"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, May 13, 2017

Preparing a Place

Easter 5A 


Almighty God, whom truly to know is everlasting life: Grant us so perfectly to know your Son Jesus Christ to be the way, the truth, and the life, that we may steadfastly follow his steps in the way that leads to eternal life; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

In March, I rented a cabin at an inn in Eastern Kentucky for a short retreat. It was a gray, bone-chilling day, much too cold for the season, with whipping wind and spitting snow. Entering the cabin, my heart melted as quickly as the ice on my boots. There was a gas fire already burning in the fireplace, sending a warm glow around the homey room. In small vases on each table, there were tiny bouquets of spring flowers. In the kitchen, there was a fresh-baked loaf of banana bread and an assortment of teas, already set out, just for me. Magazines and books were spread around the room, beckoning. The d├ęcor was full of comfy cushions and warm, natural wood. Everything that I saw in that cabin was carefully prepared to offer immediate welcome—to say, “Come, rest here in my arms. You are cared for, just be.
Now, I paid a hefty sum for my welcome on that winter day. But there are times, aren’t there, when we prepare a place for a loved one, just because we love them? I’m thinking of expectant parents, excitedly preparing the nursery for a new baby, picking out the safest crib, gently placing tiny outfits in dresser drawers, all for a child as yet unborn. I’m thinking of newlyweds, preparing their first apartment for the couple that they are still becoming, carefully blending “his” and “hers,” choosing just the right picture to hang over the bed. I’m thinking of children, preparing the house for their new puppy, still at the kennels. They pick out just the right chew toy at the pet store, set soft blankets in the crate, find the perfect spot for the food and water bowls near the family kitchen table. I’m thinking of adult children, preparing a parent’s final earthly home. They are entering into a new kind of relationship with mom or dad, uncertain, as they haul in mom’s favorite dresser or dad’s favorite chair. They choose and hang family photos, as they make a nursing room into a place that treasures what was, and prepares for what will be.
“I go to prepare a place for you,” Jesus tells his disciples in today’s Gospel. Speaking to his disciples right before he is taken away to be crucified, Jesus offers them the rather confusing words of comfort that we hear today. When we read this scripture, we often assume that it is a reference to life after death: Jesus ascends to the Father in Heaven and prepares a place for us there when we die. But Jesus isn’t emphasizing “where we go when we die.” We don’t have to wait to die in order to dwell with Jesus in the love of God.
For John, physical location is a symbol of relationship. Poor Thomas thinks that he needs Google Maps in order to find the place where Jesus is going. Instead, John tells us that it is the person of Jesus himself, not some far off place, that is God’s residence. That’s what, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” means. It doesn’t mean that God only cares about Christians. It means that we don’t set off on a journey to “find God” all by ourselves. God is here, with us. God dwells in Jesus of Nazareth: Jesus is the face of God on earth. “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father,” Jesus explains to the disciple Philip. The reason that the disciples should know the way to God’s place is that they have already been there—indeed, they are there—as they interact with Jesus himself. They know God as they watch Jesus welcome sinners and eat with them. They know God as they watch Jesus heal what is broken, as they watch him calm the storm and give sight to the blind.
The many “rooms” or “dwelling places” in God’s house are, in the Greek, “resting places.” They are “abiding places” where we can be in relationship with God, as closely as Jesus is in relationship with Him. Jesus brings us into the deep, life-changing relationship that he shares with the Father. In Jesus, we can be who we truly are, unafraid of rejection. In Jesus, forgiveness abounds, more than we could ever earn or deserve. In Jesus, deep joy wells up, and spills over to those around us. These abiding places are here, in us, in the love of this Jesus, in whose name we pray.
I immediately thought about the ways in which our young people describe their experiences at All Saints’ Camp. “We can be ourselves in that place,” they all say. “We matter.” “It’s OK to be silly and have fun.” “People from all different races and places and groups can dare to come together as one, to accept one another despite differences.” [Ask kids if they can add anything to this.] The children might tell us that All Saints’ is a magical place. But it’s not the piece of land in Leitchfield that is magical. It’s the amazing power that comes to us when we are in Christ, and Christ is in us, and Christ is working through us, doing more than we can ask or imagine.
Indeed, I have an image of preparing a place that is perhaps better than the country inn that I visited, better than my description of family members caring for their own. One night, Episcopalians of all ages gathered in a quite dingy and bare apartment in south Louisville. They hauled in boxes and boxes of things that the whole parish had collected for a refugee family from the Congo, more than the family would probably really need. We hooked up a TV set; we vacuumed and swept; we set food items in the pantry that would remind the family of their old home in Africa; we set the table for a feast. We hung clothes in the closets and put pretty towels in the bathroom. Teens, who usually groaned about making up their own beds, grinned as they made up these beds, choosing toys and stuffed animals to spread around the children’s bedroom. Every detail was carefully and lovingly arranged in welcome. Although strangers--strangers who spoke a foreign tongue and whose ways we did not know-- this family was about to rest in this place here with us in the presence of Christ. We weren’t just preparing an apartment for KRM, we were abiding in the love of God, and we could feel the joy and rightness of it.
In Christ, in the relationships where he meets us, we will no longer roam as rootless refugees through the earth, hungry for home. Instead, we will become the stones brought together as God’s home, secured by Christ, our Cornerstone, and as tightly in relationship with one another as the stones in the home that our children have built for us today.*
Children, what will happen if you take away the big brick, the cornerstone, from underneath your home? (It will fall.) What will happen if you take out any of the stones from inside the walls? (It will fall.) We are the stones. Christ is the cornerstone. All are indispensable and intertwined—now, today. Abide in one another. Abide in the God who abides in you, always rearranging your furniture. Become the living place that Jesus prepares for the life of the world.

*Say to the children, before the readings. “Children, I have a job for you to do today. You are going to hear a lot about rocks and stones in today’s readings. Every time you hear the word “stone” or “rock,” I would like for you to pick up several stones from this box and collect them on the ground in front of you. Then during the sermon, I want for you to use all of the stones to build a wonderful home, right on this brick here. The brick is your cornerstone. It will hold your building together. Remember, use all the stones to build one home. No fair each building your own little thing. I need for all of you to work together to build ONE. It will help the grown-ups understand the sermon, so I’m counting on you. OK?
 Photo of cabin at Snug Hollow Bed and Breakfast, https://snughollow.com/

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 locked 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 locked 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 locked 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 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 locked 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 locked 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 little 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 locked 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).