Sunday, May 28, 2017

Look Lower [Easter 7A]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Acts 1:6-14

Look Lower

Well, if we learned one thing from Acts today, it is this: some angels cannot read a room. These snarky angels are pretty insensitive. While the disciples stand by, all dazed and heartbroken, these two men in white robes suddenly appear, not to console them, but to challenge them: “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” The angels know why, at least they should. The disciples' eyes are glued to the very spot in the heavens that just devoured Jesus and his cloud car. And the disciples are trying to keep their eyes on Jesus. See, that has been a pretty difficult task in recent weeks. They already lost him once; they did not want to do that again.

But now he is out of sight, gone – for the second time in just six weeks. Once again they were powerless to stop him. And now all they have left is a limitless, empty sky. The second goodbye stinging their eyes even as the first wounds are still fresh in their minds. Holy Week cut deep. They had stood by impotently and just watched as he was dragged away and killed on a cross. And they thought they would never see him again.

But then just three days later, while their stomachs still ached with grief, he returned. And their grief was replaced with a strangely appropriate mix of terror and joy and confusion. It made no sense; it was nothing they expected. But Jesus, who was dead and buried, returned to them. And for once, all of the pain of this mortal life seemed to melt away – as if his new life meant that life would never be the same, that God's good news might infect every human heart – bring dead hearts to life, make broken hearts whole, melt the ice off of every heart cooled by sadness and loneliness.

The band was back together. And the disciples knew that on this side of the resurrection they would be unstoppable. Their leader was risen from the dead – the proof in his wounds. Every doubter would be convinced. Every opponent would fall at his feet. Every skeptic would now receive their Gospel message with eager gladness. He was back and they were ready.

But forty days after his Easter resurrection, the disciples are starting blankly at the sky and Jesus, once again, has left them with all of their dreams dead on the vine. Of course they were just standing there looking up toward heaven: there was no where else to go.

And then two men in white robes and a confrontational question jarred them out of their day dream and back into reality. There was nothing to see in the sky; there was nothing to see in the heavens. It was time to re-focus, to lower their gaze.

The Feast of the Ascension, which we celebrated on Thursday, is one of the seven Principle Feast days in the Church calendar – along with Christmas and Easter, Pentecost, All Saints' Day, Epiphany, and Trinity Sunday. It seems a strange thing to say, but we celebrate Jesus' exit. Not only do we celebrate it in our calendar, we find it in our creeds and in our Eucharistic prayers. In some way, the Ascension lives at the heart of our Christian faith. That we celebrate Jesus' ascension out of sight in the present would probably surprise those eleven disciples who watched him leave. That morning as he pierced the sky it did not seem like a cause for celebration.

Why not just stay?” is probably what I would have thought as I watched Jesus leave. And then, as I reflected on the event, later, tried to make sense of it, played detective, maybe I would come back around and revisit his final words for clues. What were the last words Jesus said? What did he save for the encore? After all of the profound sayings and timeless parables, what was worth going out on?

You will be my the ends of the earth.” That is the answer. That is why the Ascension. That is why he left. My boys have these colored bath tablets – only yellow right now because they use up the red and blue ones as quickly as they can. These tablets are small, no bigger around than a tube of chap-stick, and when they are dropped into the water they grow smaller and smaller until they disappear. Once that tablet is gone, all of the water is changed. The color that once existed as a tiny tablet spreads to the ends of the tub. Jesus left so that his presence would grow – so that the love that once dwelt in a single body might cover the planet, fill the universe. So that the message would spread. So that the gospel might explode – bursting the boundaries of 1st century Palestine.

Jesus leaves. But that is not the end of the story. As he goes up he sends us out. The light is green and we have to get going. Because the message doesn't move if we don't move. The message doesn't move if the Church stands staring at the sky. We're not meant to die looking up. We're not meant to die just waiting. We are sent. Out. Jesus leaves us with the dismissal. And the dismissal is always a call to mission.

But the truth is, most days, it is easier to live with our heads in the clouds. Because down here, on the ground, it impossible to avoid the pain and struggle and suffering that will inevitably leave scars on your heart and soul. Down here in the muck, you will see things no one should see; and hear things no one should hear; and think things no one should think; and feel things no one should have to feel.

And to escape the chaos down here on the ground, you might turn your eyes toward heaven – maybe looking for that crease through which Jesus slipped. And maybe you will even hum to your self the old spiritual “I'll fly away” as you look up and dream about your Great Escape. They say that in Heaven there are no more tears, and no more crying, and no more pain. There children aren't killed by suicide bombers. And loved ones don't stumble into the grip of death. And peace replaces the anxiety that seems to flood our lives through computer, cell phone, and television screens. Heaven is the best distraction from this world yet created. And it is easy to turn our eyes away from the things that haunt this earth toward the dreams of a distant heaven.

But Heaven is not interested in your interest – at least not yet. The angels are quick to break our gaze with their snarky question: “why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” And Jesus is quick to remind us that we still have work to do right here on earth.

And it turns out that those very things that cause us to want to divert our eyes – the pain, the struggle, the suffering and chaos of this world – are the very reasons the angels break our heaven-ward gaze. We want to look up because this world is filled with terrible things; but we are called by Jesus to look into the terror, into the pain, into the suffering.

Jesus did not ascend to hide in the sky. He did not leave to avoid the messiness of this world. Jesus ascended into every broken heart that would offer him a place. He ascended so that he could fill every empty space, hold every suffering child, comfort every mourning parent. He ascended so that this anxious world could live and move and have its being in the sacred heart of Christ. The ascension is not an escape; it is like an explosion that rained down divinity on this world so that no one would ever again suffer alone.

And we are the witnesses. Jesus is sending us out with this story on our lips and in our hearts, to witness to what we have experienced in our own lives. And so we cannot stand staring at the sky; we cannot dream away our days thinking about Heaven. Our mission is on the ground – on street corners and in the crossroads and at the dead ends. Our mission is on the ground – where bended knees meet cold pavement, where bodies are broken, where tired souls search for rest. It is time for the Church to lower our eyes. If we are looking for Jesus, he's not hiding in the clouds. So “why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” If we are looking for Jesus, we should probably lower our gaze; we are much more likely to find him down in the muck.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

A Funeral Text [Easter 5A]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
John 14:1-14

A Funeral Text

Do not let your hearts be troubled. In my father’s house there are many dwelling places. I go to prepare a place for you…so that where I am, there you may be also. I’ve read, heard, pondered, proclaimed, and preached this gospel passage so many times I’ve lost count. This Gospel is now for me about grieving families and ashes under the funeral pall. It is about saying goodbye and holding desperately to hope. This Gospel is to me “funeral” every bit as much as 1 Corinthians 13 is weddings.

But this week, as I considered this Gospel, I could only think about one funeral: my grandpa’s funeral. His funeral was Friday – just two days ago – in Zanesville, OH. And my grandma asked me to officiate and preach. And so this time, this time I read and pondered this Gospel, sitting on planes and waiting in airports – traveling to bury my grandpa, and then returning back home to the loving support of my wife and kids.

My grandpa, Robert Williamson, loomed large over my life, in that way that ones’ forebears are supposed to loom large. In my childhood he felt like a mythic figure – a wise sage in sweatpants and slippers – both inviting and intimidating. As I came into adulthood, the myth gave way to a man – flawed but somehow just as great.

His impact on my life precedes my memories. He was the man who poured water on my head and welcomed me into the household of God at a small United Methodist Church on the banks of the Ohio river. He prayed for me to know and love Jesus. He was delighted at my interest in his library of Bible books. He listened to my questions and engaged me in conversations about God and life and things too mysterious to ever truly know. We sat together in his study, as pipe smoke filled the air like incense. I look back and it feels as holy as it was ordinary.

There comes a time in life, when look back is all one can do. And then you watch as the bloodline that was once laid out so far before you starts to fade, and you find that even as it fades before you it is growing behind your back. Families can be so complex and flawed but still there is an undeniable bond – formed by blood and by name. Our roots are grounded in a past that most often is both blessing and curse, that breeds embarrassment and pride.

Family. I carry my grandfather’s name. One day my boys will do the same. That was special to him; that is special to me. And yet, he my grandfather, Grandpa Williamson, was also the one who baptized that name away. He had to; there was something that meant so much more to him than the bloodline. He was the one who invited me into another family – a family more eternal than our last name. He welcomed me into the household of God; he took his baby grandson and called me his brother in Christ. Water is thicker than blood.

And that is what we were: brothers in Christ. It was a relationship than ran deeper than blood or name. We were born of the same waters – ancient waters upon which the Spirit danced before there was time. Both children of the same Heavenly Parent, both burst forth from the Divine Womb from which the Church has emerged since ancient days – prolific and yet ever fertile.

We were brothers in Christ, sustained by the same nourishment. We found our salvation renewed each time we shared in the cosmic meal of Christ’s Body and Blood. We have tasted the flood from his precious wounds and have found not only is it essential but also we have tasted that the Lord is good.

We were comforted by the same loving arms, held in the same tender bosom. We were committed to the same way; sought after the same Truth; found in Christ that same source of life.

And ultimately were even called to the same vocation – to be midwives in the service of God – those who pull newborn Christians from the water of Life. We were called to the same vocation – to be practitioners of the sacraments, purveyors of holy mysteries. We were called to the same vocation – telling Gospel stories, trying to make some kind of sense of our sacred texts. He a United Methodist pastor; me an Episcopal priest.

Do not let your hearts be troubled. In my father’s house there are many dwelling places. I go to prepare a place for you…so that where I am, there you may be also. I’ve read, heard, pondered, proclaimed, and preached this gospel passage so many times I’ve lost count. And it is always true. It speaks that truth into the valley of the shadow of death every single time.

Each of us, born in the waters of baptism, made brothers and sisters in the household of our Heavenly Parent, both those who have paved our way and those of us still walking, follow in the footsteps of the Risen Lord and his assurance: I am the Way and the Truth and the Life. Death stands before us like an impenetrable fog, a future into which we cannot see. It stands before us beckoning us to approach it alone – which is an undeniably terrifying thought. Only we are not alone; we are never alone. The one who has seen beyond the darkness, who has tasted death and yet is alive, takes our hand and walks us into the fog. Nothing, not even death, can separate us from Christ. And it is he who stands before us, today, tomorrow, and even at the moment of our death, as the Way, and the Truth, and the Life. Do not let your hearts be troubled.

This was not the sermon I intended to preach after looking over these Scripture lessons on Monday. But then Tuesday morning rattled me awake with my father’s mournful tears. Life and death rarely keep a tidy schedule. This Friday I buried my grandpa, the Rev. Robert Williamson – my brother and your brother. I wish you could have known him. Someday you will.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

After Pentecost [Easter 4A]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Acts 2:42-47

After Pentecost

It was a moment like no other moment. You, I'm sure, remember the story; it is after all quite memorable. It started with that rushing wind. And then there were the flames of fire dancing on the heads of those patient followers of Jesus – those followers who stuck with Jesus through death, resurrection, and ascension and were then even willing to live in a one-room loft in first century Palestine with 119 other people and no shower for what turned out to be a week and a half. And then came the languages. A bunch of hillbilly Galileans spontaneously blossoming into erudite language scholars so enthusiastic about their newfound linguistic abilities that the crowds beyond that door thought them the most impressive drunks they had ever encountered.

And as if that Spirit-ed day were not memorable enough, a fisherman best known by his Holy Week betrayal and his many monikers – Simon or Peter or Simon Peter or Satan, depending on what kind of mood Jesus was in – launches into an elegant, convicting sermon that stirs the crowd. And at the end of the sermon, at the end of the day of Pentecost, that little community of 120 saw their numbers increase by almost thirty times in the waters of baptism. That is a memorable day.

And imagining where the young Church would go from there, well, it frankly boggled the mind. The buzz around town must have been deafening. The momentum unprecedented. How might the Church capitalize on such a dramatic outpouring of the Holy Spirit? The possibilities were endless. They could take that frenzy on the road – from Jerusalem all the way to Rome. Within a matter of days the entire Mediterranean could be scorched by Holy Spirit fire and then doused in baptismal waters.

And so what do these followers of the Risen Christ do next? What do these on-fire, Gospel babbling, Holy Spirit-ed women and men do? Well, they start a Bible study, plan some liturgies, establish some rituals, say some prayers, and share a potluck; they make a church. I can just imagine all of those “spiritual but not religious” folks just rolling their eyes. They tamed the movement. From explosive to expected.

But the truth is every day can't be Pentecost. You can't campaign forever; at some point you gotta govern. Pentecost was the start of something; it got folks excited; it put bodies in the water. It got the movement out of the room. But the Church could not live in that moment forever anymore than Jesus and his inner circle could pitch their tents forever on the Mount of Transfiguration. Flaming heads everyday a burnt out Christian will make. And the Church was not meant to be a short story; they needed a second chapter. But the question then becomes, is this the best next step: to hunker down and fall into a routine?

What they do after the Pentecost moment is devote themselves to the apostles' teaching – some Bible study here, a sermon or two there. And they devote themselves to fellowship. And they devote themselves to the breaking of bread – following Jesus' commandment to “do this in remembrance of me.” And they devote themselves to the prayers.

Unlike the mass hysteria of Pentecost morning, the devotional practices that follow feel to us very familiar. We're not recreating Pentecost on a weekly basis but most churches can still offer a sermon, coffee hour, and a prayer or two. A little more tortoise than hare.

But at what cost? Routine and ritual is important; it is good for the soul. Without routine and ritual everything becomes a short story. And the work of the Holy Spirit in and through the Church, in and through each and every one of us is way too important to be anything other than an epic tale. We need our rituals; they sustain us. But the comfort of the familiar also threatens to strip from our memories the radical nature of our rituals. We get comfortable and forget just how strange this early Christian community truly was. And when we lose sight of that, we tend to forget that we are called to be just as strange as they were.

When they walked out of Pentecost and into that first Christian community, these earliest followers of the Risen Christ did not set out to establish an institution that would run on committee meetings, fundraisers, schisms, and denominational politics. The first leaders of the Church were not looking to be memorialized or establish a legacy or get their names on church marquees. Instead, they were pretty convinced that the Holy Spirit showed up to empower them to do one thing: carry on the work of Jesus. And the work of Jesus was to usher in the kingdom of God. So they weren't looking for an institution; they were looking for the kingdom.

And that kingdom was not to be found in the palaces of Rome. It was not political strategies that they held in common. They were not looking to secure political influence or force folks to adopt their religious ideology.

If Pentecost made anything clear it was that the Holy Spirit was calling them to something new – a new way of living in this old world. The God of Resurrection life was ushering in a reality that undermined the politics of division and death that for so long had dominated. And rather than work through the old systems with their old kings supporting their old forms of injustice and oppression, a new spirit was blowing in a strange new kingdom.

And these lowly followers of a crucified criminal were the ones God chose to be about this kingdom work. And this is what they did, this was their radical move, this was the way of their strange new kingdom: they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and the prayers. They held all things in common; they sold all of their possession and took care of each other. They formed a family – a family in which love was more important than power, in which friendship had higher value than money or stuff. It was a strange kingdom indeed.

It might seem a little quaint. It might look a little naive. It might feel a little strange. This kingdom, with its crucified king and alternative values, even ruffled a few feathers. This kingdom did not come to play nice with the established order. The kingdom did not come to cozy up to politicians or powerful people. The kingdom is God's assertion that, in the words of NT Wright, “the world of debt, the world of injustice, [has]come to an end.” And it was this new Church, established by the Holy Spirit, that God chose to model the new kingdom of forgiveness and love that will rise in its place.

The Church is not called to be some stale institution or political player. The Church is called to put flesh on Jesus' prayer for the kingdom to come – to live the values of Heaven in this messy world.

By devoting ourselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to the prayers, by devoting ourselves to each other – brothers and sisters through the waters of baptism, we provide an alternative to all of those things in this world that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God: an alternative to the isolation that plagues our world, an alternative to the separation that confines people to lives of loneliness, an alternative to the cold individualism that harms the soul, an alternative to selfish consumerism that reduces people to value of their bank accounts, an alternative to the fearful nationalism that denies the image of God in people beyond our borders, an alternative to the racism and prejudice that violates Jesus' commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves. The work of the Church is to start living the kingdom of God right here and right now – to give the world a vision of what can be.

The kingdom of God is not a one-time event. The kingdom of God is not a short story. The kingdom of God is an epic dream realized only through the stubborn efforts of devoted people – people who believe that the nightmares of this world can and will give way to the reality of God's dream. Devoted people who keep showing up, who live the kingdom even when the dream seems like a mere fantasy, who live the kingdom because they believe that one day the kingdom dream will be this world's reality.

Those first Christians were strange; they dreamed strange dreams of a strange kingdom. The Church, at its best, is strange – still dreaming dreams of God's kingdom. You are called to devote yourself to a Gospel message that commands you to love your enemy, forgive those who hate you, welcome the stranger, and lose your life; that's strange; that's not a popular message. You are called to adopted a new family, break bread with folks who don't vote like you do, to pray to a God you cannot see, to worship a man killed two thousand years ago, and to live as if God's dream for this world could possibly come true. You are called to hope when things seem hopeless. You are called fill cemeteries with alleluias. You are called to dream the strange dreams of God's kingdom.

Pentecost was a memorable day and a lot of people came to Jesus on that day. Pentecost was a good first chapter. But it was after Pentecost, the next day, when the Church started acting like the Church, being about the mission of Jesus, stubbornly living out the kingdom of God, that things really got good.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

An Intimate Stranger [Easter 3A]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Luke 24:13-35

An Intimate Stranger

One of the things that makes Easter so popular is that it is so familiar. Everyone knows what to expect: the aisles at Target fill with plastic grass and chocolate bunnies; circulars advertise great deals on pastel colored clothing; the church smells like lilies and brass musicians blast out the opening chords of “Jesus Christ is risen today.” On Easter the pews are full and the Alleluias hearty.

Even the scripture readings are predictable. Unlike those Ordinary Sundays of the summer when Jesus' whereabouts and agenda are all over the map – some weeks it's a healing, others a parable, sometimes even an uncomfortable confrontation – on Easter we know exactly where Jesus is and what he is doing. He's in that garden and he is risen.

It is always the same. It is ever familiar. Every Easter Sunday greets us with the same gospel story. We always follow Mary Magdalene to the tomb early in the morning. The stone is always rolled away. The body is missing – every single time. Mary weeps the same tears that stained her face the year before. Jesus always says her name. And the gospeller always says “Rabbouni” which means teacher and every year we think to ourselves “Rabbouni is a strange word.”

And, then the next Sunday, which despite popular opinion is not officially called Low Sunday, on Easter 2, we hear yet another familiar Gospel. On Easter Sunday we hear the same Gospel every year. On Easter 2 the same is true. Every year on the second Sunday of Easter we hear the Gospel in which the Risen Christ appears to the disciples sans Thomas. The disciples are always afraid. And every year Jesus somehow walks through the wall in his resurrected body. Every year he breathes on them, gifting them with the Holy Spirit. Every year Thomas is out on an errand. Every year he finds the story a little hard to believe because, let's be honest, it is a little hard to believe. Every year Jesus shows back up and invites Thomas to put his hand into Jesus' side – which is always uncomfortable to picture. And every year the Rector finds someone else to preach that Gospel because after Holy Week and Easter he could use a break from writing sermons.

There is just something familiar about Easter. We have sung these songs. And heard these Gospels. And shouted these Alleluias. And talked about this Resurrection. For two thousand years. And while that is comforting in many good and helpful ways, it also threatens to lull us into thinking that the Easter experience is in any way normal or familiar.

Christ is risen. And there is nothing ordinary, nothing normal, nothing familiar, about that.

The first Easter was different; that Easter would have been very unfamiliar to us. There were no hymns of praise, no Easter lilies, no egg hunts or pastel bonnets. Instead, there was the lonely road out of town. There were tears of disappointment. There were dashed hopes and shattered dreams.

We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” We had hoped... That is what they said, on the road out of town. There was no need to complete the thought; what was implied in that statement was: But he wasn't. We had hoped he was, but he wasn't. Facts were facts; it happened very publicly. Jesus was dead. Crucified on a cross. They no longer had a reason to stay in Jerusalem. They no longer had a reason to hope for a better world. And so they were on the road, making the slow walk home. To pick up the pieces...or whatever.

Now, they had heard about the empty tomb and the angels. But they react much like the disciples reacted: dismissal or disbelief or disinterest. I don't know exactly what they made of the reports presented by Mary Magdalene and the other women, but nobody buys in. The disciples hide out. These followers leave Jerusalem – hopeless and heart-broken. Despite the women's testimony, it seems the Jesus movement is over; it died with Jesus on that Friday afternoon on that Roman cross.

Jesus' death was very public. But his resurrection was not at all. In fact, considering that it was an unprecedented, unheard of event, the immediate impact of the resurrection was apparently pretty subtle. No witnesses. No political regime change. No rainbow in the sky. Mostly just an empty tomb and some implausible rumors.

The death felt more believable than the promise of new life. These travelers, these followers of Jesus were human – like us. They carried around the little deaths of their past – like us. The battles lost, the failures, the disappointments, the shards of broken relationships, the dashed hopes: they were real. And they were carrying them back to Emmaus. Because all of those little deaths, all of that hurt and all of that pain, felt more believable than any chance at new life.

And then Jesus showed up. But they could not see it. They were expecting death and he was alive. They were followers of Jesus and they didn't even recognize him. To them he was just another nosy stranger prying into their broken hearts. They loved Jesus but maybe they never really knew him.

And their experience was a common experience. We hear this every year; in our familiar Gospels Jesus is always a stranger. In the garden, on Easter morning, outside of the empty tomb, Mary Magdalene fails to recognize Jesus. She loves him deeply enough to risk her life at his tomb, the accomplice of a condemned man, and yet when she first encounters the Risen Christ she mistakes him for the gardener. The disciples were with Jesus his entire ministry; they walked with him and ate with him and stayed with him, and yet when Jesus shows up in that locked room the Gospel tells us that his own disciples did not recognize Jesus until he showed them his wounds. And so it should be no surprise that the two on the road to Emmaus fail also to recognize Jesus.

They thought they knew him. But when Jesus comes to his followers in the new Easter reality, in the world after the resurrection, he comes to them as a stranger. Rowan Williams writes, “[Jesus] is not what they have thought him to be, and thus they must 'learn' him afresh, as from the beginning.”1

Somehow, like his earliest followers, we discover that Jesus, our brother and friend, the Savior whose death and resurrection we celebrate every year in this all too familiar season, with these familiar hymns, and familiar Gospel readings is in fact wholly unfamiliar. There is a stranger in our midst.

Mary should have known him. The disciples should have known him. We should know him. We read the stories about him. We offer our most intimate prayers to him. We are baptized in his name – into his death and resurrection. He is, after all, in our hearts, as close to us as the air we breathe, we consume his body and his blood; he is a part of us, inside of us.

And still he is a stranger. Williams again writes, “The risen Jesus is strange and yet deeply familiar, a question to what we have known, loved, and desired, and yet continuous with the friend we have known and loved. His strangeness and his recognizably are both shocking, standing as they do in such inseparable connection. The risen Jesus returns as a loved friend and brother, and at the same time holds us off.... [He] is both unimaginably close and unimaginably strange.”2

We are, it seems, in love with an intimate stranger – a contradiction that is undeniably true. As close as the heart beating in your chest and yet impossibly elusive. No matter how strong our gaze, we only get glimpses. And as soon as we recognize him, he vanishes from our sight. But the glimpse is as intoxicating as it is life-changing; that glimpse, however fleeting, is enough to set our hearts on fire.

The glimpse of Jesus, however fleeting, sends us staggering into this Easter world desperate for more – to see, touch, taste, hear the Risen Christ. We live in an Easter world that is at once familiar and yet forever haunted by the strangeness of the Jesus who invades our lives and yet evades our grasp. And even while our hearts today burn with his resurrection power, we find that we are forever in pursuit of a mystery, for ever courting an intimate stranger.

1Williams, Rowan, Resurrection, 75.
2Ibid, 84.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

The Same Spirit Dwells in You [Easter 2017]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
John 20:1-18

The Same Spirit Dwells in You

In one of the few scriptures we didn't read this morning, the Apostle Paul writes, to a newborn Christian community, living in the shadows of the same powerful Empire that put to death their Lord Jesus, to a fledgling community struggling to survive: “The same Spirit that raised Christ from the dead dwells in you.” And here you sit today, descendants of those first Christians; and I want you to know: this message, Paul's message, is meant for you too. The very same Spirit of the living God, the same Spirit that empowered the baby Church, the same Spirit that spoke life into that dark cave, into that lifeless tomb, that same spirit that raised Christ from the dead dwells in you. You are housing resurrection power. Can you feel it? You are breathing the breath of God.

What you are breathing in and out, holding in your lungs, is as ancient as Creation. In the beginning, before the worlds were made, that spirit of God danced on the watery chaos. And breath, spirit, wind set everything in motion – passing through the mouth of God: Let there be light; let there be heavens; let there be earth; let there be life. Worlds set in motion by the Spirit of God. The breath of life animating the dust of the earth. That same spirit, the spirit that tamed the ancient chaos with a dance, that same spirit dwells in you. You are breathing the same sacred breath that first filled Adam's lungs.

What you are breathing in and out, holding in your lungs, today, split the Red Sea and made a dry path. God breathing salvation into those places where only oppression and sorrow could formerly survive. Breath, spirit, wind set everything in motion – passing through the mouth of God: a strong wind turning the sea into desert, turning a dead end into new life. They were slaves, forgotten people, and yet God heard their cries and saved them. And that salvation, it felt like the wind at their back – pushing them in their future, pushing them towards the promise. That same spirit, the spirit that made a way when there was no way, that same spirit dwells in you. You are breathing the same breath that split the sea and spoke salvation history into being.

What you are breathing in and out, holding in your lungs, today, in this holy place, put breath to dry bones. In the days of the prophets, the prophet Ezekiel watched as a valley filled with dry bones started to move; those bones rattled on the ground – a disorganized pile of death; and then came together – a nation of skeletons. And then there were sinews; and then there was flesh. But there was no breath, spirit, wind and so there was no life. And then God breathed life into their lungs and they were alive. Some might say it was only a vision. I say there is no such thing as only a vision. God gives life to visions; God breathes life into dreams. The prophet's audience was not literally a stack of dry bones; they just felt like it. They were wasting away in exile. They felt like life had passed them by. Gone so long they had lost hope. And so God gave them a vision, a dream. It felt like sorrow and death were their destiny. And so God made them a promise: “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live.” That same spirit, the spirit that woke up a valley of dry bones, that spirit dwells in you. You are breathing the same breath that brought a nation of exiles back to life.

What you are breathing in and out, holding in your lungs, twirled the flowers, and rustled the leaves, and lapped up Mary Magdalene's tears as she made the dark journey to Jesus' tomb. She was coming to the tomb because breath no longer filled his lungs and his spirit he had already commended into the hands of God. And so where breath, spirit, wind were absent she came to weep in the presence of death – to weep for her friend and weep for herself and weep for a world that seems to suck the life out of every beautiful thing. It was dark on Easter morning.

But a new wind was blowing through that garden. And the stone was rolled away. And the grave was empty. And the voice of Jesus was floating on the breeze calling her dry bones and crushed spirit back to life. That same spirit, that life-giving spirit, that same spirit that raised Christ from the dead, that filled that empty tomb with resurrection life, that same spirit dwells in you.

Easter is not a Palestinian morning two-thousand years in the past. Resurrection did not happen once upon a time. The very same Spirit of the living God, that empowered the baby Church, that dancing on the waters of Creation, that split the Red Sea, that put breath to dry bones, that lapped up Mary's tears, the same Spirit that spoke life into that dark cave, into that lifeless tomb, that same spirit dwells in you. You are housing resurrection power. Can you feel it?

What you are breathing in and out, holding in your lungs, today, in this holy place, on this Easter morning, once filled the lungs of your Risen Christ. Breath, spirit, wind: it is his own first gift for those who believe, to complete his work in the world, and to bring to fulfillment the sanctification of all. It has been handed down through the ages, from the first apostles on whom he breathed, on whom the spirit fell. And now the breath of God fills your lungs. And now the Spirit of God inhabits your heart. And now the wind of God is at your back – pushing you into a Good Friday world to breath resurrection life into dry bones and hopeless souls and lifeless tombs.

Easter is still happening. That new wind is still blowing. The Spirit of God is still taming the chaos in our world. The breath of God is still calling life out of dead places.

That is why we, sisters and brothers, dare to dream. That is why we sing our songs at the grave. That is why we hold onto hope in the face of sorrow and death. Easter is still happening. Can you feel it? You are housing resurrection power. The same spirit that raised Christ from the dead: it dwells in you.

Friday, April 14, 2017

It is Finished [Good Friday]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
John's Passion

It is Finished

I make lists. And I check things off of lists. One-by-one, scratching out each task until all I see before me is a page of scribbles, no more words: I like that. I get a profound sense of satisfaction from gazing upon an accomplished to-do list.

On the other hand, things left undone drive me crazy. Like an itch left unscratched, those things remaining, incomplete, unfinished weigh on my mind causing endless amounts of stress – stress that I know will only be quelled when I can finally look at my task list and sigh in relief: it is finished.

The cross, that terrible instrument of death, it was always on Jesus' list. The cross, that terrible instrument of death, was the last thing between Jesus and his “it is finished.” Jesus' journey to the cross was much longer than anyone else realized, longer that anyone else could have imagined; it was always there. Long before he hung on the cross, that cross hung over his head – casting a shadow over every word and every deed.

Angels sang at his birth. And clouds parted at his baptism. And eyes opened at his touch. And death fled at the sound of his voice. Signs and wonders padded his resume. But still the cross was there, always there – that final dreaded task on his list.

Every follower who walked away. Every religious leader who plotted his destruction. Every disciple who kissed betrayal upon his cheek. They never let Jesus forget the ending of his story.

And sometimes, he found the words stumbling out of his mouth like a secret too terrible to stomach. And every time, every mention of death, every mention of the cross was only met with confusion and hollow words of encouragement, as if Jesus were just a pessimist in need of some cheering up.

His disciples usually hung on his every word as if their lives depended on them. But not the cross talk. When he talked of his fate, it never really made sense to them because they saw the way the crowds looked at him. They adored him – or at least they adored his miracles. He healed the sick; he fed the hungry; he encouraged the downcast; he even raised the dead. He loved people; he loved them so extravagantly, so perfectly – even people who, if we are being honest, were pretty unlovable. These people, they were in his corner; they would never let Jesus die on a cross. How could he not get his happy ending?

And then Sunday happened: Palm Sunday. And the people were quite literally dancing in the streets before him; he was the hope of a nation riding a donkey, looking every bit the Messiah. They could not help but get caught up in the excitement. He looked like salvation up there. The people, they waved palm branches and they shouted their “Hosannas”; they called him a king, their king, the king. On that day, the crowds loved him; they adored him. That was a good day.

How could that good day not open up into a good future and finally a good ending to a good story?

Every person who heard him speak, who felt his touch, who saw his love knew that one day, one day, he would don a royal robe and wear on his head a crown. And the people, the crowds, they would lift him up. And Jesus, he would look down at them with such overwhelming love. It would be the perfect ending.

But it wasn't supposed to look like this or end like this. Not like this. Not under this hateful, black sky. Not on that twisted, bloody cross. Not on this terrible, terrible day.

Those who stood at the foot of his cross, they heard him say the words: it is finished. And probably they thought he meant his life. Because they watched his life pour from his broken body. Those hands that brought healing forever wounded. That tongue that spoke the dead to life now whispering words of surrender.

Under that hateful, black sky, on that twisted, bloody cross, on this terrible, terrible day love surrendered. The forces of violence and hatred once again proved their strength. And so the crowds drifted away: their hopes dashed, their hearts broken. But also, their suspicions confirmed: he was too good to be true. In a world dominated by violence and hatred, there are no happy endings. It is finished, indeed.

Good Friday always places us in that crowd – with the same hopes, and the same doubts, and the same disappointment when Jesus whispers his “It is finished.” But we know something those crowds did not know. This time is different. This man is different. This Good Friday is followed by Easter Sunday. And this “It is finished” is not a cry of surrender; it is the sound of satisfaction. Jesus crossing out his final task in his precious blood. It is finished.

The reign of violence: it is finished. The reign of hatred: it is finished. The reign of death: it is finished.

But the empty tomb of Easter Sunday proves that the reign of Jesus is not.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

What They Saw [Lent 4A]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
John 9:1-41

What They Saw

As Jesus walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. The man, blind from birth, could see nothing. Obviously. He was blind, from birth.

The disciples, those walking along with Jesus, they saw sin. The man was blind, born blind; that, they observed was a bad thing. The man's blindness, in that ancient society, limited his future trajectory; he was born without hopes, dreams, or options. His life was planned for him by his lack of sight. The text tells us this when his neighbors say about him, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” That was the life this man was born into. He could beg or he would die.

Budding theologians that they were, they were concerned with the “why”. Why was this man, this particular man, born blind? There must be a reason. They did not feel terribly comfortable placing the responsibility on God; working from their biblical perspective, they understood that God should not be credited with the evil that happens to people. And so appealing to their study of the Torah, they deduced someone must be to blame. They were left with two choices: the man or the parents.

So, we're often told there are no bad questions. And, of course, we also know that that statement is simply not true. There are bad questions. The disciples ask one in today's text. Simply put, “Did this man sin that he was born blind?” That is not a good question. In fact, it makes no sense. Despite the warnings of many a nun, this man was not struck blind for being a curious teen or looking at naughty pictures. He was born blind. To what extent a devious fetus is able to engage in sinful behavior, I do not know, but I will suggest that possibility seems quite remote.

The parents are of course a much more likely possibility. Although, I must say, I felt more comfortable with this suggestion before I had children. But, the disciples knew that both Exodus and Numbers tell us that while God is merciful and slow to anger, God also punishes children for the iniquities of their parents. So the disciples, when they saw this man, they saw sin.

The townies, those who walked by this man often – although probably at a distance because of the begging – they saw yet another poor beggar looking for a handout. I mean, they kinda saw him. Usually they tried not to make eye contact. He couldn't see the eye contact because of the blindness. But it was habit. Make eye contact and those beggars will hit you up for some cash. And so they diverted their eyes when they walked by this guy as he sat in his spot with his hands outstretched.

And so it is no surprise that there was some confusion that day that Jesus passed through. It might have been the blind beggar. Then again, it might have been someone like him – you know, one of the other beggars – human beings as background noise. So the neighbors, the locals, the townies, when they saw this man, they saw a beggar.

The man's parents, they saw a burden. He was not what they expected. I mean, you have to understand, things were different back then. There is support today – good schools, social programs, medical advances. Back then, everyone, Jesus' disciples included, assumed his condition was their fault, the parents' fault. They had wracked their brains for years. Sure, they messed up sometimes; everybody does. But there must have been something really bad, a truly heinous sin in their past, to cause their son to be born blind. They feared that possibility; they felt guilty about it; the religious leaders proved their liability with Holy Scripture. And now every time they looked at their son they felt this horrible mixture of shame and regret.

And so when he left home to live in the streets, when he left to become a beggar, they felt relieved, like a burden had been lifted. I mean, they probably wouldn't say that out loud, but it was true.

And just when they thoughts their problems were over, there's a knock on the door. The religious leaders had come to question these notorious sinners, the ones with the blind son. Not wanting to add to their own problems, they wash their hands of the situation and sell out their own child. His own parents, they saw a burden.

The Pharisees, the religious leaders, they saw in him everything they despised. At first he's a liar. They don't believe he was ever blind. Because people don't get healed on the Sabbath. They're not sure why, but probably this man was lying to drum up interest in this self-proclaimed traveling prophet. He was Jesus' lying hype man.

But the evidence the mounts and they realize, the man is telling the truth: he was blind and now he is not. They thought he was a liar, but actually he is something much worse: a blasphemer. And so they demand he give glory to God – not this sinner named Jesus.

His response to them proves to the religious leaders that, not only is this man a blasphemer, he is arrogant. He talks to them like they are equals. They are educated; he is ignorant. They are sophisticated; he is a street person. They know about God; they are experts. He doesn't know anything about God. He can't even read.

And he is a sinner, born of sinners. That's why he was born blind. That is why he spent his years begging on the street. He is below them – in every way. How dare he even talk to them about God. The Pharisees, the religious leaders, they saw in this man everything they despised.

Each and every person in this story saw something in this man who could see nothing. And none of it was good.

And then Jesus saw him. And Jesus looked at him like no one else ever had. Jesus saw a miracle. Not a miracle made of mud and saliva; not a miracle waiting to happen. Jesus looked at this man, born blind, living as a beggar, and saw a miracle. He, this man, was God's miracle, made in God's image, an instrument through which God could do amazing things. Jesus saw a miracle.

When Jesus looks at you, he sees the same thing.