April 16, 2017, Easter

Thank you for coming today. Thank you for your presence not only today, but also in our shared life through these years that I have been with you. On days like this, I am especially thankful for your presence and good will, the effort of many volunteers, congregational leaders, and staff as, for sixteen Easters, we have shared together the ministry of this congregation in the heart of the city. Thank you for coming today and for our life together.


   The Lord is risen. It is Easter. Easter is the festival of new life, of renewal, of recovery after a cold winter, of resurrection of our spirits, of resuscitation of the hope in the human heart, of revival of our depleted strength, of regeneration after disintegration. Renewal, recovery, resurrection, resuscitation, revival, and regeneration: these are the themes of this day.

And each of us can recall a time when we have made that recovery, or turned that corner, picked ourselves up, resuscitated and revived our strength, and recharged and renewed our lives again: often in the face of difficult challenges and obstacles. Easter is about all of that renewal. And I hope in your life’s journey many times you experience this pattern of life through death, hope through despair.

And Easter is also the renewal of our earth, the growing warmth and light, the recovery from the winter’s cold, the recharging of the natural order as the northern hemisphere springs to life. It is springtime. The bunnies are active, the grass is growing, the browns are fading as the greens emerge, the warm rains water the earth, and soon the flowers of Pentecost will burst forth. This natural renewal regenerates our spirits and is an important part of this festival. And I hope in your life’s journey you have a full measure of nature’s spring time joys.


     But as important as recovery is, and as important as springtime is, there is something else about this day: something actually rather ragged and awkward, unsettling, and disturbing. For there is something to this Easter thing that is wild, chaotic, beyond our reasonable explanations, homogenized experience, and easily understood natural metaphors. Easter is not only about butterflies. It is also about earthquakes. Easter recalls the breaking of the bonds of death, a shattering of the forms that limit life, the sudden not gradual movement of God, just beyond our capacity to understand, into a fear inspiring new vision beyond the horizons we usually use to figure out where and who we are.

Easter is not only about the recoveries we make as we get back to a normal life and the wonderful Wisconsin spring. It speaks of a risen Christ, battered and broken, now standing before us and challenging us to rise up from that death dealing prepackaged existence we construct for ourselves out of the anxieties that define everyday life. Easter may start with recovery programs that pull life together and springtime flowers, but it never ends there. It moves into an awesome vision of the risen Christ calling us to a way of life beyond what we now know. Easter is a living corpse challenging any smug solutions to what we consider to be the important challenges built around our current preoccupations. Easter is a living corpse, standing before us, whispering in a voice at first so hard to hear, but clearly saying: there is something more to this whole God thing.

For us American Christians, who are so skilled at making our faith into the handmaiden who serves the bride we have made of our own viewpoints and lifestyles, this side of Easter is ragged and awkward and disturbing. But in the New Testament, the first reaction to Easter is fear. There is something more to this whole God thing. Sure, enjoy the sun. Solve your problems. But there is something more to life than making it through.


     We are most aware of this more when we, like Jesus and those first followers, are broken and battered; standing at the fresh graveside of someone we love. There the walls that confine our awareness are thinned by the sorrow that penetrates the usual layers of varnish we use to preserve our self understandings. When life’s boundaries are thinned by sorrow, the vision of the risen one seeps through to our souls. And we hear that whisper: there is something more. Of course we will suffer. Of course we will die. And then there is something more, something beyond our knowing or explaining or domesticating into convenient conceptions of heaven which are really only the extensions of our own desires. No, there is something more to this God thing.

Encountering this wild mystery, ragged and awkward, unsettling and disturbing, we are jolted into a new way to think and live. We are propelled by the strength of the quake into the delight of compassion, the excitement of promise, the wonder of hope, and the fullness of song. Enjoy the sun and solve your problems. But there is a disturbing more to Easter. In its whispering voice it shares its secret: that death and life are not two different things, but two different dimensions of a deeper thing we do not yet understand.

This deeper thing about life and death propels us into the current of a mighty stream, the great movement of all things in creation into their ultimate reunion with God. And we, with all our hopes and fears, are only a very small piece of that grand movement as life and death are revealed to be only different dimensions of the divine design of God. There is something more. And today, at this empty tomb, with the stones that keep things in their place all rolled back, we stand in the presence of the wild awe and mystery of the day. May God be with us as we encounter now this transforming Christ.


Reflection for Palm Sunday, April 9, 2017

Luke 19:28-40 or Matthew 21:1-11

Today we remember Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. In this procession we begin the last week of the life of Jesus. It is in some ways a strange story. The details raise some questions about what might have actually happened.      The procession begins on the outskirts of the city and moves to the center of Jerusalem. One wonders if Bethany or Bethphage is a gathering place or center for Jesus’ mission. Mary, Martha, and Lazarus live there. It is a place where Jesus goes with some frequency. Bethany perhaps was a base for the work of Jesus and his disciples. Today, a rather large crowd of followers gathers and moves with Jesus in this parade from the suburb to the center of the city.      We sense a mixture of humility and exaltation. The colt is a humble animal, in contrast to the great war horses of the day. The colt reminds us that Jesus comes to us still in humble ways. The humility of Jesus is echoed in the first reading, about a noble king riding on a donkey.

Still, for all the humility there is also exaltation in this demonstration. This is what the Messiah looks like! Palms are waived with hosannas. We have the songs and shouts of joy, the noisy rejoicing as in a royal procession, and coats laid down on the path. This is an attention-drawing parade. A festival of the street.      There is a conscripted offering. The colt is more or less borrowed from its owner. One wonders how the owner felt about this entire thing, but perhaps he or she is a willing supporter of Jesus from the Bethany village.      The position of this story is ominous. The intense hostility between Jesus and the religious leaders intensifies. Jesus has become more critical of the organized religious apparatus and its attendants, the priests and scribes. In these chapters he tells pointed parables calling into question the values and motives of religious leaders. As he shifts from his earlier work in the north in Galilee to the south, near Jerusalem, the argument and hostility with the authorities sharpens.      With this processional, the hostility boils over. The parade itself ends in the temple court yard where Jesus violently overturns the tables of the money changers and challenges the authority of the sacrificial system controlled by the priests.    This demonstration highlights the conflict that often comes with calls to renew the faith of people, to deepen it, to transform it, to change it so that it becomes more in line with the will of God and less in line with the will of the current religious establishment, whatever that establishment is. That call to change will always be resisted by the forces invested in the past and the present. Futures do not come easily. Jesus proceeds to challenge the religious authorities of his people, and those authorities respond with condemnation and death.    All of this Palm Sunday material should give us cause to reflect on how our lives are proceeding or processing.      Palm Sunday gives us the question: what is our base of operation: our source of strength, our Bethany, from which we are able to launch the greater projects, processionals and projections of our lives? Some of us need to find our Bethany. Others need to return to our source of strength, recognizing it and valuing it. Still others need to get the parade going by moving out of our comfort zone into new areas of faith and life.      Palm Sunday gives us the question: what humble things around us need to be lifted up and exalted? It could be a simple piece of bread or a tiny cup of wine, the touch of a friend, the small word of encouragement, a humble act of service that needs to be lifted up. There may be a humble person or event or detail or an often overlooked piece of our lives that needs our special hosannas on this day.      Palm Sunday gives us the question: what humble offerings does God seek from us? Some of us hear in this story that the Lord has need of our colts and coats as well as our time for the processional of praise. There is a stewardship challenge here.      Palm Sunday gives us the question: how might we praise God? What is the cloth, the fabric of our lives which is offered to God for the pathway of praise? What are the emotional threads of our lives woven into the fabric pathway over which the divine passes? How do the treads of our personal and community history tie us to the praise of God?      Palm Sunday gives us the question: what song of praise is in throats? Are our hearts filled more with the grumbling of a reluctant faith? Are we ready to sing?      Palm Sunday gives us the question: what shall we wave in the air for all to see? When people look at our lives, what is waving in the wind for all to witness? Are the fronds of our faith moving at all? How might we waive our witness more effectively in a suspicious society that has substituted celebrity for greatness and positive spin for joyful praise?      Palm Sunday gives us the question: what about the conflicts in our lives? Are our struggles worthy of the effort? Do we struggle for the things that matter? Do we try to refine our faith, to grow, to become more deeply involved with God’s will for us? Do we live in such a way that we have a least a few good adversaries, friends with whom we differ about important things? Do we stand with the forces of the past or are we willing to embrace the future?      On Palm Sunday the story seems to raise some questions about what might have actually happened. It raises still more questions about our lives: about our source of strength, the humble things around us, the important conflicts facing us, the offerings God seeks from us, the fabric of our lives, how we praise God, and our willingness to stand for something greater.