Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Redeeming gardens and people . . .

     Attention to detail.  We talk a lot about it with respect to work, don’t we?  Bosses are always looking for employees who pay close attention to detail.  I was thinking yesterday after the Holy Saturday service that I have had lots of time this year to pay attention to the small details of the Holy Week narrative.  I don’t know whether it was because this was Robin’s second time through Holy Week and she had it all under control in the office, if it was our concentration on the spiritual disciplines which just increased my personal focus a bit, or what.  Thursday night, we paid closer attention to the Towel.  Good Friday, we focused a bit on the silence or reset.  Yesterday, we remembered Nicodemus.  Those who were here during Lent hopefully recall Nicodemus as an example of those whose come to their faith slowly, as opposed to the Samaritan woman at the well, who, along with those in her town, come to believe in Jesus as the Messiah in a very short time indeed.
     Details are important in our lives.  Details are what separate us from one another, at least in our own minds.  Nearly everyone with whom I have had discussions this Lenten Season have been residents of the QCA.  In broad terms, I think we understand we share much.  Most are concerned about questions of provision.  Many are very concerned about their own health and, in lots of cases, the health of loved ones and acquaintances.  A large number are worried about their relationships: parents are struggling with children, children are struggling with parents, spouses are struggling with each other, workers are having a hard time with bosses, bosses fell disrespected by workers, and you get the idea.  Sometimes we put the dys and sometimes we put the fun in dysfunction.  A few are worried about whether the lunar eclipses and earthquakes and mudslides portend our Lord’s return.  And nearly everyone with whom I have spoken worries that their own detail keeps them out of the embrace of our Lord.  For all our similarities, so many of us like to focus on our particularities.  Father, I have done some stuff that God could never forgive.  If you knew me, or if the people around here really knew me, you and they would puke.  Those of you sitting here today have your own particular sins that you think may you irredeemable, unlovable.  Each of us gathered here today has hidden sins that we pray never get found out by those in our lives or in our parish.  The truth, of course, is that Jesus went through the events of this week knowing those “secret” sins of ours.  Jesus went willingly and lovingly to the Cross knowing those deepest, darkest sins that we think separate us from His redemptive love.  How do we know?
     Look again at the details of the story.  Where does our story take place today?  A garden.  How do we know?  When Mary has finished talking with the angels, whom does she suppose she is speaking with next?  The gardener.  Scripture tells us that Mary did not recognize the Lord and supposed Him to be the gardener.
     Gardens, if you think about it, have played a prominent roles in salvation history.  The role, of course, may have been prominent, but not in a good way.  What happens in the first garden in Scripture?  There, human beings are walking and talking with God.  God gives them one commandment, and what happens?  They break it.  They only detail for which they are responsible, the humans fail.  The Garden of Eden becomes a place of failure, a place where sin is birthed.
     After the Last Supper, to where does Jesus lead His disciples to pray and to watch with Him?  A garden.  Gethsemene is the name of the garden where Jesus asks the Father to let this cup pass.  While He is praying to the Father, He asks His disciples to watch with Him.  What happens to them?  They fall asleep.  Jesus can’t even depend upon His closest disciples to support Him in something as simple as prayer and watching.  Such a failure on their part at this, however, pales in comparison to the behavior of Judas.  In a few short sentences, Judas has gone from dipping bread with his Master to betraying his Master into the hands of sinners.  Judas leads a detachment of guards and soldiers to arrest Jesus under the cover of night.  What happens to the “faithful” disciples?  Once Peter is admonished by Jesus for drawing his sword, they all flee.  Every one of them flees from Jesus as He is arrested.
     I don’t know about you, but if I were God I might give serious thought to banning gardens.  I know we were supposed to be tenders of the Garden, but we have not demonstrated much aptitude.  Quite the contrary.  Gardens have become horrible places in salvation history.  A garden is the site of our first sin.  God literally drives Adam and Eve from the Garden as just one of the consequences of that sin.  Later, as we just reminded ourselves, a garden becomes not just a place for failure (the disciples could not remain awake with their Lord) but of betrayal and abandonment.  The Son of God is handed over to His enemies, and those who called Him Lord and Master and Christ flee.  Gardens in Scripture are places of big failure on the part of human beings.  And, as I said, I would totally understand God’s decision to ban them.
     Curiously, though, what does God choose to do with gardens.  Such is His attention to detail, and such is His power, that He can redeem all things!  Not most things, and not mostly redeem them.  He redeems all things.
     Mary hears the good news from the Resurrected Christ in the garden.  She hears His instructions to go and tell His that He is ascending to His Father and their Father, and she goes!  She hears and she obeys.  She does as her Teacher instructs, and the world is never again the same.
     Easter is that day when we remind ourselves that God has the power to overcome death.  Easter is that glorious day when we remind ourselves that nothing, not even death itself, can prevent God from keeping all His promises to us!  But Easter is also that day when we note that God has begun the effort to raise up those things cast down and to renew those things old.  Easter is that day when you and I are reminded that He has begun something new, something amazing in us.  And Easter should remind us that nothing can separate us from Him.  Such is God’s amazing and redemptive power that He can redeem all things.  He can redeem something as simple and, perhaps, unnoticeable as a garden, just as easily as He can redeem each one of us.    How do we know?
     Look at what flows from this garden this morning.  Mary goes back to the disciples and tells them she has seen the Risen Lord and what He has said to her.  What happens?  God begins to work in each one of them.  God begins to redeem that quality which made each disciples feel most unworthy, most unloveable.  To the three-time denier, He gives restoration and meaning!  To the one who doubts, He gives reason to believe and to follow.  To all those who fled and felt unworthy, He gives forgiveness and purposes.  And to all who come to faith in Him, He promises the gift of the Holy Spirit.  Each is assured that he or she will be equipped for the work He has given them to do.  They will share in His redemptive purpose; they will begin to share in the inheritance promised them by God!  Brothers and sisters, He makes that same offer to you and to me this and every day.
     Perhaps sitting here, you have reminded yourself why you stand out.  Perhaps, while sitting here, you have found yourself wrestling with the Holy Spirit that your sins are too unique, to particular, for God ever to redeem.  The story, in all its amazing detail, testify that you are wrong.  You could not be further from the Truth!  All of us sitting here (and me standing), have those particular sins of which we are ashamed.  All of us.  At a visceral level, we each understand those feelings of unworth and of failure.  But the Gospel news given in this garden this morning is that He has born those sins for each of us and promised us all a share in His eternal kingdom.  Such is His power and such is His attention to detail that nothing in you cannot be redeemed!  Nothing.  Whatever you think most separates you from God, He is willing, even anxious, to get to work redeeming in you.  Let’s face it, nothing causes awe and wonder in others than a redeemed individual in their midst.  Perhaps you have followed idols passionately in your life.  Perhaps you have been incredible self-oriented in your life.  Maybe you feel that your “breaks between worship attendance” somehow disqualify you from His redemptive purpose.  There is nothing, absolutely nothing that can separate you from Him, if you simply choose to repent and follow Him!
     Easter is that day in the Church when we remind ourselves that all things are being remade.  We might want to believe the whispers of the Enemy, that the response to our sins is agonizing isolation.  Easter, and the comforting words of our Lord, reminds us that all our suffering, all our loss, all our pains and all our fears are passing.  Today, we stand in that amazing garden with Mary, hearing the voice of He who would be our Lord and Savior, reminded that there is a hope for our lives.  We stand in that garden, a former place of betrayal and sin in the world, cognizant that just as He redeemed the garden, just as He redeemed Peter and Thomas and Mark and all those who deserted Him, He can redeem each one of us and use us to His glory, assured that He is with us in all those sufferings!  Alleluia!  The Lord is Risen!  One day, one glorious day, all who accept His offer of forgiveness and new life will be Risen as well.  Won’t you claim your share in Him this day and all days going forward!



Friday, April 18, 2014

Good Friday . . .

     I suppose it is only natural, since we have been looking at the spiritual disciplines, that I have viewed this season of Lent in light of those which we have been studying.  I know last night’s reminder that the towel is the symbol of the second Great Commandment touched, but it really came out of our discussions of Service and Submission.  My thoughts on this day, this Good Friday, probably arise from our discussions of Meditation, Prayer, and Solitude.  I say that as I have been considering how important the liturgy is in the life of the Church.  More often than not, we pay attention to the pretty colors.  Is today a red today?  Is today a green day?  Wait, why is everything white today?  We certainly pay attention to Lent because we lose our alleluias for a time.  Today, however, is unique in the life of the Church.  Today is a day in which the Church is called to remember the shocked silence of almost two thousand years ago.
     Seemingly near instantaneously, and certainly overnight, our Lord’s disciples went from a happy time, the celebration of the Feast of Passover, to utter dismay and sorrow.  In one moment they were eating with Jesus and reminding themselves of God’s promises; in the next, He was mocked, crucified, dead, and buried.  Perhaps even more sobering, their Lord had been betrayed by their own.  Judas, one of them, had arranged to hand Jesus over to the authorities.  The Sanhedrin and priests, the very representatives of Yahweh on earth, manipulated the system and rules to have Jesus killed--whose miracles testified to all that He was beloved by God!  Lastly, Pilate had sentenced Jesus to death, even though he understood that Jesus had done nothing wrong.  The disciples had been betrayed by a friend, by the religious authorities, and by the political authority.  No doubt they each felt betrayed by God.  After all, could not the God who empowered Jesus to bring Lazarus back to life or the blind man to see have put an end to all this?  But He had chosen not to act, and Jesus paid for all this duplicity, all this failure, with His life.
     It is a challenging effort to contemplate the deeds of this day.  How could God have loved me that much?  How could God sit and watch His beloved Son go through all this?  Was their really no other way?  Like many of those who came before us, you and I have far too many idols in our lives.  Whether we serve them or not, there are simply too many that they could ever be avoided.  The message of the culture has always been, “We got this.”  I think in the Midwest, it is even more prevalent.  Stop and listen to the narratives around you.
     How many of us know people panicking over the economy?  The old message used to be, “work hard, earn a secure retirement, and enjoy the golden years.”  Know anybody fretting about their inability to retire?  Know anybody who has given up on their ability to enjoy their golden years?  Know anybody who can’t get a job in order to start worrying about retirement?
     How many of us are worried about medical care?  Disease rightly frightened us, as it often reminded us of our frailty and even death.  Nowadays, though, most are concerned with cost.  There are people in this neighborhood, heck, even in this congregation, who sometimes have to choose between medicine and food or medicine.  Years ago, people worried whether they could survive an exotic illness.  Nowadays, people worry if they can afford the cure.
     Discussions of disease and death naturally lead to a consideration of pain.  There is so much in the world that can cause pain.  Illnesses can certainly hurt us, but many of us know other pains.  Many of us have relationships which hurt us.  Some of us have esteem issues which cause us to see ourselves as insufficient to the task, whatever the task may be.  Naturally, we seek something for the pain.  How many of us know people who turn to alcohol or drugs to dampen the pain?  How many of us turn to them for our own?  Perhaps we know people who seek their value in the arms of temporary lovers?  
     At least we don’t have to worry about wars, right?  Seriously, though, think how war weighs on those in our lives.  We have several of our parish “kids,” now all grown up, who have had to experience war first hand.  They have been asked to serve in conflict.  And, although we have been fortunate that none of our own have been wounded our killed, what damage has been done?  A quick peek at the world’s stage ought to cause us some concern.  Whether one is worried about the Middle East or the designs of Russia or China or bemused by North Korea, we cannot but help feel anxious about the outlook for peace.
     This list could go on and on and on.  Each of us has a number of fears and worries.  Unfortunately, many of us have short memories.  Like the psalmist today, we need to be reminded that God wins.  He always wins.  Though we remember our Lord’s crucifixion and death this day, we do so cognizant that the Easter dawn is not that far off.  Unlike those who lived this day, and the darkness that accompanied it, you and know the ray of hope that will be bursting forth.
     But today, this day we call Good Friday, you and I are called to ponder the significance of the silence.  Like our brothers and sisters a couple thousand years ago, we may be convinced that God has failed.  When we are faced with financial insecurity, disease, broken relationships, and any number of hardships combined together, it is easy to feel overwhelmed, easy to feel insignificant.  We can understand all to well the feelings and deep pain of those disciples who fled from our Lord at the time of His trial, who denied Him when the world’s examination hit too close to home, and who could only stand and watch as He was mocked, scourged, and killed.  That is why Good Friday is so important in our liturgical life together.  This day, you and I are called to ponder the amazing love of God.  We are called to deafen our ears to the noise and subterfuge and  temptations of the world.  We are called to consider anew the wondrous love of God which would cause Him to suffer this indignity, this injustice on our behalf.  We are called, each and every time we remember this day, to pause, to remind ourselves that this day is unlike any day that ever came before.  Even at the darkest time in history, God was not powerless.  Even at the time it appeared His enemies had finally won, God was still able to work His redemptive plan.  The same old, same old no longer holds true.  Even in the face of such a tragic death, our Lord is in the process of bringing all things to their perfect end, just as He is about bringing us to His perfection as well!