Friday, March 28, 2008

resurrection and the new creation (matthew 28)

There is at the end of Matthew’s gospel an element of surprise, but if we have been reading closely we should have known. All of the clues were there: he is “God with us”, Emmanuel; he casts out demons and forgives sins; he bursts old wineskins and fills new ones; he gives sight to the blind and feeds the multitudes; he calms the storms. Again and again he is on the side of life and not death. He is acknowledged as someone who is more than human, more than a charismatic rabbi, more than a prophet, at Caesarea Philippi and on Mount Tabor at the transfiguration, by the deranged man chained to the graveyard and the Roman officer simply seeking a cure for his son. All of the teachings, all of the parables, all of the signs, every act of compassion, every intervention on behalf of life in the midst of death, it was all leading to this.

And yet if we have also been paying attention, all of the signs, of late, were pointing in a different direction. The one who is compassionate is betrayed. The one who gives the new commandment is a threat to those who implement the old policies. The one who is called “Lord” is a revolutionary in the eyes of the empire, who want all of the allegiance. The one who changes water into wine, who is himself “living water”, cries out, “I thirst”. The one who is the light of the world hangs on a cross at Golgotha; darkness covers the land. Then he says, bluntly, “It is finished”. The end.

As they used to say in concerts, “Elvis has left the building!”. Meaning: the show is over.

We might have followed along and at this point we have given up, like the disciples Jesus who would later meet on the road to Emmaus. We might have gone back to our lives, we might have begun to pick up the pieces. Most of the disciples had fled in fear: another disappointment, another false hope.

And then, a surprising shift in the story: On the first day of the week, early in the morning, Matthew tells us, the women go to the tomb, to keep vigil. There they experience an earthquake, the shaking of the foundations. In Matthew, an angel had last appeared in the dream given to Joseph, in Egypt: “go home, Herod, the agent of death, has himself died”. The angel now shares the Easter message:

Do not be afraid. For I know that you seek Jesus, who was crucified.
He is not here. He is risen. Come, see the place where he lay.
Then go quickly and tell his disciple that he is risen from the dead, and that he is going before you, to Galilee. There you will see him.

They hear this news with a mixture of fear and joy. Fear, the old is passing away. Joy, something new is about to happen. They had come to see the Crucified Jesus. The crucified One---perfect tense, a past event described with ongoing significance and impact. The risen Jesus is always the crucified Jesus. We will talk more about that next Sunday, in the discovery of Thomas, the disciple who doubts.

But back to today’s gospel: he is not here---look, see for yourself. “Where is he?”, they must have wondered. He goes ahead of you—go to Galilee. Go and tell others.

And so, they obey, in the midst of their own fear and joy, they are the first witnesses, the first evangelists. They go quickly---there is a sense of urgency. And on the way they encounter Jesus, who greets them. They don’t quite know what to do; it is overwhelming. Then they worship him.

They worship him…just as they had done at Caesarea Philippi and on Mount Tabor. But here the worship flows into something else: go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee. He calls the disciples his brothers, the disciples who betrayed him, the disciples who denied that they knew him, the disciples who had all disappeared in fear. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee…

Why Galilee? In Matthew’s gospel, this is the “Galilee of the Gentiles”. There, at the conclusion of the gospel of Matthew the disciples will worship Jesus, on the mountain (but some will doubt!). There he will give the great commission to the disciples: go into all the world to make disciples. There he will give the promise: I am with you always, until the end of the age.

This is the Easter gospel, according to Matthew. There is little here about life after death understood as payday someday, as pie in the sky, as heavenly harp strumming. There is instead the intense conviction about life after death as the unfinished agenda. There is little here that is restful, as if we have reached a stopping place. There is a great deal of activity, urgency.

Easter is not a final resting place. Easter is the re-creation of a new world. Easter is not a quiet garden on the edge of Jerusalem. Easter is a busy gathering by the sea of Galilee. Easter is not tying it all up in a neat package. Easter is unleashing the power of Jesus, crucified and risen, into the world. Easter is nothing we could have planned or prepared for. Easter, Matthew tells us, is an earthquake. It is unsettled, and when it has taken place, all of the foundations are re-established.

What is foundational about Easter? Easter is a miracle. If there are no miracles, there is no resurrection. Easter is about the resurrection. The resurrection makes no rational sense. It is a category that defies human rationality. Resurrection is an act of faith. The truth of resurrection is revealed to us, it comes as a gift. The women, on that first Easter, almost stumbled upon it.

If there is no resurrection, none of this makes any sense. We could conceivably have gospels without the Christmas story---Mark’s Gospel, for example, has no birth narrative, no shepherds, no wise men, no angels’ voices. But without Easter, there would be no gospel. If there is no resurrection, no power beyond us, no victory of life over death, none of this makes any sense. All of the flowers, the music, the words, all of it simply adds up to positive thinking, our heroic attempt at the denial of death.

The apostle Paul considered the implications of this. In what is surely one of the longest and most complicated chapters in the Bible, I Corinthians 15, he insists, “if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain”, and, “if the dead are not raised, then let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die”.

The foundation of our faith is the resurrection, and in this faith, the New Testament teaches, we experience salvation. What is Salvation? Salvation is not believing the right thing in order that I might spend eternity in the right place. Salvation is the new creation, it is eternal life in the present with the crucified and risen Lord, salvation is a gift of God that begins in the present, that continues beyond death, and that never ends. And so our mission is not only getting people into heaven but also getting heaven into people, and then getting the life and death and resurrection of Jesus into the world, through the mission of his followers, the resurrection people.

I will sometimes overhear folks making fun of people who come to church only at Easter. I will be honest----I am glad to see you. And I am glad to see you today, because there is some confusion about who Christians are---the media does give an accurate portrayal of who we are, what we believe and what we do, and sometime we aren’t so good at communicating this ourselves. The politicians do not always want an accurate portrayal of who we are, what we believe and what we do…but that’s another story!

Easter is the moment when who we are, what we believe and what we do becomes clear. Easter is the power of the crucified and risen Jesus over the forces of death—that could be as we pray in a hospital room, or as we work for the end of apartheid in South Africa. Easter is a place to sleep for the homeless and Easter is a place to be comforted and challenged for the addict and Easter is a place to be healed for the person with HIV in Haiti and Easter is a place to be embraced for the lonely and Easter is a place to be challenged for the bored and Easter is a place to be stretched for the comfortable and Easter is a place to rest for the fatigued and Easter is a place to be made whole for the broken.

The Easter event, the resurrection, as reported in Matthew 28. 1-10, was continuous with everything Jesus had said and done throughout his life, every chapter within the book a little Easter. And so, for the follower of Jesus, all of life is continuous with this day, with this moment, all of life is Easter, a resurrection, a sign that yes, the crucified and risen Lord has overcome the powers of death, division, darkness, despair.

Do you believe it? It is, Paul tells us, like a new creation. It is, Matthew reports, like an earthquake. In 1950 an earthquake occurred in Tibet, near the border of India. Its effects were felt as far away as Norway and England. Among the results of the quake was the dislodging of a huge boulder that exposed within a mountain artifacts from the previous thousand years. An entirely new world became visible.

On Easter, on this Easter, if we have eyes to see and ears to hear, the stone is rolled away and the earth shakes, the foundations are reestablished and there is a new creation. The old has passed away and the new has come.

What is at stake, at Easter? Easter is about who we are, what we believe and what we do. We are followers of a man who was raised from the dead, more than 2000 years ago. We believe that his death and his resurrection somehow transforms our suffering, overcomes our death and gives us hope for a life that is beyond that death.

In the meantime, what do we do with this kind of gospel? We go and tell others, even if the implications fill us with both fear and joy. We bow down and worship him, even if it is an affront to our pride and the conviction that we really can save ourselves. We become advocates for life, in the face of death, and healing, in the midst of suffering, even if our lives are disrupted in the process.

We had come to the tomb to get closure. Ash Wednesday was good. Lent was good. Holy Week was good. Easter will be good. Let’s wrap it up. But we were wrong. Easter is not an ending. Easter is a beginning. And so, we are left with questions: Where do we go now? What do we do next?

Go, he says to his sisters, he says it twice, go and tell my brothers to meet me in Galilee. Easter is the unfinished agenda of God: not death, never death, life, the new creation, you are going to see it, before your eyes, a new world. “Go”, he says, in the gospel. “Go quickly. Go!”

Sources: William Willimon, “Easter is An Earthquake”, Duke University Chapel, April 4, 1999. N.T. Wright, Surprised By Hope.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

"lost " in post-easter

Lost - The Complete First Season DVD Cover Art

As usual, we are behind our children on most things, but I have been absorbed the last few days watching the first season of Lost.

That would be twenty- four episodes, without the commercials, on dvd. It is part mystery, part sci-fi, part horror, part mythology. It is very multi-cultural, very philosophical, and, on the whole, very well done. I admit to being behind the times in just catching up to it all, but I look forward to watching the latter day "
Gilligan's Island' inhabitants (in fact, Lost is a sort of postmodern Gilligan's tale) respond to the impending difficulties, which I am sure are just around the bend.

Some perceptions: John Locke is the professor; Hurley is Gilligan; or maybe Charlie is Gilligan. Actually several of the women could be Ginger. And if there is a character like the Skipper, he does not stay around too long....he is a goner.

It's that kind of island.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

easter evening

It was a full morning, and it began early. We had an outdoor sunrise service, beginning at seven a.m., which was largely led by several of our lay leaders. It was cold out--maybe just above freezing, and by the end I was rubbing my hands together, to stay warm. The crowd was mostly our folks, but also a couple of families who are current staying in our church through a ministry that moves them toward their own housing. One man wore only a short sleeve shirt, and someone in the church offered him a coat, but he refused, with a smile. I preached a very brief homily. No adjectives or adverbs, just nouns and verbs. I am kidding, but only a little. Afterward there was a little breakfast: a Bojangles biscuit, and some coffee.

Then on to the first service in the sanctuary, which began with a reading of the gospel, from the lectern Bible that had been removed as the sanctuary was stripped in the Good Friday Tenebrae service. The music was amazing, and my sermon was shaped mostly by a reading of N.T. Wright's Surprised By Hope. The sermon will be posted later in the week. The service concluded with Handel's Hallelujah Chorus; again, amazing. In between services I went by a couple of Sunday School classrooms, then checked in with the choir, who were eating breakfast (they sang at two of the services), then checked in with a group who were eating breakfast with the homeless (no, I did not eat with each of these groups!), and then prepared for the last service.

It was a joy to have both daughters here today, and also Jack, from Haiti, and my older daughter's boyfriend. The last service was almost identical to the first, except for the fact that there was not a vacant inch in the sanctuary and the service was videocast in the chapel. I realize how fortunate I am in this respect to live in the "Bible belt"; I realize that clergy work just as hard in other regions and in other countriesand often lead congregations that would have appeared to be very different today...and yet these pastors and their congregations are faithful witnesses).

After the last service, we greeted a number of people, and then our family, the six of us today, went to a nearby pizza place. Surprisingly, we were seated immediately, and we had a good, quiet and joyful lunch together. Then a nap. Then a two mile walk. Then Davidson (yeah) and UNC (yeah) basketball. Then last night's leftover grilled food. I predict tonight will have an early ending. Alot has gone out today ( realize clergy across the church experience a very similar mood); the days ahead will hopefully include times to re-fuel.

A happy Easter. Christ is risen.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

an in-beween moment: a meditation for holy saturday

"In this empty hallway, there’s nothing expected of us at this moment. The work is out of our hands, and all we can do is wait, breathe, look around. People sometimes feel like this when they’ve been up all night with someone who’s seriously ill or dying, or when they’ve been through a non-stop series of enormously demanding tasks. A sort of peace, but more a sort of ‘limbo’, an in-between moment. For now, nothing more to do; tired, empty, slightly numbed, we rest for a bit, knowing that what matters is now happening somewhere else".

Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury

nt wright on preaching the resurrection

Read it all.

the death of God: a meditation for holy saturday

O love divine, what hast thou done?
The immortal God hath died for me
The father's co-eternal son
Bore all my sins upon the tree
The immortal God for me hath died
My Lord, my love is crucified.

Charles Wesley

Friday, March 21, 2008

a meditation for good friday: the last words

1. Father, forgive them, they do not know what they are doing. (Luke 23. 26-34)
+When have we been ignorant of reality (sins of omission)?

2. Today you will be with me in paradise. (Luke 23. 34-43).
+Where do we discover hope, in this life and the life to come?

3. Here is your son…Here is your mother. (John 19. 16-27)
+How do we access community and family in times of grief?

4. Why have you forsaken me? (Matthew 27. 45-54; Psalm 22)
+Have we experienced abandonment, or the absence of God?

5. I am thirsty. (Matthew 27. 39-40; John 19. 28)
+How are we spiritually empty? How do we thirst? (see Psalm 63)

6. It is finished. (John 17. 1-5; 19. 29-30)
+Can we trust that God has accomplished all things necessary for our salvation?

7. Into your hands I commend my spirit. (Luke 23. 44-49)
+What do we need to relinquish, give up, or place in God’s hands?

Thursday, March 20, 2008

betrayal and community: maundy thursday

Parker Palmer, prompted by the question of how Jesus could stay at the table with Judas and the other disciples, aware of the betrayal of him:

“Community is not so much a demonstration of heaven as it is a via negativa to God. We will always be disillusioned by community. But in the spiritual life disillusionment is a good thing: it means losing out illusions about ourselves and each other. As those illusions fall away we will be able to see reality and truth more clearly. And the truth is that we can rely on God to make community among us even—and especially—when our own efforts fail…And here is the paradox: as we become disillusioned with community and more dependent on God, we become more available for true community with each other…Seeing ourselves and each other clearly, yet seeing God’s continual healing presence among us, we can begin to experience the fruits of the Spirit with each other: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness and gentleness.”

From an unpublished essay, "On Staying At The Table". See also John 13.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

why have you forsaken me? (matthew 27)

I can still remember the day, as if it were in the present. I was nine or ten years old, maybe, it was late winter, or very early spring. School had ended, and my baseball team practiced on the field adjacent to the school. It was cold, I remember, because of the way your hands would feel when you hit a baseball in cold weather---it would send a shock through the bones in your fingers and up through your arms.

Practice ended, and I remember that it was getting increasingly colder. I had not listened to my mother and so I was not wearing the jacket she had set aside for me. We lived out in the country, north of the city, and my school was in town. My parents had told me that they would pick me up when practice was over. We finished, and people began to leave. “Do you want a ride?”, a couple of them asked. “No, my folks are coming.”

I rubbed my hands together, then I began to walk around the field, to stay warm, and then, for some inexplicable reason, I began to walk around the school, in a circle, around the whole campus. It seemed like a good idea, to keep walking. It helped me to keep warm. (Ken's note: it also made me almost impossible to find!). My parents would be there soon.

Time passed. It got colder. I later learned that my mother had come by the school, looked around the ballfield, and not seeing me assumed—a fair assumption---that my father had picked me up. He often came to my practices. Now if you are under the age of 21 years old you will just have to take my word that all of this happened before the days of cell phones! It was not prehistoric times, but we did not have the benefit of instant communication, or text messaging. Can you imagine?

My mother, not finding me there, drove out to the country, thinking I was with my father. In the meantime I walked and waited and wondered: where are they? As it grew colder and darker, , my imagination raced. Where are my parents? What is going on?

Each year as I read the passion narratives in the Bible I am conscious that there is so much there. Someone has rightly noted that the gospels can be read as passion narratives with extended introductions. In the last few years I have preached on the words of Jesus’ passion, words that will be read and sung on Friday evening in the Tenebrae service: “Father, forgive them, they do not know what they are doing”, or “Let this cup (of suffering) pass from me”.

This year, another word, a word that belongs in the midst of an increasingly dark, and at times cold and chilly world: God, where are you? What is going on? These are words we remember, from Jesus, on the cross. My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? These words conjure up every threat to life and hope that we can imagine: Abandonment and betrayal, confusion and despair.

In Holy Week we place these words in a context, Jesus, on the cross. And in Holy Week, we reflect on the implications of the cross in our own lives. The apostle Paul wrote to the Galatians (2. 19-20): I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.

Occasionally I will be driving, maybe along the interstate, and there, along the side of the road, is a cross. I first saw them years ago, in South America, more frequent there, more common, but increasingly I see them now, here. One is covered with pink plastic roses; another has a teddy bear leaning against the small white cross; another has a single red rose.

Each takes me back to the accident. After an accident there is usually a long lines of cars, police trying to wave folks along, but the traffic slows, in part because a lane is closed, but also, police will tell you, because people want to slow down, they want to see. Folks want to know what happened. They want know if someone is hurt. When there is an accident I have an almost involuntary response of making the sign of the cross, and I’m not even Catholic! Some even want to pull over and stop. Where do we see crosses in life?

In holy week we have all pulled over to stop. We begin with Jesus, making his way into Jerusalem, triumphant, the crowds cheering, jubilant even, great expectations. Then something happens. The conflict grows. Jesus cleanses the temple, he condemns the pharisees, he curses the fig tree. There is betrayal. Jesus seems to sense it, at Passover, in Judas. And we have this feeling, in reading each of the gospels, that the wreck is not going to be somewhere else. It’s going to happen here. Peter is in denial, beforehand and afterward, but its going to happen, here.

Abandonment and betrayal, confusion and despair. Maybe you have been there. The phone rings. “Oh no”, you think to yourself. Maybe you hear the results of the test. “Oh no”, you say under your breath. Or maybe in some way your life just isn’t working out the way you planned, and the only response you can make is “Oh no”. It’s like we are driving along, getting on with our lives, from point a to point b, and then there is a crash, a disaster. We mark those places with crosses. They are the cold and increasingly dark places in our lives.

Jesus is there, on that cross. Now we Protestants have taken him off the cross, he is risen, but today, and this week, he is on the cross. And from the cross he speaks, to us, about abandonment and betrayal, confusion and despair: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Think for a moment about the life of Jesus. Remember Advent, lighting the candles of hope and peace, joy, love and light, everything pointing to the coming of this Savior. Think about his baptism, the dove descending, the voice of affirmation speaking, “You are my son, you are my beloved, I am pleased with you”. We came forward to the altar and renewed our baptisms.

Think about his power to heal, to change people, to enter into their lives. And so we gathered for the day of service, and some went to Haiti, and some celebrated the ministry of UMAR, and some spent the night and shared meals with the homeless. Think about the miracles. Think about the way he taught with such authority. Think about the mountain of transfiguration, on Mount Tabor, in the Galilee, the word of blessing, of affirmation again saying, “You are my son, you are my beloved, I am pleased with you”, and then, to us, “listen to him”. Think about your own moments of insight, clarity, inspiration.

Think about his total identification with God: The Father and I are one.
Think about his complete dedication to the mission of God: I have come to seek and save the lost. Think about his absolute openness to the Spirit: The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor.

It all moves in a powerful, purposeful direction. But something happened. On the cross he speaks: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.

Everything had gone wrong. It was a wreck. And we have pulled over to watch. And listen. What was Jesus saying? There is wisdom in that question. He was quoting scripture, the 22nd Psalm. We don’t know it as well as the 23rd Psalm, but we have all been there. That Psalm speaks of a God who will vindicate, who will respond, who will save.

He was giving voice to the reality of his death. Abandonment and betrayal, confusion and despair. And because he was who he was, the centurion says, at the close of our scripture, Truly this man was the Son of God. Meaning: When we are at our lowest, God is there. C.S. Lewis in the Screwtape Letters speaks of the peak periods and the trough periods, the good times and the bad times. He writes:

“It is during such trough periods, much more than during the peak periods, that it (the Christian) is growing into the sort of creature He wants it to be. Hence the prayers offered in a state of dryness are the ones that please Him best”.

Do you know the words of the 139th Psalm, a psalm that begins with a question. Sometimes our faith has a lot to do with our questions. The question is to God: Where can I go to escape from your presence? If I go into the heavens, you are there. If I go into sheol, you are there.

One of the most God-forsaken places I have ever spent time in was Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Israel. It is a place where a person physically senses abandonment and betrayal, confusion and despair, at a deep level. I saw a photo of Pope John Paul at Yad Vashem a few years ago. His presence there symbolized, for many Christians, the reality that even in the midst of horror and death, God does not forsake us.

When you have made your journey through abandonment and betrayal, confusion and despair, remember that God is with you. If you have ever felt like saying, “where are you God?, I’m all alone here,” remember: Jesus has been there first. It is one of his last words, My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? On Friday evening, we will listen to each of his last words. We will feel some of the force of emotion that he felt. We will see the cross, even as the sanctuary becomes increasingly darker.

You might be sitting there, thinking, why do we have to go through this? Why do we have to think about car wrecks and crosses? After all, the trees are in bloom. It has been a beautiful week. Can’t we focus on something more positive? Isn’t there some detour we could take? And of course, we could. We could take a detour around the first days of Holy Week, we could avoid the conflict, we could cover up the cross. We could do that.

But we would miss the point. There is no resurrection without crucifixion. There is life without death. There is no crown without a cross. There is no glory without suffering. There is no love without pain. There is no risen Lord without a crucified Jesus. And that is why we see crosses in life.

Authentic faith in Jesus Christ struggles with this question: My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? The answer to that question comes later, not even today. Stay tuned. Something is about to happen. And isn’t that the way life is? Through our abandonment and betrayal, confusion and despair, we don’t always have the final answer, today, right now. And so, in a trough period, we offer prayers in a state of dryness. In bitter cold and darkness we cry out, “Where are you, God?” But all we see is a cross.

On a hill far away, Jesus asked the question, My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? And then he died for you and me. He experienced abandonment and betrayal, confusion and death, for you and me. As the prophet said, surely He has borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows.

Maybe you are reading this, and you’re wondering: Where are you, God? I want to see you, I want to know that you are real, but all I see is a cross.

Source: C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

andrew sullivan on barack obama's speech

"Alas, I cannot give a more considered response right now as I have to get on the road. But I do want to say that this searing, nuanced, gut-wrenching, loyal, and deeply, deeply Christian speech is the most honest speech on race in America in my adult lifetime. It is a speech we have all been waiting for for a generation. Its ability to embrace both the legitimate fears and resentments of whites and the understandable anger and dashed hopes of many blacks was, in my view, unique in recent American history.

And it was a reflection of faith - deep, hopeful, transcending faith in the promises of the Gospels. And it was about America - its unique promise, its historic purpose, and our duty to take up the burden to perfect this union - today, in our time, in our way.

I have never felt more convinced that this man's candidacy - not this man, his candidacy - and what he can bring us to achieve - is an historic opportunity. This was a testing; and he did not merely pass it by uttering safe bromides. He addressed the intimate, painful love he has for an imperfect and sometimes embittered man. And how that love enables him to see that man's faults and pain as well as his promise. This is what my faith is about. It is what the Gospels are about. This is a candidate who does not merely speak as a Christian. He acts like a Christian.

Bill Clinton once said that everything bad in America can be rectified by what is good in America. He was right - and Obama takes that to a new level. And does it with the deepest darkest wound in this country's history.

I love this country. I don't remember loving it or hoping more from it than today".

From The Daily Dish. Link.
For the speech, click here.

Sunday, March 16, 2008


In honor of Liz, our senior daughter at UNC. The Heels win the ACC Tournament, 86-81.

And for those who want to get involved in bracketology,
here is the link.

My four number one seeds:


Saturday, March 15, 2008

please visit the (revised) links

The links, to the right, have been extensively revised. There are a number of additions, including some of my favorite sites: Lifehacker, GenX Rising, Sara Laughed, Methoblog, Five Practices and Remember The Milk. Some of my own writings have been added: a recent book on Easter, and a couple of journals to which I contribute. And there are resources related to emerging interests, especially microcredit, which our church is exploring in relation to northern Haiti, the millenium development goals, and materials regarding the missional church, a perspective that seems especially appropriate to Providence UMC. So please explore. And thanks again for visiting!

a hymn fragment

Drop thy still dews of quietness,
till all our strivings cease;
take from our souls the strain and stress,
and let our ordered lives confess
the beauty of thy peace.

John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892), Quaker poet and activist

Friday, March 14, 2008

hillary and barack in the parables of jesus

OK, I will come clean. I think there is probably nowhere to go but up in the coming presidential election. My rationale for this conviction. Let me count the ways:

1. The economy
2. The war
3. The environment
4. The debt
5. Torture

I will stop there. And I speak here not as a preacher but as a blogger.

One would think the Democrats would seize this opportunity to shift the balance of power, if only for a season. But the disintegration of the Democratic campaign has led us, it seems, to a very bad place. One side accuses the other of being sexist. The other cries "racist". And, at bottom, the real question is all about who frames the crucial identity marker. Is it gender or race?

And so the campaign has become very personal, and surreal in several respects. I cannot see a good end to it all, each side having alienated a constituency that is needed for his or her success.

Back to preaching. I have had an odd sense about what is happening. Two parables come to mind. Hillary Clinton is like the older brother (sibling) in the Prodigal Son story. She has been there all along, working hard, as she continually reminds us. No one has thrown her a party. The youngest son returns, from the far country. Everyone rejoices, and the crowds celebrate. But she will not join in the fun; she will have none of it. The father, appeals to her: "we have to celebrate, for we were lost, and now we are on the way to being a family again".

Or, another parable. Hillary has been working in the field, all day long, gaining experience. At the end of the day along comes a new guy, who takes part in the work and does it very well. He is natural. And it is obvious that she resents his presence. You can see it in her eyes, you can sense it in her tone. "How could you possibly consider us as equals?', she asks, to anyone who will listen. "I have been doing this a long time. I have been working hard". Of course in the end the position is given to the one whom the electorate chooses. Such is human (and divine) freedom.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

change (ephesians 5. 8-14)

The political pundits and pollsters tell us that this is the year of change. Low approval ratings of incumbents in office cuts across the partisan divide, and the desire for change is pervasive and real. 71% of Americans think we are headed in the wrong direction, according to a CBS/New York Times poll. And so, if you are an astute candidate for political office, you speak the language of change.

In the middle of this week, a front-page article in the Observer spoke of change in the American religious landscape. Only 51% of Americans refer to themselves as Protestants, and younger generations are much more likely not to follow the denominational traditions of their parents; although, upon reflection, my grandfather chose a denomination different from his father, and my mother chose a denomination that differed from her parents, and Pam and I chose a tradition that differs from our parents. What will our children do? Who knows?

But the landscape has changed. The churches on the four corners of the village green have been supplemented by mega churches and storefronts and congregations out toward the edge of town---that was Providence, once upon a time, at the sleepy intersection of Providence Road and Sharon Lane, but the religious landscape has also been changed by the internet, and by leisure (simply the number of people, many of them middle class, with two homes), and by the growth of youth sports, and by corporate mergers, and the mobility of people in our culture, and immigration. Change.

A recent movie, not one that garnered any of the Academy Awards but one that has been mentioned to me perhaps a dozen times in our congregation tells the story of two men who have a terminal illness. If you knew you were going to die, what would you do differently? What changes would you make? And so, they make a list, a “bucket list” of things they are going to do before they “kick the bucket”. And off they go. Along the way, there is change.

A woman in our church says to me, “you know, we have Lent coming up, I need to do something different, I need to read something, I need to give up something”, she is serious, “I need a change”.

The Epistle and Gospel lessons speak of the change that comes when a person encounters Jesus. A man is born blind. Jesus spits on the ground and makes a composition of mud and saliva and rubs this into the man’s eyes, and they are opened. “I was blind”, he later confesses, “but now I see”. Paul, writing to the early Christians, speaks of the moral struggle that faces them. “Once you were in darkness, but now, in the Lord, you are light. Live as children of light”, he urges them.

Methodists have had a word for this change: we have called it sanctification. This is the work of God’s grace in our lives. It begins in creation, in the One who says let there be light, in the One who creates all things and calls them good. And yet, the creation is marred by human sin, by what we do and choose not to do. We read in Ephesians 6: “Our struggle is not with flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness…”.

This present darkness. American has, over the past decade, been immersed in the culture wars, the battle lines drawn sharply between distinctions of light and darkness, the light being in here, the darkness being out there, the light being our side, the darkness being the other side. And so a prominent member of the clergy points to a darkness that is out there, among a certain group of people, and then, when he is exposed, it is apparent that the very darkness he had pointed to so persistently in the culture was actually a part of his own behavior. We have always struggled with the present darkness. John wrote in a letter to the early Christians, If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us (I John 1. 8).

And yet, even in the present darkness, we want to live as children of light. Most of us look at our world, at our country, at our church, at ourselves, and we imagine something different. We desire change. Lent is a season of change. In the first few centuries devout men and women emerged who looked at the world and imagined a different reality. They sought change. The desire for change led them to go out into the desert, we call them the desert fathers and the desert mothers. In the desert they sought not so much to escape the world as to save themselves, and hopefully, the society in which they lived. They found solitude and silence, which forced them to encounter the demons that come to the surface when we allow them to: anger and greed, anger rooted in our compulsion about what others think of us, greed related to our connection of self-worth, who we are, with our possessions, what we own.

Anger and greed represented the darkness within, and yet they are also the weapons with which we destroy one another---the economic crisis of the present time, where does that come from if not greed? And the increasingly violence of the past years, where are the origins of terrorism and torture and warfare if not the human heart?

The desert fathers and mothers were often criticized for seeking to escape from the world, but they saw it differently. In the words of Thomas Merton,

“They knew that they were helpless to do any good for others as long as they floundered about in the wreckage. But once they got a foothold on solid ground, things were different. Then they had not only the power but even the obligation to pull the whole world to safety with them.”

In the desert, devout men and women experienced what Henri Nouwen has called “the furnace of transformation”. Actually, this was the experience of Jesus, in the desert, in the wilderness, where he was tested. And this is our experience in the wilderness, in following Jesus in the forty days of his temptation. In the furnace of transformation, he was changed. And so we are left with questions: Do we desire change? Is change possible?

In the wilderness we sort these questions out. Most of us do not make geographical journeys toward wilderness, although some do. Instead, in the Christian year, we find the wilderness not in space but in time, in the season of Lent. My friend had it exactly right. Lent offers us the opportunity to change, to flee from the wreckage of our world, and to find places of solitude and silence. Lent offers us the challenge of facing the present darkness of our anger and our greed. When the ashes are rubbed on our forehead on Ash Wednesday, in the sign of the cross, we know, like Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman, that we are mortal. “Teach us to live as those who are prepared to die”, we pray in the liturgy of the memorial service. In other words, teach us to change.

Once you were in darkness, but now, in the Lord, you are light. Live as children of light. Live as children of Light. What a hopeful word, for us, for our world. And yet new life always comes with some difficulty. The old must pass away before the new comes into being.

A friend from the Midwest wrote about a little coffee shop near a college campus. There was a little sign next to the cash register. A neatly handwritten message was wrapped around a three-pound empty coffee can, which read: “Fear change? Drop it here!

God’s great desire is to change us and to change our world. Methodists have traditionally called this personal and social holiness and at our best we have never divorced the two. And so we pray for change, in ourselves, and we work for change, in the world. In the midst of this we ask for help, we join hands with each other and we kneel to receive grace at the altar, which can become, for us the furnace of transformation, the bread and the wine can become manna in the wilderness.

God loves change. And yet we fear change. Change, if we are honest, can be a little scary, and yet change is necessary. This change—we call it conversion---is our only hope. The good news is that this is the great work of God. We hear the promise in words given to the prophet Isaiah (43):

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you, I have called you by name, you are mine. Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.

And so…

Let us be open to some “new thing” in these days of Lent. Let us confront our anger and our greed. Let us not resist the change that is the great work of God in us, and in the world, Let us know, in moments of solitude and silence, the undeniable reality of grace. Let us hunger and thirst for this gift, as we eat manna in the wilderness and drink from streams of water flowing in the desert. Let us confront our fears while knowing that perfect love casts out all fear. Let us feel the healing touch that would open our eyes to perceive a new world.

In this present darkness, let us live children of light. Amen.

Sources: Henri Nouwen, The Way of The Heart. Philip Amerson, “Fear Change? Drop It Here!”, Aware.

Monday, March 03, 2008

the past, present and future of our democracy

George H. W. Bush, 1989-1993
William Jefferson Clinton, 1993-2001
George W. Bush, 2001-2009
Hillary Rodham Clinton, 2009-2017
Jeb Bush, 2017-2025 (first Floridian to be elected president)
Clelsea Clinton, 2025-2033 (youngest woman to be elected president)
George P. Bush, 2033-2041 (first hispanic president; mother is a native of Mexico)
_________ Clinton _________, 2041-2049 (future spouse of Chelsea; wild card)
Jenna Bush, 2049-2057 (alternative: her twin sister Barbara as co-president)

Saturday, March 01, 2008

no depression

I learned recently that one of my favorite magazines, No Depression, will cease publication. I am saddened by this news, as No Depression covers Americana (or Roots) music as well as any other source. The title comes from a song of Mother Maybelle Carter's ("There's no depression in heaven"), and the journal seemed to be able to bridge the country music of my childhood (Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash) with the country rock of my teenage years (Flying Burrito Brothers, Eagles, Linda Ronstadt) with a pretty wide assortment of artists up to the present moment: these might include Allen Touissaint and Steve Earle, Alison Krauss and Van Morrison, Leon Russell and Jim Lauderdale, Willie Nelson and Nickel Creek. You can access some of all of this at No Depression.

You can hear the about the decision here.