Sermon for Easter Day, 2018

Sermon for Easter Day

April 1, 2018

The Rev. Matthew R. Dutton-Gillett

 This has been a strange year for the church calendar.  Ash Wednesday, which is the day that marks the start of the Lenten season that precedes Easter, fell this year on February 14 – Valentine’s Day – requiring people to figure out how to celebrate love with an ashen cross prominently displayed on their foreheads.  I’m not sure the blend of penitence and romance was really that intoxicating.

And now here we are at Easter Day on April 1 – April Fool’s Day.  The coincidence of these two days conjures up some interesting images: like the stone being rolled away from the tomb of Jesus, only to have our Lord pop out, waving, and say, “April Fool’s!  Don’t worry – I’m fine.”  One can imagine the greeting cards that could be made based on combining Easter and April Fool’s Day.

When the church calendar and the secular calendar collide, there can be some interesting, funny, and sometimes unfortunate results.  But it’s also true, I think, that sometimes these calendar collisions can shed light on something that we had not previously seen or noticed; they can bring out a deeper truth about something.  And, surprisingly, I think combining Easter and April Fool’s Day does just that for us this morning.

We know that on April 1, when somebody tells us something that seems just a little too incredible, we should be on our guard.  That a trick or a prank is afoot, and if we’re not careful, we could fall victim to whatever the hoax is and risk being made to look ridiculous or, of course, like a fool!   If we can put ourselves in touch this morning with that April 1stsort of wariness, then we will perhaps have some idea of the position in which Mary Magdalene found herself on the first Easter morning.

While the gospels disagree when it comes to the details of Jesus’ Resurrection, there is one thing about which they are unanimous:  which is, that Mary Magdalene was there.   In some versions, she is there alone, in others, she is accompanied by another woman or women, as she is in Mark’s version of the story which we heard a moment ago.  But she is the one constant reference point in the story of Easter, aside, of course, from Jesus himself.   It is Mary – sometimes referred to simply as The Magdalene – who becomes the first person to be initiated into the truth of the Risen Christ, and it is she who becomes the bearer of that truth to the remaining 11 of Jesus’ male disciples.

And it was not an easy truth to bear.  Not simply because it was something completely new and unheard of,  but also because Mary was, obviously, a woman, and as such, she must have known that she would not be believed.  Women of Mary’s time were not considered reliable witnesses. Their testimony was not admissible in legal proceedings.  Women were classified as officially unreliable when it came to discerning matters of truth.  And so I cannot imagine what it must have been like for Mary to walk into that circle of Jesus’ male disciples with the news, “Christ is Risen.”  It must have taken incredible courage.

And the men did not believe her.  Some of them ran to the tomb themselves to check, and discovering it empty, they were unsettled and mystified.  But the emptiness of the tomb was not sufficient of itself to convince them that Mary was telling the truth.  They may not have thought she was lying, but rather just carried away by her emotions and her grief over Jesus’ death.  Women, in their minds, were given to emotionality – it was one of the reasons that they were not considered reliable witnesses.  It was not until the Risen Christ appeared to the male disciples themselves that Mary’s story was believed.

In the New Testament, it is the male disciples who become the principal preachers of the Gospel, it is they who bear the truth of the Risen Christ to the rest of the world. They get all the credit planting the seeds of a movement that would become Christianity.

But today, on Easter, we are invited to remember how it all really began:  with Mary Magdalene meeting the Risen Jesus for the very first time in human history, and by that meeting made the bearer of an incredible truth.  It was a truth that was a little too incredible for the disciples, at first.  They thought it was an April Fool’s joke.   And for a while, they believed Mary to be the fool.

Over the centuries, the Christian tradition has been confused when it comes to The Magdalene.

On the one hand, there is a wonderful story about Mary that is probably a combination of legend and fact, but that honors her as the chosen first witness of the Risen Christ and as a courageous preacher of that truth in her own right.

In that story, Mary is given the title of Apostle to the Apostles – a high honor, indeed.  It says that after the Resurrection of Jesus, Mary became an evangelizer, contemplative, and mystic.  Recognized in this story as a wealthy woman of some importance, it is said that she boldly presented herself to the Roman Emperor Tiberius Caesar in Rome to proclaim the Risen Christ.  She had with her an egg, that she used to illustrate her message: just as an egg breaks open to allow a new life to come forth, so did the tomb break open to release the Risen Life of Christ.   Holding the egg out to the Emperor, she uttered the Easter proclamation: “Christ is risen!”

Mocking her, the Emperor said that Jesus had no more risen from the dead than the egg in her hand was red.   No sooner did he finish saying this, however, when the egg in Mary’s hand suddenly turned red as a sign from God to illustrate the truth of her message.  The story says that after this, the Emperor believed her.

As I said, a story that is as much legend as fact, but which is important because it puts Mary in a decisive role – just as the Gospels do.

On the other hand, however, the church also ended up bringing Mary down a few pegs, undermining her reputation.  In the year 591, Pope Gregory I gave an influential homily in which he conflated the figure of Mary Magdalene with an unnamed sinner from Luke’s gospel who anoints the feet of Jesus, and he indicts the Magdalene for a variety of sins, including covetousness, displaying herself, speaking pridefully, and, worst of all, prostitution.   From that day onward, the word “prostitute” has been the one most prominently attached to Mary.  In the imagination of later Christianity, Mary was transformed from a powerful, courageous preacher of the Gospel and faithful disciple of Jesus to a woman of questionable background and reputation whom Jesus had forgiven for her many sins.   She came to be seen as a tainted woman.

Mary’s fate in the gospels – as the first witness to the Risen Christ who is not believed – and her worse fate in the history of the church – from faithful disciple and preacher to repentant sinner and tainted woman – shows us what so often happens to people who are asked to bear the burden of bringing a new truth into the world.

Think, for example, of Martin Luther King, Jr., the great hero of the civil rights movement, the 50thanniversary of whose death is only three days from now.  He dared to speak a new truth, the truth of the equality of all human beings, and people questioned his character, impugned his reputation, and ultimately killed him.  He and so many others who stood up for that truth paid dearly for attempting to bring it to a world in which so many were not ready to hear it.

Think of Harvey Milk, the San Francisco Supervisor who, along with Mayor George Mascone, was assassinated after only 11 months in office, during which time he was responsible for passing a stringent gay rights ordinance for San Francisco.  He was the first openly gay elected official in California history, and was the most pro-LGBT politician in the United States at the time.   His first campaign manager said of him, “What set Harvey apart . . . was that he was a visionary.  He imagined a righteous world inside his head and then he set about to create it for real, for all of us.”   He is one among so many who have paid a high price because they were trying to introduce a new truth:  that gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual people are just like every other human being.

Think of the incredible number of women who have come forward under the hashtag banner MeToo to expose the ways they have been exploited, abused, and diminished as they have sought simply to do the work to which they felt called.  Many of them have been ridiculed and criticized for bringing to light a truth that has too long been kept in the shadows.

Finally, think of the millions of young people who took to the streets of this country just last week, and whose leaders have been vilified and mocked by so many people who ought to know better.  They are struggling to bring a new truth into our world:  a truth that exposes our addiction to and veneration of violence, and our need to do something about it.  It is a truth that so many do not wish to hear, and many of these young people are being made to suffer by adults for being the bearers of this truth.

In these examples (and there are many more besides), we find women, people of color, people with a different sexual identity, and young people, all of whom are like Mary Magdalene, because like her, they are unlikely witnesses.  They are people to whom our society at large has been reluctant to give credibility.  Like Mary, they have not been deemed trustworthy when it comes to matters of truth.

And yet, the truths they speak, the truths into which they seek to initiate the rest of us, matter deeply. In every case, they point us toward new life that is struggling to make itself known among us.  And that new life is always about justice, about peace, about the dignity and respect of every human being.   That new life is always about making our hearts larger and are egos smaller so that we can make room in our lives for the other.  So much room, in fact, that we don’t see the others as “other” anymore, but just as part of the great human family, just like ourselves.

Why is it, do you suppose, that those who are given the burden of bearing new truths into the world are those whom the world has the hardest time seeing and hearing?  Why would God make women the first witnesses to the Risen Christ, when they were among the least likely of their time to be believed?  Why choose the Magdalene?

The Roman Catholic priest and mystic, Richard Rohr, points out that it is on just such people, who he calls the “little people” of the world, that Jesus himself focused his attention when he began his public ministry.   And Rohr suggests that there is a reason for that:  because only those who have been belittled by the world are really able to hear the Gospel clearly.  Because it is they, who have been made the world’s victims, who are most able to perceive the world’s brokenness, because they are the ones who have been lacerated by the sharp edges of that brokenness.   And so they are the ones whose wounds become the soil in which new life begins to grow, and among them are the ones who dare to bear this new life into the larger world because they have been pushed so far that they have nothing more to lose.

Mary Magdalene was such a person.  Jesus had changed her life in ways we will never know.  She was devastated by Jesus’ death, and the wounds of Mary’s pain and loss and grief became the soil in which the new life of Christ was able to find a home.  The male disciples had gone off and hidden themselves before Jesus had even died. They were mostly just terrified. But Mary, despite what Mark’s Gospel suggests this morning,  had no fear, I think.  Instead, she had the agony of loss.  And so when new life suddenly appeared before her, when the Risen Christ reached out to her and called her by name, she was ready to receive it.  There was no fear to get in between her and the new life being offered to her.  And having been at the end of her rope, this new, risen life was the only thing to grab onto, and she embraced it completely.  She became the unlikely bearer of this truth, because for her, in the absence of this new life, there was nothing.

Over the centuries, the truth that the Magdalene declared to the disciples found its way into the various corners of the earth.  At first, it was mostly those whom Rohr calls the “little people” who grabbed onto it. In its first centuries, Christianity was mainly a religion for those who were at the ends of their ropes, who had nothing else to lose, and gladly grabbed on to the good news of the Risen Christ.  Eventually, Christianity became the religion of almost everyone in the Western world, not just the powerless, but also the powerful.  And the incredible, amazing, April Fools-ish news of the Risen Christ just became part of the atmosphere that people breathed.  It became part of a tradition, and that tradition came to be managed by religious professionals, and a lot of rules got created.  The Magdalene got demoted from a preacher to a prostitute, and Jesus’ radical vision of the inclusive kingdom of God in which everyone had a place of equal dignity got transformed into a blessing of the status quo.

But God always finds a way. The new life that erupted from the tomb on that first Easter morning always finds a way to keep erupting in the life of the world.  The Risen Christ still keeps trying to upend our settled traditions, to call us away from old lives of sin to new lives of grace.   The Risen Christ always finds his way to the belittled ones of the world and manages to make some of them prophets.  And the world calls those prophets fools.   Just as many people would call us fools for being here today, gathered around the story of a man who we claim was raised from the dead.

But you know what?  History is littered with fools – people who stood up and testified about the corrupt things in the world and insisted that a new day was coming.   Fools who bet their lives on the reality of a new life shining in the midst of darkness.  Sometimes they suffered for it greatly. But to paraphrase Dr. King, the arc of history tends toward new life.   And generally speaking, it is the world’s fools who move history forward.

So be a fool for the Risen Christ today, and every day.  Listen to the voices of the powerless and the oppressed, and join your voice with theirs. Insist that there is a new day coming, a day of justice and peace, when the dignity of every human being will be seen and respected.  St. Paul, in his Letter to the Romans, said, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until the present time.”   My, how the world does groan, and shudder. Some people think all that groaning and shuddering is about things winding down and falling apart.   But fools for Christ know what St. Paul knew: that this is the groaning and shuddering of a world about to give birth to new life.   We are called to be the Mary Magdalenes of our time.  We are commissioned to insist that the story is true, to bear witness to new life wherever we find it, to proclaim that God is still up to something in this world, and that the forces of life will overcome the forces of death.

The Resurrection of Jesus is not an April Fool’s joke.  It is the mystery that points us toward the way God always works in our world: taking those whom the world regards as weak and making them powerful, powerful enough to break through the world’s corruption to bring forth the new life of God’s kingdom.  If you look – if you really look – Christ is rising all around us.  If you look – if you really look – Christ is rising in you.

And They Had Everything in Common: Re-Imagining God’s Dream for Humanity

On Sunday, May 7, I was invited to Preach at Stanford University’s Memorial Church in their regular Sunday service, University Public Worship.  That sermon is what follows.  Before you read it, I want to just make an observation about it.  The invitation to preach at Stanford came with an invitation to preach something challenging.  And I think this sermon takes that invitation seriously.  I am aware that, read through a certain lens, some of what I say in this sermon could be interpreted to suggest that people who voted for the current administration are somehow bad people.  That is not what I believe.  This sermon explores how the Christian movement is seen, particularly by young people — which seemed appropriate in a university setting.  It also explores the way in which voting patterns among the majority of white evangelical and mainline Protestant Christians in the last election contribute to that perception.  It also asks whether the priorities of the current administration are consistent with what we see Jesus doing and teaching in the gospels.  I would suggest that this is always an important question for religious people to be asking, Christian or otherwise, regardless of the party or administration in power.  I do not advocate, in any way, that any religion should dictate national policy.  But people who take their religion seriously cannot, it seems to me, keep that commitment completely separate from the public policy choices they would advocate.  

Scriptural Texts: Acts 2:42-47 & John 10:1-10

Over the years, I’ve been on the Stanford campus many times, and, as far as I can tell, there are no sheep at Stanford.  And there is no degree offered in the art of shepherding.   That, of course, is just a sign of what is true in our society generally:  namely, that very few of us know much about sheep or shepherds, and that the vast majority of us live at quite a distance from the kind of life that sheep and shepherding represent. The people of Jesus’ time lived much closer to the land.  Agricultural life was more of an immediate reality to them.  And so the metaphors of sheep and shepherds used in this morning’s Gospel would have been much more familiar.  But, for us, these metaphors are far less accessible.

About 30 years ago, I knew a priest who attempted to make these metaphors more alive for his congregation.  His name was Ted Rice, a now-retired Episcopal priest, and he actually had a brother who was a shepherd in New England.  Ted described what he witnessed of the relationship between his shepherd brother and his flock.  It so happened while Ted was visiting his brother, that there was a particular ewe who was having a great deal of difficulty giving birth.  Ted described how his brother had stayed with the ewe throughout the night, tending to her, keeping her calm, even singing to her.  His brother knew exactly what to do, how to reach in and gently turn the lamb and, ultimately, make it possible for the young sheep to be born, without endangering its mother’s life.  Ted was deeply moved by the tender relationship between his brother and the sheep, by the obvious love that bound them to each other, by the degree to which his brother placed the needs of his flock before his own.  As I listened to Ted describe this, what came to mind for me was the image of the shepherd as midwife, one who attends another in order to help bring to birth new life.

So when I hear Jesus being cast in the role of the shepherd, I always find myself returning to this story of Ted’s brother, and the connection it suggests between the image of the shepherd and the image of the midwife.  Jesus, it seems to me, is trying to bring forth new life in and among those who are his followers.  He comes to us as shepherd and midwife to bring a new way of living and being to birth, and he entrusts this same mission to the community his followers founded, to that community that we call “church”.  Elsewhere in John’s Gospel, in the 21st chapter, the Risen Christ walks with the disciple Peter on the beach and says to Peter, who represents the church as a whole, that a consequence of loving Jesus is that Peter – and the community he and the others are about to create – is to take on the mission of feeding and tending the sheep.  In other words, to do for others what Jesus has done for them.

And so, centuries later, it seems legitimate to ask the question, is the church living up to this calling?  Are we, in our various Christian communities, helping to bring to birth new ways of living and being as Jesus did in his own life and work?

As I survey the state of Christianity today, I have to say that I think the short answer to that question is, much of the time, “No.”  One sign of this is the image that Christianity currently enjoys in the public square, particularly among younger people.   Studies have shown that among people 16 to 29 who do not go to church, Christianity is frequently described as “judgmental”, “hypocritical”, and “old fashioned.”  When you combine the low impression of Christianity among increasing numbers of young people with the degree to which that same demographic tended to favor candidates like Bernie Sanders or Gary Johnson in the last election, what emerges, I think, is a view of the church as an institution which does not challenge the status quo of our world but is seen to reinforce it, often at the expense of those among us who, in some way or other, would be considered vulnerable.  In other words, the church is often seen as supporting the world’s ways of living and being, rather than helping to bring to birth something new.

This view of the church stands as quite a contrast to the image of the Christian community that we catch a glimpse of in this morning’s reading from the book of Acts.  Let’s listen again to the way that early community is described: “All who believed were together and had all things in common:  they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.”

This description is of a church that has not yet become an institution, a community of Jesus’ followers who enjoy no privileged position in society, who have no power at all, who are a small minority with respect to both the Jewish community around them and the larger Roman Empire of which Judea had become a part.  What shapes the life of that community is set forth in the first line of the passage:  they “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”  And the results of that devotion are made clear when it says, “Awe came upon everyone…they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of the people.”   This certainly sounds to me like a community in which something new is being born, a community that is adopting a new way of living and being that is based not on status or wealth, but on the notion that baptism is the great leveler, that being in Christ places everyone on the same footing.  It is a community that provides an alternative to the social structures of the time, in which status and wealth matter very much, and in which the poor and the vulnerable are often marginalized and left to fend for themselves.  And it seems to have been deeply attractive.

This early form of Christian community, and others that sprang up in the decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection, were alternative communities whose values, in fact, undermined those of the prevailing culture.  And it was not so much an alternative to Jewish culture out of which, after all, Christianity was born, but an alternative to Roman culture, particularly as increasing numbers of new Christians were not drawn from Judaism but from the Roman, Gentile world.  We see this very much in the writings of St. Paul, who – though he was very concerned about figuring out how to get his fellow Jews to become followers of Jesus – was principally focused for most of his life on planting churches among the Gentiles.  Remember that Paul’s writings are the earliest to be found in the New Testament, and in them we find the language used by the early church to talk about Jesus.

The Roman Catholic priest and scholar, John Dominic Crossan, has argued that this language – the terms “Lord”, “Son of God”, “Kingdom of God”, “Savior” – is all drawn from the language that Romans used to talk about their emperor and his empire.  Indeed, while we are accustomed to speaking of the “Roman Empire”, Romans of the time were more accustomed to thinking of it as the “Kingdom of Rome.”  Caesar was Lord and Savior, and the term “son of god” was part of his title.  In his letters, Paul takes all of this language and applies it to Jesus – clearly establishing Jesus as a rival to Caesar, and the Christian community as an alternative to  Roman society.  For Paul and for early Christians, the death and resurrection of Jesus marked the in-breaking of the kingdom of God into the world, which pointed to a way of living and being that challenged the values of the kingdom of Rome. Caesar’s titles were emptied of the power that they were meant to convey, and their meaning redefined in light of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, which revealed that real power lay in sacrificial self-giving, in radical love, in embracing the inherent beloved-ness of every person as a child of God.  Far from supporting the status quo, far from being allied with wealth and power, the early church was truly a countercultural presence beneath Roman society, a “new thing” coming into the world that was most attractive to those who benefited the least from the prevailing social norms and structures, as well as to those who may have benefited from them, but who could see the injustices inherent within them.

All of this, of course, changed in the fourth century, when the Roman Emperor Constantine had his mysterious conversion experience, part of which was a belief that the Christian Christ was the one to whom he owed thanks for his decisive victory over his brother, which allowed him to consolidate his power.  In what was really a remarkably short span of time, the Christian community moved from being this alternative, even subversive presence beneath Roman society to being an institution that was on its way to enjoying great privilege and power at the heart of Roman society.  The church, over time, certainly changed Rome, but Rome also changed the church.  Gone, for example, was the early church’s deep commitment to pacifism, which could not be maintained once Christianity became the official religion of the greatest military power in the ancient world.  The conversion of Rome to Christianity was a decisive historical turning point, and it set Christianity on a path that transformed it from being an alternative form of community that nurtured new forms of relationship to being a cultural institution that blessed the powerful, reinforced prevailing social, cultural, and economic norms, and helped keep women and the poor in their places.

Today, we are part of a Christian movement that has traveled a very long way from what is described in the book of Acts.   We are not seen as the shepherd-midwife who nurtures new forms of relationship and works to help bring to birth new life, but rather as that ancient relative at the family gathering who laments the loss of the way things used to be and occasionally yells at the neighbors to get off the lawn.  Increasingly, we no longer enjoy the “goodwill of the people” because they sense that we have somehow lost the soul of Jesus’ life and teaching.

And that perception has only been reinforced in the last election cycle.  Last November, 81% of white evangelicals and 50% of white mainline Protestants voted for the administration that is now in power.   And setting aside the polarizing personalities that are a part of that administration and its congressional majority, let’s just consider a list of some of the policy positions that they are advocating:  a radical reduction in the numbers of immigrants and refugees admitted to the country; a construction of a physical wall along our border with Mexico; a reform of the health care system that most analysts agree would serve to favor the healthy and wealthy and disadvantage the poor, the old, and the sick; reducing or eliminating funding for the arts and other public cultural entities while dramatically increasing military spending; rolling back environmental regulations and withdrawing from the Paris Climate Treaty;  fundamentally changing current trade agreements or withdrawing from them all together.

None of these policy positions point to the birth of anything new, nor do they suggest new forms of being and relationship.   Instead, they involve a reassertion of the past and a denial of new realities that are emerging in our culture and in our world.  It is exactly this that the majority of white Christians voted for, and exactly this that a majority of young people voted against.  And those who are the principal protagonists of these policies mostly promote them under a mantel of faith in Jesus and adherence to Christianity.   And so Jesus and the church are put forth as the allies of the politically powerful and as blessing the policies that they choose to promote.

But none of this is really found in the gospels, in what we see Jesus doing and saying.  The community that Jesus comes to shepherd and to midwife is made up mostly of people who lived at the margins of their society, of people who had been cast out by the majority for one reason or another.   If you look at the healing ministry of Jesus, which was such a big part of what he was doing, notice that the illnesses he heals are of a very particular sort.  In almost every case, Jesus’ heals people of illnesses that had caused them to be cast out of their communities, because of fear and stigma that was attached to them in the ancient world.  He heals them, thereby nullifying the thing that caused them to be cast out, and then he returns them to their communities.  And when they return, they return as agents of transformation for those communities, because the people who had cast them out have to receive them back, and to do so requires them to change their point of view, to see these formerly cast out people in a new way.  Jesus does not build walls between people, but breaks them down.  Jesus does not seek to reinforce systems that protect the wealthy and the healthy, but seeks to change those systems, to force them to include the poor and the sick, the disadvantaged and the outcast.  Jesus does not encourage us to be preoccupied with our own desire for security, but invites us to step out of our need for security to discover that beyond the borders of our fear lie other human beings, just like ourselves, who are simply trying to live their lives in peace, and who simply want others to see their humanity.

Here’s what it comes down to, I think:  the default mode of an unredeemed and untransformed humanity is to live with a sense of fear and scarcity, and on the basis of these, to draw lines and create systems that keep everyone in their place.  Those who have the means to protect themselves and prosper do so; those who do not suffer the consequences.  What we often fail to realize is that living this way disfigures the humanity of all of us, planting seeds of war and violence everywhere.   The advantaged struggle to keep their advantage, and the disadvantaged struggle to gain some advantage.  The church has too often been a partner in this way of living, blessing prosperity as some kind of sign of the divine favor and assuring the disadvantaged that their reward is in heaven.

But as Christians, we are not supposed to be content with humanity’s default mode.  We are supposed to be interested in humanity’s redemption and transformation.   And as more and more people question the veracity and efficacy of the Gospel, as it is made known through our preaching and practice, we are challenged to recover the soul of Jesus’ life and teaching, to rediscover our role as shepherds and midwives who are called to bring to birth new patterns of relationship like those that existed in the earliest Christian communities.   We are called to re-imagine the kingdom of God, God’s dream for humanity, through that key line in the reading from Acts: “And they had all things in common.”   As human beings, we do, indeed, have all things in common, from this planet that we share to the societies of which we are a part.  It is only when we are able to see the common ways in which we are tied together, the lines of connection that bind us to one another, that we are truly able to realize God’s dream for God’s people.   We must nurture what Jesus seeks to nurture in us:  sacrificial self-giving, radical love, and the recognition of the beloved-ness of every human being.

If we fail to live up to that challenge, then we become the thieves and robbers who protect some of the sheep while leaving others vulnerable.  But if we can live into that challenge, then we become like Jesus himself:  a gateway through which we can re-imagine our own humanity, and the human community of the world.

Breaking the Illusion of Separateness, Overcoming the Power of Death: An Easter Sermon


 Some of you – perhaps many of you – may have heard the story of Norma.   Norma turned 90 in 2015, a year that should have been one of celebration for having reached such a distinguished age.  But it turned out to be a very difficult year for Norma and her family.  In the midst of the year, Norma’s husband of 67 years passed away suddenly.  And two days after his death, Norma was diagnosed with uterine cancer.   Her doctors explained to her all the treatment options, including surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy.  But Norma decided to skip treatment all together.  “I’m ninety years old,” she said, “I’m hitting the road.”

And so in August of 2015, Norma, together with her son and his wife, and their dog, did exactly that:  they set out in their RV to see as much of the country as they could.

And a great trip she had.  She saw “the Rocky Mountains, visited National Parks, strolled through New Orleans, and [even took] part in a Native American ceremony.”  ( When she got to Florida, she fulfilled a life-long dream of riding in a hot air balloon, and on another occasion, tried her first mimosa.  And, as one journalist reported, she also had her first fist-bump with a girl she met on the street.  She went whale watching, and got her first view of the Grand Canyon.  She had her first pedicure.  Her family created the Driving Miss Norma Facebook page, that garnered a following of more than half a million people from around the world.   Her story became an inspiration for many.

Over the course of a year, Norma and her family traveled some 13,000 miles, staying in over 75 places in 32 states.  In October of last year, at the age of 91, Norma died in the RV that had become her home and her window on the world.  Her memorial service was held in Washington state – on the other side of the country from Northern Michigan, where her trip had begun.

Norma’s story felt compelling to a lot of people.  And why?   I think it was the nature of the choice that she made.  When Norma was confronted with the reality of death, with the truth of her own mortality, she did not choose to try to hold onto her life as tightly as she could.  Instead, she embraced what was coming, and in the face of death, she chose to live her life, embracing what was left of it as fully as she could.  More fully, in fact, than she ever had.

It was a choice that one might not have expected of Norma.  Her son described her to a reporter as someone who had very much lived in the shadow of his father.  When he would call his parents, he said, his mom was a silent presence on the phone.  It was his father who did all the talking.  In fact, before embarking on this RV journey together, he had felt that he hadn’t known his mother very well.  Since getting married and settling down in Northern Michigan, she rarely went very far from her home.  She had never even been to Wisconsin, the neighboring state.  It seems to me that when Norma’s doctors announced to her the news of her diagnosis, she was pulled out of her normal frame of reference, of her normal way of thinking about things, and pulled into an entirely new consciousness in which, suddenly, staying safely close to home no longer made any sense.  She saw herself, it seems, being invited into a journey.  And she chose to say, “Yes.”   She chose to leave behind what she knew and walk boldly into the unknown, trusting that some sort of new life – however briefly it would be experienced — was to be found there.   We could call that a moment of grace.  It’s almost as if, in her doctor’s office, Norma heard God calling her name for the first time, and hearing that, she awakened to new possibilities.

To see Norma’s story in this way is to say that, while it is very different in its details, it is essentially the same kind of story that we hear in the Gospel for this morning, John’s story of how the Risen Christ becomes known and announced.   The center of John’s story is not really Jesus, but Mary Magdalene, a woman who accompanied Jesus during his ministry.  There has been much speculation over the centuries regarding the nature of the relationship between Mary and Jesus, and during the Middle Ages, Mary came to be regarded as a prostitute, a woman of questionable moral character – a claim that has absolutely no supporting evidence.

Mary Magdalene is mentioned at least 12 times in the New Testament, more than most of the apostles, and is described by both Luke and Mark as a woman from whom seven demons were cast out by Jesus.  Christian texts from the third century suggest that her status as an apostle rivaled that even of Peter.  In fact, there are non-scriptural texts that depict Mary as having understood Jesus better than the guys did, and that suggest she assumed the role of a teacher of the remaining disciples after Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Regardless of what we make of these traditions, all four of the gospels include Mary among the first witnesses to the Risen Christ and John makes her the one person to whom the Risen Christ is revealed first of all.

In telling this story, John seems to be trying to give some idea of the emotional space in which Mary found herself just before the Risen Christ is revealed to her, telling us that after Peter and the “disciple whom Jesus loved” had gone back home, not knowing what to make of the empty tomb, Mary remained outside the tomb, weeping.  She is, of course, grieving.  Staring into the emptiness of that tomb, having witnessed the death of Jesus on the cross only days before, must have been like staring into the face of death itself.  In her mind, death had taken her beloved Jesus from her.   Whatever the nature of her relationship with Jesus was, she certainly loved him as a teacher, as someone who had come into her life and decisively changed it, who had perhaps given her a reason for being at a time in her life when she felt utterly lost.  This man was now gone, swallowed up by death, and I can imagine that she must have felt herself to have been returned by this tragedy to that lost place, wondering what her life was now supposed to be about.

As she stood in this space, overwhelmed by the power of death, where everything seemed to be coming to an end and falling apart, the Risen Christ comes to her.  She cannot at first recognize him for who he is, because she is stuck in a place of death and Christ is coming toward her from a place of life. She cannot see Jesus in front of her until he calls her by name, and in hearing the Divine utter her name, suddenly she was pulled out of her normal way of thinking, pulled out of the power of death and pulled into a completely new frame of reference, one in which death loses its power and its finality.  Mary is offered a grace-filled invitation to let go of a life dominated by the power of death and instead embark on a new journey in which she embraces life in all its fullness.

And if even some of the traditions that arose in the early church with respect to Mary are true, then she certainly accepted that invitation whole-heartedly, becoming a woman who proclaimed the gospel in word and deed, with wisdom and insight.  Jesus, who had changed her life once already during his earthly life and ministry, changed it again when she met him as the Risen Christ.

Norma and Mary are two very different women, who lived in very different times.  Yet they both had an experience of standing before the reality of death and being invited by the Risen One to refuse death the power it desires, and the fear that comes with it, and, instead, allow themselves to be overwhelmed by the mystery of life as it is given by God.  Their decision to accept that invitation changed both of them in wonderful and amazing ways, and made them powerful and inspirational witnesses to others.

It is this grace-filled space of being overwhelmed by the mystery of the life that God gives to us that I think is where the true celebration of Easter is to be found.  As we gather this morning, we are tempted to think that we are celebrating an event of the distant past, to think of this day only as a time to remember the Resurrection of Jesus and give thanks for it.  But the events of Jesus’ life, as unique and unrepeatable as they may be in their details, are always meant to point beyond themselves, to reveal not simply the way in which God worked in the life of Jesus centuries ago, but to reveal the way in which God seeks to work in all of our lives all the time.  The New Testament is filled with language that talks about Christians being “in Christ” and acquiring the “mind of Christ.”   All of this language is meant to point us toward the deep truth that what God is doing in Jesus is what God is always doing everywhere, all the time.

Which means that Resurrection is not just a one-off event in the life of Christ, but is a dynamic reality in our own lives, a reality that seeks to change the way we see and interact with the world.  As we sit stuck in the power of death, the Risen Christ continues to come toward us from the power of life, continuing to call us each by name, seeking to awaken us to the divine presence that is right in front of us.

The great 20th century monk and mystic, Thomas Merton, had his own experience of awakening, which he describes in his book, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander.  He writes,

In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers.  It was like waking from a dream of separateness. . .  This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud. . .  I have the immense joy of being [human], a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate.   As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are.  And if only everybody could realize this!  But it cannot be explained.  There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.

Merton’s experience of “waking from a dream of separateness” is the sort of awakening that happened, I think, to Norma in her doctor’s office, and to Mary in the garden.  For Norma, for Mary, and for Merton, they were – each in their different moments – delivered from the power of death into the power of life:  the inexhaustible, overwhelming divine life in which we are all held, in which we are all connected to each other, in which – as Merton so beautifully describes it – we are all walking around, shining like the sun.

We human beings live much of the time dominated by the power of death.  Whenever we act out of hopelessness rather than hope, we are being run by the power of death.  Whenever we act out of fear of others, we are being run by the power of death.  Whenever we place the safety and security of a few above the well-being of the whole, we are being run by the power of death.  The power of death makes us selfish, the power of death makes us fearful, the power of death makes us feel that we must grab as much as we can for ourselves because there is not enough to go around.  The power of death sees every ending, every difficult point of transition, as threatening, and desperately tries to hold on to what has been out of a fear of what might be.  Ultimately, it is the power of death that closes borders, launches missiles, denies human rights, and makes judgments about people based on whatever makes them different.  It is the power of death that generates the illusion of separateness, giving us permission to withhold our compassion from those who need it most, and convincing us that we must live at the expense of others; that this is the way life is supposed to be.  It is this power that crucified Jesus, and it is this power that God exposes as a fraud on this Day of Resurrection.

Mary Magdalene has been called in the Christian tradition the “apostle to the apostles”, because she it was who first conveyed the news that Christ was alive to the 11 remaining male disciples of Jesus, who acquired the title “apostle” after their own experiences of the Risen Christ, for which Mary prepared them.  The word “apostle” means “witness”, and those who bear the title “apostle” are those who are able to see life, and to interact with the world, through the lens of the Resurrection, those who are able to bear witness of the good news of God’s abundant life to others.  Apostles are people who have been delivered from the power of death to embrace the fullness of life, who see that all people shine like the sun.  Apostles are people who, as Merton says, recognize the immense joy of being human, a joy so powerful that they cannot be overwhelmed by the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition.

Our world needs such apostles.  Our world needs people who can reach across dividing lines in the name of a shared humanity, in the name of the one life that God gives to each of us, out of the simple joy of having been gifted with this amazing human existence.  When we are able to see the world through the lens of Resurrection, we are able to rejoice in the humanity of all people.  And when we are overwhelmed by that immense joy, when we see the divine light shining in others, then we cannot ignore the world’s suffering and sorrow, we cannot ignore its injustices and its violence.  But we can engage them from a place of life rather than death, allowing our voices to become the voice of Christ who calls our fellow human beings by name, and seeks to awaken the whole world from the dream of separateness and the power of death.

We gather today to celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus, but in doing so, we celebrate the possibility of Resurrection for us all.   Just as the Risen Christ came to Mary filled with the power of life, so the Risen Christ comes to us.   Just as Norma perceived a calling coming toward her, inviting her to set aside her fear and set out joyfully into the larger world so does that calling come to us.  Just as Thomas Merton suddenly saw the oneness of humanity as the illusion of separateness dropped away, so does the Risen Christ seek to draw us away from that illusion.

May we go forth from this place today deeply aware of how we shine like the sun .  When we leave here today, may we find ourselves standing firmly at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, the corner of life and death, and may we have the courage, the strength, and the grace to joyfully choose life – for us, for our planet, and for all people.





There Your Heart Will Be Also

Ash Wed HeartIn The Episcopal Church, every year the same readings are appointed to be read at the services on Ash Wednesday, marking the beginning of Lent.  For years, I have visited these same readings over and over:  Joel, 2 Corinthians, and Matthew.  They are, in many respects, dense texts, offering a variety of possibilities to the would-be preacher.  Each year, as I stand on the precipice of Ash Wednesday, I wonder how those texts will speak to me yet again — and, a little part of me is perhaps a bit scared that this might be the year that they don’t speak to me at all.  Thankfully, that year was not this year.

The text that speaks to me today comes at the very end of the readings, the last few words for Ash Wednesday from Matthew’s Gospel:  “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”   There your heart will be also.   What does Jesus mean when he speaks of the heart?

In the biblical context, and, indeed, in religion and spirituality generally, the heart is usually understood to refer to the center of our being, our most authentic self, the point of our being where we find ourselves in God and God in ourselves.  While I honor that ancient notion, I have also found myself understanding the term “heart” somewhat differently.

For me, the heart has become not the center of who we are, but rather the center of our attention or consciousness.  And as our center of attention or consciousness, the heart can dwell either in the spacious grace of God’s loving energy or in the restricted and constricted space defined by our fears, grievances, worries, and preoccupations.  In other words, our heart can either be centered in the light or in the shadows.  The choice is really ours to make, and what Jesus suggests to us in this passage from Matthew is that we will make that choice based on what we treasure.

The season of Lent is, in many respects, designed to bring us face to face with the truth about the choices we generally make as we go through our lives day by day.  How often do we choose to treasure our fears and worries, grievances and preoccupations, and allow those energies to dominate our heart, to dominate our attention and consciousness?

It is not that God is disconnected from our fears and worries, but rather that when our heart dwells among them, we loose track of God’s connection to our lives.  The noise of all that preoccupies us drowns out the still, small voice of God that whispers within our depths.  And what does that voice whisper within us?  It whispers the one truth about us that is more important than anything else:  that we are Beloved.  That we have always been the Beloved of God, and that we always will be.

This truth of our beloved-ness is what defines that space of divine grace and love within each of us, and when our hearts our centered in this Beloved space, then we experience God’s love as a movement of forgiveness, generosity, and compassion — we experience the freedom of knowing that in God’s eyes, we are good enough.  We experience the freedom of knowing that we do not have to strive to earn God’s love — rather, we simply need to allow ourselves to experience that love, to relax into God’s spacious grace.

If you attend an Ash Wednesday liturgy, you would be forgive for perhaps being left with the impression that God’s love is perhaps not as freely given as I have suggested.  I have to admit that I struggle a bit with that liturgy on an annual basis, since it focuses very much on sin and “wretchedness”, on our failure to choose the light over the shadows, on the many ways that we treasure the small world of our fears over the spacious world of God’s love.  But I have come to see the Ash Wednesday liturgy’s preoccupation with the shadow part of ourselves as a kind of therapeutic tool that is meant to push us to get in touch with what, exactly, we treasure, and where our hearts are hanging out.  This liturgy serves as a kind of wake-up call that brings us face to face with our own mortality, challenging us to see how much energy we put into the things that moth and rust will consume, rather than in our relationship with the God who names us as Beloved.

With that therapeutic value, comes the risk that this liturgy will send us away feeling guilty and defeated.  But I am quite sure that is not the invitation that God makes to us in Lent.  God, I think, wants us to leave this liturgy awakened to the reality of how often we allow ourselves to miss the truth of our Belovedness, and prepared to meet the challenge of really embracing that truth and all that it means for us.

For me, this year, that invitation takes the form of a question:  What do I treasure?  And what does that say about where my heart is?

What do you treasure?  Where is your heart?

The readings appointed for Ash Wednesday are Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; and Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21.

Unity is Not Unanimity

Taize-CrossThe current headlines from the recent gathering of the Primates (senior bishops) of the Anglican Communion — that The Episcopal Church (based in the US) is to be excluded from key aspects of the Communion’s life, as a result of its decisions regarding the full inclusion of LGBT people in the life of the church, including the sacrament of marriage — raise a question that deserves serious consideration:  What does unity really mean in the life of the church?

Over the centuries, Christian people have often, it seemed, confused unity with unanimity.  They have assumed that in order to be united, people must agree about certain things.  That list that must be agreed to tends to include both matters of doctrine and morality.   The list has shifted over the centuries, but it has never gone away.   When groups of Christians have been unable to sign on to the list du jour, fracture of relationship has been the result — along with the formation of new denominations.

The results of the recent gathering of Anglican Primates appears to be simply another iteration of this history.   The majority of the Primates have a list of doctrines and morals which must be signed onto, in their view, in order to have unity within the Anglican Communion.  And the very top item on the current list seems to be a certain view of marriage and human sexuality.   Since the Primates, and the churches they represent, are not unanimous with respect to their views on these issues, the result is fracture of relationship — a deliberate distancing of The Episcopal Church from the other churches of the Communion, and the very real possibility that other churches will end up being treated the same way as they move toward The Episcopal Church’s position.

This idea of unity as unanimous agreement is, it seems to me, false; and particularly so for Christian people.

In his First Letter to the Corinthians, St. Pauls observes, “Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says ‘Let Jesus be cursed!’ and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit.”   What Paul is pointing us toward, I believe, is that the locus of Christian unity is not based on unanimous consent but rather on the conviction that Jesus is Lord, a conviction that is ultimately enabled by the one Spirit.

While this is not a term I normally use — generally because of the conservative theological connotation it has acquired in the present day — to say that “Jesus is Lord” is simply to say that Jesus is the one on whom we rely to bring us into a salvific (which is to say, a healing) relationship with God.  To say that “Jesus is Lord” is to express our loyalty to his proclamation of the kingdom of God, to say that he is the one whom we follow and whom we trust to bring us to God.   This is the unity of the Christian church:  to claim this central role for Jesus in our lives as we seek to “work out [our] own salvation”.  And Paul is clear that anyone who is able to say this does so “by the Holy Spirit.”

There is no doubt in my mind that this is something that all of us in the Anglican Communion are able to do.   We have each and all entrusted ourselves to  Christ and to his proclamation of the kingdom of God.  This unites us to one another and, indeed, to Christians around the world.

But having entrusted ourselves to Christ, we then embark upon the life-long journey of understanding exactly what this means.  As we continue to contemplate the life of Christ and to listen to his proclamation of the reign of God, we must work out what his life and his proclamation mean for us in the particular time and place in which we find ourselves. Just as we see Christ as the incarnation of God in a human life, so we must figure out how to incarnate the reign of God within and among us.   And while it may sound straight-forward, the actual process of incarnating that reign is far more art than science, and can be quite complicated.  Because for anything to be truly incarnated, it must — by definition — become fully and deeply embedded in its time and place.   The consequence of this incarnational truth is that Christians in different places will enact the Gospel differently, and will reach different conclusions about what it means relative to any given issue or situation.   This is simply because the act of incarnating the reign of God inevitably involves dialogue and interaction with the surrounding culture and its diverse inhabitants.

This, it seems to me, is how Christians who all are seeking to be faithful can arrive at very different points of view.  What we must learn to see is that these different points of view all begin at the same place:  a commitment to following Jesus into the heart of God.

We have tended over the centuries to want to find our unity as Christians by making everyone adopt the same point of view about pretty much everything.  The persistent divisions within the Christian community give us all the evidence we need about how well that has worked.  Nevertheless, we continue to nurture a fantasy of a universal church where everyone will be on the same page.

We need to come to terms with the fact that Christians have really never been on the same page with respect to lots of things, and it is unlikely that we ever will be.  But we can find unity in something we have, in fact, all always agreed on:  that Jesus is decisively the one whom we follow, and we trust him to lead us to God.   Rather than beating each other up about the different ways in which we incarnate that commitment, we would be far better served by rejoicing in the many and diverse ways we incarnate that commitment.

In the midst of the rejoicing, however, it is equally important to recognize that Jesus does give us a standard that must apply to all our efforts to incarnate the gospel, regardless of time and place.   When asked for the bottom line of his teaching, Jesus answers, Love God with your whole heart, body, soul, and spirit, and love your neighbor as yourself.   However the gospel is incarnated, whatever conclusions we draw from our commitment to Christ about how we live in union with God, we must be able to affirm these principles positively.   Our incarnation of the reign of God must reflect a deep and abiding love for God, and it must reflect a deep and abiding love for our neighbor.   When Jesus himself was asked to define that word “neighbor”, he said that the neighbor was the one among us who was in need.

We must always bear this standard in mind, and we must constantly and honestly reflect on our own incarnating of the Gospel and ask ourselves, “Is this expressing a whole-hearted love for God AND a whole-hearted love for my neighbor, the one near me who is in need?”   When we find that it is not, then we have an obligation to re-align our following of Jesus.

Incarnation of the reign of God is far more messy than most of us would like it to be — but it is the task and the truth to which we have been called.

God-With-Us (A Christmas Eve Sermon)

nativity-iconWhenever I find myself away from the lights of our urban sprawl  — up at Bishop’s Ranch in Sonoma County, for example, or driving across the vast expense of the Western US — I never fail to be astonished when I look up into the night sky, and behold the incredible beauty of the shining stars and the cosmic light of the Milky Way.    My astonishment comes, of course, from the beauty of the night sky, but it also comes from the knowledge that the light I see left those stars unimaginable numbers of years ago, and is only now reaching earth.   And more amazing still is the knowledge that some of those stars don’t even exist anymore — but we won’t know that until the light fades, probably unimaginable numbers of years from now.

Those shining lights, and their unfathomable journey through time and space, remind me that our human existence is a moment in an expanse of time so vast that we can hardly begin to contemplate it.  We are sitting here tonight as the result of a long series of events that started with the Big Bang billions of years ago and has extended out over that vast distance of time through the formation of the galaxy, the solar system, our planet, and the long evolutionary development of life on earth from simple organisms to the complexity that we are.  This history has moved forward from that Big Bang, and moves forward still.  But we can only understand it backwards.  We are only able to make this history meaningful by looking back from where we are now toward the beginnings of our universe.  And so much of what we are trying to look back at, in order to understand how we came to be here now, is still shrouded in mystery.    And yet, we continue to explore the universe as deeply as we can in our insatiable pursuit of the question, “How did we come to be here?”    To paraphrase Kierkegaard, Life moves forward, but it is only understood backwards.

This is true of the life of the universe, and is also true of each of our individual lives.  We live our lives forward from the moment of our birth, but we only  make sense of our lives — make our lives meaningful — by looking backward from the point at which we now stand.  And as we grow and mature, as we gain experience with both joy and sorrow, how we make sense of our lives, the meaning that we are able to take from our lives, invariably shifts as our perspective shifts.   Just as physicists and astronomers look back into the light of ancient stars and seek to construct a narrative of our universe that renders it sensible and meaningful, so are we constantly writing and re-writing our own narratives to give sensibility and meaning to the journey of our personal lives.

What is true of our lives is also true of the life of Jesus.  His life moved forward from the moment of his birth, but the church has only been able to make sense and meaning of his life by looking backward from a particular point in time.

On the day that Jesus of Nazareth was born, his birth was of interest to no one beyond his family and their friends, and perhaps the community and synagogue into which he was born.   His family held no important position, and their existence was not considered any more important than that of the average Nazarene.

So no one took particular notice of Jesus, as the lack of any substantive stories about his childhood seems to symbolize.   No one took notice of Jesus until he burst upon the scene proclaiming, “The kingdom of God has drawn near.”   No one took notice of Jesus until his preaching and his teaching and his healing of people gave him a reputation that drew people to him in large numbers.  The rabbi Jesus was someone to behold — the rabbi Jesus was not to be missed.

Then it all seemed to fall apart.  Jesus was arrested, crucified, his movement imploded, and everyone thought it was over.  And into the dark despair of his most intimate friends, at the moment when any hope that being with Jesus had kindled within them seemed to fade, a singular, life-altering, mind-bending moment irrupted into their lives:  the Risen Christ appeared among them.  They experienced Jesus as somehow being alive.  It was, you might say, the theological equivalent of the Big Bang.  It was the moment when everything changed.

And it was also from that singular moment that those first Christians began to look backward through the life of Jesus.  In the Risen Christ, they experienced God as with them.   And as they thought about their time with Jesus in the light of this experience, they realized that whenever they were with Jesus, they had experienced God as with them in him.   And so, this must be what Jesus had always been, from the very moment of his birth:  God with them, God with us.  In Hebrew, that idea is captured by the word, “Emmanuel”.

Held, as they were, in thrall by this perception, by this experience of Emmanuel — God-with-us in Jesus — they began to build a narrative of Jesus’ life that actually begins with the Resurrection and moves backward through everything that they remembered of what Jesus had done and said.   They tried to tell us as much as they could of the facts of Jesus’ life, but more than that, they wanted to tell us that when they were with Jesus, they knew that God was with them.  They wanted us deeply to know this, so that we could experience God with us in Jesus, as well.  Because for them, this truth held hope for the world.  For them, this truth held the key to living a transformed life rooted in God.   For them, this truth was everything.

So tonight, as we hear once again Luke’s achingly beautiful telling of the story of Jesus’ birth, it is just like going out into a dark place and looking  up at the light of the stars.   That story comes to us as a light that has traveled through time and space, a light whose origin is shrouded in mystery.   We so often end up wondering about its factuality, raised as we have been in an environment that equates truth with fact.  But that is not the kind of wondering Luke’s story is meant to provoke in us.  No, Luke’s story is meant to provoke in us the same kind of wonder that we experience when we look up into the night sky.   It is meant to move us into a place of awe, which is why it is so awe-somely told:  with angels singing, and shepherds abiding, and animals lowing, and the stars shining in the heavens.  Just as the lives of the first followers of Jesus ended up revolving around the Resurrection, that singular moment that changed everything, so did they tell the story of Jesus’ birth as if it were the singular moment around which all of creation revolved on that night so long ago.   Because they were not simply telling us the story of a baby’s birth; they were telling us the story of God with us in Jesus.

I don’t know what your life might be revolving around these days.  Maybe you’re not sure yourself, at least some of the time.  But tonight, each of us is invited once again to stand in the darkness of a hurting, imperiled, uncertain world and look up at the light of the Christmas story.   As that beautiful light filters down to us from centuries ago, our task is not to analyze it, but to fall in love with it.  And when we fall in love with this beautiful, ancient story, we fall in love with Emmanuel.  And we can believe again in the possibility and the power of God-with-us.   It is a power that completely changed the lives of Jesus’ first friends, and it is a power that can change our lives now.  And through us, it is a power that can change the world.

God-with-us is the power of hope.  God-with-us is the power of love.  It is the power of realizing that God is not simply out there somewhere, but is within and among us, as Jesus himself said (Luke 17:21).  Human history is a testament to how badly we need this power of God-with-us, and how often we misunderstand it, or forget it all together.

We remember tonight the birth of Jesus in history, the appearance of Emmanuel:  God-with-us, and the beauty of the light he brought into the world.  We pray tonight for the re-birth of Christ in our hearts, that we may know the power of God-with-us, and shine that beautiful, ancient light into the dark, suffering corners of our own souls, and of the world.

God is Not a Cosmic Vending Machine

The following is a restatement of a sermon I preached at the 8 AM service at Trinity, Menlo Park, on July 25, 2010.  It is a “restatement” because I am recreating it after the fact, since I seldom preach with notes.  It is based on two biblical passages:  Genesis 18:20-32 and Luke 11:1-13.

Whenever I hear that passage from Luke’s Gospel where the disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray, I think of the ups and downs of my own prayer life, and I think of a woman I knew several years ago in the first congregation I served.  She had had her children relatively later in her life, and as is usually the case with new mothers, having children changed her perspective on life in many ways.  One the ways her perspective changed is that she became very sensitive to the problems of the larger world.  She found it almost impossible to watch the news, with its unending string of dismal stories about terrible happenings around the globe.   So troubled was she by the idea of her children growing up in such a troubled world, she was led ultimately into a kind of crisis of faith.  She invited me to lunch one day, and told me that she was very disturbed by the whole business of intercessory prayer.  It was clear to her that when people who were sick, for example, were prayed for, sometimes they did indeed get better, but sometimes they did not.  It seemed to her that this either meant that God was not there, or that God was rather capricious and arbitrary about which prayers were answered and which were not, since there was no discernible criteria that seemed to indicate which prayers God would grant and which prayers God would not grant.   And it was not very satisfactory to simply say that God’s ways were inscrutable, and that therefore, it was not for us to know why these things were the way they were.

I’m sure that none of you have ever had these problems!  I’m sure that all of this has always been perfectly clear to you!

Of course, these questions related to prayer are questions we have all had and perhaps continue to have.  Because the truth is that when it comes to getting results from prayer, it does seem that God either is not there or is acting in a very arbitrary manner.  And it does not satisfy any of us to simply say that God’s ways are mysterious.

I think, however, if we look carefully at today’s Gospel, we might find a way forward, an insight into what prayer is really all about.   Jesus does not tell the disciples that they should ask God for whatever they want and – poof! – they will get it.  He doesn’t promise them that God will be their go-to source for whatever their hearts desire.   What does he tell them, when he says that if they ask, they shall receive; if they seek, they shall find; if they knock, the door shall be opened to them?  He says that God will give them what they need.   And what is it that they most need?   It is, he says, the Holy Spirit.  “If you, then…, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”   That is the only thing Jesus promises, and it is, he says, the only thing that we truly need.   And what is the Holy Spirit?  It is our connection to God, it is the presence of God in our lives, it is a sign of God’s friendship with us.  And it is this friendship that is meant to accompany us through our lives, during the happy times we cherish and those times when we struggle and suffer and wish that life were different than it is.  That is what we need:  God’s friendship.

This same principle is really also operating in the story from Genesis for this morning, one of my favorites.  I love hearing Abraham bargaining with God over the impending destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.  “Well, what if there are 40 righteous people, will you do it then?”  “No, I won’t do it if there are 40 righteous people.”  “Well, then, what if there are 30? or 20? or 10?”  It’s interesting that Abraham stops at 10 — that’s the number of Jewish men required in the tradition of that time in order to have a valid prayer gathering.  And I can imagine God’s exasperation with Abraham during this whole bargaining process.  But what Abraham and the Bible are reminding us about through this story, is the importance which is attached to being a friend of God.  For what is a righteous person, if not someone who actively cultivates friendship with God?  The heart of this story is this righteousness – this friendship – and its infinite value not only to us, but also to God.  In the story, Abraham clearly believes that this friendship is the one thing that the residents of these two famously evil cities need.

So, when Jesus teaches his disciples about prayer, he makes it clear that God is not to be approached as some kind of cosmic vending machine, into which we can expect to deposit our prayer and out of which will come the thing that we seek, whether that be success or health or whatever.   Prayer is not about magic, it is not about making our life something other than it is.  God is not a wizard with a magic wand, waiting to wave it over the worthy and withhold its power from the unworthy.  Life is not just about the happy parts that we relish.  It’s also about the struggle and the suffering and the hard parts, all of which contribute to our growth as human beings and the deepening of the soul, whether we like it or not.  What we need, Jesus teaches us, is not to have these struggles magically brought to an end.  What we need is the friendship of God.

And that is where faith comes in.  It’s not so much about having faith in God’s existence, but having faith in God’s friendship as the one thing that we truly need to make it through all of what life is about.   That’s the faith that we are challenged to have:  the faith that God’s friendship is truly enough, truly the one necessary thing.