Saturday, April 28, 2012

Who are the mourners?

I share these words with you as I leave the house of my neighbor who passed away this morning and preside at a funeral of another Church member. In Lament for a Son, Nicholas Wolterstorff writes:

"Blessed are the mourners; for they shall be comforted."

"Who then are the mourners? They are the ones who realize that in God's realm of peace there is no one blind and who ache whenever they see someone unseeing. They are the ones who realize that in God's realm there is no one hungry and who ache whenever they see someone starving. They are the ones who realize that in God's realm there is no one falsely accused and who ache whenever they see someone imprisoned unjustly. They are the ones who realize that in God's realm there is no one who fails to see God and who ache whenever they see someone unbelieving. They are the ones who realize that in God's realm there is no one who suffers oppression and who ache whenever they see someone beat down. They are the ones who realize that in God's realm there is no one without dignity and who ache whenever they see someone treated with indignity. There are the ones who realize that in God's realm of peace there is neither death nor tears and who ache whenever they see someone crying tears over death. The mourners are the aching visionaries. And Jesus blesses them; he hails them, he praises them; he salutes them. And he gives them promise of a new day.” 

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Psalms

I wrote this for our May Newsletter:

Methodists rarely cite John Calvin, but God promises to forgive us even when we do. Calvin writes, “It is my custom to call this book [the Psalms] An Anatomy of All the Parts of the Soul since there is not emotion anyone will experience whose image is not reflected in this mirror.” We recently began studying the book of Psalms during our Wednesday night Bible study.  I was quickly reminded of the import of the Psalms on my life and our life together.  Here’s a very brief summary on why the Psalms are important to me:

The Psalms are poetry, music, and prayer wrapped up and given to us to enjoy.  Have you ever wondered what to say to God?  Calvin notes that every human sentiment—praise, anger, love, fear, gratitude, grief, despair, and even vengeance—are included in our catalogue of Psalms. The Psalms are a roller coaster of emotions as we move from gratitude to lament to even cursing. Just like our own messy spiritual lives, the Psalms move from praise to desolation and back to praise. They give form to our spiritual lives and permission to bring our feelings to God no matter what hatred or rage springs up.

The Psalms are not merely individual prayers; they also unite the body of Christ. The Psalms give us words to pray over someone else’s shoulder and empathize with other’s emotions. If the Psalm is not your prayer, maybe it is somebody else’s. We may not be currently lamenting, but certainly someone in the world is at the end of his or her tether. We may not be angry, but someone might be angry with us. What would it be like to read a cursing Psalm from the point of view of a starving child? Kathleen Norris notes that she prays the Psalms alongside of the daily news and she finds herself examining and realigning her values and the values of our nation. The Psalms help us remember that Christianity is not just about ‘me and God.’

Finally, the Psalms are Jesus’ prayers. They were even the prayers he prayed as he hung on the cross. When we pray the Psalms we pray the very words spoken by God with Jesus Christ. We join in the prayer of Jesus Christ when we as individuals and a congregation pray the Psalms. This is why the Psalms have been called the “school of prayer.”

I invite you to come to our Bible study as we explore the Psalms if you are able.  At any rate, I urge you to spend some time going through the Psalms. Let these Psalms be your prayer, the prayers of your brothers and sisters, and the prayer of Jesus Christ. 

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Public Confession

“You can’t imagine how good it feels to get that off of my chest,” the old gentleman said as he stood up grinning from ear to ear. He continued, “I’ll never forget what happened, but I can finally let it go.”  The older gentleman had just spent the last hour confessing the burdens that were on his heart.  He was shaken up and wanted someone to remind him that it is Easter—Christ forgives and brings new life.

It’s a shame that public confession is not more common. There are plenty of Scriptural mandates—John 20:21-23 says, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you…If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Christ’s presence in our community, which is the body of Christ, allows all of us to perform the action of Jesus. Christ gave us the authority to forgive in his name.

We have an anti-Catholic bias which often assumes that humans cannot (or should not) forgive another in the name of Christ. Jesus gave us a free pass to call up God whenever we want and receive our forgiveness there. “I can forgive myself,” is what we say. “It’s redundant to receive forgiveness from another human being.” We can learn something from the Catholics who confess regularly to the priest. The problem is that self-confession can become an exercise where we grant ourselves forgiveness without really confessing at all; we go through the motions. There is no freedom in self-deception. Conversely, public confession breaks the circle of deception. The Catholics may have gotten it wrong by giving the priesthood a monopoly on the authority to forgive, but they do have something important to say about public confession.

Vulnerability is also a part of the problem. It’s difficult to confess to another human being, even if the person is your best friend. Confession is an assault on our pride. Bonhoeffer says, “Confession in the presence of a brother is the profoundest kind of humiliation. It hurts, it cuts a man down, it is a dreadful blow to pride” (Life Together 114). I’ll be the first to admit that I rarely confess to another, and I confess to my best friends when I do.  I also realized that I am missing out on something important when this older gentleman confessed his sins in front of this 26 year old. Our relationship received an authenticity that was not there before. 

 I learned that authentic community is rare without public confession and vulnerability. The community can be a sham without it—it’s as if we walk through the Church doors with food in our teeth, and we are unwilling to tell each other how ridiculous we look. As long as we do not confess to one another, we will remain prideful, desiring to rule over one another.  The barrier between you and me will remain until we can truly become vulnerable and admit our sin. Confession frees us to love truly and sincerely.

The older gentleman knew that he could go straight to God, but he chose to go to another Christian.  Public confession gives the community certainty of its forgiven existence in a way that self-forgiveness cannot. Sin seeks to claim the individual for itself but public confession reveals the sin, breaks the individual out of solitude, and reconciles the person to the community. In Life Together, Bonhoeffer says, “A man who confesses his sins in the presence of a brother knows that he is no longer alone with himself; he experiences the presence of God in the reality of the other person” (116). It was clear that this man no longer felt alone; he was made free and joyous.

It’s a privilege for all of us to receive the gift of public confession.  Confession is a “dreadful blow to our pride,” but it is the most freeing blow we will ever receive. We are made free for new life, authentic community, and true love.   

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

An Easter Sermon

A Paradise of Pleasure
John 20: 1-18

I am indebted to Norman Wirzba’s Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating.

I invite you to think back to the beginning of Genesis.  “And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed.” The early Church theologian, St. Jerome translated this verse as, “The Lord God planted a paradise of pleasure.”

We have so many images for our God.  Shepherd. Teacher. The Vine. Lover. Father. Potter. Redeemer.

I wonder if you ever heard God described as a gardener?  It is in fact one of the first biblical names for God.  “The Lord God planted a paradise of pleasure.”

Hear it again: God, the Gardener.

God, the Gardener. Today Jesus comes to us as a gardener in the Easter story. Let’s turn our attention to the story.

Mary is the central character of John’s resurrection story—besides Jesus, obviously.  Mary comes to the tomb twice in our story.  Her first visit is early in the morning, before anyone else is awake. The sun has not yet come up and it is still dark outside. John doesn’t tell us why she has come—maybe it is to anoint him with oil and spices.  To pay her respects.  She immediately realizes that the tombstone has been rolled aside, but she does not dare to step inside. Why would she? I mean she’s probably scared out of her mind.   So, she runs to grab the other disciples out of bed. It takes a woman to drag men out of bed, right? 

Peter and the other disciple run as fast as they can and check out the tomb. They see linen wrappings, but they find no body.  “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”  They go home to ponder what they have seen.

Then, Mary returns to the tomb a second time, after the disciples have gone on home. All she can do is sit at the tomb and weep; her heart is broken. At one point, Mary thought things could be different—but that was a long time ago. Things have changed. So she weeps. She wails.

Suddenly, a voice calls out, “Why are you weeping?”  Mary doesn’t recognize the man; in fact, she assumes the man to be a gardener.  It turns out that the gardener is Jesus Christ.

Is this a mistake? Is it a mistake that Mary thought Jesus was a gardener? Or, is it possible that Jesus has been a gardener all along?

Jesus never claims to be a gardener, but just think about all of the agricultural imagery he uses.  Remember the parable of the sower: The sower scatters seed and it meets with different types of treachery: birds, poor soil and the scorching sun, and thorns choked others. Some seed did fall on fertile soil and multiplied.  One of the most famous chapters of John—John 15—draws on extensive imagery of the vineyard. Jesus says, “I am the vine you are the branches, when a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit. Apart from me you can do nothing.”

Maybe Jesus is not mistaken to be a gardener.  Maybe Jesus has been gardening all along and we just did not recognize it. Maybe he was gardening when he announced that the kingdom of God had arrived. That he bent down to water plants when he healed the sick and fed the hungry.  That he was pruning vines when he sat down at the table with sinners.  Maybe he was even planting a seed for new life when he hung from the cross and proclaimed, “forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Is it possible that Jesus is our Gardening God who can’t leave creation alone? He will not abandon garden—he is always vigilant—watering, kneading, protecting, and enjoying that which he has created.

It makes perfect sense for Jesus to be a gardener. At the beginning of Creation, God created a garden. And somewhere along the way, God’s garden became infested. The soil is no longer fertile and cannot hold life. Slugs and parasites have infested the network.  Deer, rabbits and other rodents have come along and stripped the garden of its leafy substance.  We might call this garden sin.

But now, the story has come full swing.  God has entered the garden in the form of a human being. God could have stopped gardening and we all could have just died.  But God never took off his gloves; God never put down his shovel. God entered into the garden in Jesus Christ. Jesus came to recultivate the soil on earth and bring new life. He came to pull weeds, to prune, and to fertilize so that the earth might be transformed into a garden of delight once again. Yes, maybe Jesus is our gardening God and we did not recognize it until he approaches Mary who is weeping at the tomb.

But Mary does not weep anymore because our gardener has returned from the dead. I have seen the Lord! Mary discovered new purpose, new possibility. Disciples don't have to play by the old rules. In raising Jesus from the dead, God broke the bondage of evil.

The Lord God once planted a paradise of pleasure and now Jesus Christ has remade our world into a new garden of delight.  Our gardener rises from the dead and there is a beginning of a whole new garden.   We are set free for life! Set free to imagine the world in a whole new way. Disease may wilt, but it no longer has the final say. Death may come, but it will no longer reign.  Evil may sprout, but it too has been defeated. Satan is no longer the ruler of this garden, but Satan has been fenced out. This is the beginning of the end. Christ is risen!

One of my old professors, Norman Wirzba, says:
“The God we worship dwells among us as a gardener who holds the soil of our lives in his hands, showers it with rain and blesses it with fruit that gladdens our hearts and satisfies our stomachs. This gardening God never slumbers or sleeps, because there is simply too much to do and too much beauty, fragrance and good taste to enjoy.”

The hope of the resurrection is this: the garden is not where Jesus has died, but it is where Jesus lives. And Jesus still lives today—remaking our world into a paradise of pleasure.

 My parents had a garden when I was a very young boy. I was allowed to help them plant and harvest, but I also wanted a space that I could take care of all on my own.  My mom allowed me to plant a bunch of green beans in pots and place them inside their garden.  I vividly remember the day that my bean plants sprouted one green bean.  I held the bean plant up to my mother, full of pride.  I told my mom that I wanted to be a “seller of beans” when I grew up. 

In reality, I wanted to be a gardener. I still want to be a gardener.  I want to play a part in the mystery of life. I want to create, nourish, and cultivate creation. But I don’t want to just garden plants. I want to garden people and places, because when Jesus Christ arose from the dead, he created a paradise of pleasure. 

Today, let’s put on gardening gloves and be a part of the garden created by Jesus Christ. Let’s smell it and touch it. Let’s feel the new life.  A new garden has come and it tastes so good. Christ is risen! Alleluia! Amen.