Sunday, April 24, 2011

What's in a Name? (John 20: 1-18)

It might be hard to picture retro-rocker Bob Seger, with his love of guitars, horns and "old time rock and roll" as a prophet. But his 1978 song "Feel Like a Number" outlines a problem starting in his day that only got worse, as anyone who's ever dealt with those misnamed "customer service lines" can tell you.

Everyone he deals with makes Seger feel more and more like he's not only anonymous, he's irrelevant: "To teachers I'm just another child/To the IRS I'm another file/Just another consensus on the street." I think that's a feeling that our modern world can push on us pretty heavily. The circle of places and people where we matter as individuals is quite a bit smaller than it used to be, and there's something about human beings that pushes back against that idea.

And there's quite a bit of money to be made in helping that push back -- everyone from beauty salons to clothing stores to tattoo parlors have opened wide their gates to people who want to "express their individuality" in different ways that often end up looking a lot like the other people who want to express their individuality. It seems like only after they've spent the money on these outward signs do people start to understand their individuality and identity has roots other than haircuts, shirts and ink.

According to the Biblical witness, human beings have pretty much always sought ways to distinguish themselves and have an impact, going back to the first man and first woman eating from the tree of knowledge so they could "be like God." A  generation or so after Noah, people gathered on the plains of Babel to try to build a tower to Heaven so they could "make a name" for themselves, or be remembered by those who came after. Neither of those ideas panned out very well.

Is that because God is against the idea of human individuality? Some people believe so. Many folks who disagree with Christianity claim its goal is to create people who passively follow whichever leader they happen to have, and think whatever that leader or guru tells them to think. These people say the whole point of the Christian message is, "Do what you're told."

We've got some folks in the Christian world who do seem to teach that idea, but I think both they and the folks who see them as representing all of Christianity are wrong. For one, human nature resists that kind of system. History shows time and time again that governments and systems that try to make people just cogs in a state fail. There's almost always enough people who don't like getting told what to do that their orneriness gets contagious and the system collapses, or enough people outside that system they can stop its leaders' plans in their tracks.

For another, it seems like societies have had their strongest and most prosperous times when their individual members have been encouraged to unleash their own creativity. Neither great art nor great literature came from committees.

And I imagine most of us have had those times like Bob Seger describes where we have felt like numbers or like we are anonymous and irrelevant -- and we don't much care for them, do we? People who try to take their own lives are obviously dealing with significant problems, but one of the things that they often share is a sense of despair or hopelessness that grows from a mistaken conviction that nothing matters, including them.

These kinds of evidence suggest -- to me, anyway -- that human beings have within them a desire to matter, and not mattering poses big problems for our well-being. If we believe that God had anything to do with human creation, then we believe this desire is naturally part of us: We're supposed to want to matter and we're supposed to feel something's wrong when we don't matter.

But like I mentioned before, many of the ways people seek to matter don't work. They may be the same ways that everyone else tries to matter, so they wind up not mattering much at all. Or they may be more damaging than they're worth, destroying the self we're trying to express.

When I picture Mary at the tomb, I wonder if that sense of not mattering was part of what she felt. From Luke we know she was a woman possessed by demonic spirits, and whether you believe that or you believe she was mentally ill, she probably didn't have a lot of people who cared about her back in her home village of Magdala. After all, everyone's life would be easier if the demon-possessed woman would just disappear or at least pretend like she'd disappeared, wouldn't it? After Jesus healed her and she became one of his followers, I imagine it was the first time in a long time she felt at all valued in some way, and I wonder how strong that belief was. Would it continue now that Jesus was gone? Did she still have value in a world without him? Was his message of her importance to God something that could outlast his death? Out of the millions of people in the world, did Mary of Magdala have a place in the mind of the Lord?

Then with a single world, she understands two things: One, that Jesus is not gone and the world is not now nor will it ever be "without him," as he himself had outlasted death.

And two, the Lord, the Word of God without whom was nothing made that was made, in the same voice that said "Let there be" to the whole of creation, said also the one word that helped Mary understand she had and would always have a place in his mind: "Mary."

He says that word to you, too. May we all hear his voice.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Mezuzot: Doorposts (Matthew 21:1-11; Deuteronomy 6:4-9)

During the season of Lent our church is studying some chapters from Lauren Winner's book Mudhouse Sabbath. The sermons during this time will also follow through on some of her writing, but the sermon author claims all mistakes and goofy ideas as his own.

On first glace, a commandment that seems to be an instruction on how to decorate your own home would make you wonder. "Really, Lord? Got all the big stuff taken care of, I guess." But when we look at the foundation of the custom of the mezuzot, we can see something bigger at work.

The scripture scrolls placed over the doorposts in Jewish homes aren't chosen at random. The verses from Deuteronomy represent the most basic understanding of the Hebrew people in their covenant with the Lord: That the Lord is their God, and no other, and that the Lord is the only God who is real. Every time they enter or leave a dwelling or even a bedroom within a dwelling, they can see that container and remind themselves of this basic belief. A mezuzot is the first thing they see when they enter a home and the last thing they see when they look back at the door after they leave. Ideally, a person will remember God's covenant and Lordship coming and going.

In her book Mudhouse Sabbath, Lauren Winner points out that a mezuzot might be different for different people. Children might have scroll boxes with cartoon themes, for example, and a box might represent a person's specific style. When people see the box they chose, they remember God's covenant was with the people as a whole and with each individual person.

We might do ourselves some good to include a mezuzot now and again in our homes too, I suppose, as a reminder that we may be the stewards of a particular place, but the place as well as everything in it actually belong to God. I know I could use that reminder quite often. Of course, we can't put scripture-boxes everywhere we are -- unless we own our own businesses, our workplaces have different people as their stewards in this point of view, and we're not entitled to impose our beliefs on someone else.

But remember what God said to the people through Jeremiah, about the coming day in which God will write his teaching upon the hearts of the people and not rely on inscriptions on stone or other materials. We can carry the theme of the mezuzot with us wherever we might go. That might be harder, though, because we have no physical reminder like a scripture-box to jog our memories. On the other hand, if we developed the habit we could find ourselves reminded of God's love and covenant with us all the time.

There's another side to understanding the custom of the mezuzot, and that's remembering that this is something Jesus knew as a regular part of his life. When he was a boy growing up, he would have seen the mezuzot on the front door of his house and Joseph and Mary would have explained it to him -- even though his divine nature would have known all about it, his human nature learned like any other human being learned.

When he stayed with his friends Lazarus, Mary and Martha in Bethany, he would have entered the house by walking underneath the mezuzot. When he stayed with Peter, there would be a mezuzot. When he ate dinner at the house of Simon the Pharisee, there would have been a mezuzot -- heck, even Zaccheus the tax collector probably had a mezuzot over his front door.

Why is that important? Well, a couple of reasons occur to me as I think about it. They may be right or off-base, but they interest me when I want to think about God. Remember that the mezuzot is a scroll of scripture that recites the Israelite's dedication to his or her God and reminds the reader of God's covenant with and love for the people. And remember too that Jesus said he was "the way, the truth and the life," pointing out more than once that he was the way to God, so to speak. He was the sign that the covenant God began by making with the Hebrew people was expanded to include all people. He had become a new doorway to God, if you like.

And on him were inscribed the signs of God's love for all people, the wounds of the nails and the spear. I don't believe that Jesus somehow had to keep the scars of those wounds when he was raised. If after his resurrection he could be unrecognizable to Mary Magdalene until he spoke her name, he could certainly have been raised without any marks at all. But he did keep them -- why? To remember what he had done and why? I'd say yes, except I don't know how he could forget even if he weren't fully divine.

Are they the mezuzim that remind us of God's love when we look at the new doorway to the Kingdom? Did he keep them for us, so that we could remember his great love for us and be shown yet another sign of that love? Well, I don't know if that's the reason he kept them, but it's certainly one effect of keeping them, isn't it?

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Avelut: Mourning (John 11:1-45)

During the season of Lent our church is studying some chapters from Lauren Winner's book Mudhouse Sabbath. The sermons during this time will also follow through on some of her writing, but the sermon author claims all mistakes and goofy ideas as his own.

There's a question prompted by this story that I'm prone to forget to ask.

Why did Jesus weep?

We know why we would weep if Lazarus had been our friend. We would mourn the loss of our friend and show our sadness, much like Lazarus's sisters Mary and Martha, as well as the other mourners present at the grave. We would feel that loss and realize that we would now continue life without our friend, and that too might make us feel sad even though we would know in our minds that Lazarus was now with the Lord.

But although he was fully human, Jesus was also fully divine and he knew in ways we don't just how wonderful it was to be in God's very presence the way Lazarus now was. He would also know in ways we don't that he would be reunited with Lazarus in God's presence, which would make their joy that much greater.

Jesus weeps in verse 35. Before this, our Bibles describe Jesus as "deeply moved" and "troubled." Those words kind of miss the mark a little bit -- the original Greek in John can mean those things, but it also has a flavor of irritation or even anger. The root word of the word translated as "disturbed" actually means "to snort in anger."

What would make Jesus angry in this situation? Is it the lack of faith the mourners demonstrate when they question why he took so long to arrive, as though he has the power to heal but no more? Is it that he knows he will be taking Lazarus away from God's presence to return him to this world? Is it that he had hoped to use this sign to show something to his own people, and the presence of outsiders will make that more difficult?

Well, we don't really know, although if I was going to lay down bets I would say it was a combination of all of the above, as well as a little frustration that the people seemed so focused on this earthly side of things and they don't show any appreciation that there is more to this matter than just the loss. When Jesus asks Martha if she believes in the resurrection of life, she gives an answer that Lazarus himself probably believed -- that all would be resurrected on the last day.

But she and the others are focused on how Jesus' late arrival meant Lazarus' death. "If you had been here, he would not have died." That's not entirely accurate. The full truth is that if Jesus had healed Lazarus, he would not have died then. He still would have died someday, though. And even though Jesus raised him, he would die again. For whatever reason, the mourners couldn't put Lazarus' death into the context of a belief that God had the ultimate control over all things, including death. Though their sadness was real, so too should have been their understanding of God's ultimate power.

Many of the Jewish mourning practices Lauren Winner describes in Mudhouse Sabbath do have that dual character. A lot of them relate activity following a death to life in the religious community of the synagogue. The people who attended the funeral come to sit shiva with the bereaved. The thirty-day period after shiva is marked off by different behavior during the next four Sabbaths, as the mourners gradually rejoin the religious community.

But even then, the mourning isn't done, as most of us who've lost someone know. According to the ritual, the loss of family members, especially parents, is marked by the twice-daily saying of the kaddish prayer for a year. And kaddish can't be said just by yourself; you have to say it with at least 10 other adults present -- which much of the time means paying a visit to the synagogue.

Even more interesting is that kaddish doesn't have any reference to mourning or any place to insert the name of the dead person and doesn't ever mention death! It's a prayer of praise to God, as if the mourner is to remember not only the sadness of their loss but also the greatness of God. Even though they probably don't feel like praising God, they do so twice a day. Winner says that any and all other responses to God are tolerated -- laments, raging, questioning -- but the prayer of praise is the only obligation that the mourner has in the eleven months leading up to the anniversary of the death. Kaddish is then said on the anniversary of the death.

Our language sometimes reflects the same kind of one-sidedness that we see in the mourners outside Lazarus' grave. We say someone "lost their battle" with cancer or some other disease or condition if they die from it, implying that in order to win the battle, they would have needed to recover. In reality, even if we win this battle, we will eventually lose one of them. Life is a fatal condition for us all; every last one of us will eventually pass away from something even if it's just good old age.

But we as Christian people hold similar ideas to our Jewish friends -- there will come a resurrection in which all life is restored and celebrated in God's presence. What we see as lost battles or endings will prove to be, at most, a pause in life as we move into a life we proclaim even if we can't fully imagine it. The language of lost battles and endings is not for us as we describe death.

Of course the bereaved have a hard time seeing this because the wound is still very fresh. But as the pain lessens, do we come to see this is the view we Christians say represents reality? Would we find ourselves comforted by understanding that death may be an end but is not the end? Many are, if not right away. Would that process be helped by praising God twice a day whether we felt like it or not? For many, it is.

We're in Lent now, closing in on a time of year that many Christians seem to overlook -- Good Friday. We leap from the entry of Palm Sunday to the triumph of Easter and we may not spend much time thinking about what happened to Jesus in between. And truthfully, Easter is the centerpiece of our faith -- the centerpiece of human existence, according to the gospel message. But the reality of Good Friday in the world sometimes escapes us, and we might forget that there are people all around us who live in that time of mourning or of loss.

We can't forget that, because if we do we're too likely to forget them. And if we forget those who mourn, who will tell them of the Good News -- that the Comforter has come, and the Redeemer lives, and the Savior reigns?

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Tzum: Fasting (Matthew 6:16-18)

During the season of Lent our church is studying some chapters from Lauren Winner's book Mudhouse Sabbath. The sermons during this time will also follow through on some of her writing, but the sermon author claims all mistakes and goofy ideas as his own.

To us, this probably seems like an odd instruction for Jesus to give. We're not used to people highlighting their fasting times the way the ancient Jews and others might have done, by putting ashes on our faces or tearing our clothes. While those were appropriate things to do during mourning times, Jesus says his people should not do so every time they fast. In fact, most of the times it seems like they should act like nothing's different.

In fact, they should try to keep their fasting a secret! If it's possible, no one should know about it. I'm sure Jesus would not have meant that they should lie if someone asked them, but anything short of that would seem to be in order so they could hide the fact that they're fasting. And that seems a little weird to us, I imagine.

Now, if the teaching was to avoid bragging about fasting, we could see the sense in that, couldn't we? "Hey, everyone! I'm fasting, and I'm doing it because I'm so much holier than you are. In fact, my fasting is making me even more holy, so I'm going to stay away from you as you go on about your sinful and much less holier than me day. Jesus loves you!" Bragging about fasting and the holiness it's supposed to represent would be an awful way to talk about it. If Jesus says that, we would agree right away that we shouldn't do it. Good teaching, Jesus! Thanks!

But he says, nope, don't even talk about it or give any indication you're fasting. Go on about your business in as ordinary way as you can. When we think about it, though, we might be able to help someone who's fasting if they let us know that's what they're doing. We would know not to invite them out for lunch, or to serve snacks if they came to visit. We might know that they have a real craving for a Snickers at 2:15 in the afternoon so we would call them at 2:14, talk about something irrelevant and entirely un-food-related until about 2:30 or so, and help them get past the craving time. Jesus' words, though, seem to block that idea. Why?

In the book Mudhouse Sabbath, Lauren Winner recounts a discussion with her rabbi after she had broken a fast she was supposed to be observing. Surely, she said, it was not that big a deal? God being God, surely He was not affected by the fact that a flawed human being goofed and ate a corned beef sandwich? Part of his response to her was that she was supposed to be learning that what she was really hungry for was God. Her physical hunger was a tool to remind her of this.

I think one of the reasons Jesus told his followers to hide their fasting was to keep its focus on this lesson of complete dependence on God. If our friends and our community help us get through our fast, our focus may fade away from God a little and be drawn to them. We need to remember we depend on others, but we need even more to remember that we depend on God. Jesus' own words -- quoting Deuteronomy -- when tempted by Satan to miraculously provide himself bread  are "Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God."

Food is one of the most basic needs we have as living creatures. We can't live without it, and there's no substitute for it. A thick hide and warm fur may do for animals that don't have shelter, but nothing can take the place of food for the body. Doing without food by choice is against our natures, but it reminds us we as living creatures depend on God even more deeply than our bodies depend on food. Without food, we die. Without God, it doesn't matter if we live.

In a way, a fast is like taking the Sabbath and drilling down even deeper at a message it teaches. Remember that one of the points of resting on the Sabbath for the ancient Israelites was to underscore their reliance on God for all they had when they wandered in the wilderness. Their lives did not depend only on their own work and efforts, but even more so on the work and the grace of God. The fast sharpens this message to its most elemental point: We rely on God not just the way we rely on our work or our energy, but even more, we need God the way we need food.

Because it's easy for us to overlook or forget that too easily, we should fast so we can remember. Maybe a complete fast for a period of time, or maybe a long-term fast from one particular item. But whichever it is, we will need it to draw us away from ourselves and our needs as simply living creatures, and draw us towards a loving God and our needs as God's creatures.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Tefillah: Prayer (Romans 8:26-29)

During the season of Lent our church is studying some chapters from Lauren Winner's book Mudhouse Sabbath. The sermons during this time will also follow through on some of her writing, but the sermon author claims all mistakes and goofy ideas as his own.

In many ways, our prayer lives and habits parallel our overall growth in thinking and understanding. As children, our prayers are almost completely petitionary and mostly one-sided. We memorize prayers that we say every night before we go to bed or that we say before meals. Most of the time we don't understand their content very well, but we learn that it's important to say "Thank you" to God and to remember we are blessed in many ways we might otherwise overlook.

When we get older and our communication and relationships take on new dimensions, we certainly hope our prayer does as well, although sometimes it doesn't. Rather than just asking God for things or calling out in time of need, we begin to realize that prayer is also about listening to God. As much as we may fascinate ourselves, God wants to play a part in the conversation as well.

At the same time our awareness of how we pray grows, though, so do some of our questions about it. If we pray for someone's healing and it happens, we rejoice. But if it doesn't, what does that say about prayer and about God? Or if the person we pray for recovers, but another person prayed for doesn't, what can we say to the people who prayed for that person?

And what can we pray for in situations we don't understand? Does anyone really know, for example, what needs to happen in the Middle East so that people there can have a chance to live like they want to without a dictator or some crazy rebel leader dropping bombs on them or shooting at them as they go about their business? We obviously pray for the people suffering in the fighting and oppressed by dictators, but what do we want to happen for them? How do we want their problems solved?

Pick just about any problem in the so-called "adult arena" that needs solving and you will have a hard time finding the solution. And so we may throw up our hands and say, "Lord, help 'em!" Although those are words, they're not very specific and you can see how they might be like what Paul says about prayer in Romans.

If we focus on prayer results rather than on prayer itself, we will confuse the pretty much everyone before very long. And we'll probably confuse ourselves as well. Lauren Winner suggests in her chapter on prayer that when we pray, we get to join in a conversation or a communion that's already going on among the three person of the Holy Trinity. Although it's not a perfect model, I think we can use it to help shape our prayer life.

For one, not every conversation has results. We Methodists, veterans of a hundred committee meetings or more, know this to be so. But even pleasant conversations aren't conducted with an eye towards their results. They happen because the people involved want to speak with each other. If they're related to each other by friendship or family ties or similar interests, they may be enjoying each other's company. Married people will probably tell you that asking each other how the day went is less about finding out how the day went than about talking with their spouses. A mom who's been by herself with a toddler all day long probably doesn't much care about the new staplers in her husband's office, but she does care about being able to talk in real grown-up words and share with her partner (we should stipulate, of course, that significant parts of the office day may not be very grown-up, despite the words used to describe it). The relationship matters far more than the content.

When we pray, the relationship we are building with God matters more than the content. When we give thanks for our blessings in a day, we're not really trying to itemize every good thing that happened to us so we offer the proper thank-yous for them all, the way we had to make sure a thank-you note accompanied every birthday gift, even the necktie from the strange cousin who thought it was a good gift for an eight-year-old boy. We are indeed thanking God, but we're also trying to build belief and acceptance that all we have comes from God, and that we owe thanks to God for it.

When we ask for God's presence or intervention in a crisis, whether it's geopolitical or personal or medical or whatever, we are in fact seeking that presence or protection for those we pray for. Otherwise we would just be making noise. But again, we're also building our faith, helping strengthen our belief that whatever good things may come in those situations come from God. For the praying Christian, healing at the hands of the skilled surgeon is no less a miracle than one unexplainable by science. Who gave the surgeon her skill? Who created the dedication to her work that kept her through med school and residency and through all the patients that didn't make it? We may or may not know who she credits, but we will credit God.

Conversations have pauses, of course. But the relationships that fuel them don't. It's the relationship that prompts the desire to resume the conversation if the people involved have been apart.

Our prayers may pause when we say "Amen." But our relationship with God does not, and so we find ourselves following every "Amen" with an "Again!" as we are called and drawn to return to our prayer with Him.