Archive for April, 2014

Leader: He is not there!? Response: Not there, indeed!?

Sunday, April 20th, 2014

John 20:1-18
Steve Hammond
April 20, 2014 (Easter)

According to the story in John’s gospel the first Easter proclamation was not ‘He is risen!’ but, ‘He is not there.’

John’s story is more of a contemplative account. It’s so different than in Matthew where there were earthquakes. There was also an angel all in glistening white with shafts of lightening blazing from him while he rolled back the stone right in front of the women and the trembling band of soldiers. They had been ordered to keep anybody from entering or leaving the tomb. And in Matthew’s story, when the two Mary’s encounter the risen Jesus, it’s kind of like ‘Surprise! It’s me!”

In John’s story, though, it’s more of a one on one thing between Mary Magdalene and Jesus. (I am going to refer to her as Mary M. because there are, at least, three Marys in one or more of the resurrections stories). In John’s story, it’s just Mary M. She wasn’t going to finish the burial rituals. She wasn’t looking for anybody to roll the stone away. She just wanted to be there at the tomb.

It does say in Matthew’s story that Mary M. went down to the tomb with the other Mary to keep vigil. I understand that. I go out to Sarah’s grave all the time and I don’t know exactly why. I just need to be there. And I’m pretty sure that most of you here understand why we do such things. That’s especially true when the death has been so recent. We go to keep vigil, even though we don’t know what that vigil is about, what it is we are exactly expecting to see.

So Mary M. went to the tomb and the funny thing is that the stone had been rolled away and Jesus was nowhere to be found. In all the stories about the resurrection in the four gospels there are these two constants. The first was that Jesus had been raised from the dead and the second was that nobody was expecting that, not Mary M., not anybody. Well, maybe Pilate. Though I doubt he was expecting Jesus to be raised from the dead, I get the feeling he might have been the person least surprised by such a turn of events.

When Mary M. discovered the tomb was empty, she went running back to find the others. She didn’t say Jesus had been raised, but that he wasn’t there. Wherever their hideout was it must have been close by, because Peter and another disciple (the story says it was the one Jesus loved, perhaps Lazarus as I have speculated in the past) raced each other to the tomb. When the other disciple looked in he saw, believed, and didn’t understand.

I don’t know any better way to think about the resurrection. It is something beyond our understanding but not beyond our belief. In fact, if we think we understand it, that’s probably a sign we really don’t. The resurrection has to be something way more than we can wrap our minds around. But it seems, to me, that the resurrection of Jesus is something faith can grab hold of or, at least, pieces and parts of it.

Then John’s story simply says that after seeing nothing but discarded grave clothes inside the tomb, the two disciples went back. Mary M. stayed there by herself, crying outside the tomb. Then she did something that makes so much sense to me. Even though she had seen the tomb was empty, had it verified by, at least, two of her companions, she looked in the tomb again. That’s what I would do. I would keep looking in there. This was a real head scratcher.

It turned out that she wasn’t exactly alone, after all. When she looked into the tomb that time, there were two angels in there. I’m not quite sure why. Maybe they were cleaning up. Maybe they liked being in tombs. They weren’t there before when Mary had first gone into the tomb. And they weren’t there when Peter and the other one were there. And they don’t really add anything to the story, because no sooner than Mary M. began talking with them, somebody else showed up. She thought it was the cemetery caretaker. We know better.

So there was Mary M. talking with two angels, though I don’t think it occurred to her that they were angels, and Jesus whom she didn’t recognize. She was crying. They were all asking her why. All she wanted to know is which one of them took the body of Jesus. If they would just let her have his body back, she and the others would figure out what to do.

Even though Jesus had been standing right in front of her and talking with her, she had no idea who he was. See how hard it is to understand this resurrection thing? But when he spoke her name, everything changed. Like the other one, she saw, believed, but surely didn’t understand. But for Mary M. that was just fine. She didn’t have to understand. He spoke her name.

Jesus told Mary M. not to hold on to him though there is nothing in the story that says she was. If everything was different for Mary, think about Jesus. Remember a couple of weeks ago when I talked about how Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead the Sunday before Jesus was raised? In the encounter Jesus had that day with Martha he said ‘I am the resurrection and the life.’ He didn’t say that he was the one who resurrected people like Lazarus. Nor did he say he was the one who was going to be resurrected in just a week’s time. Instead he said he was resurrection, itself. He was life.

It’s interesting, I think, that when Lazarus was raised, somebody had to take the grave cloths off of him. But not so with Jesus, unless that’s why the angels were there. But I think that might be saying something about how Jesus always was life, always was resurrection, or at least, the person most unencumbered by death that I have ever heard of.

There’s one more thing I noticed here that seems worth mentioning. Jesus told Mary M. to go and tell his brothers what had happened. What about the sisters? There were plenty of them. Now there are two ways you can look at this. One is your run of the mill patriarchy enabling idea that it’s only the brothers who count. Or you can look at it as Jesus pointing out that the brothers are never going to figure this out without the help of the sisters. Another constant is that in every telling of the Easter story it’s the women disciples who get it before the men do. That was one of the things that made it so hard for first century folk to take this story seriously. It was women, not men, who were at the center of what happened that morning. And a lot of men don’t like it when everything doesn’t center around them.

“Tell my brothers,” Jesus commanded Mary M., “that I am ascending to God.” You see, none of us can keep hold of Jesus, keep him for ourselves, though we won’t quit trying. He won’t fit into our boxes. This is about resurrection and life, not the same old ways that are killing us. This is about the life of God. And because of the one who is resurrection and life, we are about the life of God.

They went to the tomb and he wasn’t there. But he appeared to them alive. They couldn’t recognize him, at first, because they had to learn how to see him in a new way. And that is always the Easter challenge for us. He isn’t where we have put him. Jesus isn’t going to stay in the tombs we carve out of the rocks for him. He is not there. He is alive and, like those women and men on the first Easter morning, we get to spend our whole lives seeing him in new ways. Amen

Dismantling Empire

Sunday, April 13th, 2014

Matthew 21:1-13
April 13, 2014
Mary Hammond

Recently, Steve and I had an interesting conversation with seminary student Allie Lundblad regarding the start of Holy Week. “I never know what to do with Palm Sunday,” she complained. “We always make it so celebrative and happy in church, but look what happens the rest of the week! What do you do with Palm Sunday?” she asked.

In response to Allie’s question, I pulled out the book we have been studying on Tuesday nights. It is titled The Last Week and is co-authored by Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan. I read a paragraph aloud, revealing some critical and often missed historical context.

There are two processions heading into Jerusalem on this day. Jesus enters the city from the east, mounted on a donkey. He is surrounded by a ragtag crowd of enthusiastic followers, many from the peasant class. His message is the same one he has been proclaiming throughout his public ministry. It is the kingdom, or reign, of God–a habitation rooted in mercy, love, and nonviolence.

From the west, however, another procession enters Jerusalem. It is standard practice for the governor of the area to be present in the city during major Jewish festivals, and this is Passover season. This second processional is led by Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Idumea, Judea, and Samaria. He rides into the city on a stallion, flanked by ranks of imperial calvary.

Pilate’s rule and presence proclaim a different kingdom than that of which Jesus speaks. His is one backed by a domination system that utilizes violence and coercion as means of maintaining power and privilege. Political leaders operate with the collusion and support of religious leaders in Jerusalem. Borg and Crossan conclude, “The two processions embody the central conflict of the week that led to Jesus’s crucifixion” (p. 2, “The Last Week,” by Borg and Crossan).

We ponder the legitimate question as to why this day has come to be named “Palm” Sunday in the Christian Church. Of all things to remember about this first day of Holy Week, waving palm branches has to be at or near the bottom of God’s list (if God is keeping one!). What begins as an unarmed ragtag procession from the east and an imperial military procession from the west hurtles towards a crucifixion and scattered, frightened populace days hence.

In Imaging the Word, John Leax describes his own feelings one year about Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, saying, “This year the day seems empty and abstract. The events of the week are too overpowering. The knowledge that Christ’s entry led directly to his Crucifixion looms too [grimly] ahead. This seems the strangest holiday of the year, a celebration of misunderstanding” (p. 179, “Imaging the Word,” Volume 3). Indeed, the crowds around Jesus are seeking a military leader to galvanize his followers, defeat the Roman occupiers, and restore Israel to its former glory.

As we look at Matthew’s account of this day, Jesus doesn’t enter Jerusalem to the praise of a crowd and then rest on his laurels. He immediately goes to the Temple, confronting the domination system head-on. He drives out the money changers and over-turns both tables and the status quo. In classic prophetic rhetoric, Jesus decries the corruption of the Temple for material gain. This space is meant by God to provide a place of prayer. Instead, it has become a “den of thieves.” Jesus’ first priority in Jerusalem according to Matthew’s Gospel is to tackle the corruption of his own religion and its wholesale misuse.

Jesus knows that the trajectory he is on will lead to his death–not in the sacrificial way that we often talk about in the church at this time of year, but in a very different sacrificial way. Walking the Way of God (with a capital “W” on the word, “Way”) places Jesus in such direct conflict with the political and religious authorities that they cannot tolerate the threat he poses. They plot to kill him; and he is eventually arrested, tortured, and murdered.

Two thousand years later, we are not so far away from those crowds long ago who yearned for a tough, militaristic Jesus who would slay the enemies of God’s people and bring relief to the Chosen. The American church faces its own temptations to collude with Empire and crown Jesus as the Divine Dominator.

So much of popularized end-times theology views Jesus as a macho, sword-wielding king, out to avenge his name with the support and blessing of the faithful. Such a view of Christ is anathema to the courageous, unarmed Jew headed into Jerusalem on a donkey so long ago.

Following a Divine Dominator has led the Church down dangerous alleyways over the centuries. Here in our country, it has led to prejudice and discrimination against the very people whom Jesus welcomed as friends. The Domination system has reinforced patriarchy, colonialism, homophobia, anthropocentrism, and a host of other means of oppression. Crossan and Borg remind us that imperial theology accompanies any imperial procession. An imperial Jesus is not the Jesus of the Gospels, nor the Jesus of Palm Sunday.

Which procession shall we join today and every day? Shall we march alongside Jesus, proclaiming the in-breaking Reign of God, or shall we join the procession at the other gate, aligning ourselves with the powers of this world and their tools of oppression and violence? Shall we dress Jesus in imperial garb and place him on Pilate’s stallion, crowning him as head of a baptized Domination System? Or shall we lay down our cloaks before the unarmed man on the donkey and follow the way he taught his disciples?

These are among the many questions this day calls us to ponder. Echoing beneath the deep story of Palm Sunday is the fervent prayer of Jesus, “Thy kingdom come; thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Amen.

Lazarus and the Prelude to Holy Week

Sunday, April 6th, 2014

John 11
April 6, 2014
Steve Hammond

Mary and I have been spending some time in John’s gospel these past few weeks, as has everyone that uses the lectionary. One of the things we are realizing is that John tells long stories. And today’s is the longest yet. We’ve been trying to talk about these stories without reading the whole thing. But I couldn’t make that work this week. The story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead is just too interesting, and the raising of Lazarus isn’t, to me, the most interesting part.

So we are going to work our way through the story this morning. It is worth noting that this story takes place the week before Palm Sunday, the beginning of that tumultuous week that ended up with the death of Jesus and his own resurrection. And it’s only a couple of miles from Jerusalem.

[Read vs. 1-16] Let’s begin by looking at the last of this part of the story. Tensions are running high between Jesus and the religious establishment. The last thing the disciples want to do is go that close to Jerusalem. But Jesus says they have to go, in spite of the danger. In fact, it seems Jesus has decided now is the time to confront him enemies head on. The battle between light and darkness had to be fought eventually. But maybe that’s why Jesus waited a couple of days. He had a lot to think about. He knew the implications of heading to Bethany. And so did Thomas who said to the others, “Come along, we might as well die with him.”

I wish we could hear Thomas’s voice. Was he being flippant? “When did his death wish becomes ours? We all knew this fool was going to get us killed.” Or more along the lines of “Hey guys, we can’t turn back now. If Jesus is willing to take the risk of going to Jerusalem, we are too. We didn’t know it then, but this is what we signed on for.”

And once the disciples finally got it that Lazarus was dead you have to think they were wondering what the whole point was anyway. If Jesus had taken off when he first got word, maybe he could have done something. But now, wasn’t it a little late. Why take such a risk when there is nothing he can do for Lazarus now, anyway? But Jesus left for Bethany and they went with him.

We know that the disciples failed Jesus miserably at the end. But I get the sense from this story that they wanted to do better by Jesus. Their willingness to go with him to Bethany, where they could be so easily grabbed by the authorities, showed more than a little bit of courage. And Jesus had to understand and appreciate that.

[Read vs. 17-32] “When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’” You can understand why Mary said such a thing, but it must have hit Jesus hard. He obviously loved Mary and Martha and Lazarus. We don’t know why he waited those two days, and he still wouldn’t have gotten there on time anyway. But, unlike Mary was unable to do in her grief, we can assume his motives weren’t bad. And hopefully, Mary was able to look back at that and realize it was her grief and pain talking.

When things get hard, when we have been hurt and disappointed by others, we can so easily question the motives of others, even those we love. And that can create even more pain and misunderstanding. And even though Mary was going through a lot, so was Jesus.

Before this encounter with Mary, though, Jesus has that conversation with Martha who had always been in the background while her sister Mary was out front. Martha, too, pointed out to Jesus that Lazarus wouldn’t have died if Jesus hadn’t waited. She too was a bit wrong on her math. That Martha and Mary greeted Jesus with the same accusation tells me that they had been talking about this and already decided that Jesus was at fault without really looking at the fact that even if he had left right away he wouldn’t have gotten there in time. Nor did they give Jesus a chance to tell his side of the story. They had already set the narrative and, frankly, Jesus couldn’t have challenged it if he wanted to.

Martha, though, quickly got past her accusation and basically tells Jesus, that even though he had failed them, there might well be something he could do about it. “But even now, even though you weren’t there when we needed you most, I know God will give you whatever you ask.”

We often think of Mary as the one who is more like the male disciples, but it is Martha who makes a confession that sounds very similar to what Peter had once said along the road. “I believe,” Martha said, “that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the One coming into the world.”

[Read 33-45}] Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. He obviously shared in the grief that Mary, Martha, and all of Lazarus’s friends were feeling. But the story says he was also angry. Why? What do you think that Jesus was mad about? Maybe because he knew that his enemies were wanting to see Jesus in a tomb. Maybe the whole idea that death and heartache are so much a part of this world.

Maybe he was feeling hurt from his encounter with Martha and Mary and getting the same treatment from the crowd. “But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’” Jesus was getting it from all sides, friend and foe alike. What he could have used was some comfort and understanding and grace as he faced heading into Jerusalem. You think he would have earned that from, at least, his friends.

Or maybe he was mad that such a thing as the death of a good brother and good friend had become such a public event. Something as private as personal as this was even being entruded on by his enemies. And it was turning out to be more about him than the loss and grief they were feeling.

He called Lazarus out of the tomb though Martha, who had told him earlier to do something, said he couldn’t do that. Kate Huey who writes for the United Church of Christ worship blog says this about Martha’s reaction to Jesus calling Lazarus from his tomb, in spite of that confession she had just made. “How do we move from just saying what we believe to giving our selves and our lives over to transformation and the new life that God brings? How often, in fact, do we say we believe but live as if we do not? Where does our religious imagination fail us, stop, refuse to move to places of new life and possibility? What does the world tell us about “real life” and how does that contrast with a gospel vision of being truly alive? What do we think we need to do in order to “achieve” or “accomplish” new life, as if it were our doing, and not God’s?” (http://www.ucc.org/worship/
samuel/april-6-2014.html).

Then, of course, the Lazarus story gets us asking pretty quickly questions about the things that bind us up, keep us from being alive. And then how can we be a community that takes the grave rags off of each other and this whole creation?

So it’s time to wrap up the story, with what has become as I have read the story over the years, the most intriguing part for me. [45-54] This thing of raising Lazarus from the dead becomes the action that pushes the enemies of Jesus over the edge. They are afraid that if word gets out there will be not stopping Jesus, and Rome would not like that.

You can not read the gospels without realizing there are, as Han Solo says in the first Star Wars movie, ‘Imperial entanglements.’ Well actually you can read the gospels without realizing that, people do it all the time. But you really can’t understand what Jesus was about without being aware that his mission, to make the Kingdom of God known, was a direct attack on the powers who were running the current earthly kingdom. And it was all about to come to a head in the next couple of weeks.

As we look at this story, has it ever occurred to you that we hear from Jesus, from Mary and Martha, from the friends of Jesus and his enemies, but not a word from Lazarus? And we only hear one thing more about Lazarus. The folk who want Jesus dead also want Lazarus dead. So they immediately start plotting to kill this guy who was just raised from the dead. People are weird.

Jesus knew the risk he was taking going to Bethany to be with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. There were plenty of people who did not want Jesus leaving alive. So they did kill him. But he left alive anyway. But that’s another story.

On Seeing and Being Seen

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014

The Gospel of John, Chapter 9
Mary Hammond
March 30, 2014

Our Epiphany themes of light and darkness, blindness and sight, continue
deep into the season of Lent. Today, in the Gospel of John, we meet a
blind beggar, socially marginalized by his life-long condition. The
unnamed man is a public fixture in the village, someone everyone knows
“about” but it turns out, few people really “know.”

Our story begins with Jesus’ disciples noticing this man, begging on the
side of the street. They casually ask Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned: this
man or his parents, causing him to be born blind?”

This question exposes their erroneous belief that the man’s blindness is
the result of someone’s sin. Who shall be blamed? Jesus rejects this
question as wrong-headed. He indicates that the disciples should instead
be looking for the work and glory of God.

The scene that follows is unique in the Gospels. There is no
instantaneous miracle. In fact, the man neither seeks healing nor is he
even searching for Jesus. He is just “there,” on the street, a subject
of conversation but not a participant in the conversation.

Jesus takes some mud from the ground, spits on it, makes a cake of it,
and puts it on the man’s eyes. In his day, spittle was seen as a ‘folk
remedy’ of sorts. Jesus then instructs the beggar to go wash in the Pool
of Siloam. This was a reservoir inside the city carved out of stone
during Hezekiah’s reign, to provide water for Jerusalem in the case of a
siege (see II Chronicles 32:208, Isa. 22:9-11, 2 Kings 20:20). The word
“Siloam” means “Sent.”

Jesus says nothing about healing to the beggar. The man follows Jesus’
instructions, discovering that he is then healed of his blindness.

The story doesn’t end here, however. The villagers become involved in
the aftermath of the healing. “Is this the man born blind, or is it
not?” they ask each other. Some say “yes;” others say “it can’t be.”
Sighted people, who have seen this man on the street again and again,
cannot agree as to who he is.

I’m not good at recognizing a face unless I have a significant
conversation with a person, and even then, it sometimes takes me a
couple more contacts. Generally, I need more than a “hello” or a passing
greeting to imprint a face in my memory. Does anyone else have this
challenge?

It is telling to notice how anonymous this blind beggar on the street
has been. Throwing coins toward him is not the same as “knowing” him.
So, the village is divided.

Neighbors come to the man and ask him how his eyes were opened. All he
can tell them is that “a man named Jesus” put mud and spittle on his
eyes and told him to go wash in the Pool of Siloam. He did as
instructed. He was blind, and now he sees.

A group of townspeople march the man to the Pharisees and report the
healing, which just happens to be on the Sabbath. The Pharisees strictly
observe Jewish law, and healing anyone on the Sabbath day is highly
controversial.

The religious leaders are divided, too. Some reject Jesus as an
imposter. Others think the blind beggar could not possibly have been
healed if the healer was not sent from God.

The Pharisees demand answers from the man. “You are the expert. He
opened your eyes. What do you say about him?” they ask.

The man replies, “He is a prophet.”

More contention ensues. The Pharisees conclude that the man wasn’t born
blind after all, so they bring his parents in for questioning. John adds
the editorial comment that they are afraid of being cast out of the
synagogue, which is happening to Jesus-followers at the time of John’s
writing. The parents defer to their son, “He’s a grown man. Ask him,”
they reply.

For a second time, the Pharisees question the blind beggar who has
received his sight. Gradually, the man is claiming his voice. During
this interrogation, he begins to interrogate the Pharisees. “I’ve told
you over and over and you haven’t listened. Why do you want to hear it
again? Are you so eager to become his disciples?” the man asks. We sense
the testiness and irony in his voice. Unlike his parents, he is not
afraid to speak. What does he have to lose, that he hadn’t lost before?

As the exchange grows more heated, the man offers the Pharisees a
personal observation about the grace and mercy of God. This formerly
blind beggar, whom many in the village never noticed enough to even
recognize, stands up to the religious authorities.

He replies, “You claim to know nothing about him [meaning Jesus], but
the fact is, he opened my eyes! It’s well known that God isn’t at the
beck and call of sinners, but listens carefully to anyone who lives in
reverence and does God’s will…If this man didn’t come from God, he
wouldn’t be able to do anything.”

The man has said enough. The Pharisees throw him out on the street. Then
comes my favorite verse in the whole story: “Jesus heard that they had
thrown him out, and went and found him.”

Jesus hasn’t appeared in the story since the incident with the mud and
spittle. Throughout this entire controversy, and its many twists and
turns, Jesus has been absent. The firestorm that ensued after the man’s
healing does not directly involve Jesus once, although he is ultimately
the locus of the conflict.

When Jesus finds the man, he asks him, “Do you believe in the Son of
Man?” There is at once something very intimate about this short
conversation.

“Point him out to me, sir, so that I can believe in him,” the man replies.

Jesus responds, “You’re looking right at him. Don’t you recognize my voice?”

There are many layers to this last question. The first time the man
meets Jesus at the beginning of the story, he is blind and cannot
physically see Jesus, but he can hear Jesus’ voice. At these words, the
blind man–now seeing–recognizes that voice again. He also hears
something in it that he has not heard before. He trusts, and he worships.

John concludes this story with Jesus’ reflections on light and darkness,
blindness and seeing. Some Pharisees overhear these comments and ask
Jesus if he is speaking about them. Jesus continues, giving the teachers
of the Law the choice to remain in spiritual blindness or open their
eyes to God’s presence and glory in the healing of the blind beggar.

Healing stories can be beautiful, and they can also be difficult. Many
people in the United States and around the world experience struggles
similar to those of the blind beggar. They spend years working around
limitations, navigating difficult circumstances, religious ostracism,
and societal prejudices. Historically, the Church has too often played
the “sin” card–marginalizing people based on race, sexual orientation,
mental illness, and physical condition. We each have ways of relating
intimately to this narrative on many levels.

Why are there so many instantaneous, or near-instantaneous healing
stories in the Gospels? Then, why are so many of our own lived miracles
of the slow, tedious, hard-won sort? These are questions we often ask
ourselves and God.

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I do know something
else that is hopeful and good. Jesus encounters us right where we are,
whether others are noticing us or passing us by. Jesus gives voice to
those whose existence is tenuous and whose future is uncertain. He
concludes, “I came into the cosmos to bring everything into the clear
light of day, making all the distinctions clear, so that those who have
never seen will see, and those who have made a great pretense of seeing
will be exposed as blind.”

Who and what touches our heart as we encounter the disciples, Jesus, the
blind beggar who is healed, the village folk, the religious leaders, and
the man’s parents? May we ponder these questions as this story speaks to
us within our deepest selves. Amen.