Friday, April 29, 2011

Lighting the Cave

This is my adapted final sermon from my introductory preaching course with Dr. Gary Simpson. We had to write an Easter or Resurrection sermon. I still am working out the beginning of the sermon, but here it is as a little resurrection for the week after Easter. And away we go...

Scripture: John 20:1-18 1

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, "They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him."

Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went towards the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus' head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping?" She said to them, "They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him."

When she had said this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?"

Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away." Jesus said to her, "Mary!" She turned and said to him in Hebrew, "Rabbouni!" (which means Teacher).

Jesus said to her, "Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers [and sisters] and say to them, 'I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'"

Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, "I have seen the Lord"; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

Sermon: Lighting the Cave

This text presents us with the picture of Mary Magdalene, eyesight blurred by tears, stooping down to look into the tomb, bent over to look into that empty place that is supposed to hold Jesus' body. This image of Mary bending over to look into the tomb, which was essentially a cave, was one that spoke to me when I first read this passage. I don't know how many of you have been in caves, but picturing the tomb as this carved out cave really captured my attention.

My family went on vacations across the USA when I was a kid, and we would go to different caves opened as parks to the public--- we weren't like spelunkers or anything--- and without fail in the middle of the tour, the guide would shut off all the lights and tell us that in the world you can only experience absolute darkness in two places, the bottom of the ocean and in a cave. And the guides would then always say that a person cannot survive in absolute darkness very long. They told of cavers whose candles or later flashlights would go out, leaving them stranded underground. They would go blind, eyes constantly searching for some sort of brightness that just did not exist inside the cave, and slowly they would be mentally consumed as well, minds craving sunlight as the body did. This kept running through my head as I bent down with Mary to look in the tomb.

And so, will you pray with me:
God-With-Us, this Holy Week we read of a time of confusion and fear,
culminating in this Easter morning moment. As we explore this text together,
might we remain open to the workings of the Spirit,
actively listening for the ways in which you are leading us.
In the name of the Living One. Amen.

In the Gospel of John, which we read today, Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb alone. She has lived in fear the last few days, wondering as so many of us did at the quick turn around from Palm Sunday to the terror of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. She has lived through the abandonment of the disciples named the Twelve in the gospels2--- those who are supposed to be Jesus' closest friends and companions. She has stood watching with her own eyes the crucifixion of her teacher. And then there was Saturday. She must not have been able to wait any longer. She slipped out of the house where she must have been staying with other followers of Jesus, making a pilgrimage by herself to see the body. At this point, it was all she had. Jesus' crucifixion was someone blowing out the candle in the cave, and she has been searching for a little light. Finding the lifeless body there would not be that light, but she did not know what else to do.

So when she approaches the tomb in that early morning and she sees the stone had been removed from the tomb, I imagine her heart stopping, sinking into the pit of her stomach, and her lips mouthing no. The way you feel when you feel like the world has done its worst to you but then it throws out one thing more. Mary is robbed of even the shell of a memory. Even that has been taken from her. At this moment, the fear is just too much, and she can't stay in that place. So she runs to Simon Peter and the other disciple, seeking someone to stand with her in her grief and confusion. But she is left alone again weeping at the mouth of the tomb, unwilling to go in, just crouching down, tears filling her eyes. And her tears do not slow even when she sees down into the darkness two figures seated where the body should be.

"Woman, why are you weeping?"

"They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him."

She needs to see the body, to touch the body again, but it is gone and she does not know where it is. She is so preoccupied with finding this body again, preoccupied with finding this object of her grief that she does not respond to the fact that these are angels in the tomb. These angels could be those spots of brightness in the absolute darkness of the cave, but they aren't for Mary. Not even angels can pierce through her grief.

So she turns away from the tomb. Perhaps it is too difficult for her to sob in that crouched position, looking down into the darkness. But in turning away, she faces yet another who asks her, "Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?" She thinks it is the gardener. Who else would be out here at this time of the day when everyone else had abandoned her. She ignores the gardeners questions, instead, head down, wringing her hands asks slowly so as not to belie the fear and confusion she feels through her voice. "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away." She will not ask questions, all she wants, all her bereaved mind can think of now is fulfilling the purpose for which she came here on this morning.

But Jesus reaches through that grief, that confusion, and calls her by name. "Mary!" And it is the sound of his voice, the sound of that familiar voice she has heard day after day teaching her, loving her, this voice she hasn't heard since Friday when it came from him in great gasping breaths as his life left him--- left her, standing there watching. This is the moment where her eyes stop straining for light even when she closes them because it is there in front of her. This is the moment when her eyes begin to drink in the light after her days in the absolute darkness of the cave.

The text, while not describing in detail her response, leads us to believe it was a physical one, her reaching out to hold onto that body she has so longed to see, to touch, to invoke her memories of what these not only past few days but past few years of her life with Jesus, to figure out what that has meant. Because all morning, she was left to think that it meant nothing. Even Peter and the other disciple had left her alone, sobbing outside the empty tomb of her teacher. But then she hears his voice, and she hears his voice saying her name, calling her out of her grief, calling her to discover that he is still with her, though she feels so alone.

Her response is one that I think is so common with those of us who are pulled out of suffering by good test results or speedy recovery--- we want to hold onto that which is calling us out of suffering. We want to stare unblinking into the light after being alone in the darkness of the cave. But Jesus says, "Do not hold on to me..." And I think it would have been so easy for Mary to reach out and attach herself to Jesus and never let him out of her sight, let everything else go just to create this little world of the two of them, a safe world, one in which he will never get taken away from her again. But Jesus says, "I have not yet ascended to the Father." Not yet. See, his time with her now is to break through that fog of grief, to help her to move on with the work he has called her to do, reminding her that his presence will always be with her. He is the light within her that will not go out.

So Mary's joy at feeling Jesus' presence is redirected outward. She cannot sit still in the cave, transfixed by the light her eyes have so longed for. No, she must use that light to find a way out, towards living that kindom vision that Jesus her Rabbouni, her teacher, had taught her. And so, after Jesus urges Mary to go out to her brothers and sisters, to remember that his presence is not for her alone, she becomes the first witness to Easter morning. She is not the only one grieving, though so often in our grief we feel as though we are the only ones. Rather, hearing Jesus call us out of our suffering, feeling Jesus' presence again after this great loss beckons us to continue to work for the living.

Jesus is reaching into our grief and our confusion, calling us by name.
How will we respond?

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Can't We Leave Jesus Out?

Crossposted at OnFire for the #Why MFSA campaign April 25-May 4 (the approximate dates for General Conference next year) during which a whole host of different people are blogging about why they are connected to the Methodist Federation for Social Action (MFSA). It's about getting ready to change the Church folks!

When I turned eighteen, I thought it would be a good idea to get a cross and flame tattoo on my back. I had grown up United Methodist and attributed much of my radical politics to my mother, who is a pastor, and because of that, I also attributed those radical politics to The UMC. Both my parents taught me social justice as a Christian value. So I was pretty surprised after I turned eighteen to see that The UMC was not as radical a place as I thought it was. I was appalled to find out that The UMC did not ordain what the Discipline names self-avowed, practicing homosexuals.

Later, after becoming a lay delegate to Annual Conference as a Junior, I was appalled at the opulence of the hotels our conference is held in and the slow-moving bureaucracy that is our church. So I wondered: what were some of the ways I could transform that tattoo into something else, something no longer Methodist-related? But then I went to Student Forum, where I learned about MOSAIC and OnFire, the young adult chapter of MFSA. Here were places where I saw hope for making The UMC into that church I thought it was growing up, that church that practiced the justice that Jesus taught us.

As a seminarian at Drew Theological School, I have had the opportunity to participate in the OnFire Borderlinks immersion trip to the border between the USA and Mexico and later to mobilize with others, including so many United Methodists, on Washington for immigration reform. Those moments were moments where I was proud to be United Methodist, amidst these people working for justice in the world and in our church.

Last semester, I researched Methodist publications for their reactions to the Red Scare, in light of the fearmongering in our time, and was so inspired by what I read about MFSA. In the new history of United Methodism, for instance, the authors write,
"In 1953 [Rev. Jack] McMichael [of the Methodist Federation for Social Action] appeared before the [House Committee on UnAmerican Activities] and challenged its accusations of Communist subversion with such telling references to the ministry of Jesus that an aggravated committee member shouted, 'Can't we leave Jesus out.'" 1
MFSA has shown me that Jesus' ministry is one of subversion, and that The United Methodist Church can live into that same ministry with the help of a few folks committed to justice. Why MFSA? Because they won't leave Jesus out of it; they are working to bring the church into that vision of justice Jesus taught us.

1 Russell E. Richey, Kenneth E. Rowe, and Jean Miller Schmidt, The Methodist History in America: A History, vol. 1, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2010) 420.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Who is this?

The monthly sermon post! This is a sermon for Palm Sunday, that I first used on my preaching class with Dr. Gary Simpson at Drew. Today, I preached it at Bernardsville United Methodist Church in New Jersey, where I have been preaching once a month as part of my supervised ministry. It is a very small congregation, and the people are so wonderful and friendly. I thank them for their support of me as a student pastor and will be sad to go, since this was the last Sunday I will preach there. But that means supervised ministry is almost over and I will have some time to write something for my blog other than a sermon!

Scripture: Matthew 21:1–11 (from the Inclusive Bible translation)1

As they approached Jerusalem, entering Bethphage at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent off two disciples, with the instructions, "Go into the village straight ahead of you, and immediately you will find a tethered donkey with her colt standing beside her. Untie them and lead them back to me. If anyone questions you, say, 'The Rabbi needs them.' They they will let them go at once."

This came about to fulfill what was said through the prophet:
"Tell the daughter of Zion,
Your sovereign comes to you without display,
riding on a donkey, on a colt---
the foal of a beast of burden."

So the disciples went off and did what Jesus had ordered. They brought the donkey and her colt, and after they laid their cloaks on the animals, Jesus mounted and rode toward the city.

Great crowds of people spread their cloaks on the road, while some began to cut branches from the trees lay them along the path. The crowds--- those who went in front of Jesus and those who followed--- were all shouting,
"Hosanna to the Heir to the House of David!
Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Most High!
Hosanna in the highest!"

As Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred to its depths, demanding, "Who is this?"

And the crowd kept answering, "This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth in Galilee!"

Sermon: “Who is this?”

I saw Godspell at Bernards Township High School a few weeks ago. It is one of my favorite musicals--- I prefer hippie musicals. And, though the song "Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord" is a John the Baptist song, calling people to repent, I always hear this song and think of Palm Sunday. If you have seen the musical live, you may associate the rushing forward in the song--- which at the high school due to that large cast sounded like a herd of elephants--- with the forward motions of the crowd, proclaiming as loudly and joyously as you have to do to sing "Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord."

And so this is the image I have in my mind of Palm Sunday, a rushing forward, a joyous preparation of Jesus coming to Jerusalem to assume his role as King, really. The occasion is one of such brightness and color that we almost skip over that verse, the one that is foreshadowing the events coming later in the week. You see,

As Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred to its depths,
demanding, "Who is this?"

Who is this guy riding a donkey with her colt alongside her into our city? Who is this person that has so invigorated the masses? Who is this and what does he want? What does he want with us?

Will you pray with me?

Gracious God, Patient Teacher, we ask your presence among us as we gather here. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts bring us closer to understanding who is this Jesus and how can we become better followers of him. Amen.

Thoughout my study of this passage this week, the question I kept coming back to was that "Who is this?" question. The text, though, makes it pretty clear who this is. In the beginning of the passage, we see Jesus as a great teacher, as one who gives instructions that are followed, as one who says "you will find a tethered donkey" there and it is so. And the author of this gospel tells us that this happened to fulfill what was said through the prophet. So who is this Jesus? The Promised One. The One the people have so longed for. The sign of this king was not a warhorse, not chariots drawn as Caesar would have it, no the sign of this promised one given to the people by God through the prophet was that a simple man would ride in without display on a dinky old donkey, still tied to her young colt. The people are clear that this man on the donkey is prophesying a change, and that is why they shout Hosannas.

I think the scene was one so like what we saw in Egypt. The people so overflowed with joy at the thought of their freedom. They stood in Tahrir--- which means liberation--- Square, together surging forward with a vision of the end of oppression and the beginning of a new way to be Egypt together. The whole city stirred to its depths is the world, people glued to the TV wondering what will happen next, asking who are these people?

But too often the asking of the question who is this? is the signal of fear. It is clear from the passage that Jesus has come to Jerusalem to change some things--- we can say that before he even overturns the tables in the Temple, which in the Gospel of Matthew, he does the same day as his entry into the city. A Palestinian man, who must be obviously poor, obviously dusty from extensive travel, sits on top of a donkey, rides through the streets, and is given the welcome of a great king. This is frightening for those in power; this is the time when their fear translates into a need to quash the uprising. Yet others are out in the streets shouting Hosannas.

The whole city is stirred to its depths as it is presented with a choice, to continue with the old way of living, the way of warhorses, or to try to do something new. To follow this strange man on a donkey.

The Who is this? question is really one about what truths we will admit to ourselves, about whether or not we are willing to let the God who is stirring us to our depths do something new in our lives or whether we are going to quash it within us, close our eyes, turn our backs on the processional.

We all have these who is this? moments in our lives, these moments when we see God and know who God is but we have to ask if we are willing to admit that to ourselves.

One of the most important Who is this? moments for me in my life happened when I went to Bosnia and Herzegovina on a mission trip for the first time. My sister and I were picky eaters, but we certainly were nowhere near starving, but our host, a tiny firey woman named Saja decided we were wasting away and so whisked us away from the rest of the group, bringing with us one of our translators named Ðana since Saja herself knew little English, to the home of her friend for a special dinner. Now, I was sixteen, out of the country for the first time, sitting at a table outside a home still riddled with bullet holes and shrapnel from the war, listening to three strange women chatting in Bosnian. Bosnian is not a language like French or Spanish where a lot of the words are similar to English either. But despite the confusion of the situation, my sister Kate and I just sat quietly, absorbing it all. Ðana became quiet soon too, and then she reached over to Kate and I and told us she loved us. She had known us for two days, and here she was telling us she loved us.

Who is this?It had to be God. I had known the woman for two days. I had lived an extremely sheltered life and spent my childhood planting pumpkins in my backyard that didn't grow until the year we moved, playing with kittens, and writing science fiction. Ðana spent her childhood hiding from the Serb and Croat armies. Her father was killed during the war and every day she leaves her house she passes the marker along the road where he had been murdered. She had never spoken English outside of class before she met us, and the only Bosnian word I knew at that point was the number 8 because it sounds like the word awesome. She was a Muslim whose people were targeted by Christian genocidaires and I was a USAmerican Christian in a post- 9/11 world. And yet the God within her reached out to me beyond all of those barriers and loved me.

And this is one of the moments in my life where I did recognize God, and that I still today rely on as the assurance that God loves me. Me of all people. This is what I imagine those folks along the road that day celebrating. Of course, my who is this? moment is not completely parallel to that of Palm Sunday. There, God had given them this radically different picture of kingship, but in that picture they felt God saying, as I felt in Bosnia, I love you. And I have a better way of living planned for you.

But with this recognition comes a call to a change. Are we going to be those people shouting Hosannas, or are we going to insist that we do not know the answer to the question Who is this?

Of course, even when we are in that crowd, shouting Hosannas on a Sunday,

where do we end up that Friday?

For sometimes we shout Hosannas on Sunday only to go into hiding Friday or even become the bloodthirsty crowd. We must remember that not all revolutions end peacefully. Right now many of us are praying for Libya, mowed down by a dictator. This is not another Egypt revolution, which though it did come under siege briefly by Mubarek's thugs, was overwhelmingly peaceful and joyous. But Libya resembles less this joyous parade to Jerusalem than it does the way Jesus left Jerusalem on Good Friday. We read in Matthew,
On their way out [of Jerusalem], they met a Cyrenian named Simon who they pressed into service to carry the cross. Upon arriving at a site called Golgotha--- which means Skull Place--- they gave Jesus a drink of wine mixed with a narcotic herb, which Jesus tasted but refused to drink.

Once they had nailed Jesus to the cross, they divided his clothes among them by rolling dice; then they sat down and kept watch over him. Above his head, they put the charge against him in writing: "This is Jesus, King of the Jews."2
Jesus' entry into Jerusalem is a scene of rich color and vibrance, not the darkness pressing down on us of the scene of Jesus leaving Jerusalem.

Both scenes are full of topsy-turvery reversals: in the first, a man is given the welcome of a king, though he comes without display, riding a donkey; in the second, a man is named a king mockingly as he is killed as a political criminal. But this Jesus is just as much our king here in this Good Friday scene as he is on Palm Sunday. This Good Friday scene is a fulfillment of that Palm Sunday picture. It shows that the answer to the Who is this? question is the one that got him killed.

We are in our last week of Lent, a time of renewal, a time of bringing life from ashes. We are spending this season of Lent, particularly this Holy Week, preparing ourselves for the Way of the Lord. And when we are preparing ourselves for the Way of the Lord, we have to prepare ourselves for those Fridays too, prepare ourselves to be willing to answer the question Who is this? even when we are stirred to our very depths.