Monday, April 24, 2006

Easter 2 - Year B

“Jesus of Nazareth died on a Roman cross, and then, most probably, his rotting corpse was thrown in a refuse heap to be devoured by dogs, jackals, and carrion birds. Like most other victims of crucifixion, he was not accorded the dignity of a decent burial. It is unlikely that Jesus’ disciples, who had abandoned him, knew anything about his fate until several days or weeks or even months later. Certainly, they were not on hand to witness his final hours. They created the stories of Jesus’ suffering and death to fit their own narrow interpretation of certain texts from the Hebrew Scriptures. As for the empty tomb and the appearances of the Risen Jesus, these are myths invented by the early Christian community. They intended to convey the community’s conviction that the things Jesus’ stood for die not die with him but lived on in the people who bore his name. In other words, Jesus did not rise from the dead but his teachings survive in the hearts and minds of his followers.

“If you don’t like the sound of that, how about this? Jesus didn’t really die on the cross. Joseph of Arimathea bribed the Romans to take him down before he expired and then carried him away to recover from the ordeal in secret. His post-crucifixion appearances to friends and disciples are thus “explainable.” Or perhaps it was someone who merely looked like Jesus who was crucified while the wily Galilean slipped away to live in comfortable domesticity with Mary Magdalene or some other agreeable companion. Why stop there? Maybe the man named Jesus never existed. It could be that he is merely a particular manifestation of a universal religious symbol. The stories about him contain “sublime spiritual truths” (Tom Harpur) accessible to everyone but have no basis in anything that really happened.

“I’m guessing you probably heard or read about some of these theories during the last few weeks. The Jesus Papers. The Gospel of Judas. The Pagan Christ. Books like these, and news stories about them, seem to emerge with the lilies every Easter. Sometimes they come from folks who are hostile to the faith and are trying to expose Christianity for the fraud they think it is. More often, however, they are presented by people who want to save Christianity from the Church and from itself. Convinced that no enlightened, educated person in our day and age could possibly believe what the New Testament says about Jesus and what the church traditionally taught about him, especially about the resurrection, they hope to make it all plausible and therefore more marketable. People can swallow it easier, they think, if we drain all the hocus-pocus from the Jesus stories. (adapted from a sermon by John Moses, Somehow He Got Up)

These folks simply don’t believe it could happen. And if you think about it, the resurrection story is pretty crazy. The women at the tomb, we heard last week, ran away from the news that Jesus had risen, because “terror and amazement had seized them.”

Today we hear about Thomas. Tradition calls him “doubting Thomas.” I don’t think he doubted in the way we often think about doubt; this was no existential crisis Thomas was experiencing. This wasn’t an intellectual puzzle, nor was it some philosophical conundrum that haunted his psyche. His doubt was more ground level. He was being realistic. Probably still grieving, traumatized by his friend’s death, and terrified that he might be next, Thomas was incredulous when folks tried to tell him that Jesus was alive. How could they talk about the dead that way? Why smudge an already difficult time with fairy tales about empty tombs and angels in white? Jesus was dead. And there was every indication of him staying dead.

“Unless I put my hand in his wounds of his side and fingers in the holes in his hands, I will not believe you.”

He needed proof that he could put his hands on.

I know that in my life, faith is in an on-going smack-down, drag ‘em out, cage match with doubt. Living under the same roof with those two is more pain than pleasure. One always fights for dominance. Faith is hard. Certainty is easier. But Jesus asks that we take the narrow road of faith rather than the six-lane highway of certitude.

I had a funeral this past week for a man who didn’t say very much. He wasn’t a churchgoer. One could hardly say that faith was a part of his life. I visited with him a few times because he had cancer and had very little time left. And he knew it.

When I asked him to pray, he looked away from me and said, “Yes,” and his eyes clenched, making sure each word given its proper due. When I offered him the sacrament of Holy Communion, his words were hesitant but his eyes were hungry.

He knew he was going to die. He didn’t know what was going to happen to him in death. For all he knew, and as much as any one else knows, when he closed his eyes for the last time and his heart stopped beating, he would never open them again.

And yet - he prayed. And he meant every word. He received Holy Communion with a quiet expectation that God was somehow involved in the eating and drinking. Was his an act of faith or an act of fear? When you’re staring death in the face you’ll try anything – even prayer. Maybe it’s not fair to make that distinction. Life is too messy with mixed motivations to draw easy distinctions between faith and fear. Death is too unknown to ask that fear be bled dry from its approaching arrival. Maybe faith and fear are two sides of the same coin. Kissing cousins. Or enemies who can’t live without each other.

The women at the tomb were seized with fear and Thomas doubted because they were being confronted with things they couldn’t possibly understand. Are we any different?

Faith is about trust, not about knowing things for sure. Faith is about being terrified, hopeful, and angry all at once. It’s about living our lives with the hope that God’s promises are true, that Jesus has really risen from the dead, and that, when our day comes, we will join him in his resurrection.

We can try to make the faith palatable so a skeptical world can swallow it. But I don’t think that’s what we are called to. Nor are we called to absolutize Christianity, as if Christianity can exist as disembodied truth, independent of actual living. Un-incarnate.

Jesus’ message of salvation may not be easy to understand. But whoever said it should be? Even those closest to Jesus didn’t get what he was about. Jesus asks that we have faith, to trust. And as most of us know, that’s not as easy as it sounds. There are days when faith and life collide and you’re not sure which one will emerge intact.

When books like The Jesus Papers, The Gospel of Judas, and The Pagan Christ dismiss the essentials of our faith on the grounds that Christianity doesn’t conform to our already established worldview, they forget to leave room for a God who transcends all philosophical categories and ideological systems and who blows open all preconceived notions of who God is and how God acts in the world. They have already rejected the resurrection because they have already decided who God is.

The other side is fundamentalism, where absolutism and certitude leave no room or reason for faith – all questions about God and life and how the two intersect are put in a neatly wrapped box with a bow on top where there should be a cross.

Faith does not mean all our questions are answered. Faith means we will trust in Jesus’ message of salvation in spite of our questions. This doesn’t mean that we stop questioning. It does mean that trust goes beyond the limits of what we can know as fact, that God lives within and among us and helps us to live our questions as well as our faith.

We question and doubt because we are not God. We don’t have all the answers. And that’s okay. That’s not our job. Christianity is not about a set of beliefs to be affirmed. Christianity is a way of living and loving in the world. It’s about being deathly afraid yet still holding out our hands ready to receive Christ in our eating and drinking. It’s about putting our fingers of the world’s wounds and daring to see the risen Jesus present with them.

The world will not find Jesus credible because we sap all the hard stuff from the biblical stories, but will receive Jesus when we bear witness to his resurrected life, with honesty about our doubts and fears, yet still hopeful: Jesus has risen from the dead to bring new and everlasting life to a broken, hurting, and sin-stained world.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Day of Resurrection - Year B

What epitaph do you write on an empty tomb? Do you still write letters of condolence? Do you still bring a casserole? This was unfamiliar territory. People didn’t know what to do. What is proper protocol in these circumstances?

After reading Mark’s gospel, everything seems up in the air. Nothing is resolved. Jesus doesn’t even show up. All the women at the tomb find is a young man dressed in white and they trust that he is telling them the truth. It’s like a whole section has been lopped off. A page has been torn out. The story doesn’t feel like it’s finished.

On Holy Week, not long ago, biblical scholar Reynolds Price sat one evening and read from his translation of Mark’s gospel at a university library. It was a spell-binding story told by a master story-teller. When he got to the final episode, the final chapter, he closed his book, and the crowd sat stunned silence for a long time.

On the way out the door, a graduate student asked his professor, “Did they ever get the point?”


“Jesus’ students, his disciples. Did they ever get the point?”

“No,” the professor responded, “they never get the point. They were as clueless by Easter as they were at Christmas. Welcome to discipleship in Mark.”

Of course, Mark doesn’t tell the story of Jesus’ birth, but the professor’s point is well taken. The disciples, even the ones who stayed with Jesus through the crucifixion couldn’t figure out what was happening when they found the tomb empty. They didn’t know how to finish the story.

“So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” That’s how Mark’s gospel ends.

Terror. Amazement. Fear. The last few days were hard enough – but this? They expected to see a dead body, but even that is denied them. An absolute stranger has told them their friend has been raised from the dead. Why should they believe him? All they have to go on is an empty tomb, and goodness knows there could have been many less-divine explanations for the absence of Jesus’ body.

The way Mark tells it, the two Marys and Salome don’t run back to tell the other disciples that Jesus has risen, probably because they hadn’t seen him with their own eyes. According to Mark, Mary Magdalene didn’t mistake Jesus for the gardener. Jesus didn’t ask her why she was crying.

Which is Mark’s point. We are those women coming to the tomb who have no experience of meeting the risen Jesus in the flesh. We hear the witness of strangers: he is not here. He has been raised. Do we trust that witness? Do we believe the stories? Do we allow ourselves to be swallowed up whole by the news we cannot see, cannot touch, cannot smell or hear or taste?

It’s a bit like the story of the pastor’s kid who was told by her mother that she should wash her hands before dinner because there were germs living in all that dirt she was playing with. She refused and complained, “Germs and Jesus! Germs and Jesus! That’s all I ever hear around this house but I’ve never seen either one!”

Yet though we cannot see germs with our naked eyes, we’ve come to believe they are really there. Though we cannot see Jesus, can we, too, come to believe in his living presence?

Where is Jesus, then, if he has been raised? The heavenly witness at the tomb says, “He is going ahead of you to Galilee.” To Galilee – the normal, home base of the first disciples. Jesus isn’t going to be found in the tomb, or the synagogue, or even the church, he is going to be found where life is lived. There you will see him – not in the holy city or the temple, for he has left that behind. He won’t be found in the cemetery because he’s defeated death. But he’ll be found hiding in our lives.

We may have no profound experience of the Risen Jesus – we have not placed our hands in his wounded side or in the nail holes in his hands and feet – but we can meet him in OUR Galilee, teaching and healing strangers, eating and drinking with new found friends.

“He is not here.” That’s the hard part. The part we may never get entirely used to, the part that will still ache years after he disappeared from the tomb.

But, “he is going ahead of you to Galilee.” That’s the part that’s tough to understand, but it can transform our lives of tragedy and pain into odes of joy when we trust it. Jesus is no longer behind those women, an event in their past. He is going on ahead of them. He is their future. He is the one they will meet and meet and meet again in unexpected places and strange times.

And Jesus is our future. He is the one we will meet and meet again and again in unexpected ways. He will never leave us, and the promise of the transforming power of his resurrection will continue to surprise, again and again, until all the world speaks of his resurrection love, a love that triumphs over evil, death, and sin.

Mark’s story feels unfinished, because it is meant to be unfinished. It is meant for you and I to take it up where he left off, to figure out for ourselves how this story will end. Frightening, isn’t it? We each have the opportunity to finish the story in our own lives and in our lives together. Jesus Christ died and rose again that he might meet you here. He has come to bring you new life. Resurrection life.

What will you do with the news? Will you hear the words of the young man at the tomb?

“You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised. He is not here…He is going on ahead of you, you will see him.”

How will you finish the story? How will WE finish the story? Amen.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Good Friday

According to those who calculate such things, it was probably April 7, AD 30, that Yeshua Ben Joseph, Jesus, son of Joseph, was crucified outside the walls of Jerusalem.

"It was springtime in Judea; the olive trees were in bloom and the hills to the west of the city were turning green. In the Garden of Gethsemane, the first flowers were pushing up through the earth and pollen covered everything like fine gold dust. The birds sang and the winds blew. The air smelled sweet as the world came to life. But up on Golgotha, from noon until about three, something was dying." (BBT Believing What we Cannot Understand)

So much suffering amidst so much beauty. Life and death, beginnings and endings. Splendor and pain. It’s as if the relentless march of life is indifferent to death. When people suffer, shouldn’t the backdrop shade what’s happening around us? To me, flowers at funerals, and cemeteries in the spring, mock our suffering and bereavement

I’m wondering of that’s what Jesus’ disciples thought as they watched their friend hang from a cross as the sweet sent of lilacs wafted passed their sorrowing noses. I wonder if that’s how Jesus felt as his life slipped away from him.

Maybe that’s why he cried out in frustration, My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me? Why do you mock me? Why don’t you answer me!?

You can understand Jesus’ frustration. Throughout his life he was used to having the ear of the Almighty. At Jesus baptism God’s voice roared like thunder, “You are my Son, the beloved.” And again on the mountain of Transfiguration God spoke for all to hear, “This is my beloved Son: listen to him.”

But now – nothing. God’s silence came to Jesus in full sight of a world bursting into life, just as his was coming to an end.

He didn’t need the religious leaders or the Roman soldiers mocking him. It looked like God was doing a fine job of that already. Where is the miracle worker, now? Let’s see work a miracle for himself! Where is the healer? Let’s see him heal himself! Where is great one who could cast out evil, let’s see him cast out death!

How could anyone who came from the all-powerful, all-mighty God come to such horrific end?

In his book Silence, the Japanese writer Shusako Endo tells the story of a 17th century Portuguese missionary named Rodrigues, who goes to Japan to save souls. Preparing himself for this mission, he spends a great deal of time contemplating the face of Christ, in which he sees every quality he himself wishes to possess: courage, serenity, wisdom, faith. It is an altogether noble image, only it remains just that for Rodrigues – a silent image that does not offer him guidance or consolation. When he arrives in Japan he is quickly in need of both.

Walking right into a national uprising against Christians, he soon finds himself in prison where his captors order him to renounce his faith. Sustained by the brave faith of Christ, he refuses, hoping to be martyred on the spot. Instead, he is returned to his cell, where he listens for some word from the Lord. All he hears are the cries of his fellow prisoners – and a strange, snuffling sound he assumes is the snoring of the guards.

When he is yanked from his cell again the next morning and refuses once again to renounce his faith, he learns that the strange snuffling sound he heard in the dark is the laboured breathing of Japanese Christians. They have been crucified upside down, their heads half buried in pits of excrement. They will hang there like that, the guards tell him, until he renounces his faith. Rodrigues is paralyzed. Shall he betray Christ or the Christians? That is his choice. If he chooses Christ, he leaves his fellow Christians in unimaginable suffering. If he chooses the Christians, he turns his back on Christ and just may lose his soul.

While he agonizes over the decision, the guards bring a metal image of Christ into the room and place it a Rodrigues’ feet. They tell him to trample, to put his foot in the middle of the Christ image and grind it with his toe. Looking down at it, Rodrigues sees that it is already crushed and soiled by the feet of those who have gone before him. It bears no resemblance to the face he has adored all his life, the silent face to whom he has prayed his desperate prayers. Torn between his loyalty to Christ and his loyalty to those snuffling in the dark, he is hung between the two when he hears the voice of Christ, coming to him from the image at his feet. “Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know the pain at your foot. Trample! It was to be trampled on…that I was born into this world.”

The silence of God is broken. Christ speaks, not from some safe place outside of human suffering, but from the very heart of it. He is the trampled one, soiled and crushed, whose loyalty to us leads him to endure all that we endure – right up to and including the silence of God. (BBT, When God is Silent)

But despite all appearances, Jesus did not suffer alone. God suffered with him and in him. In Jesus, God was killing the enemy from within. God was killing death. When Jesus closed his eyes and gave up his ghost, this was no defeat. This was no mockery. This was a triumph. This was a victory.

It was a victory for all of us who don’t have the strength or the courage to be heroes. It was a victory for those of us who fail. It was a victory for those of us who grieve, who suffer, who die. Jesus makes sacred our pain and he hallows our death. He speaks from the heart of God’s silence, and cries out on behalf of a suffering world, My God My God, why have you forsaken me?

Then, Jesus closes his eyes, breathes his last, and wins a victory for us all. Amen.