Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Sermon for Easter Day 2008

The Mystery of Faith

It was a number of years ago
when we were visiting some of our friends in another city
and they were giving us a tour of their church.
(You know how priests are—we like to visit churches!)

Their grandson was also there that day—his name is Taylor.
He and his mom go to the same church as his grandparents.

Taylor grabs me by the hand and pulls me along saying,
“Jeanne, I want to show you my Sunday School room.”

Off we go down the hall and enter his Sunday School room.
This church uses the Godly Play curriculum for children,
which is, as many of you know, very hands-on and experiential.

“Do you want to see the very coolest thing in my whole room?” asks Taylor.
“Sure,” I reply.
(Who wouldn’t want to see the very coolest thing!)

So Taylor goes over to the shelf and very gently lifts off,
what at first glance I think
is one of those paper-mache mountains
like you use with model trains.

But as I look more closely,
as he sits the object on the table in front of us,
I see it is a cave, grey and bumpy.
And it has a separate big stone
that fits right in the door of the cave,
And you can move the stone, roll it away.

Taylor whispers,
“Jeanne,
this is the tomb where they put Jesus’ body.”
He stares at me in silence for a moment.

“And you know something else, Jeanne?”

“What, Taylor?”

“This is the most amazing thing!” And he flings the stone away from the door.
“Look inside, Jeanne.
What do you see?”
I lean over and peer inside and then reply, “Nothing.”

Taylor shrieks with joy and starts to laugh!
“That’s right! It’s empty. Jesus disappeared.
They put his body in the tomb and now he’s gone!”

Taylor lifts up the empty tomb and carefully carries it back to the shelf.
He turns and looks at me and speaks quite reassuringly,
“Don’t worry, Jeanne. He comes back.
Jesus comes back.”

Jesus comes back.
ALLELUIA!

A little boy
with a paper-mache tomb
has captured the mystery of faith:

Christ has died.
Christ is risen.
Christ will come again.


That is the great and wonderful mystery of our Christian faith.
Today—Easter---we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus.


There are many days of the year
when we can have theological and philosophical debates—
We Episcopalians enjoy that immensely.
We like to ponder the questions:

Was it literal or metaphorical resurrection?
Did Jesus really die or did people just think he was dead?
Was it resurrection or was it resuscitation?
Did anyone actually see them
putting Jesus’ body in the tomb?

We are not afraid to ask questions, to wrestle with theology.
There are many days of the year we can have those discussions.

But today is not that day.

Today is our great feast day of Easter.
We are here today to celebrate.
To shout ALLELUIA!
And each of us is called to the feast.

This week I went to get my hair cut
and the young woman cutting my hair spent the entire time
telling me how much she loved God—
which I do not doubt or question at all--
and how much she hates the church.
Not THIS church, just THE church.

As a priest, I hear those stories a lot—
at the gas pump, in the line at the grocery store, in airports,
sitting at a baseball game.

I find it interesting
that we as human beings
can be so accepting of so many imperfect human institutions
but we somehow think church
has to be perfect or we can’t participate.


There is nothing perfect about church—except for one thing:
God’s perfect love for each one of us.
Whether we are in church
or out of church,
God’s love is always there.

Perhaps we should replace the sign out front
that says St. John’s Episcopal Church
and put up one that says “Church ‘R Us.”
Because that is the real truth.

Church is not a building.
Church is not an institution.
Church is the people of God.
The trying-as-hard-as-we-can holy imperfect people of God.

Church is the gathering together
to celebrate the mystery of faith,
to struggle with the questions together--
and to be amazed together--
to be part of a story that does not make rational sense
and yet strikes us to our core
that it is true.

Whether we come to Church or not,
whether our hearts are open or closed,
The truth of the matter is
that God knows each one of us by name.

The truth of the matter is
that God loves us more than we can ask or imagine.

Mary stands weeping outside the tomb.
She is overwhelmed with grief and fear,
until that moment she hears her name called---“Mary.”

The moment she hears her name called
she knows
that everything is going to be just fine.


She doesn’t know why or how
but she knows the peace
that passes all understanding.

Mary went to the tomb to find Jesus but she could not find him.
The truth is Jesus found her.
That is the truth that many of us here this morning have bumped into—
when we were least expecting it,
we heard our name called—
and things were never the same again for us.

Christ has died—
that was our journey through Holy Week that ended on Good Friday
when Jesus was crucified.

Christ is risen—
that is today, happy Easter!

Christ will come again—that is the rest of the story,
That is your story and my story and our story.
To be continued. Together.

Sermon for the Great Vigil of Easter 2008

Christ, Our Light

In the morning sun:
Christ, our light.

In the shining stars;
Christ, our light.

In the burning bush:
Christ, our light.

In the pillar of fire:
Christ, our light.

In the glistening temple:
Christ, our light.

In the tongues of flame:
Christ, our light.

Can it get any better than this?
Fire and smoke and bells.
The light of Christ returning to the church.

It is our Episcopal version
of the earthquake and lightning and descending angels
that the women at the tomb experienced
that Easter dawn in Matthew’s gospel.
Easter arrives
with great joy.

Oh! Haven’t we been waiting for ALLELUIA a long long time!

In the ancient church, the tradition of the Easter Vigil played an important role.
Those waiting to be baptized on Easter day,
stayed awake all night, watching and waiting,
for the day of their baptism.

They read and studied and prayed the same scripture readings
we read this very night.
These readings tell the story of the sacred past of Israel
and foretell and foreshadow the coming of the Messiah.

If you want to know the stories
that are the foundation of our lives as Easter people,
take your Book of Common Prayer
and read all eight of the scripture readings from the Easter Vigil.

But this night is more than readings or even our sacred history.
This night is about rolling back the stone of the tomb.
The stone rolls away and the dark tomb is flooded with light—and life.

Death and darkness are overcome by the light.

Resurrection.
The dream of God is that we all have life and have it abundantly.

The dream of God is that the stone will roll away
and we will all be freed
from everything that keeps us trapped
in our own dark tombs.

Tombs are not just a thing of the past.
We have our modern day tombs as well.
We are paralyzed by the darkness.

I have a friend whom I love very much
and he is entombed in a job that is truly sucking his soul away.

He is being asked to do things as part of his job
that are-- at best-- borderline unethical.

My friend feels trapped.

He is very, very well paid for the work he does--
the work he hates-- but does—for the money.
He is not a greedy man.
He has a family, with children in college.
He has a mortgage and car payments and a stack of bills.
He is a responsible person—but a very unhappy person.

His misery is turning into a river of rage.
It is a river that most do not see,
but it is there,
running underground,
through the dark tomb where he sits—feeling trapped.

Does my friend have the strength
to push away the stone from the tomb?

Absolutely. God has given him everything he needs.

But my friend—like many of us-- is afraid.
Fear is one of those tombs that often keeps us closed away in the dark.

Remember,
both the angel and then Jesus tell the women at the tomb,
Do not be afraid.

We all need to hear and heed those words.
Do not be afraid to live as Easter people.
Do not be afraid of the new life that awaits us.
Do not be afraid to step out of the darkness and into the light.

If we want to live in the light,
we need to calm our fears
and trust that Jesus will always go ahead of us.

Remember how the Pascal Candle came into the church tonight
and went ahead of us,
bringing light into the darkness?

Light is more powerful than darkness.
Life is stronger than death.


Thomas O’Loughlin in his book Journey to the Edges
writes about visiting relatives in rural Ireland in the 1960’s
when he was just a child.

Every time when the electric light was switched on,
the old man in the house would exclaim,
“God gives us the light of heaven!”
And in unison, all his other relatives in the house would respond, “Amen!”

O’Loughlin admits that, even as a child, he thought it strange
because he took electricity for granted—
yet it had only arrived to his rural relatives’ house
less than 10 years earlier.

Perhaps it is not a bad reminder—that simple “household liturgy”—
perhaps it is a useful ritual--
to remind us of the source of light
or us as Christians.

Perhaps each time we turn on a lamp or flip a light switch
we might echo those words of O’Loughlin’s relatives—
“God gives us the light of heaven.”

We are dependent on that light of heaven
and we are blessed that it is offered and given with such generosity.

Do not be afraid, says Jesus.
You will see me.

In the morning sun:
Christ, our light


In the shining stars;
Christ, our light.

In the burning bush:
Christ, our light.

In the pillar of fire:
Christ, our light.

In the glistening temple:
Christ, our light.

In the tongues of flame:
Christ, our light.


Indeed. God gives us the light of heaven.
ALLELUIA! Amen.

+ + +

The Christ, Our Light poem is from Gail Ramshaw in Triduum (Liturgy Training Publications, p. 226)

Sermon for Holy Saturday 2008

The fullness of emptiness

The day after someone dies
often has an emptiness that stuns us.

The first intense and torturous wave of grief has passed--
and in this little niche of the following day--
we find ourselves looking back longingly at the life that was—
and fearfully wondering
how we will endure the emptiness of life without.

We gather this morning to remember the emptiness,
of the hours between Jesus’ death and his resurrection.

Holy Saturday is the brief respite
that allows the death of Jesus
to settle into our souls.

Christ’s body lays in the tomb.
It is the day between two worlds—
Between the world that has gone dark
and the world that is pure light.

We are here in this in-between moment.
Even in it’s echoing emptiness,
this day is pure gift.


I pray we may be mindful
that today is a Holy Day.


Yes, there is work that must be completed today—
for some of us, a sermon to finish;
others will be getting flowers and the altar ready,
rehearsing music, going over scripture readings.

There’s chopping and stirring and cooking to do—
for family who are arriving
or preparing our dish
for our own festive Easter lunch here tomorrow.
There are children or meowing cats to be fed.
Yes, there are indeed, things that must get done. Today.

But I pray we may be mindful
and go slowly.
I pray we may treat our day’s work with the same love and care and tenderness
that Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus took
when they carried Jesus’ body to the tomb.


Holy Saturday is a day to remember
that losing everything is always a possibility.
We can never predict the day or the time
when the hands of the clock will fall off the face.

We don’t need to hurry towards tomorrow.

We need this time of emptiness
for it is in our emptiness that room is made for God.

Anne Lamott, in her book PLAN B,
tells a lovely Hassidic story of a rabbi
who always tells people that if they study the Torah,
it will put the scripture on their hearts.



One of them asks, “Why on our hearts, and not in them?”

The rabbi answers,
“Only God can put scripture inside.
But reading the sacred text can put it on your hearts,
and then when your hearts break,
the holy words will fall inside.”


Holy Saturday is a day when the holy words
fall inside.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Sermon for Good Friday 2008

I am his remains

Tom O’Loughlin, a priest, a writer and a professor at the University of Wales, says that most people only think of time in a few variations: bad times, good times, work time, time off and party time.

In the Church we look at time in a different way.
We have distinct seasons of the Church year—Advent, Lent, Pentecost—to name just a few.
We also have certain days that we set apart—
feast days and fast days and holy days.

Good Friday is one of those holy days.
The day of Jesus’ crucifixion
is the most solemn day in our Christian year.

It always puzzled me as a child
why a day on which such a horrible thing happened
was named GOOD Friday.

As an adult I have learned
that some believe that GOOD Friday is
a derivation of GOD’S Friday.
Others believe that the reason we call it GOOD—
despite the horror that occurred—
is because Jesus’ death was not really the end
but the beginning.

This is the day in the Church year
When we gather to confront the end.
It is finished.

Jesus is dead.
The struggle is over.
Not every story has a happy ending.
Jesus dies.

Some say Jesus was killed
because he was trying to liberate the Jewish people
from Roman authority.
Others say Jesus was killed
because he was trying to liberate the hearts and minds of all people
from spiritual bondage—from an attachment to things—
money, power, fame, security—
any thing that separates us from God.

Deep sorrow, anger, bitterness, fear, grief—
Jesus’ disciples, his friends, his family—
their emotions had to have been all over the place that day.
This man that had transformed their lives,
This man who they believed could truly transform the world—
Was gone. Dead.

Good Friday is not the day we leap forward into Easter resurrection.
It is the day we purposefully live with the caving in of our entire world.

I recently read a review of a book titled
Here If You Need Me.
It is written by a young woman named Kate Braestrup.
Kate is a chaplain for the Maine Warden Service.

Now what that means
(and if you are like me, you may have never heard of such a thing)
is that Kate goes out with a team on search-and-rescue missions
to find hikers and hunters lost in the woods,
or on a mountain or in the bogs of the state of Maine.

When those search efforts do not have a happy ending,
Kate is there to kneel beside and pray over the dead body,
to help place the body into the body bag with dignity,
and then to inform and comfort the family and friends
of the person who died.

The reviewer of Kate Braestrup’s book writes:

As a widow…Braestrup writes about bodies: her husband’s,
dead in a car accident, and her own and her four children as
they react to the sudden loss. Against the advice of many,
Braestrup insisted on bathing and dressing her husband’s corpse.
When the baffled funeral director inquired into her plans for
disposing the remains, she writes in characteristically simple
but gorgeous prose, her first thought was: “I am his remains.”


I am his remains.

We are the remains of Jesus Christ.
We are.

We gather today to pray over his dead body.
We gather to grieve.
We gather to ponder the human role in this death and this loss.
We gather to try to see God in this death, in any death.

Chaplain Kate Braestrup writes:

It doesn’t matter how educated, moneyed, or smart you are. When your child’s footprints end at the river’s edge, when the one you love has gone into the woods with a bleak outlook and a loaded gun, when the chaplain is walking toward you with bad news in her mouth, then only the clich├ęs are true, and you will repeat them unashamed…If you are really wise— and it’s surprising and wondrous…how many people have this wisdom in them—you will know enough to look around for love. It will be there…holding out its arms to you. If you are wise, whoever you are, you will let go, fall against that love, and be held.


Good Friday offers us a time in the Church year
to abandon words or explanations,
and to just collapse into the love of God
and be held.

+ + +
I still have not figured out how to transfer footnotes into my blog. So...Tom O'Loughlin's reference to time is from his book Journey to the Edges(page 146). The paragraph about Jesus and theories on why he was killed is from G. Corwin Stoppel's book Road to Resurrection: Meditations on Walking the Way of the Cross (page 29) The reference to the book review of Here If You Need Me is from Christian Century, March 25, 2008, page36.

Sermon for Maundy Thursday 2008

Red Flag

I imagine we have all seen this at some time—
a red flag hanging from a pile of lumber
sticking over the tailgate of a pick up truck.
The red flag warns us to stay back,
to keep our distance.
Or else!
(Or else those two by fous might come crashing
right through our windshield!)

Maundy Thursday in Holy Week is rather like that red flag.
Watch out! it says.

Our gospel reading tonight tells us that Jesus wraps a towel around his waist
and sits and washes the feet of his friends.
It’s like he has a red flag tied to his wrist--
because things are indeed getting dangerous.

Jesus realizes it is a matter of time now.
He senses that his time with his disciples, his friends,
both men and women--
children, too, I imagine—
Jesus senses that he has little time left
to be with those he loves
and those who love him.
Time is short.

This night is the beginning of the end.

Jesus knows it
but the disciples—except perhaps for Judas—have no idea
how badly things are about to turn.

But Jesus does not spend his little remaining time as a fear-monger.
He does not make accusations or complain or hide or run.
Instead, Jesus holds this present moment,
this night,
like a precious jewel in his hands.

There is nothing particularly unusual about this night—
until Jesus kneels to wash the feet of his friends.

Jesus did not invent foot washing—
it was a common practice in that dusty part of the world,
in that time period.
Foot washing expressed hospitality, cleansing, purification--
but it was usually done by the lowest ranking servant.
It was, quite literally, dirty work.

Yet here is the Rabbi, the teacher, the master, the leader, the Messiah--
Jesus-- washing their feet.
This action challenges all the power and authority structures.

Jesus is almost always out of order—
always doing and calling others to do the right thing,
not necessarily the orderly thing.

Love is messy.
Jesus knows that.
Tonight he reminds us that if we set our hearts to really follow him,
we better buckle our seat belts
because it’s going to be a bumpy ride!

The word “Maundy” means “mandate”.
This is the night we get our mandate—the commandment—
on how we are to live as Christians.

What Jesus tells his disciples is a bit of a shock:
It’s not the preaching or the teaching
Or the doctrine or the theology that really matters.

It’s how you treat one another.
What matters is the kindness you show to both friend and stranger.
It’s the love you show in what you do.
It’s how you walk the talk
that brings light into the darkness.

This is the legacy that Jesus leaves us.

I give you a new commandment.
Love one another.


We must not forget that the disciples were human beings,
just like you and me.
They can’t always have been easy to love!

But this is not a night about an easy path.

John’s gospel was written almost one hundred years after Jesus was born.
But this story—this footwashing, this last supper,
must have made quite an impression.
This night was remembered and the story was told--
and we are still telling the story.

We not only tell it on Maundy Thursday
we tell it—we live it—each time we celebrate the Holy Eucharist.
Do this in remembrance of me.

Do this.

It is not just about the body and blood of Christ.
It is not just about a bite of bread and a sip of wine.

Do this.

The bread and wine are there to give us strength for the journey,
for the doing,
for the loving of one another.


It may seem like a strange thing to say in Holy Week
but I will say it any way:
Christians can become too focused on the death of Christ.
The crucifixion.

But this night—this Maundy Thursday night—
Jesus is still alive and Jesus is telling us to remember his life.
Remember how I lived:
I have set you an example, says Jesus.

We are called to look at the way Jesus lived.
We are called to look at the way Jesus treated other people.
We are called to look at the way Jesus included everyone.
We are called to look at the way Jesus did not have to be the worldly king,
the top banana, the CEO—
he was absolutely comfortable sitting there on the floor washing feet.

Jesus leads by serving others, by loving others,
by talking to people to whom no one else even says hello.
by inviting people who are never invited
to come and join in the feast.

Jesus tells us how: love one another.

Love is more than a warm and fuzzy emotion:
Love is action.
Love is feeding the hungry and hugging the lonely.

Love is building a house for someone who needs a home
and visiting those that feel forgotten.

Love is offering a lap for a child to rest upon
and feel safe and secure and happy.
Love is speaking out against injustice.
Love is speaking with kindness and gentleness
to those we work with and live with and see each and every day.
Love is everything.
.

This is the night our hearts break
because we realize the immensity of love
and how dark our world is without that love.

Our hearts break because the one who gave us the real life Technicolor view
of what love looks like when it is lived
is about to be led away to his death.

We are left in the darkness on Maundy Thursday.

This dark silence is a powerful reminder of those in the world,
in this country, in this city, in this very church.
that often feel left alone in darkness.

We are called to remember.
We are called to remember that the light shines in the darkness.
We are called to kindle that fire.

Tonight we are given our mandate.
It is not complicated but it is not easy either.
Love one another.

That is the red flag Jesus is waving to get our attention.
Love one another.

For it is love
and how we live that love out in our lives
that truly marks us as children of God.

Sermon for Palm/Passion Sunday 2008

Let the story seep deeply

I do not like violence.
I don’t like it in real life
And I don’t even like the pretend violence on television or in the movies.

If my husband and I are watching a movie on television
and the violence is too severe, I leave.
I say Good night, Sweetie,
and I am off to bed and a good, boring book
or to my study to check my e-mail.

So being that I don’t like violence,
I have to wonder:
What on earth is a nice peace-loving girl like me
doing here on Palm Sunday,
also known as the Sunday of the Passion of Christ?

The words of this play that we hear each year
are disturbing.
The words we as a congregation speak are especially troubling.
How did we get here?
How did we arrive at this gospel?

We have been on a journey through Lent.
We faced Satan and temptation in the wilderness.
Nicodemus knocked on the door in the middle of the night,
with a head and heart full of questions.
We were with Jesus when he met the Samaritan woman at the well,
And later when he healed a blind man
and raised Lazarus from the dead.
Lent has not been a dull journey.
Lent has been about faith and open minds and miracles and transformation.

But then comes this Sabbath day and it all seems to crumble
before our very eyes.

These weeks of Lent are to prepare us for Holy Week
which begins today.
But in truth nothing can really prepare us for this week,
these difficult days between this day and Easter.


As a culture we have come to think of passion
in terms of sexual desire.
It is interesting: that definition is the very last one
listed among the five definitions of passion found in the dictionary.


Here is the first listed definition:
Passion: the sufferings of Christ
between the night of the Last Supper and his death.

That is what this Sabbath day is about.

We do the passion play instead of reading the gospel
in the traditional way.
We do that so we hear this story as alive and real today.
We do the gospel in the form of a play
to remind us that we all play a part in what happens this week.

The story today tells us that
Jesus’ time in this world has come to an end—
and the end is not a pretty one.
It is brutal and violent and bloody and painful.
This is a story of suffering to the extreme.

It is a story brim full--
of friends who don’t stand by you when you really need them,
of friends that betray you,
of cowardice, injustice,
cruelty, fear,
darkness, death.
Recognition and awareness that seem to come too late.

We cannot take this passion play and just identify ourselves with Jesus,
the one who suffers.
That is not to deny that we suffer—we do. We all know that.
But that is not the point of this day or this gospel reading.

But we must hear this and read this and know
that we, too, have caused the suffering of others.
We have done it purposefully and we have done it in ignorance.
We, too, have caused others to suffer—
By our words and by our actions and by our inactions.
We, too, have caused others to suffer--
in tiny small ways,
and perhaps, in some very monumental ways.

Today is not the day we play the role of victim.
Today is the day we play the role of persecutor.

Holy Week is a time when we are called to look Jesus in the eyes
As he says to us, to each of us individually,
Friend, do what you are here to do.

What will that be?
We are given this amazing gift of free will—
we get to choose what we are here to do,
how we will live our lives.

What life do we want to co-create with God?
We have a multitude of roles to choose from.

Coming to the services during Holy Week—
Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday,
the Easter Vigil--- is not about filling the pews of the church.
It is about reaching out and taking time to walk the way of the cross.
To let this story seep deeply into our bones.

Holy week is a way of emptying ourselves.
As Paul tells the Philippians,
“let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus”.

We to go through Holy Week to come to Easter.
we face and endure suffering—the Passion—
so that we might truly taste
and begin to understand resurrection.

Holy Week is, indeed, where the rubber meets the road.
Friend, do what you are here to do.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Sermon for Year A Lent 5

God is not done

The people of Israel have lost hope.
They just don’t know what to think of God
Or their relationship with God.

So God comes to the prophet Ezekiel,
in a dream, in a vision, we’re not really sure.
And Ezekiel stands with God in a valley of dry bones.
God tells Ezekiel to preach to these dry bones and tell them to listen to God.
Tell them that God will restore them.
God will resurrect them and give them new life.

And God calls the four winds to bring life and breath back into those dry bones
And they are alive again.
Can these dry bones live?
Yes.

God wants Ezekiel to tell this story so the Israelites will not feel hopeless.
With God there is always hope.
Always the possibility of new life.
No matter how bleak or difficult or harsh or frightening life might feel
at the moment,
God is not done.


Most of us have known hopelessness
at some point in our lives.

Most of us have known the heartbreak
that Martha and Mary feel after their brother has died.

How could such a terrible thing have happened?
Why did Jesus not come in time
so that their brother Lazarus would not have died?

Many of us have been there.
We have been right there on our knees
Praying to God, to Jesus, to the Holy Spirit, to anyone who would listen:
Please, heal this person,
this person I love with all my heart and all my soul.

But sometimes, that healing,
the healing that we pray for, that we imagine,
sometimes that healing does not happen.

I have often found this scripture about Lazarus very difficult.
If Jesus shows up and raises Lazarus from the dead
why does Jesus not come
and raise my father from the dead? My mother?
The baby son of my friend Carrie?

Where is Jesus when those we love die?

I want to tell you two stories.
One is a story about my own mother.
The other is a story about a man named Reuben Carter,
also known as “The Hurricane.”


My mother was a delightful woman.
She had more hope than I will ever know.
If ever I was discouraged or pessimistic,
My mother would say, “You just need to change your attitude.
It’s all going to work our just fine.”

My mother led a full and joyful life until she was in her eighties
And she began to lose her memory.

She always recognized those in our family,
but she could not remember how to work the stove or how you got dressed
or where the bathroom was in her own home.

Eventually after prayer and deliberation,
after she had set the stove on fire twice,
after she wandered off from her house, crossing very busy city streets,
my sister, brother and I decided to move her to an assisted living residence
designed for those with Alzheimer’s and dementia.
It was absolute misery to make this decision.

My mother did not really understand where it was she was going to live
but she maintained her ever positive attitude
And told my brother the day he moved her in,
“I’m going to try really hard to get better.”

A few months after she had moved to Morningside,
I traveled to Raleigh to visit her,
as I did many weeks.
I did not find my mother in the day room with the other residents
so I walked down the hall to see if she was in her room.
As I turned the corner down a long hallway,
I saw my mother sitting in a large upholstered wing chair by a window,
at the end of the hall

I walked down the hall and watched her.
She did not see me coming
She just sat gazing out the window.
I thought she might be watching the birds
as she loved birds almost as much as she loved flowers.

When I got there, I said hello and we hugged,
and I sat down in the chair across from her
“What are you watching out the window.”
“Nothing really, “ my mother replied.
I was just sitting here thinking.

Then my mother said in a low and sad voice,
“I don’t think I am going to get any better.
I am trying. I try so hard.
But I don’t think I am going to get any better.
I don’t think this place is going to make me well.”

It was a very hard thing to hear my mother say
because, of course, my brother and my sister and I knew
that she was not going to get better.
Her doctor had made that very clear.

But I didn’t want my mother to say that or feel that.
My mother was the icon of hope to me.

There are some things in our lives that are simple—
problems perhaps but really rather easy problems.
And then there are problems that are not easy at all.
Aging, illness, abuse, divorce, death.
We fall into hopelessness
because we really don’t know if things will get better.
We really don’t know how these dry bones can live.

We are still here in Lent.
This dry bone time.
But Easter is just over the horizon.
We cannot skip Lent or holy week
or any of those hopeless dry bone times in our lives.
We can’t always just rush into the arms of Easter.

We can spring forward into daylight savings time
but we sometimes cannot just spring forward into hope and joy.

The reality for me
is that my mother died a few months after that conversation in the hall.
When she was in the process of dying,
I said to her,
“Mother, it is okay to let go.”

She opened her eyes, looked right at me and said, “I will never let go.”
It was one of the most lucid things my mother had said in weeks.

At the time,
I thought it was just an example of my mother’s tenacious will to live.
I thought she was refusing to let go of life.
Yet she died just two days later.

After her death I came to hear those words differently.

My mother was saying to me,
I will never let go of you.
I will never let go of how much I love you.
And your brother and your sister and my grandchildren and my friends..
I will never let go of love.

I tell you this story because I truly believe that is what God says to each of us.
I will never let go.

No matter how hopeless, how horrid we may feel,
No matter how dry the bones,
God will never let go.
God is never done.

Rubin "Hurricane" Carter was a champion middleweight boxer.
If you want to know his story your can read about him
or watch the movie with Denzel Washington.

Rubin Carter was the opposite of my mother.
He was an icon of hopelessness.

Rubin Carter was imprisoned for life for murders he did not commit.
After exhausting every possibility for appeal,
he tells his wife that he wants her to divorce him
and to move on with her life,
saying, "I'm dead. Forget about me."

The Hurricane uses his prison time to read, study,
and eventually write a book about his life –
a book that is published and becomes a best seller,
but which is then soon forgotten.

Years later, a Black teen from the ghetto finds a copy
of the Hurricane's life story at a used book sale,
and buys it for a quarter.

Moved by what he reads,
the young man, Lesera Martin,
writes a letter to the prisoner,
and begins a relationship and a process
that eventually leads to the overturning of the conviction.

At a pivotal moment, the Rubin Carter notes
that it was "no accident" that Lesera had come across that book.

He quotes Genesis 49 about himself,
"Reuben, my firstborn . . . pre-eminent in pride . . .
Unstable as water, you shall not prevail."

He then contrasts his name to that of Lesera,
a form of the name Lazarus, the one raised from death.
The Hurricane tells Lesera
that hate had killed Reuben and buried him, forgotten, in the prison walls,
but Lesera's love had raised him and given him life once again.

God does not care if we are filled with hope or filled with hopelessness.
Love is offered to us all.

God calls us to come out, to rise up, to feel the breath of life in our dry bones.
God calls us to unbind ourselves and to unbind those around us.

God will never let go.
God is not done.

God brings up those we love from the grave
in our memories of them,
in the multitude of ways they have touched us and formed us and transformed us.

God brings us up from the grave
by giving us a second chance and a third and a fourth.
Love is the great unbinder.

God will not let go.
Love will set us free.


+ + +

For some reason I don't seem to be able to use footnotes or even endnotes in this blog so I need to add it here at the end. I need to thank and credit the blog Text Week and the comments by Mark D. Johns, Instructor of Communication/Linguistics, Luther College, Decorah, Iowa who pointed out the relevance of the story of Rubin Carter to the gospel reading this week.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Sermon for Year A Lent 4

B-L-A-M-E

That is quite a long gospel reading we just heard this morning.
Gospel readings in Lent tend to be longer.
I don’t know if that is to test our endurance, our patience,
or just the congregation’s ability to stand up for a long time.

I do know
this is a wonderful narrative story
in this morning’s gospel reading from John.
The story of Jesus healing a blind man.

It is indeed a story about healing.
It is story about God’s glory being revealed in Jesus.
It is about the Pharisees missing the point.
It is about the fear of losing one’s community.
It is a story about belief.

This is truly one of the great point by point stories told in the New Testament.
The writer of John’s gospel wants to be sure twe understand
that it was Jesus
who took spit and mud and sent the blind man to wash
and the man could then see.

I once was blind but now I see.

This morning’s gospel is also about another element.

I don’t know if other countries have songs where words are spelled out,
but I know we very much like those songs here in America.


R-E-S-P-E-C-T
sings Aretha.

D-I-V-O-R-C-E
sings Tammy.

B-I-N-G-O and Bingo was his name-O!
sing children around the campfire.

Well, today in our gospel reading we have a whole cast of characters
and they are singing out B-L-A-M-E.

Blame.
Life doesn’t just happen.
Grace doesn’t just come.
It’s got to be somebody’s fault.
Who’s to B-L-A-M-E?

There is a whole chorus of characters asking the blame question in this story.
There are the disciples:
Who has sinned? they ask Jesus?
Is the blind man a sinner
or can we blame his blindness on his parents?

The disciples’ questions reflect the theology of their time—
a theology which still lingers today:
Bad things—like blindness—don’t happen to good people.
Somebody did something to deserve this bad thing.
Somebody must have done something to deserve it.

Is this man himself to blame for his blindness—
or are his parents to blame?

Jesus says, Neither are to blame.
Jesus says, Here are the facts.
This man was born blind.
It happens.
No one is to blame.

Then Jesus heals the man.
No big fanfare.
Jesus takes a little mud, a little spit,
and rubs it on the man’s eyes.
He sends the man to wash
and now the man can see.

The once-blind man’s neighbors are confused.

This can’t be right, they mutter.
This can’t be the same man we have known all these years.
That man was blind. He deserved to be blind.
He or his parents were sinners in some way—
they deserved what they got.

The neighbors are not happy that the man can see.
This healing, this miracle
does not fit with their view of the world.

The once blind man tries to tell them
about this wonderful thing that has happened to him,
about Jesus.
The once-blind man wants to share the good news.

But the neighbors are not in a good news hearing frame of mind.
They don’t want to meet this Jesus.
They want someone to blame.
They want an answer about how something good
can happen to someone they have judged to be bad all these years.

They grab the once blind man
and rush him off to the Pharisees.


The Pharisees are on top of it.
(or at least they think they are)


They begin to sing at the top of their lungs,
B-L-A-M-E.
We are not believing that this good thing happened to you.
If God made you blind you were meant to stay that way.
Whose payroll are you on?
Who set you up to spread these lies?

And the once-blind man tells the story of his healing all over again.

And the Pharisees completely miss the point.
The Pharisees are blinded by the details.
So Jesus healed you on the Sabbath?!!?
That’s against the law.
Jesus is to blame.

But how can they blame someone who made a blind man see?

It must be a hoax. This man was never really blind.

The Pharisees drag the once-blind man off to his parents.

The once blind man’s parents confirm:
Yes, this is our son.
Yes, he was born blind.

But then even the man’s parents join the ranks of fear.
They don’t want to get in trouble.

Ask our son, they say.
He’s old enough to be responsible.
Don’t blame us.

So the Pharisees call the once blind man once more.
They want the man to say that Jesus is evil.
They want the man to declare that Jesus is a sinner.
They want the man to be as blind as they are.

But the once-blind man answers honestly.
I don’t know if Jesus is a sinner or not.
Can any of us judge who is a sinner?
But here is what I do know:
I was blind. Now I’m not.
I can see.

This is a story about people looking for someone to blame.

What really strikes me about this story is that no one
celebrates that this blind man can see.

There is not one moment of joy shared with the once-blind man.
No one slaps him on the back and says,
Buddy! We are so happy for you. You can see.
What incredibly wonderful news!

Even the man’s own parents do not celebrate that their son can now see.
There is not one moment of joy.
Those who have surrounded the once-blind man all his life
only want to find someone to blame.
They have no interest in healing—not the blind man’s healing,
Not their own healing.

When we look around for someone to blame,
someone to fault, someone to scapegoat,
it is a clear indicator we are not acting out of love
but out of fear.

If we can find someone to blame,
we won’t have to face the truth of our own lives.
The only problem here is that our eyes will remain closed
and so will our hearts.

The song is ours to choose:
We can join the multitude that still sings that age-old refrain today:
B-L-A-M-E.

Or…

Or we can step out of line from the crowd
and take a step toward Jesus.
We can start to hum a tune that moves us toward our own healing
and the healing of the world.

F-A-I-T-H.

H-O-P-E.

L-O-V-E.

Faith. Hope. Love.
These three.

God has given us the words.
It’s up to us to write the music.