"Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades. Now write what you have seen, what is, and what is to take place after this." Rev. 1:17-19.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Jesus at the March for Science?!

Second Sunday of Easter, Year A

Almighty and everlasting God, who in the Paschal mystery established the new covenant of reconciliation: Grant that all who have been reborn into the fellowship of Christ's Body may show forth in their lives what they profess by their faith; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
I suspect that we are all well acquainted with the upper room. It’s the place where we hang out when we’re afraid, when we’re overwhelmed. The doors and windows are shut tight, barricaded against anything we feel might threaten us. There’s no streaming sunlight to inspire us, just the dim gloom of a weak lamp. There’s no breeze to enliven us, just the staleness of our own hot air. Nothing new ever enters that room. It’s safe from danger and cut off from hope. Doubt bounces wildly from one stone wall to the other like a racquetball, sometimes hitting us upside the head and making it hard to focus. Often we lock ourselves up in this room with other people. But they’re always people who think just like we do, who look just like we do. They are “safe people,” people who can share in our feast of fear. Other times, we wander the world, but keep the four walls of the upper room around us like blinders. Even when we’re out and about, going through the motions of a journey, our hearts, souls, and minds are still closed up tight in that little room.  
There are people who would like to keep us behind the walls of the upper room. They’d like to keep us uncertain and afraid. For political advantage, or for personal gain, they expertly lob balls of doubt into the room. In the first century, I can imagine those in power launching all kinds of distressing ideas about Jesus.
“He was crazy, you know,” they whispered. “Thought he was the Son of God and the King of Israel!” Whack, goes the ball.
“I heard that some women claim that his tomb is empty. Well, my cousin’s neighbor’s friend saw some women sneaking out of the burial garden last night with a body. You can’t trust what women say, you know. They’re too emotional. They make stuff up all the time.” Whack goes another one.
“Can you believe that his disciples left their jobs and families to follow this loser? What a shame. Mark my words, they’ll all end up on crosses, too.” Double whack.
 How those threatening balls of doubt must have echoed around that upper room in the days following Jesus’ death. They would have caused such pain and paralysis to his stunned disciples. I’m not at all surprised that Thomas had trouble believing that Jesus had been there while he was out. In the upper room, you can’t even trust your friends anymore.
These days, we might wonder about the implausibility of resurrection. We might fret over why God lets bad things happen to good people. I’m not sure, though, that these are the questions that drive us into locked rooms. These aren’t the questions that throw our very existence into an uproar. I think that we progressive Christians have done a pretty good job of learning to embrace our religious doubt as a part of our faith journey. We encourage healthy questioning and rational thought. We welcome science. We are proud of our slogan that there’s no need to check your brains at the door in the Episcopal Church!
If only that meant that we no longer deal with the fear and paralysis of the upper room. These days, it seems as if the sowers of doubt are attacking not just Christians, but also our fellow truth-seekers, the scientists. The recent book and documentary, The Merchants of Doubt, describes how paid pseudo-scientists kept us in doubt for years about the dangers of things like cigarette smoking, sugar consumption, and the chemical DDT. While we huddled in doubt and indecision, companies made millions of dollars.[1] As the protesters in the world’s streets this weekend know all too well, these days, the balls of doubt that are being flung deal with climate change, with environmental protections, with what news is real and what news is fake, even with the truth itself.
 “There’s no consensus,” the doubt-merchants proclaim. Whack goes that hard rubber ball.
“There’s considerable uncertainty about the data,” they whisper. Whack.
 “How sure can we be?” they coax. Another whack.
“You’re not an expert—how do you know who is telling the truth?” Double whack.
Like Jesus’ disciples, we don’t know. We’re not experts. We don’t want to hang our lives on a lie. We don’t want to look foolish. We don’t want to upend our world for no good reason. We don’t want to risk the consequences of change. So we huddle inside the gray, airless upper room, afraid to take any action greater than clicking around aimlessly on the Internet, wondering who and what to believe.
It’s in the room, however, that Jesus appears to his fearful, doubting disciples—not just once, but as many times as it takes to reach out to us all. Our walls can’t keep him out. Neither can our despair or our uncertainty discourage him from coming to us. Jesus himself is truth. To know truth is to be in relationship with Jesus. “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” he promises us. Knowing Jesus isn’t having the right answers. It is opening ourselves to his presence with us.
In Jesus’ presence, we feel frenzy give way to peace. “Peace be with you,” Jesus says first to the disciples. “Peace be with you,” he says to Thomas. For Jesus, this is more than a greeting, more than a formality. Remember Jesus’ words at the Last Supper:  “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” Peace, shalom, is wholeness. It is completeness and well-being. It is reconciliation. It is oneness with God and neighbor and world. The peace that the resurrected Jesus brings with him into the upper room is reflected in those glorious words from the book of Revelation: “Look and see, the dwelling place of God is with human beings … God will wipe away every tear from their eyes … Look and see, I make all things new.” The peace of the resurrected Jesus is the peace of creation the way that God means for it to be. A creation made new. A creation ripped from the grasping hands of the merchants of doubt.
In Jesus’ presence, we also feel despair give way to inspiration. Bishop Jake Owensby points out that the root of the verb “to inspire” means “to fill with breath.”[2] When Jesus breathes on the disciples, he’s not just doing some strange ancient magical act. He’s filling them with new life, with new energy, with God’s energy. He’s blowing the dust from their minds so that they can think in a new way. He’s blowing open their hearts so that they can love in a new way. He’s fortifying them against the merchants of doubt. He’s giving them the strength to go back out into a hostile, self-seeking world and to live lives of reconciliation and healing.
The merchants of doubt want to paralyze and divide. They seek to profit from inaction and confusion and obfuscation of truth. Their effectiveness depends on their remaining hidden and unknown. Their effectiveness depends on us remaining asleep in the upper room. They are no match for the risen Christ. In the words of poet Christian Wiman, the risen Christ comes “letting grace wake love from our intense, self-enclosed sleep.”[3] He reveals himself in a human gesture, in the bread and wine, in scripture, in music, in nature, in community, always bearing his wounds and helping us to recognize our own. To believe, after all, comes from the Old English root “to love.” In these difficult days, when you don’t know where to turn, or who to believe, when the merchants of doubt have you in confusion, remember the peace of Christ, the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Breathe and reach out your hand in love. Bear your wounds. Revel in relationship. Jesus promises us that through believing, through living in his love, we will indeed “have life in his name.”

[1] http://noblesseoblige.org/2015/03/01/merchants-of-doubt-what-climate-deniers-learned-from-big-tobacco/
[2] Jake Owensby, found at https://jakeowensby.com/2017/04/22/immigrating-to-a-new-world/
[3] Christian Wiman, “God is Not Beyond,” Christian Century, February 24, 2009 (22).

Friday, April 14, 2017

All the Way Through

Good Friday

Almighty God, we pray you graciously to behold this your family, for whom our Lord Jesus Christ was willing to be betrayed, and given into the hands of sinners, and to suffer death upon the cross; who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

In Helen Waddell’s novel Peter Abelard, Peter and a friend are walking through the forest and discussing the world’s pain. Peter’s friend notices a fallen log on the ground, a log that has been sawed in two, exposing the inner rings.
“That dark ring there, it goes up and down the whole length of the tree, but you only see it where it is cut across,” he points out. “That’s what Christ’s life was; the bit of God that we saw.” Abelard asks, "You think that all ... the pain of the world, was Christ's cross?" The friend replies, "God's cross ... And it goes on [and on.]"[1]
The Cross of Christ that we venerate tonight is the tree suddenly broken open, God’s suffering dramatically exposed to view. And yet, that suffering runs all the way through the life of our Creator.
In choosing to bring life to the world, not from outside the world, but from within the depths of the world, God shares in the world’s pain. 
To trace the dark ring of God’s suffering deeper through the wood, let's turn to the prophet Isaiah’s Suffering Servant. Often, we Christians make Isaiah’s poem simply into an allegory for Jesus—Jesus punished by God “for our iniquity.” Isaiah, however, writing to the exiled Jews in Babylon, wasn’t specifically writing about Jesus. No one knows exactly “who” the Suffering Servant is, and we can’t draw neat, clean lines that match him up with any historical figure. Isaiah 53 isn’t just a nice prophecy about Jesus that we can drag out on Good Friday, admire, and then put away again. It’s not a logical explanation of the mechanics of redemption, either. It’s a poem that leads us deep into the heart of our compassionate God.
The first kind of suffering that God dives into in this poem is deformity. Isaiah portrays the Servant as a hideous creature. He seems to have a facial disfigurement so horrible that we almost don’t recognize that he’s human.  This creature is like all of the parts of ourselves that we hate. He’s the ugliness that war and human greed wreak upon God’s amazing creation: clear streams turned neon green, cities gashed by bombs, forests mowed down like wheat, mountains blown open and left to bleed, majestic species gone missing. God suffers deformity along with his servant.
We reject God’s Servant in this poem; indeed, we despise him. We hold him of no account. He is like all of the peoples who have ever been enslaved, like the lost ones who crouch under freeway overpasses and cry behind walls. He is like the foreigner, the prisoner, the outcast, like all those who are pushed away because they are different. God suffers rejection along with his servant.
The Servant suffers from pain and illness in this poem, too. The Hebrew says that he is “a man of pain;” defined by his physical suffering. Moreover, he does not just bear his own sickness, but ours as well. Even though we can’t be bothered to look at him, he is ground down by the sickness of the world. He is like all of those suffering from illness in places where doctors fear to tread, like soldiers and civilians wounded in war, like the teenagers bloody from gang violence in no-man’s land. He’s like children mowed down by guns at school, like people in hospital beds that no one bothers to visit. God suffers physical pain along with his servant.
The servant suffers unjustly. Like Job, he never does anything to merit his grief. It all happens by life gone awry. He never even complains about his lot. He remains as silent as a baby lamb who doesn’t know enough to cry out before his throat is cut. He does violence to no one, but justice completely passes him by. He is like the children of poverty, like the caste-less and the homeless, the victims of abuse, the millions who never get a chance. God suffers persecution along with his servant.
Oh, how we would like to take the Suffering Servant, the Suffering God, the Suffering Christ, the Suffering neighbor, the Suffering land, the Suffering heart, and put them aside, where they don’t hurt our eyes and cut into our hearts. But they are all a part of us, and we cannot let any of them go. And so, our loving God joins us, remaking our decaying world and our decomposing souls by his constant healing presence within them, lifting up, exalting, loving, transforming, turning inside out.
Far outside of the realm of our categories and understandings, the true power of God works with a strange, compassionate grace—a grace that can bring a broken people back from exile, a grace that can rebuild out of crushed dreams, a grace that can make the Crucified One our Risen Lord and Savior, a grace that can heal and transform our lives.
Poet Wendell Berry writes:
“…These times we know much evil, little good/ To steady us in faith/ And comfort when our losses press/ Hard on us, and we choose,/ In panic or despair or both,/ To keep what we will lose./ For we are fallen like the trees, our peace/ broken, and so we must/ Love where we cannot trust,/ Trust where we cannot know,/ And must await the wayward-coming grace/ That joins living and dead,/ Taking us where we would not go--/ Into the boundless dark./ When what was made has been unmade/ The Maker comes to His work.”[2]

        Not just on Good Friday, but every day, we live and move and have our being within the embrace of a God who has always known the darkness, a God who loves where God cannot trust and trusts where God cannot know. Hold tight, today and every day, to the hand of the one who walks with us through the darkness, the hand of the one who created the Light.

[1] Shared in a lecture by the Rev. Martin Smith, The School of Theology of the University of the South, July 2017, and found in his article found at https://www.questia.com/magazine/1P3-2622999731/god-s-cross-to-bear
[2] Wendell Berry, from “Sabbaths 2.” Can be found at: http://alteredfaces.blogspot.com/2013/03/wednesday-words-lenten-selections-week-4.html

[1] Wendell Berry, from “Sabbaths 2.” Can be found at: http://alteredfaces.blogspot.com/2013/03/wednesday-words-lenten-selections-week-4.html