Archive for April, 2011

Janitors for the New Heaven and the New Earth

Sunday, April 24th, 2011

Easter 2011
Steve Hammond

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but we have had a lot of rain lately. And a couple of times I have noticed the street sweeper going past the house in the pouring rain. There are, at least, a couple of ironies there. First of all, if it’s pouring rain, the rain is doing a lot of the work of the street sweeper. But, secondly, with all the rain a lot of mud and gunk get washed into the streets and the drains get so full that the streets are dirtier that when the street sweepers began. That’s got to be frustrating.

Kate Huey a blogger amongst other things for the United Church of Christ points out that in one of the who knows how many books they have co-authored now, Marcus Borg and John Dominic Croussan write in The Last Week, “Easter is about God even as it is about Jesus. Easter discloses the character of God. Easter means God’s Great Cleanup of the world has begun – but it will not happen without us.” Huey writes that we may feel very close to Jesus when we imagine ourselves in the garden, “walking and talking” with our risen Lord. But following Jesus after that encounter, for Borg and Croussan means caring about “what he was passionate about…:the kingdom of God, what life would be like on earth if God were king, and the rulers, domination systems, and empires of this world were not. It is the world the prophets dreamed of – a world of distributive justice in which everyone has enough and systems are fair.”

The clean up ‘will not happen without us.’ We are the street sweepers even if the rain is pouring down, even if it seems so very useless and you have to keep going out again.

Have you ever used one of those little hand vacuum cleaners and once it’s all full of gunk you try to open it over the trash can? But it’s hard to figure out what you are supposed to do and you start pulling on different plastic parts and suddenly the thing opens and dirt and dust and dog hair fly everywhere. I’m not saying that has happened to me, but I can imagine it happening. What do you do? You clean up the mess, again. Like the street sweepers, you keep at it, because it ultimately makes a difference.

Mary Hammond is a fan of Faith Hill, a country singer. It’s always so interesting to be in the room when Mary is scrolling through the TV channels and comes across a Faith Hill video. In one way it’s like meeting up with an old friend, and in another it’s like she is so excited because she has never seen such a thing before. Faith Hill is a beautiful woman and has a great voice. She also has three daughters. But her music can be a little sappy. Give me Linkin Park and Muse. Anyway, Faith Hill sings this Christmas Song A Baby Changes Everything, which I have managed to hear many times.

That baby did change everything, but it came with a price and with a lot of faith and trust in the living God. That’s why we are here this morning. Jesus is alive and we are cleaning up the mess. We are hauling out all the stuff to the curb because Jesus is alive and everything is different now. And we have been invited to build a new world with him and each other.

You ever notice when you read the gospels that they end kind of funny? It sort of feels like those movies that end in such a way that you know there is going to be a sequel. You know the story has to be continued. And the funny thing is that we, the clean up crew, are the stars of the sequel. Jesus is full of surprises. Busting out of that tomb is one of them. But another is that the Resurrection is not just about him. It’s also about us and about everything.

One of the reasons people clean-up around the house or the dorm room or the office or wherever is because it’s so easy to get used to the mess. The mess gets normal. Many of you may have learned the lesson Mary and I have. One of the benefits of having company over for dinner or an Open House or a party is that you have to clean up. Many of you have been to our house and realize that we don’t go to extremes, but we do clean up some, anyway. Jesus said you can’t let the mess become normal.

Barbara Brown Taylor points out that we are missing something crucial to the story when we equate Easter with the coming of Spring. Sometimes you begin to wonder, but Spring is a very normal thing. It eventually does happen year in and year out, and it’s a relief when it finally arrives. But it is not a surprise.

Resurrection is not normal. Nobody was expecting it, not even Jesus’ closest friends and confidants. Even though he told them it was going to happen, they were still caught by surprise. Even though he did get the stuff right about going to Jerusalem and getting himself killed, they were caught off guard.

One of the things that Taylor says is not normal about the resurrection, the new life we have in Jesus, is that it “cannot be killed, and if we can remember that 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 him…all in all we would rather keep him with us where we are than let him take us where he is going….let him take us into the white hot presence of God, who is not behind us but ahead of us, every step of the way” (Home by Another Way).

Resurrection changes everything, but there is still so much that needs changed. Borg and Crossan remind us that with the resurrection, the clean-up has just begun, and will not happen without us. Us. You and me and people like us. We are the ones who create the new normal of God’s realm.

And we can do it. It’s all over the resurrection stories. It’s the women who Jesus comes to first. It’s the women who make the first proclamation that Jesus is alive. As John Pilch comments,“How did our patriarchal ancestors ever accept the help of women in making sense out of an empty tomb?” (The Cultural World of Jesus Year A). Good question, but Mary Magdalene represents that thread of hope that runs through the Scriptures like gold: God’s trust of the small ones, the ones on the margins, the ones without voice, the ones who God trusts and lifts up to shine like the sun.”

Like the nobodies throughout the Bible, like Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Martha and her sister Mary, Mary the mother of Jesus, Peter, Matthew, and all the rest, we are the street sweepers, the clean-up crew, the janitors for the new heaven and the new earth.

We came real close to singing a Christmas carol this morning. “Come thou long expected Jesus, born to set your people free. From our fears and sins release us, Christ in whom our rest shall be.”

Jesus is alive. That baby finally changed everything on Easter morning. We have been released from our fears and sins. And so has this world. And now we can clean up that mess.

Alone in the Garden

Saturday, April 23rd, 2011

Alone in the Garden
By Anita Peebles
Easter Sunrise Service 4/25/2011

I come to the garden, alone.
The Earth is filled with the dark, pre-dawn smell of possibility.
Expectant waiting…isn’t that what I went through with you before?
Out of the darkness and into the world,
I brought you,
At once lesser and greater than I.
The garden is pregnant with the silence of waiting.
Is it true, what they say?
I believe you will come again…but when, who can know?
A gentle wind ripples the leaves above my head
And I feel the spirits of the dead around me,
Bowing their heads as I kneel and pray to my God,
“Bring back my Lord.”
A faint glow in the East,
Is it you?
A mourning dove sings out its morning song,
Soft and low,
Telling the tale of your life
That I know so well
But cannot share—I am drowned by my tears.
The flowers in the garden are closed,
Shivering against the chill of a world
Shrouded in fear of a future of darkness.
A gentle glow spreads over the dew-kissed morning,
Spreading gold threads of sun through the trees.
A soft footstep…or did I imagine it?
A whispered word…did I hear with my ears or with my heart?
I turn around…
The Son has risen.

Whatever Happened to Paradise?–A Good Friday mediation

Friday, April 22nd, 2011

Whatever happened to Paradise?
2011 Community Good Friday Service

Whatever happened to Paradise?

In their book Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of this World for Crucifixion and Empire, Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker point out that you don’t find renderings of the crucifixion in Christian art until nearly the year 1000CE. They looked all over the Mediterranean and North Africa and couldn’t find artistic or other depictions of the cross or crucifixion for the first millennium of Christianity. The images they did discover from that time were images, rather, of paradise. Their lengthy book explains why they believe that the controlling images of the early church were of paradise and how that gave way to images of the cross and crucifixion. I highly recommend it.

Crucifixion was not unique to Jesus or the two who died with him that day. About a century before, there had been a slave revolt. You have perhaps heard of its leader, Spartacus. When it was finally quashed, 6,000 crosses lined the Apian way into Rome. Many of those victims of Rome’s injustice didn’t die in three hours. For many of them it took three or four days. And their bodies remained on their crosses for weeks afterwards. Rome liked to send messages.

So Jesus and the good thief and the bad thief, as we think of them, were just three of among the tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands who hung naked and dying absolutely agonizing deaths on Roman crosses. The brutal scourging and nails in the hands and feet were probably a twisted blessing, since Jesus was already near death by time his cross was lifted into its place in the killing field. That crucifixion was such a long established, widely seen, and often used method of torture may be one of the reasons the early church didn’t focus as much on crucifixion as we do today.

We gather on this Good Friday at the beginning of the third millennium of Christianity. The intervening thousand years has seen images of Paradise nearly disappear, while we find ever more images of the crucifixion, some of them quite tame, some of them quite gruesome, to line our walls or view on our movie screens like Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Maybe we could use a little more paradise, maybe ask ourselves if that invitation to paradise Jesus offered that man who died with him might deserve three hours, or any part thereof, of our time

We gather on Good Friday because we know that what happened to Jesus on that cross was about our salvation. But so was what happened before that cross. I think those folk in the early church understood that the way Jesus lived was as redemptive as the way he died, and what they saw in Jesus was Paradise. He was showing us the way back to the garden, to the way God had always intended us to live, showing us what we had lost.

It’s worth noting that Jesus didn’t offer that man a place in heaven, but a place in paradise. Paradise is something profoundly of the earth, though what little of it we have let survive has been relocated solely to the heavenly realm, often with a required stint in purgatory before being allowed to land there.

We can sing about it all we want, about how it should have been us and not him on that cross, but it was him. And as noble as our intentions are, I doubt any of us could have endured what he, or the other two, or the thousands and thousands of others endured, even if like the one with him, we realize we deserve it and he didn’t.

Jesus, though, isn’t inviting us to Golgatha. The only invitation he offered from his cross was to join him in Paradise. He didn’t cry out for his enemies to meet a fate, at least, as awful as his. He wasn’t seeking revenge. He didn’t call down an army of angels to rescue him by destroying the garrison who ridiculed him as he died. I think Jesus, like those in the early church, was much more interested in Paradise than crosses. To his very end he showed us what paradise is, and came to help us make Paradise more of a reality in this world. That’s why he told us all along that God’s will could be done on earth as it is in heaven.

We do need days like this to help us remember what Jesus was willing to do for us, for this entire world. But Jesus was glad to go quickly from the cross. Even though it loomed ever in his mind, literally to his dying day, Jesus was much more interested in Paradise than Roman methods of execution. Three hours was enough for Jesus of experiencing the worst we can do to each other. But now we have a whole life time and beyond of joining him in Paradise.

Zombie Church

Sunday, April 10th, 2011

Ezekiel 37
Steve Hammond
April 10, 2011

Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones…I read this story of the dry bones and I started thinking about zombies.

“As I prophesied, there was a sound and, oh, rustling! The bones moved and came together, bone to bone. I kept watching. Sinews formed, then muscles on the bones, then skin stretched over them. But they had no breath in them.”

Sometimes I wonder if that’s not the church or, at least, the church in this country. We have bone and skin. We have these structures. We have the doctrine. We possess the Book. But it’s like Zombie church. We are too often the undead. We are stumbling around, but there is no life in us.

How else could you explain that the more a person goes to church in this country, the more likely he or she is to support the use of torture by our government? How else could you explain the religious sanction of patriarchy, sexism, segregation, homophobia, militarism, and nationalism? How else could you explain the church supporting the attack on the poor instead of standing with them. It’s zombie church.

To be truthful, I haven’t seen a zombie movie for a long time. So maybe zombies have changed. But from what I remember of zombies, the undead are pretty much on their own. They may be attacking villages and small farming communities en masse, but they aren’t in it together. There is no sense of zombie community, or zombie love. In the zombie movies, there aren’t zombie romances, or zombie weddings. There are no zombie love scenes that cause good Christian people to avert their eyes. There aren’t zombie family meals, zombie softball leagues, zombie Rotary clubs. Just the undead stumbling around unaware of anyone else other than their victims.

God told Ezekiel that the dry bones could really live, not just be animated flesh and bones, not just simply zombies. “God said to me, Prophesy to the breath. Prophesy, son of man. Tell the breath, ‘God, the Master, says, Come from the four winds. Come, breath. Breathe on these slain bodies. Breathe life!'” So I prophesied, just as God commanded me. The breath entered them and they came alive!

It is a funny thing the Bible does with the words for spirit and breath. They are often the same word. It’s also where we get the idea of inspiration, of something being breathed into us. We are breathed into, or inspired, by the Spirit. When God breathes the Spirit into us we come alive. We are no longer sacks of bones and flesh, unconnected to God and each other. We come alive, no longer the walking undead, but a living, loving community.

Jesus told us time and time again that it is love, that it is openness to each other, being in community with each other that makes us alive. Jesus told that woman at the well that when you drink from the living water, the divisions and barriers are washed away. It doesn’t have to be us and them any longer. All there is is us.

Our call is not only to come alive, to see if these dry bones of the church can really live again, but to also bring life. Take that water to others. If we can bring life to our zombie church, we can bring life to our zombie nation and zombie culture.

There is a lot of talk about the nation’s budget. As I listen to some of the callers, even on public radio, what I hear is “the government has no right to my money. What I have worked hard for, what I have earned is mine. I’ve done it on my own without assistance from the government or anyone else.” As if roads, and schools, and the Center for Disease Control, student loans, and the fire department, plus a thousand other governmental agencies and programs haven’t provided lots of assistance to them through all of our tax dollars.

What they are saying is “I am not my brother’s, nor sister’s, nor anybody else’s keeper.” That’s zombie talk. That’s the walking undead that have no real sense of anything but a narrowly defined community or what it means to love your neighbor as yourself.

This story of the dry bones is a story of resurrection. In some churches today, they are talking about the story of Lazarus, an individual who was raised from the dead. But this is a story about the resurrection of a nation, of a religion, of a people.

The bones are scattered everywhere. They are waiting to live again. They are needing love and community, and even a new heaven and a new earth, even if that’s not the words they use. They need a new way of living with God and each other in the world. They are needing the breath that will bring them alive, make them more than zombies. And that’s what we’ve got.

Like the old hymn says, “We’ve a story to tell to the nations.” It’s not just a Lazarus here and there that can live again. But our nations, our cultures, our religions can come alive. These dry bones can live. This was never about simply getting ourselves into heaven, but getting heaven to this world. “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” It’s a job Jesus says is ours to do. Zombies can’t do it.

“God said prophesy over these bones.” Remember prophesying is simply truth telling; telling, showing people what God can do, what they can do. That’s when the church is at its best, showing who we can be. Jesus told us we can be light for this world.

We’re getting ready in a couple of weeks to celebrate resurrection. When Jesus walked out of the tomb he was no zombie. He was more alive than ever. Even the grave clothes were gone. And the church can come alive with him.

We get our life from Jesus. We don’t have to be zombie church. We can be, and sometimes we asctually are, the living, breathing, loving, community of God, the body of Christ, that is helping create something new, something that is really alive. We’ve all seen it happen. God takes these sorry old bones and do surprising and wonderful things with the church. These bones can live.