Archive for April, 2015

What We (and they) Couldn’t See

Saturday, April 25th, 2015

April 19, 2015
Luke 24:33-49, Acts 1:1-4
Mary Hammond

We are going to begin with a guided meditation. I don’t want to assume anything about your very personal journey, your hidden questions and doubts, or your deepest convictions. It may be that this meditation does not speak to you. In which case, I invite you into a time of silence. It may elicit strong emotion. That is OK, too. I promise you, this journey I am taking you on is deeply related to our scripture story as it continues to live in and through us.

Make yourself as comfortable as you can (on a wooden pew), and take a deep breath. Slowly release that breath.

Remember a time when you believed something very strongly, or hoped for something very deeply (maybe even prayed for it a lot), and things didn’t turn out the way you expected them to. Experience that time in your body, in your being. Feel what you feel. Be conscious, and gentle with yourself (Silence).

The foundations of your beliefs may have been shaken. Maybe any prayers felt shattered, too. You wondered how to make sense of what really happened, maybe even how to trust, or how to trust God, again. Sit for a moment in this space. Experience that disorientation in your body, in your being (Silence).

Maybe you are still in this space about that particular reality. If so, stay where you are, and let that be what it is for now, as uncomfortable as it may be. And be gentle with yourself (Silence).

For others–maybe you have wrestled with your beliefs and expectations and come out to a new place. Maybe this experience has changed you prayer life, moving it in new directions. Maybe you understand yourself, the situation, or God differently because of this journey. Maybe mystery makes more sense now. Maybe some semblance of wisdom–with or without understanding–has come.

If you are in this new place, feel that in your body and spirit. What is it like? How hard won has it been?

Whichever space you are in, notice that space within you (Silence).

Now let’s come back to our gathering with one another. Take a moment or two to just re-enter this gathering of one another (Pause).

Our lives are filled with inner stories such as these. They continually call us from one understanding to another, from “what we could not see, to what we come to see.” In his book, “The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary,” Walter Brueggemann speaks of this process as one of disorientation, reorientation, and integration or transformation.

I believe we could also describe that final step as ‘resurrection.’ At first, something dies in us. Disorientation feels much like being lost. Deep within the cavern of the soul, new life slowly recreates itself. Over time, reorientation brings us home to ourselves once again, but in a new way. What is seeded in us, at long last, yields to transformation or resurrection. We are out, on the other side!

Today we continue to celebrate the liturgical season of Eastertide—this mysterious, mystical 40 day period after the Resurrection, when Jesus appears alive to many of his followers. According to the first verses of the Book of Acts (Acts 1:1-14), Jesus is not just popping in to say hello. He is meeting and eating with his disciples, teaching them about the Kingdom or Realm of God.

Yet the disciples are still doggedly holding onto their exclusive view of the Realm of God. As Jesus gets ready to ascend into heaven, they ask him, “Is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:5). When new information comes, they doggedly feed it back into their familiar belief systems.

The 40 days between the resurrection and ascension mirror the 40 years of the Israelites in the wilderness, wandering toward a new home–skeptical, faithless, doubting, over-confident, fearful, confused. We all know those wilderness periods of our own lives, times where we must confront the fact that life turns out differently than we anticipated, and we have a lot of soul work to do to make the necessary transitions of heart.

Could this be what is going on during and after those meals with Jesus throughout that period between the resurrection and ascension? Does he expect the disciples to get what he is saying then? I doubt it.

Yet, does Jesus hope for their future–for the time when the Spirit will blow fiercely upon them–fresh conflicts with political and religious authorities will erupt, and the disciples will stand up strong; questions about including Gentiles in God’s project will arise, and inclusion will ultimately happen; issues of law vs. grace will fester, and grace will triumph? Does he hope for a time when the seeds he has planted in their souls will break forth from the moist, dark earth of their beings, and bear astonishing, abundant fruit? I think so.

The disciples are witnesses to resurrection. They also become bearers of that story in their own beings. So do we. You and I become unfolding stories of resurrection.

There’s no side-stepping the fact that it can be a hard road to get there. Once we move through disorientation into reorientation and sow the seeds of transformation, then the next leg of the journey begins. That, too, offers its challenges, as the accounts of the disciples in the early church demonstrate so clearly.

Most of the time, we are at all stages of this process. As we continue to open ourselves to see what we cannot see, something old is dying in us, and new life is rising. Amen.

Resurrectionists

Saturday, April 18th, 2015

John 20:19-31 and Acts 2:43-47 and 4:32-35
April 12, 2015
Steve Hammond

One of my favorite preachers is Ralph Milton, a retired pastor from the United Church of Canada whose theological commitments are what could be called undecided. I think he would say he has been around too long to imagine aligning himself with just one theological camp. The thing is that I have never actually heard him preach. But he does this wonderful web site called Rumors which he bills as “sermon helps for preachers with a sense of humor.”

He is willing to poke more than a bit of fun at our ecclesiastical pretentions, and in the process gets to some important and serious stuff. Here is what he says about the story from John’s gospel we read this morning. “The Gospel reading shows us that the disciples were not all cut from the same cloth. Like the folks in our churches, they come in all stripes and flavors, and they come to their faith in different ways. Some see the thing whole in one glorious revelation, like Mary of Magdala, and some say, ‘Show me the evidence,’ like Thomas. Others grow into it slowly, bit by bit, over a lifetime. Others (like me),” he writes, “are never really sure what they believe.”

We don’t learn why Thomas wasn’t in the hideout with the others on that Easter night, when Jesus showed up in that room, nor why he was there the next Sunday when Jesus showed up again. That’s the kind of thing I would love to speculate about, but not today. But if you’ve got some ideas feel free to share them with me sometime.

Thomas, though, was finally there and got to see the evidence he needed. I think I used to think that it must have been a humbling thing for Thomas to see the Risen Jesus that next week. But maybe not. I don’t think Thomas was making any apologies about needing evidence, and I don’t think Jesus was expecting any.

And Thomas shouldn’t surprise or trouble us. We often hear that folk in Jesus’ day were living in a pre-scientific age, so that’s why they were able to believe in something like the resurrection of Jesus. But, it wasn’t just Thomas who had a hard time buying this whole thing. None of the folk who came to that room were expecting Jesus to be raised from the dead. The first reports of his resurrection were greeted as nonsense. This is what it says is Luke’s gospel. “Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. 11 But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. 12 But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.” The people who were in that room on that Easter night were not expecting to see Jesus again any more than Thomas was. Even though it was what we call the pre-scientific age, they weren’t about to believe such a thing could happen without evidence. They just got to see the evidence that Thomas saw a week later.

That second Sunday evening, Jesus appeared saying the same words he did the week before. “Peace be with you.” Those are not the words that we might have expected Jesus to start with. Here is an alternative scenario from Paul Nuechterlein. “His disciples who had abandoned him and denied him are sitting in a locked room, grief-stricken, afraid, and feeling ‘guilty as sin,’ and the Risen Jesus pops in to visit them. You and I would have, at the very least, sacked the whole lot of them. We would have fired them — ‘You good-for-nothing, fair-weather friends, you failed me! I never want to see you again! Now that I’m risen I’m going to get myself some new disciples, some real disciples, someone who will follow me through thick and thin.’ That’s what you and I would have said, right? But not Jesus! No, it’s incredible! Not only does he not sack the sorry lot of them; not only does he not return for vengeance; not only does he come instead with peace; but he hires them to go out into the world extending the word of forgiveness to others!! “ (http://girardianlectionary.net/year_b/easter2b.htm)

Those four little words, “peace be with you.” Jesus was Jesus to the very end and beyond. It was always about peace for Jesus, no matter if it was religious and political authorities trying to do him in or his most trusted friends abandoning him.

Jesus also said to Thomas and actually all the rest, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” And it turned out that it wouldn’t be very long until people got the chance to believe without seeing, which leads us to the other story we read this morning from the Book of Acts.

That’s because the disciples did leave that room. In the power of the Spirit they left their fear behind and went out into the streets. Suddenly they weren’t just a group of several dozen, but a few thousand. And those new converts became believers by seeing, not the wounds of the Risen Jesus, like Thomas and the others had, but the power of the resurrection. They saw Jesus in that little community of Jesus followers or Followers of the Way as they were called long before the derisive term Christian was hurled at them. That community of The Way was the proof. They took care of each other. They shared their possessions and lives with each other. They built an alternative community right there in Jerusalem, where people felt the resurrection before they believed it.

It also says in Acts 4 that they were “all of one heart and one mind.” But we know that being of one heart and one mind does not mean that everyone was all alike. That community of The Way was made up of people who had to learn how to be of one heart and one mind even though they maintained their differences. That was the power of the resurrection, the proof of the living Jesus. They were trying to build something new in this world and it wasn’t easy.

One of my many favorite stories from the Book of Acts is in the seventh chapter where the Greek speaking widows complain that they were not being treated fairly and that the Hebrew speaking widows were getting preferential treatment. That thing about how they sold all they had and distributed the proceeds to all that were in need wasn’t quite accurate. Community, even the Community of The Way doesn’t always live up to its aspirations. Unfortunately, Christian communities back in that day and even now aren’t perfect. But they dealt with the conflict in a way that doesn’t often happen in communities, churches, or anywhere else. When the Greek speaking widows bought their complaint, the Apostles appointed seven of the Greek speakers in that early first of all churches to resolve the problem. There was not a Hebrew speaker among them. They let the victims come up with the solution. That is, indeed, a different kind of community. If they had appointed some Greek speaking women in that group, it would have even been better. But we all are learning

It’s not easy being a church or a bunch of followers of The Way who have somehow found themselves together to show folk the living Jesus. We are meant to be the proof that the Thomas’s of this world, and most others, including ourselves, are looking for. There are lots of things that need to happen, thankfully they don’t have to be done perfectly, to be a community of followers of The Way. One of them is forgiveness, which takes us back to John.

Jesus says this intriguing thing that first Sunday night with the huddled and scared disciples. “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

I used to put a bit too much on this verse. It can sound like that Jesus is giving the community, folk like us, the power to make cosmic decisions like who gets forgiven and who doesn’t. But what if he meant something different, something like this. Jesus put so much stock in forgiveness. Maybe he was saying something like, “You know, people can do things sometimes that are intentionally or unintentionally hurtful. They can do things that offend God and the people around them. One of the ways to healing and new possibilities for them is forgiveness. Your word of forgiveness can help bring release and relief. But if that forgiveness doesn’t come, they just have to keep on carrying, or retaining that sin or brokenness, or fear, or whatever you want to call it. Forgiveness can help them and help you let go.”

Those words may well have come in handy as they all had to deal with the aftermath of Holy Week. Peter, after all, had denied Jesus. And most of the others ran away. Many of the men, if not all of them, had underperformed. And now Thomas was about to proclaim his doubt. If they were going to make a difference in this world after they finally left that room, forgiveness would need to be offered and received. And that probably wasn’t the last time they were going to have to decide whether they were going to forgive each other so there wasn’t a bunch of stuff people were holding on to. And Jesus led the way be offering words of peace, so they could all move ahead in the power of forgiveness.

In that early church, as we learn from the dispute between the Greek speakers and Hebrew speakers, plenty of opportunities would present themselves for forgiveness to come into play. And I guess the opportunity to forgive and be forgiven really does offer the church a way that bears witness to resurrection, to the possibility of being a living presence of the living Jesus. The communities of The Way we build are the only proof out there that Jesus is alive, even though we also come with our own wounds and scars.

When we can live with each other in ways where we assume, that no matter what people end up doing, that their motives and intentions were good, or at least, not bad then the possibilities for forgiveness grow rather dramatically. And when we regard each other in light of the best we bring rather than the worst, then we are on to something that is life giving.

That little room full of frightened people who never expected Jesus to show up in their midst was made up of all kinds of people. It had become their tomb. But something pretty special happened to them. They didn’t end up all being alike, they didn’t all follow Jesus in the same way, but they found their way out of that tomb and they showed this world Jesus. I’ve been thinking about tombs this week and how we find our way out of them. I guess the best we can do is keep walking toward the light. It’s in the power of that same Spirit they felt in that room with Jesus that we get to offer our frightened little selves to each other and this world and move together into the streets as nothing less than a bunch of resurrectionists. And if that sounds like insurrectionist, it’s supposed to. Jesus expected that we would stir up some trouble when we walk out of our tombs.

Sweeter than Light: An Easter Reflection

Saturday, April 18th, 2015

John 20:1-38
Mary Hammond
April 5, 2015

In his final book, Convictions, Marcus Borg sums up the meaning of Easter by saying, “it is God’s ‘yes’ to Jesus and his passion for the kingdom of God, and God’s ‘no’ to the powers that killed him” (p. 143, Convictions, HarperOne, 2014). In other words, the resurrection story embodies the defeat of the world’s Domination System and the bold confession that Life, not death, has the final word.

Holy Week is so important in the life of the church. The vast majority of John’s Gospel is devoted to this one week in Jesus’ thirty-three years of life. If we skip from ‘Hosannas’ on Palm Sunday to ‘Alleluias’ on Easter morning, we gloss over the deepening darkness between Monday and Saturday. We miss Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple as recorded in synoptic Gospels (In John, it occurs earlier). We miss the last supper, the anointing of Jesus, the foot washing of his disciples, the prayers in the Garden of Gesthemane. We miss the rapidly accelerating collusion between religious and state authorities, and ultimately even with one of Jesus’ own disciples.

We miss the betrayal, the arrest, the torture, the execution. We miss the loss, fear, and shock of Jesus’ followers as they watch events unfold. We miss their anxious, mournful, confused sabbath day waiting for and wondering what is next. We miss the most powerful signs of the Clash of the Kingdoms of this World and the Kingdom of God.

Then comes today. As John tells the story, Mary Magdalene makes her way to the tomb and the stone is rolled away. She runs to tell Peter and another disciple. They come, inspect the scene, corroborate her observation, determine that Jesus’ body is not in the tomb, and leave.

Mary alone lingers. Jesus appears to her, and she mistakes him for the gardener. Yet when he speaks her name, the sound of that voice is singular and utterly unmistakable. Mary’s impulse is to grab hold of Jesus and cling to him. He resists. Instead, he commissions Mary, a woman, whose testimony would be disallowed in a court of law, to announce to the others that he is not dead, but alive!

Sweeter is the Light among those who sit in darkness, who struggle with temptation, disappointment, disbelief, confusion, and all the rest of what makes us human. Sweeter is the Light when we, like Mary, sit with our sorrow and weep. Just when we think all is lost, we hear the Lord call us by name. Arising in us is hope beyond hope, the joyful confession, “He is alive!” The Light illuminates our hearts, shining within us, through us, among us, and in spite of us. He is alive, friends! He is alive!