April 15, 2018: A Future Unfinished by Rev. Beth Hayward (Luke 24: 36b-48)

We tend to think that we know how stories end. Tragedies end in heartbreak, fairytales end in happily ever after, birth stories end with a beautiful healthy baby, terminal diagnosis end in death. We learn early on how to know what story we’re in and then we get to work living into the conclusion.

Jesus’ friends knew they’d come to the end that day at the cross, the end of his vision and certainly the end of his life. They’d lived enough to know what death looks like, to know that a revolutionary cause, no matter how noble, is not a cause without a leader. It was finished.

And so you can’t blame them for being a little frightened and disbelieving when Jesus starts appearing all over the place on Easter day. Early in the morning the women head to the tomb expecting to find the smell of death, and instead are met with life. Later Simon and then Cleopas and companion on the road to Emmaus also meet him, risen from the dead, made known in the breaking of the bread. Now back in the safety of one another’s company they regroup. Maybe they knew that if they went their separate ways it would be too easy to tell themselves that this unexpected ending was a lie,  a one off. And so they gather together because they seem to know if you’re going to be telling unbelievable stories you’ll need the support of others to stay the course.

There, in the room together, at the end of a long and unbelievable day Jesus appears one more time. And what does he do? He shows them his wounds, it’s like a kid who skins her knee and can’t wait to show you the gory details; like those post-op hospital visits I do where some folks are strangely eager to pull back the sheets, lift up the gown and show me the doctor’s fine work. He shows them the holes in his hands and feet to prove he’s not a ghost but also to convince them that he lives. I suppose it’s not that surprising, most of us wear our scars quite proudly, tangible signs that we’ve been to hell and back and still we’re here!

Then he says: “I’m starving, bring on the food.” Three days dead makes one hungry. Who enters a home and demands to be fed? Even if you arrive at a dinner party ravenous the only polite thing to do is patiently wait until your host brings out the food. I don’t think Jesus had bad manners. Clearly he felt at home with this crowd. You’d only make yourself that familiar if this was your home, your people, your tribe. There’s a tender intimacy here, a familiarity, a sense of belonging.

There is a Zulu phrase, ‘Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu,’[1] which means ‘A person is a person through other persons.’ That’s what’s happening here. These people are becoming through the experience of community. We find our identity in community, where we witness to the wounds of one another, where our bellies are filled physically and spiritually and where it is okay, in fact it’s good, to practice holding the tension of joy and disbelief.

In their joy they were disbelieving. So many people have said to me over the past few years something along the lines of: I’m not religious, I’m not sure I believe all this Jesus stuff, I can’t use the word God, I don’t know if I believe BUT I need to be here, this place makes me feel connection or joy or love. In our joy we are disbelieving. I just want to hold that truth – that promise. Even the very first church, if you will, was a place for fearful, doubt-filled, questioning, folks.

A community that roots itself in the Jesus story is one where joy and unbelieving reside side by side, where you ask for what you need and give what you can…. Where you eat broiled fish or huge slabs of grocery store cake, as the case may be, where you lay your wounded hands and feet before one another a witness to the truth of your life, an invitation for others to touch your pain and offer you joy. A community of Jesus followers should have nothing to hide. You should be able to bring your whole self, your incomplete self, your in-process self, your questions and heartbreak, the entire scope of your real and precious life.

Do you know that place? You know, the place where celebration and heartbreak reside together? Where you feel permission to let go of your need to be in charge, to shape the future to your liking? Where you can let go of the desire to have it all figured out? Where you can be real, really real? Where you feel safe enough to speak your mind and make your needs known? That place where you can name your fears and your joys without having to numb either one? That place where you can be still enough to witness the new life arising in your very midst, not at all how you expected it, not even how you would have wanted it but there nonetheless. Where you stay and feed one another until you are clothed with enough power to get out there and share your light?

Evolutionary theologian Ilia Delio says that: “Christ is the power of God among us and within us.” She says that: “We humans have the potential to make Christ alive; it is what we are created for. To live the mystery of Christ is not to speak about Christ but to live in the surrender of love, the poverty of being, and the cave of the heart.”[2] To live in the surrender of love, that’s what Jesus calls them to that night as they regroup. That’s what we come here on Sunday morning to practice, a surrender to love. To stop for a moment, stop thinking we know how stories end, stop holding on to that idea that we can save ourselves with our addictions and distractions, just stop: surrender to love.

Another theologian, John Haught, says that “The universe is a creative project yet unfinished and because it is unfinished it still has a future.”[3] There is always hope, always a future. It’s when we surrender to love, when we let go that paradoxically we begin to know what is worth living for. This story is a call into the unfinished future, not a future where we escape death and hardship and the starts and stops and random failures but a future where we surrender to love. To follow in the way of Jesus is really to live into our own Christ identity where we stay the course and trust in the power of life, to move us forward.

Joy and disbelief reside together all the time. Sixteen young people killed in a tragic highway accident. Others left paralyzed, broken, bruised, surgery after surgery. That’s Good Friday if ever there was one. That’s death, real and tangible death. What has arisen from this unbearable cross, this my God my God why have you forsaken me reality? Eleven million dollars and counting, hockey sticks placed outside doors across this country and the world, children wearing team jerseys to school, hashtag Humboldt strong. One young man from his wheelchair less than a week after the accident speaking of the new career he envisions as a sledge hockey player.

If a tragic accident half a country away can evoke such genuine compassion for the other imagine what you can do in the flesh moment by moment, when you see the holes in the hands and feet of the person in front of you. Imagine the power to be part of this unfolding of a yet unfinished future. When you do this you are the hands and feet of Christ in the world, you are tapping into the divine light within. You are testifying to the reality revealed in Christ revealed in the whole of the cosmos.

The very last thing Jesus says to this joyful, disbelieving community, before elusively slipping away again is that you are a witness. You don’t need to be have been in Jerusalem 2000 years ago to be a witness to love, a witness to the Christ light within, you are a witness to the power of love in every single moment. To be a witness is to be called to testify. Testify to a way of being in the world that is present focused knowing that the future is yet to be decided. Testify to life born from tragedy.

When we exit these doors each week, we’re not to show up in the world with answers, but to testify to the truth that it is in emptying ourselves of all our certainties, of that tendency to say the story always ends this way, to be a people who can dare to see the wounds in the hands and the feet of the people we meet but even in the earth itself all creation. To practice feeding, sometimes literally but certainly symbolically all those who are ravenous.

It’s in those places where we come together for the most basic of human things to see and touch and taste the every day things of life, it’s in those places that we can begin to embrace resurrection and sort out what to do next, how to live into a story whose ending is not what we expected.

Testify! Testify to Love. It’s you who has the potential to make Christ alive. The future isn’t finished yet. Testify!

[1] https://aeon.co/ideas/descartes-was-wrong-a-person-is-a-person-through-other-persons Read more about this saying here

[2] Ilia Delio, Christ in Evolution, Orbis Books, New York, 2008. 180

[3] John Haught, God After Darwin: A Theology of Evolution, 2007. 26.

April 8, 2018: The Spiritual practice of community by Rev. Rhian Walker (Acts 4: 32-33)

When I was in my twenties, I returned from doing a Masters degree abroad, with the idea of becoming an academic totally and utterly dashed. I returned to Victoria, which is not a hotbed of well-paid employment at the best of times, during an economic downturn and without a concrete plan for my future. Let’s just say that in terms of my bank account, I was on the edge of danger. So when I was asked if I wanted to move into this forgettable 2 story walk up, pay $300 a month and share 500 square feet of an apartment with a friend, well I was in no position to say no. I jumped at it. Now this apartment had all the basics, but just those. And It certainly did not have any features that lent to anonymous living, like sound proof floors or walls, or elevators where you could pretend you lived by yourself, or even proper window coverings. No, this was the kind of place where you smelt everyone’s dinner, knew when Lana was fighting with her boyfriend, and when Calvin was fixing his bike. The thing was, in a place that small and intimate, you really have 2 choices: get to know each other and get along, or fight. Despite being a relatively rag tag bag of ages and stages, we did get along. We cooked for each other, held building picnics, fixed each other’s faulty doors and windows, fetched groceries and instead of being annoyed with the music, the loud talking, or the repairs, we seemed to embrace and celebrate it.

I don’t know what make me move exactly, but I am pretty sure it was status. “I Should” get a bigger place, “I Should” get some independence, “I Should” look like I am climbing the aspiration ladder. What a lonely trade I made with that move… Instead of sharing everything, I shared nothing, and received my portion of that in return.

“Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.”

In today’s passages we have writings about what a Christian spiritual community or church should look like and behave like, particularly now that we have the event of the Resurrection.  We get something very tangible and practical after the Resurrection: how to re-form and live in Christian community together, how to live out the radical values of Christianity together. And there are some striking features about this community: they freely share their wealth with each other, holding all things and property in common. They practiced a radical generosity: there was not a needy person among them. They made their lives a testament to the resurrection: to new life, to life after old systems of oppression and division are smashed open, and instead lived as “one heart and one soul”. It’s beautiful!

The ideal being held up is a community aligned with a shared mission, a shared purpose and shared values. It is a community that is radically generous instead of generous within the bounds of security and maybe even common sense.  And I think it is easy to dismiss this passage and say “Well, it was easy for them, they had little to lose, they all lived in neighbourhoods that they grew up in so they were well connected and hey, they didn’t have much to give up anyway,”but actually I would argue that they had more to lose: they were trapped by class and a strict Empire, half of them had left one fringe religion for a very fringy religion, many of the new disciples did come from different cultures so no, they didn’t get any easier break in making this a reality than you and I would, likely less in fact. But what they do that makes this possible is change the conversation from the bottom line of survival and accumulating “enough”, to one of believing the bottom line that God is the foundation of love, that love is the currency we need to not simply trade in, but give away abundantly. Their belief in God translates into actions that say “yes, God is here with us, yes we believe with our very lives that God wants equality for all, that God wants us to share God’s abundant love with each other.” Phew…it’s quite an out-there idea when it is a practice, instead of a idea.

As I get older, I realize that the great sin in my life is the fear of lacking wealth and the comfort and status it brings. I look generous on paper, my tax return shows healthy donations and I host gatherings in my community and pitch in to help neighbours. But it’s always giving I can afford. And I wonder how generous that really is? And how faithful that really is? This may not be the case for you and I know there is a huge disparity between incomes and resources here in Vancouver and the Lower Mainland, but no matter where you are at on that spectrum, I do think Western culture has a terrible tendency to to reduce relationships down to a bottom line: I give of my time, my resources or myself only so much as long as I am fine, I am comfortable, I am secure. I wish that worked. It would be pretty neat and tidy. But there is no bottom or end to that craving for security. Without a rigourous spiritual practice we don’t practice trusting that God will give us enough. That we need more of love, and less of money. And that is truly so against the grain of our culture, that you almost look crazy if you try to practice what the early Christian communities tried to do, this idea of shared property and goods: you look naive and fool-hardy at the very least, but dangerous at the very worst.

In Scripture we are told that our very lives and actions can be a testament to others of the concrete glimpses of the power of God’s transforming presence in this world. We don’t need to go around looking for miracles or transcendent spiritual experiences, but rather we are called to behave as if the world is already transformed by God into the world we long for. And if we look around, we can see those glimpses: sustainable food movement, me too movement, student protests, micro finance, etc., these are all based on ideals that speak to our desire to be a planet that is just, peaceful and loving, that treads more lightly, that shares what we have, that doesn’t turn a blind eye to suffering. Here in Vancouver we have the Vancouver Co-Housing project, which tries to model values that those early Christians might have recognized: They co-own units as a community and try to share other resources like lawn mowers and baby sitters and dinners as a way to live out shared values and a larger hope for intimate community. These efforts can feel small and imperfect, or slow moving and challenging, but they are happening, always on the margins, on the edges of our culture until one day they transform it.

So in this post-Resurrection time, how are we going to show each other and our neighbours that we really do believe, crazy as it may seem, that a world of peace, love and justice is actually real. That is it possible.  Because “church” is not just a place on Sunday, not just a worshiping body, certainly not just a private spirituality, but rather a force that takes action in the world. It’s us taking action in the world, it’s us being radically generous, it’s us being forgiving and peaceful when the hand you offer is struck. So for you, maybe it is to look around your neighbourhood and realize how isolated folks are, and what you might do about it. Maybe just hosting a dinner with at least one neighbour once a month would be a start. Or maybe it is when you walk by homeless people on your way to work and to not think “I hate this, it makes me sad but what can I do?” and to instead join a charity board that is working on this, or buy each person you pass a coffee and muffin and bless them with some care. Or maybe it is to give things away, donate more, stand up with people on the margins more, forgive our families that much more, find a way to deal with Trump without hate a bit more because that is our neighbour and we know what Jesus asks us to do about our neighbour, don’t we.

Our practice of church post-resurrection is to harness the power of our communities and our very lives to change this broken and beautiful place we live in. It is to have the courage to go against the grain and to use our resources, monetary and not, to commit that belief into action. If we want the change in the world we long for, let’s model it. Let’s live together in unity in the hope of that world that we want to bring forth. Amen

 

April 1, 2018: Easter: Child’s Play by Rev. Beth Hayward (John 20: 1-20)

Preacher’s kids grow up with a slightly different experience of life’s milestones than their peers.[1] Instead of weddings being much anticipated rare events; they’re the things that call parents away on sunny Saturday afternoons that might otherwise be spent on epic bike rides or playing catch in the park. And death, well that’s as ordinary as a trip to the dentist. Preachers’ kids know that hospital visits to the dying can trump choir concerts, softball games and family dinners. Preachers’ kids know that bodies need to be dealt with one way or another, it’s just part of everyday life.

So it was no surprise to my preacher husband and I, several years back, to find our girls deeply engaged in play with their Playmobil church. We thought at first that they were enacting a Sunday morning service, or maybe a wedding but when we asked about the velvet eyeglass case around which the crowd of figurines were gathered the girls eagerly opened it up to reveal a lifeless plastic body inside. It was a funeral. You could almost call it a resurrection – death was bringing those kids life.

It was around the same time that my beloved uncle died. At the wake, cold body in the casket the girls ages three and five flitted about the funeral home. They moved with ease between play with Barbies and teddy bears and stepping up to the casket, peering in, asking with genuine seriousness if it was okay to look and even touch. It was remarkable to me at the time to observe the ease with which the children held both the solemnity of the occasion and the playfulness we expect of little ones. There was play and there was death and as far as they were concerned both lived very comfortably in the same room.

It reminds me of that story about the big sister who wanted time alone with the new baby in the house and as the parents listened in they overheard big sister asking baby earnestly: Tell me what heaven is like, I’m starting to forget.[2]

Mary at the tomb that morning, she’d forgotten, and who can blame her. She’d forgotten everything except death and loss and heartache. She was a puddle of tears; not only was her saviour dead, not his body had been stolen, could a heart possibly bear any more break? She’d forgotten how just days before she had been with Jesus thumbing their noses at death. Raising Lazarus from the tomb, take that death; feeding 5000 with a meager offering of bread and fish, take that scarcity; witnessing Jesus talking to a Samaritan women in broad daylight, take that patriarchy; healing the man who’d been waiting for 38 years for someone to come along and lift him into the pool of healing waters, take that self interest. Thumbing their noses at every last death dealing assumption of their day. When Jesus was with them it was easy to remember the wonder of a child’s mind, easy to remember that the learned prejudices and injustices and anything other than love are lies to be met face on.

It wasn’t until Jesus spoke her name at the tomb that morning that she remembered, and when she did she went running! She went running to tell the others to remember their childhood, to remember the wonder, to remember the possibilities, to use their imaginations once again!

A colleague confessed this week that it’s so much harder to do Easter than Good Friday. Tragedies are easier to stage than dramas. Easter is hard to pull off without leaning toward kitschy and overstated. It can look like child’s play, naive and unbelievable.

Resurrection is far more difficult for us grown ups than death, harder to believe, to comprehend to embrace. I wonder if it’s precisely because we think it needs to be so special? We want to superimpose the choir of heavenly hosts from Christmas to assure ourselves that it really was something significant. I mean death cuts so close that there’s no mistaking its transformative power but resurrection – it seems so distant, so fleeting, we can’t quite catch it, it’s easier to dismiss it.

I wonder too it we think that resurrection needs to spark our imagination, when if fact it mostly needs to hold some authority? Our imaginations are there, have been from the beginning, they just need a little unearthing, just a whisper from a risen one can easily call us like Mary back to imagination. The bigger question is one of authority and whether we allow Easter to really take hold of our hearts? Is our ability to hold both the pain and joy of life simply to feed our imagination or is to lay claim to us in a way that keeps us running to tell the others.

I don’t normally quote Popes, in fact this week I’ll avoid quoting beloved Pope Frances and his unwillingness to step up to his church’s role in past atrocities performed in its name. But I was surprised to find a word of wisdom in the writings of another Pope: Benedict. He reminds us that resurrection is not resuscitation, not merely coming back to life. In fact he says if Jesus’ Resurrection was simply the miracle of a resuscitated corpse, it would ultimately be of no concern to us.[3]

He says that resurrection “represents a new dimension of reality breaking through into human experience. It’s not a violation of the old; it is the manifestation of something new.”[4]  With a scientific worldview that recognizes evolution is never over, it’s within the realm of possibility that resurrection happened, something new under the sun, some new if rare moment in evolution. The Resurrection accounts, says Benedict, speak of something new, something unprecedented — a new dimension of reality revealed. What already exists isn’t called into question but there’s a further dimension, beyond what was previously known. “Does that contradict science?” he asks rhetorically, “Can there really only ever be what there has always been?[5]

The question isn’t really whether you can imagine that resurrection happens. The question is whether such a claim has any authority in your life. It’s been suggested that the difference between believers and non believers is a question of imagination – that believers simply have more imagination to imagine resurrection. Psychologist Matt Rosanno says that it comes down to a question of authority.

“At what point does one allow imaginative possibilities to have authority over how one lives? To the believer, Resurrection has an authority that science fiction does not. Resurrection is not thought-provoking entertainment. It requires far more than just imagining greater possibilities for the universe. It requires a change of life, here and now”[6]

Resurrection has lost much authority in our lives. We prefer to be functional atheists than believers. People who say we believe but behave like the saving of the world is all on our shoulders or completely out of our hands. The question for us today, whether you come here every Sunday or just for Christmas and Easter, the question is the same, does this story hold authority in your life? Does following Christ mean anything?  Does it have an impact on how you employ your imagination for the good?

Remember, before Easter morning Jesus was living resurrection with each and every decision be made, with every act of healing and love. When the wine ran out at the wedding in Cana Jesus made more wine, when the rules of the synagogue became hoops to jump through rather than guidelines to bring life he overturned the tables, when his beloved ones were about to sell out he gave them bread and wine to feed their bodies and souls for the challenge ahead that they might trust and remember that they would never be alone. Every time he touched those deemed unclean, fed those hungry, challenged those abusing authority, looked in the eyes of those ignored and forgotten, every time was an act of resurrection. But we think Good Friday is easier, when the truth is that resurrection will always come.

Psychologist Rosanno says “There’s no record of people committing themselves to the point of martyrdom to other imaginative possibilities as they have to Resurrection. The earliest example of such commitment [is found] in the dramatic post-crucifixion turn-around of the Apostles. Such an astounding change of heart, followed by an unwavering commitment capable of altering human history demands a categorically unique explanation: Resurrection.”[7]

Does resurrection hold enough authority in your life to impact your daily decisions, enough authority to lead you to risk hostile stares and bewildered looks? Resurrection as historical event, resurrection as spectator sport will never be persuasive enough to really change anyone’s life. It’s the stuff of dying churches and disillusioned believers and seekers alike.

The fact that you are here today is quite frankly astounding. That you came out to worship, that the story of resurrection inspired your imagination enough to get out of bed on a sunny morning to come into this gothic style church instead of to the beach or anywhere else, is astounding. It shows, in no small way that your imagination for a world where Love wins is well and truly intact. It shows that somewhere, somehow you have not lost touch with the heart of your inner child who still knows that even from death can come life. Resurrection has captured your imagination. But does it have any authority for you?

The late Henry Nouwen warned: “We allow our past, which becomes longer and longer each year, to say to us: ‘you know it all; you have seen it all, be realistic; the future will be just another repeat of the past. Try to survive it as best you can.”  We buy into what Nouwen termed the great lie: that there is nothing new under the sun. The problem with this is that when newness comes our way we no longer have the ability to see it. Easter is that moment when, to our terrifying surprise, we see the possibilities beyond what we can imagine, and that vision claims us and demands that we live like we mean it.

The fact is: resurrection doesn’t take away the agony of broken hearts or lost dreams or crumbling relationships. But when Resurrection has some authority in our lives it is what empowers us to let go of what was and to walk face on toward what is, so that we might be part of creating what needs to be.

I don’t expect to see many of you again until Christmas. Because I know that the church has done a terrible job of inspiring imaginations enough for its message to have any authority. But if you do dare to come back, if you’re curious about what a life oriented to resurrection might actually look like, if you are a little bit curious about what it means for Christ to have authority in your life, I want to assure you that this community is up to the challenge. This congregation of some 200 people who gather week in and week out, they don’t settle for easy answers. They, like you, want to be able to question and play and weep and celebrate as they seek to follow this risen one.

At Christmas we come to church for the comfort of a familiar story. At Easter we come for our imaginations to be ignited to a point where something good and bold and brave can take root in our hearts and have authority over our lives, our daily decisions.

And on all the days in between this community gathers in all its perfect imperfections and practices what it means to be resurrection people. We practice remembering what it is to have the brave imagination of a child and we take that collective wisdom and dare each other to go out there and live like we mean it. And you, no matter your story, no matter the churches who have told you there’s no place for you, no matter your shame or grief or fear, have something to add to the conversation. Hallelujah, hallelujah, Amen.

[1] http://day1.org/986-set_free The kernal of inspiration for this sermon came from this sermon posted on line. Thank you Rev. Cornell

[2] Variations of this story can be found easily with an internet search.

[3] https://www.huffingtonpost.com/matt-j-rossano/does-resurrection-contrad_b_848577.html

[4] ibid

[5] ibid

[6] ibid

[7] ibid

March 24, 2018: Never Buy Your Own Donkey by Rev. Beth Hayward (Mark 11: 1-11)

If you were to come to my home today and wade through the pile of disheveled shoes in the foyer, navigate your way past the overly enthusiastic nippy cat, gingerly step over the general bits and pieces that accumulate in the home of an active family, you would find a few things that don’t belong. There’s a full bag of borrowed clothes to be gone through, a book lovingly loaned with a note inside to kindly remember to return, there’s the power washer which we just borrowed back from the friends we share it with because as much fun as it is, who really needs their very own power washer? And a conservative estimate suggests there are at least a dozen half-read library books. We once lived next door to folks who we could count on to drop in and borrow a cup of sugar if we ran short, in fact I was even known to loan my children to that family on occasion when work called me out at short notice. It’s a nice feeling to know you can borrow what you need and count on the generosity of others. It’s good to know that people are willing to share the stuff they’re done with, or the things they think you could benefit from and even to know that if you run short on sugar or low of reserves to deal with your own kids, people have your back. It’s a nice feeling.

That said, I make not claims to be some nouveau hipster eager embracer of the sharing economy. The majority of my life is not one that’s borrowed but indebted and owned. Though we sold, shared and shred nearly half of what we owned before a move two years ago we still have enough acquired stuff to fill a three bedroom home where we trip over shoes at the front door.

I heard recently about a guy in Winnipeg who stops whenever possible to give people he doesn’t know a lift. As far as he’s concerned, if you’re going the same way the common sense thing to do is extend an offer. There are more and more stories of neighbours who share a lawn mower and lending libraries for everything from toys to tools to travel accessories. But it’s not keeping pace with the storage locker business. Canadians have two square feet per capita of extra stuff in these storage lockers and those in the business think we have the potential to get closer to ten.[1] Let’s just say borrowing is not our default position.

But Jesus, he was a borrower. Think about it. He was born in a borrowed barn, laid in a borrowed manger. He borrowed a boat from which to teach and in all his travels we can safely assume he borrowed many a bed to lay his head. He borrowed this donkey for his final journey into Jerusalem and while there he gathered in a borrowed upper room for a last meal, was hanged on a borrowed cross with a borrowed crown of thorns placed mockingly on his head. His body was even laid in a borrowed tomb.

He demanded this same lack of self sufficiency from his disciples when he said to them: “When you go out to proclaim the good news, take no money, no knapsack, no extra tunic, no extra shoes, not even a walking stick. Take only a word of peace, borrow the bed given to you, and proclaim that God’s kingdom has come very close.” God’s kingdom comes very close when we leave all our baggage behind and bring only peace. Can you imagine if our ancestors had of brought that Christian value with them as them came to settle North America? To show up with nothing but peace seems foolhardy in today’s world where self-sufficiency is king. And yet the gospel message is that simple.

It’s no wonder at all that even the words used to describe, explain and expound on who this Jesus was were all borrowed. Even those who followed this prophet, bringing no baggage but peace, didn’t know how to name him. And so they borrowed words with which they were familiar. He’s a Prince but not a mighty prince, more of a humble prince. He’s Lord but not Lord like Caesar, more like a servant Lord. He’s a Saviour who saves by dying.

Which is confusing because these titles are counter to the Jesus who borrowed things to get by, who touched the unclean and blessed the meek, Jesus who brought only a word of peace. When the early church borrowed words like Lord to describe Jesus they were choosing to invert words that they knew well. To imagine divine power outside of the constructs of what they knew about earthly power would have been impossible. The only divine power that would even receive a hearing would need to be within the limits of their imaginations. The irony has been for the most part lost. Over time the church has forgotten that this is a Lord who doesn’t ride in an armed motorcade but borrows a donkey, a Lord who brings only peace, not weapons. The language borrowed to describe a humble Lord has been used to implicate Jesus in a culture of colonialism and domination.

It’s possible too that, words like Lord have lost their punch in a world where they are reserved for celebrities like Ringo Starr. Which is a far cry from Lord Jesus borrower of tunics and donkeys.

Thirty years ago hymn writer, Brian Wren wrote a book entitle What Language Shall I Borrow. It was his attempt to open a conversation about the prominence of male God language in scripture, hymns and worship. He went through the history of how this language came to be in a patriarchal society and pressed his readers to consider borrowing more language to help people enter the biblical world in a way that might make it more relevant in our time. He didn’t suggest that we drop Lord or Father or Mighty King, nor to make everything bland and neutral but that we keep borrowing more metaphors in our efforts to capture how this Lord Jesus can turn your whole idea of life on its head.

This week, sometime between Jesus borrowing a donkey and borrowing a crude cross, several characters in the story will revert to that way of thinking that insists I don’t need to borrow from anyone. They will tell themselves that their individual actions don’t matter all that much. They will tell themselves that one little act of cowardess won’t have any impact on anything. In the back of their minds perhaps they maybe they secretly hope Jesus will show up to save the day. Perhaps they can’t quite make the leap to trust that a word of peace actually is enough. Whatever the reason Judas will seek security through selling secrets and Peter, who knows what his motivation was, but alone in the dark he sells out.

Every one of us comes to our own Garden of Gethsemane moments, the place where we have a choice to keep accumulating stories that tell us we can survive on our own, stories that say our individual actions don’t really matter in the scheme of things, stories that tell us our only job is to hold the palm branches, certainly not to join the parade. Every one of us comes to our own Garden of Gethsemane moments where our choice is between relying on the same old stories and rationales or borrowing what we need to stay in the parade.

Yesterday some students from a Florida high school showed us the power of coming together, of relying not on self-sufficiency but on the wisdom born of community. They borrowed the practice of the Civil Rights movement as they marched on Washington. They borrowed the wisdom of the contemplatives as Emma Gonzalez   used most of her seven-minute speech to hold silence, allowing the power of that silence to open space in the hearts of those gathered, for a new vision to seep in. And they borrowed from every generation past who when all else failed chose to simply come together in peace, to see if maybe that would open up a new path.

Borrowing leaves room, it keeps us humble and I dare say it keeps us closer to the way of Lord Jesus, a way where peace trumps all, where nothing we can bring with us is more important than the peace in our hearts, no things, no stuff, no self sufficiency, just peace. It doesn’t seem like enough but really what else it there?

Palm Sunday reveals the fickleness of fame and popularity. It presents to us our own spiritual fickleness and inability to commit ourselves fully to God’s way, especially in times of trouble. Eventually, Palm Sunday excitement and success-oriented faith is replaced, even among the Hosanna singers, by cynicism, self-interest, and abandonment when the going gets tough. We hope that we aren’t the people who would desert Jesus or worse yet cry out for Barabbas’ freedom rather than Jesus’ exoneration. But as the tide turns, we might find a safe spot to observe, becoming as Thomas Merton says “guilty bystanders.”[2]

Here’s where the demands of following this inverted Lord get big, the invitation is really for every one of us to make arrangements to borrow our own donkey, to be all in, to make our way on the way of peace. It can seem like a lot, it can seem like too much. Waving palm branches in the air feels like quite a lot to ask of a rather reserved bunch of people but this story demands more, that every one of us find our way into the parade on our own donkey. To get on a path where as Raymond Brown says “the ultimate power is the power to renounce power.”[3]

We’ll need to borrow a whole lot of wisdom and resolve to pull it off and more than anything remember that the one who first taught us how to let go of all our baggage continues to ride along with us. At the end of the day this is really a story about you. Are you in?

[1] http://www.cbc.ca/news/business/canada-storage-business-booms-1.4579205

[2] http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/2018/03/adventurous-lectionary-palm-sunday-march-25-2018/

[3] http://day1.org/3714-the_best_things_are_borrowed This paragraph borrows from this sermon, weaving some original thoughts in.

March 18, 2018: Living at the Edge by Rev. Beth Hayward (John 12: 20-33)

Journalist Dennis Overbye first met Stephen Hawking, who died this week, when he spoke at a conference about black holes. Overbye says that black holes are “the scariest things that otherwise sober physicists [have] ever dreamed up. Black holes, objects so dense that not even light can escape them, are the most extreme manifestations of gravity. In the early 1970s astronomers were finding black-hole candidates all over the sky. The universe was rife with death.”[1]

“Dr. Hawking,” however, “discovered that black holes were not black at all when quantum rules were taken into consideration, but were in fact fountains of energy, fizzing faintly with particles and radiation. Over vast eons they would eventually explode, giving back to the universe all the mass and energy that had once disappeared, in a sort of cosmic reincarnation.”[2]

This same writer reflects on the changes he witnessed in Hawking over the years of his progressive disease. “As he continued to outlive the odds and progressed from a cane to a wheelchair and from grunting to a computerized voice synthesizer operated first by a thumb and then by an eyeball, it was hard not to think of him as his own best metaphor, a man with one foot in his own black hole.”[3] Hawking, with his sheer physical determination, taught us as much about how to “live your one wild and precious life”[4] as he did about the origins of the universe. Maybe the two aren’t so far apart after all.

I wonder what it would look like if we understood the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection as a reflection of the mighty and wondrous bursting of a black hole?  We might call it a cosmic resurrection, a birth from what appears to be sure and certain death.

Jesus had one foot in his own black hole. Every sign points to one who knew that his way of living was about to land him in trouble. Today’s convoluted passage is the moment we see Jesus acutely aware that he is straddling the line between life and death, about to be sucked into a black hole that we know will explode with gifts for the universe after three days. The curious crowds become bigger and bigger while suspicion runs deeper and deeper. A cataclysmic shift is about to happen and those nearest the edge are either filling up with fear or overflowing with hope.

As yet another group of curious travellers seek to have an encounter with this Jesus we hear him pausing the story and making an ominous declaration. “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” This is the hour. This is the barrier-breaking, death-defying, truth-telling, glorifying moment. The hour has come. After a wedding at Cana, after miracles here and there, after all the conversations on the road, after the disruption in the Temple, after the raising of Lazarus from the dead – this is now the moment. Jesus’ mission is about to come to its completion. This is the hour that a seed falls to the ground, dying to live. Or if you prefer it’s the moment when Jesus will be put to death only to be lifted from the grave three days later. This story of Jesus in John’s gospel is grand, it’s bold, its cosmic, it weaves the grit of the earth with the dust of the stars. However you choose to describe it one thing is clear, the hour has come, the black hole is about to explode.

Over the years as people have approached this all important edge of Jesus’ mission they have sometimes seen it leading to the ‘sacrifice of a blood offering to an offended and angry God’ – the price that had to be paid to appease this angry God in order to avert a looming disaster for humanity. What if this hour, this death and resurrection of Jesus Is more a reflection of the patterns of the universe? As a seed dies to live, or a black hole explodes to return it’s offering to the skies, or a quirky scientist gets a debilitating diagnosis that he might live each day like it mattered? What if this hour holds an invitation to live on the edge, the edge of life, to live like it matters?

Besides, the idea that Jesus’s death appeased an angry God only ingrains a violence that begets violence. It asserts a theological triumphalism that is founded on domination and oppression. The bi-product of that view has been called a ‘theology of glory’ – an authoritarian and doctrinal approach to belief that silences argument, doubt and real humanity.” This is the great, historic distortion of Christian faith according to John Hall. Because, as he says, “God’s objective in …[Jesus] is precisely not to overwhelm but to befriend.”[5] A vengeful God is simply inconsistent with a loving God.

There is no sense in which Jesus is parading to the cross triumphantly; he’s not some willing martyr or proud hero. This is not divine predestination. Jesus is anguished and troubled as he contemplates how this will all end and the tremendous cost to him personally. And so glory in John is always paired with trouble, is never what we think it ought to be. Who would choose that kind of glory anyway – the kind that leaves you a crucified hero?

John Irving’s novel, A Prayer for Owen Meany, written many years ago but a classic on my shelf, opens with these memorable lines from the narrator John Wheelwright:

I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice – not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.

Everything in the novel revolves around the misadventure that happened when John Wheelwright and Owen Meany were best friends at eleven years of age. It was the summer of 1953 and they were playing in a Little League baseball game in their small town in New Hampshire. Owen hit a foul ball that soared into the sky and then came down, striking his best friend’s mother on the head. She died. Irving presents a search for God in the troubled, horrific realities of the world, where doubt is always a part of human existence on the knife-edge between life and death. As James Wall editor of The Christian Century once wrote, John Irving’s “God will never leave us alone and that God is present in the worst experiences we can imagine.”[6] Irving is convinced that the boundary between life and death is the place where God encounters, engages, embraces our doubt and we choose either to go on in faith, or we don’t. Owen Meany is fully conscious of God, considers himself a companion of God, and in that way stands in counterpoint to the world in which he lives. Owen’s world is alien to God, is full of tragic occurrences and evil expressions. Owen Meany dies in the end of the novel, a hero’s death, a death for others, it is a death that saves others’ lives. Sometimes friends do that, so that friends can live. We can only sigh softly at the end of a book like that.

Did God require Jesus’ sacrificial death or did Jesus’ just do what any of us would do for a friend? Is it just that being left on the receiving end of Jesus’ great act of friendly love leaves us a bit uncomfortable and so we’ve tried to put the blame on a vengeful God? Frederick Buechner suggests that we have our pride after all. “we make our own way in the world, we fight our own battles, we are not looking for any handouts, we do not want something for nothing… and to accept a gift from another would be to bind us closer to him than we like to be bound to anybody. If someone dies so that I can live, it imposes a terrible burden on my life.”[7]

This is the hour Jesus declares, the hour that changes everything, the moment when the seeds of Jesus’ way of love and justice are thrown to the dirt, the moment when the black hole’s gravity can no longer be resisted. Do we see the roots sprouting? Do we remember that the black hole will return all of its taking to the universe?

We have several evolutionary principles in this community; they aren’t doctrine but rather offerings to help us live our faith in tangible ways. The fourth Evolutionary principle is called Living at the edge of Risk – it’s about how we resist the urge to have old wounds become our primary identity. How to come to awareness when we settle into patterns that serve no purpose beyond telling us the same lies. Living at the edge of risk demands that rather than playing it safe we look for opportunities that involve risk and challenge us to grow. We walk with Jesus the path to vulnerability. With him, we are willing to go to the cross and die to all identities that keep us form growing in love, compassion and service.

Maybe black holes can teach us a thing or two about living on the edge of risk. The dying that Jesus exemplifies, not just on the cross but through his life is not one of sacrificial glory, it is a continual dying to the ways of the world and by that we don’t mean the loose morals of the world, but a dying to security, to power, to I’m an island onto myself. What if we died to the story we tell of a self-sufficiency that leaves little room for strong seeds to take root?

But I suppose the question today really isn’t about death but about life. Maybe Jesus’ death has something to teach us about life. Maybe the question, as we straddle the black holes of our lives, is not when will we be sucked in but if we are alive? Are you alive to the laughter of children? Are you alive to the flowers blooming? Alive to the conversation you’re having? Alive to the wonder of this moment? Alive to life? Are you alive to sound of birds in spring? Alive also to the stirrings of your heart? To the invitation of this moment to show up in a new ways?

Shorty we will sing of triumphing through our sorrows and rising to bless God still. In light of what we’re being opened to, we might hear these words not in the sense of stoic determination but in the light of the promise of a black hole or a roman cross. Our perseverance is one of vulnerability, of scattering seeds to the earth with the uncertain promise that from them life will sprout. Maybe this week that’s enough. Amen

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/14/science/stephen-hawking-life.html

[2] ibid

[3] ibid

[4] Mary Oliver The Summer Day

[5] John Douglas Hall

[6] James M. Wall, “Owen Meany and the Presence of God, The Christian Century, 22-29 March, 1989, pp. 299-300.

[7] Frederick Buechner, The Hungering Dark.