Rabbit Season (sermon 4/19/15)

rabbits

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.  –  Luke 24:13-35

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While I was up in Toronto last weekend, we went to worship at the Bloor Street United Church. Most of the Presbyterians in Canada merged with a couple of other Canadian denominations in the 1920s to form the United Church of Canada, so they’re kind of our sister denomination up in the Great White North. And during the service, I noticed that their children’s message was based on a children’s and youth curriculum called “Echo the Story,” which reinforces the overarching message of the Bible through story-based building blocks – each week, adding a new story, a new nugget, and focusing on its significance in terms of the whole arc of the story. But before the storytelling adds the new piece for the week, the whole story up to that point is briefly rewound and retold (a sample video of this curriculum can be seen here). I suppose each time the story rewinds and starts again, some people’s eyes might roll at the repetition, but really, it’s a brilliant idea. Because too many people don’t have any internalization of the Bible, and a lot more have only internalized little bits and unconnected pieces, but they don’t understand how it’s all meant to fit together as one gradually unfolding story. This rewinding and retelling the story from the beginning helps many of the kids – and honestly, many adults, too – to internalize the story, and to understand that we’re all part of a community that’s identified and given meaning by this story.

Watching this unfold in that service last week made me think of another instance of the same kind of thing. The same process shows up the 1970s novel Watership Down, by Richard Adams. Just out of curiosity, how many of you have read it? How many of you threw up your hands before getting through all 500 pages and just read the Cliff’s Notes or an online summary of it for a book report?

Well, if you’ve done either of those things, you know that it’s an allegorical novel about a community of rabbits. At the beginning of the story, the rabbits are living together in a community that’s more or less stable and peaceful. It’s a community run by a relatively benevolent dictator rabbit, supported by a group of strong fighters. And while things overall aren’t terrible, things are still pretty tough for the weaker rabbits, or the ones who disagree with the head rabbit, or who are unusual or different from the norm. So when one of the rabbits sees a billboard posted near their warren and warns that something bad is coming their way, and he proposes that they make a change, that they should move their warren somewhere else, the head rabbit and his inner circle aren’t very impressed or amused with him or his ideas.

But still, a small group of rabbits thinks he might be right, and since they’re all outsiders and marginalized members of the warren, they figure they don’t have much to lose if they followed this rabbit with the discomforting message and left the warren behind.

As the story plays out, this group faces all kinds of experiences and threats. And they get through these challenges for two specific reasons. The first reason is that they spend a lot of time together as a community. They do pretty much everything together, as a community. Since they’re always in community with each other, they learn each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and they learn how to work together and complement one another other for the common good. They learn that every member of the group – even the weakest, most unusual member, has something important and valuable to contribute to the community, and to the lives of each of the rabbits individually, too.

And a big part of what holds them together to continually retell their communal stories. These stories tell about the exploits of their common hero, a rabbit whose rabbit-name translates into English as “The Prince with a Thousand Enemies.” These stories focus on how the hero outwits and defeats his enemies, which give them all a common ground for their own actions and moral behavior whenever they face dangers themselves.

The stories aren’t new; the rabbits have all heard these stories a thousand times. If anything, the familiarity of the stories are actually a part of the feeling of community that the rabbits share. And even though they’re very familiar, they end up being retold in new situations and end up having new applications as the rabbits go through new things they’d never experienced or considered before.

This is an important thing for us, too. As Christians, we’re called to be a distinct, identifiable community defined by and centered around our own common story. And this shows up in the stories we have of Jesus after his resurrection, including the one we heard today. I think it’s important to notice that with only one exception, all of the post-resurrection stories about Jesus involve groups – whether it’s just three people, as in today’s story, or the larger group of followers in the locked room in Jerusalem that Jesus appears to, or according to the apostle Paul, at least one time when Jesus appeared to more than 500 people. If there were any doubt before Jesus’ crucifixion, his post-resurrection appearances make it clear that to be a follower of Jesus means that we can’t do it solely as individuals on our own. Jesus’ intentional message of being in community is the same thing the rabbits all had to learn: that we have to be together in the faith, as a community. And a big part of what holds us together, and solidifies our common identity, is the telling and retelling of our story, and instilling it into our hearts and minds.

Jesus understood the importance of the common story. Did you notice that, in this passage from Luke that we heard today? Jesus is walking together with these two disciples, he does the same thing that happened in that children’s message in Toronto. He retells them all their old, familiar stories – rewinding all the way back to the earliest stories in the Torah, and moving through the prophets – but putting them all in the context of their new reality, the reality of Jesus himself and their new experience, their new understanding and application of the old stories. This idea, that we’re an identifiable as a community centered around a common story, is an old familiar story itself. But it’s an important one to really think about this season of Eastertide, for it to be a season when we focus on the same lessons learned by the rabbits in that story.

Even in a general sense, there’s power in community that no individual can ever have. In particular, in order to be a Christian, we simply can’t go it alone, without ties to the larger community. Our own faith is nurtured and deepened, and the community of faith is, too, through sharing the common life together – working together, playing together, eating together, laughing and crying together; really getting to know one another. Complementing one another’s strengths and weaknesses. Valuing one another, even the weakest or most unusual among us, just as it was with the rabbits in the novel. Being gracious about the shortcomings in other members of the community, just as we hope others will extend grace to us when our own shortcomings show up. In short, learning to truly love one another. For us as Christians, the common life begins with the common story.

Our common story is the very same one that Jesus retold to his friends as they were going for a walk together. Have you ever wished you had a time machine, where you could go back in time and experience some great moment in history? If I had one, this walk to Emmaus would be one of the things I’d want to go back and peek in on. Just imagine how Jesus must have explained and told this story, our story. Oh, to have been a fly buzzing around the three of them, listening to the conversation. Or maybe a rabbit, eavesdropping from the grass along the side of the road.

Thanks be to God.

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Creaky Rafters (sermon Easter Sunday, April 5, 2015)

snowy roof

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.  – John 20:1-18

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This past winter, I’m sure I wasn’t the only person here who occasionally looked at all the snow piled up on their roof and wondered just how strong the roof framing was. Sitting alone in the house in the evening and hearing an occasional pop or a creaking rafter, and wondering if this was it, that in the next moment the roof was going to collapse under the pressure, and they’d end up finding your body underneath it all during the Spring thaw, your frozen fingers still clutching that last slice of Wegman’s pizza.

I have to admit that over this winter, I’d started to feel something like my roof. My own mental rafters, my emotional rafters, were starting to creak under the stress of a winter that seemed like it would never end, just a great big cosmic piece of hate mail; but it was more than the weather, too. It was also the whole idea of picking up and moving away from 30 years’ worth of familiarity and support systems and connectedness – family, friends, church, everything. Don’t misunderstand, I love the excitement and challenge of new things, new experiences, and making new friends, and new connections. But even at that, some of these winter days were pretty lonely. Sometimes, I felt like I was going it all alone. It made for some pretty creaky rafters.

I guess I hadn’t quite realized just how much that had affected me until this past week. Some of you know that about a week ago, my pastoral mentor and friend, Phil Hazelton, passed away suddenly and unexpectedly; and that I quickly rearranged my Holy Week schedule to run back to Columbus for his memorial service. It was a gut-wrenchingly sad time for me. I spent most of the service trying hard not to cry, and sometimes even succeeding.

But then something incredible happened. At the full-to-capacity reception that followed the service, as we were coming together to mourn and honor this very inspiring man, I was caught off guard by the overwhelming number of people who made a point to gather around and greet me – old friends I’d known for decades, as well as people whose faces I barely recognized, all offering hugs and handshakes, and smiles, and love, saying how good it was to see me again, and wishing me well. I have to admit, I was kind of embarrassed at first; I mean, we were there to honor Phil, not me. But gradually, bit by bit, with every smile, every hug, every hand on the shoulder, the snow started melting off my rafters, and I realized I’d been mistaken. I recognized something that I guess I knew in my head but I’d forgotten in my heart, and these kinds of things you have to know in your heart. No matter how I’d felt in those moments over the winter, I’d never been alone at all. God’s love, the face of Christ, seen in the faces of all these wonderful old friends, and also all my wonderful new ones, had really been there all along. I was, and am, so blessed because of God’s presence. Over the years, God had used my friend Phil to teach me, or at least to remind me, of so many important things. And now, God had used Phil indirectly to do that again, one last time.

So what does all that have to do with Easter? Well, all through Lent I’ve been thinking about just what Jesus’ death and resurrection really means. I’m not talking about the official party line or the right answer according to the Heidelberg Catechism. And I’m not talking about any doctrines of substitutionary atonement or any other mind-numbing theological arguments, I mean: what does it really mean, to me? And after thinking about it a lot, I think it comes down to something very simple, something very basic, something very much like my experience this past week, and that’s this:

There will certainly be times when things will be difficult – very difficult. You’ll go through times of upheaval and uncertainty that will sometimes seem unbearable. Maybe it will come from not knowing what to do about a decision about work, or school. Maybe it will come when you get a frightening diagnosis from the doctor. Or maybe it will come in the wake of a broken or lost relationship, or the death of a loved one. It could be any of these things, or any of a hundred others. There will be times when you’ll go through hell. And whenever that happens, whatever it is that causes the weight, that causes your own emotional rafters to creak under the pressure, it can make you feel very afraid, and very alone.

But the resurrection means that whatever it is that you’re going through, you are never alone. God raised Jesus from the dead, and however you personally understand that to have occurred, it was real enough and powerful enough for hundreds of his closest friends and first followers to experience it, and for all of them, all devout monotheistic Jews who prayed every single day “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One”, to suddenly start worshiping Jesus as divine. Jesus went through hell, and was given new life, a life that he shares with us – invisibly, directly into our hearts, but also visibly, concretely, through the love and fellowship and support of all those around us who make up the whole community of faith – old friends, new friends, each one of them being the face of Christ to us in times of trouble and uncertainty and loneliness and fear.

In the very last sermon he ever preached, Phil Hazelton said that whatever it is that you’re going through, have no fear. Don’t be afraid. Trust in Christ; he’s got your back. Trust in Christ, keep moving forward; he’s got you covered. Whatever else Jesus’ resurrection means, whatever else the message of Easter is, it’s most definitely this: that through Christ, God is with you – you are not alone. In Christ, every end brings a new beginning, every death brings new living, every uncertainty brings new growing. And we can say that with all confidence and boldness and joy this morning, because on this day, Christ is risen – Thanks be to God!

Christ-Song (sermon March 29, 2015 – Palm Sunday)

palm_sunday_silhouette

When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,

“Hosanna!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

  – Mark 11:1-11

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I have to admit, I’m not a huge fan of poetry. It’s my own fault, I’m sure; I suppose I just haven’t been exposed to enough of it. A lot of what poetry I have seen seems to be either as sappy and simplistic as the rhyme in a budget-priced birthday card; or some long, rambling free-form thing that doesn’t sound very poetic and doesn’t really convey anything other than making you wonder if the writer had been smoking peyote when they wrote it. Let’s face it; even poetry lovers will admit there’s a lot of bad poetry out there.

One poem that’s always stuck with me, though, is one by Ralph Waldo Emerson called “Hamatreya.” It talks about how generations of people have come and gone, and each one has parceled up the land, and bought and sold it, and put their names on it, and held it, and took pride in saying that the land was theirs and that they had control over it and that it yielded itself to them. Emerson writes about these people, calling them

Earth-proud, proud of the earth which is not theirs;
Who steer the plough but cannot steer their feet
clear of the grave.

A little further on, there’s actually a kind of poem within a poem, called “Earth-Song,” where the Earth itself responds to the pridefulness of these people who claimed to be in control of things. The Earth says,

Mine and yours;
Mine, not yours.
Earth endures;
Stars abide –
shine down on the old sea;
Old are the shores;
But where are the old men?
I who have seen much,
Such I have never seen….
… They called me theirs,
Who so controlled me;
Yet every one
Wished to stay, and is gone.
How am I theirs,
I they cannot hold me,
But I hold them?

The Earth’s, or Emerson’s, ironic point about the Earth ultimately having the last word, the word of the grave, regarding the pride, power, and control of things is a sharp stick poked in the eye of the way people understood the world and their importance in it, in his time and in our own.

In today’s gospel text, Jesus is very much using that same sharp stick to poke the supposed powers that be, and for a similar reason. Of course, this is Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week, when we remember Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem in the days leading up to his arrest. Sometimes we call it the “Triumphal Entry,” and in a broad, counterintuitive way I suppose it was that, but to have been there, to have experienced it as it happened, it would have seemed like anything but triumphal. The oddness of it would have seemed like a joke. Or, the more you thought about it, not a joke at all, but that sharp stick in the eye of those in positions of power.

The people in Jesus’ time were very familiar with the impressive way kings or generals or other powerful people arrived in a parade. Full of official pomp and circumstance, with banners, bands, military escort, wailing sirens, riding on big, strong, armored war horses; black SUVs full of Secret Service agents more heavily armed than some small island nations. And out ahead of them were the crowds – clapping, cheering, holding up signs and waving their hoodies in the air over their heads. That was how a VIP came to town.

Jesus certainly had the crowds. But he didn’t bring any of that other baggage with him as he entered Jerusalem, and a big portion of that was by design.

Many of the most memorable and transformative events we experience look spontaneous, when in reality they were very carefully thought out and orchestrated. Whether it’s something as simple and harmless as a flash mob orchestra showing up one person at a time on the plaza until they’re all there belting out a rousing version of Ode to Joy, or something more serious, like Occupy Wall Street, or an ACT UP protest, or a lunch counter sit-in or selecting Rosa Parks to be the person who refuses to give up her seat, all of these things were very carefully thought out to maximize their impact. And in this gospel story, Jesus does the exact same thing. He and his disciples have been wandering all over Judea and Samaria and Galilee and beyond for several years, and apparently doing pretty much all of it on foot. Now, all of a sudden, Jesus needs some four-footed transportation to get to Jerusalem – a distance that’s about as far away from Bethany as the high school is from us. It was a walk he’d normally have made without thinking about, or even breaking a sweat.

And the writer of this gospel spends a lot of time on Jesus’ instructions about how and where to get it, and what kind to get. In fact, there’s far more detail about that than Jesus’ actual arrival into Jerusalem, which he treats almost as an afterthought. There really does seem to be something important about this little colt.

It seems like Jesus is using it to make a carefully calculated statement. When he rides into town on this weak little animal, it isn’t like the other VIPs from the Roman Empire, who are oppressing the people. This is his way of poking a stick in their eye, tweaking their noses, making fun of them. He’s telling them that real power, and control, and authority, don’t need all those outward trappings. The real King doesn’t need the security detail and all those other things. In this bit of street theater, Jesus is saying there’s only one real King, and it isn’t Caesar.

It’s a very radical, revolutionary statement that Jesus is making here, mocking the Roman occupiers. It’s a very political statement. It’s most likely what got him killed. And the statement that he’s making is that those people who would claim to be in control, and to have power over them, are wrong. They aren’t the power that people should give their loyalty to, and any power that those people use to put them down or oppress them is illegitimate.

A large part of Jesus’ entire earthly ministry revolved around teaching that God’s love, and God’s kingdom, radically contradicts the message coming from all earthly powers and systems that would unjustly try to control or diminish us. The kingdom of God frees us from that, and calls us all to grasp onto that great truth of God’s love and acceptance. This is the good news that Christ came to share with us – that you don’t have to accept the judgment of those who would consider you less worthy, less human, because they don’t like the color of your skin, or your age, or your sex, or how good-looking you are or how smart you are or who your parents were or where you went to school or where you live, or anything else. Christ riding into Jerusalem on that little colt says that God considers us good, and precious, and worthy of justice and love – you, me, all of us; all those other would-be powers literally be damned. Emerson had his Earth-Song; I suppose you could call this the Christ-Song. The people cheering out in front of Jesus thought that he was going to change things and set this new reality into motion, and they were right about that as they sang the Christ-Song, even if they didn’t quite understand how. Today, from our perspective, we can all grasp onto that good news for ourselves, too. We can be singing that same song, and cheering, and waving palms in front of Jesus as he comes riding into Jerusalem – or is it Auburn?

Thanks be to God.