Archive for April, 2012

The Disciples go to Bible Study

Sunday, April 22nd, 2012

from Luke 23
Steve Hammond
April 22, 2012

It had been a tough few days. Jesus had been arrested, humiliated and tortured, and then crucified, these travelers, Cleopas and probably Simon Peter, had been with the others just that morning when some of the women came running into the hide out and told them they had seen Jesus alive. Some of the group had gone back to the tomb and discovered it was empty. But what were they to make of all of that? It just seemed like it was time to go home.

You can imagine their conversation as they walked that seven mile journey. It had been quite a time with Jesus. Was this the end? Had the movement really been so brutally crushed? But what about that empty tomb? And then this stranger joined them, who didn’t seem to have any idea what has just taken place in Jerusalem.

He did talk to them about the Bible, saying that they shouldn’t be surprised at what had happened. They really didn’t get it. But it was late and had been a long day, so they asked him if he would like to join them for supper. When he broke the bread and gave thanks they realized it was Jesus, who immediately disappeared. And when he vanished so did their desire for much needed sleep. They hightailed it the seven miles back to Jerusalem to tell the others what had happene. As they were all talking about all these things, Jesus appeared in their midst and they had a Bible Study.

Every year Mary and I go to the Baptist Peace Fellowship’s Peace Camp. There are lots of good things that happen there including the Bible Studies. And the reason the Bible Studies are so good is that the leaders tend to have the same method Jesus did. “He went on to open their understanding of the Word of God, showing them how to read their Bibles this way.”

One of the things we have learned from folk in the Baptist Peace Fellowship is a better way of reading the Bible. We’ve learned to question assumptions we often bring with us when we study the Bible.

It was that way with the disciples. They weren’t just having trouble trying to wrap their minds around the fact that Jesus, who had just been killed, was standing right there in front of them, eating fish, and talking about the Bible. That’s hard enough for anyone to grab hold of even in pre-scientific times. But there was also the problem with the fact that he had been killed in the first place. Resurrection, in their minds, shouldn’t have even been an issue. Everything they had been taught was that, according to the Bible, the Messiah was going to be a triumphant military leader who would destroy all of Israel’s enemies rather than be literally hung out to dry like Jesus was. Remember what they said to the incognito Jesus as they walked with him to Emmaus. “And we had our hopes up that he was the One, the One about to deliver Israel.”

We live in a country, that for the most part, has a very similar attitude about the Bible that the disciples had before Jesus had this Bible Study with them. We want to believe that the Bible offers us a Messiah who will do the same things people of ancient Israeli times hoped he would do for them. We have just put it off to his second coming. Since he was killed by his enemies the first time, we have been told that the Bible is really telling us we have to wait until his second coming for Jesus to come and destroy his enemies, turning the streets red with their blood. I’m sure glad this is not the way Jesus read the Bible.

John van de Laar suggests that the way we have been taught to read the Bible, the way contrary to the way of Jesus has “historically been one motive behind colonialism, Christian triumphalism, and even Christian violence against people of other faiths. This is tragic and horrifying, since nothing could be further from the Gospel of peace and grace that Jesus lived and taught. Even today, in a mistaken belief that we are somehow “witnessing” to Christ, Christians have engaged in crusades against evolution, climate change, Islam, homosexuality and even social justice.”

I’m so glad that we don’t have to read the Bible that way anymore. What Jesus and folk from the Baptist Peace Fellowship, and so many others have helped us to realize, is that the Bible is much more interested in the powerless and the outcast than the powerful and the insiders. God isn’t looking to confirm the status of the empire, nor to bring it down in violent destruction, but to undermine it with a whole new way of living in this world. Jesus showed us what some of those ways are; peace, forgiveness, mercy, compassion, inclusion and welcome, love, humility, worship, prayer, faithfulness, and commitment to God’s desires for this world.

By reading the Bible the way he did, Jesus was telling his disciples it should be neither a surprise that the religious and political powers colluded to kill him, nor that their ways of death could not overcome the life of God. But they were surprised by the crucifixion and the resurrection. He by neither.

It’s one thing to read the Bible the way Jesus did. It’s another to read it with him a couple of days after he has been killed. That, of course, leads to the whole question of what resurrection is about. If that was tough for people in Jesus’ day, it’s even tougher for us. But here is what we do know according to today’s and other accounts of the resurrection of Jesus.

First of all, it was real. Some people say that the stories of the resurrection of Jesus were really metaphors, ways that the disciples were trying to describe their feelings about the impact Jesus had had on them. He was going to remain alive in them. But you really don’t get that from any of the characters in the stories. All of the stories about their initial disbelief and the change that took place in their lives when they saw Jesus right in front of them, seem to take it out of the realm of metaphor of symbolism. The real question, I think, is whether we believe them.

Secondly, Jesus wasn’t a ghost. He seemed to be able to walk through locked doors, but ate fish with the disciples during that Bible Study. Here is what the book of Acts says. “After his death, he presented himself alive to them in many different settings over a period of forty days. In face-to-face meetings, he talked to them about things concerning the realm of God. They met and ate meals together.”

The third thing is that he, evidently, looked different. Those two followers walked with him for several miles and had no clue as to who he was. Mary mistook him for a gardener. But when he spoke her name, she recognized him, as did the Emmaus travelers when he offered thanks to God and broke the bread.

Kate Huey in her blog she writes for the United Church of Christ says this about the resurrection of Jesus. “For many reasons in the early years of the church and just as much today, people of faith tend to separate the body and the spirit, with the spirit more important than the body. On the other hand, our culture hardly recognizes that the spirit exists and must be fed. And yet we know that we are saved in our whole being, body and soul, and that somehow that salvation gets worked out here, on earth, in our bodies just as much as our souls. As Stephen Cooper puts it, “To insist on the reality of the resurrected body is to demand that we accept our present reality as the place where transformations of ultimate significance take place.” (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 2). And Cynthia Lano Lindner eloquently describes the resurrection as “God’s affirmation that creation matters, that love and justice matter, that humanity, in all its ambiguity and complexity, is still fearfully and wonderfully God-made” (The Christian Century, April 21 2009).

When he gathered with the disciples that same night, Jesus told them they could recognize him by looking at his hands and feet. Were the wounds from the nails still there? John has a similar story where he shows those wounds to Thomas and the others. Luke doesn’t mention the wounds. Maybe the wounds are a given. Or maybe what’s important to Luke is not the wounds but those feet that traveled the length of Israel, the feet shod with the gospel of peace. And those hands that reached out and touched the untouchable, healed the sick, comforted the sorrowing; those hands that offered blessing and were raised in prayer.

It had been quite a three years those disciples from Emmaus and the others had had with Jesus. But after that quick trip to Emmaus and back, they realized the journey was actually just beginning. They would be doing a lot of Bible Study with Jesus for the next few weeks. But Jesus told them to wait in Jerusalem until the Spirit came. Then they would be empowered to be the feet and hands of Jesus, wounds and all, themselves.

Hope by Lizzie Edgar (Lizzie read this at the 2012 Easter Sunrise Service)

Sunday, April 8th, 2012

Hope

Hope is fragile.
As the world pushes in around us
With words and acts of hatred, violence, and ignorance,
Hope gets lost,
Buried under weight of political jargon, false accusations, and broken promises.

But hope is resilient.
When grief and anger and despair plague you day after day
And you’re not sure how you can go on
Hope remains,
The light that is always shining even when the night is at its darkest.

And hope can be powerful.
When that little light grows into a radiance that cannot be contained,
That completely dispels the darkness
Hope triumphs,
Overcoming sadness, despair, anger, fear, and even death

Hope is a promise.
A promise that no matter where you are or what you are feeling,
You can find it, in music, in sunrises, in family, and in friends.
Hope lives
In the promise of new life, in the promise of this Easter morning, and in the promise of God’s grace.

Alive!-Really?!

Sunday, April 8th, 2012

Easter Sunday
John 20:1-18
April 8, 2012
Mary Hammond

Resurrection has taken on a new face for me during the past few months—the face of my first-born child. As pastors, Steve and I have accompanied parishioners and their families through many deaths. All of our parents and grandparents have passed away, as well as several aunts and uncles, and even a couple young cousins.

Yet, there is nothing in my experience to date that begins to compare to the amount of time I have spent contemplating death, resurrection, and the afterlife since Sarah’s passing on Thanksgiving Day.

There are times in our lives when “the rubber meets the road,” so to speak. Our lived experience crashes into our theology. Will we re-frame what we thought we knew? Will we face what has exposed itself as poverty-stricken in our former way of seeing? Will we grab God’s hand and walk the extra miles along unfamiliar paths? Will we build new alliances with faith, mystery, and paradox; with unanswered questions and questionable answers? Or shall we cower in a corner, clutching the familiar, when all is said and done?

These sound to me like some of the same questions that Jesus’ disciples faced as they encountered the empty tomb that Easter morning so long ago.

I always wonder how it was for the women, waiting and weeping through that agonizing Sabbath day of rest until they could touch, handle, and care for the dead body of Jesus. It was their job, after all, a job that rendered them ritually unclean according to their faith, but a job women have done so lovingly and well over countless centuries and millenia.

Wednesday marked the fifth anniversary since my mother’s death. How much I needed to caress her face and feel the warmth of her flesh shortly after the nursing home notified my sister and me in the middle of the night that she had passed! How much I needed to stroke Sarah’s hair, kiss her forehead, and caress her cheek when Steve and I made the long trek to the Funeral Home in Williamsburg! How much the women around Jesus surely yearned to touch him throughout that long sabbath day.

It is no surprise that Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb early Sunday morning as the sun is still rising. She is laden with spices and ointments for the body of her beloved friend, teacher, and healer. A colleague of mine worked for years as a suicide counselor. She explained to me the distinctions between “instrumental grievers” and “intuitive grievers.” Instrumental grievers need tasks, plans, ‘things to do’ to process their grief. Intuitive grievers need ways to sit, reflect, hold, touch, remember. We are often a blend of both, to greater or lesser degrees.

Mary Magdalene is ready, even yearning, to “do something” that helps her feel closer to her dead friend. Some days I just need to pull out something in Sarah’s hand-writing and read it, just to feel connected to her authentic voice. Fortunately, she left us a treasure trove of writing, and she was also a pack-rat! Caring for Jesus’ body must have been like that for Mary, I think.

But Mary isn’t prepared for what comes next. She arrives at the tomb, and the stone is rolled away. “Oh, no!” she fears. “They have taken his body!”

This is not an unrealistic reaction. Jesus was executed by the collusion of both Roman and religious authorities. Influential people wanted him out of the picture. Couldn’t they want his body out of the picture, as well? Wouldn’t it be prudent for the Romans to hide the evidence of his execution, especially when–a mere week before–crowds formed on the streets in Jerusalem and hailed him as king? Who knows what kind of backlash there could be, after his death?

Mary runs off to tell Simon Peter and “the other disciple whom Jesus loved,” known as the Gospel writer, John. The two men come to the tomb and look. Seeing only linens inside, they leave. John hints that he “believes,” but he doesn’t say what kind of “believing” that is. He qualifies this statement by asserting that the disciples do not yet know that Jesus is risen.

It is not surprising to me that they leave. Their leader has been executed; are they next? Could they be identified and rounded up by the authorities? Is there nothing else to see, with an empty tomb before them? Who knows what is running through their minds? The political risks the male disciples face seem to be greater than those of the women, given the culture and times they live in.

Mary Magdalene lingers. I get that. Frankly, I wouldn’t have been able to leave, either. Our daughters, who chose not to accompany us to the Funeral Home, asked us how it was to view their sister’s body. I told them that it was hard–of course it was hard. But far harder was leaving that room, which was ultimately something we had to do.

So Mary lingers. Soon she encounters two angels sitting in the tomb. They speak to her. She is weeping the whole time. Her vision is probably kind of blurry and clouded by her tears. Her face might be buried in her hands. With a heart utterly bereft, her head might be bowed.

Mary hears a voice of one she assumes to be the Gardener, until a point in the conversation when the visitor calls her by name, “Mary…”

Instantly, she Knows, with a capital “K” on the word “Knows.” A cosmic “K,” if you will. The voice she hears belongs to Jesus–not a gardener, not an angel, not a figment of her imagination, not a projection of her own grief.

Jesus.

He speaks with her. She came to the tomb to touch him, anoint him, prepare his body for a proper Jewish burial. She still longs to touch him. She wants to grab him, hold him, cling to him, never let go. But he desists. ‘No, Mary, go tell the others…’

And Mary becomes the first witness to the resurrection. In spite of the fact that a woman’s witness at the time is disallowed in a Jewish court of law, Jesus sends Mary. It’s just like him–an upstart even after rising from the dead!

Other Gospels tell us that no one believes her—it seems to them an idle tale. I’m not surprised. Some of the connections I have experienced between this world and the next since Sarah’s death could easily solicit the exact same reaction. At times, I’ve doubted like Thomas. I’ve thought I was hearing a Gardener, a stranger, the figments of my own imagination, the projections of my own grief. Who would ever believe me? Who would believe Mary Magdalene? I profoundly ‘get that’ in ways I never got that before.

But while he was still alive, Jesus kept saying these things would happen. The light overcomes the darkness. The seed that falls to the ground and dies is the one that bears fruit. In three days this temple will be destroyed and rise to new life.

Huh?

Mary Magdalene converses with a risen Christ. She doesn’t recognize him until Jesus calls her by name. Thomas has to see the marks from the nails in Jesus’ hands to believe (John 20:24-28). The two disciples traveling the Emmaus Road have to sit down to a meal with Jesus and watch him breaking the bread before their eyes are opened (Luke 24:13-32). In the first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, Luke reports this: “After Jesus’ death, he presented himself alive to them in many different settings over a period of forty days” (see Acts 1:1-5).

The disciples face a head-on collision between their learned theology and a risen savior. They have before them two choices–denial and entrenchment, or faith and transformation.

In my last sermon, I mentioned my recent sunrise walks. Everything is parable and metaphor to me on those early morning excursions. Once the trees are covered with springtime leaves, their arching cathedrals of green obscure the intensity of the colorful fireworks on the horizon. Paradoxically, spindly, barren trees of winter more fully reveal the glory of the Light. It’s already happening as winter slowly births spring.

Yet, if I peer closely at nature’s rhythm, I notice how the darkness itself invites the dawning. The barrenness fertilizes the ground of both earth and heart. The cold, stark simplicity of winter unveils the explosive beauty of the heavens. So it is with Easter morning.

“Come, sweet Easter morning. Come, sweet happy day!”

Amen.

Disruptive Faith

Sunday, April 1st, 2012

Mark 14:1-11
April 1, 2012
Steve Hammond

When you read the story of the last week of Jesus’ life, one of the saddest things is how quickly things went bad. On Palm Sunday everyone was greeting Jesus and proclaiming him as their new and wonderful king. Just a few days later many of the same people were screaming crucify him, crucify him. He was turned over to the authorities by Judas, one of his own disciples. He was abandoned by the rest. He was infamously denied by Peter.

It’s hard enough to read what happened physically to Jesus that week. But it’s so much worse when you think about him having to face that all alone.

It turns out, though, that I haven’t been reading the story very well. Jesus did not go through all of this alone. Sure, the disciples did flee. The crowds did turn on him. Judas did betray him. He felt forsaken by God. But there are other people and other stories. One is this woman with the alabaster jar. She did this amazing thing. She smashed a very expensive jar, with even more expensive perfume in it, and started pouring it on Jesus’ head. Some of the folk were outraged. They said the money would have been better spent on feeding the hungry than on fancy jars and expensive perfume.

Jesus told them to chill out by saying the woman did a good thing. She realized what none of the rest of them had been able to figure out. Jesus was about to die. This was her way of acknowledging how grateful she was for Jesus. Her act of love and generosity almost got lost in the argument that pursued. But Jesus was right. He said what she had done would be remembered wherever the good news is preached. And we are still talking about her today.

You also have to be careful with this story because of that one line that gets so abused, the one where Jesus talked about the poor always being with us. I am amazed by how this one sentence has been used to dismiss all that Jesus said and showed us about taking care of the poor. Too many people read this as if Jesus were saying we have no responsibility to help the poor since you can’t really do anything about poverty anyway. But that’s not what he suggested at all. Rather he was telling his dinner companions that there will always be chances for them to help the poor, with their own money, rather than this woman’s money. She wasn’t denying or ignoring the poor that day. Nor was Jesus. She was just trying to support Jesus. She did not abandon him. If nobody else was going to be with Jesus until the end, she was going to be.

She wasn’t the only one though. There was that Roman military officer, that Gentile occupier, who acknowledged that a great injustice had been done. “This one surely was the Son of God.”

The Gospel stories tell us that everybody mocked Jesus as he was dying; the priests, the scribes, the passers by, even those who were being crucified with him. But Luke’s story includes a different memory. One of those being crucified with Jesus offered his support, saying that maybe he had earned a cross, but there was no way Jesus had. “Remember me when you come into your Kingdom, Jesus.” “Friend,” Jesus said, and a much needed friend he was, “before day’s end we will be in Paradise together.”

Then there were Joseph of Arimathea who risked being exposed as a Jesus follower when he asked Pilate if he could take Jesus’ body to his own tomb. Helping Joseph in that task, and also outing himself, was Nicodemus, the religious leader who came to Jesus that one night.

So Jesus did not die alone. There were others, I’m sure, who stayed with him whose stories have not been recorded, and whose stories I’ve perhaps forgotten. Can you think of others?

When we read the story, or the stories, again, we realize that Jesus did not die alone. Sure there was plenty of other agony, physical, psychological, and spiritual, but he wasn’t totally abandoned. And that is not insignificant. Having the support of others makes a difference even when you can’t change things. I know that in such a profound way now. Nothing can change the fact of our daughter Sarah’s death. But the support we have received, realizing we aren’t going though this alone, has made such a difference. Mary and I, and Rachel and Grace are walking this lonesome valley, but we are not walking it alone. And I’m so glad Jesus wasn’t alone either, even though it was so hard.

What this congregation does so well, what you do so well, is walk with others like you have walked with Mary and me. And that’s not easy. But just think how when you walk with others, when you make sure they aren’t alone, it’s like walking with Jesus during that last week of his life. “When you have done it to one of the least of these, you have done it unto me.”

So Jesus wasn’t alone when he died. There’s also another thing I’ve been thinking about we might keep missing as we read the stories of that last week for Jesus. Who killed Jesus? [Wait for answers.] The Romans, the political power with the collusion of the religious establishment. When I look at a lot of the hymns we sing, though, especially around this time of the year, and a lot of the teaching you hear in a lot of places, it’s like Rome or the religious establishment had nothing to do with it. It was you who killed Jesus. It was me who killed Jesus. It was God who killed Jesus instead of killing you and me.

Now this gets into new, and perhaps troubling ground, for some of you. We have heard most of our lives that we killed Jesus by being so sinful. Movies like that Mel Gibson one, and so much else only reenforce that idea. We can’t go into it all now, but as you read or hear the stories about Jesus’ death this week or whenever, remember that salvation can come, in ways other than feeling like and acknowledging that it was really you who drove those spikes through Jesus’s hands and feet. Salvation can come without God having to kill Jesus instead of killing you and me and your children and grandchildren or parents or sisters or brothers or kids starving in Africa. Does that really sound like the God Jesus trusted in? Just imagine that the cross can mean something else, that the salvation that comes through the death of Jesus on the cross can have a different meaning, or meanings, than what we have been told.

And please, please don’t let Rome and the power structures off the hook. We miss so much of the story, or the stories, when we gloss over the fact that it was Roman soldiers, at the order of the Roman governor, with the encouragement of the religious power structures, who drove the spikes through Jesus’ hands and feet. It wasn’t you or me.

Do you know what a disruptive technology is? It’s a technology that comes along and completely alters the status quo of the current technology. It changes everything. Record companies are learning what disruptive technologies are with the ease of file sharing over the internet. Horse buggy manufacturers learned what disruptive technologies were when automobiles started appearing on the roads.

Jesus had a disruptive faith that challenged the power structures of his, as well as our day. Those power structures still want us to believe that it was you and me that killed Jesus. It makes it so much easier for them to do what they have in mind. But remember that the stories we will read and hear this week tell us about a power struggle between Jesus and the political and religious structures of the empire. It was a life and death struggle, and still is. A struggle where Jesus was not alone. Nor are we. And when the empire nailed Jesus to the cross that day, it thought it had won. It didn’t. But that’s next week’s story.