Broken

Today is the feast day of Saint Mark the Evangelist.  Though it is frequently put in the same category as Luke and Matthew (the first three gospels are known as the “synoptic gospels” because they can be “seen together”), readers will notice that there is something a little strange and enormously compelling about the gospel according to Mark.  This strangeness is clearly evident in Mark’s account of Jesus’ baptism, which is part of the gospel lesson appointed for the day:

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.  (Mark 1:9-12)

ssc-battesimoMost of us are much more familiar with Matthew’s account of Jesus’ encounter with John, which is characterized by an almost byzantine politesse.  Jesus arrives on the banks of the Jordan, asking to be baptized.  John obsequiously responds, “No no, I couldn’t possibly!  You should be baptizing me!”  Jesus tells John that it must happen this way to fulfill all righteousness, so John relents.  As Jesus comes up out of the water, the clouds part and the skies open in a beatific vision as the Holy Spirit descends and a heavenly voice proclaims to the onlookers, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

The account we get in Mark’s gospel, on the other hand, is gritty, impolite, in-your-face, and downright violent.  There is none of the courtly posturing that we get in Matthew; Jesus simply shows up and gets baptized.  As far as we’re aware, there’s not even any communication between John and Jesus.  As Jesus comes up out of the water, the heavens are not opened, but violently torn apart; creation is invaded by the presence of God.  The Holy Spirit descends, not to provide a pretty picture that includes every person of the Trinity, but to drive Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan.  The most striking and unsettling aspect of this account is its violence.  In Mark’s gospel, God’s presence is made known in an almost destructive way.

Over the past week or so, many of us have been reeling from the devastation wrought by the bombings in Boston, the explosion in West, and the earthquake in China.  It’s been one of those weeks where many of us have wondered what could possibly come next.  And yet, even in the midst of this destruction and devastation, we have seen moments of compassion, heroism, and grace.  We have witnessed strangers comforting each other on the streets, first responders risking their lives to rescue those in danger, and people opening their homes and businesses to those without a place to lay their heads.  It is in images like these that we have borne witness to the presence of God even in the violence of the past week.  It is in images like these that we have had an opportunity to discern the Holy Spirit moving through a broken and desperate world.

broken-bread1As Christians, this should not surprise us.  Every time we gather to celebrate the Eucharist, we break the bread that we believe has become the body of Christ.  In those broken fragments of bread, we discern the presence of Holy Spirit, the promise that God loves this world even in its brokenness.  Perhaps this is why the gospel of Mark is so compelling.  Mark does not paint a rosy picture; he does not sugarcoat the world Jesus Christ came to save.  Instead, he points our world with all its brokenness, violence, and degradation, and promises that even this world with all its faults is loved by God.

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Expectations

On the third Monday of every April, the City of Boston commemorates the anniversary of the battles of Lexington and Concord, the first official skirmishes of the Revolutionary War.  Known as Patriot’s Day, this holiday is a day when state offices and schools are closed and everyone has the day off.  Patriot’s Day, however, is not like other Monday holidays.  Under normal circumstances, one might try to get out of town for a three-day weekend, but everyone who lives in Boston seems to want to be in Boston for Patriot’s Day.  It’s the day of the Boston Marathon, it’s the one day each year that the Red Sox play in the morning, it’s a day when people celebrate the end of a long winter and rejoice at the coming of spring.  During a time of the year when we might expect college students to be on edge because of exams and the pressures of looking for jobs, Patriot’s Day defies those expectations and offers a welcome break, an opportunity to take part in a citywide celebration of history, athletics, and community.

I admit that I was feeling a little wistful as I drove to clergy conference in Amarillo this past Monday.  I thought of my friends and family in Boston, wondering how they were celebrating Patriot’s Day, wondering how they were taking advantage of this unexpected break in the calendar.  So I was shocked when I saw a text message from my sister-in-law that said, “In case you’re seeing footage of the explosion at the marathon, I just want you to know we’re home and okay.”  I tried calling her, but the network was overwhelmed.  I called my wife, who narrated what she saw on television: two bombs had gone off at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, just steps away from Trinity Episcopal Church in Copley Square.  Three people were dead and scores of people were injured in the blast.  Hundreds of runners were separated from their families and supporters, uncertain what had happened.  An entire city was on edge, worried about the possibility of further attacks.  A day that is usually filled with joy and accomplishment had been blighted with grief and terror.  Two explosions brought untold carnage and shattered our expectations of a day generally filled with life.  It was a sad and scary day, a sad and scary week, a week in which we simply did not know what to expect next.

In our gospel reading for today, Jesus confounds the expectations of those listening to him.  One of the most important themes we find in John’s gospel is the question of identity.  Specifically, the religious authorities spend an extraordinary amount of effort trying to discover the identity of the Messiah, or the anointed one.  At the very beginning of the gospel, John the Baptist, the first charismatic religious leader who comes on the scene, is questioned by priests and Levites who ask him, “Who are you?”  John responds by saying, “I am not the Messiah.”  While it might seem that John evades the question, it demonstrates that the religious authorities were actively looking for the Messiah.  The religious authorities were looking for a spiritual leader who would drive out the Roman oppressors, punishing them and reestablishing home rule in Israel.  So when they encountered a charismatic guy who is attracting followers, their obvious question is, “Are you the guy we’ve been waiting for?”  When John says, “No” it is pretty clear that the priests and Levites are disappointed, because they ask him if he is Elijah or the prophet, one of the people who is going to herald the coming of the Messiah.  Once again, John disappoints them and tells them that he is the voice of the one crying in the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord.  While the religious authorities want to give John a particular title, he confounds their expectations and instead points to what he has been doing, preparing the way of the Lord.

In today’s reading, the religious authorities are once again trying to discover the identity of the Messiah, and their expectations are once again confounded. This time, their questioning is far less subtle.  John tells us that they gather around Jesus and say, “How long will you keep us in suspense?  If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”  It’s important for us to pay attention to the context of Jesus’ encounter with these religious authorities.  John’s gospel tells us that this conversation takes place at the Festival of the Dedication.  judas-maccabeus-jewish-patriot-leaderNow this festival is a commemoration of the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after the foreign king Antiochus Epiphanes defiled it by sacrificing a pig on the altar in the holy of holies.  This festival is a celebration of Israel’s spiritual identity, recalls the victory of Israel over a foreign power, and celebrates the leadership of Judas Maccabeus, a spiritual leader who defeated and expelled an occupying enemy.  The Jewish people still celebrate this festival, though it is now known as Chanukah.  The Festival of the Dedication is a remembrance of the most Messiah-like person Israel has ever known, someone who expelled foreign rulers and reestablished home rule in Israel.  John wants us to have this in mind as the religious authorities question Jesus.  When they ask him to tell them plainly if he is the Messiah, they have a very specific Messiah in mind, one like Judas Maccabeus, a spiritually and militarily powerful leader who will kick the Roman occupiers out of Israel.  The response of Jesus, therefore, is completely unexpected.  The religious leaders ask Jesus if he is the Messiah, the one they’ve been waiting for, the one who will restore Israel to its former glory.  Jesus responds by saying, “I’ve already told you, and you do not believe!”  But here’s the thing: as of this moment in John’s gospel, Jesus has neither confirmed nor denied that he is the Messiah.  Instead, he tells the crowd that his works, the things that he has been doing testify to his identity. 

Good_ShepherdJesus is telling his hearers that their messianic expectations are misguided.  He refuses to identify himself as the Messiah because the crowds are expecting a Messiah who is a military leader, someone who will crush Israel’s enemies underfoot.  Jesus disabuses them of this notion through his reluctance to claim the title of Messiah.  At the same time, Jesus makes it very clear that he is not a military leader, but a shepherd, one who knows and lovingly calls his sheep by name, one who, in the words of the Psalmist, is with his sheep even as they walk through the valley of the shadow of death, one who pursues his sheep no matter how far they stray from the flock.  It’s a stark comparison that confounds the expectations of those listening to Jesus.  They are expecting a Messiah that will wield a sword and wreak vengeance on Israel’s enemies, but Jesus offers them a shepherd who gently holds a staff and guides the lost sheep home.  Jesus Christ confounds our expectations and calls us to move us from vengeance and retribution to acceptance and forgiveness.

There is no question that this has been a rough week.  On Monday, we bore witness to the marathon bombings in Boston.  On Wednesday, we watched in horror as a fertilizer plant exploded in West, Texas, killing at least 12 people and injuring scores of others.  And on Friday, a whole city was locked down and a whole country held its breath as authorities cornered and apprehended a 19 year-old boy who allegedly committed a heinous crime.  And yet, even in the midst of this terror and tragedy, we saw people confounding our expectations.  Runners in Boston who had already run 26 miles ran to nearby hospitals in order to give blood.  Volunteer firefighters in Texas entered an inferno with little regard for their own lives in order to rescue survivors and extinguish the flames.  And volunteers at the Boston marathon, upon hearing two explosions, did not cower in fear but ran toward the blasts to see what they could do to help.  In the midst of terror and tragedy, the citizens of Boston and of West, Texas confounded our expectations and exhibited unparalleled bravery and sacrifice.  Even as the events of the last week shook our equilibrium, our communities came together as one. 

As we deal with aftermath of these events, we are left with many questions.  What possessed these two brothers who had lived in this country for years to terrorize the city where they came of age?  Were safety concerns at the fertilizer plant ignored in the lead up to Wednesday’s explosion?  And of course, what do we do with people responsible for these acts?  We may be tempted to stand with the religious authorities of Jesus’ day, clamoring for vengeance and retribution, expecting a Messiah who wields a sword.  We may feel that the person responsible for the Boston bombings has forfeited his right to live.  This may be a reasonable expectation.  But just like those who exhibited such bravery and sacrifice this week, we are called to confound the world’s expectations.  We are called to follow the example of Jesus the Good Shepherd, who pursues the lost sheep, puts him on his shoulders, and carries him home, no matter how far he as strayed.  I’m not suggesting that we do not seek to bring the people responsible for these acts to justice, but our goal cannot be retribution.  We are called to put away our desire for vengeance, recognizing that violence begets violence, and realizing that the Prince of Peace and Good Shepherd calls us to forgive.  This is not easy, but we affirm that Jesus himself walks with us on this journey through the valley of the shadow of death, accompanying us even when we feel utterly alone and incapable of mercy.  Even in the midst of tragedy and terror, we are called to trust in the Good Shepherd who knows all of us by name, even those who have rejected his love.  Even in the midst of tragedy and terror, we are called to trust in a Messiah who defies our expectations.

Nostalgia

Sermon on John 20:19-31 offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest on Sunday, April 7, 2013.

My favorite part of the house I grew up in is the second floor hallway.  The walls of this hallway are completely covered in photographs: ornately framed pictures of milestones like weddings, births, and baptisms from many generations and simply framed photographs of more mundane events like pool parties, Little League games, and dinners with old friends.  I think that my favorite photograph on the wall, however, is a grainy image of my great grandmother when she is in her late seventies.  In the photo she is wearing a carefully tailored dress with a subtle print and her silvery white hair is drawn into an elegant bun.  At the same time, the photo captures this tiny woman heaving a basketball at a backboard with all of her might.  In the picture, the ball is hovering a foot or so from her outstretched hands and she has a look of pure joy on her face.  I love this photograph because it shows a side of my great grandmother that I never knew.  By the time I was old enough to remember her, my great grandmother had had a stroke and could no longer talk very clearly.  During the final years of her life, she was essentially confined to a high-backed chair in her living room, having lost the youthful exuberance she exhibited that day she decided to shoot a basketball.  This photograph that hangs in my parents’ house, then, is a reminder of who my grandmother once was, a reminder of the exuberance and energy she once had, and it always makes me a little nostalgic.  It makes me want to go back to the way things were, back to a time when my great grandmother could talk coherently and move around and presumably play power forward for the Dallas Mavericks.  The thing is, this photograph makes me nostalgic for a person I didn’t really know.  It makes me nostalgic for a situation that might have been completely unique (after all, I don’t know of any other time that my great grandmother played basketball).  It makes me want to go back to a time that may never have existed.  This is the tricky thing about nostalgia; sometimes we want to go back to a past that we have completely imagined.

350px-Caravaggio_-_The_Incredulity_of_Saint_ThomasThis dynamic is at play in our gospel reading for today.  Generally, when we read this story from John’s gospel, we focus completely on Thomas.  We read it as a warrant for the bodily resurrection of Jesus, as a way to prove that Jesus rose from the dead.  We hold up Thomas as an example of either healthy curiosity or hardheaded skepticism.  We point out that Thomas has a change of heart when the resurrected Lord presents himself to the uncertain disciple: Thomas goes from saying “I won’t believe unless…” to “My Lord and my God.”  This is a perfectly appropriate way to approach this familiar story, but this interpretation ignores the vast majority of the people involved.  When Jesus first appears, he appears to the rest of the disciples.  It is what happens when Jesus appears to the rest of the disciples that is crucial for us as we strive to understand the meaning of Christ’s resurrection.

It’s important for us to remember where this story takes place in John’s gospel.  We always read this story of Jesus appearing to the disciples the week after Easter, and I think this deceives us into thinking that a significant period of time has elapsed since Peter and the other disciple discovered that the tomb was empty.  But this is the very same day.  Instead of going out and proclaiming that Jesus, who had been crucified, was no longer in the tomb, that he had been raised from the dead just as he promised, the disciples were hiding in the same room where they had met before Jesus had been betrayed.  They went back to where they started, because they weren’t sure what to do.  Naturally, they were frightened, and confused, and apprehensive; no doubt they had heard Mary Magdalene’s story of seeing the risen Jesus in the garden and they weren’t sure what to make of it.  In their haze of confusion and grief, they returned to that place where Jesus had explained everything, where he had had all the answers, and they locked the door.  The disciples did what so many of us do when faced with uncertainty; they returned to a familiar but imagined past, comforting themselves in the uneasy certainty of nostalgia.

John tells us that while the disciples were locked in their nostalgic fortress, Jesus appeared among them in the evening on the first day of the week.  Most translations don’t get this exactly right; in Greek, “on the first day of the week” is actually “on the eighth day.”  Now we all know that according to Genesis, God created the world in seven days, and so seven days is the normal pattern of creation.  The way that Jewish calendar was structured was based on a seven day cycle, which is why our calendar is based on a seven day cycle; when we get to seven we go right back to one.  But John signals to us that something entirely new has happened on this day, on this eighth day when Jesus Christ rose from the dead.  When John uses this phrase, we get the sense that there is something brand new and unprecedented happening, that a new creation has been inaugurated by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  On the eighth day, Jesus shows up among the disciples, who are clinging to what they had known before, who are holding fast to their understanding of the old creation with its uncertainty and violence and degradation and Jesus informs them that all of that is passing away by saying, “Peace be with you.”  This is not the mere absence of conflict; this is a deep and abiding peace, a peace that the world cannot give, a peace that passes understanding, a peace that proclaims the reality of the resurrection and transforms the world.  Jesus then sends his disciples.  The resurrection is not a private event that is to be shared only among Jesus’ closest associates; it is meant to change the world.  The presence of Jesus among his disciples informs them that the old ways of doing things are passing away and that a new creation is coming into being.  Jesus sends his disciples out into the world so that they can live new lives of transformation and change the world in the shadow of the resurrection.

And yet a week later, a week after the eighth day, a week after the disciples had been given that peace which the world cannot give, a week after Jesus had commissioned them, a week after the resurrection, they’re back where they started, back in the upper room with the door locked.  Were they not listening?  Were they not paying attention?  The resurrection of Jesus meant that everything had changed and the disciples went along nostalgically pretending that nothing had changed at all.  They were in the same place doing the same things.  No wonder Thomas doubted!  The most important event in the history of the world had happened and the disciples acted as if it were business as usual.  They wanted to go back to the way things were and pretend that the world had not changed forever.  But Jesus returns, poised to commission the disciples, poised to send them out to proclaim the transformative power of the resurrection, no matter how long it took.  Jesus returns to shake them from their nostalgic devotion to the past and remind them that God has done and is doing a new thing through the resurrection.

We have just concluded that season of self-denial and fasting known as Lent.  And let me tell you, there are few things that the Episcopal Church does better than Lent.  We’ve got incredible liturgies, engaging educational programs, and glorious music.  We all work a little harder, sit up a little straighter, and pray a little longer.  We expend so much energy working on our personal holiness that by the time Easter rolls around, we are all completely exhausted.  After the marathon that is Holy Week, the most that some of us can do is say, “The Lord is risen indeed” and then take a long eighth day nap.  Gradually, we go back to the way things were before Lent: we spend less time in prayer, we are less focused on how we use our time, and we once again neglect our relationship with God.  In some ways this is understandable; it’s difficult to maintain Lenten intensity 365 days a year.  And yet, it’s important for us to remember that all the things we do during Lent, all of the prayer and discipline and intentionality are meant prepare us for something.  imagesEaster Day is not meant to be a finish line at the end of a marathon; it is meant to be a launch pad, an opportunity to do something completely new. After all, while Lent only has forty days, Easter has fifty!  The season of Easter is meant to be a time when we proclaim the resurrection with our whole beings, when we live transformed lives that are a part of the new creation that God inaugurated on the eighth day.  And so during this season of transformation and resurrection, I invite you to discern how you might live this resurrection life and how you might make the resurrection known to others.  Can you volunteer to drive for Meals on Wheels or to cook for Breakfast on Beech Street or to be a mentor to a local student in need of guidance?  Can you visit an elderly relative in their home or call your mother every day or write a note to a friend you haven’t seen in a long time?  Can you think of ways that we as a church community can make the new creation a reality right here in Abilene?  We must not be tempted to return to those familiar and nostalgic places, to those upper rooms in our lives where we can lock the door against a changing world; we must be willing to live lives transformed by the resurrection, and we must obey Christ’s call to proclaim that God has brought about a new creation in Jesus Christ.