Saturday, April 3, 2010

The end of the road

John 20 1-18

Michael Belk is an artist, a photographer- storyteller. He has produced a number of images of Jesus in modern settings. One is a photo of Jesus sitting on a step with some children. In another photo, Jesus is holding a modern life preserver. In a third, Jesus is speaking with a bride, and on the floor around them are several very large bottles of wine.
My favorite photo has Jesus standing in the middle of the road, leaning on a wooden barricade. Next to him, a cross also leans against the barricade. Beyond the barricade, it’s clear the road doesn’t end, but the title of the photo is “The End of the Road.” The meaning of the image is that the end of the road isn’t necessarily the end of the road.
When  Jesus was taken to Golgotha and crucified, everyone, including the disciples, assumed that was it; it was the end of the road. Even though Jesus had promised that he would die, and would rise again on the third day, no one believed it would happen. At least, there is no written record of anyone saying they believed it would happen.
On the morning of the third day, Mary Magdalene didn’t go to see if Jesus was still there or if he had risen. She went to the tomb to grieve. When she found the stone rolled away, she assumed someone had taken the body. She told Peter and the other disciple – probably John. They ran to the tomb to see for themselves, and saw the empty wrappings. The text says they believed, but didn’t understand. Certainly, they didn’t know what to do with Jesus’ absence.
Mary didn’t expect to see the risen Jesus; she expected she might see a gardener. It was only when Jesus spoke her name that she recognized him. Then, she wanted to hug him, to touch him, to feel that he was real – but he wouldn’t allow her to. He sent her with the message that he would ascend to God, to the God and Father of them all. And she went to tell the believers that she had seen Jesus. He had indeed risen from the dead!
Clearly, the end of the road was not necessarily the end of the road. Jesus lived, preached, taught, healed, and cast out demons to demonstrate God’s power. Many of the people he touched had thought they were at the end of the road. But Jesus removed the barricade from their lives.
In that ancient culture, Jews with physical deformities were not permitted to worship in the temple, so the healing of misshapen arms gave them more than the use of their arms. It gave them access to the temple, the ability to worship God fully, perhaps for the first time in their lives. The healing of their arms removed the barricade from the temple for them.
In that ancient culture, women were things that belonged first to their fathers, then to their husbands. When they became widows, they belonged to their brothers-in-law, if they would take them in. If not, they could become homeless nobodies. Jesus made it clear that women were persons, equal to men, loved by God, and deserving of respect and fair treatment. Jesus removed the barricade from women giving them permission to have their own ideas and control of their own lives.
In that ancient culture, non-Jews had no value, but Jesus spoke with Samaritans, and told a parable in which a Samaritan was the hero. Jesus removed the barricade that said God didn’t know or love people from other places or other faiths.
In that ancient culture, poor people were like India’s untouchables. They were things, not people. They often had diseases that made them outcasts, living on the fringes of society. Jesus touched them, and told them God loved them. He removed the barricade of separation from them.
Most of all, Jesus removed the barricade of death. In John, eternal life is a two-fold concept. It refers to life in relationship with God every day. It refers to trusting God to provide all we need, and that includes life itself.
Eternal life also refers to what happens after death. With Jesus’ resurrection, we have proof that God is more powerful than death, and that there is something wonderful waiting for us on the other side of bodily death. Jesus’ resurrection proves to us that the end of the road is not necessarily the end of the road. There is no barricade that can prevent us from moving from this life into the next.
If you feel like there is a barricade in your life, Jesus can remove it. If you know someone who seems to have a barricade in her or his life, you can share with them the reminder that Jesus lived and died and rose again to remove barricades. Whatever barricade they are facing can be removed with Jesus’ help.
Your challenge for this week is to look for open roads beyond the barricades. Give thanks for Jesus, who removes the hurtful barricades that cultures and traditions establish. And who proved for all time that the barricade between life and death and life after death has been removed.

Please pray with me. Almighty God, we give you thanks for your goodness. You know how we struggle with the barricades we face in our lives, and how we struggle to believe in your power to remove them. Grant us the assurance that the most powerful barricade has been cast aside in the death and resurrection of Jesus, your Son and our Lord. Amen

Looking for the living

April 3, 2010
Luke 24:1-12

We read only four of a possible twelve readings from  the Old Testament, or Hebrew Testament, all of which tell the story of God’s ongoing relationship with God’s people. These stories remind us of God’s wish and plan for salvation for all God’s people. God has tried many ways to help us keep our focus on God and God’s purposes for our lives. God has sent disaster, rescue, and prophets in the effort to get our attention. Finally, God sent the Son, God’s own Son, to live, speak God’s heart to the people, and to die so that we might know of God’s love for us. The final word was the resurrection.
As we read the resurrection story from Luke, we notice that it’s somewhat different from the more familiar story in John. At least three women had followed Joseph of Arimathea as he and others placed Jesus’ body in the tomb. Because it was the Sabbath, they went home – to wherever they were staying. They grieved, because they only saw death, and did not think about Jesus’ promise to be raised on the third day. Why would they? It had never happened before!
The next evening, after the Sabbath ended, they prepared the spices to anoint the body, one final, loving deed. At first light, they went to the tomb and found the stone rolled away, and two men – angels, really – who asked them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? Jesus is not here; he has risen, just as he told you he would.” The women then remembered what Jesus had told them.
They ran, excited, to tell the men. The men, however, didn’t believe the women – “You’re just making this up, telling idle tales!” However, Peter did run to the tomb, to see for himself that it was empty. Note that no one has seen the risen Jesus yet. The angels told them “he is not here,” but they haven’t seen him yet.  
The people who saw him first were two disciples walking away from Jerusalem toward Emmaus. Jesus joined them on their journey, shared their meal, and then they recognized him in the breaking of the bread, after which he disappeared. These two disciples returned immediately to the home where the eleven remaining disciples were gathered, probably with the women and other followers. Jesus appeared to this group in the evening.
In Acts, we read that Jesus appeared to many people for forty days, and then he ascended to heaven. Ten days after that, on Pentecost, Jesus sent the Holy Spirit into the crowd gathered in Jerusalem. This is different from what we read in John, where Jesus breathed the Spirit into the disciples on the evening of his resurrection. We’ll hear that story next week.
Tonight, we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus as proof that God is more powerful than death – after we die, we will continue to live with Jesus. Jesus promised to not abandon us. In the meantime, with the sending of the Holy Spirit, we know God is present with us at all times, even when we doubt it.
The women who went to the tomb took spices, expecting to anoint Jesus’ dead body. They didn’t believe what he had said. The men thought the women’s story of seeing angels was an idle tale. And they all had doubted Jesus’ promise to be raised from the dead. No matter how strong our faith is, when things in life are going really badly, it’s easy for faith to turn to doubt, as it did for the disciples. When this happens, it’s hard for us to find life, hard for us to place ourselves among the living.
During seminary, I spent a summer as a chaplain in a hospital. One of the patients, named Irene, had been a patient advocate in the hospital. She was known as a faith-filled woman, kindhearted, joyful, and loved by all who knew her.
Irene had had surgery in the past and dreaded it, because she always reacted so badly to the anesthetic, with nausea and vomiting for days afterward. She was in the hospital for tests, which confirmed cancer in her uterus. She would need a hysterectomy. As her chaplain, I spent time in her room, sitting with her as often as I could. She was silent, depressed, withdrawn. I hoped my presence in her room would remind her of God’s presence.
The night before her surgery, I sat with Irene and held her hand, praying silently. She seemed to be preparing herself for death – she’d rather die than have the surgery and its aftermath of nausea and vomiting. As she prepared for the night, she placed her rosary in my hands. It seemed to me that she had asked me to have faith for her, because she couldn’t have it for herself. I watched her fall asleep, and stayed until my shift was over.
The next morning, I was with her before surgery, then afterwards. L The next day, her room was dark, and so was her mood. Each day I checked on her, and she continued to prepare herself for death. My only goal was to remind her that Jesus loved her, and that she would get better.
On the third day, I went to see her, expecting her to be much the same, if not worse. People can will themselves to die – though that can take a very long time.
J Instead, she was sitting up on her bed. I heard her laughter before I even entered the room. Her best friend was there and they were telling stories. They saw me and waved me into the room. I was amazed at her smile and the joy that was evident in her. “Just think,” she said. “I wanted to die!”
I had gone to Irene’s room expecting her to be even worse, even closer to death than on the day before, but instead, she was very much alive. She had found life! It was as if she had died and been resurrected. I often wonder how that experience effected her – I wonder if she has the sense of having been dead and reborn.
Sometimes, we get the opportunity to help someone find God, or to represent God’s presence for someone in need. On those days, we know and do not doubt that Jesus has risen from the grave, and has sent his Spirit to be among and within us. On other days, we may be the one in need of such a reminder.
Rather than idle tales, we have the eye-witness reports of those who saw the resurrected Jesus. We have the faith stories of countless believers through the centuries, stories of how Jesus has been present in their lives and the lives of their loved ones, stories of how he lives on, in our lives and in the rest of the world. Jesus’ body died, but he is alive again, and calling us to follow him in faith.

Please pray with me. Tonight, O Lord, we celebrate the saving gift of resurrection and new life in you. Encourage us to see life where others see only death. Help us to believe when we doubt, and to have strong faith when others doubt. Amen

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Being washed by Jesus

Maundy Thursday
John 13:1-17, 31b-35

Today we remember Jesus’ last meal with his disciples. In Matthew, Mark and Luke Jesus and the disciples celebrate the Passover, and Jesus gives the Passover tradition another purpose. In John, the timing is different by a whole day. For John, Jesus is the Passover lamb, hanging on the cross as the lambs are sacrificed in the temple.
This meal in John is a farewell supper, with an opportunity for Jesus to give his instructions to the disciples. He’ll be leaving them soon, and he wants them to carry on his ministry. He wants to make sure they carry it on in the same attitude of servanthood, the same giving spirit, that he has taught and demonstrated from the beginning.
Jesus’ sermon extends for several chapters in John, but it’s prefaced by this loving action of washing the disciples’ feet. We’re often very good at giving. When we give, we are in charge. We select the gift, we select the way in which it will be presented, to whom, and how much of our wealth and of ourselves we are willing to invest in the giving. This act of washing the disciples’ feet is a gift to them.
When we receive a gift, we aren’t in control, except in how we respond to it. We have several options when we are given a gift. We can be excited about it, overwhelmed with it, displeased with it, even refuse to accept it.
In Jesus’ time, foot washing was properly done by slaves, who would kneel down in front of a seated person and wash the dust, sweat, and other accumulations from walking ancient streets while wearing sandals. But, Jesus wants to do this task for the disciples, to teach them not just to give to him, but to receive from him, and to teach them to give to others as servants.
Peter, not surprisingly, first tries to refuse this gift, then wants more than is offered. It is probable that they would all have bathed before coming to dinner, so only the feet needed washing as they entered the house.
Whenever I have suggested foot-washing as part of this Holy Thursday service, people have declined, and some have vehemently refused. People say, feet smell; feet have bumps, deformities, scars and warts; feet should be private – except for a pedicure; I’ll wash my own feet, thank you.
But, Jesus wants to wash our feet; Jesus wants us to receive the whole gift of his servanthood. Jesus wants to give us everything, to have us depend on him for everything we have including life itself. Allowing him to wash our feet is a symbol of our acceptance of his gifts.
In invite you to close your eyes for a moment, and imagine Jesus kneeling at your feet with a pitcher of warm water, a basin to catch the water, and a soft towel. … Now, imagine him holding your right foot and then your left as he removes your shoes and socks … Let Jesus place your feet gently into the basin and pour water over them. … Allow him to massage the warm water onto your feet, rubbing away the tiredness of the day, the fatigue of the years. Allow him to tenderly touch all those bumps, warts, scars, and deformities. … Let Jesus take your feet one at a time from the basin and dry them with the towel, … and then put your socks and shoes back on. … Don’t worry, he knows just how you like them, socks or no socks, tightly or loosely tied laces, slipped on or unbuckled and re-buckled. Of course, Jesus will give your feet a little pat as he finishes and sets them back on the floor.
As you open your eyes, think about the image of Jesus washing your feet. How did that feel? Was it easy or hard to let go of control of your feet? Was it easy or hard to imagine that Jesus – one persona of the Triune God – was touching your feet?
Of course, we know that Jesus has done much more than wash our feet. He has given up his life for us, to assure us of God’s love, God’s forgiveness, God’s desire that all of creation is enveloped in divine care. In a few moments, as we receive the gift of bread and wine, Christ’s body and blood, we allow it to nurture and strengthen our spirits so we may go out and serve others as Jesus did then and continues to do now.
For now, think about this:
In what ways do your feet need washing?
In what ways do you resist being washed?
In what ways could you wash the feet of others for Jesus’ sake?

Please pray with me. Jesus, reminders of your death sadden us. Remembering your servanthood sometimes makes us resist your leading in our lives. Help us to be courageous enough to serve as you have called us to serve, to give as you call us to give, and to receive as you call us to receive. Amen