Sunday, March 27, 2016

Love Always Wins

Easter Sunday Readings

Alleluia. Christ is risen.  The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia.

Click the image to listen to the sermon

Why do you look for the living among the dead? The angels ask.  Remember he told you he would be crucified - and in three days would rise again?  Don’t you remember – because Jesus said it like 100 times when y’all were hanging out.

And slowly, I imagine, it begins to dawn on those women – Jesus did say he would rise again.  So they run, probably still with some doubts in their hearts, to tell the guys.  And the disciples think they are crazy – dismissing the women’s words as idle talk.

Why don’t any of the faithful followers remember what Jesus had been telling them all along?

Because resurrection is ridiculous and irrational.  When you’re staring at death – when you’re surrounded by emptiness it is hard to see past that - to trust that God is up to something new.  Until of course you’re standing on the other side.

I don’t mean the other side – as in – life after death.  (Personally I’ve never stood there and would like to hold off on that for some time).  But like you and me, these women are still in the land of the living. That’s what the angels point out.  The women want to bring in a new day with old traditions – anointing the body, weeping and wailing at the tomb – acting as if death has had the final word.  Why, the angels ask.  Why would you want to do that?  Remember what Jesus told you.  Go be with the living – because death has dominion no more! Go - Share the news - tell the story. He is risen from the dead.

Six words.  Jesus is risen from the dead.  Those six words are the whole story.1  The alpha and the omega of how much God loves us, the world – how much God loves life – eternally – but also here and now.

There is a website dedicated to people sharing stories, their life story, in six words.   It’s an online ezine called Smith.  Their tagline is “One life. Six Words. What’s Yours?” And the site is dedicated to collecting these six word memoirs.  Since the magazine launched there have been books, compilations of six word memoirs from the famous celebrities and everyday people (anyone can participate).  As I was scrolling through the site I thought these memoirs were pretty good -

My diary is read by everyone. - Taylor Swift
The chef Mario Batalli wrote – Brought to a boil, quite often.
Stephen Colbert – Well, I thought it was funny.

The idea for this endeavor came from an old writer’s tale.  Ernest Hemingway supposedly was once challenged to write a story in six words and he came up with something extraordinarily poignant,
For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.

As I was scrolling through the many, many submissions from the not-famous, every day people the one that struck resonated – given where we are is - The exits were entrances in disguise.

The women, the disciples can’t see beyond the exit.  They think they have come to the end of the story and it’s over.  They believed Jesus had lost.  And the political powers of their time had the last violent word yet again.  In their grief and disappointment who could blame them for not trusting, what Jesus had said?  Who can blame us?  It can be hard to see past the political powers of our time and the violence in our day – to believe that God will make a way.  And that the way of the cross – the way of love – will triumph in the end.

There’s a joke that might be heard in various churches this morning.  The preacher gets into the pulpit and begins by saying – so as I was saying on Christmas Eve….

The new beginning stories of God breaking into the world – they will forever be the ones that bring us together – because we so want them to be made real.  And the way God breaks into the world is as crazy as the way God breaks out of it.  And the agents of God – the angels – say the same in both.  To the terrified shepherds – and to the terrified women – don’t be scared – this isn’t the end it’s just the beginning.  Go and tell the good news.  Go it’s up to you – to let people know of God.  God breaks in and breaks out – our job is to go and tell.

So how do these six words – Jesus is risen from the dead – make a difference in your life?  Do they?  Do you want them to?  Because I know you’ve seen – I know you’ve experienced a new beginning when you thought you’d reached the end.

Asking myself this question this week and inspired by the 6-word memoir here’s what I came up with:

Found by love again and again.

I don’t mean romantic love.  I mean God as in God is love.  So why not just say – Found by God again and again.  Because that idea of God – let’s face it – is abstract.  As if God is separate and apart from us, outside of you and me.  But if there is anything the whole story of Jesus shows us – is that God’s love is made real in Christ.

The God who would share our human nature – live and die as one of us?  That’s love.
The God who would walk to a cross for a world like ours?  That’s love.
The God who returns to his disciples the ones who abandoned, to say – Beloved, you are forgiven?  That’s love.

The God who takes every exit – every closed door – every loss I’ve ever known – and loves me through to a new beginning.  The God who takes every disaster – every act of hatred – every act of violent destruction and shows all of us that is not the end.  That is Love.  Out of death there is always new life – because death never has the final word.  Love does.

And that love – that new life – that moment or process of resurrection doesn’t happen by magic.  It happens through the hearts and hands and feet of people like you and me – living and bringing, sometimes literally carrying, the good news of love into our world.

Love is what draws us to God – and shows us that we are God’s.  I could say - Found by hope, joy, peace, gratitude, kindness, patience, forgiveness, courage, faith again and again – you could replace Love with any of those words – but – as Paul famously writes to the Corinthians – while all those things abide – the greatest of all these – is – love.

Despite their fear – love brings the women to that tomb in the early dawn.  And despite their doubts – love is what ultimately propels the disciples to live the truth of a story we continue – a story the first believers thought was just idle talk.

And it certainly can be.  Resurrection is as empty as that tomb – if it’s only a statement in a creed.  Resurrection is only full of life when we live it. When we allow those words – Jesus is risen from the dead – to shape, inspire and write the story of our lives here and now.  So go – and find it.  Go and be it.  Share the good news story – Love always wins.  No matter what.

Alleluia Christ is risen.  The Lord is risen indeed.

[1] With much thanks to the Rev. Cathie Caimano for her essay on this topic!

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Extravagant Living

Readings for the Fifth Sunday in Lent

To listen to the sermon click the image below

In an earlier part of my life, I performed with a semi-professional opera company that did a kind of dinner theater.  Based in central Florida we earned our living performing in retirement communities – regaling diners with popular opera arias and musical theater numbers between courses.  One night, I remember, I was slated to sing the closing number – and I asked the director, “Could I sing this one instead?”  No, he said, my second choice wasn’t appropriate.  So I argued and demanded to know why.  It’s simple, he said, our dinners always start and end on a high note!

The last word of Jesus at this dinner does not end on a high note.  The poor will always be with you.  What does that mean? It sounds like Jesus shrugs his shoulders, resigned to the world as it is.  Sadly this verse can and has been misconstrued in that way – usually to justify a laissez-fair attitude towards Christian benevolence.  

But as always, it’s important to remember – this isn’t a statement to the crowds – it’s a response to a particular person.  That duplicitous disciple Judas.  Who, Jesus surely knows, regards his responsibility to the poor as check-list charity.  An obligation to the law born out of guilt.  His remark about selling the oil because of its price tag is meant to shame Mary – and maybe Jesus – in her extravagance.

So Jesus points Judas to the extravagant nature of God – not, by shrugging his shoulders in acknowledgement of the perpetual problem of poverty – but by reminding Judas how God describes generosity in Deuteronomy.  The poor will always be with you – is a summary of that ancient teaching –

If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted towards your needy neighbor…open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be. Be careful that you do not entertain a mean thought…[or] view your needy neighbor with hostility…Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so…Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land. (Deut 15)

What fills, propels, encourages – any of us – with the desire to give liberally – ungrudgingly – and without hostility?  Love.  And we can’t give what we don’t have.

The wholehearted generosity Mary shares with Christ – making use of her hands, her heart, her hair – is a first-order action.  Her generosity reconnects and replenishes love – so that her heart – which will break in a few days – will not be hardened.

You see, Mary and Jesus seem to be the only people at this dinner who want to get real about what’s going to happen in the week ahead.

What is one of the first things you notice when you walk into a bakery – a coffee shop – a barn –  a thrift store, sometimes – a restaurant – a hospital?  The smell.  The smell of a place or a person – can be as inviting as it can be off-putting.  Smell conjures up more memories than any of our other senses.

And Mary’s extravagance – filling the house with the fragrance of perfume - ensures that everyone is reminded of something familiar. Spikenard oil is the historical name.  And, as Jesus says it is used to anoint a body at burial.  A powerful scent reminiscent for us of mint and ginseng that for everyone there would immediately call to mind a funeral.  Except Mary has poured it all out before Jesus is dead.

Recently at a reception following a funeral someone said something to me I’ve heard before – and that I’ve said with my family members – maybe you have with yours.  It’s too bad it takes a funeral to bring us all together for this party.  I mean, it’s not a party – the reception – or wake – or whatever gathering you have after the service, after the burial.  But it’s a really important part of the ritual of grief.  You can’t help but be glad to see certain people.  You can’t help but laugh remembering certain stories.  You can’t help but wish the person who is gone could be there – to see – all the people who showed up, out of respect, out of love.

In those gatherings there is an extravagance – certainly of food – often times of drink.  And especially an extravagance of time.  Many times when we’ve had receptions after funerals here – followed by a reception in the parish hall – they always go long, past when the family thought they’d be done.  When I’ve traveled to be with my family in those times – the gathering will last for days.

This dinner is that gathering with Jesus is sitting next to Lazarus. Martha and Mary’s brother.  And, you’ll remember he died.  Jesus had just raised Lazarus from the dead.  Despite everyone’s panic that they would have to smell death when Jesus asked them to roll away the stone.  Lord there will be a stench, he’s been there four days.
So maybe because she had already had four days of grief for her brother – Mary wants to have that kind of party – now.  Maybe she doesn’t want to wait for the gathering after the burial – she wants everyone she loves to be extravagant and present while they are still together.

So she pours out that oil, that perfume.  Sharing her expensive and extravagant gift so that everyone recognize the priceless time they have left together.  She opens her hands – opens her heart.  Gives liberally and ungrudgingly – without hostility towards those in the room who criticize her indulgence.

One of the reasons I think many of us wish we could have that kind of party with someone before they’ve died – is because we hold back in the giving of ourselves.  We hold grudges and have unkind thoughts. We can be hard-hearted or tight-fisted with a variety of gifts.  All those ways of connecting with the needy described in Deuteronomy – they’re not just about money.

It isn’t easy to be extravagant in our love – our forgiveness – our generosity.  It can cause a spectacle.  It can cause people, and that critic inside our heads, to make snide and judgmental comments.  Extravagant love is vulnerable – because it leaves us open.  And yet – because it opens us up – it is paradoxically the most fulfilling gift there is.

We have to wait a week – but in John’s gospel the next morning is Palm Sunday.  When we’ll be shouting our Hosanna’s with the crowds before we join the mobs in yelling Crucify.  And then Easter follows.  And of course that is a day of extravagance – in terms of people in the pews, in terms of music we will hear, in terms of flowers filling this space.  That is a day that starts and ends on a high note.
But our celebration of it – is so far removed from what Mary experienced.  Perhaps Jesus allows his feet to be anointed for burial because he knows when the women come to perform that ritual in the tomb – on our Easter Sunday – Jesus won’t be there.

Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. – we heard in Isaiah
I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?

Mary apparently did.  And Jesus apparently prefers to be the guest at extravagant parties of the living.

For since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth us – go - give liberally and generously of yourself – so that God can do a new thing in you.

Let us give extravagantly of our time and sit with Mary at the feet of Jesus – so that we too can be filled and moved to share our many variety of riches out of love in the here and now.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

God's Invitation

Readings for the Fourth Sunday in Lent

Then the father said to him, 'Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.'

Click the video to listen to the sermon.

When we know a story well, it can be hard to hear it.  That's often true with our bible stories that we hear over and over.  And certainly true of the famous one - the Prodigal Son which we know so well.

There is a father and two sons.  One son is dutiful.  One son is not.  One son is respectful and works for the family business.  The other son demands his share of the business before his father has died – and then leaves and squanders it all.  One son is good – the other, not so much.

We don’t just know this story very well – some of us have even lived it, haven’t we?  Eldest – good, responsible.  Youngest – free-wheeling and self-seeking.  As an eldest, painting with those ridiculously broad strokes works just fine for me.

And Jesus is painting with broad strokes too – but not in terms of us.  The broad – wide – expansive strokes paint the heart of God.  And the parable’s easy dualism of good and bad – I think - is intended to reveal our tendency to categorize and judge – where God does not.

In chapel this week I read a very simple version of this story to our 3, 4 and 5 year olds.  In it the brother takes all his pennies – and leaves home because he’s tired of his dad telling him what to do.  Then, surprise, he runs out of pennies.  So he goes home and says – I’m sorry.  And the dad isn’t angry and welcomes him back.

Of course, I understand why the story is told that way to that age group – but that’s not this story.  Although I think we hear it that way even as adults.  We hear a younger brother who is repentant – but sorry isn’t what the younger brother says.  It’s not a story about forgiveness – it’s a story about worth.  Who is worthy of the Father’s love.

Some scholars say all of Luke’s gospel is contained within this chapter.  A chapter that begins with Pharisees and scribes – in other words – the churched – grumbling and complaining about who Jesus is eating with.  It hints at the grumbling at God done long ago – when God led the chosen people out of Egypt.  Back then – they grumbled saying – why didn’t you just leave us alone – when we were slaves, at least we knew where our next meal was coming from!   And now the grumbling (we’re always grumbling) because they don’t approve of who God is sharing food with.  Because he’s sharing food with all the younger brothers of the world – who many eldest-types consider undeserving and unworthy.

Which is how the younger brother eventually sees himself.  Treat me like a slave, I’m not worthy to be your son.   Which ironically – or not – is the same thing the older brother says to the father.  All these years, I worked like a slave for you.  Both brothers see their worth as contingent on something they do. Is that the good news? Is it the work that makes us worthy? Is it rule following? Is it something we gain – or always have?  What is worthy in God’s eyes?

Jesus knows these are the questions on the hearts of everyone around him.  The sinners he is eating with – and the religious who are looking down them.  There’s no reason to assume the “sinners” at this table are unhappy.  For all we know – they could be people just like the younger brother before he ran out of pennies – in the midst of a raucous period of self-exploration, who feel good about how they are living their lives.  Who knows?  But it’s clear what the Pharisees are feeling.  Tsk. Tsk. Tsk.  How could this Jesus make his Godlike claims and sit with people who don’t even give God the time of day.  Here we’ve made something of ourselves in the house of God – yet he chooses them over us? I’ll bet deep down they were pretty envious.

Jesus shares three stories in reply - .
#1 – A shepherd with 100 sheep loses one and leaves all the others behind to go and find it.  When he does, he drapes the lamb over his shoulders and then calls all his friends and neighbors and says “Rejoice with me! For I have found my sheep that was lost.”

#2 – A woman with 10 silver coins loses one.  She searches and searches until she finds it – and when she does – she calls out to her friends and neighbors and says, “Rejoice with me! For I have found the coin that was lost!”

And #3 – A father who has two sons – both of whom seem very lost.  An elder son who spends his life counting up and tabulating his deeds, working like a slave for his dad.  And a younger son who asks to be treated like a slave, because he thinks he no longer counts.  But the father calls out to each son – No – Rejoice with me!  For we are here, alive, together.

What is the word that is shared in all three – Rejoice, rejoice and again I say rejoice (Philippians).  And in all three “rejoice” is an invitation.

You and I both know what it is to be a youngest and an eldest.  We know what it is to be disrespectful to people who have cared for us, at some point in our lives.  We know what it is to say, it’s my way or the highway – and do what we want, when we want.

And because we are all dutifully sitting in a church at this moment I’m pretty sure I can safely say – we also all know what it is to do the right thing, the responsible thing, the moral thing.  

Jesus reminds us in these stories – neither path defines our worth in God’s eyes.  But both paths are an opportunity to be found.  We can also relate to the feeling of finding something of incredible worth that we thought was lost.  That completeness – that’s where the worth, the value is.  Because that’s the joy – God runs to share with us.  When people are reconciled within themselves – between each other – restored to their place in a community – that’s when the joy is made complete.  Completing our joy, Jesus later tells his disciples is the whole reason he was here in the first place.

But so often we get hung up on our judgments about which path is better – we stand in the way of reconciliation holding on to our notions of who deserves love, or forgiveness, or restoration.  Whereas God just wants to run and grab us – and help us rejoice, help us see the worth all of us have in God’s eyes.

Ultimately this is a story about letting God find us wherever we are.  Because when that happens – we are made whole.  And it doesn’t happen just once – but again and again.  God’s joy is complete when we are whole – when we give all of ourselves into God.  God’s joy grows as when we continually understand – our worth isn’t based on anything we can do – it’s amazing grace, the gift God invites us to find and to share.  And when we find it – we also find our joy grows and grows as we share that joy with others.

Paul writes - In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, [but] entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.

There is something good about getting lost.  Getting lost in our selfish pursuits – and getting lost in our value-judgments about everyone else.  Because getting lost – means we can be found.  The stories all end not with a command – but an invitation – God calling to everyone – rejoice with me, rejoice.  This morning is simply another opportunity for us to listen and decide how we will answer.  Amen.