Saturday, April 28, 2012

Let It Be Known

This is not the same Peter we usually hear about.

Peter, as we usually meet him in scripture, is a fisherman, a working-man, a little rough around the edges, a little thick in the skull. Nothing subtle about him. Prone to thinking big, but a little fuzzy on the execution. Peter begged Jesus, “call me to you, so I can walk on water.” And he sank below the waves, until Jesus extended a hand to rescue him. Up on the mountaintop, Peter said, “Let’s build a house up here, just us, in this holy place!” And Jesus just had to shake his head and lead him back down. At their last dinner together, Jesus says he must wash his disciples’ feet, and Peter says, – “Don’t just wash my feet, wash my hands and my head too!” And then, close to the end, Peter follows the arrested Jesus to the courtyard of the high priest’s house, and stands there, waiting, to hear what’s going to happen next. That night, he denied Jesus three times, saying “I do not know that man.” By the next afternoon, his desertion was complete - like most of Jesus’ followers, he ran away from the terror of the cross, and hid.  Some disciple. Some student, he was. 

Except, four Sundays ago, we learned it wasn’t the end. Three days after they thought all hope was lost, the Risen Christ shows up, walking through locked doors to get to his people, breathing the spirit of life into them once again.  Yes, even Peter - the clumsy, clunky, imperfect Jesus follower who could never quite get it right. 

And so when we meet Peter again in the book of Acts, we find a disciple we hardly recognize.  He preaches a passionate sermon. “Let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified,” he says. Going up to the temple, he encounters a man begging, and heals him in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. And when the crowds are confused, he preaches again: “Why do you wonder at this, why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we had made him walk?” All this public talking about Jesus gets him arrested. And still Peter keeps talking about Jesus. Questioned by the elders, the authorities – in the very setting that Jesus had been questioned not so many weeks before – he boldly proclaims: 

‘Rulers of the people and elders, if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead. This Jesus is “the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.” There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.’ 

“This man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ.” He might as well have been talking about himself. Because nothing else could take the Peter we know, and love, and shake our heads at, and turn him into a preacher. Nothing else could take the sad, broken man who had denied his beloved teacher and ran away in terror, and turn him into a passionate witness to the power of the Resurrection. 

It’s a Jesus thing. We’re not so used to talking about Resurrection stuff in our UCC tradition. We connect with the moral teachings about “love your neighbor”; we like what Jesus has to say about forgiveness (it comes in really handy sometimes); we can feel really warm and fuzzy about the “come unto me and rest” Good Shepherd (especially after a rough week at work). 

The Jesus part, we’re good with. But when somebody starts talking about how following the Risen Christ changed their life, we have a tendency to squirm. This Resurrection-and-New-Life business gets a little edgy. Doesn’t seem quite like “us.” A little too supernatural, a little too preachy. I spent 3 years in the South on a military installation after growing up in a nice little Congregational church in New England, and I got a lesson in “Jesus”-ing down there. Let me tell you, nothing shuts my willingness to listen down faster than when somebody gets their Jesus all up in my face. 

Even so, I am here to tell you that Resurrection Happens. That the power of the Risen Christ is a life transformation that we cannot understand, that we cannot control, that we cannot co-opt.  

This woman is standing before you in good health because of the transforming power of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, who died in alone and in agony, and whom God raised from the dead. 

Resurrection happens. God took a woman broken in body and in spirit and gave her the power to preach. I would not believe it if it had not happened to me. 

It happened to Peter. It can happen to you. 

The Risen Christ came with transforming power, into a burned-out, worn-out group of disciples and built a church through them. It is happening here. Right here, right now. 

Resurrection happens when you throw your broken self into the arms of Jesus Christ, and he says, “Rise!” When you recognize that there is no other way that a whole and abundant life is possible, despite all your striving. That following him is a whole lot faster way to find the still water and the green pastures than blundering around on your own. Those Paths of Righteousness aren’t just to make you look good in public, but for his name’s sake. 

I don’t want to get my Jesus all up in your face. You have your own story. But I am here to tell you that Resurrection Happens. The Bible tells me so. My own life experience tells me so. And I offer my testimony to you: when you choose to follow the Way of the Risen Christ, miracles happen. There is power in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom God raised from the dead. 

Alleluia, and Amen! 

For the Fourth Sunday of Easter, 2012
Texts:  Psalm 23, Acts 4:1-12

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Rolling Stones

Their biggest worry, as Mark tells it, was how to move the stone. Carved from solid rock, in a channel of solid rock, slid downhill until it came to rest in front of the entrance to the tomb. Heavy enough to seal the stench of decay, to prevent animals from getting in.

This was their scope of possibility on that Sunday morning. That somehow, they might be able to get that thing moved, to get themselves through the entrance, so they could finally anoint his body properly and put it to rest.

They were obsessing over it the whole way there. Having awakened early, having gathered the necessary things, having embraced one another in the predawn darkness, that was their slim hope – that maybe they would find someone to move the stone away from the tomb.

Eyes down, they are hurrying on their errand, early, while the streets are still empty and it seems like they’re the only ones around. Grief does that to you. Loss does that to you. The crushing weight of accumulated losses adds up and your world gets smaller and smaller and smaller until getting a one-item to-do list checked off seems like a huge accomplishment.

If I can get my family to the dinner table at the same time for a home-cooked meal.

If I can get that report written. If I can pay that bill I’ve been putting off.

If I can just get dressed today. If I can just put this one thing to rest.

And so we hurry to the tomb, worrying about the stone.

We all have stones. Think of yours, right now. You know what it is…it won’t take long to bring it to mind. It’s that thing you think about while you’re driving, when you can’t sleep at 3 am, it’s what’s on your mind when you miss what somebody’s saying to you. It’s that thing that gets in your way, that obstacle that seems to take on a life of its own.

A stone is a convenient place to put your worry when the world as you have known it is crashing down around your shoulders. Relatively manageable, in the scheme of things. Your beloved teacher put to death? Your community – your friends – scattered? No clue what to do next? You focus on the stone. It’s a good proxy for everything else that just plain stinks.

Like the women, we keep walking in the direction of dead things, eyes down, worrying about the stone. The stone is Good Friday, the day of torture and humiliation and death. The stone is Holy Saturday, the day of waiting, the day when you are stuck in the knowledge that you can’t go back and un-do what has already been done.

The stone is the broken relationships. The unsafe sex, the food or drink or drugs you use to numb the pain. The stone is hurting yourself, starving yourself, stuffing yourself, isolating yourself. The stone is the words that echo around your head, the ones you’ve started to believe are true, the ones that say “not good enough, never good enough, not worth anything.” The stone is the power of death, sitting in the middle of the road, blocking you from truly living.

The powers of this world would like you to believe that this stone is your problem. And if it’s going to get moved, you had better figure it out on your own. The powers of this world would like you to believe that the best you can aspire to is a bite to eat, a roof over your head, a decent burial. The powers of this world would like you to believe that that is what hope looks like, that the best we can hope for is to pretty up death.

These are big stones. And we approach them in ones, in twos or threes, struggling through the predawn darkness with the weight of grief on our shoulders.

Children of God: there is more to the story. Who is going to roll away the stone? God is going to roll away the stone. It was already rolled away once, on that first day, and God is doing so again. Lift up your eyes and see.

“I am the resurrection and the life,” says our Christ. God is twenty, fifty, a hundred steps ahead of us. So when we set out from our homes in the predawn darkness, with our meager hopes, the stone has already shifted from its place. When we arrive, expecting the stench of death, hoping merely to slow the process of decay, Christ is already up and on the move.

In a moment of terrifying possibility, we hear the words: “He has been raised; he is not here.” The rolled-away stone opens doors that we did not even know existed, doors that we wouldn’t admit to dreaming of. “You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here…he is going ahead of you to Galilee.” Life is ahead of you. There is no need to continue trying to pretty up death. God has rolled the stone away.

Dear Lord, what will we do now?

We have been singing the words; we know how to say “Resurrection” and “Alleluia” and “New Life” and “Christ is Risen.” Are you willing to try living them? He made lepers whole, he made blind people see, he made Lazarus come out of his own tomb, he overcame the power of death. What makes you think that he can’t move your stone?

Whatever your stone may be, your Savior is even now pushing it out of the way and moving out ahead of you. The Good News of Jesus Christ -- the Good News that Easter brings -- means that you get to walk out of that tomb, run out of that tomb, deal with the lump of fear in your throat and discover where this new road can lead.

Christ goes on ahead of you, child of God. And so together we sing: Christ is Risen! Alleluia, and Amen!

Text: Mark 16:1-8

Thursday, April 05, 2012

I did not know that man


I thought I’d just sit in the courtyard, by the fire with the other bystanders, and wait to see if there was any news. It was a cold night, and the whole scene in the garden put a chill in me that I couldn’t shake. Not even the fire helped.

I kept flashing the pictures in my mind. Things had changed so fast, after we got into the city. That first day of crowds and celebration. It was all so bewildering! I’m still not used to big cities. We told him it was too risky, the priests would be all over him – and he wasn’t so good at biting his tongue and holding his temper, when it came down to it. But he insisted, and we became part of the spectacle. Some of us were trying to watch out for threats – I know there were spies in the crowd – and the rumor was that Pilate was arriving in the city on the same day. If the Romans were trying to keep things calm for Passover, we were doing exactly the wrong thing. But nobody leaped out to stop us, and we rode right through the city gates.

You know, every day I tried to get him to tell me what he had in mind, and he wouldn’t tell me. He would just shake his head and say, “Peter, Peter. My rock. Even now, you try to intervene. Do you not see?” I said I would never leave him, never desert him. But he seemed to be going to a place I could not follow. It hurt. I didn’t understand.

I was with him in the temple when he upset the tables and sacrificial animals were out of their cages, flying and running around us all. (Why is it the animals always seem to act up when he is angry!) I was with him at dinner and even though he shared the blessing with us, he seemed so far away. I was with him when we went out of the city, and before we reached the garden, he had promised me that I – I, Peter, the Rock – would deny him. Me!

I fell asleep in my cloak while he was praying – but I was there. I was with him. I was with him – too - until Judas came with his corrupt cronies. Then I watched from the shadows, hidden in the trees, shivering, as their torches bobbed down the hill toward the city.

What could I do now? I waited until they had gone a safe distance, then I followed. I went to the chief priest’s house. It was the only thing I could come up with. I may be thick sometimes, but I’m no coward. I thought maybe I would hear word about what was happening inside. Maybe I could save him – maybe I could bring word to the others – but I had to get close enough to find out.

So I had my hands out toward the fire – still couldn’t shake that chill – as a servant-girl made her way around the courtyard. It was packed with people, and she had to thread her way between the crowd. She looked bright. The servants know all the house gossip. Maybe she would know what was happening. I caught her eye –and it seemed to work – but before I said anything she looked me up and down and said “I know you. You were with him! You were with Jesus the Galilean!”

I moved away pretty quickly. Slid into the shadows on the porch. How did she know me? Nobody was supposed to know I had been there, at the parade, when the teacher rode a donkey into the city. I couldn’t have anyone betraying my secret.

It got closer and closer to morning and the courtyard grew lighter. I saw more of the elders coming in to the house and I desperately wanted to know what it meant. I wanted to be with him and it was tearing me apart. I wanted to know why this was all happening.

But the people waiting there wouldn’t leave me alone. That servant girl must have talked because another one started whispering in people’s ears. Soon, everyone was turning and looking at me in the early morning light and I had to swear it – SWEAR it – and I said “I do not know that man!”

My words were still ringing in the early morning air when the rooster crowed. I ran out of the courtyard. I ran to get away from the sound, and what I’d just said, and what I had just done. I ran down the streets and alleyways until I couldn’t go any longer. And I stopped and sank down as low as I could go and I cried as if my heart would break.

I did not know that man. But he knew me.