Monday, April 21, 2014

Easter, in Context


Easter Sunday Sermon (April 20, 2014)
The Rev. John Ohmer, Rector,
The Falls Church Episcopal, Falls Church Virginia

Context.

Context is so important:

Maybe you’ve heard the Old Minnie Pearl story told about a farmer involved in a truck accident. He went to court and sued the other driver for damages. And the lawyer for the other driver put this farmer on the witness stand and cross-examined him and said, "Now isn't it true that right after the accident you said, 'I feel fine'?"

The farmer said, "Well, it's not that simple. You see I was driving my cow to town in the back of my truck and this fella came drivin' across the center line..." And the lawyer said, "Wait a minute, we don't want to hear a long involved story. We're in the middle of trial here. Answer the question 'yes or no'. Did you or did you not say immediately after the accident, 'I feel fine'?"

And the farmer said, "Well now, I was leading up to that. You see I was taking my cow to town in the back of my truck and this fella came driving across the center line and ran right into my truck. And knocked it over. Threw me out, threw the cow out. I was trapped on one side and the cow was trapped on the other. And the highway patrolman came up and took one look at that cow and said, 'Oh, this poor thing is suffering.' He pulled out his gun and shot her right between the eyes. 

Then he came around to my side of the truck. ..."how are you, sir?"

“I feel fine!”


Context. So important.

This morning -- just as on every Easter morning all over the world, and for the past 2,000 years -- we hear the remarkable story of women going to see the tomb where Jesus was buried,  only to discover the tomb is empty, and then to encounter a risen, resurrected Jesus, alive again.

It’s a powerful, moving story but even more powerful and moving when you consider it in context, the wider context of they call “salvation history,” the history of God’s interactions with humanity.

The story of the first Easter is all the more powerful and amazing when you consider it in the context of God reaching out to humanity through creation, through God’s chosen people Israel, through God’s Word spoken through the prophets, through God’s son, the Word made flesh, and through God’s church, the Body of Christ today. 



When our children were little, one of our favorite books to read them was Margaret Brown Wise’s “The Runaway Bunny.”

At one level, the story is about a little bunny rabbit that keeps running away from its mother -- , and all the things his mother does to bring him back to her.

Once there was a little bunny who wanted to run away.
So he said to his mother, “I am running away.”
“If you run away,” said his mother, “I will run after you.
For you are my little bunny.”

“If you run after me,” said the little bunny,
I will become a fish in a trout stream

and I will swim away from you.”

“If you become a fish in a trout stream,” said his mother,
“I will become a fisherman and I will fish for you.”

“If you become a fisherman,” said the little bunny,
“I will become a rock on the mountain, high above you.”

“If you become a rock on the mountain high above me,”
said his mother, “I will become a mountain climber,
and I will climb to where you are.
 
Now my daughter Elizabeth makes fun of me for thinking that a lot of things are actually about God – we’ll be in the car listening to a country or rock song and I’ll say “you know, this song is about God don’t you?” and most of the time she’ll roll her eyes and say “no, Dad, nice try,” but every once in a while she’ll listen with a new ear and grant me,  “hmmm..”

But clearly, I’m on safe ground here with the runaway bunny book. It’s not just a children’s story about a bunny rabbit and his mother. It’s a story about God, and all the different ways we human beings try to run away from God, and the things God does to bring us back to him. 

The Bible teaches us that “God is love.” (1 John 4:8).

It’s not just that God loves: God really is love…

God is so much love that God just couldn’t keep it to himself.

So that is at least part of the reason God created the world – not just any world, but this world, this beautiful world – the sky and the seas, fish and birds – and plants – God created those things as a way of expressing his love for us. Nature is a love note from God.

But like the rabbit in that story, from the very beginning, we have tried to run away from God’s love.

So God says, in effect, “if you, humanity, run away from me in creation, then I’ll bring you back through my special people – Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, and Moses. I will send you laws, Ten Commandments, to live by, so you’ll know how to love me and love each other.”

We said, in effect, “well if you send Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and Moses, we won’t listen to them, and we’ll forget your laws.”

If you forget my laws, said God, then I’ll send prophets to remind you, remind you how much I love you and how you should love each other.

If you send prophets to remind us, we said, we’ll ignore them – we won’t listen to them.

If you won’t listen to my prophets, God said, then I’ll become whatever you become, I’ll become one of you…a human.

I’ll show you myself how to love one another and me.

And so God became one of us.

This is the kind of love we’re talking about: God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son…that’s the unique claim of Christianity: the early theologian Irenaeus said that "because of God’s immeasurable love, Christ became what we are, in order to enable    us     to become what God is."

Christ became what we are, in order to enable    us     to become what God is."

What did God-made-human say when he was with us?

He said “Love the Lord your God with all your heart,

All your mind,

All your strength,

And love your neighbor as yourself.

There is no law…no commandment greater, or more important than that.

He, Jesus, sought out – didn’t just welcome, but sought out those on the periphery and made them part of his inner circle…or more accurately, destroyed the whole notion of an inner circle by stretching out his arms of love so wide everyone, everyone, everyone comes within their saving and loving embrace.

Humanity ran away from that love – humanity did more than run away from it: we crucified it.

(Humanity cannot run any further away from God’s love than that.)

And what was God’s response when humanity ran away as far as humanly possible? Does God’s wrath burn against humanity? -- does God send another flood to destroy everyone except Russell Crowe and his family?

No: because it is the nature of God to forgive, God forgives.

God gambled in sending his son, in making the Word become flesh. And after that first Good Friday, on that first Easter morning, God said, “humanity, I see your hate and I raise you love: love Incarnate.”

God says  

I will fish for you,
climb for you,
dig for you,
move you,
stretch out my arms of love
take everything you have to offer

But I AM here at any time you turn, to hold you and love you.

It doesn’t make any difference how far you’ve wandered or strayed, how lost you feel, how much outside the care and love and reach of God.

Gods’ love searches, and searches and searches until God’s love finds that which is lost.

That’s the context of the first Easter morning.

The miracle of that first Easter is not just the resurrection of Jesus, it is also that God sends the Word-made-Flesh right back to us…

And starts a church. Begins a movement. A movement dedicated to living out this persistent, relentless, unconditional love of God. A movement dedicated to being disciples, followers, of Love Incarnate.

It’s right there on the front cover: We are a welcoming group of believers whose message is one of trust in the hope-filled promises of Jesus Christ, love for one another, and service to the community.

Is the church, are we, perfect? No!

One of the objections made often made, one of the reasons you often hear that people don’t want to come to church is that “the church is full of hypocrites.”

I can’t speak for other churches, but I can speak for this one and say that simply is NOT TRUE.

We are nowhere near full!  

There’s plenty of room!

(Or is it the hypocrisy part that concerns people?  Well you probably know the words hypocrite, hypocrisy, come from a Greek word meaning play actor, one who wears a mask. So hypocrite means one who wears a mask. So in that sense we are hypocrites, because we go through so much of life wearing masks…masks of bravado and confidence and independence, and the masks of political labels like conservative and liberal, republican and democrat, old, young, rich and poor….masks that we hide behind and divide and isolate us….

But here is a place that is in part dedicated to the idea that we are free from those masks, we can come out from behind them, be our true selves, be beloved.

Here you are not homeless or a millionaire, insider or outsider, believer or non-believer…here you are you, your truest you:

beloved child of God.
The apple of God’s eye.
The one in whom God delights.
Just (Sebastian. Rachel. Errin. Bill, Jack, Nancy)
Gloriously (Sebastian. Rachel. Errin. Bill, Jack, Nancy)

With all our flaws, Paul says, you are the Body of Christ, and individually, members of it.

So: in context:

Not only was the body of Christ alive miraculously and mysteriously that first Easter morning, but also the body of Christ is alive miraculously and mysteriously this Easter morning.

Can you hear the Easter story in that context this morning? Not only in the context of two thousand years ago, making love the last word -- Jesus Christ IS risen –

but in the context of our daily lives, empowering us to follow God’s way today – Jesus Christ is alive, today,
the body of Christ is alive today,
The love of God is risen today.

Alleluia,
CHRIST is risen,
Christ IS risen,
Christ is RISEN, indeed.

--##--

  
 
One of the stained glass windows in the rear of the Main Sanctuary of The Falls Church.


Monday, April 7, 2014

The Raising of Lazarus: What part of your life craves divine resuscitation?



The Raising of Lazarus: What part of your life craves divine resuscitation?
A sermon preached Lent 5 (April 6, 2014)
The Rev. John Ohmer, Rector,
The Falls Church Episcopal, Falls Church, Virginia

When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, "Where have you laid him?" They said to him, "Lord, come and see." Jesus began to weep.

This morning I want to make five points about the raising of Lazarus story we’ve just heard. My first two points are very short. My third point is a long one – get settled in. My fourth point is short. My fifth point is kind of medium-length.

My first point flows from the fact that Jesus is "deeply moved" in this story. If you believe, as Christians believe, that Jesus was more than just a great man, a wise prophet, but God himself…God incarnate, God in human form…then this story reminds us that God is compassionate. God weeps. God is not distant, or far off. God does not stand far off from human suffering, but enters in.

So my first point is, “make your desires known to God, confident of God’s closeness, compassion, and love for you.”
»

So the Jews said, "See how he loved him!" But some of them said, "Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?"

Notice there are two reactions: One, “look at how much Jesus loved him!” (or, “wow, how much God loves us!) And two, “well, if he loved him so much, why didn’t he prevent his death?” (or , “if God loves us so much, why does he allow suffering?” “Why doesn’t he use his power to keep bad things from happening?”

Which brings me to my second point: yes, make your desires known to God, confident of God’s closeness, compassion, and love for you, but (my second point), “God’s closeness, compassion, and love does not mean everything goes our way all the time, or that we’re spared from heartache.”

»

Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, "Take away the stone." Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, "Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days."

God is close, compassionate, and loving; Jesus is greatly disturbed, and comes to the tomb. It’s a cave. A stone was lying against it, as a way to seal the tomb. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Lazarus’ sister Martha says, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.”

“Already there is a stench”

It’s been too long.

It’s too late.
                                
Gotta love the King James’ version:

39Jesus said, Take ye away the stone. Martha, the sister of him that was dead, saith unto him, Lord, by this time he stinketh: for he hath been dead four days.

“He stinketh.”

He’d been dead four days.

There are parts of our life that have been dead longer than that. There are parts of our life needing God’s closeness, compassion, and love that may have been dead for four decades.

Aren’t there, in each of our lives, aspects of our personality – deeply ingrained attitudes and habits – that we know don’t serve us well?

At one point in a particularly difficult part of my life, the very wise counselor I was seeing would ask me, “John, in what ways do you get in your own way?” “And what would it be like not to get in your own way?”

Couldn’t we all use God’s healing touch in some aspect of our life? It doesn’t have to be an outright crisis: Isn’t there some part in our life that feels dead and buried, no longer fully alive?

Isn’t there some part of us where we say, as “the whole house of Israel” says in the Ezekiel passage, “our bones are dried up, our hope is lost, we are cut off completely (NRSV)/completely finished (CEB).” and we say,

"I’m done." "It's too late."

"I've had enough."

Nothing is too far gone, too deeply buried, for God to get at it. So what part of your life craves newness, healing, divine resuscitation, restoration, revival, renewal?

Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your grave, and bring you up from your graves. … I will put my spirit within you, and you – that part of your life – shall live.

What part of your life craves newness, healing, divine resuscitation, restoration, revival, renewal? What part of your life do you fear, “it’s just too late, by now there’s a stench”?  

Thus says the Lord God: “Take ye away the stone.” 

And so my third point is, Don’t be afraid, or reluctant, to take away the stone because you’re convinced parts of your life stinketh. God is the Lord of life. Behind that stone, deep in the tomb, God brings life.  
»

Jesus said to her, "Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?" So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, "Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me." When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, "Lazarus, come out!" The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, "Unbind him, and let him go."

There are examples in the Bible (in fact, one at the very end of this story!) where a miracle leads to belief: people see something God do, and they go off with faith, or deeper faith.

But what’s interesting about so many of Jesus’ miracles is that the order is reversed: instead of a miracle leading to belief, belief leads to a miracle. If you believe, (then) you will see.

That’s my fourth point and I’m just going to let you sit with it for a minute: Sometimes miracles lead to belief…but sometimes belief leads to a miracle.

I took this photo on our first mission trip to post-Katrina New Orleans. It's not a bad daily prayer.
»

As long as this Gospel story is, it doesn’t end here. When is Lazarus mentioned again? A little later, in chapter 12,

1Six days before the Passover, Jesus arrived at Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. 2Here a dinner was given in Jesus' honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. 3Then Mary took about a pint[a] of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus' feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.

You get the picture? Jesus is eating at the home and dinner table with Lazarus and presumably other disciples because Judas is present; and Martha and Mary. Lazarus has been resuscitated only a little while ago.
Mary opens a large jar of expensive perfume and pours it on Jesus' feet, then wipes his feet with her hair.
Each of those gestures are over-the-top:  
  • It's a large jar, containing a pound or a pint of perfume: picture a pint of strawberries, or a pint of Guinness...that's a lot of perfume.
  • It's "costly" or expensive perfume: worth "300 denarii" nearly a year's salary worth of perfume.
  • It's exquisite perfume: a rare, precious possession
  • Mary pours it on - she doesn't just lightly, politely drip a few drops. She pours it on Jesus' feet.
  • Then she wipes his feet with her hair: letting one's hair down in public would have been unusual, and maybe even scandalous. "Letting one's hair down" still means to act in a free, uninhibited manner, to relax, let loose.
Here's the fifth and final point: we are blessed to be a blessing to others: being a recipient of the miraculous leads to over the top generosity.  
And this over-the-top abundance isn’t an isolated instance here. It’s a recurring, consistent theme:
  • Remember when Jesus was the wedding guest at Cana, and the scene of his first miracle in Gospel of John? It’s the story of Jesus turning water into wine at a wedding feast: not just a little wine, but 150 gallons, 750 bottles: 64 cases of wine. And not just any wine: an exquisite wine, the “best wine.”
  • The miracle of loaves and fishes: Five thousand people are fed by the sea of Galilee…and we’re told twelve baskets of bread are left over. 
  • After fishing all night, Simon Peter will be told by the risen Christ to cast his net on the other side of the boat and he catches 153 fish…his nets are ready to break there’s so many.
There is abundance everywhere Jesus shows up.
Is Jesus showing up in your life?
So…


  1. Make your desires known to God, confident of God’s closeness, compassion, and love for you.  
  2. God’s closeness, compassion, and love does not mean everything goes our way all the time, or that we’re spared from heartache. 
  3. Don’t be afraid, or reluctant, to take away the stone because you’re convinced parts of your life stinketh. God is the Lord of life. Behind that stone, deep in the tomb, he brings life. 
  4. Sometimes miracles lead to belief, but sometimes belief leads to a miracle.
  5. We’re blessed to be a blessing to others: being a recipient of the miraculous leads to over the top generosity.


--##--

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Three Reasons to Rest

When we hear warning bells telling us we are tired -- warning bells such as getting brittle, grumpy, impatient, judgmental, weary -- we need to withdraw, and rest.

Jesus - who, remember is "the pioneer and perfecter of our faith" (Hebrews 12:2) - was able to withdraw. He frequently went off alone for times of solitude. 

(Interestingly, it was in such a time of solitude and rest that he encountered the Samaritan woman at the well, one of his most powerful ministry moments. Had he been "at work" or with his disciples, and not alone, that conversation would never have taken place.)

And when Jesus' first followers went off to work, and came back full of excitement about all they had accomplished, what was the first thing Jesus told them? Did he say, "Well, get back out there!"? "Capitalize on your momentum"? "Come Labor On, Who Dares Stand Idle"?

No.

He said "Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place. 

And get some rest."

Photo credit: Graham Ohmer
There are three reasons to rest: 

One: rest - getting away, stepping back and withdrawing from the thousand things that call for our attention - is our primary weapon against the enemy of tiredness.

Two: rest - getting away, stepping back and withdrawing - is the primary recovery tool for work addiction.

Ah...but here's the thing, here's the catch: Rest - getting away, stepping back and withdrawing - takes humility.  

It takes humility to not over-identify with our work - to realize there is a difference between "what we do," and "who we are."  

It takes humility to realize that the world (and even our work!) will go on without us. Often quite happily.

It takes humility to realize that It - whatever "it" is - Does Not All Depend On Me.

And the beautiful irony is, what happens when we do take regular times to withdraw and rest?

That's the third reason we should rest: upon our return - precisely because we have stepped away for a while and rested - not only our attitude will be improved, but so will our work. 

(This post is a bit of an experiment: a re-post of only the last and most important 1/3 of a post I wrote last week about work, tiredness, and rest. I wonder: would re-posting that third with a new title, in a much shorter piece give the point I'm trying to make new legs? Well, did it?)

Friday, March 28, 2014

Work Addiction


On the (risky) assumption that "that which is most personal is most universal," today I'd like to share some personal observations and insights about work, tiredness, and rest.

First, work.

Work is addictive.  

Especially if, like me, you like and enjoy your work, and find it meaningful and rewarding, it can be addictive.
 
We tend to think of "addicts" as people who are addicted to drugs or alcohol. And while those are serious addictions, I'll bet they are not as common an addiction as work is.

However, many of us are "addicted to work" to such a degree that if that same addiction were to drugs or alcohol, our families, friends, and work colleagues would not tolerate it. They'd insist we seek help and get into recovery.

But those kinds of interventions don't often happen with our addiction to work. I suspect that's mostly because our addiction to work (at least now, in the United States) is not only socially acceptable, it is socially (and financially, and prestige-wise) downright rewarded. This, I understand, was not so strongly the case in previous generations here and is still today not so strongly the case in other parts of the world. 

Photo credit: Casey Quinn

Photo credit: Casey Quinn
 So when I catch myself slipping into work addiction, I find it's helpful to step back and recall that what I'm doing to myself/what we are doing to ourselves is not (historically or worldwide) "normal." More importantly, when I find myself slipping into work addiction, I find it's helpful to recall that work without adequate rest is not how we are hard-wired: We are created (hard-wired) in the image, or likeness of God. And remember, God's resting is 1/7 of the creation story.  

How do I know when I am slipping into work addiction? That brings me to my second point: tiredness.

Here's a helpful distinction I heard about tiredness: There's nothing wrong with putting in long, hard days, and as a result being tired IN the work we're doing. (I'm that kind of tired most of the year, and I only get over that kind of tiredness if I take a true vacation.) But there is something wrong when we get tired OF work we're doing. Assuming we generally like our work, being tired OF it is a symptom of work addiction. When we get that kind of tired, it should act as a little warning bell in our Spirit: ding-ding!

Another warning sign, for me, of work addiction tiredness is that I get brittle. Ding, a warning bell. I get snappy. Ding, another warning bell. I'll get impatient in traffic. (Ding-ding!)
 
Ignore those warning bells enough, and things get worse: I find myself getting grumpy at otherwise lovely people (and pets), not to mention downright judgmental toward less lovely people (and pets). Ding, ding, ding! 

Keep ignoring those warning bells, keep doubling down on my work effort despite diminishing returns, keep running away from my need for solitude and rest and then what? A sense of ennui sets in. Synonyms for ennui are boredom... languor...tedium...world-weariness...dissatisfaction. Sense any of those emotions starting to creep in - none of which are from God - and it's DING-DONG-CODE-RED-ALERT. We never solve a problem well when we are in a dark and discouraged place.  

We seldom solve a problem well when we are on one of these, either.
Which brings me to third point: hopefully, when we first hear the warning bells, we need to withdraw, and rest.

Jesus - who, remember is "the pioneer and perfecter of our faith" (Hebrews 12:2) - was able to withdraw. He frequently went off alone for times of solitude. (Interestingly, it was in such a time of solitude and rest that he encountered the Samaritan woman at the well, one of his most powerful ministry moments. Had he been "at work" or with his disciples, and not alone, that conversation would never have taken place.)

And when his first followers went off to work and came back full of excitement about all they had accomplished, what was the first thing Jesus told them? "Get back out there"? "Capitalize on your momentum"? "Come Labor On, Who Dares Stand Idle"?

No.

He said "Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place. And get some rest."

Photo credit: Graham Ohmer

Rest - getting away, stepping back and withdrawing from the thousand things that call for our attention - is our primary weapon against the enemy of tiredness.

Rest - getting away, stepping back and withdrawing - is the primary recovery tool for work addiction.

Ah...but here's the thing, here's the catch: Rest - getting away, stepping back and withdrawing - takes humility.  

It takes humility to not over-identify with our work - to realize there is a difference between "what we do," and "who we are."  

It takes humility to realize that the world (and even our work!) will go on without us. Often quite happily.

It takes humility to realize that It - whatever "it" is - Does Not All Depend On Me.

And the beautiful irony is, what happens when we do take regular times to withdraw and rest?

Upon our return - precisely because we have stepped away for a while and rested - not only our attitude will be improved, but so will our work.

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