Resurrection, New Year’s Resolutions, and the Deafening Silence of Hopelessness

Mother-in-lawA man, his wife, and his mother-in-law, all of them unchurched, went on vacation to Jerusalem.  While they were there, the mother-in-law ate a bad matzah ball and died.  The undertaker told the man, “You can have your mother-in-law shipped home for $5,000, or you can bury her here, in the Holy Land, for $150.”

The man thought about it and told the undertaker he would have his mother-in-law shipped home.  The undertaker asked, “Why would you spend $5,000 to ship her home, when it would be wonderful to have your mother-in-law buried here in this holy place, and you would spend only $150?”

The man replied, “Yesterday our tour guide told us about a guy who died here, was buried here, and three days later rose from the dead.  I just can‘t take that chance!”

_________________

Folks who are unchurched have a hard time understanding resurrection.  When we insist that Jesus rose from the tomb, they imagine that we Christians are talking about something like “The Walking Dead.”  But that’s o.k.  Those of us who do darken the door of the church have trouble with resurrection, too.  We’ve walked a long road since last Sunday.  On that day, we celebrated Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, but with a bittersweet edge kind of like when you know you’re celebrating a terminal friend’s last birthday.  On Thursday we remembered Jesus’ poignant last evening with his friends before his chaotic goodbye.  On Friday we grieved his death and our own sense of bereavement and loss.  Each of those three days—Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday—is visceral.  They connect with basic and familiar human emotions and sensibilities.  They amplify experiences we have in our own lives, and that’s why our smiles on Palm Sunday are tender, our expressions on Maundy Thursday are shell-shocked, and our tears on Good Friday are real.

Easter is infinitely more difficult.  Unbridled joy is the emotion of the day, and the locus of that joy, we are told, is resurrection.  But though we search for another human experience similar to this particular kind of joy, we come up lacking, so we clothe our joy in what are some admittedly strange customs, for instance, celebrating giant rabbits who sneak into our homes at night and lay colored eggs.

Perhaps the best analogy to resurrection we can come up with in our lives is what I’d call the “New Year’s impulse,” when we make all those resolutions at the turn of the calendar year to reform or amend some part of our routine to better our lives, and then think of that as a kind of rebirth: This year I will lose 20 pounds, or This year I will learn to play the guitar, or better yet, This year I will attend church more regularly.  While all of these are commendable (especially the last one), is that what resurrection means?  Is that what it looks like?

To answer that question, we need to join Mary Magdalene, who has just approached the tomb of Jesus.  It is misty early morning, and Mary’s eyes swim.  For her emotionally, you see, it is still Good Friday.  Mary had staked her life on Jesus and pinned her fortune to his.  But there have been consequences to that.  On Friday when he died on the cross, every hope in her life was crucified with him.  She might as well have died, too.  The one she loved most in life is gone.  No New Year’s-type resolution to better her life can change that.  No reordering of things will make any difference.  Even to try would be like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Can we step into her reality?  Can we imagine what it’s like for life’s course to feel irrevocably set and headed downhill fast?  Many can.  The news is replete with those who go so far as to harm themselves and others because they experience life—either due to their own decisions or due to circumstances beyond their control—as fixedly doomed.  This must be what Mary feels.  She goes to look at Jesus’ body in the grave as final confirmation that all is lost.  And when he isn’t there—when the tomb is empty—for her the pit becomes unbelievably deeper.  She is without hope, and the silence of a life without hope is deafening.

In that silence and through the dark and tears she barely sees the man who emerges from the mist.  But when he speaks her name, the voice is so unexpected that her hopeless world is shattered, and a new world takes its place.

Resurrection iconMary sees Jesus in the dawn of that new day, and she sees him for who he truly is.  He is alive, and she realizes that even her earlier expectations of who he was and what he was about are nothing more than a pale shadow of this reality.  Being one with Jesus is not about simply reordering the old life, even a good reordering.  Being one with Jesus is about looking upon his resurrected self and realizing that the future that had stretched before us—the fixed future of diminished possibilities and sometimes hopelessness—is blessedly gone.  In its place the new future is wide open.  That’s the source of this crazy joy we feel today.

This is a joy that realizes—unbelievably—that the future isn’t determined by the events we have already experienced or endured in our lives, even those bad decisions in which we are complicit.  The ultimate future, whatever we must endure at this moment, is, through Jesus’ rising, opened wide by grace.

New Year’s Day is always a letdown.  But for college football bowl games, the wide-eyed hopes of the night before look foolish in the bleary exhaustion of January 1.  It is just another day.  But what if you woke up this Easter morning, and everything were different?

It is.  From this day forward, nothing is the same, not for Mary and not for us.  The reality that Jesus has bested death and risen now accompanies us in all our endeavors, all our lives.  It blows the future wide-open.  Horizons are broader, and even what had seemed like the deepest pit is made shallow because Jesus stands at its other side.

IBR-1113189We are invited to participate in Jesus’ resurrection both now and at the end of days.  His resurrection remakes us, so that the very basis—the ground—of who we are is found in his resurrected self.  This is not a reordering of the old; this is new life altogether.

Today Christ Jesus speaks our name as he did Mary’s in the garden, and for us, too, the deafening and hopeless silence is ended.  This is Easter Day.  The Lord is resurrected, and we can be, too.

Advertisements

Slow runs my heart

Slow runs my heart. A summer’s bud by winter held. And if in faith my heart should fail, bring to my lips the cup, thine own sweet grail.
Philip Riley

It’s already been a long week, and Jesus must know what’s coming.  Some say that Jesus was gifted with God’s own omniscience and knew in advance exactly how events would play out.  Of course, Philippians argues compellingly against that view, but even if Jesus weren’t gifted with the seer’s eye, he must know the game is almost up.  He entered Jerusalem four days earlier, and he’s done everything possible to antagonize the authorities during the Passover Festival, the one week of the year in which they are the least likely to forgive rabble rousers and causers of disruption.  Jesus has made a scene in the Court of the Gentiles, driving out those who sell sacrificial animals and change Roman money into temple coin.  He’s debated, bested, and even ridiculed every faction that wields any power.  And he has reasons to believe that Judas, one close to his own heart, has changed his mind about the Gospel and sided with the devil.

It’s bound to be that last that’s the hardest to take.  We can face many things so long as we know we have the unwavering commitment and support of our friends.  But to know that a soul-friend has not only lost faith yet is also actively working against you…that can steal the wind from your sail and sap the very strength from muscle and bone.

Jesus has seen the Herodians pointing at him and whispering at the edge of the crowds.  He has witnessed the Sadducees conspiring with the Pharisees, two groups who under normal circumstances are mortal enemies.  He has watched the nervous Roman legionnaires patrolling the streets.  They’re coming for him, and he knows it.

Garden of GethsemaneWith all this on his heart and mind, Jesus steals into a quiet garden for what he must know is his last opportunity for quiet and peace.  But though he prays alone, he knows neither of these things.  Jesus the Christ is fully god and fully man, but he is not Superman.  Bullets don’t bounce off his chest, and against his flesh the dagger does not bend.  He is not Stoic in the face of danger.  In the throes of his anxiety, Jesus trembles.  In the anticipation of what is to come, he falters.  Mark tells us “He threw himself on the ground” in distress and agitation, and Luke adds with literary flourish, “His sweat became as great drops of blood falling from him.”

__________________

Let’s stop there and ask a question: What is your Garden of Gethsemane?  Where in your life is the anxiety so great that you can’t think straight, your body reacts in foreign ways, your emotions take on a life of their own?  Where does your strength so ebb that you can’t lift yourself off the ground, whether to face pain, combat demons, or repair relationships?  Where is your Gethsemane?

__________________

Rewind several hours.  Jesus is in room with those closest to him in all the world.  Though Judas has already betrayed him, Jesus doesn’t even exclude him from this gathering.  Only the two of them realize what’s coming.  The others likely cling to the idea that this week in Jerusalem is moving toward a different kind of crescendo, one in which all their hopes will be realized.  Patient with their ignorance, Jesus peers at them with piercing eyes, willing in them understanding of the heart where understanding of the mind is absent.  He lifts bread from the table and he says, “This is my body” and wine with the words, “This is my blood.”

They don’t yet understand it, but too soon they will, because Jesus will arise in Gethsemane.  He will face his betrayer, his captors, Rome’s military might, and the Cross.  He will face and endure every conceivable physical and emotional trial the world can concoct.  He isn’t Superman, but he does know God so intimately as to be one with God.  This does not spare Jesus anxiety and distress, but it does give him the power to walk into them in faith.

And in the Eucharist, through the bread and the wine, Jesus gives to the disciples—and to us—access to that same power.  They have not his strength, nor do we.  But he gives us, most literally, himself to take into ourselves, granting us his faith when and where ours is lacking.  The lyricist Philip Riley says it this way:

Slow runs my heart.  A summer’s bud by winter held.  And if in faith my heart should fail, bring to my lips the cup, thine own sweet grail.

And if in faith my heart should fail, bring to my lips the cup, thine own sweet grail.  Each and every time we approach the altar rail, we take into ourselves Jesus himself.  And when we recognize this, then he mediates his own intimate relationship to God to us, and the Gethsemanes in our lives lose just enough of their darkness that we, with Jesus’ faith as lantern light, can navigate them.The Last Supper

But there is yet another way that Jesus passes his faith on to us.  In the prayer at this final meal, Jesus reveals that those who love him are destined to become his body in the world when he is gone.  “I in them and you in me,” he prays to God, “that they may become completely one.”  The faith of any one of us may not be strong enough to arise in Gethsemane, but the faith of us together surely is.  Together we embody the faith of Jesus, and when we share that faith through acts of love we share Jesus’ power one with another.

In the Upper Room, after the meal, Jesus shows the disciples what this looks like.  He gets up from the table, removes his robe, and ties a towel around himself.  He bends down onto the dust of the ground and washes the feet of his friends.  They—Peter especially—are at first horrified, both at the thought of what Jesus is doing and at the thought of allowing their feet to be washed by him.  But this act is a sacrament, no less than what Jesus does with the bread and the wine is a sacrament.  Through it Jesus reveals the vulnerability, the humility, and the willingness to risk discomfort that being his body in the world requires.  It is not enough, Jesus tells us, to say we love one another.  “Just as I have loved you,” he says with a back bent by this enacted labor of love, “love one another.”

At some point, we all enter Gethsemane.  We all come to those moments where we throw ourselves to the ground in distress and anxiety, when we know that our own strength is too feeble to pick us up again.  In those dark places, Jesus stands ready to meet us, in the bread and wine of the Eucharist and in the committed love of one another.

Tonight of all nights, he will walk where we cannot.  He will stare into the eyes of death, and he will begin a three day journey that ends when death dies, and we forever live.

If in faith my heart should fail, bring to my lips the cup, thine own sweet grail.

The Fragrance of the Perfume

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
John 12:1-3

There sits on the dresser of my bedroom a small wooden box.  Once upon a time, a quarter century ago, it was a jewelry box.  But now it is a treasure chest.  Were you to open it, you wouldn’t recognize any of its contents as treasures: a deck of old playing cards, a stained coffee mug, a luggage tag, an empty bottle that once contained “Witch Hazel” astringent.  To me, though, they are priceless.  They are the relics of my grandmother, taken by me from her bedroom along with the box itself when I was in the eighth grade, just after she’d died.

Occasionally I sit on the edge of the bed to open the fragile wooden box and sift through its contents.  My daughter Eliza likes to sit with me when I do so.  She is fascinated by the random menagerie of old things.  But she also gets frustrated because as we review our little treasures I’ll pause mid-sentence, almost as if entranced.  My catatonia is triggered when I hold the box just so and its aroma wafts to my nose.  My grandmother has been gone more than twenty-five years, but it is a fragrance of her, of McGehee, Arkansas, where she lived, and when my olfactory sense is triggered, the nostalgia is overpowering.  For a moment she is there, and I am with her, and the love is as real as it was the last time she embraced me.  Indeed, were the treasures themselves all gone, the fragrance would be more than enough.

The sense of smell is our oldest and most primitive sense.  Before humans had a gleam in our eyes, before our fingertips gained their sensitivity, before our ears were so finely tuned, we could smell.[i]  Like many of the oldest things, our sense of smell is, in many ways, the most powerful.  We are told that mothers, sometimes separated for years from their biological children, can nevertheless detect them by smell.  Siblings can do the same with one another.  Additionally, pheromones are detected by smell, attracting us to our mates.  Forget those love songs and sparkling jewels.  The way to our hearts is, in fact, through the nose!

Olfactory systemThere’s an interesting thing about the hardwiring of smell in human beings, which we share with almost none of God’s other creatures.  Our olfactory sense travels to the brain along two routes.  The first is to the frontal cortex, where the brain detects and identifies the scent.  That might be enough.  But the second pathway is to the limbic region of the brain—also old, also primitive, also powerful—where emotion and motivation and deepest memory live.  There aroma travels, and there it takes hold.  And the result is that we scarcely ever forget where we first sensed that smell; we are transported back to the origin of that scent; we discover our hearts and souls filled with the fragrance of that perfume.

You know this, don’t you?  You’ve been in the line at the grocery store and caught the scent of the perfume or cologne of the person in front of you.  Immediately, in your memory you were in the presence of the first person you ever kissed, who wore that same fragrance.  You blushed right there in the supermarket to no one in particular at the folly of your youthful infatuation all those years ago.

Or, you’ve walked into a house to discover someone baking that particular loaf of bread or pan of brownies or dish of herbs and spices and were suddenly transported back to that dinner party so long ago permeated by that self-same aroma.  All over again, you chuckle at the jokes that were told then and smile to yourself at the company you kept.

______________

The story John’s Gospel gives us today was clearly an important one to the followers of Jesus.  It appears in some version in John, Mark, and Luke.  Details of the story differ.  Sometimes Jesus is in Bethany, sometimes not.  Sometimes the woman who anoints him is Mary, sometimes she is unnamed.  But in every version we find the perfume.  In every version we imagine, as John tells us specifically, that the fragrance of the perfume fills the house.

It is clear that this was no dime store aftershave.  Both John and Mark stress how costly the perfume was, and John adds that Mary anoints Jesus with a Roman pound, or twelve full ounces of the stuff.  It’s also important to remember that first century Palestine was a place without antibacterial soap, without deodorant.  The few who could afford to do so powdered, perfumed and otherwise masked the noxious odors of their world in any way they could.  Perfume was among society’s most valued and cherished possessions, and what Mary poured upon Jesus likely equaled a full year’s wages.[ii]  Mary’s gift is not incidental.  She is making a profound sacrifice.  Through this material gift, she is sacramentally giving Jesus the all of her.Mary anoints Jesus

Was this, do you think, the first time those gathered around Jesus had smelled this particular scent?  What associations might have been conjured to mind when Mary broke open her jar?  No matter, because the implication is that the aroma of the perfume mingles with the blessed presence of Jesus, and a new experience is forged among those present.  It travels along their olfactory sense to the limbic brain, and there it settles into the deepest, oldest, most primitive part of them.  There it transforms emotion and motivation.  This experience with Jesus will become the most profound memory, one that will be pulled back into the present and made operative in their lives again and again whenever the fragrance of Jesus fills their souls.  For Mary the new experience will come to life in her again in just two weeks’ time, when on Easter morning she takes this same anointing perfume to what she believes to be the tomb of Jesus.  There, too, the rock-hewn room that aspired to be a grave is instead filled with that sweet fragrance…

But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, ‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?’ (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’     John 12: 4-8

But it’s still Lent, and we’re not there yet.  Back in today’s story, there is one person whose nostrils are closed to the fragrance.  There is one whose soul will not be filled with something new, whose motivations will not be changed, who willfully and obstinately refuses to allow his experience to be, then and forever, upended.  Judas masks his closed heart well, protesting that Mary’s extravagance should have been spent on the poor.  (We often pretend at virtue to disguise our vice.)  The whole house is filled with the fragrance of God, and Judas can’t smell a thing.

And so, granted a metaphor as powerful as our olfactory sense, we are left with two options.   We can close our nostrils, so to speak, and thus our souls this day.  We can walk through the virtuous motions of worship, pretending that on their own they matter.  We can mask our obstinate hearts.  We can leave here unchanged.

Or, we can inhale deeply the fragrance of God that fills this house.  We can take in the aroma of Christ Jesus, who will transform us heart and soul and will begin to emerge in our consciousness at both the profound and mundane moments of our lives: in that supermarket line, crossing the threshold at home, sitting on the edge of the bed sharing a memory with a child we love.  We, like Mary, can give Christ the all of us.  We can break ourselves open as Mary broke open the jar and allow the fragrance of God to settle into all the cracks and rivulets, changing us.  What better Lenten preparation could there be?

Christ’s love is with us and is as real as it was in Mary’s home in Bethany all those years ago.  His fragrance fills this house.  Amen.


[i] The details of our olfactory sense come from Dr. Maggie Grotzinger, http://www.pennlive.com/editorials/index.ssf/2011/09/sense_of_smell_can_bring_back.html.

[ii] Yancey, Philip, What Good is God?: In Search of a Faith that Matters, 87.

Guffman and God

Not long ago I re-watched the Christopher Guest Indie comedy “Waiting for Guffman.”  The film takes place in the tiny and fictional town of Blaine, Missouri on the occasion of Blaine’s one hundred fiftieth anniversary.  As part of the anniversary celebration, the town’s community theatre troupe decides to present an original patriotic play entitled “Red, White, and Blaine.”  Anyone who has ever participated in small town community theatre (and I might have played the part of Friedrich von Trapp in Paragould’s production of “The Sound of Music” once upon a time) recognizes how hilariously accurate “Waiting for Guffman” is.  The characters—local travel agents; a dentist; an auto mechanic; and Corky St. Clair, the small-town director who supposedly once actually performed off, off, off Broadway—put everything they have into the show.  And their expectations rise when Corky receives word that famous Broadway producer Mort Guffman plans to travel to Blaine to attend opening night.

Image

It’s important to know that each of the community actors believes he or she is better than Blaine, Missouri.  Each wants to escape Blaine and make it big in the world, and for much of the movie we hear vignettes from the characters about who they envision Mort Guffman to be and what his arrival will mean for them and their star-struck aspirations.  Guffman will be their savior, on their side.  The problem is, none of them (including Corky, really) has ever met Mort Guffman.  In the absence of that experience, and with no reliable evidence on which to base their expectations, they choose to imagine the Guffman they want to meet and what he will do for them.  As time goes on, their delusions of grandeur grow.

On opening night, with a chair in the front row reserved for the Broadway dignitary, the cast is bereft because Mort Guffman is late.  His chair sits empty.  Throughout the play, the actors are preoccupied staring at that chair, almost as if they can make the Guffman of their dreams materialize by sheer force of will.  Finally, a man saunters down the center aisle and takes Guffman’s seat.  Euphoria washes over the cast members, and when the show ends the presumptive Mr. Guffman is ushered backstage.  But then it’s revealed that the stranger isn’t Guffman at all.  He’s just a man in town visiting relatives, who wandered into the play.  Hopes are dashed; the real Mort Guffman never appears.

The characters in Luke’s Gospel today similarly discuss with Jesus a God they’ve never actually experienced or met.  And in the absence of actual encounter, they imagine a God who suits their needs and conforms to what they want God to be.  They imagine a God who smites people who aren’t like them, a God who sometimes uses the brute force of government as his instrument and other times directly causes calamities such as collapsing buildings to punish some while sparing others.  The people imagine God as they’d like God to be, but the problem is that they’ve never actually met God, and the irony is that they’re so convinced of the God of their imagination that they don’t recognize God in Jesus standing right in front of them.Image

There is danger here.  We can be found both in the absurdly comic characters of “Waiting for Guffman” and in the crowd surrounding Jesus.

How often is our conception of God bound up in the worldly things we want God to do for us, in the heights to which we want God to take us, in the ways we want God to set us apart as exceptional among all his creatures?

How often does the image we conjure of God implicitly put God on our side, with the assumption that those others are the sinful, those others merit God’s disdain and maybe even punishment.

But God won’t be bound by our conceptions.  When we quit staring so intently at the version of God to which we’ve long and subconsciously clung, we may find that the chair in which we think God sits is empty.  We’ve never actually met the God who sets us above others and who sides with us against others.  That God is not there, because that God is not God.  When we encounter the real God, and not the God of our own making, the experience is wholly different.  What is it like?

Today, Exodus tells us, Moses leads his flock “beyond the wilderness.”  If the wilderness borders the edge of our expectations, then “beyond the wilderness” is outside anything we can imagine.  And it is there, we’re told, that Moses quits staring squarely ahead and turns aside to see a flame erupt from a bush, but not an earthly flame, and the bush is not consumed.  From the flame comes a voice that says, “Remove the sandals from your feet, Moses, for the place on which you stand is holy ground.”

Then the voice of God—the true and real God—says, “I have heard the misery of my people, and I appear to you now because I will use you to free them.  I will send you, and I will go with you.”

Image

Remove your sandals, Moses. For the place on which you stand is holy ground.

Moses realizes that everyone he meets will have his own notion of who God is, so Moses asks, “What name do I give them?”  To which God responds, “Say that I AM…This is my name for all generations.”

In other words, God declares, once and for all, that God will not abide by the names we give him.  God will not bow to our imaginings of what God should be and should do.  God is I AM, bigger than and beyond all our categories.  We don’t get to make God in our image.  We don’t get to fashion a God who supports our views or follows our agendas.  God will be what God will be, and ours is only to listen and respond.

And God’s message does not change through age upon age.  God says through Jesus the Christ what he said to Moses millennia before, and God says the same to us this day: “I hear the misery of my people.  I have come to free them, and you will be my instrument.”

As we walk through our lives, especially this Lent, do we ever travel beyond the wilderness?  Are we willing to risk moving outside the realm of our expectations, where we might actually meet God?  Will we quit staring so intently with blinders on for the God we want to see and imagine we already know, and instead turn aside—as Moses did—to perhaps catch a glimpse of the real God when that God discloses himself?

Of course, there is danger in that, too.  Because once God has appeared, he refuses to be unseen.  Once God has spoken, he will not be unheard.  That is, I think, what Jesus is conveying in the latter half of the Gospel today.  Once we have seen and heard the God of redemption—once that God has called us forth to his work of grace in the world—our course is set.  We are become fig trees called to bear fruit.  We are agents of grace.  We are the ones to speak truth to Pharaoh.  We are to deliver those in misery.

We are to cease imagining what God might do and be for us and instead imagine how we might live for God.

Even here, in this place, the ground is holy.  God is in the candle flame and in the soaring music and in the Word spoken.  God is surely in the bread and in the wine.  We are beyond the wilderness here.  Perhaps we should remove our shoes.  Turn aside.  Listen and look.  I AM is here, and he is speaking to us.  Amen.