Reflection for April 26, 2015

Acts 4:5-12, 1 John 3:16-24, John 10:11-18 

     These readings point us to love as a way of life: love’s healing power is in the reading from Acts; the love willing to sacrifice for the sake of others is in I John; and the love of the shepherding God in John 10.

I have wondered how we experience and live in such love. How is it that love grows in the human heart? And can we nurture that shepherding love: experiencing it from God, and sharing it with others? As St. John might say it, “How do we become the loving children of God?”

The loving children of God. Last week in children’s time, the theme was childhood. I asked the children of St. Johns what was the most important thing about being a child. Their four answers were significant. They described how we become the loving children of God, sensing we are loved and sharing compassion with others.

Last week Kelsey said that the most important thing about a child is that your parents, family and friends love you and that you are surrounded by people who care for you. This loving presence in childhood nurtures the human spirit and gives us the capacity all through life to both give and receive love, compassion, and grace.

Of course there are times when family life becomes difficult, or when the stresses of life together and its responsibilities seem more like a burden than a joy. And sometimes family life is shattered. But it is in, with, and under the presence of those who love us that we discover and come to know the love of God. As John once said: let us love one another.  The most important thing about a child is that your parents, family and/or friends love you: that you are embraced by people who care for you.

Last week Anika said that the most important thing about being a child was to remember that childhood does not last forever, so enjoy it while you are a child. Part of love is joy. And the secret of joy is living in, delighting in, and giving thanks for the time that we have, the present, the now. Enjoy life. It is too short to spend so much of it worrying or in anger or sorrow. Yes, there are many things that can weigh us down. But the childhood secret to loving happiness is finding ourselves focused on the present blessings we have rather than our failures or limits or fears. As the readings this morning tell us: we can live in this present joy because even though all things come to an end, we are cared for by a loving shepherd who will see us through it all.  Remember that childhood does not last forever, so enjoy it while you are a child.

Last week Truman said to remember that children heal. And children heal more quickly than adults.  Here Truman moves us into the miracle of healing that takes place in the human body and spirit. Yes we suffer illness, trauma, and profound loss. And yet we recover. We heal. We move on. Healing is the miracle of recovery and new life.

Now Truman noted that children heal quickly. And that is true. Those of us who are older know that it takes us longer to heal. But even in the later years the miracle of healing still takes place in many care facilities, until the time comes for that final healing.

I think what Truman was sharing is something we adults might call resilience. Children heal quickly. They are resilient. Resilience is that capacity to get up and get going again. In resilience we meet the loving God who gives us the strength to heal and go on. Remember that children heal. And children heal more quickly than adults.

And then finally last week Caden decided that he would “pass” on the question. He didn’t want to answer it. In childhood it is alright to pass. We don’t need do everything right, answer all the questions, solve all the problems. We can just let go a bit, letting others in the group help us along. We can pass. And as adults we can give ourselves permission not to have all the answers, not to solve all the problems, not to completely get everything right. And occasionally we need to pass and even pass on to others what needs to be accomplished.  For the love of God accepts us, holds us, and heals us, especially when we are not sure what to say. It’s alright. And being a child means accepting how all right we are.

We can pass. We heal quickly. We live in the now. We are surrounded by the ones who love us. That’s all there is to knowing the love of the shepherding God. And knowing that love, we are given the courage to share compassion and kindness with all those in need. Loved by the shepherd, we are given the courage to call for the love of all people whatever their circumstances.  We can pass. We heal quickly. We live in the now. We are surrounded by the ones and the One  who love us.


Reflection for April 19, 2015

Acts 3:12-19, 1 John 3:1-7, Luke 24:36b-48

Earth Day is this week. Stewardship of the earth has been a long standing Christian longing. This morning in honor of Earth Day, we are using the melodies from the Liturgy for the Care of the Earth by Dakota Road. We used this liturgy on Wednesday evenings in Lent two years ago, and we enjoyed the music and the words very much. That year we focused on care of the earth for our Lenten series.  For some of you the music in this morning’s liturgy is completely new. But for some here the music is familiar. The melodies and words are composed around the theme of earth keeping.

But the readings assigned for this morning are not really focused on Earth Day. There are many creation readings in the Bible, but this week’s readings are the usual ones for the third Sunday of the Easter season. Acts tells a post-resurrection story of the apostles healing. I John speaks to our identity as the children of God as the result of the resurrection. The reading from Luke is the appearance of Jesus to his disciples after the resurrection. These readings are about events after the resurrection of Jesus. They do not remind us of the order of creation and our stewardship of the environment.

But let’s dig more deeply into these readings. One theme they raise is the theme of physicality: how a thought, feeling or presence is manifested in the physical, or how that which is held inside needs to be physically expressed, or the material implications of spiritual realities. Physicality.

It’s been said that religion is not so much an idea or even an emotion, but an action. That saying might downplay the interior world too much. Emotions do play an important part in the life of faith. And so do ideas. But the saying reminds us that religion is what is practiced. What is practiced is a physical expression of the spiritual: worship and prayer and helping one’s neighbor in need. In these actions is found true faith. Religion is physically expressed through our actions and interactions with others.

And apparently the resurrection is also physically expressed. The resurrection of Jesus has physicality or physical reality. In Luke, the writer takes great pains to say that the resurrected Jesus is more than a ghost. Jesus is more concrete than a ghost. Yes, after the resurrection Jesus can suddenly and mysteriously appear and disappear. But Jesus is not only something seen and heard. He is touched in the reading. And he is touched in all of the gospels. Even more importantly, in Luke this Jesus is physical enough that he can eat fish. All of this points to Luke’s sense that the resurrection is something physical. It has physicality. It has physical implications.

The reading from Acts also lifts up the physicality of the resurrection. In Peter’s mind, the miracle of healing that has taken place is the physical outcome of faith in the resurrected Jesus. The physical miracle of healing is based on the faith that a crucified Jesus now lives. Resurrection results in the physical healing of the body. It has physicality.

Now in I John, as in most of the writings of John, there is ambivalence about the physical side of life and faith. Of all the material of the New Testament, the John material is the most ephemeral, the most abstract, the most intellectually complicated, and the most mystical. Concrete reality is not John’s strong suit, is always hard to pin down in John, and is sometimes even completely lost in complex theological arguments as everything becomes a metaphor.

And sometimes in John the pure and the true belongs to the spirit rather than the body. Flesh is weak. The physical is the source of sin. To be pure one must move beyond the physical world into a spiritual truth. And all of those tendencies are here in this passage.

And yet at the very same time, John points to a Jesus who is physically real, who experienced physical life, was a real human, and who was physically resurrected. And the purity John seeks is not only the movement away from carnal captivity into higher spirituality but also that same spirituality infiltrating our physical lives so that we don’t mess us the world around us.

And John reminds us of how difficult physicality can be, and the struggles involved with our physical nature. It is not always a blessing and something wonderful. Sometimes being physical can be painful or lead to a great deal of brokenness. Sometimes we face profound physical limitations. Sometimes the physical becomes violent. Sometimes the physical leads to vast destruction. Sometimes our material emphasis becomes so radical that we no longer are able to sense the spiritual.

But in the end, these readings point us to the physical nature of the resurrection, the physical nature of our life and faith, and God’s physical intentions. The remind us of the physical and material side of the faith and all the good and bad that involves.

So what about the physical side of our religion, the physical dimensions of our lives?  How are we doing physically? How are we caring for ourselves physically? What physical limitations or struggles or hardships are present for us? How do we express our faith and our compassion in concrete acts of kindness? How do we physically express our love to our friends, families, and partners?

And how do we care for our physical surroundings, our environment, and our planet? For this world is the physical expression of our creator God. It is the physical firma upon which and in which we are grounded. And we are called to physically care for that which physically supports us. Even as we recognize the brokenness that scars the beauty of this earth and its skies. Even as we recognize the struggles of other creatures that come from our own willful ways.  Physicality reminds us that we, the children of the resurrection, are called to care for the earth, to keep it, to hold it, to treasure it because it is our material home, given to us as the sustaining expression of a loving God.


Reflection for April 12, 2015

Acts 4:32-35, 1 John 1:1-2:2, John 20:19-31  

I’m not sure what you think Easter was. It may be that for most of us it is a wonderful spring holiday when we rejoice with music and prayer: a time when our hearts filled again with hope as we celebrate with family and friends. And all of that is good.

But in the readings today Easter is not so much a holiday. It is something that has outcomes or results. Things happen because of Easter. It changes things. Each reading points to a different outcome for Easter. The first reading points to the social and economic change implied by Easter. The second reading indicates how Easter changes religion. And the third reading speaks to how Easter has the power to break down locked doors and hearts and to change human relationships.

First to the economic consequences of Easter, and I’m not talking about how well jelly bean manufacturers do this time of year. The first reading describes life in the early church following Easter. Easter results in social and economic  change. People start to live together in a large household or commune or a series of communes. They give up on private property and share things in common. They create a way to care for those in need. It is clear that these communal Christians feel that sharing of resources is the most important economic principle for living. Sharing of resources is an important part of being a follower of Jesus. Human life is based not on acquisition or accumulation but on sharing. So the first implication of Easter is that we share our lives and our fortunes with one another.

It also appears that these first Christians were not so intent on changing the economic order in which they found themselves. As a commune they may have sold goods and services in the public market place. We do not know really how the communes related to the larger economic order. Still they would have called for the broadest possible sense of sharing and caring for those in need. Easter calls for the sharing of goods so that all might have a portion of the good things of this world. And those who call for compassion in our current economic order are grounded in this thing called Easter.

Second, Easter changes religion. In the second reading from I John, Easter has a new way to look at religion, indeed all religions. John is not at all shy about making generalizations. And the generalization for religion from Easter is this: at its core religion (whatever its stripe) must stand for light rather than darkness, must stand for reconciliation rather than hatred, must stand for forgiveness rather than retaliation. And for John that is especially true not only for Christians but for all religions.

Whenever our religious inclination gives rise to the darker forces of rejection and pain, to a sense of continued animosity, hatred, rejection, revenge, or retaliation; then it is wrong. And it is wrong regardless of who we are or the faith we practice because we all believe in the one great divine force that undergirds all things.  The bonds of death have been destroyed. That means we stand for forgiveness, compassion, good will, light, and fellowship.  Always.

And the third outcome of Easter is that it is that powerful enough to break down doors and hearts locked with fear and skepticism.  Caught up in our fears, we all too quickly assume that things cannot be changed, especially relationships frozen in place by fear and suspicion. But the Jesus of the resurrection walks through those doors until he get into the deep wounds of the human or heart  and we feel for ourselves with Jesus that healing and hope are possible as we dare to touch the deepest wounds.

Think about your worst relationship, your worst enemy. Easter says that somehow reconciliation even there is possible. Think about how in war we were consumed with hatred for the Japanese and the Germans and they for us. And look where we are now.  Easter’s reconciliation, forgiveness, and light is powerful enough to break down doors and hearts locked with fear and suspicion.  Even in our families. Even in the middle east.

Easter has an economy. Let’s share. It has a sociology. Let’s spend time together. It has a standard by which to judge religion: peace, reconciliation, forgiveness, acceptance. And it is powerful enough to change the human heart.


Reflection for Easter, April 5, 2015

Mark 16:1-8

It’s time for the Easter story from Mark. The Bible has four stories of the life of Jesus: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. This year we are reading the stories of Jesus from the book of Mark. That means we have the Easter story from Mark this morning: chapter sixteen.

But Mark really doesn’t do that much with the resurrection or with Easter. Mark is the earliest of the four gospels. It is in some ways the most primitive assembly of material on Jesus. In Matthew and Luke, Easter is a much bigger deal involving centurions with amazing insight, at least a couple of angels, a pensive Pontius Pilate, an earthquake, temple curtains being torn, angelic announcements, Jesus walking through doors, and a regrouping of the disciples on the road and in Galilee. In Matthew and Luke, it might be said that the resurrection is the culmination of the story of Jesus.

By the time John is written, the resurrection is not only the culmination of the story; it has become the culmination of the universe. In John several chapters come after the resurrection of Jesus to explain how this is God transforming the entire cosmos.  In John, Jesus’ resurrection announces the salvation of the universe.  In John, we read those beloved post-resurrection encounters of Jesus, Mary, and the disciples which still speak to the dawn of hope in intimacy and forgiveness as heaven itself is realigned toward compassion and grace.

But Mark doesn’t do all that much with the resurrection or Easter. Unlike the later stories, Mark’s resurrection is not even a particularly important theme in the overall account. Resurrection is mentioned only twice before this chapter, and other things are mentioned many more times, like, for example, the extensive healings of Jesus, or the end of the world, or John the Baptist, or the role of demons in life. Mark’s Easter has only eight verses. It’s a brief low-key account of women and an empty tomb. And then the story abruptly stops.

Mark does not have a fully developed or refined view of the resurrection. Here we read only a brief sketch of the event, a rough accounting that stresses only emptiness and fearfulness.

It’s as if Mark records a story he heard from someone else that the tomb of Jesus is empty, but is not yet sure what to make of it. So he does not really come to a conclusion about what this means.

It’s as if Mark is accepting the story he has heard, not wanting on the one hand to lose it, but on the other, not putting that much emphasis on it. He is just making sure that this part of the account does not get lost.

It’s recently been suggested that the last three chapters of Mark are stories preserved by women: stories from the anniversary narration of ancient Roman women who had formed, as ancient Roman women did, a funerary society to remember a dead person. Roman women would gather in a cemetery at the anniversary of the death of the beloved. They would cook and share a special meal together right there in the cemetery by the grave. At this ceremonial meal, the women would tell stories about the last days of the life of the beloved. They would recount the final struggle. And in these funerary societies, these women would sense how the one who died was not really dead but present with them, really present in their fellowship meal in the breaking of the bread.

Mark seems to be recounting this death anniversary story of the women’s funerary society of Jesus so that it will not be lost. Have you noticed how the stories of the last days of the life of Jesus seem to stand apart from the rest of Mark? Have you noticed how many women are mentioned in these particular chapters including these last eight verses? Have you noticed how the women in Mark are always more faithful than the men? Have you noticed how burial is mentioned so many times in the last three chapters?

It’s as if Mark is preserving the Jesus story of the women’s burial society, but he also seems tentative about it. Actually Mark does not seem to need a resurrection. Mark does not expound on a resurrection. He does not explain one. An empty tomb makes everyone afraid. And then the story ends: no cosmic implications, angelic hosts, magnificent music, deep dialogs, or encounters with the risen Christ. That comes with later telling. Here we have merely an empty tomb in which a young man says what may have been a line in the candlelit dramatic reenactment that preceded or followed the anniversary meal.

So, if this is the year of Mark, and we are really focused on Mark’s story, what could one say about the resurrection?

I think Mark’s resurrection may be important especially now, when full blown theological explanations with their other worldly assumptions now sound hollow and increasingly irrelevant. These days angels and earthquakes do not carry the freight they once did and may actually be excess baggage for many. Like Mark we want a faith that stresses helping those in need and which brings healing to this very broken ailing world. We face a lot of emptiness and fear.

Emptiness and fear. Even though the resurrection is hopeful for Mark, it’s also unsettling. Everybody in the story ends up not singing anthems but sensing something fearful. Empty graves always give rise to fear.

The very first stirrings, initial hunches, rumors of possibilities, and first inklings of hope always give rise to anxiety. It takes awhile before the flowers bloom. The first step in recovery, in renewal, in transformation, and new possibilities begins in a sense of emptiness and fear before anything else emerges. Mark 16 specifically speaks to this time of first stirrings, first inklings, initial hunches, and that moment when we sense something before we know or see it. Mark 16 speaks to that time when hope is first germinating in the empty fear in our hearts.

Someone who has been diagnosed with cancer, who feels the closeness of death, then encounters a young physician who outlines the possibilities for treatment. As the physician speaks, the patient (fully aware that death is still there) begins to sense that maybe there is some hope.

A woman whose husband has died for several weeks or months feels grief and sorrow and is not sure how she will build a future. And then suddenly, while she is still grieving, one morning she wakes up and there is a glimmer of hope as she smiles again for the first time in a long time and senses that she is getting better.

First stirrings are so important. I’ve been with you for many Easter’s now. I have witnessed the times when we have sensed what was just around the corner, or when a long awaited death is just about to take place releasing a person from pain, or when a new change is about to renew our lives. We know those times when we feel that something good is there, but we’d better not get our hopes up yet: those times when our hearts first stir, even though we know better.

Mark’s resurrection reminds us post-modern people to lean into that stirring, to listen carefully to our hunches and inklings. For in this time right at the dawn, God is close, and things happen. What is just on your horizon, too good to fully trust, but pointing you in a different direction?

Mark’s still-being-digested resurrection story reminds us that human hope and our lives of faith are works in progress. We don’t need a full blown understanding or explanation of God to be Christian. We can be fully Christian, living lives of compassion and joy no matter how incomplete or unorthodox or unformed we are. The rough edges of Mark 16 are not smoothed out, but preserved. They are part of the deal.

Mark may not have been able to explain it or even fully embrace it. But something happened. Women remembered. They told their stories. And Mark wrote them down. Something happened. It started like all hope does in emptiness and fear. Like so many things that matter so much, about all we can really say is that it happened and we’re still sorting out what it means as we listen to each other’s stories, break bread together at the edge of an open grave, and seek to live lives of healing and hope.