Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Spirit of Christ (sermon for the fifth Sunday of Lent)

I remember once when a call came in from Donna Theimer. She was weeping, inconsolable. Lucille, her mother-in-law, was in her last hours.

"Please come," she said, "right away."

Lucille had suffered with the slow and terrible progression of Alzheimer's for years, was very advanced in age, confined to a wheelchair, living in a nursing home, the only place that could provide her with adequate care. Her son Joe, one of our elders here at Philippi, was a loving and devoted son, and his wife Donna adored Lucille as well.

Lucille was Roman Catholic, but Philippi sort of adopted her as one of our own, and I'd visited her quite a bit before that day. Like a lot of people with Alzheimer's, she couldn't remember what happened a moment ago, couldn't recognize people she'd known all her life, but she could remember many of the prayers and responses from the Catholic mass. For example when I would give her communion, she would always say, "Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed."

I got the nursing home and Joe and Donna stood by Lucille's bed weeping. I myself felt very sad and already could sense the grief mounting in my heart. I had come to love Lucille as well. Donna and Joe spoke in hushed tones, choked with tears, about the illness that was taking Lucille's life and some of their hopes for the funeral. They wanted me to participate but they wanted to make sure a Roman Catholic priest would be there too. Lucille lay with her eyes closed, gasping slowly.

Finally, I invited Joe and Donna to pray with me. It is the work of the church to pray in the face of the hopeless, the despairing, to lift up our lamentations out of the depths. Remembering both Lucille's and Joe's background in Catholicism I began with the traditional address, "The Lord be with you."

And from the bed, in a loud clear voice, Lucille answered, "And also with you!"

Lucille lived another nine months.

Lucille's is a Lazarus story in more ways than one. Yes, it was funny in retrospect that we had written her off only to discover that God had a delicious surprise for us. But Lucille was Lazarus-like in other ways as well.

Lazarus, Mary and Martha were apparently well-loved people. John paints the picture of a pretty significant crowd gathering for the funeral. The crowd is positively distraught. This is not one of those deaths about which people say, "It was a mercy." No, this was a loss, a wrenching and painful loss.

The conversation at such funerals is often about the might-have-beens, the regrets, the missed opportunities, the guilt the survivors feel that maybe they hadn't done everything they could have.

"I wonder if I'd spoken to the doctor sooner..."

"If only I'd told her how I felt..."

"Do you think I did enough? Could I have done more?"

When Jesus finally arrives, Lazarus' sisters cry out to him, they lament very much in the same way as our psalmist this morning. "Out of the depths, I cry to you." When was the last time you lamented, when you complained bitterly, to God? It is a great tradition, a basic skill of those who practice Jewish and Christian faith.

"If you had been here," both of them say. "but you weren't." That is the essence of lament. "Where are you, God?" is the cry. "Why have you forsaken me?"

In the Haddasah Hospital chapel in Jerusalem, the pulpit is actually in a sunken place in the floor. If you ask the chaplain why, he will tell you it is because all real prayer begins in the depths. I think, as much as we might wish it were not so, that the realm of God is not visible to those who are not in the depths.

Lucille had Alzheimer's. She was very old and sick. She was confined to a chair and could barely move at all. She couldn't remember what was going on from moment to moment. She couldn't recognize her own son or daughter-in-law. She lived in a place of which many people have a real horror.

But Lucille was one of the most joyous people I knew. And not only that, she was a Christian through and through. She was so Christian she could remember the responses in the order of the mass when we celebrated communion. She was so Christian she quoted the bible.

In fact she quoted the bible every time I saw her. Always the same quote. She would ask me if I knew the shortest verse in the bible. I would ask her what it was, and she would respond, "Jesus wept."

Jesus wept. A quote from today's story, and perhaps the most mysterious and wondrous revelation of the gospel. God is with us, yes, but more amazing even than that, God grieves with us. God hears our lamentations. And God is powerful enough to respond.

We hear all the time about the great billionaire philanthropists of this generation and how they are giving so much back. I think this is wonderful and we should celebrate it and rejoice in it. One of the things about which much is being written is how Bill Gates and others like him are not simply giving money away, but are bringing their significant business skills to the task of evaluating the programs asking for funding. The question always is, will this really help? And will this really help for good? In other words, will giving this money really fix the problem? Will the program it funds work?

A lot of church people say, "Hey, we should do the same thing. We shouldn't keep pouring money into situations that are beyond help. We should redirect that money to do things that really will fix problems people are having."

It is good to evaluate programs, good to work on truly fixing issues in a permanent way. And wherever possible the church has always done that very thing. But the deepest and most important thing the church does is to show up and stay put in precisely those situations that are beyond human aid. Because the issue for the church is not what people can do, what I can do, what we can do. It is what the God who is with us can do, the God who weeps with us in the midst of our deepest, most irreparable tragedies.

And this is why the church of Jesus Christ has always preached to valleys full of nothing but dry bones, why it has always stood outside of tombs to call forth the dead.

This is why it watches at the entry points of the wall between Palestine and Israel, why it sits at the bedside of African people dying of AIDS, why it embraces beggars in the streets of Calcutta, why it marches for justice and languishes in prisons and dies on scaffolds for justice. Do any of these things really make a difference? Would they pass muster with Bill Gates' evaluation of non-profits? No, they certainly would not. Because they are not just about what people can do, but about what God can do.

Would anyone have thought in the early 19th century that all the preaching of the churches against slavery would have actually ended up stopping it? Would anyone have thought that all the churches preaching about the equality of women would actually have brought about a vote for them? Would anyone have thought that the martyrdom of countless Christians in South Africa would actually end the system of apartheid. Would anyone have thought that a fellowship of alcoholics and drug addicts could actually find the answer for the disease of addiction in the practice of prayer, meditation, self-evaluation and reconciliation?

This is the spirit of Christ, the fusion of God and humankind, standing in the midst of long-dead remains and preaching with a hope that will not give up. This is the spirit of Christ, the fusion of God and humankind, weeping in the midst of unredeemable tragedy, and calling out the dead from the darkness of the tomb. This is the spirit of Christ, the fusion of God and humankind, who is willing to change places with the dead, to offer its life for those who are beyond human aid.

Lucille was a person in whom the spirit of Christ dwelt, in which a shining light could not be extinguished by any combination of hopeless situations. Indeed it seemed that the more awfulness descended into her life, the more brightly she shined, the deeper into the depths she descended, the more clearly she rose from the dead.

God wants us to cry out to him from those dark depths. God wants us to open the tombs of our hearts, the cold dark places where we have buried all of our impossible hopes and dreams, and he wants to call them out.

And give them life.


Sunday, April 3, 2011

Christ Will Shine On You (sermon for the fourth Sunday in Lent)

At one point in my earlier career, I had a favorite suit. In those days of course all my suits were black. I liked this suit because it was a nice flattering cut, the looser-fitting cut tailors call the American style. I'd had it a long time and I wore it a lot.

Liz and I were newlyweds and I suppose as a kind of newlywed thing she bought me a whole drawer full of boxer shorts with cute messages on them. One of the pairs was white with little red hearts and the words "I love you" printed all over them.

One afternoon I had lunch with the chairperson of the church board, wearing my favorite suit. After lunch I got up and dropped something, I think it might have been a napkin, on the floor. So I bent over to pick up the napkin only to hear the board chairperson giggling behind me.

Apparently the suit had worn out somewhat in the rear end, and the "I love you" shorts were clearly visible.

In the story of the man born blind, I see a guy whose blessing wore him a little bit thin. And I think it's the way the whole Christian life works.

First off, there's this rather dramatic encounter. We could go wandering off wondering about the whole reaction of the disciples to the man born blind, and the bookend comments of the religious leaders at the end of the story, the assumption that he or his parents had committed sin, and while that's a fruitful road for sure, we're not going there right now. Suffice to say that Jesus, in a gesture that stirs recollection of how God created the human creature out of mud, makes a little mud out of some dirt and his own spit and gives the man, who had never seen anything, his sight.

Then, as Fred Craddock pointed out in an article for the Christian Century, Jesus disappears for the bulk of the rest of the story. The poor man is left at the mercy of his home town folks and the leaders of his local synagogue. You'd think there'd be celebration and gladness about the good news. The poor man sees finally! Isn't that great?!

But no. Instead they doubt it's the same guy. Now isn't this something? And doesn't it tell us a lot about the ways of human community? Do we really want to fix things? Really? It's a funny thing, but to fix something you really have to face a loss. You have to face the loss of all the things you might have formerly hung your hat on. I'm sighted because I'm blessed, while that guy who was born blind was cursed. God is in his heaven and all's right with the world.

But now the guy comes around with no cane, looking around, seeing fine. Maybe he's applying for a job, offering to pitch in to help around the community. No no no. That's can't be. Something's wrong here.

"Who healed you?" they want to know, and probably not for a nice reason. "Where is he?"

The man born blind says, "I don't know."

He's not around at the moment, the man born blind says, I'm on my own with this new blessing of mine, this blessing that is turning out to be more complicated that I would ever have thought.

Off they whisk him to the local authorities, who happen also to run the synagogue. And you know they continue in this same vein, rubbing away at the man, rubbing away with their interrogation. How did he do it? Mud, spit? What? On the sabbath? Righteous people don't do things like that on the sabbath, do they? Controversy, fighting, all kinds of what we called up north "hate and discontent."

I'm reminded of people questioning me about my own healing. I call it healing, others call it getting my life together. I insist that I didn't get my life together. I insist that it was a miraculous healing by God in Jesus Christ. I had almost nothing to do with it. I don't remember making a decision, following any line of reason, exerting any particular willpower. I didn't do it, plain and simple. I'm not even sure I asked for it.

This apparently disconcerts people. Surely that can't be. Surely you did something. No. No. Really. I didn't. Really, it was all Jesus.

The parents, remember the parents of the man born blind? The disciples wonder if it was their sin that caused the man to be blind. They get called into face the interrogation squad, probably because they had been told all their lives, "Yes, you know, you must have done something to have a kid with that kind of problem. Notice our kids all can see. That's because God has blessed us."

Have you ever thought how it sounds to a person whose childhood or family was a disaster when you say things like "I was blessed with good parents. I was blessed to have good kids." So my kid, who had all kinds of problems, was my curse? My absent father who suffered with alcoholism and depression was my curse? I was his? Really?

I'm blessed to have a good wife or husband. I'm blessed to live in a good country. I'm blessed to have had nice opportunities. What are we really saying here?

The poor parents are terrified. They have to live in this town. The synagogue is the only one for miles around. "Who did this?" the authorities want to know. "We don't know," the parents carefully say. "We don't know how it happened. Ask him."

Back comes the man born blind, once more on the firing line, once more being worn down, worn down, worn down with the questions. "Who did this? Isn't he really a sinner, a blasphemer? Come on, admit it."

Amazingly, the man born blind doesn't back down. You could see it happening. "Oh, for crying out loud, whatever you say. Just leave me alone and stop making me account for it." But no. I rather like this man. I would like to be like him. He sticks to his story. And he finally even fights back a bit. Pretty clean logic, simple. "The way I figure it, someone who can make the blind see has got to come from God. And you guys, who teach the faith, don't know where he comes from?"

Ooooo. Them's fightin' words.

As Wallace Shawn wrote in his award winning play The Fever, "we need the poor." We don't want to fix poverty. We don't really want to fix addiction. We don't really want to fix anything, because our whole society is structured around these things. The problems of others are how we know we're blessed. Attending to the problems while secretly making sure they are never solved is how we make ourselves feel better about ourselves.

God is only God if God keeps the system working. It couldn't be God who comes along and actually fixes things. Those are just those dangerous revolutionary people, those troublemakers that mix things with religion that shouldn't be mixed, the way Jesus mixed healing the blind with the sabbath day.

The man born blind says, "I don't know about any of that. All I know is, I was blind but now I see."

Jesus finally shows up and he vindicates the poor guy. And we see in this story the only time that anyone kneels down to worship Jesus.

The man born blind, like my old suit, had been worn through, so you could see the Christ within.