Where To Look? Easter 2014 Matthew 28:1-10

I want to believe in the resurrection, I really do, but Matthew’s Gospel just does not help me with that.  I know that’s a terrible admission for a Pastor to make, but of all the Gospel accounts, I find Matthew’s least helpful, although I have a feeling that Hollywood would love it! 

You have all these dramatic elements tightly packed into a few short lines.    There is a rolling earthquake, a powerful Angel that swoops in to man-handle the stone out of the way.

You have swooning Roman soldiers who faint dead away at the sight of the angel.  

You have these terrified women, who don’t faint but who rather listen to what the Angel has to say as he seems to sit there nonchalantly on top of the stone after all of his exertion. 

Oh yes, Hollywood could make quite a scene of this!  But it all feels a little artificial to me, a little too much “Deus ex Machina”… as if Matthew felt like he had to quickly resolve this matter of Jesus’ death in some way that brings a powerful ending.

Here is my problem with Matthew’s resurrection account.  There is just too much happening way too fast and with too little explanation for me to find the focus of it all.   My head is reeling, or my mind is distracted.  Where do I focus here?  Where am I supposed to look?

Should I focus on the stone, or on the Earthquake? Do I place my attention in the Angel’s message or on the Angel’s actions?  Am I to look at the women’s reactions, or on the women’s response to the Angel’s words? And, while I’m still trying to figure all that out, then in pops Jesus himself rather unexpectedly as the women are going to tell the disciples about what they’ve seen.  Do I put my attention there now? 

No, it appears that even if you grab Jesus by the ankles he won’t stand still for you.   Jesus tells the women to go on and tell his brothers that he’s going on to Galilee, that’s where they will see him.  Whew! So much going on!   Where to look?

That perhaps is as much of a resurrection message today as any. If Matthew has anything “right” about the resurrection it is that this point.  He has right that it is deucedly difficult to pin it down and know just where to look for it, or to know just exactly where to look when it breaks in upon this world.  There is this breathless quality to the set of actions as he describes them, and much more going on than anyone can quite take in.

It is God exploding back on the scene of this world from an orderly and properly sealed tomb.  

It is Jesus suddenly showing up when we thought we had corked him up and bottled him up into a hole in the ground, nicely managed.

It is Jesus suddenly appearing in the least likely of events, inspiring us, meeting us, assuring us of his presence, reminding us of what he said, what he commanded, where we would find him, and what we are to do next.  

It is Jesus always just out of our reach, or slipping through our fingers as he goes ever on before us, or pulling us forward to witness and to wonder, and then to figure out for ourselves what this resurrection means.

This is resurrection, according to Matthew.

This is resurrection as we experience it as well.

I like my world well-ordered, don’t you?   I would much rather attend to just one thing at a time, get the details of that all worked out, and then move on to the next thing.  

But resurrection life appears to be incredibly messy and often dis-organized, and we feel that in the church as much as anywhere.

Darn you Holy Spirit, you blow where you will, and you motivate people to do things out of passion and conviction.  You make us stumble all over each other from time to time, as disciples and women did as they raced from the tomb, or raced to the tomb, or tried to figure out what to do next.  

Because of the resurrection there is a sense of urgency about things.   And so, like women running from the tomb or Angels wrestling stones out of the way place; God’s people set about the work they feel called and empowered to do, and sometimes we can scarcely take it all in.

Pantries are being stocked, pillow cases are being sewn, and quilts are stitched together.  

Books are being read, lessons are being prepared, servant projects are undertaken, retreats embarked upon, trips to camp planned, landscaping attending to, repairs made, leaks stopped, flags changed, meals served, labels collected, cans decorated for Christmas cookies, art displays changed, crosses donated, collected, hung, and revered.

A panaplay of characters wander in and out and around this place as they do in the Gospels themselves. 

Some of the characters are intense, and some laid back.  

Some are judgmental, and many are wounded looking for love and healing.  

Some could care less whether it was a church or a social club, so long as they get what they need, or what they are looking for, or begin to sense that here they can find the “bread” that they need.   

Swangers dance in these walls, and scout troops meet, Arabic language is taught, confirmation is endured, and first communions are taken.

Altar clothes are changed, laundered, and shifted around, put back, seasons change and rhythms of worship attended to, services are planned, readings are worked out, bulletins produced, handed out, gathered up, and corrected.   Prayers are spoken, and solicited.

Tables are set up, taken down, moved around, loaned out, broken and abused, but in the midst of it all the funeral lunches are served, the community gatherings are empowered, garage sales are made possible and the church is seen as being connected to life and community.

Coffee is made, donuts are brought in, cans are sorted, eyeglasses donated, books are donated, passed along to eager readers, clothes are gathered, walks are taken for CROP, Spring flings and flung, Carnivales celebrated, tears wept, and laughter lifted up.

Kids go running up and down the aisles, some grab the sacred vessels for offering and for sacrament, not sure what they are doing but certain that there is a need for wine to be served, bread to be broken, and offerings to be gathered, and that is enough for them.

In the chaotic maelstrom of the church, whipped by the Spirit’s wind we argue over resources and over words and music and styles, we do battle over minutia, and want things to go well….even if we can’t agree on what is meant by “well.”

Whipped by this resurrection life into a frenzy, songs and tunes of all kinds and styles are rehearsed, stumbled over, sung, played and offered up as they are, a fragrant offering from sore fingers and chapped lips and croaking throats of the old, the young, and everything in between.

Whew!  So much going on!

Where to look?

This is resurrection!

And if this was the only place resurrection was seen, that would be breathless enough but the tag line on this Gospel, on ALL the gospels accounts is that you won’t just find Jesus here, not in the garden, not in the upper room, not on the seashore hanging out close by the disciples and the women… no where you are going to find him, where you are going to be the ones to identify him is in the world.  

He is going before you to Galilee, and to Jerusalem, and to Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

If you’re breathless just thinking about all that God through the Holy Spirit is causing to happen in and around St. James, then hang on to your hats, because that is nothing  compared to what the Holy Spirit is up to in this world, through the larger church, through all churches and even beyond that, to all who are now seized by the power of the resurrection.  

God is loose in the world and on the one hand you don’t know where to look for him, but on the other hand, you can look for him and find him now everywhere!

This is resurrection!

So maybe Matthew has it all right, by breathlessly telling the story that we can’t quite get our heads around.  Maybe he’s preparing us for this resurrection life we’re about to experience.

Where to look?  

All around.  Resurrection is everywhere!

Maundy Thursday: “By this everyone will know….” John 13:31-35

I wonder if we have this following Jesus thing all wrong? Holy week does this to me.  It forces me to think of things in boiled down and distilled observations.  I’m a Pastor, and so I spend a fair amount of time in the scriptures, in the Gospels, trying to figure out what it means to be a disciple, what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

There are so many things to hang your hat on for that, you know?

You can hang your hat on Jesus’ teachings.   Following Jesus means hearing the commands of Jesus and responding to them with your life.   Surely throughout the gospels we hear Jesus give to the Disciple and to the Pharisee alike sets of teachings that we say are the mark of following him.  Click them off in your mind.  “Deny yourself, take up your cross, give alms to the poor, care for the widow, the sojourner, forgive, heal, and show mercy.”  

Jesus indeed, teaches us to do many things, and so sometimes we boil down this disciple thing to “I do what Jesus has taught me to do. That’s what makes me a disciple.”

You can also hang your hat on the actions of Jesus.   You can slap on the WWJD bracelet and try to live in congruence with Jesus’ actions.   Often this closely aligns with his teachings, which is convenient.  He didn’t just command us to feed the hungry, he took bread,  broke it, gave thanks, distributed it, showed us how to do it. He didn’t just command us to forgive, but in these events of suffering and death, in his passion, he will be showing us how forgiveness works.   

So sometimes we boil this following Jesus thing down to a matter of action.   “I do what I see Jesus doing, and I model my life on his example.   That’s what makes me a Disciple.”

You can hang your hat on the servant aspect of being a disciple.  You can observe how Jesus cared for others and determine to be an exemplary giver.   You can feed the hungry, clothe the naked, work tirelessly on behalf of those in need.   Surely Jesus has shown us and taught us that.  You can distill following Jesus down to being a servant.   “This is what I do, I serve others first and foremost and that is what makes me a follower of Jesus.”

But when I read John’s Gospel on Maundy Thursday, I have this feeling that all of those things in isolation are still missing the mark somehow, getting it all wrong.   I am intrigued that as we come to this night the Lectionary Committee chooses to leave out what may in fact be the most important part of this Gospel story.

They choose to leave out the betrayals.

So let me remind you what is missing, between the washing of the feet and the command to love one another.

       I am not speaking of all of you; I know whom I have chosen. But it is to fulfil the scripture, “The one who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me.” I tell you this now, before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe that I am he. Very truly, I tell you, whoever receives one whom I send receives me; and whoever receives me receives him who sent me.’

     After saying this Jesus was troubled in spirit, and declared, ‘Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me.’ The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he was speaking. One of his disciples—the one whom Jesus loved—was reclining next to him; Simon Peter therefore motioned to him to ask Jesus of whom he was speaking. So while reclining next to Jesus, he asked him, ‘Lord, who is it?’ Jesus answered, ‘It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.’ So when he had dipped the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas son of Simon Iscariot. After he received the piece of bread, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, ‘Do quickly what you are going to do.’ Now no one at the table knew why he said this to him.  Some thought that, because Judas had the common purse, Jesus was telling him, ‘Buy what we need for the festival’; or, that he should give something to the poor. So, after receiving the piece of bread, he immediately went out. And it was night.

 Does it make a difference to hear this command to love one another in the context of this betrayal that Jesus knew was coming?  Does it make any difference to hear this story, and to hear, Very truly, I tell you, whoever receives one whom I send receives me; and whoever receives me receives him who sent me.’  —-knowing that what it is Jesus who in some sense see Judas as one “sent” here?  

See, without this section of the story I can imagine that Jesus washes the feet of the disciples, that there is some minor protest by Peter, some blustering about what Jesus should or should not do, and a little wondering about what he is telling us all to do, but in the end it’s all about getting down and doing the grunt work.

We can do that.  Oh yeah, Jesus, I get it… wash one another’s feet, somewhat distasteful but if you say so, I think I can do that.   

Yep, got this new commandment thing covered.  Love one another, after dealing with stinky toes, not a problem… the worst must be over.

But when you put the betrayal back into the whole story of this night, the last part of this Gospel story takes on an entirely different feel.  Suddenly, it’s not about teachings, or doing what Jesus shows me to do (no matter how dis-tasteful) or choosing to do the grunt work, to be the servant.  

No, this is what it is about.  “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Here is the deal, Jesus knows who’s going to betray him, and still he places the bread in his hand.  Jesus knows who is going to betray him, and still he tells his disciples to receive him, as they would receive God himself.  Suddenly, this is not about overcoming aversion. It’s not about doing the right thing. It’s not about who gets washed up or who comes out smelling like a rose. When you put the betrayal part of the story back in, suddenly what you have is something that looks very much like the church.

You have whispering, and posturing, and motioning.  You have Peter whispering to John, motioning to him.   “go find out…” With this section you enter the world of gossip and suspicion and privileged information.   You enter the world of misunderstanding and misreading the actions and intentions of others.

 “Some thought that, because Judas had the common purse, Jesus was telling him, ‘Buy what we need for the festival’; or, that he should give something to the poor. So, after receiving the piece of bread, he immediately went out.  And it was night.” 

That’s the last line before the talk about being glorified begins.  Maybe that is just a statement about the time of day.  Or maybe, in this Gospel that portrays Jesus in terms of Light and Dark, this is what comes now:  night, blackness, the depth of confusion, betrayal, abandonment, as dark as it gets.

And it is when that comes that this next part comes into being…the matter of being glorified, and somehow being glorified in this, — that you at this moment in the night you prove to be my disciples by loving one another.

That is what makes this a “new commandment.”

It’s not that Jesus hasn’t talked about loving before. It’s not that he hasn’t talked about loving in hard places before.  He’s talked about praying for persecutors, and loving the enemy.  He’s done all of that in no uncertain terms.  

But here, what he talks about, what is new; is this matter of loving even and especially the one who betrays you, who gossips about you, and who finangles things behind the scenes to get his/her own way.  What is new is this command to love the one whom Jesus hands the bread to… recognizing that in the church, Jesus put the bread into the hands of each and everyone one of us.

“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another…. knowing this.”

That’s why I wonder if we have this following Jesus thing all wrong.

It’s not about getting the teachings right.

It’s not about getting the actions right.

It’s not about getting the attitude right… aspiring to be the servant.

In the end, it is all about loving specifically the one who is hardest to love, the one who betrays, and receiving that one as you would receive God himself.  To receive the betrayer as you would receive God himself… that is how everyone will knows that you are my disciple.

It is a tall order, and one that we all fall far short of, which why it will take the events of arrest, betrayal, crucifixion and eventually resurrection to show us how it is to be done.

By this everyone will know that you are my disciple, if you have love for one another.