Monthly Archives: March 2016

Our Bizarro Twin. Luke 24:1-12

“The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but [the two men dressed in dazzling clothes who met them at the empty tomb] said to them, ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.’ Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. ”

That little flock of women who first spread the message of the resurrection were, of course—in their own time and place—the very ones least likely to be believed. But God gives us the good news and tells us to share it. It doesn’t seem to matter to him whether or not we are believed. It is the telling that matters. And predictably the disciples who first heard the story regarded it as “an idle tale.” The resurrection news is just so bizarre, going as it does against all expectation and all common sense, and in so many ways so unsettling and so uncanny.

No wonder Easter is still, from the commercial point of view, such a hard sell. While each year the goblin market of Halloween, Easter’s “bizarro twin” at the other side of the calendar, continues to break its own records for the consumption of its wares—costumes, candy, cards—Easter lags far, far behind. And it is worth asking just why exactly. Shouldn’t the news that death is dying be easier to market?

The problem is with that very word. Because you cannot talk about the resurrection of Jesus without bringing up You Know What. Even papered over with the imagery of cute rabbits and drenched in the scent of spring flowers, Easter retains that tell-tale whiff of mortality. And in a time when pretty much anything can be talked about openly, death remains strictly off limits. For modern people death-talk has about it the same forbidden quality as sex-talk had for our Victorian great-grandparents. It is our big No-No. As far as humanly possible we have banished from our lives any mention of their Great Opposite, and we discuss it with our children only with the greatest reluctance.

That does not mean, however, that death has been banished entirely from the popular consciousness. I know this because every Halloween I act the part of the talking corpse at Honeymoon Island State Park. On the stage of this world some are given the great parts—King Lear and Prince Hamlet. I play the Dead Cowboy. My face is smeared with grease paint and fake blood. An open wound is carved in my bosom. Made up I present indeed an alarming sight—I have pictures to prove it. Then night falls and I lie down in a coffin of my own building, waiting for a gaggle of silly geese to come waddling down the haunted path. And when they do happen by, I sit up and speak in a hollow, sepulchral voice—like Lazarus returned from the grave to tell all. Oh, and you should hear them squeal and squawk when they spy me there in my coffin. I scare the ever-livin’ goose-poop out of that goofy gaggle. Still they must enjoy it, because each year they come back for more.

What is disturbing is that they often they bring with them their young offspring, who are genuinely terrified by what they see along the haunted path. They scream with real terror when I sit up and start to speak, and I hear their goosey parents saying, “It’s not real. He’s just an actor.” They say this because they want to believe it themselves, and they want their children to share that belief, that death isn’t real. That it’s all grease paint and pretend. That our mortality is a mere fiction, the Biggest Joke of All–but never, ever a reality, present to us at every moment of our lives. The gooselings, however, know better. They scream and cry because they know that there is a fearful reality hidden under all the silliness of Halloween.

In that regard that little flock of women who dutifully trooped off to the tomb on first day of the week to anoint the body of Jesus with spices have it all over on us modern people. They never doubted that death was real. They knew it intimately well. They had seen and touched and smelled it. In their society it was always there, all around them, undeniable. In ours it is a deep, dark secret hidden even from ourselves.

But in order to experience the painful joy of Easter you and I have to stop pretending, beloved. In order to really hear the cheering news of his resurrection we have to acknowledge that Jesus really died—dead as a door nail—and so will we. If his cross drives home any point at all, it is that death is factual and personal to each one us. And only through that dark glass of that realization can we glimpse the eternal meaning of Christ’s rising, and understand why it was necessary for the women to find the tomb so absolutely empty, so totally vacated. Rising, he left the winding sheets behind him. Because the risen Lord was not a friendly ghost like Casper. When he arose it was as The Paschal God, naked and alive in an utterly new way, as no one had ever been alive before.

Sigmund Freud said that we human beings are fundamentally, constitutionally unable to imagine our own death, and he was probably right. Some have done their darndest to confront their death head-on. John Donne, the seventeenth century English poet and preacher, went so far as to sleep the last years of his life in his own coffin. Nice try, you must admit! But on the whole, we find it well-nigh impossible to picture a world in which we ourselves are not present. Even the boldest spirit among us is death-shy. The fear of nothingness is our deepest human dread, beloved, and we hide it from ourselves at all costs, papering it over whenever possible with nervous laughter and maudlin sentimentality. So the news that Jesus died and rose again must always confound and terrify us as much as it did that little flock of women who were its first witnesses.

But The Paschal God–bless him!—does not leave us in our terror and confusion. He comes to us, through the doors we close and lock behind us, in the upstairs rooms where we hide ourselves from reality. He comes still marked with the gristly signs of his own death and says, “Peace be with you. Do not be afraid.” Not that there is nothing to be afraid of—there are still plenty of things in life to fear. But we are not left by ourselves to face its Great Opposite. Whatever lies before us, Jesus has been there already. He has gone ahead as “the pioneer and perfector of our faith,” as the Book of Hebrews puts it (12:2). Or as the Apostles’ Creed boldly puts it, “He descended into hell,” and then “on the third day he rose again.” The Lord knows where we are going and he knows the way back.

And his resurrection turns everything “bizzaro.” That thing that most frightened us has become the door to eternal life. And the universe, which had seemed dark and meaningless, has revealed itself to be chock-a-block with light and possibility. The Resurrection of Jesus makes everything possible. We will be all right. Better than all right. Therefore, beloved, let us keep the feast. Have an extra Cadbury crème egg on me. In spite of the shocking Trumpism of our time and its sometimes triumphant vulgarity, Christ is still risen. Nothing can alter that. And just as a thousand thousand candles can be lit by a single flame, the news of his resurrection continues to kindle human hearts with hope and courage. So to those of you who share that hope with me, I wish you great joy this Easter.

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Terrible Reckonings: Luke 20:1-19

The New Zealots and the Golden Carriage              Luke 20:9-19

“Then the owner of the vineyard said, ‘What shall I do? I will send my own beloved son; perhaps they will respect him.’ But when the tenants saw him, they discussed it among themselves and said, ‘This is the heir; let us kill him so the inheritance will be ours.’ So they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them?”

What indeed? Jesus ends his parable with a question, but he doesn’t wait for an answer. He hastens to supply one himself —the owner of the vineyard “will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others.” The Lord’s message is clear—upon those whose lives are motivated by hatred and violence a terrible reckoning is coming.

In Jesus’ time the Palestinian countryside was seething. Absentee landlords controlled most of the land, and they were fiercely resented by their tenants. Independent and proud of their labor, leaseholders found themselves denigrated into share-croppers, forced to render a portion of their produce to land-owners who had done nothing to earn it. Often anger with the establishment erupted into acts of violence. Revolutionary feeling burned hottest in Jesus’ own district of Galilee, which was the headquarters of the Zealots, a radical party responsible for numerous terrorist attacks upon the landed big shots. Jesus knew the situation first hand. There was even one of these revolutionaries among his inner circle. The gospels number among his disciples one Simon, called “the Zealot.”

Now that was long time ago and a world away, but the first-century situation closely parallels our own in some interesting ways. There are many people in our own country who fume and seethe with anger against the establishment—the government or Wall Street or whatever–and for many of the same reasons those Galilean tenant farmers did. They are the folks who complain about the size of the plates at the salad bar. They feel short-changed by the system that seems rigged against them, like share croppers in their own land. And certain media outlets—they hardly need to be named—have long fed their rage and resentment on a diet of raw meat.

There was a time when these New Zealots appeared to be just a bunch of wing-nuts. No one in either political party took them seriously. But lately their appeal has greatly widened and consolidated under the leadership of a certain charismatic if half-baked candidate for president whose name hardly wants mentioning. Donald Trump has arisen to become of the hero of those who feel themselves pinched by system under which the rich get richer and everyone else gets the shaft. And Trump, who has done as much as anyone to create that state of affairs, has succeeded in galvanizing these disparate malcontents into a movement, making revolutionary anger fashionable even among those who have no particular reason to feel it. Zealotry has become the new shabby chic.

This sort of thing is nothing new, of course.  In October of 1795 the gilded coach carrying King George III was surrounded by an angry mob as it made its way through the streets of London to the opening of parliament. It was a mixed crowd–honest, hardworking tradesmen as well as indigents, and even a scattering of the ladies–all united by their feeling of having been ill-used by the powers-that-were. Britain had for years been at war with revolutionary France, and as the conflict dragged on, it had become ever more unpopular because of the economic pain it caused to ordinary Britons. Some people, as usual, were making a lot of money from the conflict. But many others were hungry, and protestors called out for “peace” and “bread.” Others, however, inspired by the ideals of the French Revolution, cried, “Down with George! No king!” Stones were thrown at the carriage, and one shattered the window inches from the royal head.

It was a well-aimed shot propelled by popular outrage. The mob saw their corpulent, simple-minded monarch as the image of the bloated power of a state controlled by the rich and the well-placed for their own benefit. And his golden carriage provided for them a symbol of a government insulated by privilege and indifferent to the suffering of its subjects. The newspapers of the time expressed shock. Some hoped and others feared that the attack on the golden carriage might be the prelude to a British Revolution along the lines of the French. But no popular leader arose to lead it. Fervor drained away and no guillotine was set up at Charing Cross. Revolutions depend upon a charismatic leadership to kindle the blind anger that fuel them.

And anger really does deserve to be called blind, because those who are possessed by it are able to overlook almost anything in their search for a hero. Even so what I find hardest to figure out about the Trump revolution is its appeal for so many evangelical Christians. Here is man who can only be described as a moral leper—an unrepentant adulterer, an exploitative employer, a compulsive liar, an outspoken bigot, and God alone knows what else. So what exactly is his attraction for the twice-born? Could it be that bigotry, hatred of the outsider, and a shared love of bad music is what really musters and motivates them rather than love for Jesus? Could it be that Trump’s rhetoric connects with something deeper than their Christian faith–a deep-seated sense of having been wronged, a burning resentment of those different from themselves, and a self-righteous belief of their own version of the truth to the exclusion of all others? His is a Zealot message, aimed at those who feel themselves reduced to share-croppers in their own land, those who itch to pitch a stone at the golden carriage. It has already stirred them violence. Now I am no prophet and no prophet’s son, but even I can see that this movement is going to get even more vicious.

The attractions of evil, beloved, should never be underestimated. It is powerful because it calls out to something in each one of us. You can detect the presence of evil by the way that it brings out the worst in everyone with whom it comes in contact. Have you listened to any of these so-called debates I wonder? Well, it is always good to know what tunes the devil is playing, but I couldn’t advise it. But if you have watched them, however, you have seen how they degenerate into nasty, ill-mannered, irrational schoolyard free-for-alls. That is what is happening to our country, beloved. This man and his words are bringing out the worst in us, just as he brings out the worst in those other candidates with whom he shares the political stage, just as he brings out the worst in his supporters–and also in his detractors. He calls forth anger in all of us—myself included.

I know it, and I am afraid, beloved. Afraid for us all. It seems that a sizable portion of the American people, including a large number who call themselves Christians, would prefer to junk the democratic process and be ruled by a tyrant rather than by a duly elected government that does not share their particular cultural values. So does the rise of Donald Trump in this election year portent the beginning of the Anti-American Revolution? Who can say?

But our concern, yours and mine, must be for our own souls, first of all, to guard them against hatred. Because hatred is simply the ripened fruit of anger. Now there is certainly plenty for all of us to be angry about in this annus horribilis. But anger never moved anyone to make a righteous choice or gave anyone a peaceful night’s sleep after making it. It is the just the music the devil plays to make us dance. And from violence and hatred always come a terrible reckoning.

What then will the owner of the vineyard do? Who knows? And what will be the future of Donald Trump–snake-oil salesman, unreality star, and would-be emperor? Well, we shall see, won’t we? But what you and I must do in the meantime is guard ourselves at all cost from the hatred he inspires and pray that God’s will be done in our nation and its political life.

From Book of Isaiah (21:11’-12) come these haunting words: “He calleth me out of Seir, Watchman, what of the night? Watchman, what of the night? The watchman said, The morning cometh, but also the night.”

In other words the future is uncertain. There is cause in the news for both fear and hope. But to some degree what shall be depends upon each one of us and the degree to which we are able to banish anger from our lives and embrace decency, order, and tolerance. And whether in the face of evil we are able to stand up and tell the truth.

 

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Dodging the Bullet Luke 13:1-9

It was a shocker all right. But with no CNN or New York Times to carry the story, the news of those Galileans “whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices” had to travel by word of mouth. That’s how it came to Jesus. Now Judean Jews of Jesus’ time had a pretty sorry option of Galileans generally, and knowing that he hailed from Galilee, and they were no doubt interested in hearing his take on this gruesome attack upon his countrymen. Probably those nameless Galileans—we aren’t even told how many–were killed by the Roman soldiery in the course of putting down a riot within the temple precincts. Otherwise, we know nothing about incident, or what they got up to that triggered such a violent response. But did they deserve such a terrible death? “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” Jesus asks, and then answers his own question—No….

Then he poses a further question, also based on the breaking news of the day: “And those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?” It was probably an earthquake that caused the collapse of that tower. Or it may have been an act of terrorism. It was a time of terrorism, and the tower had some strategic importance. But again, apart from this brief notice, history tells us nothing more about its fall, though it was probably big news at the time. But did those nameless victims deserve to be buried alive in the rubble any more than those who dodged the bullet and lived to hear about it? Again Jesus answers—No…

Last week’s New York Times carried this brief notice: “At least 29 people died when an island in Fiji took a direct hit from a powerful cyclone, officials said on Tuesday. A government spokesman told Radio New Zealand that Koro Island had been ‘pretty much flattened’ by Cyclone Winston over the weekend and that very few buildings were left standing.” Nothing more. So much suffering and grief distilled into two brief sentences! But did they in some way deserve it? No…

But it happened anyway. Like most of the victims of political violence and natural disaster, those nameless Fijians were no worse than ourselves, beloved. Perhaps even better. Or at least they were good enough for all practical purposes, which is to say that they were human–a mixture of good and bad. So why did they have to die? What does their suffering mean in the great scheme of things? Well, that’s the million dollar question. If I had an easy answer to it, I’d sell it by the bottle. There isn’t a simple answer, however–just a difficult, partial one. But here it is….

As I am writing to you, beloved, our cat, Tiberius, keeps wanting to sit on my computer keyboard. Tiberius is a lovely cat, a good friend—if a sometimes annoying one–and I would do whatever I could for him. I provide him with food, attention, and a safe place to live. And I often tell him he is a very wonderful cat, which seems to please him. Tiberius trusts me, but I can’t save him from the fate we both share. We each have our own little tragedy to play out in a world that seems hell bent upon its own destruction. We see it all around. All things—suns, flowers, animals, our own selves–appear, mature, grow old, and then die, or are devoured by other things that are themselves devoured. The cosmos is always in the process of creating and destroying itself. And as infinitesimal parts of our vast universe we are pitifully vulnerable to its forces, both men and cats.

And its Creator does not seem to care a fig about what becomes of us. Towers fall. Cyclones howl. The innocent are swept away with the iniquitous. The ugly and the lovely perish alike. And our world hurdles on endlessly, heedlessly, toward its own ultimate destruction. Our great human tragedy is that we are aware of being carried along with it. And we recognize our shared anguish and sense of abandonment in those anguished words of Jesus upon the cross—“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

But ironically, those of us who have been captured by the strange good news of the cross find in that despairing cry our deepest comfort. Because for us the cross of Jesus, the symbol of meaningless suffering, is what makes some sense of all those little tragedies we hear about–the bullets we dodge–as well as that last bullet, which none of us can dodge. The death of the one who was so like God he was God reveals what could never otherwise have known, that the creator is himself vulnerable to the destructive forces of his creation. In his own way he is at least as helpless and limited as we are. He—the male third-person pronoun sounds rather ridiculous to use in this context, but we have to use something—suffers with the world he is has made, and for those who think on it, there is comfort to be found in that. Something in the universe is tragically haywire–in the world we call it evil; in ourselves we call it sin–which the Maker is at any cost struggling to mend. So will he manage to get control of it all? Is the creation repairable? For three days, the scriptures tell us, that ball was up in the air.

And it would have remained forever up in the air were it not for the even stranger good news of the resurrection. Because those of us who have really heard and heeded it, the news that Christ is risen is an answer to the problem of suffering that is neither easy nor complete, but even for that still joyful and life-giving.

Horace Walpole, the eighteen century English politician and man of letters, wrote: “The world is a comedy to those that think; a tragedy to those that feel.” For us believers in the good news the world will always partake of both. Oh, yes, there will always be the endless news stream about all those tragedies, great and small, that are being played our right now across the world and across the street, and planted in the midst of it all the cross still stands with Jesus still writhing on it.

But at the same time on the very same stage something else is going on. A comedy this time, buried in the tragedy. The crucified Lord appears from the wings to tell us that everything it going to work out wonderfully well in the end, that the universe, which so often appears chaotic and indifferent, is in truth both orderly and loving, and his appearance proves this to be true. There are gasps of wonder and even laughter, because the restoration of all things has begun.

And in God’s restoration comedy you and I each have a part to play, just as by our sinfulness we played a part in the tragedy of this world. In our lesson Jesus calls upon us to repent, to readjust our lives. We should work for order in our world and harmony in our relationships, seeking with love and good sense to overcome the chaos and malice around us. There is still so much that stands in the way of God’s happy ending. But it is coming, beloved. More surely than anything else, the restoration of all things is coming. I know it in the waters of my being.

What I can’t tell you is what that ultimate resolution will look like, beloved, how it will feel, and what part you and will have in it when it arrives. But it is coming, when it does, by golly, I know I will recognize it.

 

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