Saturday, April 28, 2012


On Fifth Sundays at Open Table, a member of our congregation plans an abbreviated service and shares a story from her or his own faith journey. Then we gather afterward for a relaxing potluck dinner.  In lieu of my weekly sermon, I'm posting the address I gave in Fairhope, AL, on Tuesday evening in support of those being injured by Alabama's House Bill 56.  I wish I could share the stories of those who attended this rally and gave voice to the specific ways their lives have been harmed by this bill.

Address delivered at Prayer Vigil for Immigrant Justice in Fairhope, AL, April 24, 2012

          Several months ago a minister wrote an editorial for the Mobile Press-Register criticizing other clergy in our state for—as he put it—trying to make the legal issue of immigration into a moral one.[i] I respectfully insist immigration is a moral issue. And being neither a legal, political, nor economic expert, I am speaking this evening from a moral/religious perspective.  I am calling on our state legislators to repeal House Bill 56 because fear and prejudice are its origins and its products.  I am calling for the repeal of fear and hatred.

            I’m a pastor. I’m no lawyer.  But I do know that not every law is just. I do know our country and state have at times made laws that favor some people over others.  Existing laws—like HB 56 or the extensive and complicated federal immigration laws—cannot be justified simply by saying “it’s the law.” If we unthinkingly play the “law and order” card, we imply that anyone questioning the fairness or effectiveness of a law is “soft on crime.” Which is to play upon peoples’ fears. 

            I’m a pastor.  I’m no economist.  I hear some folks claiming that noncitizens are taking jobs from citizens, using our resources, evading taxes. But others explain persuasively that immigrant workers are doing the jobs others in Alabama will not do, are creating new jobs, and are paying taxes. They say there’s a net economic benefit to having immigrants living and working in Alabama.  I haven’t done the math.  But I do know that in hard economic times, people often look for a scapegoat to blame for their woes.  Which is often done by blaming a minority group.  Which is to play upon peoples’ prejudices.

            I’m a pastor.  I’m no politician.  But I know that once upon a time in Alabama, Jim Crow laws made it legal to mistreat another person just because of his or her race.  Some politicians in our state, past and present, have pandered to racism in order to position themselves as the protectors of “our way of life.”

            I’m a pastor.  I’m no pollster, policy wonk, or rhetorician advising politicians on how to frame the immigration issue.  But I do know there are folks on both sides of the aisle who are paid to do just that.  According to an article titled “How the Right Made Racism Sound Fair—and Changed Immigration Politics”[ii] we learn: “In the decade since the September 11 attacks, there has been a steady increase in language that frames unauthorized immigrants as a criminal problem. References to ‘illegals,’ ‘illegal immigrants’ and their rhetorical variants now dominate the speech of both major political parties, as well as news media coverage of immigration.” 

            This trend was evident in a recently televised interview with a sponsor of HB 56 who spoke in seemingly coded language. For instance, the senator mentioned the “threat of terrorism” while discussing the immigration issue as if associating migrant workers in Alabama with the terrorists of 9/11. He speculated on the number of immigrants who might be violent criminals. He complained that “very large liberal groups” from “out of state” are opposing HB 56, which sounds similar to charges segregationists once used against “outside agitators.” And in this legislator’s assurance that Alabama is “taking the lead” in the nation’s headlines on immigration, I heard the echo of the old battle cry for states’ rights.[iii]  

            I’m a pastor.  I’m actually less concerned about laws that are on the books than about the laws written on our hearts (to use an image from Jeremiah 31:33).  

            I believe within the human heart is written a universal law of love, and it should be the source of all other laws. Of course we need objective, effective laws for protection and fairness. Specific to this topic, we need legal reforms to support a logically consistent and comprehensive and just policy regarding our national borders.

            But the public’s discourse and the politicos’ rhetoric on the topic of immigration in Alabama is charged with fear and prejudice. Where is compassion?  Where is faith? I want to believe our leaders are not using this issue to grandstand. I want to believe that HB 56 was founded upon a sincere if mistaken desire to protect Alabamians. I can appreciate that impulse. But an intention to defend some does not require that we offend others. We can fool ourselves into thinking we’re doing something out of love for those for whom we bear responsibility when in fact fear or ego may be the driving emotion—or we may act out of a selective love for a particular group of people, which is really prejudice, not love. Defense of my rights, property, safety, and freedom does not have to come at the expense of kindness to strangers, appreciation for difference, and compassion for the most vulnerable.

            I’m a preacher. I’m no political speaker.  So I remind you that Jesus said the greatest commandment, the most important law in his tradition, was love.  Jesus—who was not a legal citizen of the Roman Empire he inhabited, whose parents illegally crossed a border into Egypt to protect their child, who continually traveled as an adult into different territories, who was eventually executed as a criminal—this Jesus urged his followers to start from a place of love.  If we have made laws grounded in genuine love for all, everything else will follow. 

           Let’s repeal fear and prejudice!

           Que el amor de Dios sea con ustedes.

[i] Johnson, Rusty. “Morality vs. Immigration:  It is Not Un-Christian to Deport Illegal Trespassers” Mobile Press-Register (8 January 2012) 14A.
[ii] Thompson, Gabrielle. “How the Right Made Racist Rhetoric Sound Neutral and Shaped Immigration Politics” in ColorLines: News for Action (13 September 2011). .
[iii] Video Interview with Alabama Senator Scott Beason.  “Capitol Journal.” Alabama Public Television (13 April 2012)  (Begin at minute 22.).

Sunday, April 22, 2012

An Earthy Jesus for Earth Day

Text: Luke 24: 13-49         

          Improbably, a stranger entered and, as he broke the bread, his disciples knew Jesus was with them. 

          Improbably, I knew my father was with me. I was standing on the risers, a first-year college student flanked by the other robed members of Samford University’s A Cappella choir and facing a packed crowd in a faraway state. Other than my fellow choir members and our director, all others in that auditorium were strangers to me.  But shortly into a 90-minute concert, I realized my father was in the audience.  At the conclusion of a Bach chorale, I had heard plainly the not-particularly-distinctive and not-particularly-loud sound of my father clearing his throat. He was somewhere in that room even though I could not see him, even though I was unaware my parents knew the details of the choir’s touring schedule, even though I was hundreds of miles from home—but I knew in an instant he had traveled a great distance to hear the choir and see me for a few minutes after the concert.

          What a gift to recognize someone’s presence. 

          Last week we had our dog Lily shaved so she could shed her heavy coat and tolerate another summer in Mobile’s heat.   Her summer buzz cut had not been required when we lived in Ohio.  So it was only after moving here some summers back that we first saw her stripped of all her fluff and fur. The first time I picked up Lily from the groomer, I literally did not recognize her.  She’d been clipped and shaved into an entirely different species.  Even her personality seemed . . . shier, as if she were embarrassed by the new “do.”  But at supper time I caught sight of the old Lily again when I brought out her dinner bowl and she broke into her signature dinner dance of ecstasy.

          What a gift to recognize another.

          Raising a child during the era when missing children’s pictures—and their age-enhanced images—haunted our milk cartons, I sometimes wondered if I would recognize my own daughter years later if the worst thing imaginable happened.  Then I would recall my first moment with our newborn.  That initial glance had seemed as if I were seeing her for the millionth time.  If you had asked me moments before her birth to describe what she would look like, I could not have told you.  Ultrasound images back then looked as if they’d been made by a 2-year-old with an Etch-A-Sketch.  Gender testing during pregnancy hadn’t started. But as soon as Georgia and I locked eyes, I had the visceral sensation that I had always known our baby would be a girl and that she would look exactly as she appeared to me in that first meeting. “Yes,” I said to her in a silent glance. “I know you. I knew you would look exactly like this.  If there are a thousand babies in a thousand bassinets in the hospital nursery, I will find you. I will know you.”  Love in that moment felt like a jolt of recognition and, improbably, reconnection.

          What a gift to recognize another. 

          Sometimes while holding my husband’s hand, I think that I could be deaf and blind but still could find George among thousands of other people if I could just touch his hands.
          What a gift to know one another —through touch and sight and sound and taste and smell.  We were made to appreciate the particularity of each earthly being and thing.

          Blessed are we to have bodies to receive the sensory data that form personality, mental constructs, relationships, even spiritual experiences. The body and soul should not be pitted against one another. We are embodied beings. The unity of body, mind and spirit is at the heart of Christian theology—from the doctrine of creation to incarnation to resurrection.  To deny the holiness of the body is heresy; to disrespect or harm the body is to wound the Christ.
          Early Jesus followers were partly influenced by Greek philosophy that separated body from spirit and judged the soul to be good and the body evil.[i] Certain trajectories of Christianity ever since have been wary of the body. We think immediately of ascetics who deprived the body or of Victorian prudes who despised the body.  We admit that we today also demean this gift from God, using human bodies to sell products, neglecting our personal health, injuring planet earth for short-term profits, covering up sexual abuses through the auspices of the church itself. But Christianity’s roots in Judaism helped the early church and can help us affirm the sacredness of creation and resist naming healthy physicality as “evil.”  Salvation is not an escape from this world but a recognition of this world’s holiness and a commitment to its healing.  Jesus acknowledged that God’s kingdom was a unity of heaven and earth when he prayed: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  The only way we CAN glimpse the sacred is through the physical sensations of our experiences.  No wonder Barbara Brown Taylor lists “the practice of wearing skin” as a spiritual discipline.[ii]  We at Open Table include “embodied prayers” among our spiritual practices, praying not only with our minds and in words but also with our bodies through mindful breathing or walking or other physical actions or expressions. 

          Luke makes a big deal of Jesus’s bodily resurrection, maybe to affirm the sacredness of our physicality.  Spiritual transformation has physical manifestations.  An earthy Jesus is not offering us an escape route to some invisible realm in the clouds years hence; he offers a way to live as fully alive human beings here and now. 

          Luke’s story of Cleopas and his companion meeting Jesus on the road to Emmaus tells that we, like those early disciples, often don’t recognize Jesus as we journey through life (See v. 16 of today’s Gospel reading).  But Jesus is present.  In the words of the song we sang earlier, “There is one among us whom we do not know.  Host of highest heaven present here below.”[iii]  Jesus’s way of resurrection is present to us when a stranger walks beside us . . . when we, too, interpret our own life stories alongside other stories of faith (v. 27). . . when we break bread with strangers (vs. 30-31). . . when we feel our hearts burning within us (v. 32).  Jesus’s embodied spirituality engages us in relatedness and attentiveness. 

          Luke’s story continues as these two companions and Jesus meet up with the other disciples in Jerusalem.  Like the resurrected Jesus we read about last week in John’s Gospel, Luke’s Jesus speaks peace to frightened followers who need to touch his body.  But when they all still disbelieve (v. 40), this Jesus asks for something to eat and they offer him a piece of broiled fish.  What an odd detail!  “Hey, you got anything to eat?” seems like the last thing you’d expect in a holy moment. I guess you can’t blame him since he’s not eaten for three days! And after all, Luke’s Jesus was always eating, mainly with sinners.  Or he was feeding the hungry.  So once again we see that sharing food—and appreciating it—are spiritual practices for Jesus followers.  Shared meals connect body and spirit, strengthen community, and transgress social boundaries to usher in God’s liberating realm.  It is through table fellowship that we often have our best shot at experiencing the presence of Jesus.  It is when you and I share dinner with the mothers, fathers, and children of Family Promise—which we’ll do again a week from Monday—that I often feel God’s presence most powerfully.  It is in tasting life in all its flavors that we know sacredness.

          Since my favorite flavor of life is chocolate, I’ll share a modern Easter story, set in a little village in France, told cinematically in the movie Chocolat.  For those who’ve not seen the film, picture a town of upright but unhappy villagers under the control of a repressed mayor who oversees even the young priest’s sermons--just to make sure they contain enough condemnation.  Imagine a colorless wintery landscape overhung with gray, forbidding skies.  One day the voluptuous Vianne, wearing a scarlet cape, arrives with a young daughter and without a husband.  She opens a chocolate shop in town just as the 40 days of Lent begin.  The citizens, monitored by their fanatical mayor, at first avoid the tempting treats.  But gradually they succumb not only to Vianne’s confections but also to her warmth and vitality and indifference to propriety. The exotic chocolates begin to work their magic: reviving one marriage, imbuing an abused wife with courage to leave her marriage, reuniting an estranged mother and daughter. A festive dinner brings them all together one evening—as Vianne’s enemies plot her ruin.  You see, Vianne, a female Christ figure, has started consorting with those on the fringes of society--gypsies living on the edge of town--so suspicions intensify. On the last day of the Lenten austerity, the mayor breaks into her chocolate shop to destroy it.  But in the process he accidentally tastes the tiniest bit of chocolate.  And he’s hooked.  His long-denied appetite cannot be sated until he’s gorged himself into a chocaholic stupor.  On Easter morning he’s found asleep in the display window of the shop, an undignified heap smeared with the dark evidence of his excesses.  His stranglehold on the people has been broken. Life returns to the village with the signs of spring.

          That morning Father Henri’s homily at the Easter mass has, for the first time, escaped the mayor’s edit. The priest begins to find his own voice: “I'm not sure what the theme of my homily today ought to be. Do I want to speak of the miracle of Our Lord's divine transformation? Not really, no. I don't want to talk about His divinity. I'd rather talk about His humanity. I mean, you know, how He lived His life, here on Earth. His kindness, His tolerance... Listen, here's what I think. I think that we can't go around... measuring our goodness by what we don't do. By what we deny ourselves, what we resist, and who we exclude. I think... we've got to measure goodness by what we embrace, what we create... and who we include.”

          Has chocolate worked magic?  Or has Jesus been present in everyday earthiness and kindness and community? 

          An earthy Jesus who enjoys broiled fish—and probably confections from a French chocolate shop—invites us to be human.  Which means to love.  To be grateful.  To give up our need for control.  To be resurrected into the fullness of life. 

          Because we are human, of course, our bodies will sometimes betray us with appetites and urges that can be harmful.  With heartache and injury and illness that are painful.  With age and diminishment and decay.  That’s part of our humanness, too, as the Crucified One knew.  

          But we love and live as part of the larger life of the cosmic Christ.  Your one life is uniquely and fleetingly precious.  But it remains connected to the eternal life of God.  And even on this side of eternity, we can celebrate the goodness of earth, of flesh, of God who took on human flesh.

          Hear again the words of the hymn I sang earlier.  These lyrics by Brian Wren are not what you’d expect in church.  All the more reason to let them countermand the mayors of our world who deny the sacredness of earth and flesh:

Good is the flesh that the Word has become,
          Good is the birthing, the milk in the breast,
          Good is the feeding, caressing and rest,
          Good is the body for knowing the world,
Good is the flesh that the Word has become.

Good is the body for knowing the world,
          Sensing the sunlight, the tug of the ground,
          Feeling, perceiving, within and around,
          Good is the body, from cradle to grave,
Good is the flesh that the Word has become.

Good is the body, from cradle to grave,
          Growing and aging, arousing, impaired,
          Happy in clothing, or lovingly bared,
          Good is the pleasure of God in our flesh,
Good is the flesh that the Word has become.

Good is the pleasure of God in our flesh,
          Longing in all, as in Jesus, to dwell,
          Glad of embracing, and tasting, and smell,
          Good is the body, for good and for God,
Good is the flesh that the Word has become.

If you would affirm this goodness, say out loud with me “Amen".  Amen!

[i] Brown, Robert McAfee.  Spirituality and Liberation: Overcoming the Great Fallacy. Louisville: Westminster, 1988.  
[ii] Taylor, Barbara Brown.  “The Practice of Wearing Skin” in An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith.  New York: HarperCollins, 2009.
[iii] Bell, John. There Is One Among Us: Shorter Songs For Worship. Chicago: GIA Publications, 1999.  We are using this collection of diverse songs from the Iona Community as our primary songbook.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Reflections on Doubt and Belief

Text: John 20: 19-31

I offer three brief responses to the familiar story of “Doubting Thomas”:
I want to praise Thomas for doubting.
I want to probe the meaning of Thomas’s doubting.
I want to practice Thomas’s response to doubting.

First, I praise Thomas for doubting.  More than that, I praise him for being willing to express his doubts and not keep them to himself since, by expressing his doubts, he moved toward belief.  By telling his friends he had not experienced what they experienced and by insisting he needed to rely on his own experience, Thomas helps us value our unique sacred experiences.  Your experience of the Sacred is not mine and will not suffice for me.  And it does me no good to pretend I’ve felt what you've felt.  Often people don’t admit their doubts even to themselves, and that traps them into faked faith, which is no faith.  I want to praise Thomas for his authenticity.

Second, I want to probe the meaning of Thomas’s doubting. Since the opposite of doubt is belief, let’s recall Marcus Borg’s definition of belief as “setting one’s heart toward.” To believe in Jesus is to direct one’s life toward him.  Of course I affirm intellectual questioning that advances understandings. But belief is not so much about intellectually assenting to certain facts as it is heart-felt commitments to a way of living.
Lauren Winner explains, “On any given morning, I might not be able to list for you the facts I know about God.  But I can tell you what I wish to commit myself to, what I want for the foundation of my life, how I want to see.  When I stand with the faithful at [my church] and declare that 'we believe in one God’ . . . I am saying, ‘Let this be my scaffolding. Let this be the place I work, struggle, play, rest.   I commit myself to this.’”[i]
Perhaps Thomas’s doubt was a loss of vision, of heart, a feeling of discouragement and despair, a disappointment perhaps with Jesus or Jesus’s way.  I’m making a leap here, but I even wonder if Thomas had given up on Jesus’s way of peace.  After all, we can’t help noticing that Jesus gave three greetings of peace in this terse dialogue. “Peace be with you” could even be taken as a command to “be at peace.”  Put that repeated phrase together with Thomas’ absence from the group after Jesus’s violent death and then factor in the “honor culture” of the ancient Near East and I can imagine (yes, this is just in my imagination, not in the text) that Thomas had left the others to roam the back streets of Jerusalem,  to consort with the Zealots, and to consider possibilities for revenge and revolt.
However, one week earlier Jesus had breathed into the other disciples the Holy Spirit, and in that same breath Jesus commissioned them to forgive.  If they’d been aching for vengeance, the Spirit quelled that impulse.  Jesus had said to the others, If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20:23).  Some have used this verse to claim for themselves the authority to judge others.  But maybe Jesus is describing the simple reality that others cannot FEEL forgiven, cannot feel the effects of God’s forgiveness, if we do not live toward them as if they have really been forgiven.  The cycle of violence cannot end unless someone begins to forgive.  And we cannot let go of the burden of our mistakes until we sense forgiveness.  We must forgive people of the tiny slights and major offenses against us, real and imagined, so that others experience genuine forgiveness. Which is not “I forgive you and now I have a handy thing to hold over your head” forgiveness.  Not “I forgive you and now I feel superior.”  Not “I forgive. Sort of.” If the power of God’s forgiving spirit is going to be known in this world, it’s going to be known when human beings bestow real forgiveness on one another.  And if we do not--if we do not let one another off the hook--then we all suffer. 
This scripture suggests that the church’s Great Commission according to John’s Gospel is forgiveness.  As one writer has said, “The church is not in the morals enforcement business.  The world is in the morals business, and it has done a fine job of creating moral philosophy and moral codes and judicial systems.  But the church is in the forgiveness business.” Jesus breathed into us a spirit of forgiveness.  Which comes from the spirit of peace.  We refrain from getting even.  But we go one step further.  We reach out in kindness and forgiveness.  Maybe Thomas had been ready to give up on Jesus’ way.  But how can you see the wounds of Jesus, recall his ability to forgive from the cross, and not believe that forgiveness is possible and is, in fact, the only path to peace.

Finally, I want to practice Thomas’s response to doubts.  “My Lord and my God,” Thomas replies when he reconnects with Jesus.  Jesus let Thomas touch his woundedness and then Thomas could breathe in forgiveness, not retaliation. 

I want to move from my inevitable moments of doubt to reaffirm Jesus’s Way.  It can often seem impossible that vulnerable love will have the last word, that forgiveness is stronger than anger or bitterness or defensiveness or self-righteousness or fear.  Sometimes it seems I have the most trouble forgiving the people I love the most or the slights that are the least.  But when I look to Jesus . . . when I am able to do that, I find I can honor no other way but his.  “My Lord and my God,” I pray as I try, as I try by God's grace, to forgive. 

In this quiet moment, breathe your peaceful Spirit on us, Force of Love.  Call to our minds the people and situations we need to forgive.  We may even need to let you off the hook, O God.  Let us give up our needs for control to find harmony without and within.  Let us be at peace with you and with all your creatures.   Let us also resolve to WORK for peace with courageous hearts that believe and do not doubt that peace will one day reign.

[i] Winner, Lauren F.  Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis. New York: HarperOne, 2012  (p. 169)

Sunday, April 8, 2012

When We Are the Women

Text:  Mark 16: 1-8

from “Cancion” by Denise Levertov

. . . When I am a woman—O, when I am a woman,
my wells of salt brim and brim,
poems force the lock of my throat.

When we are the women at Easter’s empty tomb, when we imaginatively enter Mark’s resurrection story as if we were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome, we initially approach the day’s traditional rites with dutiful solemnity.  But when we are these women, O when we are the Easter women, old duties suddenly seem pointless, as pointless as anointing a dead body that can no longer be found, as senseless as anointing dead doctrines of Christianity with sweet smelling words.  Suddenly, new possibilities seize us with both “terror and amazement” (Mark 16:8). 

I invite you to enter the Easter story today in the spirit of these three women. I invite you to let resurrection dawn upon you both suddenly and slowly, until the poetry of Easter unlocks your throats. I invite you to consider what the women’s experience of the resurrection can teach us.

You would probably appreciate some background on Mary, Mary, and Salome, our avatars at the tomb, but the Gospels reveal little, tradition is inconsistent, and surely these characters serve a literary not literal function. Indeed, the four Gospels offer four different resurrection stories with four different casts of characters at the empty tomb. They can’t all be factually true. But we can be sure of the radically countercultural way Jesus respected and included women.  And before we make too much of the fact that the women fled at the end of Mark’s Gospel, remember Mark previously told us the male disciples had either betrayed, denied, or deserted Jesus while the women had stayed near the cross and had dared to anoint his body on the third day while the men hid. The women’s flight from the tomb was Mark’s way of signaling, in the final words of his story, that even the women ran away at the very end.

Let’s also bear in mind what these women witnessed earlier: the torture and death of the prophet, teacher, and beloved friend who’d brought them healing and hope.  In an atmosphere of betrayal and conspiracy, how could they trust or even make sense of the stranger’s message that the crucified Jesus would meet them later in Galilee? So they ran away. And they told no one.

Mark ends not with a triumphant proclamation that “He is risen!” but with fear and silence.

I emphasize that unsettling point because it is not how you THINK the story ends. Each Gospel presents a very different account of Jesus’s resurrection, and you might have subconsciously added some details to today’s reading that are not there.  Look back at the Gospel reading to see if your eyes and ears deceived you.  Did you notice that in the resurrection story which concludes the Gospel of Mark, the resurrected Jesus never appears? Mark’s readers glimpse an empty tomb and a man (not an angel, by the way) telling the women that Jesus is risen. But a post-resurrection Jesus does not appear to the women, does not allow the doubting Thomas to see the nail prints in his hands, does not ascend into heaven.  Look back at the final verses and keep in mind these are the final verses of Mark’s entire biography of Jesus, our oldest Gospel and the one Matthew and Luke took as their main source. Mark ends abruptly with the statement that the women fearfully keep the story to themselves, contrary to the messenger’s command. Mark ends with terror and silence. If Mark had been the only Gospel to survive, we would have only the secondhand testimony of an anonymous man who told the women Jesus had risen.  We would not know if the women believed this stranger. We would only know they had run away, and though the man in white told them to tell the others Jesus was alive, the book ends with the narrator’s statement that they did not. 

Well, Happy Easter.

Of course, if we had only Mark’s Gospel, we’d still recognize that someone at some point told something of this experience, else the Marcan community would not have passed along the story to us! But Mark’s version of the resurrection does not attest to any original disciple knowing and sharing the news that Jesus had been raised to new life. 

Yes, some versions of Mark do add another twelve verses to tidy things up a bit with appearances of Jesus to various people mentioned in Matthew, Luke, and John and well as his ascension to heaven.  But almost all scholars agree those twelve verses were added to Mark many years later in at least two stages, and the best translations omit them.  The oldest manuscripts do not contain verses 9-20.  Perhaps a conscientious scribe wanted to improve upon the story’s ending.  After all, maybe the final page was lost or maybe the writer dropped dead before writing the most important words of the Jesus story. We can forgive an overly zealous monk for wanting to correct an ending that hardly seemed to ring with Easter enthusiasm.

But in this case one or more copyists, eager to affirm the eternal Christ, likely added verses that, in effect, hindered future readers from recognizing Mark’s rhetorical methods. You see, some biblical scholars think the original ending is the culmination of a brilliant strategy Mark has been building up to all along. Over and over Mark shows us that the disciples do not understand Jesus’s mission.  Repeatedly, Jesus tells them NOT to tell anyone what they have seen and heard--though some tell anyway--because they still do not comprehend the meaning and methods of God’s reign.  They are not capable of transmitting the Good News yet.  However, after the crucifixion, the followers of Jesus can no longer insist that he will rule with power and might.  After the cruel cross, after the empty tomb, Jesus’s way of radical love is unmistakable. At last his followers can understand.  At last they are commissioned to tell the Good News.

And that is when, ironically, the most perceptive, even the women, flee in fear and confusion.  And there the story ends.

But we as the readers understand. Mark plays to the reader’s understanding in contrast with the original disciples’ lack of understanding.  Mark’s first readers already affirmed that Jesus was resurrected in the lives of their faith community.  Mark’s first readers were living through persecution and peril and were themselves beset by fear.  The rhetorical move that Mark makes is to invest them with the responsibility of carrying on the work of Jesus, to be the faithful ones in contrast with the first disciples. And 2000 years later, you and I also read of the women’s silence and resolve that we will carry forward the Good News.  We feel the responsibility for continuing the Way of Resurrection. We know that it’s now up to us.   

The young man inside the empty tomb says that Jesus the crucified has gone ahead of them to Galilee, that backwater district where he’d started his ministry.  “There you will see him, just as he told you,” says the stranger in white.

And there, in the continued work of healing and feeding and freeing folks caught in the domination system of the Empire, Jesus’s gradually comprehending followers did reunite with Jesus again.  The writer doesn’t have to fill in the blanks for us.  From this final chapter of Mark that instructs the disciples to meet up again with Jesus in Galilee, we readers circle back to Mark’s first chapter and recall where Mark’s story began, with Jesus calling the first disciples from their fishing nets along the Galilean shoreline.  You’ll see him there again, the strange messenger in white says, as you fish for people and rescue them from the waters of Empire.

Here are two things I understand about resurrection: it happens gradually and it happens in community.

It is no wonder that the resurrection took a symbolic three days. Realizations dawn slowly. Mary, Mary, and Salome could not perceive the resurrection of Jesus immediately.  But in the forty years between Jesus’s state execution and the writing of the Gospel of Mark, the Marcan community had time to make meaning together out of the beauty of Jesus’ life and the horror of his death and the continued real and transforming presence of his Spirit among them. Gradually and communally they created this story of what the vital, healing, transforming way of Jesus meant to them.

And this is why I suggested we become the women.  So that we realize the point of Mark’s seemingly unacceptable ending is that we not allow the story to end there.  We take up the women's role from there.     

Mark’s clever rhetorical choices make the readers into the sole possessors of the Gospel. Like the people who first read Mark’s Gospel, we should come away feeling that it’s up to us to carry on the mission of Jesus. We have heard the story.  The original actors in the story failed to some extent perhaps, but the story lives on as long as we tell it with our lives.
Sure, the story continues to get extended and reinterpreted and sometimes manipulated and mangled.  The beautiful story of Easter gets co-opted by Hallmark and Cadbury and politicians and preachers.  But even you and I get to “contribute a verse,” to borrow a phrase from Dead Poets Society.

However, if you are like the women, you need some time before the poetry unlocks your throat.  You need time, I need time, for the story to unfold in our hearts and lives. 

Like Mary and Mary and Salome, we react first with fear when we face something totally unexpected.  Even good news may sound threatening.  And we may flee. But when we DO go to Galilee and begin that healing work in the world, we see where Christ remains, Christ who is the heart and mind of God.  And we find resurrection—slow and communal resurrection—happening in and through us.

We at Open table have witnessed recently the beginnings of resurrection as Rosemarie has come back from the brink of the grave.  But resurrection is NOT instantaneous—as those know who watch Rosemarie make slow, hard progress to think and speak and move.  Likewise, it took many days or perhaps years for the followers of the Way to frame their story into meaningfulness for their lives. 

Even when we’re in the process of resurrection, it doesn’t always feel wonderful.  Just ask Rosemarie.  
Occasionally one of you will say something like this to me: “Sometimes I wish I hadn’t returned to church after all these years.  It was easier not to think about Jesus and church.  It’s hard now to rethink Christianity and try to live in ways that are consistent with Jesus’s life.  This is all harder than I thought.”
Resurrection happens slowly and communally.  Sometimes our first impulse is to run from a bracing or unexpected word.  That’s okay.  Because after awhile, the Spirit of truth and love lures us back. 
Joan Chittister says that “until we find ourselves with new hearts, more penetrating insights, less need for the transient, greater awareness of the spiritual pulse of life, resurrection has not really happened for us.”

Mark’s resurrection story is about what is happening in us and through us. Mark’s resurrection story happens to people in community.   

There will be folks who participate in Open Table for awhile and then leave.  Even the good news of Progressive Christianity that is reviving a moribund church will frighten away some. 

But our mission at Open Table is not to put Christianity on life support.  Some things must die so that others can be reborn.  It’s scary when religious assumptions are questioned, when the parts of Christianity we once held as essential are stripped off like binding grave clothes so we are free to walk out of religion’s tomb. A new self, a renewed church comes out of that darkness.  
But be assured, friends, that our small congregation is not alone in recognizing that American Christianity “is flailing and failing.”  A “spiritually renewed and intellectually credible Christianity” has been undergoing resurrection for the last two decades. An article this week titled “A Resurrected Christianity?” by Diana Butler Bass is one of many suggesting that what we at Open Table are doing is in line with a growing movement of liberal mainline Protestant churches, “Emerging" churches, and progressive Catholics from “around the edges of organized religion” asking new questions and trying to “reform, reimagine, and reformulate” church to resurrect “a heart-centered Christianity.”[ii] 

My friends, this is extraordinary.  Once again, the body of Christ, which is the Church, is being resurrected.

Clarence Jordan said, “The proof that God raised Jesus from the dead is not the empty tomb, but the full hearts of his transformed disciples."

Like the women in the story, we are both amazed and terrified.  In fact, we don’t quite have the poetic vocabulary for this resurrection of our individual and congregational lives. But when we are the women of the story just beginning the resurrection process, wells of salt brim and brim, until finally Gospel poems force the lock of our throats. 

Christ is risen! Alleluia! 

[ii] Bass, Diana Butler.  “A Resurrected Christianity?" Huff Post Religion (8 April 2012)          .,b=facebook

Sunday, April 1, 2012

"Shouts of Hosanna"

I'm posting an additional time today to share the lyrics to a hymn we sang in our Palm/Passion Sunday service and which I wrote several years ago to address the unique liturgical challenges of compressing all the traditional Holy Week services into one. "Shouts of Hosanna” attempts to capture the shifts in mood and meaning we experience in Holy Week and the always-tensive emotions present at Holy Communion.  I therefore chose the affecting hymn tune TENDERLY, by Colin Gibson, that alternates between major and minor keys. The story is told from the perspective of the confused disciples, who surely experienced a range of emotions, then and upon remembrance.  This song attempts to bridge the celebration of Palm Sunday and the pathos of Christ’s passion with a foretaste of the hope beyond.--Ellen Sims

HYMN             “Shouts of Hosanna”              TENDERLY
Shouts of hosanna die in the darkness;
Crowds have dispersed; only twelve now remain.
Here we have gathered, bracing for challenge;
Here we expect he’ll announce his campaign.

Then without warning, he names a traitor,
One who’s disloyal to teacher and friend.
Darker the room grows, softer the whispers:
“What did he mean by ‘My time is at hand.’”?

Blessing the bread, he breaks it and shares it:
“This is my body; new food for your soul.”
Blessing the wine, he speaks of forgiveness,
Fruit of the vine that can make us all whole.

Night comes on fast now; we see but dimly.
He leads us out to a garden to pray.
Yet before leaving, he says, “Remember.
Here is God’s strength as you face a new day.”

“Taste here forgiveness; Drink here compassion.”
Strengthen yourselves for the journey ahead.
Share this with others who seek God’s vision.
Grace you will find in the wine and the bread.