Friday, May 11, 2007

Love in Action

4th Sunday of Easter, 2007
Acts 9:36-43; Revelation 7:9 – 17; John 10: 22-33, Psalm 23

The 23rd Psalm is not long. But it is entirely memorable and beloved because it goes so directly and beautifully to the heart of our most intimate longings. It gives voice to our deep desire to be protected and cared for by someone who truly knows us, and who is entirely trustworthy. It speaks to our desire to have a Guide who knows our worries and our fears. The 23rd Psalm speaks the truth about our lives – that there are dark and frightening valleys in which it is easy to get lost. As much as we don’t like to talk about it, death and disease are always lurking about. They cannot be outwitted or outrun or, in the end, guarded against. They, like our shadows, are wed to us. They give meaning to the word mortal.

These past weeks have been awash in mortality. As we enter into the 5th year of war in Iraq, the numbers of dead and wounded are staggering. The shootings at Virginia Tech open up again the nightmares of Columbine, and random murder by troubled people in a nation in which it is devastatingly easy to purchase handguns and ammunition. I was one of probably thousands of parents of college students who have been relieved that their children are graduating in a couple of weeks – and the truth is, that in my heart of hearts, I have prayed for her safety – just let her make it through. This isn’t rational – but murder in safe settings isn’t rational. And that is, in fact, the essence of any kind of terror. It strikes at the heart of our desire and need for order and predictability. Incidents of these kinds have the potential to open the floodgates of our compassion for those mothers and fathers in war torn countries for whom it is dangerous simply to have their young adults leave the house at all.

Suffering has the capacity to link us to one another in ways that nothing else does. I don’t mean that suffering is good. It isn’t – and we are charged by our Lord to work towards relieving suffering and it’s causes. But suffering is real – and it’s one redemptive quality is it’s potential to increase com-passion – our feeling for some one other than ourselves or our own families and neighbors. When we are compassionate – when we feel with and for someone else – especially someone else to whom we are not related - we incarnate God’s love.

hat is what Dorcas did. When she died, the whole community grieved, and sent immediately for Peter to come and do whatever he could to make things better. Dorcas wasn’t an apostle. She wasn’t a preacher or theologian. She didn’t make her mark on the church by being a major donor or financing mission projects. There were no brave deeds recorded to her name. So how did she merit this entire story in the New Testament – at a time when already, women were being shoved to the background of recorded church life? Dorcas won converts and touched lives and probably influenced more people in Joppa than any one else. How?

"She took care of people. She made tunics and knitted afghans, baked cookies, held hands and visited people. She listened to the heartbreaks and joys of the people in the church in Joppa." *

If she’d been in the church near Virginia Tech, she wouldn’t have gone to campus with eloquent words and a large presence. She would have simply found out who needed what and made sure they got it. She would have done so quietly and simply, but effectively.

She certainly did this in Joppa, not only by herself, but by organizing her friends to help out too. Kind of like Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker, or Mother Teresa and the nuns. Dorcas put a human face to the love and compassion of Jesus. She was a good shepherd, seeking out the lost, the widowed, the lonely, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick - and the people, the poor especially, were devastated when she died. They stood by her deathbed, telling stories about her by passing around all the things she had made for them, telling all the good deeds she had done to make their lives easier.

Do you know anyone like that? I certainly do. And I’m not going to name names, because I don’t want to embarrass anyone with praise they weren’t expecting – but this church has the Dorcas spirit living within it. And praise God! Because, as Jon Walton, a pastor in New York City, puts it – “a church without men and women who are willing to follow the example of Dorcas is an impoverished church. The creeds may be recited perfectly, the arias perfectly performed on Easter morning, the prayers eloquently prayed week after week, the sermons well preached – but these are not enough unless the church also has a few gazelles taking care of others as Dorcas did: driving elderly members to church, sending cards to shut-ins on their birthdays, baking communion bread for Sunday morning and knitting blankets for orphaned infants in Iraq.” *

How did Dorcas become the hands and feet of Christ – the embodiment of a resurrected life and the symbol of self-giving love for the early church? My guess is that she knew for herself the grief of loneliness and loss and being marginalized. Remember that in her time, widows were at the bottom of the pile – the ones with no one to look after them, and very very little in the way of support. Dorcas found new life at the entrance to the tomb.

The truth is that the beginning of the intensely spiritual life is often at the entrance to the tomb. It is at those dead places in our lives, those places out of which we thought nothing good could come, that hope is found. You know those places. We all have them. The loss of a marriage. The loss of a child. The loss of a job. A severe illness. Intense loneliness. Places where our faith was inadequate, and our resources too few. Places where there was a lot of dark and not much light. Places we prefer not to visit or acknowledge. But these are the very places where we encounter the Risen Christ.

Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is familiar with the darkest valleys of life because he’s been there, and he does not leave any place we invite him into untouched or unhealed. Perhaps you are like me, and have found that when you do finally let go of insisting on having your own way, of trying to be good so you will be loved, of trying to create yourself in your own image, you find Jesus with hands outstretched to welcome you. Or more accurately, Jesus, the Good Shepherd, finds you. And then over time, with great care and patience and skill, He gives you your own life back, resurrected, transformed and full of meaning and joy.

Ultimately, this resurrected life is the kind of life where love is enacted – not only in words, but also in action. According to the writer of 1 John, it is love in action that pleases God. Love in action follows the example of the Good Shepherd. Love in action lays down our own lives, our own prejudices and preferences, for the good of the community, and for the good of each other. Love in action wants what is good for the whole more than what might make us personally most comfortable. This is the kind of life that has meaning and joy. This is sacramental life. It is the kind of life that springs from the baptismal font. Love in action is life that has entered into the tomb and been resurrected.

“No wonder death could no more lay claim on her than it could on Jesus!*”

* Jon Walton, Lutheran pastor, New York City

Heavenly Peace

2nd Sunday of Easter.

There is treasure in our pews! The real treasure of course is you. But the other treasure I’m referring to the prayer book. It’s true that for those of us who did not grow up in the Episcopal church, using this book in worship can be awkward and cumbersome. For those of you cradle Episcopalians, using this book in worship is second nature. But you have also lived through the battles that have been fought over this book – what prayers to include, what the shape of the liturgies will be, what theological orientation will shine through the brightest.

But beyond the consternation of change, and beyond the awkwardness of trying to balance the prayer book, the hymnal, and the bulletin, this book provides language for prayer that is as poetic as it is precise. This morning’s collect for the Second Sunday of Easter is a wonderful example:

We began with an address to the “Almighty and Everlasting God.” And so, in those few words, we proclaimed that the God to whom Jesus gave his whole self without any reservation is the Eternal One over whom the forces of death and destruction and despair cannot prevail. When Jesus carried the wounds of the entire world and all the fury evil could muster – and God raised him up to life again, it left an indelible mark upon this world: Love is the ultimate Reality. Love Reigns.

And so we began “Almighty and Everlasting God”, our own shorthand affirmation that as we give our lives, our time, our property, our resources into God’s keeping, when we follow the demands of Love, we are fully supported in the arms of real and lasting Power.

And we have plenty of Christian heroes and heroines who have proven this. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mother Teresa are two well-known people who stepped off the tried and true paths of security into God’s security and brought healing and courage into situations of danger and despair. But there are many Christians who have done so quietly, and their courage and conviction remain unknown. A Japanese woman whom my husband met many years ago, told him the story of going with her mother every Sunday morning to the perimeter of the camp where they were interred during WWII. She vividly remembers standing with her mother at the barbed wire fence, with guns bearing down on them. Every Sunday, her mother sang with joy: “This is my Father’s World, O let me ne’er forget. That though the wrong seems of’t so strong, God is the Ruler yet.” So, we too, on this 2nd Sunday of Easter, affirm that the God of Jesus Christ is Almighty and Everlasting. (Do I hear an Amen?)

The morning collect continues: “who in the Paschal mystery established the new covenant of reconciliation.”

The Paschal mystery is actually a scandal – it is the scandal that God allied God’s Almighty and Everlasting self with the poorest of the poor and died a criminal’s death, a defeated nobody in an occupied land – and continued to offer forgiveness and peace. Truth be told, this is as scandalous now as it was then. We inure ourselves to the reality of Jesus’ defeat and death and defeat through many repetitions of churchy phrases. We pretty it up with jeweled crosses. Regardless of what you thought about Mel Gibson’s film, the Passion of the Christ brought into modern consciousness again, the brutality of Rome’s occupation and executions, the nature of sacrifice, and the gratuitous violence which Jesus suffered. The Son of God suffered gratuitous violence similar to what the world’s poor suffer daily – torture, hunger, thirst, drawn guns and swords, loneliness and loss. So this is the Paschal mystery …. Christ emptied out on the cross in identification with wounded humanity. But that is not the whole of the mystery. The whole of the mystery is Easter: Christ raised up to glorious life, Christ drawing us in as full partners in this resurrection life.

Jesus drew the first disciples into resurrection life – into this new covenant of reconciliation. Three days after his crucifixion, Jesus’ disciples were scared out of their minds. Just having witnessed the bloody execution of their leader, they were crouched behind locked doors, quietly trying to fade into the woodwork. They were deeply shamed by the depth of their fear, deeply shamed that they had abandoned Jesus when he needed them most. They were still mired in jealousy and rivalry. There had always been rivalry between them: who was closest to Jesus, who would sit at his right hand, who would follow him to death. It is easy to imagine that the rivalry had turned to who was grieving the most. Who felt the worst. Who would be the leader now….

But after the resurrection, Jesus immediately headed back to this same sorry cowering group that had betrayed him, run away, given in, maybe come to blows with one another. He didn’t go find another group that might be easier to work with. A little more “spiritual”. A little less cantankerous. He didn’t even head back to this group to let them have it. To call them on the carpet with a lecture. He never said: “Don’t you get it yet. All this time with me. All my teaching. All my attention. And what is this with the locked doors, and especially what is it with not believing Mary Magdalene – who’s seen me, who’s talked with me, who’s told you the good news!”. I can easily imagine him getting fairly worked up in frustration with them. Can’t you?

Instead, he greeted them saying “Peace be with you.” He wasn’t ashamed to call them his friends. He hadn’t given up on them. From the other side of their betrayal and cowardice, he offered them peace.

And it wasn’t a mushy kind of peace. It wasn’t the cocktail party “hi, how are you,” kind of peace. This was the Peace that passes all understanding. This was the Peace that in St. Paul’s words to the Corinthians, “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (1 Cor. 13: 7)

This Peace made reconciliation among the disciples and Jesus and us possible - because it rested on the work of the cross and the resurrection. It did not rest on the disciple’s attempts to deny or forget or retaliate for those places and peoples and times where they had been wounded, or where they had inflicted harm. Reconciliation still rests on the work of the cross and the resurrection. It does not depend on our attempts to forget or retaliate for times where we have been wounded or deny where we have inflicted harm.

“Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” This is the Peace that God offers to you and to me and to the world. It is the Peace that the Resurrection makes possible. The Peace of God’s forgiveness. God’s friendship. God’s faithfulness to us. God’s renewal of all things.

As we are renewed and reborn into the fellowship of Christ’s Body may we be granted the grace to “show forth in our lives, what we profess by our faith."” (2nd Sunday Easter Collect) By the outstretched wounded hands of Jesus, we are offered the peace that passes all understanding. And we are commissioned to go out and offer this same peace to others.

The Peace of the Lord be always with you.

And the people say: And also with you.