upper room daily devotions

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

I finally have a pope.

This image appeared in The Mirror.
I finally have a pope. What a weird thing to say. I'm a Methodist, after all. I don't believe in a priesthood. I don't think that the papacy is theologically or ecclesiologically sound. When I look at the ministry of Jesus, I think that he would be appalled at the many trappings of pomp and circumstance, dogma, doctrine, tradition, and liturgy that all of us have crafted. And, this would probably be true for the elevation of someone to what the papacy has become. At the same time, without Jesus actually in front of us, we, like Thomas, need things to poke and prod and touch to help us along in our faith. It's just how human beings are. We teach kids with object lessons. As adults, we learn our lessons through failure and success, i.e., we experience these lessons. We live in a real world, and our traditions, rituals, liturgies, and even dogmas and doctrines helps us touch, if metaphorically, the divine. So, they make sense in real life even though they rub against everything I think I think I should think (get it?). The pope is kind of like this in an odd sort of way. At least, this pope is. So far (I am a Protestant at heart).

Jesus says in John 20:29, "Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed" (NIV). Of course, it's this blind faith that atheists find very upsetting about religion. It isn't rational. Life should be rational. But, life is not rational. We love. We hate. We feel. It isn't rational. Oh, there are things that can help explain our loves, hates, and passions, but there is an ineffability to life as well - it's just beyond words, beyond explanation. We are, indeed, a product of culture, of geometry, of experience, of chemistry, of neurology... We are also more than the sum of those things...at least I think so. That is what spirituality points us toward. And, it is what religion, at its best, helps us organize and live in community around.

I grew up with Pope John Paul II. He seemed like a nice guy to this kid, but he was pretty far away from me. He lived through World War II in Poland, which led him to a deep appreciation for democracy and freedom; that seemed like a good thing to me. I was sad when he was shot (I mean, we should always be sad when someone is shot, right?).  He spoke a lot about peace, and that was great. As a matter of fact, it was the peace movement within Roman Catholicism that spoke to me as a young adult. However, by 2000, his name had become synonymous with battles against women priests and, by extension, an antiquated view on women in general. By the end of 2001, he had become the pope in charge as the stories of abuse began to come at us at alarming rates. He was the pope when the Religious Right in the United States formed a odd relationship with Roman Catholics, lining up along a line of social conservative issues that did not seem, well, right, to me - a relationship, might I add, that would have been unthinkable a mere fifteen years before it began to tear at the fabric of mainline America. So, while there were many things about Pope John Paul II that appealed to me as a young United Methodist, the conflict and disappointment always kept him at a distance. Then came Pope Benedict XVI. I don't think I need to say much about him except to say I didn't have any warm fuzzies for the man.

Enter Pope Francis. He will probably never support women priests (he never has). He will probably continue to oppose LGBTQI rights (he always has). Despite these two very important issues, he has for the moment done something in me and throughout the world that I think Christians of many stripes yearned for - he has made the gospel tactile and real and meaningful. Upon his election, the first public act he did was to ask for prayers from those assembled. The UK newspaper The Telegraph dubbed him "Pope Francis the humble." He famously shirked the ermine cape, rode with the other cardinals rather than taking his private car, picked up his own bags at the pensione, invited the Patriarch of Orthodox Christians to a private meeting as well as to his inauguration, met with interfaith leaders and set a humble and hopeful tone for the future. In his first meeting with the press, out of respect for those of different faiths as well as those who hold fast to no particular faith, he blessed them in silence "respecting the conscience of each one of you, but knowing that each one of you is a child of God. May God bless you." In that same meeting, he explained that he wanted a poor church for the poor. In his first address to cardinals, he said that good shepherds would smell like their sheep. Then, in Holy Week, he went to a detention center to wash feet on Holy Thursday, including Muslims and women in a ritual usually reserved for men, well, to be fair, priests. Ultimately, he decided not to move into the papal apartments, but to live in community in the guest house eating in community, sharing the table with others. Of course, he also kept his old black shoes, too. There, too, are the endless pictures of unexpected things: hugging and kissing a boy with cerebral palsy, greeting people after preaching, and blessing a guide dog. And, last, he is celebrating mass in the Vatican guest house...every day, it  seems...and he sits in the back during prayer.

That's great, some people say, but what about the substance? What about his "stances" on "important issues"?  Just after he was elected, the Christian Science Monitor summed up the new pope on his pre-election views on hot topics. I doubt those views will change. What makes Pope Francis more than these hot button issues is the real substance that he is moving us all toward. The gospel. All of those "symbolic" things that he has been doing along with his easy to follow but deeply spiritual homilies and talks are the substance. He is calling Christians back to a gospel of generosity, love, forgiveness, incarnation, sacrament, community, justice, and compassion. He has spoken about the importance of protecting the environment. He has proclaimed that we should never cease asking for forgiveness because God never tires of extending it. To make my point further, let's look at the recent showing of the Shroud of Turin. I could care less whether it was "real" or "fake," much like I could care less about a whole host of things that could "prove" the Resurrection or the Virgin Birth or... When the pope rose to speak about the shroud, he did not speak of carbon dating or proof, he spoke about mystery and pain and violence and peace: 

Dear Brothers and Sisters, 
I join all of you gathered before the Holy Shroud, and I thank the Lord who, through modern technology, offers us this possibility. 
Even if it takes place in this way, we do not merely “look”, but rather we venerate by a prayerful gaze. I would go further: we are in fact looked upon upon ourselves.
This face has eyes that are closed, it is the face of one who is dead, and yet mysteriously he is watching us, and in silence he speaks to us. 
How is this possible? How is it that the faithful, like you, pause before this icon of a man scourged and crucified? It is because the Man of the Shroud invites us to contemplate Jesus of Nazareth. 
This image, impressed upon the cloth, speaks to our heart and moves us to climb the hill of Calvary, to look upon the wood of the Cross, and to immerse ourselves in the eloquent silence of love. 
Let us therefore allow ourselves to be reached by this look, which is directed not to our eyes but to our heart. In silence, let us listen to what he has to say to us from beyond death itself. By means of the Holy Shroud, the unique and supreme Word of God comes to us: Love made man, incarnate in our history; the merciful love of God who has taken upon himself all the evil of the world to free us from its power. 
This disfigured face resembles all those faces of men and women marred by a life which does not respect their dignity, by war and violence which afflict the weakest… And yet, at the same time, the face in the Shroud conveys a great peace; this tortured body expresses a sovereign majesty. 
It is as if it let a restrained but powerful energy within it shine through, as if to say: have faith, do not lose hope; the power of the love of God, the power of the Risen One overcomes all things. 
So, looking upon the Man of the Shroud, I make my own the prayer which Saint Francis of Assisi prayed before the Crucifix: 
Most High, glorious God, enlighten the shadows of my heart, and grant me a right faith, a certain hope and perfect charity, sense and understanding, Lord, so that I may accomplish your holy and true command. 

C'mon. "...immerse ourselves in the eloquent silence of love?????" That's pretty poetic.

These things are important even to Protestants like me. Why? Because they all - the symbolic acts and the words themselves - are substantive calls to a simple, caring, generous, other-centered, poverty-centered, community-centered, loving, and forgiving world. Everything I have heard from this pope has been about God's mission of healing and reconciliation. None of what he has said has been about the survival of the Church, not once, at least not that I have read or heard. In his cardinal days he said of the abuse scandal, "We must never turn a blind eye. ...I do not believe in taking positions that uphold a certain corporate spirit to avoid damaging the image of the institution." That's a big deal.

As a pastor, I am weary of the calls to "turn around the church." I am sick and tired of the adoption of both business language and business practices that have infested the church. I am done with it. As a Christian, I am desperate, as are other Christians, for a church less concerned with itself than with love, compassion, generosity, simplicity, justice, forgiveness, joy, community, sacrament, and incarnation. Many have said what a sad day for Christians that we all fall over ourselves when a pope lives the gospel. While there is a sad truth in that, there is also a reductionistic, oversimplistic sarcasm in it, too. Living the gospel is not easy. Perhaps, this might be especially true for someone can can choose to live in a gilded cage, (literally a home that is gilded!) We see this at play with the easy creature comforts of life in middle America. More often than not, we do not want to live with the dirty, messy, smelly, unruly people who dwell on the sidewalks of our urban areas, camping out in parks and under overpasses. We do not want low income housing springing up next to our homes...nor do we want half way houses...or transitional housing, or... We don't. Most of us don't, anyway. However, radical community is the gospel. It is not part of the gospel. It is the gospel. That is why one cannot be a follower of Jesus, much less a "little Christ" (the literal translation of Christian), on our own. Jesus lived in community. He healed communities. He restored people to community. He loved in community. And his gospel was communal. Based in this world. In community. In between you and me. It is concerned with the stuff of real life.

Despite doctrine and ecclesiology differences, this pope has done something for this follower of Jesus. So, while he may not really be my pope, I thank him for what he is doing. He is offering himself as something to poke and prod, hug, see, touch, listen to, and struggle with. Much like Jesus did. To Thomas. And, that is very much the gospel.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Prayer of the Day for Good Shepherd Sunday

God of peace, as your raised Jesus from the dead, so too you raised your daughter Tabitha. Again and again, you reach into the dead places of our lives and tease out new life. You meet us in the scary and violent places of this world and offer tastes of your heavenly banquet. And when we lose hope and stray, you send your messengers to remind us of your love and to lead us home. Help us to hear the voice of the risen Christ that calls to us still. May we move away from the fences that we make that keep us one from the other and from our most Holy Shepherd, that we might dwell as one flock in unity and love. Amen.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

A Christmas Sermon (for Easter), Easter C

Tears. A name. A garden. These are three of the most important images in our gospel reading. Together they reveal the transformative power of love to overcome the powers of this world, including the power of death, and in these images we see how God brings new life and redemption for all creation. All three of these - tears, a name, and a garden - link Mary with Jesus. When John awakens us to new life in the Resurrected Christ, it is through the presence of Mary Magdalene, the witness to the miracle of new life. So who is she?

Mary is found in all four of the gospels. The Bible does not say, as many of us were told growing up, that she was a harlot or a prostitute or even a sinner. 
Some traditions like the Roman Catholic Church, following the storyline in John, equate Mary Magdalene with Mary of Bethany, Martha and Lazarus’ sister. This is mostly because, as intimate as Mary, Martha, and Lazarus are with Jesus, they simply fade away from the storyline about the time that Mary Magdalene appears. Both Luke and Mark tell us that Jesus cleanses her of seven demons. All four gospels put Mary as a witness to the crucifixion. Luke says that a group of women followed Jesus from Galilee, including Mary Magdalene. In John, Mary is a unique witness to the burial of Jesus. In all four gospels, Mary is among the women who announce the empty tomb to the apostles. In fact, in John, 

Jesus appears to Mary first among all others, as he does in the extended ending of Mark. And her name? There is a town called Magdala, which indicates that she could be from there. But Luke expressly tells us that she was called Magdalene, in Hebrew “Migdal,” which means fortress. Perhaps Mary was the fortress in the same way that Peter was the rock. Perhaps she was Mary the fortress, the unmoveable witness to Jesus. By the 10th century, she had become known as the Apostle to the Apostles. Traditions and stories of her evangelistic journeys became part of Christian legend.

One such story comes from the Eastern Orthodox church, and it is over 1500 years old. According to this legend, after Jesus releases Mary from the demons, she, coming from a wealthy family, financially supports him and his ministry. As others abandoned him, she remained with him to the cross. The resurrected Christ appeared to her and sent her to proclaim the resurrection. She travelled to Rome to do just this. Because of the status and wealth of her family, she was admitted to the court of Tiberius Caesar, where she dined with him. Over dinner, she picked up and egg and proclaimed that Jesus had risen from the dead. Caesar laughed at the absurdity of such a story, saying that such a thing would be just about as possible as the egg in her hand turning red. And so it did, immediately. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, eggs are still painted a deep red in remembrance of this act of transformation. 

This story along with Mary’s role at the death and burial of Jesus is why her icon usually depicts her with a jar of anointing oil 

and an egg, sometimes white, 

usually red.

 But what does this have to do with Easter? With Christ himself? With the miracle of this day? Tears. A name. And a garden. On that morning so long ago,

Mary goes while it is still dark out,
while her spirit must have been dark with grief and anger at the injustice of Jesus’ death, while the whole world was dark at the death of the Anointed One. But the dark could not keep her away. She moved in and through it to her beloved Jesus. When she finds the stone removed, she runs to tell the disciples that Jesus’ body had been taken. In the footrace to the tomb, Peter is beaten by the beloved one. There they find evidence of Jesus, but no body. We are told that the beloved one believed but did not understand and so they went home. Mary, once again, is left to be the witness. Love pulled the beloved disciple to the tomb before Peter. Love helped him believe, yet, in his ignorance, he left. But Mary, she stayed. And she wept. Her tears flowed from the years of following Jesus, from the loss of first his life and then his body - after all that he had done for her, to her, and in her presence. Her tears, I imagine could have been enough to saturate the ground. I believe they were enough to open her heart beyond belief into the presence of the risen Christ. It says that, “As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and she saw two angels in white...” They say to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She answers, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 

(Duccio di Buonisegna)

She turns and finds a single man, who asks the same question of her. Supposing him to be the gardener, she says, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Then Jesus speaks her name and her steadfast and loving heart is fully opened, “Teacher,” she says. She believes and she understands. Standing in the garden, she tries to hold on to him, but he tells her not to. She must release him. “But go...” he says. And so she does. She goes to the disciples and announces, “I have seen the Lord.”

Today’s sermon has an odd name - “A Christmas Sermon (for Easter).” This is because we often think of Christmas as the holiday of Incarnation. God born into the world. Emmanuel. God with Us. And then, when we get to Easter, Jesus is about the sky and the spirit world, something that happens after death in places we cannot see, smell, touch, taste or hear. But this story is about the Incarnation. About God in this world. Healing in this world. Living. Breathing. Redeeming. Loving. This world. Mary experienced bondage in this world. Jesus liberated her from her demons...in this world. She was with him in real human agony as his body was broken, as he breathed his last breath. She was there at a real tomb where death has the last word, from which there is no escape. She was there to wash and tenderly care for his body. She loved him. In this world. In that garden. When the door to the tomb was rolled away, she did not assume, “Oh, yeah, Jesus is with God.” She wept. She wept in love because his body, his real flesh body, had been stolen. She wept real tears that saturated the real ground. This is sorrow as you and I have experienced it when the unthinkable happens. When love breaks our hearts. Because it does happen. Justice is denied. Pain is real. The story of our faith as told through Mary Magdalene is a story of this world, of Emmanuel, of what happens when love fully takes hold of us. When the resurrected Christ speaks her name, he is with her, and the real ache in her is opened by real love. Right here in this world. Right there. In that garden...

(Alexander Ivanov)  

...In that garden like the first garden, where God began creation with Adam and Eve. The first and the new creation germinate in these places of life and death and life. They are verdant and potent. They smell. They taste. They make sounds. They provide food for nourishment and they offer pleasure. It is no coincidence that as God spoke the first creation into being, Christ speaks Mary into a new creation. So, as God began the first creation in a garden, God begins the second creation in a garden. Jesus as new creation. Mary in the midst of new creation. New creation. Alive in a new way. In the garden. By the breath of the divine. Intimate and holy.

John invites us into garden living, to be called by love into the suffering of the world and to weep at the reality of it all, to hear God speak our name, and to be awakened to the truth that, despite the hardness of it all, the difficulty of it all, God is at work speaking us into newness. Christ is speaking. Creation is awakening. Things are being disturbed. Changed. Transformed. The Easter miracle is not that a white egg magically became red or that a dead body was reanimated. The Easter miracle is love. Transformational love. Through love, all of creation is transformed as only God can do. Like  Mary released from demons. Like Jesus released from the grave. Like us released from.... Set free from... Like all of creation being awakened to something as yet to be experienced.

Tears. A name. A garden. These are all found here on this earth. And they serve to remind us that God is disturbing this world and entering into it fully and deeply, speaking it to new life once again. Amen.

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