Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Jesus, Mary and joy

Mary at the Tomb, by Lisa Hornor

John 20: 1-20
Woodmont United Church of Christ, Milford, CT
April 24, 2011 – Easter Sunday

Have you ever heard the joke “What do you get when you play a country song backwards?” Well, you may have even heard the answer in Rascal Flatts’ song “Backwards”:

If the resurrection was like a country music song played backwards, it might sound something like this:

I was sittin’ in an upper room
Oh so far away from Galilee
When this beloved disciple walked in
And sat right down next to me
I could tell he’d seen some hard times
There were tear stains on his hairshirt
He said you wanna know what you get
When you play Jesus’ death backwards?

He gets his life back.
She gets her heart back.
The disciples get their teacher back.
The Romans get the thorn in their side back.
The darkness gets the light back.
That heavy stone gets rolled back.
Jesus is king; salvation bring.
The angels sing, sing, sing and the heavens ring
We get the way and the truth and the life and the glory
in which we tell that old, old story
Sounds a little crazy, a little scattered and absurd
but that’s what you get
when you play Jesus’ death backwards

Wouldn’t it be nice, we think sometimes, if we could play our lives backwards? If we could just rewind a few minutes, a few hours, days, weeks, years—back to that time before we did whatever it was? Or before the cancer, before we lost our job? Before the person we loved left us or died, before the fight and the hurtful words, before we lost our temper? Before that moment we were so scared we didn’t know what to do, before that moment we wish we had said or done what was in our hearts?

Regret is a terrible thing. It can paralyze us, make us crazy, and drive us to other actions we may also later regret. I read once that many of us crucify ourselves between two thieves—regret of the past and fear of the future. Even though Jesus was crucified for being fully human and fully God, I doubt he had any regrets about that. He may have been scared and full of sorrow, perhaps even a little relieved, but I don’t think he was regretful.

Regret, by Cyn McCurry

Every Easter we try to make sense out of the resurrection—something that makes no sense at all. And yet we often have difficulty making sense and meaning out of our own lives. What makes us think we can tackle a mystery like the resurrection with any less struggle?

One thing I do know is this: the resurrection is not Jesus’ death played backwards. It’s not our own lives moved back to some restore point before the troubles. The resurrection is a moving forward through the regrets and the fears, through our lives and our inevitable deaths, and doing so with joy.

Sometimes we are tempted to believe that joy is just not possible given the circumstances of our lives. But I’m not talking about happiness. Happiness is fleeting, dependent on whether or not we ate breakfast, what the weather is like, if our body is working right and all kinds of outside influences. Joy is what sustains us despite the conditions of our lives; as the poet Wendell Berry said, “Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.”

At the beginning of Lent we read verse 12 of Psalm 51: “Restore to me the joy of my salvation and sustain in me a willing spirit.” To me, that says to be joyful is to have a willing spirit. Though Mary had lost not only her best friend but her teacher and savior, she had a willing spirit to stand at the cross while he died, to go where her friend was buried and be persistent in finding him.

If her story was a country song, it might go something like this:

Jesus, Mary and joy
Jesus, Mary and joy
She sang the blues
But he brought Good News
And now she spreading the joy

She was a woman possessed
Jesus healed her
Then she confessed
That Jesus was Lord
He could not afford
To live a life that leads to death

He gave all that he had
Even then it wasn’t all bad
And despite that old cross
They gained what was lost
And now she’s spreading the joy

Jesus, Mary and joy
Jesus, Mary and joy
They both sang the blues
But he brought Good News
And now she’s spreading the joy

Even when we sing the blues
It’s then Jesus gives Good News
And now we’re spreading the joy


Monday, April 11, 2011

Shake, rattle and roll

Skull with Cigarette (1886), Van Gogh

Ezekiel 37: 1-14
Woodmont United Church of Christ, Milford, CT
April 10, 2011

(Ezekiel is calling together the dry bones of the desert valley, except that no one is showing up. He and the spine are having a conversation about the reluctance of these bones to return.)

Ezekiel: Where is everybody?

Spine: Well, sir, not everyone is on board with this getting back together thing, this family reunion you’ve got planned.

Ezekiel: It’s not my plan. It’s all God’s idea.

Spine: Apparently so, sir. It seems everyone else has a different idea and has made other plans.

Ezekiel: I thought at least Radius and Ulna would be here – they’re usually ready for anything. Forearmed is forewarned, you know.

Spine: I know, sir, but they’re still out shopping with Tibia, Fibula and Femur.

Ezekiel: Let me guess…this is going to cost me…

Both: An arm and a leg!

Ezekiel: I thought for sure Skull would be here. He’s always head and shoulders above the rest.

Spine: Yes, but he’s been taking this separation on the chin—lost his head about it, I’m afraid. I think it’s affected all the dry bones the same way—taken the life out of them.

Ezekiel: So why are you here?

Spine: Evidently, sir, I’m the only one with enough backbone.

Ezekiel: But see, it’s not about standing before God in fear and trembling. God is going to knit you all together with tendons and cartilage…

Spine: God knows how to knit?!

Ezekiel: …and forgiveness and grace. God’s going to give you muscles for justice and peace, and ears to hear God’s word, and a stomach for the law and the prophets, and a heart of courage and compassion.

Spine: Sir, we dry bones have been apart so long we’ve forgotten what it’s like to live with God and each other. There were times when words like ‘obedience’, ‘surrender’ and ‘covenant’ made us stiff-necked. If you could have only heard the knees creak and groan when they had to kneel…

Ezekiel: God isn’t promising an easy life but rather new life. It’s not about bowing and scraping before God but about dancing in the presence of God, even in the midst of trouble.

Spine: Sir, do we get skin? Please say yes. And could you make it rather thick? With all these hostile takeovers—what with the Babylonians and now the Assyrians breathing down our necks—we tend to bruise easily.

Ezekiel: Yes, God will cover you but you’ll still be vulnerable—it’s really the only way to be compassionate.

Spine: Okay, so God will put us all back together again—make a body of us again. Is that it? Do we just stand there?

Ezekiel: Didn’t you hear me? I said dancing. I said new life. Weren’t you paying attention? You’ve got a lot of nerve!

Spine: If you’ll recall, I haven’t got any nerves right now!

Ezekiel: Oops! Sorry.

Spine: So just how is God going to accomplish this new life?

Ezekiel: God will put the Spirit, the breath of life into you. You think that it only happened once, back in the beginning? We may all be dust and to dust we shall return yet God will not leave us hopeless. God is always ready to breathe new life into us.

Spine: Great, just as long as God remembers to use Altoids!

Ezekiel: Hey, don’t complain! Anything smells better than a bunch of dead, dry bones coming out of their graves!

Spine: Okay, okay! Keep your hairshirt on! So, let’s get this party started!

Ezekiel: May I have the first dance?

Spine: As soon as I get my feet under me!

Watch the crowd and how it moves to the music, how everyone comes to life as the music begins.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Strange comfort

Psalm 23, by Irv Davis, (c) 2000.

Psalm 23
Woodmont United Church of Christ, Milford, CT
April 3, 2011

Security is a word we hear more often these days. The Department of Homeland Security, formed in 2002 in response to the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, has increased access to our privacy in the name of security. We have security checks at state and federal buildings, at some schools, and at major entertainment and sports venues, like concerts and the Olympics, even in Bridgeport at Harbor Yard. Security at most airports has been increasing steadily, to the point of invading personal modesty with revealing body scanners. It is now customary to hand over briefcases, backpacks, laptops and handbags, take off our shoes, belts, jewelry, and even then we still might have to be checked with a wand or a pat down. And then there’s our Social Security system, originally intended to be an assistance check added to one’s own personal savings, but now it’s the only source of income for a great many folks with the funds dwindling rapidly.

Our obsession with security betrays our addiction to fear. Fear that we can’t ever be safe enough. Fear that we won’t have enough to live. Fear that the ways things are will come to an end. We want to know that everything will be alright, that we will be cared for, and we want it guaranteed.

Living with fear is very exhausting. It makes it difficult to sleep, makes it difficult to relax, to have fun, to laugh, to enjoy any sense of peace. A guarantee of security might make it easier to breathe and to go about our business but at what price? Ben Franklin said, “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither safety nor liberty.” In our desire for guaranteed security we have traded our safety for our souls. And those who offer this guarantee think they have a window into our souls and our lives.

An ancient Chinese story is told of an old farmer who used an old horse to till his fields. One day the old horse ran off into the hills. Everyone said, “What a shame!” The old man replied, “We’ll see, we’ll see.” A week later the horse returned with a herd of wild horses. Everyone in the village congratulated the old farmer, for the measure of his wealth had been increased. The old farmer replied, “We’ll see, we’ll see.” When the old farmer’s son was attempting to tame one of the wild horses, he fell off and broke his leg. Everyone said, “What bad luck!” The old farmer replied, “We’ll see, we’ll see.” A week later the imperial army was marching through the village, conscripting all the young men into the emperor’s war campaign. When they saw the farmer’s son with his broken leg, the army excused him from military service. Everyone said, “It’s a good thing that horse broke his leg.” The old farmer replied, “We’ll see, we’ll see.”

We are quick to judge, quick to secure meaning and at least a small measure of comfort in the events of our lives, to know why things happen the way they do. We want guarantees and certainty, the very opposites of faith and serenity. Faith is a trust not in what we know but in what we can’t know for certain; serenity is the state of being calm, peaceful and untroubled in the face of that which produces fear.

Have you noticed that in the past ten years or so, in political and other forms of discourse, a difference of opinion, viewpoint or belief is generally not tolerated? Increasingly there is a lack of trust in others who do not share our mindset. On the airwaves, on TV news shows, and in the public sphere we argue and shout more than we listen, consider and discuss.

It is the certainty of our religious convictions that often drives a painful, hurtful wedge between human beings. I believe that the next challenge of the church is that of interfaith relationships and working alongside those of no faith tradition. If we are honest with ourselves, it is not the form of our faith which gives us comfort but its content: peace and justice for all people and for the earth and all its inhabitants, extravagant welcome, wholeness, healing, forgiveness, and compassion. As Christians we see this most clearly in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. But not everyone sees in the same way that we do, nor should they have to in order for all of us to be compassionate towards each other and to share what we have.

Kashmir, India, 1999.

Psalm 23, the most memorized text in the Bible after the Lord’s Prayer, is one used mainly for comfort, especially at a funeral or memorial service. But it is a strange comfort if we read it closely. This is a paraphrase I wrote some years ago as a call to worship:

God is our guide and friend. In God we lack nothing. We come for restoration and strength to follow God’s way of narrow distance and wide compassion. God is always with us. Wherever we are, God is. We seek the ways of life though we fear change as though it were death. God feeds us at the same table with our enemy, holy love pouring down like oil on our heads, filling our cupped hands with mercy. We are God’s dwelling place, a holy tabernacle, the body of Christ.

The only comfort that is promised in this psalm is God’s presence, in good times and in the worst of them. God restores us because we’re going to need all our strength for the path of righteousness and justice. God leads us, but sometimes to places we’d rather not go, even unto death. God feeds us but at the same table as our enemy. God anoints us but God also anointed Jesus to be the Christ and look where that got him. A relationship with God has never been a rose garden. What we are promised is streams of mercy, meadows of restoration, and the presence of God along that path of righteousness that inevitably goes through the valley of death.

We all want to be comforted by our faith, by God, and by each other. Surely this is a purpose for church: to be loved and to love others. But God also leads us beyond ourselves to the world that is waiting to be loved; the world that is waiting to be shown what it means to feast at a table with enemies, with our worst fears; a world in which the only thing that is certain is change. We put our faith in a loving God because we want that change to be for the good of all and not just for some or a few.

A charcoal sketch of the valley of the shadow of death that I did in high school.

Think of this church, of the collective faith in this room. Where is God calling you that you’d rather not go? What is the perceived enemy with which you must sit at table and be fed by the hand of God? What is the path of righteousness that God has set before you as a community of faith? What interferes with your serenity and your faith in the uncertain? How have you experienced God’s presence during this interim time?

Is there a God? In truth we cannot say without a doubt that God exists. What we can say is that even with our doubts, when we open ourselves to the mystery we call God, we know ourselves to be comforted; that when we let go of certainty, we can be at peace with the unknown and journey through that dark valley in faith that God is with us; that when we put our lives in God’s hands, we can eat at table with our worst fears and know that we will be restored.