Stealing the gospel

A brief word at a Vigil Against Gun Violence: Prayers for Our Lives, on the eve of the anniversary of the shooting at Columbine High School in 1999

The text is the story of Simon the Magus in Acts 8

_________________

Simon wanted to buy God’s power from the apostles.

But Peter said to him, ‘May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain God’s gift with money! … Your heart is not right before God.’

We cannot buy our salvation.

We cannot purchase protection at the price of our souls, still less at the cost of our children’s lives.

Gun violence is stealing the gospel from us at an alarming rate. It ruins lives, it enables despair, it facilitates fear. At its root are the things we were warned against long ago: the greed that money-making breeds; the divisions increased by suspicion and the evils of isms: sexism, nationalism, selfish individualism, and especially racism. It branches out into paranoia, deluding us into trusting in our own handiwork instead of the hands of our creator, who gave us life and taught us how to live, if we would but listen.

More guns bring more violence, and we have had enough of the ‘gall of bitterness and the chains of wickedness.’

We cannot buy our way out of the mess that we have bought ourselves into, by selling our votes and our souls to manufacturers of domestic war. But we do not have to stand idly by while the gospel is stolen from us and our children.

As Christians we hold one another accountable to Christ and to the gospel. So we get to ask the difficult questions.

If a child in our care is going to play somewhere, we get to ask the impolitic question, “Are there guns in the house? If so, exactly how are they stored?”

As friends, we get to ask the impossible questions: “Are you depressed? Where are your guns? What are you doing to keep yourself safe from using them?”

As family, we get to ask the invasive questions: “How often does he get angry? Is there a gun in the house? How can I help keep you safe?”

As citizens, we get to ask our representatives, “What are you doing to rein in the flood tide of guns sloshing about this country? How are you turning the tide on gun violence?”

As Christians, we get to say, “Jesus died for us, but he didn’t kill anyone for us. What makes anyone more of a good guy than Christ?”

In the past nineteen years, since Columbine, school shootings have become part of our national storyline, no longer unthinkable, instead, our administrators and enforcers spend their time and energy strategizing for something that now seems almost inevitable. It should not be this way. Our children should not be living under threat, as though in a war zone. The gospel – good news – should not have been stolen from them so cynically.

We need to give it back. We need to build them up. We need to open our hearts and minds to a world, a kingdom of God in which the answer to violence is not more weapons but fewer, and the answer to insecurity is not to retreat but to embrace one another, to strengthen the bonds of community, of love, of life, trusting not in metal or money, but in the living heart of God.

We may think it is impossible. But we thought it unlikely that Jesus could rise from the dead. And yet here we are, gathered in his name.

We need to keep that surprise before us, to excite our hearts to hope and open our minds to new ways of thinking. Because God will not let the gospel be traded for silver or stolen from God’s children, because God is always on the side of the meek and the lowly, because God is love, and love can ever be defeated by death. That much we know, and it is the gospel of Christ. Amen

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Resurrection and reality

The readings for the Third Sunday of Easter in Year B are here.

When Jesus came back from the land of the dead, the disciples thought that they were seeing a ghost (Luke 24:36-48). Nothing – not even their years of direct experience of Jesus – had prepared them for the ultimate miracle, which was his resurrection, which was his life, his unquenchable, unburiable, unequalled life; the force of God somehow embodied by one made in God’s image; the glory of God somehow sufficiently muted that they could look upon him, and live.

After growing up knowing that Christ is alive, it is hard for us to fathom quite how mind-blowing, how truly inconceivable his appearance was to those disciples, who had fled the cross in fear, and denied any knowledge of Jesus to save their own sad selves from arrest alongside him.

Whatever Jesus had told them, however he had promised, they were not expecting resurrection.

Having grown up knowing that Christ is alive, we are just as numb to the astonishing reality that such a claim represents; we are just as disbelieving of the power of resurrection to surprise us; we are as dismissive of the Risen Christ standing among us as those first disciples. Like them, we know better. We know death when we see it, in the bombs of war, in our own families, in our own lives; and we are not sure that we expect God really to reverse its bite.

 

I have been haunted all week by that junior league hockey team bus crash that happened in Saskatchewan last weekend. The loss of life, and especially of such young life; the loss of health and happiness and the split-second upending of everything that a person, a family, a community thought that they had hold of – it is almost unimaginable.

There was more to the story. One of the young men who died was misidentified as another of his teammates who survived. I cannot read this story today without thinking of those parents, that family, who had resigned themselves to the devastation of death, only to be shocked by a new announcement of life. For the other family, of course, the news was cruel beyond belief.

The difficulty of recognizing even the most beloved in those moments that define life and death, build bridges between them, add to our sensitivity, our squeamishness in facing the realities of resurrection.

 

Peter, for one, was convinced. When he addressed his fellow Israelites at the temple a few weeks later; when he told them that as hard as they had tried to doubt and to deny, even to bury and to kill Jesus, that he was alive, that he had forgiven them, that he was for real, the real deal of God, dishing up mercy and dealing out grace, even in the face of death and denial, terror and torture, enmity and sin, he spoke out of his own experience (Acts 3:12-19). While Jesus had been to hell and back, Peter had been in his own abyss of grief, regret, shame, self-recrimination, doubt, and despair. Everything that he had invested his whole life in, left home for, risked ridicule over, had come crashing down, and his own courage had failed him, leaving his questioning his own heart, mind, and soul.

Then Jesus had returned, and offered him peace. Unbelievably, unexpectedly, undeservedly, unreservedly; looking like something dragged in from the gates of hell, with gaping wounds and wild eyes, Jesus, the one from the cross, had offered Peter the kiss of peace.

This was the enormity, the extremity that Peter was trying to describe, to convey to the crowds at the temple a few weeks later.

“You are in awe because of one little healing miracle,” Peter told them, “one life restored. You have no idea, you haven’t an inkling of what this Jesus is capable of. You do not even know how close he is to upending your entire way of life. You cannot imagine how he will love you, if only you will face his bruised body, risk a glimpse of the glory that you tried to leave buried in the grave.”

 

Jesus was at pains to demonstrate to his disciples that he was truly alive, and that he was truly himself. He knew that they could barely trust their own senses, and his own appearance was marred by the violence he had endured; his hands still bore the ragged marks of iron nails and his side the wound made post-mortem by the soldier’s spear. In this state, he invited the disciples to make sure that it was he, to test his humanity, and his identity.

It was not only Thomas who sought to quell doubts and fear by a direct and intimate encounter with Jesus. None of his disciples was immune to the terror that comes from wondering if God has, in fact, forsaken us; and none was immune to the terror of realizing that resurrection is not a reset, but a redemption; that resurrection may not be shiny, or tidy, or clean, but that it is real; that through Christ’s love, life is transformed, with all of its wounds, and scars, and memories, into something that is livable after all.

 

Inconceivable things happen every day: things of great wonder, like falling in love, like the birth of a new life, like a remission from suffering and disease; and things of great sorrow and bewildering pain, such as war, the death of a beloved one, or a dreaded diagnosis, like the realization of our own shame, guilt, denial, or a simple and profound loneliness.

What Jesus invites us to recognize, in his resurrection, in his love, in the peace and the power that he offers to Peter is that he is present throughout it all. He is present in those who advocate for peace and promote healing. He is with us in the valley of the shadow of death, and he is with us on the mountaintop. He returns again and again to reassure us that resurrection is present even in the most twisted and swollen and stricken circumstances; that everything, everything, everything is able to be redeemed by the love of God who created us, and who wants nothing more than to embrace us as God’s beloved children.

“Little children,” writes John, “let no one deceive you” (1 John 3:7). If you think you are stuck in sin and trapped in lawlessness, Jesus has already set you free to do what is righteous in his name. If you think that you have seen it all, and know how much grace God has for you, you have seen nothing compared to what God still has left to reveal at our own resurrection. If you think that the world is so bewildering that nothing makes sense, Jesus has come patiently, so patiently to point out his hands, his feet, his broken body, his own spear-pierced heart, to tell us that he is with us, that he has redeemed all of it, that he is alive so that we might know what real life is. As hard as it is sometimes to see, Jesus’ resurrection appearance amongst his disciples, even among us today, is summed up in the lines of a hymn,

Great Father of glory, pure Father of light,
Thine angels adore Thee, all veiling their sight;
all praise we would render, O help us to see
’tis only the splendor of light hideth Thee![i]


[i] Immortal, invisible, God only wise, words by Walter C. Smith (1867)

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Silent prayer

Eyelids lowered, immersed in unstillness and disquiet;

the tumble dryer tumbles, the dishwasher sloshes,

the circuits in my head hum in ecstatic, rhythmic union

with the beverage fridge.

Beyond the glass, fighting rip tides on the wind,

a frantic bird is crying out,

“Hear ye, hear ye, hear me!”

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Stick, stuck

The tree, twisted painfully
as though caught turning
trying to pluck her own fruit,
throwing out her trunk, hunched
and laboured, reminds me of my mother,
pained by my petulant face:
“If the wind changes,” she’d say,
“you’ll be stuck that way.”

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Waking up to a resurrection revolution

In 1968, Easter fell on April 14th. Two weeks earlier, on March 31st, Martin Luther King, Jr, preached his final Sunday sermon at the Washington National Cathedral. Of course, he didn’t know it was his last. But that week, ten days before Easter, he was murdered in Memphis.

In his sermon at the National Cathedral, along with his scriptural references, King told of Rip Van Winkle, the man who slept for twenty years and missed the American Revolution, in the old story by Washington Irving. Rip Van Winkle, who awoke to find the world changed, and didn’t know what to do with it. He was so beside himself that he wondered at his own identity; whether he were, in fact, the man he thought he was.

Thomas, Jesus’ disciple, was not gone more than a few hours, we might surmise from the gospel, but he, too, returned to find an unimaginable revolution in circumstance, in worldview. “Jesus is risen! The Lord is alive!” his fellow disciples told him, and Thomas was as bewildered, as confused, as lost to reason as Rip Van Winkle. He didn’t know how he had left the house locked up in one world, and returned to find it in quite another, one door open to the kingdom of God.

Fifty years have passed, now, since King’s sermon at the Cathedral, and his subsequent assassination. If this death of his had been but sleep, as some of the poets say, and he were to awaken and return today, I wonder if he would be in any way disturbed by the kind of revolution whose results met Rip Van Winkle, or Thomas the apostle. My fear is that, beneath the cinematic sequences of technology and fashion, he would find things all too familiar.

“Through our scientific and technological genius,” King preached fifty years ago, “we have made of this world a neighborhood, and yet we have not had the ethical commitment to make of it a brotherhood. “ How many sermons and opinions have you heard and read just recently on how technology, which ought to unite us by its increasing connections, is driving us apart? And yes, it also helps us to organize and to galvanize; but have we yet found the “ethical commitment” to make it an instrument exclusively of truth, justice, and love for the good of the whole human neighbourhood? Hardly.

“Secondly,” said King, “we are challenged to eradicate the last vestiges of racial injustice from our nation.” The last vestiges, he said, and fifty years later one could weep at how optimistic that phrase sounds.

Related to our racism, King preached, is our failure to use the technologies and resources at our disposal to eliminate the shameful poverty that should not have existed by the second half of the twentieth century in a country like America; that should not persist in twenty-first century America; that should not be systematically poisoning children with lead or letting them go to bed hungry. Related to our racism, we might add, is our failure to serve our Puerto Rican citizens as kindly as we might their counterparts in a mainland Port Richey, or our failure to attend to infant and maternal mortality rates that have no place in a highly developed and well-resourced society.

King told his congregation at the Washington National Cathedral, “We must come to see that the roots of racism are very deep in our country, and there must be something positive and massive in order to get rid of all the effects of racism and the tragedies of racial injustice …
Something positive must be done. Everyone must share in the guilt as individuals and as institutions. The government must certainly share the guilt; individuals must share the guilt;” he said, “even the church must share the guilt.”

When we fail to call out the tragedies of racial injustice that fall around our eyes and ears every day – the killing of black men like Stephon Clark and Saheed Vassell, just the latest in too long a list of names of unarmed black men killed by a well-armed police force that fears them; when we fail to prosecute the deaths of black children like Tamir Rice, or to protect black children like Trayvon Martin and Hadiyah Pendleton, or to weep for black and brown children dying daily of random violence on their own streets as loudly and as long as for their white classmates; when we deny by our silence and our inaction that black lives matter then yes, we as individuals and we as the institution of the church share guilt over the failure to eradicate the last vestiges of racial injustice from our nation.

And another thing – and by the way, how do I dare continue quoting King? I dare because he was a preacher, and this is the gospel, and so another thing – “I want to say,” said King, “one other challenge that we face is simply that we must find an alternative to war and bloodshed. … It is no longer a choice, my friends, between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence.”

And while he was addressing an international situation which has itself plenty of echoes today, would he not apply the same sentiment to the way in which, in fifty years, we have allowed our personal weapons of war to isolate us even further from one another; instead of becoming our brother’s keeper to distance ourselves from him by the length of a gunshot; such a gunshot as killed King?

In the fiction, Rip Van Winkle awoke after twenty years to find society so changed that he barely knew himself. In the gospel, Thomas went out for bread, and came back to a post-resurrection revolution that he hardly recognized. After fifty years, how far has our national narrative changed its course?

We are not here to change the nation, of course; that is not the job of the church. Not only the nation; no, we are here to change the world, beginning right where we stand; to bring the whole of creation into the knowledge of the reconciling love of the Risen Christ, to awaken the senses and the sensibility of this church, this community, this nation, and the whole world know that God is love, to know that God’s mercy is mighty, to know that Christ is risen, and will not be downtrodden; will not, even by death, be defeated.

Thomas’ little story tells us that even if we missed it, resurrection has happened. If we slept through it, the revolution is real. Whether we recognize our place in it, whether we believe in it or not, the kingdom of God is at hand, close enough for us to feel it. Will we deny it, or turn our backs and sleep on it? Or will we embrace it, crying out to the Risen Christ to lead us into the Promised Land?

Thanks be to our Lord Jesus Christ, who will not let our souls sleep in their sin and sloth, but who comes back to awaken us as often as he is needed, to touch and be touched, to love and be loved, to breathe new life into old dreams, and to lead us into the way of light and life.

Amen.

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Inhabiting Thomas

Because you came back for Thomas I hope
you may come back for me.

Because you breathed peace upon Thomas I wonder
if there is a peace for me.

Because you let Thomas touch you I believe
I will hold you in my hands.

Because no doors nor death nor doubt
would keep you from seeking him out
I will expect to see your face
in the most unexpected place.

Because of your infinite patience
with Thomas I will wait for you.

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Monday

Nobody talks about the ninth day:,
Six for creation, seven for rest,
eight for resurrection, nine

The women needed to market
the men were short of money, time
to mend their nets and bridges

Centurion ordered more
crucifixions, slightly distracted
snappy with his crew

Pilate washed his face
arrested by a new
wrinkle in the mirror

Herod continued mad
Caiaphas conventionally
politic and pious

Mary’s heart enlarged by stress
engorged with grief
enflamed with ecstasy, belief and disbelief

Jesus, within sight of home
wading over water, still
perfectly ambiguous, waits

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