Archive for April, 2010

When’s the last time you heard the 23rd Psalm?

Friday, April 30th, 2010

Psalm 23 and John 10
April 25, 2010
Steve Hammond

“Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.” But what if God not only prepared a table for us in the presence of our enemies, but invited them to supper?

Most of us, I think, if we know this Psalm at all know it from funerals, for good reason; it is so very comforting. God leads us to green pastures and still waters. God restores our souls. God walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death. God’s goodness and mercy follow us all the days of our lives. And we shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever. This Psalm tells us we can trust God when the going gets tough and we are not tough enough to get going.

But there are other layers to this Psalm for us to think about. Did you know, for example, that in other places in this world this Psalm is not read at funerals, but at political protests?

It turns out that in places like Africa and Asia, the political leaders, some of them quite corrupt and despotic, often describe themselves as shepherds who care for their flock. But the response from Christians in those places is “No, you are not our shepherd. God is. It says so right in Psalm 23.” That citing of Psalm 23 is a direct challenge to the rulers who oppress and swindle their people. The people aren’t looking to those so called shepherds for help, but to God. And it’s God, not those rulers, who has earned their allegiance. The 23rd Psalm, it turns out, like so many other scriptures is a revolutionary text.

And that line ‘God leads us in paths of righteousness for God’s name’s sake’ is translated differently in many other places. And they do a better job of helping us understand what is behind that verse when they translate it that God lead us in ‘paths of justice.’

In this Psalm people see that when we fight for justice in this world we are lifting up God’s name. We tread the paths of justice and honor who God is. It’s a Psalm of trust and action.

Jesus was not reluctant to call himself a shepherd, even the Good Shepherd. It was one of the things that got him in trouble. The accusation was he was claiming to be God.

We look back at all of this debate that has gone on in the history of the Church about what the exact nature of Jesus is. Is he divine? Is he human? Or is he, as the Nicene Creed puts it, very God and very man?

Those are our issues, but I don’t think they were issues Jesus had. “What you see in me,” he was saying, “is who God is.” He was saying nothing more, nor nothing less than that, which is a pretty bold statement all in itself without the arguments over the ontological nature of Jesus. I’m not arguing whether Jesus is God or not. I’m just suggesting Jesus wasn’t either. What I am arguing is that Jesus was saying what you see me doing is what God does.

What is it that God does? The scriptures that Jesus hearers were working with are not of one voice, they are ‘texts in travail,’ as the theologian René Girard put it. Is God this vengeful, unforgiving deity who will gladly wipe us off the face of the earth for even small infractions? Or is God the God of love and compassion who calls out for justice and rescues the widow and the orphan. Is God the God of the 23rd Psalm or the 74th which begins, “O God, why have you cast us off forever? Why does your anger smoke against the sheep of your pasture?”

Jesus’ answer to that question of what God is really like is simply, “Look at me. I do what God does. God does what I do. We are one…heart and mind.” Jesus is focusing on behavior. The writers of the Preaching Peace Commentary put it this way. “Jesus does not come with power, he comes serving, he does not come with judgement, he comes with healing, he does not come with vengeance, he comes with forgiveness.” And Jesus makes the claim that’s the way God is, and also claimed he knew what he was talking about.

That’s why I think that when Jesus thought about the 23rd Psalm he would think, of course God would prepare a banquet for us in the presence of our enemies, because God cares for us and loves us that much. But God would also invite them to join us.

Jesus knew that the valley of the shadow of death was never far away; not only the death of these bodies of ours and the grief that we feel when people we love die, but also the lost jobs, the broken relationships, the crushed dreams, the fear and anxiety we feel about so many things, the oppression, the greed, the cruelty, the discrimination, the corruption. There are so many places where we encounter the shadow of death, we don’t need to bring any more.

And God isn’t going to lead us to any of those places but rather to places of green pastures and still waters, even if the shadow of death is just a stone’s throw away. We need God to walk with us through those valleys of the shadow of death and lead us to those green pastures and still waters. And God does it.

Jesus knew, though, that God doesn’t do it alone. When God prepares a banquet for us in the presence of our enemies, somebody has to set the table and clean up afterwards, not to mention share the meal. That’s us. That’s what the body of Christ is about, helping people find those green pastures and still waters, walking with them as God walks with them through the valley of the shadow of death. There are souls we get to help restore.

This afternoon is the CROP Walk. There are a lot of hungry people in this world and the CROP Walk is not going to bring an end to hunger. But can you imagine what it is like to be hungry but for a while, at least, there is food? It must feel something like green pastures and still waters. What if you didn’t have to worry any more about your children starving to death? Wouldn’t you feel like God has walked with you through the valley of the shadow of death? And all because we believe what Jesus believes about God, that God wants hungry people fed and for us to find ways to create structures and help the the hungry to develop the resources so hunger is not a constant shadow in their lives.

I think we need to hear this Psalm at funerals, peace protests, and so many other places. That Jesus called himself the Good Shepherd indicates, to me, that he sure thought about this Psalm. It tells us a lot about God, a lot about Jesus, and a lot about ourselves.

They didn’t read the 23rd Psalm at Jesus’ funeral because, like so many people in this world, he didn’t have one. But he lived believing that goodness and mercy would follow him all the days of his life. And he was right. This Good Shepherd not only showed us God, but he showed us who we can become because of the God who is our shepherd.

The Mustard Seed Conspiracy

Tuesday, April 6th, 2010

The Mustard Seed Conspiracy
John 20:1-18
Easter 2010
Steve Hammond

“I saw him.” That’s what Mary cried out on Easter morning. She didn’t expect to see him, not alive, that is. When she saw that empty tomb, she did what any of us would do. She went running to tell the others that somebody had stolen Jesus’ body. She came back, though. And then she saw him. He was right there in the garden in front of the tomb. She didn’t recognize him at first. But he recognized her. He called out her name. He talked to her. And cemeteries have never been the same since then.

In 1 Corinthians 15, the Apostle Paul writes about the resurrection appearances of Jesus. “Jesus,” according to Paul “appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time… Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one untimely born.”

On the blogsite Jim Taylor points out something rather awkward about Paul’s litany of post resurrection appearances. Did you notice what it is?

In the gospel story we just read this morning, who saw Jesus first? It wasn’t Peter. It wasn’t the twelve. It wasn’t the 500 brothers or James, or all the apostles. It was Mary Magdalene. All the gospel stories say Jesus appeared to the women first.

It’s remarkable when you think about it, not to mention a bit infuriating. In those very first stories that got passed on about Jesus, nobody thought about leaving the women out. Highlighting the role of women in a world where such a thing was unheard of was pretty radical stuff. Too radical, in fact, as this new religion tried to find its place in the Roman empire. So they began to back off.

You can see Paul struggle with all of this in his writings. He knew the important role women played in the life of Jesus and the Church. He depended on lots of women who were pastors, prophets, apostles, and other leaders in the early church. But he also knew that highlighting it would mean that many would dismiss anything he said about Jesus.

The Gospels, though, are right out there. There are all kinds of stories in them that are embarrassing to the Church. That’s why the Church has had a long history of trying to make more than women disappear from the story.

We have to make sure we don’t also disappear from the story. Because we, too, have seen Jesus. He has brought dead places alive in us. We don’t have to be people of great faith, have the right credentials, have passed the Jesus proficiency exams to be his witnesses. We can let that inner mystic go wild. We can embrace resurrection. We can tell those resurrection stories, especially the ones about how we didn’t recognize him at first, but then he called our names.

I don’t think it’s the women seeing Jesus first that should embarrass us. When Mary, in John’s story for example, goes to the tomb of Jesus, she fully expects to find his body there. Who is going to roll away the stone so she can finish the burial ointments. Resurrection is the last thing on her mind. And it’s that way in all the stories. Jesus said time and time again God would raise him from the dead. But nobody, not Mary, not any of the other women, not Peter, not John, not any of them believed him. These were not people of great faith. And nobody tries to hide that fact.

Remember what Jesus once said about how that if you have the faith the size of a mustard seed, you could tell a mountain to move into the sea and it would? I’m not sure why anyone would want to do such a thing. And it is an odd little word picture. But the point isn’t rearranging large scale geographical formations. It’s just an over the top way of saying that when it comes to faith, a little goes a long way. Just like it takes just a tiny bit of yeast in a whole bunch of flour to make the bread rise.

We have an example of that mustard seed principle right here with the story of Mary Magdalene, and in the other resurrection stories in the Gospels. The Jesus movement was not carried on the back of spiritual giants, but rather through people like Mary Magdalene who if you had hooked up to a faithometer there would have hardly been a blip on the screen. But Mary, and the other women, and Peter, and John, and the 500 brothers, and James, and all the Apostles, and Paul, and all of us were invited to become a part of the mustard seed conspiracy, to put that tiny bit of faith, maybe hardly perceptible, to work.

Mary didn’t come to that garden expecting to find the living Jesus. Far from it. But he still called her name, and sent her to tell the others. And it’s that sending that makes all the difference in the mustard seed conspiracy. We’re the ones who are sent. And its not based on our faith.

I’ll bet most of you here know that old hymn, ‘I Come to the Garden Alone.’ You may regret, or be very glad, that it never gets into the hymn rotation around here. But it is based on this story. It’s sort of about Mary Magdalene going to the garden on that Easter morning. But it is much more about meeting Jesus in our own metaphorical gardens.

In the last verse it gets the Mary Magdalene part of the story right. “I’d stay in the garden with him though the darkness around me is falling.” That’s a whole day in the garden, from before sunrise to nearly sunset. “But he bids me go,” though not with a voice of woe. At this point Jesus must be pretty psyched. And he’s not looking to stay there. What did Jesus say to the scarcely believing Mary? “You can’t cling to me, you’ve got to go and tell the others.”

There is the tendency to want to cling to him in what is perceived as that wonderful spot such as the garden, where we can walk together and talk together and he tells us the we are his own. But this is not a place of tarrying for him, there is resurrection and a gospel to proclaim.

It’s not that we don’t need those times of walking and talking and sharing joy with Jesus, and all this hymn is trying to say. But it’s not Mary’s story on Easter morning.

Take that little mustard seed faith you’ve got and get out of here. Watch it sprout into this really big tree. Just see what happens if you go and start telling others that you have seen me. Resurrection will start popping up everywhere, just like a weed” (which is really what a mustard plant is in that part of the world). That’s the extent of their very short conversation.

And Jesus didn’t tell her to go and tell the others and bring them back so they can set up a little shrine in front of the tomb. Jesus wasn’t looking to do resurrection re-enactments every hour. There was no interest expressed by those first followers of Jesus to make that empty tomb and garden holy ground. That’s not where the action was. That’s not the place to look for evidence of the risen Jesus. Rather it is in his followers, amongst the mustard seed conspirators, the folk that the Apostle Paul calls the Body of Christ.

It’s hard to believe that Jesus could put so much faith in us when we so often respond with so little faith ourselves. But remember what Jesus did right before he was killed? He prayed for us. Mary and I get a lot of people asking us to pray for them because they think as clergy, we have a special in with God. We don’t. With Jesus, though, it’s a different story… He knew the risk he was taking with the likes of Mary Magdalene, the other women, Peter, John, and us. But he was able to trust us to God, though he did have to pray about it. And who other than Jesus would you rather have praying for you? He knew the power of stories, of our stories. And he is still praying for us.

Barbara Brown Taylor writes that if we remember that God has planted new life in us, “then there is nothing we cannot do: move mountains, banish fear, love our enemies, change the world. The only thing we cannot do is hold on to Jesus…. though we would rather keep him with us where we are than let him take us where he is going….into the white hot presence of God, who is not behind us but ahead of us, every step of the way.”

Jesus is risen! Alleluia! We have seen him! We have a story to tell. Jesus was right about resurrection. He was right about mustard seeds.