Sunday, 19 May 2019

The Repentance That Leads to Life (Acts 11:1-18)

(Homily for Gayton Road Christian Church's Worship on May 19, 2019, Easter V)



Conversion

Growing up, I learned at church that conversion was the most important moment in your life.  It was the moment when you finally surrendered to God.  It was the moment you gave up your struggle against sin and turned your life over completely to God.  Usually you did this by saying a prayer.  An adult—maybe the pastor, or maybe a camp counselor if you were at summer camp—would give you the words to say.  I still remember a Sunday School teacher telling me that the day you were converted was like a birthday, that you should cherish it and always remember it.

I wonder if Peter cherished the day of his conversion.  If he did, I wonder which day he cherished.  Perhaps more than any other character in the Bible, Peter complicates the conversation about conversion—because it is not clear when he is converted.  Was Peter’s conversion the day when he left his fishing nets at the Lake of Gennesaret and began to follow to Jesus (Luke 5:11)?  If this were his conversion, I’m not sure it really took, because he and the disciples demonstrate a distinct lack of trust and the occasional misunderstanding in their gospel adventures.  Maybe his conversion was later.  Maybe it was the day when he confessed that Jesus was “the Christ of God” (Luke 9:20).  But again, I’m not sure how effective this conversion was, because later Peter denies Jesus not just once, but three times (Luke 22:61).  Maybe, then, his conversion was the moment in today’s scripture when he receives the Spirit’s enlightenment regarding the question of who and what are clean and unclean (Acts 10:1-11:18).

I could go on with even more examples, but the point to be made is clear by now.  Peter is the founder of the church, the first and foremost among the church’s leaders.  And he is continually converted, continually changed, continually wrong and continually reformed.  There is no single moment of conversion in his life.  Rather his entire life is a story of conversion.

If that is the case for the leader of the church, the Christian par excellence in the early church, then how much more so might it be the case for you and me?

A Seismic Shift

Today’s scripture ends with the joyous proclamation, “God has given even to the gentiles the repentance that leads to life” (11:18).  Generally readers have focused on the gentile of the story, the Roman centurion Cornelius, as a model for conversion.  But as I’ve already suggested, there is another conversion in today’s scripture, another example of repentance.  And in my mind, it’s just as significant if not more so.  It’s a seismic conversion.

For centuries, the Jewish people have kept a safe distance from the gentiles, the people outside the Jewish faith.  On the surface, this separation was simply the result of the Jewish law.  Certain foods, such as pork and shellfish, were prohibited.  To mingle with gentiles would be to risk the possibility that they might eat forbidden food.  But on a deeper level, this separation was a matter of cultural survival.

Imagine that you are a Jewish person living in first century Palestine.  Roman soldiers patrol your streets daily.  More and more, you’re hearing people speak the common language, Greek, instead of the sacred tongue, Hebrew, or its cousin, Aramaic.  It’s not hard to see where all this is going.  Living as a minority in the empire of Rome, the Jewish people face the slow decay of their identity.  If you are not careful to protect the boundaries between “us” and “them,” then one day you will wake up and everyone will have become “them.”  Your eating at separate tables and keeping a distance from the gentiles is nothing personal.  It’s simply a matter of preserving your identity, your rich heritage as a Jewish person.

Now it’s important to remember that the earliest followers of Christ were Jewish followers of Christ.  They maintained their Jewish identity even as they proclaimed that Jesus was the messiah.  Peter was no different.  So you can imagine his surprise when he has this dream where God tells him—not once, but three times (hmm…that’s beginning to feel like a theme in Peter’s life)—that what Peter calls unclean, God considers clean.  If that’s true, that’s a potential deathblow to Peter’s heritage.  The table had been one of the last strongholds of Jewish identity: one of the places where the Jewish people could clearly distinguish between “us” and “them.”  Now, though, there’s nothing to prevent mixing at the table.  There is no forbidden food.  But that’s not all.  After Peter has his dream, he visits with the family of a Roman centurion, Cornelius, and there he discovers that this “clean” and “unclean” business does not pertain only to food.  It pertains to people too.  For the first time in his life, he sees the Holy Spirit in a gentile.  He’s flabbergasted.  He’s overwhelmed.  The fault lines of his soul have shifted.  He is converted.  He repents.  As he says to the church in Jerusalem, “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” (11:17).

All of which is to say: Cornelius, the Roman soldier, is not the only character who changes in today’s scripture.  Peter and the church also change, as they come to welcome gentiles into their gathering as equals.  Without that change, you and I (who are gentiles) would not be gathered here today.

Accepted Just As They Were

What’s perhaps most revolutionary about the change in Peter and the early church is that they do not require their newfound gentile brothers and sisters to adopt their way of doing church.  They could have said, “We see, friends, that the Holy Spirit is with you.  But in order to break bread with us, you will have to adopt a few more practices: you can’t eat pork, you have to observe the Jewish high holy days, and sorry, guys, but circumcision is a must.” 

Instead, Peter and the early church saw that God had already accepted the gentiles just as they were.  They didn’t need to do anything else to belong.

It’s sort of like what happened up in Alexandria, Virginia, a little over a decade ago at Fair-Park Baptist Church.  Fair-Park had merged ten years before with another Baptist church as both congregations diminished.  After ten years of their merged existence, however, they were declining once more.  So they began to explore the idea of a church re-start.  What emerged was a bold proposal: how about a church that partnered intentionally with the local arts community?  And not only that—they wouldn’t require that the artists adopt their way of doing church.  In other words, this wouldn’t simply be church with an artistic flourish.  This would be artists doing church in a new way.  They wouldn’t have to use the same formulaic, paint-by-numbers liturgy that the church had used for years on end.  They wouldn’t have to wear their Sunday best in order to attend.  They wouldn’t even necessarily worship on Sunday. 

Like the gentiles in the early Christian community, the artists did not have to adopt the present blueprint of church in order to be included.  Why not?  Because Fair-Park recognized that the Holy Spirit was already moving among the arts community.  “Artists engage the transcendent and the prophetic on a daily basis,” they observed.[1]  They are always finding fresh, insightful ways to express ancient truths.  Perhaps their gifts were just what Fair-Park needed in a time when it had more and more trouble connecting with the community around it.  What resulted from the convergence of this church and these artists, looks very much like what we see at the end of today's scripture.  It was a repentance that led to life—for the church and for the artists.

Sunday Sojourns

If the early church is any indication, we as a church are always being called to conversion, to repentance.  The Spirit is always one step ahead of us, somewhere beyond us, drawing us into new ways of being the church.   And the good news is that our conversion, our repentance, leads to life—not only for us, the church, but for others in the world too.

I wonder how our church might be called to conversion today.  I wonder if there is a community outside these walls where the Spirit is moving.  I wonder if there might be a way to welcome them into our community without all the conditions: Sunday worship, a certain unspoken attire, gathering in only one building.  I wonder if there might be a way for us to gather with them around a table somewhere, somehow, to break bread and bear witness to the body of Christ.

In a little over month, we’ll sojourn for a Sunday with the memory care unit and other residents at Symphony Manor.  And a month after that, we’ll sojourn with the homeless and the hungry downtown by the Coliseum.  These are folks who would be unlikely to join us on a Sunday, to do church our way.  But I have a holy hunch we might find the Spirit moving among them.  Them for whom “daily bread” is a daily, real-life prayer; them who are unencumbered by possession and its enslaving effects; them for whom trust is a way of life, even though for many of them it has been regularly betrayed. 

Perhaps in them we will encounter the beginning of our own conversion, our own repentance that leads to life.

Prayer

Uncontainable God,
Whose embrace is bigger than we imagine,
Whose table is not a boundary or a border
But a banquet of unconditional welcome—
Lead us on the next leg
Of our journey of conversion.
Draw us out of ourselves
And into the community,
Where your Spirit is already moving.
Draw us into the repentance
That leads to life.
In Christ, who reconciles us to one another: Amen.



[1] https://ourconvergence.org/about/history, accessed May 14, 2019.


Sunday, 12 May 2019

More Life Now (Acts 9:36-43)

(Homily for Gayton Road Christian Church's Worship on May 12, 2019, Easter IV)



Cats’ Nine Lives

They say that cats have nine lives.  Already, I think, my brother’s cat Sydney is on his second.  Sydney is about a year old and the friendliest, most outgoing cat I know.  He’s the opposite of the proverbial “scaredy cat.”  He greets every stranger with a leg rub.  When the vacuum cleaner emerges from the closet and turns on, Sydney’s brother scampers under the bed.  But Sydney saunters over to the vacuum cleaner to sniff it, as if to say, “Welcome back to the house, old friend.”  When the coffee grinder begins grinding, Sydney hops up onto the counter and watches with curiosity.

Sydney regularly lounges at the highest elevation he can find: countertops, bookshelves, window ledges.  It was probably from one of these places that he had his mysterious fall.  One morning my brother and sister-in-law woke up to find that Sydney could barely walk.  He was hobbling around gingerly, barely using one of his back paws.  For a few days, it appeared that Sydney’s jumping and climbing days were over.  One could even argue that his life wouldn’t even really be life anymore, as he was restricted from doing all the things he loved to do.

But we should have known better.  Cats have nine lives.  Sydney had only expended his first.  Within a couple weeks, he was traipsing about the house again: rushing to the door to greet strangers, hopping onto whatever height he could find.  Contrary to our grim expectations, life was far from over for Sydney.

Widows in Jerusalem

In ancient Palestine, life was practically over for you if you were a widow.  In a society run by men, widows quickly fell through the cracks.  They had no man to support them or to protect them.  You may remember from our reading of the gospel of Mark how Jesus singles out the widows as a particularly vulnerable group in Jerusalem.  In particular, he criticizes the religious leaders for failing to take care of the widows in Jerusalem: rather than support them, he says, they demand taxes from them.  They rob them of their households.

Imagine that for all your life a man had provided for you: first your father, then your husband.  They made sure there was food on the table.  They made sure there were clothes enough to wear through the year.  And then one day they’re all gone.  What do you do in this world where men buy and sell and provide and negotiate?  You’re a nothing, a nobody in that world.  There’s no way you could break into their world of business.  There’s no way you could manage.

But against all the odds, life was not over for the widows in Jerusalem—because there was a disciple of Jesus named Tabitha who devoted her ministry to the widows and made sure that they had what they needed.   When the weather turned cool and they had no coat, there was Tabitha with thick, tight-knit tunics that she had made herself for them to wear.  The book of Acts doesn’t say this, but I imagine it was same thing whenever the widows went hungry.  There would be Tabitha, ready to give thanks for whatever bread she had, and to break it and share it with every last person in her company.  I like to think of Tabitha as a Rhonda Sneed on the streets of Jerusalem.  Because of her, the widows were not at a dead-end.  For them, life was far from over.

A Resurrection into This Life

All of this brings us to today’s scripture.  Not only does Tabitha die.  The widows of Jerusalem have died a little too.  Their life is a dead-end again.  As Peter ascends the stairs to the room where Tabitha’s body lies, I imagine he can hear muffled weeping from within the room.  And as he enters, our scripture tells us, he sees the widows grieving together, sharing with each other the loving handiwork of Tabitha, and memories too no doubt.  They must be wondering, “How will we go on now?  Who will be there to help us when we can’t help ourselves?” 

I’m always fascinated with the resurrection stories of persons other than Jesus.  They are miracles, for sure.  But they are not the final miracle.  These resurrections are not the final resurrection, beyond which there is no more death, no more grief, no more pain.  No, these are little resurrections.  Tabitha, in other words, will die again one day.  Her body has not escaped an eventual burial.  How then are we to describe this resurrection?  Hers is not resurrection into an afterlife later.    Hers is resurrection into this life now.  This resurrection means more life now.  Not only for Tabitha, but also for the widows to whom she ministers.

Notabout Something Later

More life now.  It’s like the second or third or ninth life of a cat, when you think life is surely over but it’s not.  That is the good news according to Acts.  Reading through the first part of the book, I am struck by how often Peter tells the story of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection.  Each time he concludes telling the story, he does not offer the hope of an afterlife.  He proclaims the possibility of more life now, better life now, abundant life now.  He refers to this life differently: sometimes he talks about the Holy Spirit, which is a way of saying that we can live in harmony with God; at another time, he says that following Christ will bring about “times of refreshing” (3:20).  And on another occasion, he addresses a crippled beggar not with money but with a loving touch and a trusting heart, which not only raise the crippled beggar up but also welcome him into community, bringing him more healing than money ever could.  More life now.

The good news that animates the early church is not about something later.  It’s about something now.  It’s about more life when you thought you had reached a dead-end.  It’s about more life when you thought you were in a stalemate.  It’s about more life for all of the people who have reached an impasse—the crippled beggar, the widows of Jerusalem, and Tabitha lying motionless in the upper room.  All of them receive more life now.  Is it magic?  Or is that the power of love, the power of a community whose hands not only give but touch, whose hearts do not give up but ever trust?

Dead-Ends Into New Beginnings

Is this not the power that we bear witness to as Christ-followers?  Is it not the same power that we have experienced today in our own lives?  When in moments of illness, we find healing and a way forward among hands that hold onto us and hearts that won’t let go of us?  When in moments of great change and uncertainty, we discover new opportunities by trusting in the love of God and in the relationships into which it draws us?

We certainly see this power in the trailer next door, in what might be the greatest ministry that happens on this corner of Ridgefield, where people who have reached the dead-end of addiction discover that their life is not in fact over, but that in their shared cry of helplessness and their shared desperation for grace there is more life now.

I want to conclude by sharing a story I heard this past week of an old church in Seattle that was dying.  It had thrived for most of the twentieth century, when it could be taken for granted that most residents of the city were Christian and participated in a community of faith.  But a couple of decades ago, it began to stall.  Shortly after that, it realized that it was entering into a sharp decline.  The city had been changing, but the church had not.  It did a wonderful job of welcoming the already-churched, but it had no way to communicate or relate to the increasing number of unchurched among its city’s population.  It had reached a dead-end.  It appeared that its life was over. 

Its next move was a simple one, inspired by the same book we’re reading today.  Observing that the early church met in houses and around tables, it started what it called “dinner church” on a Thursday night.  For the first time in years, the church began to welcome seekers, non-Christians, and other curious folks who could appreciate a meal, a story, and the strange power of this community’s love and fellowship.

What had looked like the end, became a beginning.  Not through the power of money, not through the power of an extensive program or plan, but through the power of love.  Call it the Holy Spirit, call it resurrection, call it more life now.  Call it whatever you want.  It’s the good news that we proclaim, the good news in which we put our faith.

Prayer

Christ of resurrection,
Whose love transforms
Dead-ends into new beginnings,
Whose good news is more life now—
Where we are motionless,
Raise us to something new.
And where the needful around us
Have hit an impasse,
Empower us like Tabitha and Peter
To hold their hand
And share our faith
In the possibility of more life now.
Amen.


Sunday, 5 May 2019

A Paddle for Everyone (Acts 2:42-47)

(Homily for Gayton Road Christian Church's Worship on May 5, 2019, Easter III)



Of Canoes and Paddles

My initiation into the youth group at Second Baptist Church was a trip to “the Rivah.”  It was the summer before I entered sixth grade.  The day is memorable for many reasons.  For one, I was not under the supervision of my parents, and so when offered sunscreen by one of the chaperones, I nonchalantly declined.  And paid a horrible price.  I also remember the little canoes that we could paddle in the cove.  A few of my friends and I jumped into one.  At first I paddled it by myself, and it was rather slow going.  But when my friends joined me, the canoe practically took off.  It was a big difference.

Everyone Had a Paddle

When the earliest followers of Christ gathered together in community, they did not have a church building.  They did not have paid staff or professional pastors.  They did not have programs purposefully designed to raise their profile in the public eye.

What they had was much simpler: each other.  In our passage today, which paints the first portrait of the early church, we see a community who gather regularly around tables to break bread and to pray; who come together in small groups to share and to study; and who distribute all that they have among the needful.  Perhaps it’s no wonder that these are the three things they do, for these are the three places where Jesus promises we will always find him: around tables where bread is broken in remembrance of him; in groups as small as two or three who gather in his name; and among the least of these.

There’s one word that’s repeated more than any other in this portrait of the early church.  It’s a word that captures quite well the Spirit of that community.  It’s the word “all.” [1] 

In other words, there were no passengers in the early church.  Everyone had a paddle.

I’m Not Thinking of Sunday

I confess that I regularly confuse the church for a building or a Sunday worship service.  When I hear about a new church, I ask, “Where is it located?  What’s its Sunday worship like?”

Today’s scripture sets me straight.  There’s no mention of a building or a service.  There’s only people—breaking bread, sharing and studying together, and touching the need of the world.

This confusion about church—is it a building and a Sunday service, or is it something else?—helps to explain the two different answers I give when people ask me how Gayton Road Christian Church is doing.  There’s the easy response and then there’s the honest response.  The easy response is that Gayton Road is like many other churches in the western world.  It’s growing smaller, some would say “dying.”

But the honest response is that the church that calls itself Gayton Road Christian Church has nothing to do with this building or the membership roll or the words recited and rituals rehearsed on Sunday morning. 

The church has to do with broken bread that makes us whole.  And as much as I find that here in this building, I also find it across the street with our memory care friends, where the brokenness is very real and the wholeness that much more precious.  The church has to do with two or three or more hearts who have caught a glimpse of God and together seek more.  And as much as I find that here on a Sunday morning, I also find it in hole-in-the-wall diners where God haunts conversations fueled by scripture and coffee.  The church has to do with befriending the needful.  And as much as these offerings plates might promise to do that, I find that flesh-and-blood encounters with the sick or the hurting bring me even closer to the wounded Christ.

So when people ask me how Gayton Road Christian Church is doing, and I give the honest response, I say, “We’re doing great.”  But when I say that, I’m not thinking of Sunday.  I’m thinking of Lu conspiring with Rhonda Sneed and seeking help for the homeless.  I’m thinking of Carl and Marion and Jeff and others whose hunger is for more than tacos.  I’m thinking of Ivan sharing his careful scrapbooking of transgender concerns, and Dolores sharing her ceramic painting of the three wise men at Christmas, and Carol tirelessly changing our worship d├ęcor, and Amanda and Anna crafting a summer’s week of love and learning for our children, and Cinda and Teresa tending to our kitchen and our tables, making sure they’re covered with food and alive with fellowship.  I could go on and on and talk about every single one of you.  Because everyone here carries a paddle—and that is the church.

Wonders and Signs

Our scripture tells us that in that earliest community of Christ-followers, “awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles” (2:43).  “Wonders and signs”—what a great way to talk about what church really is.  Not a building, not a service, but the wonderful and significant ways that we encounter Christ at tables, in small groups, and among the needful.

At Gayton Road, our ministry is organized according to these three sites of encounter with the risen Christ.  And like the early church, we are a community where all are a part of the body.  Everyone has a paddle.  Today an elder from each team will share with you one of the “wonders and signs” that is transpiring in their team.  Perhaps in the months to come you’ll be inspired to pick up a different paddle, or to paddle in a new way.  If you have any interest in the activities of any of the teams, the elders will be in the narthex after church and would be happy to share more with you.

Prayer

Spirit of God,
Who dwells not only in this building,
Who reigns not only in this hour of the week:
Inspire us
Each according to our gifts,
Each according to the needs around us.
Equip us with the paddle you would choose
And empower us together to be the body of Christ
In our communities.
Amen.



[1] This statistic excludes the definite article, pronouns, prepositions, and the conjunction “and.” 


Sunday, 28 April 2019

Subjects of the Risen Christ (Acts 5:27-32)

(Homily for Gayton Road Christian Church's Worship on April 28, 2019, Easter II)



Subjected to Soccer and Gardens

I cannot remember this myself, but I am told that when I was only months old, and would wake my parents up in the wee hours of the night, my dad would regularly take me to the living room and subject me to watching soccer on the television.  A few years later, I would be subjected to watching my older brother play soccer every Saturday.  Is it any wonder I began playing soccer myself?

I remember in fourth grade how my teacher subjected the class to a reading of The Secret Garden.  At first I was bored.  How could a story about a garden fill up nearly four hundred pages?  How would I last?  But subjected to this story day after day, I unconsciously became hooked.  By the end of the book, several friends and I had already decided to try to plant a garden of our own.

A Subject is Subjected

Our society prizes independence.  The self-made man is a distinctly American myth.  The idea is that we are all free subjects.  And the subject—if you’ll remember from grammar lessons long ago—is the hero in a sentence.  The subject comes first.  The subject is the agent, the performer, the one in control.  The subject acts upon objects, rather than being acted upon.

But that is only half of the story of the subject.  The other half, which our society tends to forget, is found in the dictionary.  The dictionary tells us that subject is also a verb.  To “subject” something is to cause it to undergo an experience.  To be subjected to something is to be formed or shaped by something outside us, something over which we have little control.  To be subjected is how a subject is made.  A subject is subjected. 

The full story, then, is this.  There is no free, self-made subject.  All subjects are also the products of experiences and forces outside themselves.  This truth is at the heart of observations like, “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” which is to say, children subjected to the habits of their parents or teachers often assume those same habits.  Or, “choose your friends wisely,” which is to say, we are subjected to the ways of our friends and if exposed to them long enough we may reproduce these ways ourselves. 

Peter and the Disciples: Subjects of the World

The last seven weeks, we journeyed through the gospel of Mark together.  One thing we noticed was how dense, how willfully obtuse, the disciples seemed at times.  For example, Jesus once told his disciples that welcoming little children was the same thing as welcoming him.  What do the disciples do the next chapter when people bring little children to them?  They don’t welcome them.  In fact, they do the opposite: they rebuke them!  Did they not remember what Jesus had just said?

Mark never tells us why the disciples are so uncomprehending, but I have a theory.  They were subjects of the world.  They had been subjected all their lives to stories about how important it was to have power and possessions and prestige.  As residents of an occupied territory, continually harassed and put in their place by the Roman empire, they had been subjected to dreams of overthrowing the empire and repossessing their land and reclaiming their pride.  When Jesus talked about the first being last, or about the great being the least and servants of all, or about welcoming little children, who were nobodies and nothings in the grand scheme of thing—when Jesus shared the gospel, they did not understand it.  They were subjects of the world, where first meant rising to the top, where greatness meant being above others. 

Peter and the Disciples: Subjects of the Risen Christ

But in today’s scripture, something has clearly changed.  In today’s scripture, the same Peter and followers of Christ who couldn’t understand Jesus in Mark, clearly understand him now.  When we find them in front of the Jewish religious leaders today, they have already been in prison twice for proclaiming the gospel. 

It is a dramatic reversal of character.  It is, in fact, the very definition of repentance, which in the Greek means a change of heart and mind.  They had once aspired to power.  But they now proudly bear chains for proclaiming a love that goes to the cross and beyond.

Perhaps it was having been subjected to the dramatic experience of Christ that transforms Peter and the disciples.  Perhaps having seen Jesus give himself in love to the last and the least and the lowly time and again, perhaps having seen how the power of such a love defied death—perhaps this is what changes them.  Now they are subjects of the risen Christ, proclaiming a gospel that would turn the world on its head.  Or as they put it, they are proclaiming “repentance and forgiveness of sins,” which is to say, a radical change of mind and a forgiveness that liberates us from the past and all that we have been subjected to.

Becoming Subjects of the Risen Christ

The dramatic change in Peter and the earliest followers of Christ has me wondering.  For  days—for months—the disciples had followed Jesus but not really understood his message.  Only after the cross and the risen Christ did they really understand.  Only then did they become subjects of Christ.

What about me?  I am a subject of this world in countless ways, not only as a soccer player in my youth or as a gardener in the fourth grade, but also as someone who has been taught the values of saving for the future (Jesus had a thing or two to say about bigger barns); as someone who has been taught the importance of keeping up appearances (Jesus had a thing or two to say about people who act for the sake of being seen); as someone who has been taught the need to compete with others to do well in this world (Jesus had a thing or two to say about trying to get ahead of others). 

What would it mean for me to become more fully a subject of the crucified and risen Christ?

Perhaps, to begin, it means that I need to encounter more fully Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection in the world around me.  I am reminded, for instance, how the most blessed and fulfilled people I know in my life are persons who bear scars but also great love.  Which is to say, they have borne the cross and they also bear witness to resurrection.  In their company, I am subjected to the crucified and risen Christ. 

Perhaps to become more fully a subject about the crucified and risen Christ also means to let go.  Paul continually talks of being “crucified with Christ,” which sounds like a way of saying that Christ helps us to realize some things do not matter as much as we think they do.  Christ liberates us from the concerns and worries that once subjected us.  Thus Paul also talks about the world being crucified to him.  Life no longer means what it once did; in Christ, everything is reordered. 

Today’s passage ends with Peter and the apostles proclaiming, “We are witnesses to these things” (5:32).  There’s a dark note of foreshadowing in that word “witness”; in the Greek, it is the same word for “martyr.”  And indeed, according to tradition, Peter and the apostles will become martyrs.  But I would argue that just important as their death is their life, which reflected a change, a new way of living. 

Today before we pray, I invite you to pause with for just one moment to ponder within.  What is one way that the world continues to subject you, to make you its subject?  (Maybe it has to do with a pattern of behavior; a relationship; the entertainment or news industry; money.)

What is one way that you might subject this part of your life to Christ?  What is one way that you might bear witness to the change and new life that his life calls for?

Prayer

Risen Christ,
Where there remains in us
The vestige of the world’s old ways:
Liberate us by your forgiveness,
And change our hearts and minds,
That we might live
Not as subjects of the world
But as subjects of your love,
In which we are all crucified
And risen to new life.
Amen.


Sunday, 21 April 2019

This Is Not the End (Mark 16:1-8)

(Homily for Gayton Road Christian Church's Worship on April 21, 2019, Easter Sunday)



Looking in Closets

When I was child, I would occasionally linger in closets, reaching behind coats, digging past shoes and boxes and bags, plumbing the room’s depths.  Could I touch the back wall?  Was it just me, or did it feel cooler behind the coats?  Did I feel the prickles of a pine tree, or was that just a loose clothes hanger jabbing me in the back?

I’m sad to share that in all my searching I never found Narnia.  Friends of mine have confessed similar quests from their own childhood with the same result.  I imagine there is an entire generation, if not two or three by now, who can identify with this experience. 

I still remember when I finished the final book of C. S. Lewis’ Narnia  series.  I lay on the edge of my bed, restless.  It was late afternoon in the summer after my fourth grade year.  With no more books left to read, no way to enter into the story, I felt empty.  Peter, Edmund, Lucy—all the characters whose adventures I had shared through hundreds of pages had entered into Narnia for the final time.  But I could not.  I was left in the real world. 

As If He Were Never There in the First Place

In the oldest copies of the gospel of Mark, the story ends at verse 8.  It is a remarkably unsatisfying ending, leaving us on a ledge, not giving us the closure we so desire.  It’s Easter morning, three days after Jesus’ crucifixion.  We go to the empty tomb.  We hear from an anonymous young man the news that Jesus has been raised and has gone ahead of us to Galilee.  Then we turn the page and it’s blank.  That’s it.  The end.

Just as unsatisfying as the nonappearance of the resurrected Jesus is the response of his followers.  Before the crucifixion, Jesus’ twelve disciples all desert him and flee the scene.  Here, after the crucifixion, the remaining few who are faithful hear the news, but instead of sharing it they keep silent out of fear. 

It’s hard not feel sympathy for the resurrected Jesus, wherever he is in Galilee.  He kept telling his followers about the way of love, which was also the way of the cross: how there would be suffering and even death, but also how there would resurrection and new life.  He even told them that he would meet them again in Galilee.  But as far as we can tell at this point in the story, his followers have all abandoned him now.  There will be no reunion. 

One of my students wrote a reflection on this final scene, and his words struck a poignant chord in me.  This ending, he writes, shows the loneliness of Jesus.  His disciples have all deserted him, and now he walks around somewhere in Galilee, but no one knows it.  It’s almost “as if he [were] never [really] there in the first place.” 

A Method to Mark’s Madness?

Since the gospel of Mark was written, readers have been unsatisfied with its ending.  The earliest readers added their own endings to Mark.  Two of these endings still exist.  Some Bibles include them both.  These endings give the story resolution.  They show us the risen Jesus, and they depict the disciples as willing messengers of the good news.

Today readers still betray dissatisfaction with the original ending of Mark.  They try to make sense of it in various ways.  Some have gone so far as to claim that the writer of Mark actually died before he had a chance to complete the story.  Others claim that he wrote a more complete ending, but that it was lost.

But there are others who wonder if perhaps this ending is purposeful.  Perhaps Mark is making a point.  Perhaps Mark writes a non-ending precisely to leave us unsatisfied, restless.  Perhaps Mark wants us to get up off the bed and start searching in closets, behind coats, past shoes and boxes, into the depths of our own world.  Perhaps Mark wants us to do what the followers of Jesus fail to do.  Perhaps “Go…he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him,” is an invitation to the reader, in which “Galilee” signifies the real world and the good news becomes that the risen Jesus isn’t found in heaven above but right here in the dirt and darkness of our world.  Perhaps we are invited to look for the resurrected Jesus in our own lives. 

Perhaps for Mark the story has not ended.  Perhaps now it leaves the page and becomes our story.

Not the End but an Entrance

Did you know that for the first thousand years of Christian history, Christ-followers who depicted the Easter event in art rarely depicted Christ on the cross?  They showed all the scenes around it, including the last supper and the Roman soldiers mocking Christ and then later the empty tomb.  But rarely do we do find Christ on the cross—and when we do, Jesus is clothed and crowned, alive and reigning from the tree, rather than eyes closed and body sagging.[1] 

In the early church, the proclamation of Easter was not death but paradise—and not paradise as a heavenly world somewhere else, but as this world blessed and transfigured by the Spirit of God.  In the Sant’Appolinare Nuovo Church in Ravenna, Italy, which was constructed in the 6th century, there are 26 rectangular mosaics near the ceiling of the nave that tell the story of Jesus.  The tenth picture shows Simon the Cyrene carrying Jesus’ cross.  The next picture is not Christ on the cross but the scene of the women at the empty tomb.  Other pictures show the resurrected Christ and an earthly paradise of sheep, doves, shrubs, still waters, starry skies.  The focus, in other words, was not the death of Jesus.  The message was that Christ is alive, and all the world in him. 

Perhaps that is why Mark does not resolve the end of his story with an appearance of the resurrected Jesus or belief on the part of his followers.  For Mark, Easter is not a day to celebrate the end of the story.  It is a day when we are invited to enter into the story.  To trust the good news that God’s love is stronger than death and is redeeming this world at this very instant, transforming it one moment at a time into paradise, if you could believe it.

The Story Continues

That summer when I finished the Narnia series, I wanted so badly for the story to continue.  I began looking in closets.  I couldn’t help it.

This Easter when we come to the end of the gospel, what do we do?  Mark leaves us hanging.  Is that the end of the story?  Or could it be an entrance into the story?  Is it an invitation to go and see the risen Jesus in “Galilee,” which is to say, the everyday world that Jesus lived and breathed and ministered in.  “Galilee” is our world, our lives, the dust and dirt that we walk in everyday.  Would we dare seek the risen Jesus there?

The gospel is for us wherever we are.  Jesus sought out the sick and the hurting.  Jesus gathered around tables with the condemned and the rejected.  Jesus visited (and often unsettled) the homes of the privileged and the powerful.  And the message of today is that his love was not a failed experiment or a blip in history.  Rather it is alive, everyday crucified but everyday risen, insistent on turning this world into the kingdom of God.  It is with us still.

Today’s scripture leaves me with a question.  When I get to the end of Mark and close the book and return to my own world, what do I see: death or life?  Do I see only the cross, or do I see the resurrected Christ?  I wonder if sometimes the good news is better than we allow ourselves to imagine: heaven on earth, the kingdom come, if we would but trust.

Christ is risen.  Christ is with us.  Christ’s love is alive, stronger than any end, insistent on turning this world into the kingdom of God.  Come, friends, let us go to Galilee and seek the risen Christ.  Let us share his never-ending life and follow in his way.

Prayer

Dear Jesus,
Risen and waiting
For us in Galilee:
Make us restless
For glimpses
Of your resurrection.
Draw us
Out of ourselves
And into the never-ending story
Of your love,
From which springs
Heaven on earth,
The kingdom come.
Amen.




[1] Cf. Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker, Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire (Boston: Beacon, 2008), ix.

Sunday, 14 April 2019

"Not Far from the Kingdom" (Mark 12:28-34)

(Homily for Gayton Road Christian Church's Worship on April 14, 2019, Palm Sunday)



Why the Temple?

The conversation began like many conversations began.  The five-year-old boy had a question for everything.

“Why do we go to the Temple, daddy?”

“The Temple is where we worship God,” the father answered.

“But how do we worship God?” the boy asked.

“Prayer,” the father replied, “and sacrifice.”

“You mean the dead animals,” the boy said.

“Yes.  And the grain also.” 

“But why animals and grain?” the boy continued.

The father paused.  “Well, it’s what everyone does.  It’s our custom.  It’s written in our laws.  This is the way we say thank you to God and ask for God’s favor.  We sacrifice what is most important to us.  Worship is all about our relationship with God.”

Silence followed as the boy furrowed his brow.  Finally he tilted his head toward the sky and pondered aloud, “I wonder what God does with all those dead animals.”

Why Sunday?

Worship looks a lot different today than it did two thousand years ago in the Temple.  Gone are the dead animals and grain offerings.  (Which is a good thing, because I do not do well with blood!)  But much remains the same.  We gather weekly.  We pray prayers.  We sing songs.  We read scripture.  Some of the same words are repeated every Sunday.

The question that some little boy surely asked thousands of years ago, echoes still today.  Why?  Why do we worship?  Why do we come to church on Sunday?  Is it because that’s what our parents did?  Is it because we’re trying to score points with God?

Jesus went to synagogue on the Sabbath.  Jesus went to the Temple.  Interestingly, though, when the gospel of Mark shows us these occasions, we see Jesus continually shattering the Sabbath ceremony.  Repeatedly he heals on the Sabbath, which was certainly not in the order of service.  His disciples pluck grain on the Sabbath, contrary to the custom of the day, in which the potluck meal would be prepared ahead of time and no food preparation would took place on the Sabbath.  And it wasn’t only what Jesus did on the Sabbath that defied tradition.  Throughout the week, he flouted forgiveness formalities and table manners.  He ate with sinners and tax collectors, he forgave people whom the authorities had deemed judged and condemned by God.

We see very little of Jesus worshiping on the Sabbath—or at least, worshiping in the custom of his contemporaries.

More Than Just Sacrifice

When the scribe approaches Jesus in today’s scripture, we can imagine what is coming: another rebuke from a religious authority.  Most of the scribes and Pharisees have taken offense at Jesus’ inappropriate behavior on the Sabbath and beyond.

The scribe begins with a question: “Which commandment is first of all?”

Jesus responds with an answer that is not quite appropriate.  The question calls for one commandment, but he gives two.  The two commandments that Jesus cites are both commonly cited by other rabbis of his time: one from Deuteronomy, “to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength”; the other from Leviticus, “to love your neighbor as yourself.”[1]  What is surprising is that Jesus cites both commandments together.  While other rabbis commend each commandment, none that we know of spoke of the two commandments together as one and the same.[2]  It’s as though Jesus is saying here what he says elsewhere: “heaven must come to earth—there is no love of God except in love of neighbor.”[3]

Perhaps even more surprising is the scribe’s response: “You are right, rabbi,” he says.  “This is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices” (12:33).  For once, a religious leader gets it.  This scribe appreciates the revolution.  He sees that the rules and regulations of worship, the burnt offerings and sacrifices, can actually get in the way of true worship.  Shortly after today’s scripture, Jesus calls out one such obstruction of worship.  The religious leaders at the Temple apply taxes that effectively devour the homes of widows, he says.  In the interest of sacrifices and a well-run Sabbath service, the religious leaders take from the needy.  And heaven recedes from earth.

Loving God

If Jesus and this scribe have anything to say, worship is not about custom and convention.  Those things can become hollow, can become more about us, can actually distract us from what matters most.  Neither is worship a pep rally, where we score points with God and align ourselves with the winning team.  In effect, that’s how some people worshiped Jesus when he entered Jerusalem, waving palms and chanting his praise.  But the same crowds of people would be calling for his death days later.  The worship of power led the people away from worship of God.

Worship, for Jesus, is about loving God.  And here’s the twist that Jesus brings to everything: loving God is ultimately the same thing as loving one’s neighbor.  Is it any coincidence, then, that we see Jesus repeatedly shattering Sabbath and ceremony in order to speak to the troubled, to heal the sick, to forgive the condemned, to gather around tables with sinners?  Are not each of these things about the love of neighbor?  Are not these each acts of worship?

I don’t think Jesus was against institutions like the Temple or the Sabbath day.  I think what he was against was institutionalization: the tendency of institutions to forget their original purpose, so that protocol came before people, so that custom and convention were more important than the cry of the needful. 

Mischievous Ministry

Several weeks ago, I shared with you that I was pondering Jesus’ Sabbath example and what it might mean for the church today.  Today I cannot help but think that much of Jesus’ mischievous ministry—for that’s most certainly what it was for the religious authorities—is in fact his renewal of sacred institutions.  In response to the question, “Why worship?” Jesus’ answer was simple: to love God and love neighbor.  The two went hand in hand.  What better way to celebrate God’s liberation on the Sabbath than to liberate persons enslaved by illness and disease?  What better way to celebrate God’s love than to share it around a table with the unloved?

I wonder…could Jesus’ mischievous ministry be an example for the church today?  Could following Jesus mean occasionally leaving behind some of the familiar procedures and protocol on a Sunday so that we can touch the need of the world?  If the general behavior of religious leaders in Jesus’ day is any indication, the religious establishment loathes change.  But there is hope for us yet.  The scribe in today’s scripture shows us another response.  The scribe today confesses before Jesus that, yes, in fact worship is much more than burnt offerings and sacrifices.  Worship is as much love of neighbor as it is love of God—for aren’t they one and the same?

So I have an invitation.  Would you consider once in a while welcoming a disruption to our Sunday routine?  Not every Sunday, but just once in a while, so that we might follow Jesus’ Sabbath example and reach out to touch the needful among our neighbors.  Could we reach out one Sunday and hold the hands of our neighbors in the memory care unit across the street?  Could we sit another Sunday on a bench with the homeless and talk about…talk about whatever, so long as they knew that we see them as brothers and sisters in the family of God?  The forefather of faith, Abraham, lived a semi-nomadic life.  Could we do that too, not sheltering ourselves in this building but trusting and following God as we hop occasionally to other places in our community on Sunday, sharing the love of God and whatever worship would be appropriate with our neighbors in need?  Does the idea unsettle you?  Inspire you?  Jesus blessed the needful on the Sabbath.  Do you have ideas about how we could bless our neighbors on a Sunday sojourn of our own?  Let us know!

After reading today’s scripture, my enthusiasm for a Sunday sojourn is only made stronger.  For when the scribe sets his sights beyond the religious routine, beyond the burnt offerings and sacrifices of the temple, Jesus tells him where he is, and it’s where I want to be: “You are not far from the kingdom.”

Prayer

Jesus, our teacher,
Worship drew you nearer
To God and neighbor alike.
May your mischievous ministry
Inspire in us
The same spirit of worship.
Lead us today
Beyond symbols and ceremony
And into the kingdom of God,
Where we see in our neighbors
Your face.
Amen.



[1] Cf. Deut 6:5; Lev 19:18.
[2] Vincent Taylor, The Gospel According to St. Mark (London: Macmillan, 1966), 488.
[3] Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1988), 318.