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Sunday, April 23, 2017

Invited Not Accused

Easter 2A; John 20:19-31; St. Paul’s, Smithfield, NC 4/232017
Jim Melnyk: “Invited, Not Accused”

The cartoon shows the disciple Thomas standing before two of his colleagues.  His arms are raised in dismay and a look of consternation is on his face.  “All I’m saying,” Thomas is exclaiming, “All I’m saying is we don’t call Peter ‘Denying Peter’ or Mark ‘Ran Away Naked Mark.’ Why should I be saddled with this title?”  One of his colleagues replies in perfect church-speak, “I see your point, Thomas, but really, it’s time to move on.”

The cartoon Thomas may have a point.  We still tell the story of Peter’s betrayal because face it, if we can point to Peter’s betrayal, our betrayals – both great and small – won’t seem quite as big.  But we don’t refer to him as, “Denying Peter.”   Not as many of us know about the tradition that it was the author of Mark who was seen fleeing the Garden – actually running out of his robes – on the night Jesus was betrayed.  But if you think about it, the story has survived to this day because if we can point to Mark fleeing Jesus on that terrible night, then the times we flee from our faith won’t feel quite so terrible.  But we don’t refer to the author of the oldest Gospel as, “Ran Away Naked Mark.”  Perhaps Peter and Mark get a break because we still have Judas to blame for the big betrayals – and somehow that keeps us from shedding too much of an inward light on our own souls and our own betrayals – both great and small.

But we hold tight to Thomas’ struggle, hearing about it every single Second Sunday of Easter, mostly because at least on some level we struggle with the resurrection – we too want to touch the nail prints in Jesus’ hands, and see where the spear was thrust into his side.  I am convinced we hold these images of Thomas, who actually was one of the more faithful of disciples, because we need someone out there to give voice to our own doubts. 

If someone who walked the dusty roads of Galilee and Judea with Jesus can doubt, then certainly our doubts are understandable.  But we shouldn’t sell Thomas short – the risen Christ is as welcoming to Thomas as he is toward the others – twice proclaiming “peace” to them, and eventually even to Thomas, who is, according to Walter Brueggemann, “the voice of our own doubt” (Walter Brueggemann, Sojourners Online, Preaching the Word, 4/16/2017).  And so perhaps we do find some kind of comfort in one of the twelve giving voice to our own struggles – and he seemingly will bear the nickname for as long as we tell his story.

But jumping from last week’s resurrection story in Matthew to this week’s story from John highlights an interesting disconnect between the two Gospels.  On Easter Day, according to Matthew, the women who experience the resurrection are told to direct the disciples to Galilee – it is there, where it all began, that they will be reunited with Jesus.  Today, according to John, it’s as if the disciples never got the message – or if they did, refused to accept the word of the women – “Really, Mary, we doubt it!”  Jesus meets them in the upper room where they are hiding in fear.  What’s more, if we pay attention to the setting of our reading from Acts, we realize we are hearing part of Peter’s sermon given seven weeks later on the day of Pentecost – and they’re still all in Jerusalem – whatever happened to Galilee?  And why the differing accounts – all of which can cause us to have doubts?

Brueggemann suggests that the resurrection “shatters all of our [descriptive] categories and leaves us in awe. It is for this reason that the earliest church had to tell the story in many [differing ways], because none of the stories seemed fully adequate” (ibid).  Matthew highlights Jesus’ ministry in Galilee – the place where it all began for them, while John seems to be addressing a community far enough removed from the actual resurrection that they’ve begun to wrestle with doubts, and John wants to find a way to put his listeners’ minds at ease.

What we do know is that the resurrection was so out of the box for those who followed Jesus that most of the feelings expressed range from confusion, to doubt, and to fear, as much as they – and perhaps before they ever – lead to amazement and joy.  And I imagine that range of emotions shown by the disciples is familiar to us.  That may well be one of the reasons why it’s such a challenge to live Easter 24/365 – 24 hours a day, 365 days a year – that may be why it’s such a challenge to live every day in the power of the resurrection, as resurrection people,and the reasoning behind our Collect for the Day, praying that we “may show forth in our lives what we profess through our faith.” .

 Perhaps that’s why we are called to pay more attention to ways in which Jesus reveals himself to his friends rather than their many differing reactions.  Author Laurel Dykstra writes about the hope Jesus offers to a rag-tag group of confused and fearful followers: “When Jesus [appears] to his disciples [in John’s gospel], they [are] hiding upstairs in a locked room—the friends who knew him best, who had betrayed him, who had pretended they didn’t know him, who had run away when he was dying, who hid when he was arrested, who were frightened and ashamed. [Jesus appears] among them and [greets] them. He [doesn’t ask], ‘What happened?’ ‘Where were you?’ [He doesn’t say,] ‘You [messed] up.’ He [greets] them saying, ‘Peace’” (Laurel A. Dykstra, Sojourners Online, Preaching the Word, 4/16/2017).  Likewise, in Matthew’s first account of the resurrection, Jesus’ first words to the women outside the tomb are not challenges or recriminations, but rather he says to them, “Greetings! Do not be afraid” (Matthew 28:9-10).

“No matter who you are,” writes Dykstra, “no matter what [we’ve] done or think [we’ve] done, whoever [we] have betrayed or let down, no matter how far [we] have gone from God, from Jesus, Jesus doesn’t [ask us], ‘Where were you?’ [or say to us,] You [messed] up.’ Jesus greets [us] saying, ‘Peace.’ You are not accused, you are invited” (Dykstra). “Do not be afraid!”

That language of invitation and peace was driven home for me on Friday.  I came across several yard signs during my sabbath walk through my neighborhood.  The signs, one of which now resides in our yard at home, welcomes people to Raleigh in sixteen different languages.  The campaign behind the signs, which is now in Durham as well, is designed to create the important conversations we all need to have about immigration, deportation, refugees, and sanctuary in our communities, bringing to mind the commands in Leviticus to love our neighbor, and to love the alien who resides in our land, as we love ourselves.  As Easter people we are challenged to ask, “Who is my neighbor, and how welcoming am I toward them?” “How do we live as people who are not accused, but invited by God into new life?” and finally, “How willingly do we choose to live as Easter people in the midst of the hard questions of our faith and our day-to-day lives in this world?”

For Easter to make any sense in our lives today we must understand it to be more than a powerful event that took place nearly two thousand years ago, but rather as a reality which “spans the centuries and changes our lives today… The story of Easter doesn’t end on Easter Day 2017 any more than it ended when Jesus rose from the dead.  Instead,” as theologian Paula Gooder puts it, “the story reaches into the heart of our existence – challenging [us], transforming [us], and inspiring us afresh.  The season of Easter should remind us that [when we choose to follow Jesus – when we choose to follow the Christ of Easter –] our lives will never be the same” (Paula Gooder, Sojourners Online, Preaching the Word, 4/23/2017).

Sunday, April 16, 2017

The Gift of Hope

Easter Day Year A; Matthew 28:1-10; St. Paul’s, Smithfield 4/16/2017
Jim Melnyk “The Gift of Hope”

The story is told about "a famous monastery had fallen on hard times. Formerly its many buildings were filled with young monks, but now it was all but deserted. People no longer came there to be nourished by prayer, and only a handful of old monks shuffled through the cloisters serving God with heavy hearts.

On the edge of the monastery woods, an old rabbi had built a little hut. He would come there, from time to time, to fast and pray. No one ever spoke with him, but whenever he appeared, the word would be passed from monk to monk: 'The rabbi walks in the woods.' And, for as long as he was there, the monks would feel sustained by his prayerful presence.

One day the abbot decided to visit the rabbi and open his heavy heart to him.So, after the morning Eucharist, he set out through the woods. As he approached the hut, the abbot saw the rabbi standing in the doorway, as if he had been awaiting the abbot's arrival, his arms outstretched in welcome. They embraced like long-lost brothers. The two entered the hut where, in the middle of the room, stood a wooden table with the scriptures open on it.

They sat for a moment in the presence of the Book. Then the rabbi began to weep. The abbot could not contain himself. He covered his face with his hands and began to cry too. For the first time in his life, he cried his heart out. The two men sat there like lost children, filling the hut with their shared pain and tears. But soon the tears ceased and all was quiet.  The rabbi lifted his head. 'You and your brothers are serving God with heavy hearts,' he said. 'You have come to ask a teaching of me. I will give you a teaching, but you can repeat it only once. After that, no one must ever say it aloud again.'

The rabbi looked straight at the abbot and said, 'The Messiah is among you.' For a while, all was silent. The rabbi said, 'Now you must go.' The abbot left without a word and without ever looking back. The next morning, the abbot called his monks together in the chapter room. He told them he had received a teaching from the 'rabbi who walks in the woods' and that the teaching was never again to be spoken aloud. Then he looked at the group of assembled brothers and said, 'The rabbi said that one of us is the Messiah.'

The monks were startled by this saying. 'What could it mean?' they asked themselves. 'Is Brother John the Messiah? Or Brother Matthew or Brother Thomas? Am I the Messiah? What could all this mean?' They were all deeply puzzled by the rabbi's teaching, but no one ever mentioned it again.

As time went by, the monks began to treat one another with a new and very special reverence. A gentle, warm-hearted, concern began to grow among them which was hard to describe but easy to notice. They began to live with each other as people who had finally found the special something they were looking for, yet they prayed the Scriptures together as people who were always looking for something else.

When visitors came to the monastery they found themselves deeply moved by the life of these monks. Word spread, and before long people were coming from far and wide to be nourished by the prayer life of the monks and to experience the loving reverence in which they held each other. Soon, other young men were asking, once again, to become a part of the community, and the community grew and prospered.

In those days, the rabbi no longer walked in the woods. His hut had fallen into ruins. Yet somehow, the old monks who had taken his teaching to heart still felt sustained by his wise and prayerful presence” (The Rabbi’s Gift, William R. White, Stories For the Journey: A Sourcebook for Christian Storytellers).

The season of Lent, just passed, often serves to remind us how many times we serve God with heavy hearts – hard, petrified, lifeless, hearts.  In fact, sometimes our lives feel more like nightmares.  Jesus comes among us proclaiming himself to be Living Water because he understands how thirsty we can be.  He comes among us proclaiming himself to be Living Bread because he knows how much we hunger.  He comes as the Light of the World because we so often choose darkness.  As we said on the last Sunday in Lent, “Resurrection comes to despairing, dried-up people. The only hope we have is in a God who can breathe life into our dried-up lives. Beyond our despairing no and our optimistic yes comes the bone-rattling, air-stirring Spirit of new life” (Nancy Hastings Sehested).

Easter is a celebration of new hope – of new life – the dream of God jarring us awake from the nightmare of this world, and giving us the courage, the strength, and the desire to partner with God in this life-giving dream.  The rabbi’s gift to the monastery was the gift of hope – the Messiah is among you!  He lives!  He lives in you!  The rabbi’s gift is reminiscent of the Midrash I shared on the Fourth Sunday in Lent – the realization that before every human being there goes a legion of angels shouting out, “Make way!  Make way for the Image of God!”

Two Sundays ago I asked the questions, “What can it mean for us to live as if resurrection is real – unbound and unafraid?  How does that change the way we seek to live together in community – within the full wonder and diversity of the human race?  What are we willing to risk of our own lives knowing that the air-stirring Spirit of God is alive in us, and has the final say over death?”

Easter does not negate the reality of the cross.  It does not negate the reality of death, or fear, or sorrow, in this world or in our lives.  But with Easter God steps in and proclaims, be not afraid!  Death is not final.  The grave has no victory over us. 

“Go!” the risen Christ says to Mary Magdalene and to the other Mary.  “Go and tell the others what you have seen, and what you have heard, and send them forth to Galilee – there I will meet them.  Go!”  Proclaim the Good News that God is alive in this world!  Be not afraid!

It is into this Easter reality that we bring Abigail Lynn Eggleston to the waters of Holy Baptism.  She comes to the font bearing the image of the Divine as surely as every other human being who has ever walked this earth.  She comes to these sacred waters as a child of God and as our sister in Christ.  We will make promises on her behalf to help her live her life knowing the resurrection to be real – and continue to pray that she grows up with an inquiring and discerning heart – with the courage to will and to persevere as a follower of Jesus – and the spirit to know and to love God and God’s people.

Easter proclaims the now of resurrection life for Abby, for each of us, and for all the people of God.  Freedom, now!  Living water, now!  A new heart, now!  New life, now!  For all people – for all people – for all time!  Easter proclaims that the God who created us in love, and for love, still continues to woo us with words and deeds of love.  God in Christ suffers with us through love.  Dies with us in love. And raises us with Christ in love. 

Former Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold once wrote, “Jesus’ resurrection plays havoc with the known, the safe, the familiar, the predictable, and opens the way for what is real.  And what is real is the unbounded and death-defying love of God which overcomes all estrangement and division and overleaps the chasm between life and death.”

My friends, the Messiah is among us!  The risen Christ is among us and the Air-Stirring Spirit of the living God lives within us.  Alleluia!  Christ is risen!  The Lord is risen indeed.  Alleluia!

Friday, April 14, 2017

Why Is This Day Different?

Good Friday – St. Paul’s, Smithfield, NC April 14, 2017
Jim Melnyk: “Why is This Day Different From All Others?”

During the Passover Seder, the youngest child at the table asks those gathered, “Why is this night different from all other nights?”  The answer, of course, is that on that night – on every night of Passover – God leads the people of Israel from their bondage of slavery in Egypt into freedom.

As followers of Christ we may feel led to ask a similar question.  “Why is this day different from all other days?”  The answer: because on this day Jesus, the incarnate presence of God – Emmanuel – God with us – on this day Jesus – lovingly gives his life to call us back to freedom and life – to call us back into the heart of God.

Just as our Jewish sisters and brothers listen to the story of the Exodus at Passover, considering themselves to be participants in that ancient story, we listen to the story of Christ’s Passion on Good Friday, and consider ourselves to be active participants in that fate-full day. As we listen to the telling of John’s version of the story we are struck by the violence of crucifixion, and perhaps we are struck by the various roles people play in this horrible drama – harsh words and dismissive mindsets which accompany the so many violent actions surrounding the death of Jesus.

But it’s not the mind-numbing violence surrounding the death of Jesus that makes this story so important to our faith.  There is nothing remarkable about hate.  We see too much of it, don’t we?  Rather, it’s the willingness of Jesus – who sees clearly the handwriting on the wall well ahead of time – it’s the willingness of Jesus to stay true to his message of reconciliation, and the inclusivity of the kingdom of God, even in the face of betrayal and death, which strikes us as remarkable.  And make no mistake about it - regardless of how much John's Gospel seeks to be an apology for Rome - Pilate was by note a tyrannical ruler - the Judean leadership could not have made Pilate do something he wasn't fully willing to do.  The cross is Rome's doing.  The power of the story is the willingness of Jesus to submit to the might of Rome, to the puppetry of Herod, and to the duplicity of Caiaphas.  “No one has greater love than this,” Jesus tells his disciples, “to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13).  Ultimately, the power of Jesus’ gift is his willingness to give his own life as a way to bring a broken world to its senses.

We tell these stories time and time again and I think that every once in a while we need to stand back and ask, “Why do we keep telling them?  What do they mean for us after nearly 2,000 years of life and faith in this world?  Why are they such compelling stories for some of us – so compelling that we come here year after year to hear the same drama again and again – and yet seem to hold so little power or meaning for others?”  My guess is that for as many of us who are here today there are equally as many reasons this day holds meaning. 

For each of us, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus holds some particular significance – even if that significance is hidden from our hearts and minds at this moment in time. Still, there is something significant for us about this particular young man, Jesus, as he hangs dying – stretched out on the hard wood of a cross.  Somehow – across the vastness of time – somehow in the mystery of our faith and our own spiritual universes – this self-giving – this suffering – this death – holds meaning for each of us.  And this day, as we stand before the cross of Jesus – and perhaps even take a turn holding or carrying the cross before us – we bring something of ourselves – we bring something of our own hearts and souls – in an attempt to find a way to stand with Jesus, and to stand for Jesus, in our own day. 

We come, possibly, to find meaning in one person’s willingness to give everything in an attempt to show us – in an attempt to make real for us – the power of God’s love.  Perhaps we come hoping to find meaning for our own suffering – our own sense of feeling lost and alone – hoping that this one selfless act by Jesus will give us a clue.

But in our wrestling to make sense of the crucifixion, or the suffering in our own lives, let us never fall into the trap of thinking anyone’s suffering and death – even the death of Jesus – is God’s will for this world.  How can we ever believe that the God who brings all of creation to life – the God who somehow becomes incarnate in the life of Jesus – would demand that anyone’s life must be sacrificed, or that the shedding of blood is somehow pleasing in God’s sight?  Perhaps this once worked for those whose way of life was centered in warfare and bloodshed – who saw their God or gods as angry deities who were always in need of appeasement. 

In his book, The Heart of Christianity, Marcus Borg asks the question, “Was the cross God’s will?”  That’s a question I struggle with every time I recite Eucharistic Prayer “A” saying, “He stretched out his arms upon the cross and offered himself, in obedience to your will, a perfect sacrifice for the whole world” (BCP, 362, italics mine).   Borg’s answer is a resounding “No.” “It is never the will of God,” Borg writes, “that an innocent person be crucified.  Yet retrospectively,” he adds, “the community can affirm the providence of God in the events of Good Friday and Easter.”  The cruelty of the cross is human cruelty.  The will of God is reconciliation and love.  Jesus is obedient to the will of God’s love – and although it grieves him deeply, in the end he sees in the cross a way to finally get our attention.

Good Friday, in effect, is the political and religious leaders’ “no” to Jesus and all he proclaims – the means of consolidating power when threatened with its loss.  The crucifixion is the handiwork of systems set in place to keep the powerful in power and the weak on their knees. Pilate, Herod, and Caiaphas stand together – unlikely and unlovely allies – allies who stand against the One who preaches Good News to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed, and who binds up the brokenhearted (Luke 4, Isaiah 61). On Good Friday the authorities say “no” to Jesus, and perhaps that response was so predictable we are tempted to call it God’s will; because how could God’s will be bent to the will of this world?  But the cross is the act of human beings – the nightmare of this world standing in defiance of the dream of God.   

Easter will be God’s “Yes!” to the Good News proclaimed by Jesus; and come Sunday we will find ourselves standing in the presence of love so great, that even the hard face of death cannot stay its course.  But for now, we stand with Jesus who says “no one takes my life from me, but I lay it down willingly.”  This is Jesus – “the heart of God made flesh” (Nouwen quoted by Borg).  This is Jesus – who is for us the revelation of God, and who shows us – who is – the human face of God.  This is Jesus, whose very death brings life.  This is Jesus, who even as he breathes his last breath proclaims, “God is…God is…God is!”  Amen.