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.

Back-dated Chicago-Blogging: “Marriage Matters,” part 1

I’m back home now from the Covenant Network of Presbyterians‘ Marriage Matters conference. My bags are unpacked, the stacked mail will be sorted through tonight (junk mail, junk mail, junk mail, rejection letter, junk mail, bill, junk mail…), and most, not all, of the phone messages and email replies have been taken care of. Now I have time to tell a bit about the conference.

This trip was done on the extreme cheap. I was very blessed and grateful to receive scholarship money to pay for the event, and the church agreed to pick up the travel and lodging expenses. Still, in order to be as frugal with the church’s money as possible, I didn’t stay at the official conference hotels, or even an “unofficial” hotel, for that matter. Instead, I decided to be a bit more adventurous – I booked space at the Wrigley Hostel, a literal stone’s throw from Wrigley Field, offering a great price and almost door-to-door transportation via the Red Line between it and the conference downtown at the Gratz Center of the Fourth Presbyterian Church.

I got into town Wednesday evening, before the conference and pre-conference workshop kicked off the next morning – which, while I’m thinking about it, why was it called a “pre-conference” workshop? Why wasn’t it just considered part of the conference? I didn’t get that, but just like the question of why men have nipples and other similar imponderables, I guess there are apparently some things you just go with.

The hostel was pretty much as advertised online – basic, no-frills dormitory-style lodging with some common areas for socializing, with a very diverse group of mostly (much) younger, mostly international travelers passing through. That combination of youth and international flavor would have made the stay interesting enough; add to that the fact that I was staying there over Halloween and it was all the more interesting. Overall, I have no problem with spartan accommodations when traveling on the cheap, and I didn’t here. I will say, though, that being assigned to an upper bunk in the room gave me regular reminders that I’m not 25 any more. Oy.

I crawled down out of my upper berth early Thursday morning, trying to get ready without waking up the others in the room. I grabbed some toast and a piece of fruit in the kitchen – literally just outside my bedroom door; I had to walk through it to get to the room – and headed to the Addison stop on the Red Line, where a very nice  transit employee walked me through buying a three-day metro pass.

When I left the hostel, the skies were grey but dry. I have a history of leaving a trail of forgotten umbrellas behind me when traveling, so I decided to leave my current one back in the room – probably the worst decision I made all day. It was pouring when I exited the Chicago & State stop, and even though it was just a short walk to the Gratz Center, I was pretty well soaked through by the time I got to there. My saturated wool sweater made me smell like a wet sheep, so I peeled it off and hung it over a chair to dry. At the same time, this first day of the conference there were problems keeping the temperature in the building to levels anywhere this side of hell, which quickly made a mockery of the claims made on the label of my deodorant. Before long, I was wishing I only smelled as bad as a wet sheep. I feel for anyone who had to sit next to me this first day.

Weather and climate control issues aside, I quickly registered for the conference and crawled into a cup of hot coffee. As I did, I got the opportunity to meet Brian Ellison, the Executive Director of Covenant Network, with whom I’d previously communicated via email but had never met in person. It was great to finally meet him.

The workshop scheduled for this morning was led by Kimberly Bracken Long, an associate professor of worship at Columbia Theological Seminary. The primary focus of the workshop was to consider the issue of developing a marriage liturgy that would be universally appropriate regardless of the sexes of the two partners. In doing so, we looked at the current PC(USA) liturgy. We also reviewed same-sex or universal marriage or blessing liturgies coming out of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, the Episcopal Church of America, and the United Church of Canada (the largest Protestant denomination in Canada; a melding of most of the formerly separate Methodists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Brethren, and others). The table I was part of looked specifically at the UCC liturgy, and I was actually very impressed with most of it.

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The group of us in the Marriage Liturgies workshop

In the afternoon, we heard the first of plenary session speakers, Macky Alston. Alston comes from a long line of Presbyterian ministers – in fact, his father, in addition to being a pioneer for civil rights in the 1960’s, was the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church of the United States (our official title for the Grand Exalted Poobah of the denomination). Among other things, Alston is a documentary filmmaker; his recent documentary “Love Free or Die,” about Episcopal bishop Gene Robinson, won the 2012 Sundance Film Festival Special Jury Prize. Alston offered a very moving, sometimes gut-wrenching, sometimes inspiring glimpse into his own life as a gay man growing up in a church which largely shunned him. Challenging those gathered there, he summarized the findings of focus-group studies that he’d conducted regarding people’s opinions on matters of LGBTQ equality in church and society. He pointed out that while there were certainly compelling scriptural arguments for inclusivity, too often, progressive Christians didn’t make them – opting instead for more secular, non-faith-based appeals, thinking that these arguments would appeal to a broader swath of the public. At the same time, opponents of inclusivity within the church consistently used scriptural arguments. That means that when the public, largely consisting of the great Christian “middle ground” – those non-extremists who are trying to honestly reach some thoughtful opinion about LGBTQ inclusivity that was consistent with their faith – heard the arguments, the only scriptural arguments they’ve heard were for from the opponents to inclusivity – so they thought that the opponents’ arguments were the only “Christian” position possible. In short, in their attempts to make the progressive Christian position more accessible and acceptable by making it more secular, they actually made it less so. Alston argued for progressives to change course, to make their arguments from scripture – but not in a dry, academic sense. At the Thanksgiving dinner table, don’t make Cousin Sue’s eyes glaze over by discussing the finer points of koine Greek. Simply make the argument for love and justice, from a scriptural basis. This, along with people’s direct personal interaction with LGBTQ folk, are what have consistently proven to change people’s long-held thoughts.

Of course, Alston said much more than that, and much more eloquently. It was a great kickoff session.

As I was exiting the Buchanan Chapel, I bumped into Matthew Vines and introduced myself. Vines is a gay man who grew up in a conservative, Evangelical, Presbyterian church in Wichita, Kansas, who made media waves about a year ago when he posted an hour-long youTube video detailing his personal research into what the Bible says – and doesn’t say – about homosexuality. He was scheduled to lead one of the workshops available at the conference. I ended up attending his workshop on Friday and speaking with him informally a few times during the conference. His presentation in the original video is quite remarkable (he certainly isn’t the first to make the arguments he makes in the video, but he presents the information very effectively and passionately; I’ve recommended it to a number of people over the past year), and he’s even more impressive in person. Since creating the original video, he’s started an organization called The Reformation Project – but more about that in a follow-up blog entry.

After a delicious jambalaya dinner, evening worship included a message from Frank Yamada, President of McCormick Theological Seminary. His message was based on Genesis 2 – the second creation account, detailing the creation of man and woman; one of the texts often held up as an argument against same-sex relationships and marriage. Yamada offered the view – effectively, I thought – that the primary point of this text is not really about gender-specifics, but rather, that human isolation and loneliness is not good; that it is a good thing for us to form relationships with another whom we find to be an appropriate companion, regardless of whether that companion is of the same or the opposite sex (Yamada didn’t specifically mention it, but I always note when reading this text that God didn’t create a woman for the man and order the man to accept her as his companion – rather, God created the woman and left it for the particular man to choose whether this was a suitable companion for him. To repeat: God left it to the human being himself to determine who would be his appropriate companion/helper). Yamada stressed that being isolated and alone was, to quote God, “not good” – and that accepting only such relationships that are between two people of the opposite sex, and refusing to accept such relationships between those of the same sex, is actually working contrary to God’s will. He added to this point by referring to Galatians 3, that in Christ there is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male and female – that these are meaningless distinctions in the eyes of God. It was a very good sermon.

After this, I headed back north on the Red Line and to the controlled mayhem of the hostel. And there was morning, and there was evening, the first day. More to come.