Christ Has No Body but OURS

Traditionally, on the 40th day after Easter, the church celebrates the feast of the Ascension. But because so few people in the 21st century are willing to come to church during the week, the Ascension is celebrated by the church on the first Sunday after the feast of the Ascension. Since I have been your pastor we have always marked this festival day of the Church Universal.  But this year is different because I have two personal stories to share with you, stories I have to this point shared only with two or three other people.

Let’s just be blunt here at the onset and say that the Ascension of Jesus never happened. It is not an historical event. If you or I had been there 40 days after the resurrection of Jesus, we would have no pictures to show and no videos to share on Facebook. Yes, I am well aware of what the ancient creeds of the Church say: “Jesus ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.” But like the members of the early church, I do not have a literal understanding of the scriptures, nor of the creeds.

We would do well to remember that the Creeds were developed to answer questions about the faith in a time when people understood the cosmos to be comprised of a flat earth, where God resides above in the heavens and located beneath the earth were the pits of hell. We live in a different mindset: we know the universe is infinite. We know about gravity. Many of us have flown all over the globe and we can each reassure you that heaven does not exist above the clouds.

The writer of the Gospel according to Luke and the Book of Acts are one and the same person. And although we can’t be sure of his real name or know anything about him, we do know he was not an historian.  He was not a scientist.  Both of his works are addressed to the same person: Theopholus. The name is a Greek one, like many of the delightful Greek names that Mary likes to read on Sunday mornings.  But the name Theopholus means literally “lover of God.”  In other words, the books are addressed to the lovers of God, you and me, with the author’s intent that we come to share his deep faith in Jesus and in God.

So, what did the ascension mean for Luke?  And, more importantly, what does it mean for you and me today?

I believe that the followers of Jesus experienced God so powerfully when they listened to him that they came to believe that the very presence of God was among them.  And this experience of Jesus’ power continued after his death.  In fact, these experiences of Jesus were so powerful that they defied logic and description. As these followers searched the Hebrew Scriptures, they found connections with two earlier prophets, Elijah and Elisha, which helped them to build a context for the idea that the Spirit of Jesus continued to act and move among and within them.

If we are to move beyond the literal, beyond the historical, beyond the metaphorical to the life-changing meaning of the stories that have been handed down to us, we have to find another answer. We owe it to our children to give them a faith that can stand the onslaught of scientific discovery and plain old logic. Because if our faith is based only on a miraculous Jesus who ignores the laws of gravity, time and space, how will that help us when we have life-threatening illness?  Or dementia? Or suffer the loss of a child?  We cannot.  Unless we grow in our faith, we will soon enough decide that it is irrelevant and we will abandon it.

Jesus was human, and yet his gift to us continues to give.  He continues to reveal to us God in all God’s glory.  He also reveals to us our own divine nature and the glory that resides within us. For myself, Jesus matters and his ascension is real even though the story is not literally true. Through his radical love of his enemies, he invites me into the mystery that surrounds me and is part of my very being. Jesus has become, for me, the door through which I am willing to walk into the Mystery of God. For this Mystery I have decided I am willing to die in order to find new life. And that’s because Mystery makes sense to me, miracle stories do not. The mysterious Jesus inspires me and calls me to new levels of being more fully human. He sustains my faith even as he challenges it.

A year ago, on the Saturday before Easter, I had a near death experience in David’s apartment in Indianapolis. As most of you know, that year was the 20th anniversary of my son Christopher’s death, and it hit me very hard.  He died at 19, so he has now been gone from me longer than I had him with me. I was sorrowful and grieving every day, though I think I hid it well from most of you.  So I am standing in David’s kitchen, chopping carrots for something I was cooking.  Suddenly I was not in the kitchen, I was nailed to the cross with Jesus, on the backside of the cross actually, and I was able to whisper into his ear as he was dying, “Lord, I can’t do this any more.  I miss my son, and I’ve kept this deep hurt for too long.  And now he’s gone twenty years and I just can’t do it any more.”  And he said to me, “I understand. It’s okay if you want to go.  There is no shame in saying you just can’t do it anymore. You can go if you really want to.”  I remember feeling so relieved at hearing this and I told him I wanted to go.  And then he indicated that I should raise my eyes and look at what he was looking at before I left.  And I saw an entire universe of sparkling stars, so many billions and billions of them.  There was a twinkling star for every single human being who had ever been or who would ever come to be.  And I saw them as Jesus saw them, in their sorrow and their pain and suffering.  It was overwhelming and I realized that this is exactly what Jesus had seen from the cross.  And suddenly, his death made sense; he had seen all of us and had decided to trade his life for all of ours.  “You see,” he said, “there is no shame in leaving if you simply cannot continue.”

As he said this, a swirling cloud covered the stars and a light began to glow within it from far away.  I was being drawn into the light, feeling relief and gratitude that I was done with this life of suffering and loss. There seemed to be a threshold and it was there I paused for second.  I looked back at the countless billions of hurting souls and I said, “Wait. I don’t think I should go yet, I think maybe there are some I might be able to help.”

Just like that the vision ended and suddenly I am on the floor with David hovering over me, hysterically calling my name, saying I had no pulse and that he was going to call 911.  My arms were in the form of a cross and he was trying to pull me up from the floor.  He was yanking on my right hand and I said (or thought) “David, stop pulling! You have to pull the nail out first!”  I wondered how someone with so much practical knowledge could ignore the obvious!  I had a bump on my head but no other injury and for awhile I couldn’t even speak of it because it was something that defied common sense and there were no words to really express what happened, but I knew then that Jesus had really ascended,  and that that’s where all of us are headed.

Luke, in both his gospel and in Acts, is trying to prepare us God-lovers for our own personal arrival of the Spirit of God, the same Spirit that lived and breathed in and with and through Jesus. He wants us to find the same joy those early Christians felt when they realized that the God they saw in Jesus they now found in themselves. He wants us to discover for ourselves that we can love as extravagantly as Jesus.  And most important of all, he wants us to realize the power we have to bring healing and reconciliation to at least a few of those billions and billions of human souls.  Just like Jesus did.

My prayer for each of us is that the truth of the ascension comes to live and breathe and be real to us. May we know the joy of seeing Jesus point the way, the joy of finding God, and may we know the God who is everywhere, even within us when we feel we simply cannot endure. May we love as extravagantly as Jesus loved. May we live as abundantly as Jesus lived. And may we always remember that the ascension is an event that never happened, and yet ascension happens every day in every human heart that loves.

 

Advertisements
Posted in Becoming "Church" | Leave a comment

A Mother’s Day Thought or Two

My grandmother has been gone almost 30 years, and my mother died 5 years ago, so Mother’s Day is a moot point for me for the most part.  Sure, I’m grateful for my mother, my grandmother, and all the “mothers” who’ve nurtured and supported and loved me through my life.  It’s a weird feeling to be orphaned, regardless of one’s age…not having parents means the mantle has passed to me, as the eldest of my generation, to pick up where they left off.  I’m not ready.  I’m not old enough.  I’m not competent to be an elder in anyone’s family….and yet, here I am.

I’ve been through some crazy, sick, abusive, violent and terrifying things in my life, starting very young and continuing through the death of my son, an alcoholic spouse, my own drug addiction, and the sexual assault and battery I suffered at the hands of law enforcement in their failed sting operation.  Fortunately for me, I was already clean and sober, so they got nothing for all their surveillance, compromised informants, tailing and eavesdropping.

In the aftermath of my father’s death last December, I came into possession of my baby book, which contains several letters written to me by my mother.  The one that struck me and made me cry was dated the day of my baptism at St. Mary’s Church in Appleton, Wisconsin.  My mother writes that immediately after the baptism, she took me over to Mary’s altar and dedicated me to her maternal care, believing in her heart that even if she (my mother) couldn’t protect me from the pain of life, certainly the Blessed Virgin could and would.

I’ve always had an attachment to the Virgin Mary, and during the worst of my childhood abuse, it was to her altar I fled after school and on Saturday mornings at another St. Mary’s Church, this one in Oshkosh.  She got me through the abuse and the terror.  She was there to hold me in her mantle during the difficult marriage that alcohol ruined.  She pressed me to her heart when my son, Chris, was killed–she knows a little something about losing a Son. She was there for me in rehab, and through the tumultuous recovery of 2016.  Last, but not least, she continued to shield me from injustice and lying lips when the DEA sting operation failed and, despite the slanderous lies the Fort Wayne Police Department told my family, she kept me from hopelessness and despair. It seems clear: my own mother’s earnest prayer of dedication on that cold March day in 1957 has continuously been heard by my other Mother.

So, long story short, this mother’s day I am grateful to my mother, Ruth Ann, not only for her courage during a difficult marriage and her best attempts to raise me to be a good son, but most of all for giving me to the Blessed Virgin Mary, my Mother, who has unfailingly protected me from evil, sometimes even from myself.

Posted in Becoming "Church" | Leave a comment

Does Size Matter??

This Gospel makes us wonder. How much faith does a person need? According to Luke, the ones closest to Jesus believe they don’t have enough: “Increase our faith!” they plead.
Despite 2000+ years separating their experience from ours, on one level we understand their appeal because in our culture we often think we need more of everything. We are very attentive to what is missing, and don’t pay much attention to what is in abundance.
Jesus is headed toward Jerusalem, healing and teaching as he makes his way. Traveling with him are disciples and apostles (Luke sometimes distinguishes the two). Crowds gather, people seek healing, and challengers seek answers. There are seven references to the coming death of Jesus, so even this early there are signposts.
Our passage is framed by the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, on one side, and the Samaritan leper who returns to give thanks, on the other. It constitutes the second half of a four-part series of loosely connected teachings related to discipleship, which may be summarized as a Four Step Program: (1) Don’t be the cause of another’s sin (Greek skandalon, stumble); (2) Forgive, again; (3) Miniscule faith is sufficient; (4) Discipleship is not about reward: Just do it!
These are challenging commands — maybe even impossible ones — then and now. It is a sobering thought to recognize one’s capacity to cause another’s stumbling, despite intentions otherwise. Plus, it is hard enough to forgive, even once. But seven times in a single day?! No wonder the apostles ask Jesus for a transfusion of faith (literally “Add faith to us!”).
More faith? Better faith? Any faith at all?
When it comes to faith (Greek pistis, may also be translated as trust, confidence, commitment), Jesus suggests that size does not matter; even a seed of faith holds tree-like potential. Jesus’ followers can live and act on the basis of whatever faith is theirs, no matter how small or insignificant it seems. We might recall that even the immeasurable reign of God is compared to a mustard seed (Luke 13:19).
As commentators note, the Greek grammar of Jesus’ response to the apostles’ request in Luke 17:6 presents difficulties for translation. It is a mixed conditional sentence. The “if” clause is a simple condition (assumed to be true for the sake of argument), while the “then” clause suggests a contrary-to-fact condition (assumed to be untrue for the sake of argument).
Mulberry trees do not routinely replant themselves, in the sea or elsewhere, suggesting that most Jesus-followers have faith even smaller than a mustard seed. So then, is Jesus chastising the apostles for a complete lack of faith? Or, rather, is he encouraging them not to worry about the smallness of their faith? Greek grammar or no, Jesus’ answer seems to be a mixed one.
Throughout Luke’s Gospel, the closest followers of Jesus reveal their own “mixed” level of faith. On one hand, they have left homes and jobs and families in order to follow Jesus. It has not been easy, as they have encountered hostility from many who oppose Jesus (Luke 11:53; 13:31; 16:14). Still they have stuck around, even for this final journey toward Jerusalem, even when they receive a warning from Jesus himself that he is going to be crucified. Through the centuries, there have been numberous examples of this kind of faith in every congregation and community.
At the same time, we see turmoil and fear in our world, so we can empathize with the disciples when faith wavers. When the wind roars and the waves batter their boat as they cross the Sea of Galilee, even as Jesus sleeps beside them, they are overwhelmed by terror. “Where is your faith?” Jesus asks, after calming the storm (Luke 8:25). Later, he chides their limited trust in God. “If God clothes the grass … how much more will [God] clothe you — you of little faith!” (Luke 12:28).
There is a message here that we often miss: Being close to Jesus, being in proximity to Jesus does not guarantee unwavering faith.
Still, examples of faithfulness abound in Luke’s Gospel, suggesting that faith is not defined as having intellectual certainty, nor acceptance of proper theological constructs, nor even (necessarily) by people who consider themselves to be closest to Jesus. Faith manifests itself in many ways, by a variety of people.
Faith is persistence in reaching out to Jesus (Luke 5:17-26) and trusting in Jesus’ power and authority (7:1-10). Faith is responding with love to forgiveness received (7:44-50), not letting fear get the upper hand (8:22-25), and being willing to take risks that challenge the status quo (8:43-48). Faith is giving praise to God (17:11-19), having confidence in God’s desire for justice (18:1-8), and being willing to ask Jesus for what we need (18:35-43).1
I can think back over my life and see examples of great heroic faith in the face of fear, moments of very tiny amounts of faith when all seemed lost, and other times when that same small amount of faith grew into something magnificent–as if the mulberry tree in the back yard had indeed uprooted itself and replanted itself in the Mediterranean.
Jesus closes his four-part teaching moment with a couple of parable-like questions, both of which anticipate a negative answer: “Who among you … ?” and “Do you thank … ?” (Cf. Luke 11:5-7; 15:4).
His teaching draws from the role of a servant in the first century agrarian household. Note the similar (but different!) illustration in the parable of the watchful servants (Luke 12:35-38). In that case when the head of the household (Greek kyrios) returns from a wedding banquet, “he will fasten his belt and have them [servants] sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them.” In our passage, Jesus seems to suggest that those who would be leaders (the apostles; note Luke 17:5) would do best to view themselves as ones who serve.2
Instead of worrying about the size of our faith, perhaps we, like those followers of Jesus in the first century, should think less about how much faith we have and just get on with the business of living out our obedience to Christ’s commands. Depending on our age and abilities, we may find ourselves able to do very little, or at least much less that we used to be able to do. And then we recall the words of our Savior that remind us that the one who is faithful in even little things is also faithful in greater things.

Posted in Becoming "Church" | Leave a comment

Undelivered Cards and Christ’s Love

The hero of my young life was my mother’s mother, Pearl. In a family situation where I always felt I had to prove my worth in order to earn the full measure of love, my grandmother was different. She adored me and loved me with no strings attached; I firmly believe that her unconditional love is what allows me to have faith in a God who loves me unconditionally.
Growing up, my grandparents lived 20 miles to the north, which in that earlier time seemed like a great distance. We only saw them for holidays and birthdays, and of course the supervising of the entire crew of kids for the annual spring cleaning—something that also taught me a vital life lesson, namely, that there is a hell. And it is intimately related to cleaning baseboards and scrubbing the rubber gasket on the fridge door with a toothbrush. I lived with my grandparents for a week or two every summer and when I needed to flee my parents’ house, I lived with her for almost a year. When my marriage failed, I moved back in with her, so needless to say, Pearl and I got to know a lot about each other.
As her memory began to fail and she grew more forgetful, the family decided to put her in a nursing home in Milwaukee, which was about an hour and a half away. By this time I had kids of my own and despite her dementia, she always recognized me and my boys. Her birthday was November 1, and I had a card all signed and ready to go, but when I went down to see her the week before, I forgot to actually give her the card. And I drove all the way back home with the card in the glove box before I realized my own forgetfulness. As a result she never got that birthday card because she died on her birthday, only a few days later. I didn’t have the heart to destroy the card, considering it was the last I was ever going to buy for her, so it traveled with me for years in the glovebox, even changing cars when I traded it in. The card somehow became her gift to me, instead of vice versa, and it was a tangible way to hang on to her love. It was my connection to her.
On a deeper level, holding on to that unopened birthday card revealed my need to be connected, to be remembered, to have and to know my true place in this life. We all want that. Regardless of how old we are or the circumstances of our lives we want to know: Who am I? What are the connections that will sustain my life? Where is my place in this world?
Those are the questions Jesus is addressing as he speaks to his disciples in today’s gospel. It is the evening of the last supper. Jesus is speaking final words, one last sermon, to his disciples. He is preparing them for the Easter earthquake and the transformation of their lives. And Jesus gives some direct answers to them, reminding them that they are his friends, and that LOVE—the laying down your life kind of love—is the connection that will sustain us. Jesus says this is our place in this world.
I’ve spent a lot of time—decades—looking for those answers and trying to make them my own. It’s taken me a while to realize that intellectual answers don’t matter unless they become lived answers. We learn to trust and live those answers in relationship with one another. And we have two realities to contend with: LIFE teaches us to love. DEATH teaches us how to live.
Our searching for answers to those big questions are really our searching for Christ. We’re always searching, I think, but sometimes we are painfully aware of needing those answers: when a loved one dies; when the last kid grows up and moves out, when we get a new job, when we retire, when our health fails, when we get married or divorced, etc… In those moments we want something to hold on to, something to comfort, encourage, and reassure us; a birthday card that will guide us through life.
I’ve never told anyone about the birthday card in the glove box until today, and as I was putting this sermon together, I realized that the birthday card was not the gift and it was not the thing that carried Grandma’s presence. I am. I was the last thing she touched whenever she hugged and kissed me. I was the one she never forgot, the one she believed to the end who would come to take her back home. I was the one to always know how deeply I was loved, with no strings attached. My life, my actions, my very being still somehow carries her presence, her memories, and our shared love. The connection was and always had been within me not in a greeting card.
Sadness, fear, and desperation often cause us to grip those greeting card, in one form or another. We stuff them in our pockets and purses, trying to hold a connection that already exists, trying to maintain a presence that is already eternal, and hanging on to a love that is already beyond the power of death. We do this not only with each other, we also do it with Jesus. With each greeting card we collect, we forget that our lives already embody the shared love of God and one another. Love is the fullness of presence–a presence that the disciples will eventually realize can transcend time, distance and even death itself.
The Risen Jesus does not give us something, he says we ARE something. We are the gift. We are the connection.
* I love you with the same love that the Father loves me. You have what I have.
* I give to you the joy that my Father and I share. You are part of us.
 *You are my joy, my life, and my purpose.
 *I want your joy to be full, complete, whole, and perfect.
 *You are my friends, my peers, my equals.
 *I have told you everything. Nothing is held back or kept secret.
 *I chose you. I picked you. I wanted you.
* I appointed, ordained, commissioned, and sent you to bear fruit, to love another. I trust and believe you can do this.
It’s all about us in the best sense of those words because we are the love of Christ. Our belief in Jesus’ words changes how we see ourselves, one another, the world, and the circumstances of our lives. That belief is what allows us to keep his commandment to love one another. When we know these things about ourselves, what else can we do but surrender ourselves to love?
The challenge of our search is not to find the answers and store them away, rather it is to accept them and live them. Who am I? I am the love of Christ. What are the connections that will sustain my life? The love of Christ. Where is my place in this world? The love of Christ.

Posted in Becoming "Church" | 2 Comments

Still Angry…but Not Stuck

I’m coming up on an anniversary that is traumatic for me because, through the actions of a lot of people who claimed they loved me, I lost almost everything I had spent the previous 20 years building.  High on the list of disappointments when I came back from rehab and some medical challenges in 2016 was, and is, the behavior of the parish board and the parishioners. I would like to be able to say that I’ve forgiven them all and moved on, but the truth is there is still some very real anger. Yes, I’ve worked through a lot of feelings and have forgiven as best I can, but the hurt is deep. I had spent a decade with these people; I knew their struggles and fears, their joys and their losses.  Each of them felt rejected by the larger Catholic Church because they were divorced and remarried, gay or lesbian, or in some cases, they were simply better theologically educated or more inclusive when it came to welcoming everyone to the table of the Lord.  Together we built the fastest growing Catholic parish in the city, where all were welcome–no questions asked, no demands or strings attached. The parish grew and together we challenged ourselves to reach beyond our individual limitations to better reach out to those who needed us  most. Despite this focus on unconditional acceptance and love, when it came time to accept that their beloved pastor had a drug addiction, they abruptly abandoned me as a priest and as a man who more than anything needed some loving support in order to stay clean. Ironically, they treated me exactly as they had been treated by the institutional Church: they judged me an outcast not worth saving and disappeared. I waited for them to return, and when they didn’t, I wrote a long apology letter to each of them.  Only two even bothered to respond, but both made it clear that they wanted nothing further to do with me. That hurt is still fresh and the wounds are deep–and so is the anger.

All of this has given me an opportunity to rethink the anger issue, especially when anger makes us think of ways we might strike back. It’s a normal human emotion to want some revenge. It’s normal to get so angry that we find ourselves imagining ways we might actually follow through on the imagined revenge. But the reality is, revenge hurts everyone, especially the one who initiates it. And the revenge plan never goes the way we imagine it will because when we act to strike back, we unleash an energy force that cannot be contained.  Wherever there is energy there is power. Even holding thoughts of taking revenge on someone for having hurt us only amplifies the violence that has already been created. We tend to think that our actions alone matter, but the reality is the thinking precedes the action, so the way we think is key. Violence begets more violence. Throwing a stone in the water where someone has already thrown a stone only makes additional disturbance on the surface of the lake. That leaves only one workable solution: forgiveness.

Damn! That’s a tall order, I know, but I’m giving it  chance to calm my soul in the aftermath of the events of two years ago.  Here’s what I’m learning so far.  First, I have accepted the truth that I need to release the people with whom I am angry and hurt and when thoughts of them come up, I need to surrender all of it to God’s care. Things tend to have a purpose in this life where everything is interconnected, so I accept that the negative energy of the past can be a teaching moment for me as I continue to heal. Second, it is within the realm of possibility that the actions of those who harmed me may have had nothing to do with me personally. If I can bracket off my pain and anger for a minute and acknowledge that their choices may have had nothing to do with me, I don’t take the hurt so personally.  I can release my anger and hurt–at least for now. Third, I have learned that every human interaction is an opportunity for me to respond with better choices. Sometimes I need to take a deep breath and remind myself that feelings pass, and that allows me just enough time to remember the Presence of God within me, thereby making it a little easier to respond with compassion and integrity.

Logically I know that I can never know all the circumstances that led someone to do something, but by trying to suspend my tendency to judge and praying instead for God’s healing for all concerned, I feel more sure that I am cooperating with God to create something positive out of a difficult situation. The events of the past will always be a painful memory, and I just need to accept that the past cannot ever be anything but what it was–and ask God to help me accept life as it is, not how I want it to be.

I really do think that at every moment each of us has chance to change the darkness of our world through a simple decision to bring light instead. Instead of allowing circumstances to undermine our best selves, we can instead return curses with a blessing. Whenever we choose to bless, we gift others with the energy of our thoughts, and I do believe the whole world feels that kind of impact. And if it’s not totally obvious by now, let me humbly say that being a priest doesn’t make any of this forgiveness and blessing stuff any easier. It’s just harder to stand up front and talk about God and amazing grace while we’re wallowing in our own poo.

Fr. Michel

Posted in Becoming "Church" | Leave a comment

YOU are the Body and Blood of Christ!

There once was…. “A young widower, who loved his five-year-old son very much, was away on business, and bandits came, burned down his whole village, and took his son away. When the man returned, he saw the ruins and panicked. He took the charred corpse of an infant to be his own child, and he began to pull his hair and beat his chest, crying uncontrollably. He organized a cremation ceremony, collected the ashes, and put them in a very beautiful velvet pouch.  Working, sleeping, or eating, he always carried the bag of ashes with him. One day his real son escaped from the robbers and found his way home. He arrived at his father’s new cottage at midnight, and knocked at the door. You can imagine, at that time, the young father was still carrying the bag of ashes and crying. He asked, “Who is there?” And the child answered, “It’s me, Papa. Open the door, it’s your son.”

In his agitated state of mind the father thought that some mischievous boy was making fun of him, and he shouted at the child to go away, and continued to cry. The boy knocked again and again, but the father refused to let him in. Some time passed, and finally the child left. From that time on, father and son never saw one another.

After telling this story, the Buddha said, “Sometime, somewhere you take something to be the truth. If you cling to it so much, when the truth comes in person and knocks on your door, you will not open it.”

Jesus said, “Those who welcome you also welcome me, and those who welcome me welcome the One who sent me.” But what does it mean to welcome Jesus. Maybe we are, even today, carrying a velvet bag of ashes around with us.  They may have value to us as the ashes of our child and they may represent something dear to us, like our love for God. But in the end, the ashes can never be the real Jesus. We carry around with us some of our earliest learnings about this Jesus, and we keep them carefully wrapped up tightly, bound in our doctrines and dogmas and early prayer life experiences. Sometimes we cling so tightly to these things that we miss entirely the radical nature and extravagant love of this man whose life and teaching changed the world. Sometimes our own selfish desires about what Jesus might be able to do for us can cause us to be completely blind to who Jesus was and is.

Here is a contemporary parable that gives us a valuable insight I think:  Late one evening a group of disciples packed their belongings and left for a distant shore, because they couldn’t stand living in the same place where Jesus had been crucified.  Weighed down with sorrow, they left, vowing never to return. They traveled far and wide, in search of a place to call home once more. After months of difficult travel, they finally happened upon an isolated area that was ideal for setting up a new community. Here they found fertile ground, clean water, and a nearby forest from which to harvest material needed to build shelter. So they settled there, founding a community far from Jerusalem, a community where they vowed to keep the memory of Christ alive and live in simplicity, love, and forgiveness, just as Jesus had taught them. The members of this community lived in isolation for over a century, devoting their time to reflecting on Jesus and his teaching, and remaining as faithful as they could to his ways. And they did all this despite the overwhelming sorrow in their heart. But their isolation was eventually broken when, early one morning, a small band of missionaries reached them.

The missionaries were amazed at the community they found. What was most startling to them was that these people had no knowledge of the resurrection or the ascension of Christ, because they had left Jerusalem before Christ returned from the dead. Without hesitation the missionaries gathered together all the community members and recounted what had occurred after the imprisonment and bloody crucifixion of Jesus. That evening there was a great festival in the camp as people celebrated the news of the missionaries. Yet, as the night progressed, one of the missionaries noticed that the leader of the community was absent. This bothered the young man, so he set out to look for this respected elder. Eventually he found the community’s leader crouched low in a small hut on the fringe of the village, praying and weeping. “Why are you in such sorrow?” asked the missionary in amazement. “Today is a time for great celebration.”

It may indeed be a day for great celebration, but this is also a day of sorrow,” replied the elder, who remained crouched on the floor. “Since the founding of this community we have followed the ways taught to us by Christ. We pursued Christ’s ways faithfully even though it cost us dearly, and we remained resolute despite the belief that death had defeated Christ and would one day defeat us also.” The elder slowly got to his feet and looked the missionary in the eye.

“Each day we have forsaken our very lives for Christ because we judged Christ wholly worth of the sacrifice, wholly worthy of our being. But now following your news, I am concerned that my children and my children’s children may follow Christ, not because of his trading of his life for ours, but rather, that they will selfishly follow him because they will get personal salvation and heaven.” With this the elder turned and left the hut, making his way to the celebrations that could be heard dimly in the distance, leaving the missionary weeping on the floor.

In order for us to find Jesus, to be willing to embrace him to the point of becoming his Body and Blood, we need to lay aside our own bag of ashes in order to move beyond what we know, or think we know. The storyteller known as Matthew has Jesus giving his disciples some instructions about how they are to represent him.  He doesn’t baptize them first. He doesn’t have them memorize a creed. He doesn’t give them any veterinary training or advice on how to distinguish sheep from goats. He never asks them if they are  lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. He doesn’t promise any salvation beyond the present moment; in fact he tells them it’s not about them at all. He suggests they have to have a conversion of heart, a change of attitude.  As important as family is, they need to understand that what Jesus represents is more important.  What he represents is even more important than life itself.  He tells them their task is to represent him and in doing so they represent the ONE whom he represents.

I can hear the disciples saying, “Huh?  What do you mean? How do we that?  Do we wear special clothes?  Do we need a collar?  Should we memorize all the Scriptures so we can quote it chapter and verse?” And Jesus shakes his head, bemused, and responds:  “Naw, just welcome people into your lives. Welcome everyone, but especially welcome those no one else even wants to acknowledge.  You think you have nothing to offer, but you will find that even a cup of water can become a miracle.”

“Is that all,” they ask.

“Yep. That’s it.  Be the hospitality of God, and everything else will follow.”

Hospitality it turns out is at the heart of our faith.  A Christian is simply someone who is hospitable, which sounds crazy easy until we try to put it into daily practice. It is easy to be hospitable to people who look, act and vote like us, or who might be good contacts to network with in case we ever want a new job. We can easily seat them at our table, but those occasions are their own reward. It is another story to invite those of a different feather: people of a different culture, gender-identy, class or race—the ones who will never in a million years be able to offer anything resembling an advantage to us. So why does Jesus make sharing a meal (which is the central historical method of extending hospitality) the cornerstone of his ministry? Because sharing a meal, sharing communion is the essential building block that undergirds authentic relationships. It’s the first step to overcoming fear, finding understanding, and giving respect.  We’ve tried killing the strangers among us praying for peace while we committed violence—not very successful. That’s because we’ve ignored the teaching of Jesus, namely that only through open hospitality can we find peace.

You’re thinking, “Oh, my, this pastor of ours is too old to be this naïve!” Well, think about a time when you were shown unexpected hospitality that at least improved your day and may even have changed your life.  Jesus lived to change the world and change it, he did. One person at a time. Christ still lives in, with and through us to change the world one person at a time. Each act of kindness, each word of welcome, each act of hospitality binds us together in real love, inching the universe that much closer to the peace God has always dreamed for humanity. Not the phony peace that the world tries to impose through force of Empire; but the peace of God, that transcends selfishness, greed, hostility, prejudice, tribalism, classism, hatred and all forms of violence.

Peace begins with something stupidly and naively simple: a glass of water, a shared meal, a dollar for bus fare. And for those who are the Body of Christ for US, let us in turn be the Bread and Cup for them. And as we welcome Christ, we welcome the One who sent Christ to us—not found in the bag of ashes we cling to, but in the gritty real world work of loving someone we never thought loveable.

 

Posted in Becoming "Church" | Leave a comment

Let’s Die! Like, Right NOW!!

“If you wish to come after me, you must deny your very self, you must pick up your cross and follow in my footsteps.”  Those of us who have the audacity to call ourselves Christian, those of us who seek to follow Jesus, must deny our very selves, we must pick up our cross, and we must follow in the footsteps, of Jesus. Follow in the footsteps of the ONE who understands that pain can lead to liberation, but suffering, rejection and challenges are unavoidable. Oh. My. God.

Change the channel, I can’t stand to watch this one again. I’ve seen it a hundred times. The hero, the freedom fighter, justice seeker, peace maker, that one, the one we’re all rooting for, our saviour, suffers and dies. Change the channel, I’m not up for this. Don’t give me Jesus. I don’t want Jesus. I don’t want anybody telling me that suffering and death are the inevitable; especially my suffering, and my death. Isn’t there something on another channel I can watch?

I don’t want to know. Distract me. Distract me from the pain and the suffering. Change the channel. Find me something more interesting, more uplifting, more hopeful, more cheerful.

I am not the kind of guy who is willing to die for a cause. Ever since my father shared his passion for WW2 history with me, I’ve been very interested in historical stuff. Maybe some would call it child abuse, but I remember watching black and white films on large spools with my dad, watching highlights of the war and the liberation of Paris and the terrible grainy images from the death camps.

Later, when I traveled to France with students to Utah Beach and Arromanche, listening to the granddaughter of one of the builders of that man-made port explaining how the war had impacted her family, I was moved beyond words. But I also knew something she wasn’t telling us, namely that the French had largely collaborated with the Nazis when it came to getting rid of the Jews. And I wondered how many French really knew what their hatred was resulting in in other places?

Did they know? Did they know what was going on in the camps? Did they know what was being done by their government, in their name? Did they know? And if they knew, what did they do? What could they have done?

We can dream about the Reign of God, a world where everyone has enough and where the planet is protected, and all creatures thrive, but that’s all it is a dream. And yet we keep dreaming it. We dream it in our deepest truest selves. The dream surfaces in the work of our imaginations. The dream lives in our finest literature, in our most beautiful works of art, in our greatest movies and in the most moving music. The dream drives some of our greatest thinkers, inventors, engineers, explorers and dancers. It’s a dream of justice for all. It’s a dream that despite humanity’s best and worst efforts will not die. Yes, the dream has suffered untold defeats, and millions of deaths but somehow the dream lives on. The dream lives on because we are fearfully and wonderfully made we human beings. Yes, we are capable of despicable things. Yes, we are responsible for the injustices in this world. But we are also capable of such beauty, such truth, such life, and our capacity for greatness means that the dream lives.

But there can be no life without death. There is no resurrection without crucifixion. Unless we are prepared to die there can be no rebirth. We are after all is said and done: human. Human, unique among the creatures of the earth because we know that we are going to die. Our consciousness is defined by our knowledge that we are finite beings. From dust we came and to dust we shall return. Being human means learning how to die.

Each one of us is on a grand pilgrimage from the womb to the tomb, and as we travel we learn the meaning of what it means to be human. Human, from the Latin “humando” which means burying or burial, think humus, earth, on our way back to the earth. Humans are the ones who are on our way to back into the earth from whence we came, and that means part of our most important reason for being here is learning how to die.

This isn’t as dark or crazy as it sounds, trust me on that! All the great philosophers, the lovers of wisdom like Plato insisted that to philosophize is to learn how to die. Seneca the great Roman philosopher insisted, “He who learns how to die, unlearns slavery.” Learning how to die frees us from slavery to our distractions. So consider this: any time we examine our assumptions or biases, whenever we question the way we view the world and decide to change it, that’s a form of death. There is no growth, no development, no maturation, no rebirth without death. When we go into the wilderness and confront the wild beasts in ourselves and in our world we have to be brave and let old ideas die so new ones can shape us.  The idea that there is nothing that we can do enslaves us to quiet acceptance of things exactly as they are.

St. Paul insists that followers of Jesus have to learn to die daily. Die daily! So if he knows what the heck he’s talking about, what needs to die in our hearts today so the dream of real peace and justice can be reborn? Justice by itself, of course, is impossible because justice has to be midwifed into existence by love and only love. LOVE rebirths justice.  LOVE is the power that lies at the heart of all reality.  LOVE is the source of the courage we all need in order to die. LOVE gives us the courage to let our suffering speak to us.

Yes, the problems are immense. Yes, the suffering is intense. Yes, we have tried and failed so many times. Yes, we are only one person. Yes, there are untold reasons to be cynical and do nothing. The courage to pay attention to the world around us will come from the LOVE that lives in each of us, love for ourselves, love for our families, love for all our neighbors, even the ones we name as enemies.

Just like Peter, I don’t want to follow where Jesus is leading either. I very much want to deny death.  I don’t want to know! I want to change the channel and lose myself in something else—anything else!! But then I take a breath and the stillness I feel the attraction of that LOVE that first called me by name as a young boy, the voice of that LOVE whose voice I heard tell me in church when I was 8 yrs old that I belonged to Him.

And then I realize I can’t just turn away or tune out. I can’t let my distractions lead me to deny death. And like every other person I know, I have to let the LOVE that lives in me give me the courage to let all my personal suffering and loss speak to me on the deepest level. Because my pain isn’t unique: it’s part of the death and dying process of all my sisters and brothers. It’s the necessary part before new life can come forth.

They said Germany would never recover after the war. They said the Berlin Wall would never come down. They said civil rights would never come to the American south. They said apartheid in South Africa would never end. They said gays and lesbians were mentally ill and would never be allowed to marry. They said women could never be pastors, and that Catholic priests could  never be pastors of a Protestant congregation. They say that poverty will always be with us, but in fact, there are fewer people living in poverty than ever before in North America. They say crime is on the increase, but the reality is that

Most crime rates are lower than they were 30 years ago. They say that peace is impossible. They insist that poverty is a reality. They say that our politicians will never be anything other than greedy selfish charlatans obsessed with their own power. They say there’s nothing we can do. They say its hopeless to try. They say sacrifice is a thing of the past. They say no one is willing to pick up a cross.

With Satan out of the way, O God, let these presuppositions, cynicisms, racisms, prejudices, and blindspots die so that Love can be born in us and reveal itself in the world as justice. Let us have the courage to listen to all our suffering so we can finally allow all the fear, doubt and excuses die, in order that LOVE be born again. That’s the Easter earthquake in a nutshell. That’s resurrection. That’s collateral beauty from all the damage we’ve managed to do. Choose Easter! Die daily!

 

 

Posted in Becoming "Church" | Leave a comment