Saturday, April 30, 2011

Easter Morning

A detail of Matthew’s account caught my attention this year: There was an earthquake at the tomb – an earthquake that caused the soldiers guarding the tomb to fall to the ground like dead men. An earthquake of sufficient magnitude to cause the huge boulder in front of the stone cave to roll. Can you imagine the noise and the shifting and rolling of the ground under the women’s feet? The heart stopping, adrenaline fear that would come upon any of us?

We Californians can imagine it. Most of us have been in one or more earthquakes – we fasten our water heaters to the wall, and we make sure that we don’t have books or heavy objects above our beds. And this year, the world, but especially the dear people of Japan are living with the horrific consequences of the recent earthquake and tsunami.

Earthquakes literally shift the ground – nothing is the same afterwards.

Matthew’s gospel is very physical. Jesus’ birth was announced by a new hydrogen exploding star in the sky, and his resurrection, this birth of humanity into an entirely new reality is announced by the plates of the earth bumping and grinding into one another, causing the ground beneath their feet to roll and part.

Whether Matthew’s account is metaphorical or actual doesn’t really matter does it? Either way, something tremendously shocking and fear producing and ground shifting happened.

And he doesn’t explain it. None of the gospel writers do. In Matthew, the ground shifting earthquake – the bright beings of golden light – and the message – go and tell. And when they run to do just that - they meet Jesus on the way. By this time, I imagine that they are so discombobulated that they accept seeing him, the one that they’ve just gone to wrap in spices, and just kind of nod.

They hear him tell them also - "Go and tell my brothers to meet me in Galilee."

We gathered here this past Thursday for a very intimate feeling evening, an evening of friendship, of receiving one another’s friendship through our gestures of word and touch, and then of receiving Jesus’ friendship through his gesture of offering his own body and blood to us through the common elements of bread and wine.

We gathered to hear him say to us, "you are no longer just my students. When you act out love and service towards one another, you are my friends."

That was on the eve of his death.

And now, through the grief and trauma of his death and the emptiness of his absence, at the grave, that dark hole in our hearts, something completely outside the laws of nature has happened. Something that shifts the ground so thoroughly that the pieces of the old order cannot be put back together again.

If you are skeptical about this – you’re in good company. None of the gospels record anyone saying – “Wow! I knew it! Just like he said! Hallelujah! Praise God! That’s the way I knew it was going to turn out!”

They record fear, confusion, bewilderment, disbelief, doubt, waiting to see, and running to go and tell. Tell what is not quite spelled out, but telling that something has happened. Something has happened, and the betrayal and denial and the perversion of justice and the sentence of death and the crucifixion of innocence and the burial of hope and love has gone into reverse. The Lord is alive. And you will see him.

Something has happened. The ground has unalterably shifted. Might in fact does not make right. He who dies with the most toys is not necessarily the winner. Despair at the wretched state of the world does not need to be your go to emotion. Peacemaking is not a lost cause. Rejoicing is not foolish. We can, in all sincerity, tell our children that hope and goodness and kindness and creativity and imagination and honesty and integrity, even when these might not get you the big tax breaks, will get you Life and Joy and an incredible group of Forever Friends. Christ is alive. Love wins, on earth as well as in heaven. No matter how bleak and crazy things look.

That’s what the women go and tell – and they initiate a long line of witnesses – go and tell, go and tell – on and on through the generations, on and on through the ages, until we arrive at you and me. The brothers and sisters and friends of Jesus, here, in this place and in this time.

The letter to the Colossians is working out some of what this means – we’re still working out what this means. What difference it makes. But one of the first things that the Christians figured out that it means is that we are entirely safe and secure. Our life is hidden with Christ in God. That’s very mystical and mysterious. And, like the resurrection, it isn’t meant to be picked apart for exactly how this is the case. It is like love and relationship. Can you honestly say how and why it is that you love your husband or wife or children or friends? The truth is, Love goes far beyond explanation. And so it is with our life that hidden with Christ, in God. What we can say for sure though, is that there is nothing on heaven or on earth, no suffering or mishap or economic dislocation or disaster, that can ever separate us from the Source of Life that continues coursing through our hearts for all of time and beyond.

The Acts of the Apostles is also working out what it means to be the community of Jesus, the intimate friends whom he calls his brothers and sisters. And one of the things that they discover it means is that we exist for the sake of the other. That we exist, not solely for our own comfort and joy, but to transform the world – to go and tell that God’s love and life are not just for a few, but for all.

There’s been an earthquake my friends – and the structures of empire and temple and war making and the entire machinery of death, as loud and as imperious and as threatening as it may look – is the old reality that has crumbled and continues to crumble under the weight of the boulder that has rolled away from the grave – that is crumbling in the midst of a new reality that is creating a garden right smack in the graveyard – a flowered cross – a new Eden – a community of friends that holds hands through time with the Risen Lord of Life himself, a community of friends whose life is hidden safely and securely in the very heart of God, and who exist here on earth for the sake of transformation and healing and witnessing – telling wherever and however we see new life arising.

The Lord be with you.
Let us pray.

"O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look favorably on your whole church, that wonderful and sacred mystery; by the effectual working of your providence, carry out in tranquility the plan of salvation; let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen." *

* Book of Common Prayer, 1979
Resource: Working Preacher

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Holding Up Half the Sky

“So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph.”

The story of Jacob and Joseph and this small plot of land is found in the Book of Genesis – This plot of land is now in the Palestinian city of Nablus in the West Bank. There is an Eastern Orthodox church built over the site of what has been known as “Jacob’s well” for millennia. The well was the center of village life – not just because of the water but because that’s where women gathered to catch up on the latest news and gossip. It was at the center of their social lives – it’s where they could find out how to relieve a fever, or how to please a husband, or how to get along with a difficult mother in law. And this all happened in the early morning or the evenings, when it was cool. Nobody came to the well at noon, the hottest, dustiest time of day. That’s when you’d want to be indoors, out of the heat.

“Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.)”

He was thirsty and she was lonely. Coming to the well at the time when she was guaranteed not to have to converse with other women, when her outsider-ness might be less noticeable, because there wasn’t any one there to notice her. Except Jesus and he “spoke to her. The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.)”

That's an understatement. Jewish and Samaritan religious leaders both taught that it was wrong to have any contact with the opposite group, and neither was to enter each other’s territories or even to speak to one another. Throughout the first half of the century that this gospel was written, there were violent clashes between Jews and Samaritans.

But there was Jesus, a thirsty Jewish man, and there was the woman, isolated and lonely. He took her seriously. He saw her and engaged her and did not talk down to her.

“Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”

Living water was not necessarily a spiritual term, it was used for any water that bubbled up from underground - a well or a spring – living water was the kind of water that kept replenishing itself, water that was ever new, ever fresh. So, “the woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?”

Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”

You know, this is the longest recorded conversation that Jesus has in any of the gospels. And it is with a woman. In Samaria. At the height of the day. It could hardly be more different than the story from last week – the story of Nicodemus, the ultimate religious insider, a Jew, in Jerusalem, who came to Jesus at night, and who could not wrap his head around Jesus’ image of new birth, spiritual birth, who could not see anything fresh and new with God’s eyes.

But, "the woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”
Unlike Nicodemus, this outsider woman trusted and moved ever deeper, ever further into that amazing conversation. And so did Jesus.

“Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. “

How many of you think that there is something sinful and loose and Elizabeth Taylor-like about this Samaritan woman – may Elizabeth rest in peace? The truth is, there is nothing of the sort in this story. Jesus sees and respects the reality of her life. Whether she was widowed, divorced or abandoned, the truth was, she had virtually no control over her life, or over who took her in. Her primary reality was sadness, grief, and loneliness, not immorality and sinfulness. I don’t know how many of you have read Nicholas Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn’s book Women Hold Up Half the Sky, but it is a book that opens your eyes to the sickening reality of ongoing world wide treatment of women and girls as commodities – to the economic devastation as well as the moral and psychological and spiritual devastation this oppression wreaks – AND it opens your eyes to the awesome and inspiring power of what the living water of hope and new identity can do in individual lives – that has far ranging ripple effects.

So Jesus, thirsty and tired as he is, saw this woman and respected her and opened his heart to her – and she did the same. She saw him. Seeing is central to John’s gospel. To see with the eyes of one’s heart is to be transformed, it is to be born again. And so, she assumed this new identity as someone worth seeing, and as someone worth having a conversation with and launched directly into the most pressing theological question that had separated her people from the Jews, which was.....

Where is the right place to worship? Gerazim, in the north, or Jerusalem, in the south. An argument that had been going on for centuries. To the Judeans in the south, the northerners were sinful. To the northerners, the Jews in the south were false followers of Moses.

Ah, Jesus said, let’s let all that go. That was then. This is now. “…the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain of Gerazim nor in Jerusalem. The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will know that God is spirit, and those who worship him worship in spirit and truth.”

The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” Jesus said to her, “I am, the one who is speaking to you.” I AM…. The one who is to come is here. I AM. Worship is not about a building or a place. It is about a relationship and a community and the person of Christ.

“Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city.” She dropped her burdens and her subservient identity and stepped into the new identity that Jesus has just offered her. She was now a witness. A Gospel story teller. An Evangelist.

“She said to the people, “Come and see….” Come and see, by the way, is exactly what Jesus told the disciples at the beginning of the gospel when they asked him where he was staying – “Come and see.” Come and See – we might want to begin using that phrase ourselves! Come and see how this church has touched and transformed me. Come and see how, working together, we are making a difference in the world. Come and see how Jesus will show up for you how he will make himself known to you – how it is to be seen and loved.

So, I wonder, as you come and see - where you are in this story? I wonder, if like Jesus, you are thirsty. I wonder if, like the Samaritans and the Jews, there are barriers that have existed for so long in your life that you no longer question them, and if, in Jesus’ company, you might risk crossing over into territory that has been alien to you. I wonder if there is loneliness and sadness in your life that you might let God see and speak to. I wonder if you need another drink of that living water that gushes up into new life. And I wonder if, like the woman dropping her jar, there is something you need to let drop so you too can step into your new identity as God’s beloved and trustworthy witness. I wonder if you will go and tell your story and invite someone else to come and see?