Apparitions in White

I cannot read the resurrection accounts without having my mind drift back to a summer evening of my childhood.  

            We were outside, wrangling livestock.  I was there, my sister, my mother and father, and their friends Harvey and Mildred.   I was maybe 10, 12.   I remember that I had a plier pocket, my pride and joy, a sign that I was big enough to be expected to work.   

            As we were working we suddenly heard a terrible “Boom!”

            All eyes went to the top of the hill a half a mile away, and a cloud of white dust.  

            It was summer time, and the corn was tall.

            Summer time, and the crushed limestone rock roads of my county were packed hard, with the marble-like loose rocks scattered on top that tires could not grip.

            That particular hill was notorious for being a place where you could not see oncoming cars from either direction.

            Two cars had come from right angles, one from the north over the crest of the hill, one from the west, up the steep incline, both traveling faster than they should have been, and both by means of the cosmic forces of fate and choice arriving at the intersection at exactly the same time.  They did not see each other until the moment of impact.  There was no sound of crunching, skidding, only—-

            Boom!

            Immediately my father and Harvey ran to the pick-up, and started up the road to offer assistance on the way.

            Mom grabbed my sister and ran to the house to call the sheriff, to get assistance on the way.

            I stood there with Mildred, and I distinctly remember us looking up at the hilltop.  It is an image emblazoned in my mind.  Only one car was visible as the dust began to settle.  The other was out of sight except for eventually a wheel we could make out in the ditch.  

            I see my father’s white 1963 Chevy pick-up heading up the hill, dust cloud forming behind it.

            And then it is that Mildred says, “It can’t be too bad, I see two of them walking around up there.”    

            And indeed, I did too, two figures dressed in white, walking around in the road.

            You know where this story is going, and why I can’t read the resurrection accounts without it popping back into my mind.

            When my Father and Harvey got to the crash site, it was painfully clear that no one was walking around, nor could they have been.  

            So what was it that Mildred and I saw?   How do you explain two figures in white walking in the roadway?

            All of the Gospel writers agree on this detail of the story of the Resurrection. Someone in white shows up.  In all the Gospels, those who meet these apparitions are not exactly sure what to do with them.  

            In Mark, the women flee from the tomb out of fright when they see the figures in white.

            In Matthew, the women hurry away afraid, but filled with Joy about what they have said.

            In Luke, the women bow down with their faces to the ground and listen to their words. 

            But in John, Mary’s response to the Angels perched there is flat, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”  She does not quite know what to make of them, or of their question, she appears just stunned.

            And so it is on Easter, that we are not quite sure what to do with their witness either, or what to do with their question, or what to do with this insistence by these witnesses that Jesus is risen from the dead, and that these figures in white announce it.

            To this day I do not know what we saw up there on the hill.  Lingering puffs of dust?  Angels?  The Spirit of the departed?   Ghosts? 

            I do not know.

            I only know that what I saw was powerful enough to stay with me for now over 40 years, and will likely be with me as long as I live.

            I only know that when we saw them walking around, the thought we had was “This must not be too bad.”

            Perhaps that is the way it is in these accounts as well.  These apparitions in white that we cannot fully explain, don’t know quite what to make of, are there as a sign of the mystery that cannot be explained, a mystery that will not leave you alone.

            Even though Jesus spoke of the resurrection to his disciples, they did not expect it.   They were not camped out at the tomb on Easter morning with their “Welcome Back” banners in hand.   They are as dumbfounded as we are as to what this really means, and what it means for them.

            They will spend the next 40 days being coaxed back into life and action by the Risen Lord, who will appear to them over and over again until they finally understand that somehow, mysteriously, death cannot hold him down, and the world is somehow changed.

            After the “Boom” of the stone cracked and rolled away, Jesus is liable to show up anywhere.

            After that Boom, crack and roll, the apparitions in white somehow tell us this can’t be too bad, this death thing.

            God and God’s Kingdom is now somehow closer than it has ever been before.

            People will behave differently because of this.  

            That’s what the Resurrection points to.

            So, I do not know how it will affect you. 

            I do not know how you will respond to it.  There is nothing predictable about this when you encounter it.

            You may run fear.

            You may excitedly tell others of it with a little fear, and a lot of joy.

            You may in hushed silence ponder what it means to you as you hear it.

            Or, it may just perplex you, leaving you flat and dumbfounded, stammering and staggering around still looking for something that you still cannot find.

            The good news on Easter is that all of those end up being faithful responses to trying to figure out what to do with an empty tomb, apparitions in white, and words of assurance.  “He is not here, he has risen just as he said.

            I do not know what to make of the figures in white on the top of the hill.

            I do not know what to make of the figures in white at the Empty Tomb.

            I only know that they are powerful enough to stay with me likely as long as I will live.  And, what they bear witness to tells me that God is mysteriously nearer than I think, and is able to outlast this life.

            “It can’t be too bad, I see two of them walking around.”  Amen.

            

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The Entombment

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The Witness of The Entombment.

            Lock him away.

            Put him out of sight, out of mind, out of the way,

            Put him where he can no longer offend the eye, or ear, or nose…

            The whipping post was marked by sound of lash striking, soldier mocking, and pained crying.

            The Cross was marked by words shouted out.

            The Entombment is noted for its silence.

            Here is the mystery that haunts us to this day. 

            Why does God fall silent? 

            What is it that happens when the winding sheets are put in place, when the body is laid beneath the earth?  Does Jesus descend to the place of the dead and preach there, as some traditions say? 

            Or, is he like the grain of wheat, we sing about, asleep within the field, marking time until he springs to resurrected life?

            We do not know.

            But we do know this.

            We do not like to look upon death, even when it is only mimicked, an artistic representation.

            I am a hollow shell.

            I am not a real body.  There is not but air and canvas beneath this hardened plaster shell, and yet I move you deeply.

            I disgust you.

            I creep you out.

            I make you uneasy.

            I drive some away.

            You would just as soon never see me again.

            I wonder if that is because I remind you of your own death?

            Or, is it something else?   Something deeper than that?  

 Is it because you have to store me year after year, bringing me out again like some museum piece?  

            And is your deeper fear that perhaps, just maybe, that is what you do with the Risen Lord as well?

            You lock him away.

            You put him out of sight, out of mind, out of the way.

            You put him where he can no longer offend the eye, the ear, or the nose….no longer challenge you in any way.

            I am the Entombment.

            You do not like me, because you do not like the fact that God falls silent.  

You aren’t sure what to do with the empty shell that once contained God himself.

            Joseph of Arimithea begged for the body.

            Nicodemus helped him bury it.

            Everyone is afraid of it.  Afraid it will be stolen.  Afraid that it will rise again as he said.  Afraid that it won’t.

            I am the Entombment.   

            I make you uneasy, and that is as it should be, when God falls silent.

It Is Finished

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The Witness of the Crucifixion. 

            I have just one purpose in the Roman way of thinking.  

            This is what I scream out. 

            “You don’t want to end up like me….You don’t want to find yourself here….”

            I am here to make a hideous example out of someone.  “You do what he does, and you will find yourself on me.”

            Crucifixion was not a new form of punishment, just a preferred form for the Roman Empire, refined and honed to perfection through years of practice.   

            I was borrowed, like so many other things by the Romans, from other cultures. 

            The Persians had used me to display their defeated enemies.  

            The Carthaginians used me to punish their wayward slaves.

            The Romans used me routinely to discourage rebellion.   They had done so since the days of Sparticus and the Gladiator Rebellion, when more than 7000 of me lined the Appian Way as far as the eye could see.

            Since the first century A.D., my stipes have been seen standing, my vertical beams already set in the ground in conspicuous places, waiting to receive the patibulum, the cross beam upon which the arms were tied or nailed. 

            The rest you know. 

            I am horrible form of death.  Suffocation, loss of blood, and exhaustion are the official cause.  

            The fortunate last only a few hours on me.

            The unlucky feel my limp embrace for days.

            I am the Cross.

            I am an unlikely symbol for a loving and compassionate God.  

            Jesus dies upon me, and while his followers will speak of his death upon me, no artist will render me in Christian circles until the 400 years after the facts, so much am I reviled.

            But I am a witness to human cruelty.

            I am a witness to God’s capacity to bear that cruelty, and to take upon God’s own self the weight of sin and suffering.

            Look upon me, and ponder the God, the Man, who chooses this.

            “You don’t want to end up like me, ….You don’t want to do what I did…”

            This is what I used to scream to those who passed me by, until God himself changed that message.

            Now those who pass me by hear,

            “Father Forgive them, for they know not what they do…”

            “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me.”

            “I Thirst”

            “Woman, behold your Son, Son behold your mother.”

            “Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

            “Into Your hands I commend my Spirit,”

            “It is Finished”

            People use to look at me and think only of death, and now they look at me to live.

 

Good Friday Reflections — The Flagellation


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The Witness of the Whipping Post

            They say that I am cruel.

            They say that I am ugly.

            But I am not the one delivering the blows.

            I simply stand here in utter silence as the maelstrom forms around me.    The accused is brought forth.   I clasp him in my grip, which is unrelenting, inescapable, but I am not the one who brings his suffering.

            That comes from the hands of those who whirl around me.

            I hold no malice.  I utter no curses.   I make no accusations, nor do I egg on or encourage those who do. 

            From every side, I sense the wind of the Flagram zipping past. The whip fashioned of leather, with shards of metal and glass strikes.  It tears splinters from my side and the flesh from the victim.    We both will bear its marks in the end.

            My job is just to stand here.

            Unmoving.

            Uninvolved.

            Unfeeling.

            Unrepentant.

            The marks remain on me long after frail flesh has taken leave.

            I am just an inanimate object with a task and a purpose.   I hold the victim.  I hold the man of sorrows and I receive the blows along with him.

            I am the whipping post.   

            I did not make him suffer.  

            I did not strike a single blow. 

            I just stood here and let it all take place.

            I however, am not alone in that particular action, the one of just standing by and letting things happen.

Maundy Thursday Reflection on Servanthood

Footwashing is a highlight in some denominations.  My Mennonite and Church of the Brethren friends used to speak of it in hushed tones and with a reverence that I could not fathom, as it was the most meaningful experience of the year for them.   

Lutherans, not so much.

            It could be that we are just a more an inhibited bunch, not prone to letting people near our feet unless they are shoe salespersons, and then only if we have clean socks and freshly manicured toenails. We’re generally shy about letting people get too close to us, and footwashing is such an intimate act. It conjures up the image of the woman using her hair to wipe Jesus’ feet; which is in every way a scandalous and somewhat erotic image, even in our day.  So we have tended to focus on the Lord’s Supper as the pivotal experience on Maundy Thursday.   We do lip service to the towel and to the basin, and move on with the supper.

            But it might be worth our while to linger a bit at the towel and basin, and consider what Jesus knowingly and willingly does in this act of washing his disciple’s feet.   There is scandal here, but not so much of the erotic kind.   It is rather the scandal of willingly wading in to the messy.

            How messy can it get?   

    Very messy.   A society built on foot travel, open sandals or bare feet, an arid land where dust cakes on and sifts into every crevice of the skin.   No doubt footwashing is messy business.  But that is not the messiest thing about what Jesus does.

            Listen again with fresh ears.        

            “Jesus knew that his hour had come…”   The jig is up.  Since his mother first prodded him to action at the wedding at Cana, Jesus has protested that “his time had not yet come..”   Not ready yet.   Don’t rush me.   Still time to do some things.    But now, it at last arrived and there is no avoiding it.    Here it is.  The hour. The power of Darkness. The time fulfilled.  And, with its arrival, things are about to get messy in his life ,and in this world and Jesus sees it.   Of all the things he has done up to this point, none involved him getting his hands as dirty as this will.

            “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”   That’s not a statement of sentimental drivel.   Loving to the end is not an abstract idea, it is the realization that the end is here.   It is the recognition that things are about to change dramatically. 

            We don’t start talking about “loving to the end” until that life changer happens.  The illness strikes.  The warning pains hit in the chest. The doctor delivers the dreaded diagnosis. That is when we start getting serious about “loving to the end” – when the matter of too few tomorrows finally becomes real to us.  We don’t even think about that until it is clear to us that our time here is short.

            “The devil had already put into the heart of Judas… to betray him.”  

            “And you are clean, though not all of you, for he knew who was to betray him…”   

            Those are messy statements if ever there were such things.   Jesus has foreknowledge of many things in John’s Gospel, and not least of which is who it is who is about to rat him out, betray him with a kiss, and set in motion his arrest, suffering and death.   Imagine how messy this is, knowing who has it out for you, and yet still having to wash his stinking feet as if nothing was wrong.

            And messier still, the whole matter of social upheaval.  “you have called me teacher and Lord, and you are right, for that is what I am.”  ….   The teacher stooping to menial work.  The Lord brought low.  Particularly tonight, as we all ramp up to watch the Royal Wedding this weekend, we are cognizant of the way protocol demands to be handled, and who should do what, when and where, and here comes Jesus wading in where he ought not have to go.

            How messy can it get?  Plenty messy!  That is why this Gospel is all the more amazing!  Even knowing all of this, Jesus chooses to strap on the towel and to perform this act of servanthood.  This is what separates you and me from Jesus.

            See, when I find out something is going to be messy, my inclination is to avoid it.   I won’t go there.  I would just as soon not deal with that.   I can see that it is going to be messy, so I plot a course around it, find another way through it, avoid the messiness altogether.   I am quite comfortable with saying, “not my job”… “not in my job description” when a menial task is presented to me. 

            It is not so for Jesus. 

            This is going to get messy, and so let me get busy, and let me get into it, and let me model for those who follow me what it is they are to do, for the time is short to do it.

            “You do not know what I am doing, but later you will understand.”  Jesus says.

            “Do you know what I have done for you?   You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am.  So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.  For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”   Jesus says.

            We scratch our head at this footwashing thing, not sure what to make of it.  For some 2000 years we have re-enacted this moment with basin and towel as if what was most important was for you and me to learn how to deal with each other’s toe jam.

            That is the least of what we are to learn from this.  It is not so much about strapping on a towel to have someone actually wash your feet, as if getting past stinky feet would somehow make us better followers of Jesus.

            No, the basin and towel are a reminder of what Jesus did, and what he commanded us to do.

            Do not fear or avoid the messy. 

    Do not feel above the menial.

            Do not rationalize away the need to step in and do what needs to be done.

            This is the message of servanthood found in Towel and Basin.

            Jesus knows this will be messy.  The feet, the events of Jerusalem, the relationships between himself and those whom he knows do not have their hearts set on him, but rather on other things.  

            Where it is messy; that is where Jesus chooses to go!

            “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”   That’s what Jesus said as if to say, “If I choose to go where it will be messy, so should you.  So, perhaps the towel and basin should help us consider the messy places in this world, in our communities, and in our own lives.  What Jesus chooses to do is pick up the towel and start cleaning up wherever it is needed.

               Ponder if you are ready to do the same, for that is the example set, and that is the call made upon you in the words, “love one another.”   Are you willing to go where it is messy?   Are you willing to begin the task of cleaning up the messiness of this world?

Sacrifice

           “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath……”  Tonight I hear this through my adolescent ears, the sound of one group tattling on another.

            “We saw your disciples doing this, what are you gonna do about it Jesus?”

            Maybe my ears are tuned this way because of having just come from Confirmation, or from spending so much time with Jr. high kids over the years.  It seems that someone always wants you to do something about the actions of somebody else in a group.

            “It’s not fair….”

            “Did you see that….?”

            “What are you gonna do about it?”

            Although to be fair, one does not have to be a pre-teen to behave in such a fashion.  I have heard plenty of such rancor coming from Washington in the lead up to the last budget “compromise.”   I hear jabs and taunts still as the weighty issues of budget and deficit and debt ceilings are discussed.

            So I hear this Gospel lesson through the ears of one sensitive to the petty and to the accusatory. 

            As if Jesus didn’t have enough problems, now his own disciples contribute to the situation.  A few thoughtless grains plucked as they are walking along, and the Pharisees see it and interpret it as them working or harvesting on the Sabbath.   Sheesh, give them a break!

            On some days, if I had been Jesus, I can imagine myself turning around and saying to my disciples, “Would you guys cut it out!   Straighten up!  Pay attention!  Quit getting me into trouble!”

            On other days, I can resonate with what Jesus chooses to do, which is to craft a defense for those whom he loves.

            Jesus frames his defense using the scriptures.  It’s not a particular strong defense, but what are you going to do for something as innocent as grabbing a few wheat heads while you walk? 

            “When King David was hungry, and his men, they did what they shouldn’t have done,” Jesus says.   They broke right in and got the Temple stores even though they had no legitimate claim on them.  

            In other words, Hunger it seems, trumps adherence to the law.

            Or, what about when the priests go about doing their appointed tasks at the Temple, the “work” they are supposed to do on the Sabbath, namely sacrifice and prayer.  That is given a pass, they are deemed “guiltless” even though they are clearly “doing” on the Sabbath.  

            In other words, “Fess up, you already know there is a double standard here.”

            “But if you had known what this means. ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice, you would not have condemned the guiltless.

            Whenever the conversation starts turning toward the matter of sacrifice, I grow uneasy, and for the same reason Jesus seems to.

            Sacrifice is easy to appeal to from someone else.  “What are you gonna do about it?”

            Sacrifice is not so easy to appeal to when it is turned back upon us, when that is what is expected of us from someone else.

            So whether it is who gets the coveted back seat in the bus, or who has to give up what in the budget battle, talk of sacrifice always degenerates into finger pointing and comparison.

            So I am drawn to what Jesus introduces here that is quite different from accusation and score keeping; namely, the quality of mercy.

            That is the curious thing about sacrifice.  When it is true, when it is inspired and powerful, it is always done out of the quality of mercy, not out of the spirit of comparison.

            150 years ago this week the Civil War began with the shots fired on Fort Sumter.   Proud shots.  “We’ll show them,” shots.   States rights, Southern Pride, or Northern Aggression you pick your phrase.  They all amount to the same.   It is the lifting up of one side over or against the interests of the other, everyone wanting someone else to sacrifice something.

            Five bloody years later we will talk of sacrifice rightly, but we will only do so through the hushed tones of seeking mercy and consolation for the wounds inflicted by both sides.

            Would that we could learn how to talk from mercy before all the blustering, the ridiculing, and the name calling started!

            That is Jesus fervent hope, the Father’s unending desire, that we learn how to move out of mercy instead of out of demand.   That we would appeal to each other not to “make sacrifices”, but rather to have the quality of mercy that moves us to self denial in deference to the needs of the other, for the sake of the other.

            I learned with my children that nothing you do, no matter how hard, really feels like much of a sacrifice when it is done out of love.  

            I wonder if I can learn that same thing as I look at others, how to have the quality of mercy that motivates me to do and to be, out of mercy and love.

            I watch Jesus pick up the cross, to teach me so to do.

            Amen.

Learning

 

  “From the Fig tree learn its lesson:  as soon as the branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near.  So also, when you when you see these things, you know the he is near, at the very gates.”    — Matthew 24:32-33

 

It is backward thinking, this lesson, but all around me right now is the evidence of it. 

            Jesus tells this little parable after all the harsh talk and the stern warnings of the events that will take place.  Nations will rise against nations, the Sun will darken, the stars fall from the heavens.  Everything will pass away before our very eyes, and that is a sign for the coming of the Son of Man.  

            From John Wayne and Hollywood I learned well that when the going got tough, the tough got going. 

            When the world and your very existence is threatened, you needed to become hardened, resolved and filled with self assurance to meet the coming days.

            You close off emotions and feelings to be able to act out of necessity.

            You shut down the tender parts to present a hardened edge, like cold steel against the onslaught of the world.

            That is what I learn from the world.  

            The threat is imminent, so protect yourself.  Get a gun.  Increase your defenses.  Set up your survivalist supplies.   Become a survivor.

            But what I hear in this passage flies in the face of all of that.  Here I am to learn from the fig tree, and it teaches that when the change of the world comes near, from winter to summer, I am to get tender.

            I walk this neighborhood on my lunch break, and as I walk, I do see the truth of this all around.  The severe storm season is upon us, the weather announcers advise us how to seek shelter, how to get out of harm’s way, how to survive.  But at the same time they advise hiding away and closing off contact from the outside, not even getting near a window, everything is exploding around us with tender.  

            Frail shoots, delicate flowers, and tiny leaves perched on whisper thin stems all make their appearance just in time to be ravaged by wind and rain and hail.

            Wouldn’t it have been better to come into this time armored, ready for the assault?

But I am to learn from the fig tree, to soften up in preparation for the turn of the seasons. 

            I must confess that I am not too thrilled with Jesus’ directive, or his example. 

But the truth of the matter is that you don’t grow at all if you don’t get tender.

            I think about that the closer we get to Holy Week, and to Jesus choosing the way of the Cross.  

            I think about all that he had experienced in those three years of ministry, traveling the dusty roads of Galilee.  How he had been met with opposition at almost every turn, Pharisees, Scribes, community leaders all questioning his authority, his actions, his very identity.

            When that happens to me, in good Clint Eastwood fashion I toughen up my resolve.   “Go ahead, make my day……”  echoes in my mind.
            But as Jesus approaches Jerusalem, the seat of his opposition, and when he looks upon his opposition, he does not pull out his .44 Magnum.  

            He weeps.  

            The closer Jesus gets to the end, the more tender and frail he seems to become.

            He will collapse in the Garden under the weight of what he is called to do, and pray sweating drops of blood over it.

            He will disappear into tenderness as the trial progresses.  His words that once echoed out a challenge to the authorities, now dissipate into shrugs of agreement “you have said so…”  or simply silence.

            I am drawn to that in this Gospel, and in the scene it sets.  As the world spins more and more out of control, what is required Jesus says, is not hardening, not tough love, not more decisive action, but rather tenderness.

            That is where growth happens.

            That is where learning begins.

            And so, I have sense that I need to find ways to become tender as well.  

            If I am to learn from the Fig Tree, I must learn tenderness toward others.   I must take a less hardened approach in my ideologies and my own pre-conceptions of right, wrong and what God is up to in this world.  I must be more open to letting the Spirit buffet me around a bit, that I might learn the great lesson of life that is exploding around me.

            It is in tenderness that there is true power.

            Nothing that I try to harden or fortify will last.   

            Walls break down,

            Castles crumble,

            Not one stone is left on top of another even for the places that we name in honor of God, the temple and all its glories.   

            I can try to harden my heart, strengthen my resolve, and self righteously proclaim that I will never…. Never forgive, never quit, never let someone do this or that to me….

            But nothing lasts forever.

            Nothing we try to make last forever, can or does or should.

            Nothing lasts forever except God’s Word.

            And God’s word, as it echoes with grace and mercy, seems to become more tender with every passing year for me. 

            From the fig tree learn its lesson: The Tender shoot signals growth, and true strength, for it signals life in the face of uncertainty.   A herald of a God who will not let death and destruction have the final say.