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Month: April 2014

Welcome, Welcome Happy Morning: Easter, April 20, 2014

Welcome, Welcome Happy Morning: Easter, April 20, 2014

 Welcome, Welcome Happy Morning

EASTER SERMON, APRIL 20, 2014
ST. MATTHEW’S PARISH, Pacific Palisades CA
George Martin

Welcome! welcome, happy morning!
Welcome, happy morning! Age to age shall say;
Hell today is vanquish, heaven is one today!

These words will be sung at the offertory today as the choir premieres a piece by a composer and member of this church, John O’Reilly. It comes with a dedication:  in thanksgiving for the ministry of the Rev. Betsy Anderson, the newly retired associate for pastoral ministry here. The music certainly captures Betsy’s spirit, for she was marked by joy and hope— that which is also meant as the gift of this worship, this day, for all of you.

On the first Easter there was joy and hope, but something else. It was Surprise. It was totally Unexpected. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to the tomb as any who mourn, many of us even, when our love takes us to the place where the body was buried. Matthew’s Easter story has an earthquake, and  an angel who rolled back the stone. I like the picture. The angel sat on it. Oh how I wish I knew what was on the face of the angel. A smile, probably. But what kind of smile?

In the story the two women didn’t  see Jesus. They saw where he was. Or where his body was and now where it wasn’t. The angel had a message for them.

We get a clue to what was on their faces for the angel told them “Do not be afraid.” They were to go and tell the disciples what has happened. And then they ran away, with both fear and great joy. A most interesting complex of emotions. And then? And then Jesus meets them,  also telling them also not to be afraid. His brothers were to go to Galilee where they would see him.

So we sing with great joy and hope about the resurrection. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary had joy tempered by fear, by unexpected news — an event that was incomprehensible, and still is. There is no way to explain how it happened, for no one saw it happen.

Remember this: two days before these women had watched him die and presumably they reported the details to the disciples who had abandoned Jesus out of fear. Fear, or maybe it bordered on terror,  was a character playing a role throughout the story. The fear of the religious authorities; Pilate’s fear of the crowds;  the fear of the two who were crucified with him;  and even the anguish of Jesus in the garden of  Gethsemane.

And so like a grief many of us have known coming to the end of our story with someone we have loved, in coming to that tomb those women may have wondered if there could ever be another tomorrow. But that empty tomb signaled the message, to quote one theologian, “God’s tomorrow has already taken up residence in humanity’s  today.” [Lewis, between Cross and Resurrection, page 65]

In the days to come, for those first disciples, and for us who will continue for seven weeks to celebrate Easter, fear is transformed into joy, and then into a faith and hope that serving as a beacon light to overcome despair in those times when the world gets shattered again.

So often the Psalms from the Old Testament speak with a real honesty about those times of despair—when we ask “Why?”, “Why did this have to happen?”, “Why me?”.

This Easter morning Psalm declared:  God is our strength and our salvation. It speaks of victory and triumph. Earlier in verses we don’t read, however, we hear about distress, fear, being surrounded by your enemies. The Psalmist says he was falling but the Lord helped him. And then there was this reflection on rejection: “The same stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.”

Now a cornerstone sounds like what is needed for starting construction on a building that can last. In Jerusalem they often used solid limestone for their buildings, but I learned from Michael Seiler, who’d been to the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem that it was site of worthless limestone. Marked by cracks and crevices—useful only for crucifixion and burial. Thus the Christian understanding of the cornerstone of our faith begins in a place where building something to last wasn’t possible. Or was it.

After all, the cornerstone of the faith of the Apostles was that it was Jesus crucified raised by by the power of God.

You will not find any suggestion that Jesus somehow survived crucifixion and burial.  Resurrection is not the survival of death. The message from its earliest days was that it was Christ crucified whom God raised from the dead. And Paul wrote that this was a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God.

Two days previously, the world of unforgiving legalism and the  world Imperial power declared it alone could crucify people. They were victorious on Friday and that Sabbath. Their world was safe — Jesus was dead, and buried.

Easter morning tells a different story. The world will still have its unforgiving legalism. Violence will mar the landscapes of many lives.   Tragedy strikes so many who are innocent and mortal. We must note the  cloud of grief hovering over those in South Korea on this Easter morning who lost friends, and most side of also many children in that ferry that sunk. The story told to frequently in the pages of history called anti-Semitism was there in Kansas City, and the Jewish residents for the elderly, and their three died, three who were Christians, but who died nonetheless because the killer thought they were Jews. Hatred tells so many—really too many sad stories.

Two days ago, on Good Friday, Brian Palmer, emphasized that the cross pointed to love—to the way God loves the world. And last night George Daisa in his sermon, that almost bordered on an altar call, we emphasized God’s call to all of us to be disciples of Jesus. Disciples who would be part of a revolution of love—indeed a living sign to the world that seeks success and things as if what we possess and achieve brings us ultimate hope and joy. Instead we are to be servants in the way of Jesus.

I had already put into my Easter sermon a story about a man who failed in that world of success and having things. It wasn’t that this man found God or the church, but he did find Starbucks.

Michael Gill’ book is called How Starbucks Saved My Life.  It’s not a rags to riches to story. He had a riches to rags story, days away from being homeless when he got a job at a Starbucks coffee shop. There he learned to clean bathrooms, and eventually became a barrista. It was finding dignity in a world he never expected to be in.

The story he tells about cleaning  a bathroom the Starbucks way was powerful; it was Crystal who had taught him how to do it, but then he also locked his newly clean bathroom to a non-paying homeless man. Then he’d had to face the stern warning from Crystal to never make that mistake again.

Crystal was like Jesus in his story. “In my store, in our store, (p. 80)we are welcoming.” she said. “Don’t refuse that toilet to anyone especially someone who really needs some welcome and someone who doesn’t need another person putting them down.”

It was a turning point in Mike Gills life. He reflected on his journey from being unemployed to cleaning a bathroom at Starbucks.

“Back off, I told myself. You are not on some high-flying spiritual journey. You are a guy who made a series of stupid mistakes, some like the ones you made tonight, and you  blew an easy existence. Pace it, Mike, I told myself, you didn’t get religion … you got broke.

I admitted at that moment that I would never have found this new world I really loved unless I had had to.

And I had not been on some spiritual journey for the perfect job or satisfying life: I had been caught in a struggle for survival. Which was common for most people in this world, but uncommon for the spoiled prince I had been. Crystal had noticed me, the way you might see someone having trouble swimming, and given me a hand.

What was that famous poem about swimming by Stevie Smith when she says she was not waving but drowning?”

I liked that book. And Jesus showing up as Crystal. There are many Easter stories around us and they don’t always have to speak of Jesus.

The key for us is to remember that the Jesus story isn’t about success. And it’s not just about surviving. It’s about an abundance of joy and promise in the face of realities that seem like huge stones guarding tombs holding something or someone who has died. Or maybe they are the stones rolled over the hidden things in our life that need to be resurrected. I like what the theologian Leslie Newbigin said about the Jesus story: in the New Testament the emphasis is always on what’s unexpected. It’s always about surprise.

“It is the sinners who will be welcomed:  to those who are confident thinking that their place in the world is secured will find themselves outside. God will shock the righteous by his limitless generosity and by his tremendous severity. The ragged beggars from the lanes and ditches will be in the festal hall, and the man who thought his own cloths were good enough will find himself thrown out (Matt. 22:1-14). The honest, hard-working lad will be out in the dark while the young scoundrel is having a party in his father’s house (Luke 15) .” [ The Open Secret, Page 173]

So many stories of reversal in the ministry of Jesus.  If you come back often enough you’ll discover its a really long list of unexpected surprises.  Easter tops the list, but all the others prepared the way. And it is the crucified messiah is the one who is resurrected. And now we know!  Death does not have the last word upon human destiny. The powers of darkness will not have the last word. Yes welcome happy morning age to age shall say!

That anthem concludes with:

God of life the authored death did undergo,
Tread the path of darkness, saving strength to show;
Come, then, true and faithful, now fulfill your word.
On this bright third morning praise the risen Lord.

So let Easter not just be a day but let it be a verb — verbs are the energy that makes sentences work. Verbs that get us somewhere. Verbs for keep us moving. So  it was that one poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, prayerfully asked that God Easter in us. May God Easter in us in whatever days are dark or fearful. May God Easter in us in our uncertainties. May God Easter in us in all our doubts. May God Easter in us and in all that we do in our families and what we share among our friends. And may the blessing of this day Easter in us this day and always. Amen.

 

 

Expire: Easter Saturday Sermon — April 19, 2014

Expire: Easter Saturday Sermon — April 19, 2014

Expire: Easter Saturday Sermon

April 19, 2014
St. Matthew’s Parish, Pacific Palisades CA
George Martin

If you were belonged the Episcopal Church isomer years prior to 1970’s you know we used the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, and you will remember that the version of the Apostles Creed we used declared that Jesus had “descended into Hell.”  It was where he went when he died and where he was for two days.

We read the lesson from 1st Peter because one of the early ideas about Jesus is that he went to hell after he died , but 1st Peter said he was there as a preacher.

4:6 For this is the reason the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead, so that, though they had been judged in the flesh as everyone is judged, they might live in the spirit as God does.

It was then and still is today all speculation, not fact. But he was dead, that for sure. Thus we are reminded about his burial before sunset on Good Friday. My call today, as I have come to cherish and understand, and keep this Holy Saturday, as the second day, and as maybe the most significant day in the entire year—albeit a very strange and unsettling day—is to remind myself and you that this day, almost above all others, brings the story of Jesus, and God’s story into very sharp maybe even disturbing clarity.

That old 1928 Prayer Book didn’t have a Holy Saturday service, however. This day, though, had been observed by faithful Christians, [more monks and nuns to be sure, than the rest of us] who knew they had to wait on this day, and that in doing so, they wouldn’t rush from Good Friday to Easter, and forget what the death of Jesus meant to his first disciples. It was our 1979 prayer book that gave us this service, or returned it to us.  It’s one page in the Prayer Book. Page 283. No need for vestments. Anyone can do this service. I’ve read it myself in my home office on a Holy Saturday morning. I also have  a covenant with my friend,  Jan Dougherty, a deacon, that we’re sharing this service, every year, this waiting time, together every Holy Saturday no matter where we might or however many miles separate us. This time for which no words can ever be adequate can bind us disciples, even now, together, as we cherish the Jesus story.

So how can we make sense of this day? One attempt at capturing the meaning of Holy Saturday came from the pen of the poet Edwin Muir wrote the Poem “The Good Man in Hell.”  He was thinking of that phrase “ he descended into Hell.”

If a good man were ever housed in Hell
By needful error of the qualities,
Perhaps to prove the rule or shame the devil,
Or speak the truth only a stranger sees,
Would he, surrendering quick to obvious hate,
Fill half eternity withy cries and tears,
Or watch beside Hell’s little wicket gate
In patience for the first ten thousand years,
Feeling the curse climb slowly to his throat
That, uttered, dooms him to rescindless ill,
Forcing his praying tongue to run by rote,
Eternity entire before him still?
Would he at last, grown faithful in his station,
Kindle a little hope in hopeless Hell,
And sow among the damned doubts of damnation,
Since here someone could live, and live well?
One doubt of evil would bring such a grace,
Open such a gate, and Eden could enter in,
Hell be a place like any other place,
And love and hate and life and death begin.

Muir could write that poem because of Easter. But what of the disciples on the second day? Those who had seen their world end on Friday?

The call of Holy Saturday is really to stay with the events of that previous day, and not rush forward. Those disciples didn’t have a next day to anticipate. They could only grieve for what they had lost, and what had been abandoned was the future of what they thought had been possible in this Jesus who painted a picture of a Kingdom of God. That dream was now wrapped up inside a dead body in a sealed tomb. The silence of that Sabbath was such that no words could provide resolution or vindication. The hand of Caesar had had the last word. The women had told them about his last breath — a moment captured in the hymn O Sacred Head Sore Wounded, where in the second verse we sing of the one, Jesus, who has vanished from sight, whose power is now expired. And thus my stark title for this sermon is Expire.

I have been re-reading a marvelous book of theology by Alan Lewis called Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday.  My temptation is to share so much of his wisdom, but too many words, will numb the pain and emptiness that ought to mark this day. That Lewis would write a theology book almost 500 pages in length on day for which words are not adequate can be forgiven, though, for this was his last will and testament. It had to be finished after his death from cancer which he poignantly attests to toward the end of this book as his own Holy Saturday chapters of life.

I can only give you a little a little  morsel of his wisdom — but it is such that it will connect to so many of us who have had times of trial whether from illness, death of a loved one, or some thing traumatic that has happened to us. Writing of his cancer – the disease, the surgery, the radiation, the chemo, and the endless waiting and uncertainty, he said:

“Such losses of appearance and identity, of dignity, control, and almost life itself, brought “Saturday” moments of farewell, grief, and preparations for the end, consequent upon the disappearance of tomorrow. For like the first Easter Saturday, this was a time of unfounded waiting, of hanging on, — sometimes by the hour — without any guarantee of a future to be hung on for, a patiently and otherwise enduring a which might prove no lacunal interruption pending eventual resumption, but cessation pure and simple. This meant in turn my own Paschal descent into forsakenness, where sensations and emotions so overwhelm my powers of description that even the closest loved ones could not understand, and where the comforting assurance of God’s presence could teasingly evade my conscious grasp, locking me in the solitude of divine absence and the spiritual void of prayers unanswered, perhaps because unuttered” Page 404

Did you notice he called this time in his life “Easter Saturday”? And it raises the question what of this day do we bring to the next day?

I think the answer is some truth – some real honesty – about our own finitude — about the borders of life that always frame each day. At one point Lewis in his book pointed out that his birth certificate made no promises with regard to the length of his life, and certainly none about its possibilities, it’s tragedies, or its loves. What we don’t want to admit, except when forced to sometimes by circumstance, is that life is terminal. For those disciples, Good Friday was the end of the story. There was no tomorrow. Jesus had expired.

In time, given the next day, which would then give the second day the possibility of being called Easter Saturday, those disciples could see it as Sabbath, as God leading into new creation, as God accepting life in all of its fragile mortality, moving inexorably toward the dénouement of the next day with its declaration of “God’s victory …over the deadly forces of pride and domination…” (p. 64 Lewis)

To quote Lewis: “God’s tomorrow [would take up] residence in humanity’s today,” [p. 65] but not yet. Not on this Second Day.

As Lewis so sharply clarifies the picture, the disciples sat in the shadow of “unforgiving legalism and ungodly power” that had been “so jubilant and secure on Friday night.” [p. 66]

It was on the second day that Jesus was no hero, no savior, no Redeemer. The story that might have been written about the wonderful parables he told, the people he had raised from the dead, the blind that had been given sight, the hungry that had been fed, the lame that have been able to walk into a new day, the widow that had her son restored to her, were all stories they couldn’t tell on that Saturday, or probably ever, because of his failure. As Lewis  comments, “… Beside him in the grave had been laid to rest the naïve dream that the meek shall inherit the earth.” [p. 50]

We do well to not get ahead of the story —to stay just with this Holy Saturday, though I think, that there’s  wisdom in that poem about the good man in hell. The disciples may have been lost on this day – totally useless – totally without a future – but not Jesus. But not Jesus. And because the story did continue, these friends of Jesus, but without any way of peering into the next day these utterly hopeless and lost disciples on this second day were certainly not expecting what would come. Nor should we. Amen.

EXIT: A Sermon for Maundy Thursday, April 17, 2014

EXIT: A Sermon for Maundy Thursday, April 17, 2014

A Holy Week Sermon Series
St. Matthew’s Parish, Pacific Palisades, CA
George Martin

 

Monday, April 14: Exile 

I shared this sermon at the 7am service, but it wasn’t written. It focused on the assigned passage from Isaiah which is ascribed to the Second Isaiah who comforted the people carried into Exile in Babylon. My meditation was on the different ways we can feel like exiles in our own world, and how that points us to a faith that prepares the way for understanding Jesus as Messiah.

(The next three were printed and are posted on my website)

Thursday, April 17: Exit

Holy Saturday (morning), April 19: Expire

Easter, April 20: Unexpected

 

———————————————————————————

EXIT

Sermon for Maundy Thursday, April 17, 2014
St. Matthew’s Parish, Pacific Palisades, CA
George Martin

This is the second in a four-part sermon series. Monday morning at the Eucharist I preached on the topic of Exile—that was because the first lesson from Isaiah was all about the situation of exile that the Jews found themselves in when they no longer lived in Judah, but were forced to live in Babylonia. “How could they live or survive in such a strange land.”  Thus we thought about the ways in which we sometimes live an
exilic life, one in which we don’t always feel at home in this world?

Tonight’s sermon title is “EXIT” as we have Jesus stepping off into the night, into a rapid series of final chapters in his life. He was leaving the stage as it were.

On Saturday morning, when keep Holy Saturday, as the second day of our vigil, we’ll step back in time with the first disciples, in their dismay at their loss of Jesus and the way all their hopes and dreams were buried with Jesus, and with the last breath he took. And the title of that sermon is “EXPIRE.”

Having traveled this Holy Week with the words, EXILE, EXIT, AND EXPIRE, my Easter sermon will reflect on the news that was totally UNEXPECTED.

So it is that EXIT, for Jesus, came with a Last Supper. A meal with his disciples on the eve of Passover. It wasn’t a true Seder meal but the earliest Christians nonetheless knew that the significant saving event of the Exodus, was more than a story told over and over, but was a story grounded in a ritual of a meal they shared annually.

So the essentials were there: story of remembering the entrance of God in their history, and the treasure of a practice of eating, drinking, and ritual that kept the story alive in their common life.

That was there in that Last supper. His Exit was marked by two commands. Wash each other’s feet as a command to serve one another as I have served you. And the other command involved two very common elements, essential to basic living: bread and wine shared in the context of a family meal.

In the history of Christianity his words, “This is my body” and “This is my blood” have stirred up quite a few passionate differences regarding the way in which Jesus is or isn’t exactly present in these elements. Thankfully we’ve left behind many of struggles from the reformation times regarding the Real Presence of Christ, especially within our tradition. We simply talk about Christ as present in the bread and wine, and we treat this sacrament with reverence, not because we know anything about how this happens, but because we belong to this unique family that doesn’t want to forget. As Jesus also said, “Do this in remembrance of me” and we are to know this has to do with the “forgiveness of sin.” And with Jesus who is Emmanuel—God with us—with us in the Bread and the Wine.

And that’s where this somewhat strange sacramental custom takes on a character seemingly counter to the ways of eating and drinking in this world. For us we normally eat with friends or family—rarely if ever with strangers. And yet this meal creates a community out of a group of strangers. Even at the last supper it did so.

For one was estranged from the community of disciples, though he was still there. And yet Judas shared this special meal with him—with Judas. A few commentators have suggested that Jesus left the meal and didn’t share in it, but most think the scripture doesn’t support that interpretation.

And before we pile a load of guilt on the head of Judas, remember that at the same table, was one who would betray him, and all who would flee and hide out to save their own skins. The cross that awaited Jesus was for him alone.

James McClendon, a theologian framed it this way:

“Had they had their way, there would have been no cross; had he had his, there would have been thirteen. They declined the honor. One betrayed him; one denied him; all fled (Mark 14:50). He was executed with some other enemies of the powers that be — he alone on a cross where all were to have borne witness. Christ was in their place – by the baptist vision, it was our place. He was buried then, one for all. God was dead.” [page 235-6 Systematic Theology, vol 2 doctine}

What stands out for me about the Holy Eucharist is that it is the one meal I share each week with people I don’t know. I do know that in my midst are those who are hurting, searching, questioning. I know that there are no perfect people present, and if they pretend to do so, there’s some fear there that the truth might be spoken, because we know, in part who we are. For the freedom in this context is to speak the truth in a way the world doesn’t understand. It can be the truth of the one whose soul drew back when offered an invitation. His soul drew, back, the poet Herbert said, because it was guilty of dust and sin. But quick-eyed love, observing him from his first entrance in, asked if he lacked anything. A guest, he replied worthy to be here. And yet he didn’t feel worthy—saying he was unkind and ungrateful. That he had a shame that didn’t deserve to be there for that meal, and yet Love was there to serve him, and so, the poet says, he did sit an eat.

We’re not here because we’ve earned the right to be here—but we are here to remember the story of Jesus, and to in some small measure be Jesus for one another. Making space for others at this table, even our enemies, or those who would betray us. They too who stand there with an open hand in this bread line of the Lord.

A couple more things on this topic relevant to our Eucharist tonight. The word “Eucharist” comes from two Greek works. “EU” is good and is tacked on to a word like
Eulogy because that then become a “Good Word” spoken about someone.

It’s the Greek, “Charis”   and “Charis” is a beautiful gift, or grace, or even maybe a caress that is given in a tender way, to welcome us a members of the body of Christ.

But what of the connection of this meal to the rest of life? In the earliest practice of the church they met in homes. And homes where the basics of life, most meals, included bread and wine.

So tonight we’ll use some real bread. Not sandwich bread, though that could have served. It’s Tamir Lavash bread, a bread used for Eucharist in the Armenian Orthodox Church. I bought it at the Tehran Grocery store on Wilshire Boulevard.  When we serve communion you may dip it in the wine if you choose, but if you’d prefer one of the regular communion hosts, just ask for the host for intinction.

And the wine we are using tonight is a nice bottle of wine. Actually not a cheap wine. It’s an expensive bottle symbolic in a sense for the costly aspect of the Last Supper as we now understand its significance.  On this night it is one of those celebrations tinged with sadness, but still requiring that it all be done in a way that expressed the very goodness of God and beauty of this world—especially in the shadow of the ugly day to come. And so our deacon will uncork the bottle as we prepare the table, because, well in our world, the host at the dinner you go to, perhaps this weekend, will take your offering of a bottle of wine, and ask, may we open and serve it to others?

One last thing. Because this is a family meal, and all those disciples were at table with Jesus, I’m asking that we stand as a family around the altar to receive. If those coming up first will make a circle beginning around the back, and then stay in place as you receive. And it’s OK to look around, and say this is my family. This is where I belong. This is where I encounter Jesus and where I can serve others, and where in my time of need they will help me. When all have received in each group we’ll quietly say, “Go in peace.” And if you used the ramp or the steps in the side the next came come forward.

We are to be Jesus tonight. Not because we wouldn’t run away and hide or deny Jesus. But simply because Jesus has a love that embraces us. Because the Eucharist is the gift that is food for the journey, but which binds us also together as the friends of Jesus who don’t want to forget that this is our story.

 

Untie Him and Let Him Go: Sermon April 6, 4014

Untie Him and Let Him Go: Sermon April 6, 4014

“Untie him and let him go.”

Sermon for April 6th Fifth Lent
St. Matthew’s Parish, Pacific Palisades CA
George Martin

 

In La Crosse Wisconsin, next to the Mississippi River, a family gathered in the oldest cemetery to bury their grandmother. The family surname was carved in Gothic stone letters over the grey crypt built in the late 1800s. The priest thought that the service would take place, in the heart of the cemetery, next to the family crypt, but upon arriving the funeral director told the priest that the family wasn’t comfortable being surrounded by all those graves. They were going to have the service in the chapel—the chapel with it’s soft lights and it’s light green carpet. They were playing new age funeral music as the priest greeted the somber mourners and told them he would vest, and then the service would begin.

“What about the dirt?” the priest wondered to himself. Normally he would scoop up dirt from the ground nearby the gravesite to put on the casket in the form of cross as he commended the one who had died with the words “we commit her body to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

That priest put on his robes, greeted the family, and then went outside just before starting the service, grabbing a handful of the black dirt from which some lovely Spring flowers were growing. As he walked in saying words of Jesus, “I am Resurrection and Life” some of the dirt fell from between his fingers onto the carpet. Standing at a lectern he looked back—seeing that trail of dirt, he thought to himself, “That’s why we have vacuums.” He continued to clutch his dirt as he gave his homily. He said, “Please notice that your feet may be on carpet, but when you walk out they will be back on the earth from which this dirt came. “

He went on:
“Please wiggle your toes.”

There were strange looks—bewildered and perplexed they were.

“No,” he said, “I meant it. Wiggle your toes. No one will be watching you”

“Remember,” he went on, “how it felt as a little kid to walk in the mud in bare feet. Or the feel of the wet grass when your ran with bare feet. To wiggle our toes means to be alive in this world. To experience this world as the gift it is.”

And then he went on to remind them of the times they walked with their grandmother. And she with them. What a gift she’d been, and how with this dirt, soon to be placed in the sign of the cross, they were commending her into God’s care, where she could walk in heavenly mud and run across wet heavenly grass, no longer needing that old walker.

I was that priest. Stubborn about the dirt. Stunned in a way by a family afraid to stand near the graves of those whose name they bore themselves. But I knew I was bringing them a gospel message that will not, and must not, deny the reality of death. We may live in a death denying world, but its reality won’t go away.

Death is the central character in the story of the raising of Lazarus but not because of the resuscitation of Lazarus. He was given breath again and brought back to this world where he would still face death. No there’s another death lurking in the wings of this story.

To read just a few more verses brings us to Caiaphas , the high priest, who declared that it is better for the nation that this one man, this Jesus, should die. The Lazarus story, coming on the fifth Sunday of Lent takes us to Passion Sunday and the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem—the shadow of Holy Week first comes over us this Sunday.

And there in this story is the real humanity of Jesus. At the point when he heard Mary crying and the wailing of the others, it says that Jesus was troubled and deeply disturbed. The actual translation is that Jesus was angry. Angry at who? At What? It was the anger of righteous indignation. Maybe he recalled his command to Satan in that time of temptation, Get behind me Satan. But now it was death that he faced and to it he brought anger.

That emotion of anger soon changed. Jesus asked where they had laid Lazarus, and they responded “Come and see.”

Those words “Come and see” are important. Earlier it had been Phillip who told Nathaniel about Jesus with the words “Come and See.” Earlier it had meant “Come and See, Jesus.” Now it was “Come—come and see Death.”

Then the shortest verse in the New Testament. Jesus wept. It wasn’t a wail, that’s a different Greek word. There were professional mourners there and they were the ones wailing. Tears came from Jesus. These were the tears of a friend for a friend. More of private grief, but very apparent to others.

And this verse caused a problem at the Council of Nicea, that gathering of Bishops in the 4th century. In their deliberations they wrestled with the question of how Jesus was both human and divine. Could it be that the all-powerful all-knowing God could actually weep. And there it was in John’s Gospel, “Jesus wept.” They debated theology back then, but concluded, in words we say, “and was made man.” Man who would weep.

To weep is to be one who needs comfort; to be one who needs the strength of someone else; to be one who needs guidance—it is part of essential humanity. When a child cries we embrace them, and hold them tight. Who would put their arms around Jesus as he wept? In my mind I see Martha and Mary on either side of him, one puts an arm on his shoulder, and the other hand him her hankie.

Let us not dwell on the “Did this really happen question? Did Lazarus rise from the dead?” Just know this: whatever Jesus did caused fear to dwell in the houses of the powerful. Lazarus was back to life, but Jesus would be dead, according to Caiaphus.

Let our focus instead be on a series of three commands of Jesus. “Remove the stone!”

“Lazarus, come out.” and, lastly, “Untie him and let him go.”

The first two commands (“Remove the stone!” and “Lazarus, come out.”) emerge from Jesus’s anger with death.

Those orders stand in such sharp contrast to the false theology which declares just believe and you’ll get to heaven. Related to that saccharine theology is that if you’ll just believe and follow Jesus that you’ll never experience pain, and always prosper.

No. Jesus commands that we face the prospect of moving some heavy stones. Sometimes we have to look at the things that are killing us. We have to face that living in the world of “could ofs”, “should ofs”, and “would ofs” is to live in the past. And this Jesus, in this story. lives neither in the past or the future. In this Gospel he says, “I am the resurrection and the life.” Not I was or I will be, but “I am.” The “here and now” is the place of truth and faith in action.

In the midst of all the grief and loss was the “I am.” And it’s his third command that’s the most telling of all, “Untie him and let him go.”

The call is to the community that loves Lazarus, Martha and Mary. That means in this context, “Participate with Jesus in the ministry of resisting the powers of death at work in this world.” Be a community that doesn’t deny that there is suffering and pain in this world, but at least unbind some of that suffering. Address that which keeps people from living full and freely.

I like the line from the African American Christian tradition: “Where the world places a period, God introduces a comma.” A subtle form of resistance in that clever grammar.

“Where the world places a period, God introduces a comma.”

That comma isn’t that every thing is somehow wonderful, but in the midst of suffering and pain there’s hope. Death doesn’t get the last word.

I came across this observation by the theologian Nicholas Lash. As Christians who follow Jesus we are “to know that faith is not a possession, but the character of a quest.”

This means we are to “know that this quest is a trust, an obedience, patterned on the obedience of Jesus,” and that this means our “having the courage to live, work and die in the darkness in which Jesus himself worked and died.” (Theology on the Way to Emmaus, pp. 60-61)

I don’t know if you ever heard of this, but in Carthage Missouri you find the headquarters of the firm that makes those little cherub/angel figurines called Precious Moments. I hope I’m not going to get in trouble with anyone here who might collect such small, often cute, delicate figurines suitable, I guess, for every possible occasion in the world. There is even a Precious Moments Museum. It even includes a Precious Moments chapel.

As Lazarus stumbled from that tomb it wasn’t a Precious Moment. That was a moment in time hinged fear and uncertainty. Jesus had taken a fateful step toward the cross. And then he invited those who followed him to unbind the once dead Lazarus. And to give him the freedom to live. I suggest that’s still our charge to those of us who seek to be his disciples.

Indeed Jesus had started his ministry with the same charge.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free. (Luke 4:18)

And facing death, in Lazarus all bound up in death he said, “Untie him and let him go.”

Sometimes it’s hard to say “Amen” to some of the sayings of Jesus. But I invite you anyway, to say Amen to this command. And maybe as you say Amen you’ll also wiggle your toes.

Amen

 

The Faith Passed On — “Grandparent’s Day at St. Matthew’s School”

The Faith Passed On — “Grandparent’s Day at St. Matthew’s School”

 

The Faith Passed On


April 4, 2014
George Martin
Grandparent’s Day at St. Matthew’s School

 

It’s Grandparent’s Day at St. Matthew’s. But we have more than Grandparents here. Some of you have significant friends. For some of you, your grandparents couldn’t come. They may live far away. So let my talk be not so much about the importance of grandparents, but about the place of elders in our lives.

I want to begin with a truth that may be hard for many of you to grasp. So put your minds to work, because this is a kind of math test for those of you who are in our school. People you think are old don’t always think they are old. Let me say that again.

People you think are old don’t always think they are old.

You see I’m 71 years old. And I always thought when I was a little kid that was old. And now that I’m 71 I don’t feel old. I’m not a young kid, but I have so much life in me and so much to live for.

I also dislike the word “retired” because it has the word “tired” in it. And I’m not tired.

Now the scripture I chose is a passage from the Second letter to the Disciple Timothy that is ascribed to the hand of St. Paul. It begins,

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, for the sake of the promise of life that is in Christ Jesus,

To Timothy, my beloved child: Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.

Now I have to tell you, Timothy, isn’t a child. But Paul was his elder. His senior. And there is a real sense that no matter how old you get, your Mom and Dad, will still think of you as their child. And you’ll still be grandchildren, all your life, to those who are your grandparents.

The other part of this reading that matters is this:

I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you.

So the faith wasn’t something Timothy found on his own but it was a gift. It had been passed on going back to his grandmother Eunice and then he received it from his mother Lois.

Faith as a gift? Aren’t gifts always wrapped up as a present? With wrapping paper, ribbons, and a special card?

Well often they are, but there are other kinds of gifts. The gift of being born in this country or becoming a citizen. The gift of your heritage. Maybe it’s that you’re Irish, or Hispanic, or from South Africa, or maybe even that I get to live in Minnesota with its four seasons.

There are other kinds of gifts. Like a friend you make and keep for a long time. That’s a gift. Or the opportunity to learn something new that’s a gift.

And yes faith is a gift. Let me tell you a story.

I was brought up as a small child in a church where the sermons were long and the choir anthems were almost as long. It wasn’t a kid-friendly church. As I grew a littler older we went less and then my Dad started traveling for work. More Sundays we stayed at home, but when I was fifteen my Dad came home from a business trip and told my Mom he’d fallen in love with the Episcopal Church. They started to attend an Episcopal church nearby, and one Sunday they invited me to attend. I wasn’t forced to go. So I went.

There was this Episcopal priest dressed in a long back robe and he had on a white thing. It learned it was called a surplus and the black robe was a cassock. Oh, it’s what I’m wearing. And he had a black thing around his neck. Like I do now, only I know it’s called a Tippet.

Then he said, “The Lord be with you.” And the people replied back then by say, “And with thy spirit.” And he said, “Let us pray.”

Lo and behold everyone knelt. I looked at my Dad and he was kneeling. I’d never seen my Dad kneel except when he worked in the garden or fixed a tire on the car. And I was the only one standing. And so I knelt. And was it ever uncomfortable at first.

But I was given a gift by watching my Father kneel in prayer. The faith that lived in my Grandmother Grace was given to her son Jack, who was my Dad, and there I was learning to pray on my knees next to my Dad.

I know some of you kids may tell your folks you don’t want to come to church on Sunday, because you come here during the week, but I want to tell you that they have a faith, or I hope they do that they want to share with you. They are not here to pray with you here this week. So when they say let’s go to church, they are really saying I have a gift to give you.

I want to add something else in my message to our students. When you look up to us as parents and grandparents, and as elders, you may be tempted to think we’ve got all the answers to life and living all figured out, but that’s never the case. What we do have are stories of being challenged; we have faced some hard times; we’ve known defeat; we’ve lost our way and needed the help of others at times. And we’ve got some great stories about all those challenges.

And to my fellow elders here; we need to claim a role that many of us neglect. It’s what James Hillman called Grand Parenting. Grand parenting because we can imagine a better world that these children are to inherit. In addition to the trials and struggles of life that we’ve lived, we’ve seen beauty; we’ve seen miracles; and we’ve had intimations of true love. We also have perspective, that which is called experience, and that becomes a grounding for making decisions, and for maintaining hope, when hope seems even like a lost cause.

Here’s a quote from Hillman’s book The Force of Character

“Grandmothers and grandfathers maintain rituals and traditions, possess a hoard of primal stories, teach the young, and nurture the memory of the ancestral spirits who guard the community. “

Hillman continued this passage as if turning to address their grandchildren:

“Grandparents listen to dreams, and tell you what a new word means; they can tie a fly, bait a hook, and know where the best place is. They live among odd objects, which they cherish, and smells unforgettable. They have little time left, yet so much time to spare.

Little time left yet so much time to spare. Think about the busy parents these kids have. And we, we have the time. And the memories. The stories. The dreams. And we know how to bait a hook, and where you might even have the best chance of catching a fish.

And we have advice to give. I heard my grandfather says, “When things get tough then the tough get going.” But then there was my grandmother’s lap, when I didn’t feel so tough and she would just hold me close.

And some of us elders, grandparents and special friends, know how to kneel. How to come before God as a friend. That the faith we have is what Deitrich Bonhoeffer called our willfulness that crawls into the lap of a trustworthy God. That it is good—that it is good to be here where you can thank God for the faith that was in your grandmother, or maybe you grandfather. And what passed on to them to your Father or Mother, and now is in you. In you to be passed on.

Amen

 

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