But you never hear desperation in their voice. The true apostles never say: if I don’t get this finished, if I don’t complete my labor—all is lost! If this struggle I’m in doesn’t come out the way I want, all hope is gone! If this election doesn’t go my way, everything I hoped for is dashed! I hear myself talking like that fairly often. I never hear Peter or Paul sounding like that.

Why? Why aren’t they driven to desperation, as we so easily are? I think because they really got Easter. They knew that God has already accomplished everything that matters through Christ Jesus: “God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear.” Peter repeats twice: “We are witnesses.” A witness has no great task to accomplish. Nothing really matters in the witness’ task. The deed has been done. Now, Peter does have a task: “He [the risen Christ] commanded us to preach to the people and testify.” But I guarantee you that Jesus didn’t say to Peter and the rest: if you don’t succeed, all is lost! If you don’t get out there and save all those souls, it’s all been for nothing!” (I double guarantee you Jesus didn’t say that.)

Peter and the others were given a role to play, a task to do, and so are we. And what we do here is very important; even more, it’s deadly serious. The life we live as Christians and as a church is, again, about life and death. But then again, so was the cross, and much more so. As true as that all is, we must not give death and the fear of death any undue credit or power. Peter gives the death of Jesus one sentence: “They put him to death by hanging him on a tree.” Our grief, our frustrations, our anxieties are very real, like the cross. But this day, Easter Sunday, is our day to recognize that our grief, frustration, and anxiety are but one sentence in the grand scope of what God has already done.

So we must never make the mistake of thinking what we do here or anywhere is absolutely necessary for anything. Not because it’s not important. But because that takes the joy right out of it, the joy that you hear in Peter’s proclamation. No. Nothing really matters, because God has done it all in Jesus. God didn’t even have to give us our little tasks to accomplish, our witness and testimony. Jesus didn’t have to stick around to give us our tasks. He could have ascended immediately, never to be seen again. Or it all could have ended the way Mark puts it, as we read at the sunrise service: the women see an angel who tells them Jesus will meet them in Galilee, but, we are told, “terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone for they were afraid.” You see, there could have been no witness at all. And it wouldn’t really matter. Jesus had fulfilled the promise of all creation with complete faithfulness and righteousness, and God was satisfied.

But here comes the Easter bonus: God gives us a chance to see him appear, and to realize in our own little way that God’s judgment alone is what matters, not the bombastic fury of the world’s powers. As Peter says, “God raised him on the third day and [not only that] allowed him to appear.” When he appears, it’s not like Jesus forgot to finish something. “Oh, Peter, I’m so sorry; I forgot to save the gentiles. You gotta get out there and…” Sounds like me this morning at 6:05: “Rick, I forgot the candles—you gotta get out back and…” No. Jesus gave the final word: “It is finished.”  And so Jesus appears to Mary in the garden and tells her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father.” He’s not back for good, to finish his work; and he’s not back to be installed as our permanent king and leader. He’s just appearing to make sure we know that his God is our God also, that we also can aspire to be God’s very presence of grace and truth on earth. But it doesn’t really matter if we don’t, or if we fail.

         This real Easter joy, that nothing really matters, that God has done it all already, and whatever we do is just icing on the cake, just glory upon glory—that’s hard for us, unfortunately. We are so used to saying, “I’ve got to make a difference.” I’ve got to do something unique, that no one else can do. I’ve got to make my mark. I’ve got contribute something. I bet our kids have heard that a lot: “How are you going to make a difference in the world?”

Don’t get me wrong, it’s wonderful to make a difference, to make the most of your ‘God-given potential’ and all that. But it can really put a lot of pressure on us. It can take the spontaneous joy out of life, everything that makes spring so wonderful to behold. Frankly, a lot of that talk about “making a difference” might just be our system trying to wring everything it can out of us, no matter how joyless is the juice rendered. And it keeps us turned in to worry about me, and mine, and what I can do, and the worth of my contribution./ Now it really does matter that, we the church, are here to challenge this obsession with me making a difference. It really does matter that nothing really matters—I think. At least, we need to keep all that obsession with my contribution leavened with selfless joy. Praise God that we have been chosen, and commanded to gather like this, to bear witness to the fact that all the compulsions, all the stress, all the relentless drive—all the grief, anxiety, desperation—and every threat of a cross that is supposed to make us cower; all this that so oppresses the world—none of it really matters. And if you still need to know why, you heard it in our Paschal Greeting: Because “Christ is Risen!” (He is risen indeed! Alleluia!)

How do you “celebrate” Holy Saturday?

I welcome your thoughts below; post a comment about what you have found meaningful about Holy Saturday.

The whole structure of Holy Week is intense: the triumph of the palms, the utter defeat of the cross, and back to triumph on Easter Sunday. In the midst of it all is Saturday. There is no liturgy for the day, traditionally. This year Christian Ed is hosting “Night of Lights” with luminaries. But I take that to be an Easter Eve service. There’s a long tradition of holding an Easter Vigil service on Easter Eve, because in biblical time-keeping, the day begins at sundown the day before.

Anyway, here’s my take on Holy Saturday. It is a day to live pretty much in an ordinary way. Like the disciples, we have cheered. And then we took part in the ominous Last Supper on Thursday. We have grieved on Friday. I imagine Saturday they were consumed with grief, but if they did anything, it was to face the sad prospect of returning to life “as normal”–going back to Galilee, picking up the old fishing trade again. They spent the day, I suppose, trying to imagine what life would now be like, when all the hopes that Jesus awakened are gone.

We are not subject to their despondency, because we live with the promise of the resurrection. But we can still take Saturday to be a quiet day, an ordinary day–a day to imagine life without God, without Christ, without the church. A pale, secular day.

I don’t mean this to be a total downer. Because part of the mystery of Easter is that God doesn’t need us to do God’s work. God did it alone, in Jesus. So we do not have to give our whole life to God, as Jesus alone did. Our life will include the secular, the ordinary. A good part of it will be consumed with work, relaxing, and entertainment with family and friends. God embraces all of that too, freeing us for it by the cross. We don’t have to wallow in Holy Saturday; we can enjoy it–but for what it is. Then we can come to church on Sunday and praise God that God has opened up so much more to life for us. Peace!

Good Friday in the Sanctuary

Silas and I are here this afternoon, from noon til three–the traditional times when Jesus was crucified and then died. You can see for yourself:

The palms remind us of our furtive following of Jesus, but not all the way to the cross. The purple cloth symbolizes the one the soldiers dressed Jesus with to mock him, and then removed. The candle at the cross represents Jesus, and the two other candles, those he was crucified with. Everything else is taken away, for on Good Friday we mediate only one Jesus on the cross–not on those of us who still follow him today. Would our church even be possible, if it weren’t for the resurrection?

I read Silas the account from Mark of the crucifixion, and then this prayer (from an old Good Friday service):

Almighty God, we ask you to look with mercy on your family for whom our Savior Jesus Christ was willing to be betrayed, to be given over to the hands of sinners, and to suffer death on the cross; who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

At three o’clock, I’ll extinguish the candles. Don’t worry! We’ll be redecorating before Sunday morning.

After a busy week, to say the least, it is good to have some quiet time to sit here alone. I’m still living into this new ministry you have chosen me for. I’m still working on feeling at home here. This time will help. Thanks for your prayers.

And thanks to Bryan for moving the pulpit, and for Rick and all the deacons who are doing so much work this week. Pray for them too.