Friday, April 6, 2012

The Easter Sermon I Won't Preach

I'm not preaching this Easter because the dream many of us shared about a church with new life has died, for now. But after 35 years of Easter sermons, I couldn't resist writing one anyway. If I WERE preaching this year, this is what I'd say:

I’ve been reading Gospels this year – lots of them. Those that made the Bible and those that didn’t. Reading all those accounts of what mattered to first and second century Christians brings me to Easter in a new way. I notice the differences in the biblical story more closely now. Who was at the tomb on the day we call the first Easter? What did they say and do? What happened? And what happened next?

Most of us believe in an Easter story that mashes all the nuances into one dish and serves it up in easy-to-chew bites complete with joyous angels and rejoicing disciples. But the reality is more complex and meatier than that. Some gospels don’t mention resurrection at all. Some mention hardly anything else. (The only remaining fragment of the Gospel of Peter is a crucifixion/resurrection story complete with giant angels who whisk Jesus away through the air followed by a giant cross which answers questions for him.)

So what’s to be gained by stirring around in all these resurrection stories? In a word: significance.

When the simplified Easter story becomes the heart of Christianity – Christ is risen, indeed! – then being a Christian boils down to believing that Jesus’ body walked out of the tomb after three days and “everything’s gonna be alright.” Some years ago when television followed the search for the tomb of Jesus, complete with bones, a friend of mine at a neighboring church said, “If they find those bones, I’m out of business.”

I responded, “Well, then, come on over. We’ll still be open.” And we would be, because the physical resuscitation of Jesus isn’t the cornerstone of discipleship as we understand it.

To be honest, Jesus probably believed in a physical resurrection. He anticipated the day when God brought heaven to earth, wiped out oppression, and established a kingdom. The graves would open and the dead would rise and everyone who had been treated unjustly would be vindicated. He shared this belief with the Pharisees, who looked forward to a similar event. After all, if the Jews were God’s chosen people and everyone in the world was dumping on them, then God must have some better idea in mind for the future. Jesus announced that the kingdom was starting among the folks right then, and later the disciples “proved” it by pointing to Jesus as the first one to rise, but the Pharisees weren’t willing to grant them that point. History tells us that things got a lot worse after that, and we can debate whether they’ve ever gotten better.

I’m happy for people to believe in a physical resurrection from the grave, but not if they stop there. Following Jesus isn’t about what happened to his body. It’s about living in community and believing that the reign of God is among us – believing so hard that in small ways we make it true. If being a Jesus-follower means coming to worship every Easter (no there aren’t lilies and trumpets every Sunday), and shelving all thoughts about life after death because “I’ll rise like Jesus,” it just isn’t enough for me. And to the extent that Easter celebrations let us stay there, they do us more harm than good.

Americans no longer believe that our physical bodies are going to heaven when the trumpet sounds. In the 19th century we believed that. We saved severed body parts to bury with the rest later on so the bodies would be whole when they rose up. Now we promote cremation, which pretty much assumes this body isn’t going to be part of what’s to come.

It’s time to acknowledge that if we don’t believe in a physical resurrection, we’re in good company – with lots of first century Christians who knew that Jesus was much more important than just that. The resurrection stories vary. Clearly most of the folks who encountered Jesus after his death didn’t recognize him at first. Some say he walked through locked doors. Others that he appeared and disappeared at will. Most of the evidence point to visions and similar spiritual experiences, not a physical resuscitation. Because of time and distance, we’ll never know for sure just what they saw and heard.

But we do know the experience of Jesus being alive. We know it because we have that experience ourselves – in our hearts and minds. Right in the middle of everyday life, we’ll realize that Jesus is still here - listening to us, encouraging us, lifting us up, giving us life. Or if we don’t know that, we should be asking to know it, pleading to know it, demanding to know it. See, that’s the danger of letting Easter be something that happened to a broken body two millennia ago. It stops us from expecting that Easter is going to happen to us every day. And it short circuits the joy that’s possible in living with Jesus right here, right now. That’s the affirmation that Jesus’ followers came to over the days and weeks that followed his death – he’s alive! He’s not gone; we can feel him, talk with him, walk with him, live with him. That’s the good news they had to share. We can still know Jesus because not even death could take him away.

The disciples didn’t celebrate that first Easter morning. The gospels tell us they were afraid. They were confused. They hid in locked rooms. They went home to try to figure out what to do next. They prayed and they wept and they cast about for an idea of what happens to a movement whose leader is executed. And they simply didn’t know. There’s no celebration in that. They were busy mourning because all their hopes and dreams had been cut loose and the one they cared about most was dead. Even those who “saw” visions of Jesus risen didn’t know what to make of them for sure. It was too soon.

The celebration came later, when it dawned on them that what came next was what they’d been doing before – following Jesus. Living in community like he showed them. Healing and teaching like he showed them. And spreading good news that the reign of God is among us if we’ll only believe and live like it’s true. Lives that had changed when they traveled dusty roads with the master were still changed, and they still could count on the master to help them understand that, even if in new ways.

It’s na├»ve to think that just because the calendar says it’s Easter, everyone is going to be ready to celebrate resurrection. Some folks are still caught up in confusion and despair. Maybe their marriage shattered on the rocks of betrayal or is slowly sliding into a coma to wait for a brave soul to remove the life support. Maybe their parent or spouse has wandered off into the fog of dementia and they’ve been left caring for a live body with a dead mind. Maybe they wonder why children can be shot for wearing hoodies and old white men can go free – or they know it’s because deep down we’re all afraid of what looks different from us. There are a lot of folks who come to Easter with the wounds of death and loss too fresh and new to celebrate anything. The followers of Jesus have good news for them. We’ve been there, and we know what can come next. We know that you can bury bodies, but you can’t bury life. You can’t bury hope. You can’t bury the reign of God among us. They just keep on rising up.

Just when you think it’s all over and there’s no way to keep going, Jesus comes. Follow me, he whispers, and our hearts strain to hear. Follow me, he shouts, and our minds stretch to believe. The one who was crucified and died is still leading the revolution, and in his name people keep on rising up and believing in mercy and compassion and justice. People keep on rising up and taking to the road. And communities of hope grow. And those who are hurting are healed. And the powers of the world hear the challenge. The powers that crucified Jesus said, “no” but the people who knew he still lived within them answered “yes.” Sometimes our lives crash around us and say “no,” but the Spirit within us reaches out to Jesus’ strong hand and says “yes.”

This year a church community that I loved with my whole heart decided to die. So there will be no Easter sermon. No lilies or trumpets for me. No celebration. It’s too soon and I’ve only just buried the remnants of that life. My head says, “That body can’t rise.” But my heart stirs, because it knows that death’s “no” has nothing to do with God’s “yes.”

“Hurry,” it says. “Get over this burying and mourning stuff. The Spirit is stirring. We have good news to tell. And work to do, and life to live.”

The first disciples were right: you can’t find Jesus in the grave. You may find bones, but Jesus isn’t in the bones. Because no matter what, he won’t stay dead. He walks with us and goes before us and urges us to hurry up. Life is calling. God is calling. Every moment is ripe for celebration.

Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed!

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Joyous Generosity

To everyone asking you for anything, give it and do not ask for it back; for, to all, the Father wishes to give these things from his own free gifts….But also, concerning this rule, it has been said: “Let your alms sweat in your hands, until you know to whom you might give it.” (Didache 1:5a, 6)

The community which lived by the teachings of the Didache was made up of mostly poor people. They lived in the first century and were trying to live by the example of Jesus. There wasn’t any social safety net in their day – no welfare, no Medicaid or medicare, no food stamps. And their lives were very hard. Often people living on the edge saw their children sold into slavery to pay debts they couldn’t avoid. Like Tennessee Ernie Ford used to sing, they “owed their soul to the company store.”

One thing that attracted these people to the followers of Jesus was the way they cared for one another. This wasn’t just shown by the fact that they liked one another and got along well. When someone was hungry, they ate at the common table. When they were homeless, someone gave them a place to sleep under a roof at night. When they were widowed or orphaned, the community kept them from being sold into slavery by providing them a home. These were often poor folk, but they shared what little they had with one another.

So before people joined this community, they needed to demonstrate that they could understand and demonstrate generosity. They had to have the kind of spirit that would divide the last cookie into two pieces and give away the bigger part. Jesus had said, “when someone asks for your cloak, give them your shirt as well.” He wasn’t talking in symbols there. He meant take the one extra shirt you own and give it to someone who has nothing to wear.

There’s a comfort in living in a community of folks like that. It means they’ve got your back and you won’t starve or go naked. There’s also a danger in that kind of community, as you may really be asked to give away all you’ve got. Years ago I had a friend who served a church in a very poor neighborhood. People always needed something, and he’d help as much as he could. I heard his wife say one day that she never knew if there’d be towels in the closet when the kids took a bath because he may have given them away. That’s real generosity. It’s also foolhardy. Your own kids need towels and going without isn’t a good idea.

The Didache says, “Let your alms sweat in your hands until you know too whom you might give.” There’s the balance to asking for utter generosity – make wise decisions about what you give and to whom. Most of us have the ability to give to others, and we are blessed by doing that. Most of us don’t have the ability to give everything we’re asked for. So we have to make choices. My mom has a stack of junk mail by her coffee table. Those are the folks she’s going to give a donation to when she wins the lottery. But she’s not going to give to them until then because she can’t do that and pay her own bills. She has a few folks she supports now, and it makes her happy to give those gifts. And when she can, she’ll give more.

All of us make those decisions every day. The Didache encourages us to make them carefully. Do you remember carrying a nickel to Sunday School to put in the offering? It made your palm sweaty. Hang on to your gift now like you did then. And when you do give it, it will make you just as happy as it did then.

When we make careful decisions about what to give and to whom, we find we can be more generous than we thought we could. When you give away 5% of your income, it becomes easier to give 10%. When you give an extra gift to the Salvation Army at Christmas, you find you can make an extra gift to someone else in January. When you see a real need, your practice in giving makes it possible for you to meet those needs that come up along the way. Making careful decisions makes more gifts possible than you imagined. And when each of us does what we can, and finds we can do a little bit more, then the needs around us are met.

Having the community of Jesus followers take care of one another and the folks in their neighborhoods is God’s plan for caring for the world. In the 21st century, we learn that our neighborhood is the world. And God’s provided what we need to care for one and all. It just takes all of us working together, carefully, and joyfully.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Ancient Advice Still Helpful

You will not hate any person,
But some you will reprove,
And concerning others you will pray,
And some you will love more than your soul.

- Didache 2:7

The Didache, whose title literally means “teaching” or “training” was used to mentor people who wanted to enter the Christian community in the first century. We’d call it a manual, except that it wasn’t written down. Rather, people memorized it and then could call it to mind as they needed it to help them make decisions about the way they lived.

It was a little like the Boy Scout Oath which scouts memorize so that it can guide their behavior as honorable Scouts:
On my honor, I will do my best To do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law; To help other people at all times; To keep myself physically strong, mentally awake and morally straight.
Just like Scouts are learning how to behave in ways which honor their organization, followers of Jesus were learning how to live like Jesus lived, and the Didache expected them to practice its guidelines until they had the lifestyle down. Then they became members of the community by being baptized.

We have a mental picture of the early Christians living in peace and harmony, agreeing about everything, and easily following the teachings of Jesus. The centuries since these folks founded the Jesus movement make it easier for us to see them in this idyllic way. In reality, the first followers of Jesus were human beings just like us, and they struggled to get along together and to know what Jesus expected of them. They needed the help of the Didache and their teachers just as much as communities do today.

So the Didache gives practical advice for how to form a group of people with common goals – to live like Jesus lived – and common hopes – to see the reign of God on earth. Their purpose was to support each other in community so that they could reflect the dream of Jesus for the way people lived – fully connected to God and practicing justice and love toward each other.

The trouble is, even people with the best intentions still have to get along with one another. And there are always personality differences and differences in their priorities which rub up against each other. So the Didache talks about how to treat one another. It talks about this a lot because forming strong human relationships is the most important step in forming a relationship with God. The Bible is pretty clear that we can’t love God without loving one another, and the way we treat one another is the most telling evidence about how our love for God is working in our lives.

One of the things I love about the Didache is that it’s so practical and flexible. It says, “Here’s the rule…” and then it says, “but if you can’t keep it ideally, then try to come close like this…” Today’s verse is a great example of this. It says, “You won’t hate anyone.” That’s a pretty clear rule and an important ideal. Then it says, “but some you will reprove and concerning others you will pray and some you will love more than your soul.” Don’t hate anybody, but boy it’s going to be hard to manage that with some folks who are just begging to be hated. And with other folks you’re going to show a real preference because they are your soulmates.

Let’s look at this good advice a little more closely. First, don’t hate anyone. Hatred drives people apart and brings dissension into a community. Do you remember as a child telling your mom or dad “I just hate him. I just hate her.” An usually those childhood friends deserved that hatred. They were mean and hurtful and hit and pinched and lied about us. They made us feel plain terrible, and it seemed like there wasn’t any way to deal with it but to give in to the pain we were feeling and name it “hate.” The trouble is, hate never hurt that other person. It just made us feel even worse. It kept us awake at night while they slept peacefully in their beds. It made us dread going out to recess because we didn’t want to see or speak to them. Hate ties us up in knots and makes us miserable. Hate keeps us from talking to one another and certainly gets in the way of coming to reconciliation – to that point when we can say, “I’m sorry,” and make things right again. The advice not to hate others is really for our own good. Hate is a poison and when we fill our minds and hearts with it, then we’re the ones who pay the price.

But not everyone is easy to love and certainly not easy to get along with! So some folks in a community need to be reproved from time to time. Communities have core values and standards of behavior and we expect people to live by them. These standards may vary from place to place and time to time. It’s OK to belch your pop or beer when the guys are watching football but not do to the same at Grandma’s Sunday dinner table. It’s never OK to lie about someone else, or to repeat mean stories to hurt someone. And when that behavior happens, healthy communities gently bring it up and ask the person to make a change. My best friends are the ones who can tell me when I’m out of line because they trust me to improve. That kind of community helps us grow into maturity as people and as followers of Jesus.

And some people you will pray about… Isn’t it the truth that some folks are just incorrigible! They don’t respond well to correction, even when we’re being our most gentle. They always disagree with us, just for the fun of it. We would never pick them first to play on our team. But we aren’t served by hating them or getting worked up over them. So we pray about them. We turn them over to God, who’s better in the love department than we are, and let it go. Don’t pray and hang on! Pray and let go and move on. It’s been that way in human relationships since the beginning of time.

And some folks will be our best soulmates. Jesus had one disciple who was “beloved.” Tradition says that’s John, although the scripture isn’t clear about that. Of course when he’d gathered a bunch of men and women to travel with him and learn his ways, he had some he liked better than others. We all have close friends. That doesn’t keep us from treating others with respect. But what a good gift of God to give us folks who get us. The ones who laugh with us when no one else understands the joke. The ones who cry with us. The ones who make our days joyful. We say we’re lucky to have friends like that. But it’s not luck – it’s God’s plan for making human life wonderful, and for helping us be the great humans we’re meant to be.

Every community has this rich mix of people. Isn’t it great that when I’m the one that person is praying to tolerate, there’s also someone who thinks I’m the best. That’s why we gather together, so in the mix, we can each find the support and encouragement we need. And enough folks to keep us honest and humble, too. From the very beginning the followers of Jesus have gathered in community, and the guidelines help those communities to be healthy. No hate. Plenty of differences so that we have all we need – all the skills and viewpoints and personalities that make us complete. And a big dose of honesty and respect that helps us get along.