If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away---Henry David Thoreau

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

A Peaceable Mission: John 20: 19-22

*This sermon was preached at Zion Mennonite Church on April 15, 2012.

Peace. At first it sounds like a simple greeting. Shalama. The Aramaic word was used as a greeting among the Jews, kind of like good day or God bless you. Shalama would have been heard as Jews greeted one another on the dusty streets or in the crowded marketplace. Shalama. But, coming from the lips of the risen Christ, who bears in his resurrection body the wounds of crucifixion, this greeting takes on a deeper meaning. With this word Shalama, peace, still ringing in their ears the disciples are sent out into the world by the risen Christ.

The sun has just set behind the purple hills. It’s the first day of the week. The disciples cringe behind the wooden door of a whitewashed house. It’s locked up tight like a sealed tomb. The lock that holds the door shut has a name---Fear. You can see fear reflected in the wide eyes of the disciples. Their shadows dance on the walls from the light of the oil lamp. The disciples fear what lies outside that wooden door. Outside that locked door are those who had a hand in crucifying Jesus. Those same hands could just as easily grab them by the scruff of the neck and haul them off to the cold stone halls of a Roman court. The sun could arise on a new day with each of the disciples nailed to a wooden pole. The world outside that locked door has become a dangerous place.

The locked door is no barrier for the risen Christ. Christ appears in the midst of the disciples. The first word from his lips is meant to calm their fears. Shalama. Peace be with you. Then, Christ shows the disciples his hands and his side, wounds from his enemies. These wounds aren’t just signs that Jesus isn’t just some apparition. They’re signs of a strange kind of peace. The piercings mark the risen Christ as the same person who had endured the cross without retaliating. He could have called down the armies of heaven against the Romans. Instead, his last words were the salve of forgiveness.

The disciples leap and shout for joy when they recognize Jesus. Then, Jesus speaks again. He repeats his greeting, Shalama, as if it meant more than good evening. Coming from the crucified-and-living, peaceful-and-forgiving Christ the word Shalama is far more than a mere greeting. His greeting sparks memories in the disciples. Before his crucifixion Jesus had promised the disciples that they wouldn’t be left like orphans. They had no need to fear. Jesus would send them the Holy Spirit. He promised, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid” (John 14:27). Jesus went on to say, “I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace” (John 16:33). Jesus had promised to leave them with his Spirit of peace. Now, the risen Christ has come to the fearful disciples to keep his promise.

Christ’s promise of peace isn’t just to calm their unsettled hearts. It’s the key that unlocks the door bolted by fear and leads the disciples out into the world as apostles, sent ones. Following his greeting of peace Jesus sends the disciples forth: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” This is Christ’s missionary charge to the disciples. As God had sent Jesus to speak the prophetic word and the good news, as God had sent Jesus to heal and forgive, as God had sent Jesus to show the way to new life and shalom, so Christ sent the disciples into the world. Then, Christ breathed on the disciples his very Spirit with the commission to be a forgiving people.

The risen Christ speaks words of peace and mission to his disciples---Peace be with you, as the Father has sent me, so I send you. If Christ has no problem living and speaking of peace and mission with the very same breath, why has the church separated the two? Why does the church speak out of two sides of its mouth in order to address peace and mission? Peace and mission were united in the one risen body of Christ. They came from the one breath of Christ’s Spirit. Why, then, is there such a divide in the church over peace and mission?

To be honest, there is a sharp division in the church between peace and mission. It is a real, but unnecessary division. Peace and mission have become two polar opposites, creating separate camps within the church. Somewhere along the line the church has divided itself into subcultures of peace-and-justice-people and mission- and evangelism-people. And the division between these groups tends to feed off stereotypes of one another. You know these stereotypes. The stereotype of the Christian involved in peace and justice sounds like this. Those peace people are just a bunch of bleeding heart liberals. They’re just too worldly. They’re more concerned about changing society than serving Christ and saving souls. They distort the Bible or ignore it altogether. They put peace issues above God. I can just hear them groaning when mission and evangelism are even mentioned.

On the other hand, the stereotype of mission-people sounds something like this. Those people who get all fired up about mission and evangelism could care less about the state of our world. They’re just a bunch of bible-thumping, narrow-minded conservatives, who think they have a corner on the truth. I can just hear them sneering at the very mention of peace and justice.

Peace and justice aren’t simply liberal causes. They’re integral to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Mission and evangelism aren’t simply practices for conservative Christians. They express God’s heart for the world. Stereotypes only serve to label, denigrate, and place others at a distance from us. They create a pseudo sense of detachment from critical issues the church must engage in together.

Peace and mission have been separated to the detriment of both. Without peace and justice the work of mission and evangelism can easily become a form of spiritual escapism from the world’s problems, personal salvation without social transformation, saving the soul but not the embodied lives of the people themselves. The church has a dark legacy of mission and evangelism practiced without concern for issues of peace and justice. The religious underpinnings of founding of America and the heyday of the worldwide mission movement of the 1800’s were clearly tied to the concept of “manifest destiny” within Western culture. Manifest destiny began as a worldview that understood white, Europeans to be the most advanced and civilized of the peoples of the earth. White Europeans felt they had been called by God to save the souls of savages and impart their culture to uncivilized peoples. Missionaries often followed the military conquest and colonization of nations. They brought with them a Westernized version of Christianity. Christianity and conquest joined hands.

It’s this problematic legacy of mission that seems to have been forgotten by some evangelical Christians who saw the military occupation of Iraq by the United States as “open season” for going over and converting Muslims. It smacked of the old alliances of church and state. Let the state conquer their land and control their bodies. We’ll convert their souls. This is mission and evangelism separated from peace and justice.

At the same time, without mission and evangelism the work of peace and justice can become simply another form of secular humanism, social change grounded in human effort, detached from the good news of God’s grace and coming reign. Some forms of liberal Christian peace and justice work lose the connection between spirituality and activism. Some liberal Christians present peacemaking in terms of partisan politics, rather than grounding it in God’s mission to the world. Peace and mission need each other to form a more holistic and authentic gospel.

There have been those instances when peace and justice were wedded to mission and evangelism. The period of the Great Awakenings in England in the 1700’s was both intensely missionary, evangelistic, and concerned about addressing social injustices. There was a fervor to “preach the gospel to every creature.” At the same time, Evangelicals established orphanages, hospitals, famine relief, soup kitchens, and worked for prison reform. It’s important to remember that the church institution of Sunday School, created by Robert Raikes in Gloucester, England, was started during this period not only with a deep concern to teach the Bible, but also to care for the needs of impoverished children. Sunday School was held on a day when they were not working in the factories.

Today, Evangelicals for Social Action, seeks to bring together the gospel with peace and social justice. This organization witnesses to Evangelicals of the vital link between social responsibility and evangelism. The Maryknoll sisters, a Catholic missionary order, stands at the forefront of linking mission to peace and justice around the world. Orbis Press, a publication of Maryknoll, publishes some of the most progressive thought on interfaith dialogue and radical peace and justice. Peace and mission can be reconciled within the church.

Even with this hope, I recognize that reconciliation is not always an easy matter. It is hard bringing together people who are at odds with one another. Even though the risen Christ commissioned the disciples to be a forgiving people and sent them forth into the world, forgiveness was not going to be easy. There was a fearful and dangerous world beyond those doors. And there was always the potential for anger and violence between the disciples and those who had crucified their beloved leader. The mission of forgiveness and reconciliation between opposing groups is not always an easy road to take. Even between peace-people and mission-people.

I am reminded of the difficulty involved in reconciling estranged peoples in a story of Lawrence Hart, Cheyenne peace chief and Mennonite pastor. Lawrence’s role model is White Antelope, a Cheyenne peace chief from the 1800’s. White Antelope followed the teachings of Sweet Medicine who said that chiefs are to be peacemakers. “They are not to engage in controversy or use any violence. And peace chiefs are to do that no matter what the cost.” White Antelope was one of the first to be shot at the massacre of Sand Creek in the Colorado Territory in 1860 along with innocent women, children, and infants. Parts of their bodies were paraded through Denver. Lawrence bears the wounds of his ancestors. One way he works to heal these wounds has been to obtain the remains of his ancestors and other tribes on display in museums and to return them to their people for burial. The project is called Return to the Earth.

Bearing the wounds of this violent history of whites against Native Americans Lawrence tells the story of an incident in which reconciliation was particularly difficult. It was on a day when a tragedy was being re-enacted. The massacre at Washita River took place at dawn in November of 1868. Colonel Custer and 800 troops from the 7th U.S. Cavalry attacked the peaceful Cheyenne village on the banks of the Washita. The people of Cheyenne planned a centennial observance of their town’s history and wanted the Cheyenne people to play a part in a re-enactment. The Cheyenne agreed to participate, if the bones of a Cheyenne victim on display in their museum would be properly buried as part of the commemoration.

As the bugle sounded, Lawrence heard some commotion to his right. When he looked over he saw a small detachment of troops. It turned out that they were members of the Grand Army of the Republic, the grandsons of the 7th Calvary. He hadn’t known they were coming. They were dressed in authentic 7th Calvary uniforms, on horses, and firing blank cartridges from their rifles. He detested their presence. And he didn’t appreciate that they were shooting at his people, once again, 100 years later, and especially shooting at his own biological children. When the re-enactment ended it was time to bury the bones of the Cheyenne killed in the original battle. The soldiers saluted the coffin. Hart was furious. “How dare they do that? How dare they salute one that their grandfathers had killed.” Then, one of the Cheyenne women, following tradition, took a beautiful blanket from her shoulders and placed it on the coffin.

It was also tradition to give a coffin covering to someone at the burial. The chiefs consulted and told Hart who they wanted to receive the blanket----the captain of the regiment. “Why are they doing this?” thought Hart. He obeyed his elders. Lawrence called the captain forward and placed the blanket on the shoulders of a grandson of the original soldiers from the massacre at the Washita.

Later the captain thanked Lawrence and took off an oval pin from his uniform, a pin worn originally by members of the 7th Calvary. It was a “Garryowen pin.” “Garryowen was the name of the music played to signal an attack. It was played that morning 100 years ago. The captain told Lawrence, “I want you to take this pin on behalf of the Cheyenne people, with the assurance that never again will your people hear Garryowen.”

Can you hear the wind of the Spirit blowing across the Washita River? Listen. The Spirit of Christ still breathes the word…. “peace.”

With the marks of a nonviolent struggle on his hands and feet, Christ breathed his peaceable Spirit upon his disciples. Christ blew his sweet breath, the presence of his Holy Spirit upon them, like God breathed upon the first human, as a new creation. This was the Pentecost of John’s gospel, whereby the disciples were sent into the world as missionaries. Christ’s breath, the same breath that breathed the words of peace, empowered a new community and sent them out into the world, breaking through the doors locked by fear. Peace and mission come to us from the same source, the same breath of the risen Christ.

We, who have heard Christ’s words of peace and have felt the breath of his Spirit in our gatherings, have been sent into the world. We have been sent just as Jesus was sent with the Spirit of peace, reconciliation, and forgiveness. We go forth with more than a greeting, more than an inner peace to calm our fears. We go forth with an empowerment by Christ’s fiery Spirit. We go forth to share God’s healing, forgiving grace, and to be a new community on a peaceable mission to divided and violent world.

Peace be with you. As the Father has sent Christ, so Christ sends you.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Christ is Red Rover: John 20:1-18

*This sermon was preached at Zion Mennonite Church in Hubbard, Oregon on Easter Sunday, April 8, 2012

Have you seen Christ hanging around anywhere lately? Somewhere I heard that he has risen from the dead and has been seen by his followers. Well, if he is alive, then surely he must still be roaming about the world meeting with his followers. Right? Didn't he promise that wherever two or more are gathered in his name he would show up as an anonymous guest? Has the Risen Christ come to you like he did to those early disciples at a tomb, in a locked room, or by the seashore? Could it be that on some unsuspecting evening Christ glided through the locked doors of your home with the ease of a thief in the night? Maybe Christ sat with you as you ate fried fish for breakfast by the lake. Has he called out your name while you were anointing a tombstone with tears? Did he come to you and show you his scarred hands and feet as you were probing your own doubts? Or possibly you were at your job and Christ intruded into your work place with the disturbing question: "Do you love me more than all this?" Have you caught sight of the Risen Christ?

I don't know about you, but I would like to see Jesus "in the flesh." I wish I could meet him face-to- face. I want him to "walk with me and talk with me along life's narrow way." Like Mary, I would have grabbed hold of him and never let go. But for you and me, that's just not possible. Jesus is not physically present any longer. And by all appearances our experiences of Christ's living presence are rather momentary and fleeting. We are the disciples from Emmaus. Often we don't recognize that it is Christ that is walking alongside us. But, at times we may catch a glimpse of the Risen Christ out of the corner of our eye as we study the Scriptures or break bread together. But, as soon as we seem to grasp the sandy presence of Christ he slips through our fingers.

Mary tried to hold onto Jesus. But she had to let go of Jesus in order to grasp the presence of the living Christ. It was early Sunday morning that Mortician Mary went to Jesus' tomb to straighten his tie and to make sure his carcass smelled nice with a bit of spice. When she got to the tomb she saw its gaping mouth was wide open. Her first thought was that grave robbers were on the -prowl. She sprinted off to tell Peter what had happened. Running to the tomb, Peter did the mile in four minutes flat. An anonymous disciple did it in 3 minutes 50 seconds. Peter looked into the tomb and saw a cocoon of burial garments. Peter arrived and stepped inside. The anonymous disciple saw the caterpillar cocoon of garments and believed ... in butterflies and a Christ with wings.

Meanwhile, Mary stood outside the tomb watering the grass with her tears. Then she bent over and looked into death's open mouth and saw two bookend-angels at the head and at the foot of the tomb. No sooner had she seen the angels than she turned around and spotted Jesus in cognito, disguised as a gardener. She couldn't see Jesus through the blur of tears and death. So, she questioned the gardener concerning the absconded corpse. The gardener spoke her name in a tone of voice that was unmistakable and like magic she pulled a Rabbi from the hat of the gardener. At least that's the way Mary saw it, For you see, when her eyes were clear of tears Mary didn't see the Risen Christ, but rather her old friend Jesus, the Rabbi from Nazareth. She was clinging to her past experience of Jesus, the teacher from Nazareth. But, Rabbi Jesus had died and had risen as the exalted Christ (and to tell you the truth, he hasn't been the same ever since).

No longer would Mary be able to sit at his feet and listen spellbound to his teachings or hear the laughter dance from his lips. Now she would have to listen for his voice through the stories of the emerging church. No longer would she be able to touch his physical presence nearby. Now she would have to feel his presence in her heart. No longer would she be able track down the physical presence of Jesus. Now she would have to stalk his elusive presence in the Spirit. So, she clung to the feet of the Rabbi Jesus and would not let go.

Jesus looked down at Mary. She clung desperately to his feet, like a child tightly holding onto the string of a helium balloon that might at any moment float away. He commanded her to stop holding onto him, for he had not yet fully ascended. It wasn't that Jesus couldn't fly up into the sky with the weight of Mary on his feet. Rather, Jesus wanted Mary to let go of the string of her old experience of his presence. She was not to cling to some by-gone-Jesus, some once-upon-a-time Jesus. Jesus had not been restored to the same physical life he possessed before his death. Resurrection is not resuscitation. Mary could no longer hold on to the human Jesus. He was now to be present to his followers in a new mode of existence. After Jesus had ascended he would come to his people in the gift of the Spirit. Instead of holding on to the Jesus of her past, Mary was told go to the disciples and prepare them for the coming of the Spirit. From now on, Mary would have to stalk the elusive Spirit to encounter Christ's presence.

To experience the presence of the living Christ will mean that we become stalkers of the elusive Spirit. As the Resurrection stories remind us, we cannot easily nail down the presence of Christ. Christ's presence in the Spirit blows where it wills. We may hear the sound of his life's breath but not know whether he is coming or going. In our desperation we may cling to a paper Jesus of an ancient time and far away land or a Jesus-we-knew-once-upon-a-time. But we will have to let go of any by-gone-Jesus of a dead past. For The Risen Christ is among us here .and now in the presence of the Spirit! Our urgent longing for the presence of Jesus will be met only as we experience the Risen and Ascended Christ in the elusive presence of the Spirit.

Where do we, who cling to Jesus for dear life, encounter the presence of the living Christ today? The classic path to encounter the Spirit of the living Christ is through the Christian traditions: the scriptures, the breaking of bread, the Christian community, Christian liturgy and ritual, and spiritual practices. These ancient paths of Christ's followers mediate the Risen Christ to us. They trigger the mysterious presence of Christ. You know what I mean, don't you?
A woman has just gone through the death of a loved one. She sits alone in their bedroom crying. The grief is hard to bear. Day passes into day in an endless blur. Looking for some source of consolation, she opens the Bible and reads Christ's words, "Let not your heart be troubled." The written words come alive and become inner words of peace that still the troubled sea of her heart.

It's an Easter Sunday. Spring, with broad brush, has painted the trees a bright green. The leaves seem to sparkle in the sunlight. The dome of the sky is a crisp blue. A door on a suburban home opens. A man goes out to pick up his newspaper. He's had a stressful week at the office. He breathes in deep the Easter morning. In the distance a church bell rings. It seems to call out to a child inside him. He hasn't been to church since he was in grade school. For some crazy reason he decides to go to church. At first he's a little uncomfortable in the pew, but the warm greetings of the people put him at ease. An Easter hymn is sung a little off key. A flood of childhood memories of mom and dad taking him to church begins to pour from his eyes. Something, someone has reached inside him and touched where no human hand could touch. It is the hand of the living Christ.

The elusive Spirit of Christ comes to us on the wings of a sermon, the unadorned reading of the Scripture, the melody of an old hymn, a lit Christ candle, the breaking of the bread, a moment of solitude. We experience a living presence rushing through us and we wish that we could grab it and hold on to it
for dear life.

I have often gone hunting for Christ, the fox. I have stalked the Spirit of Christ with eyes stretched wide open. I have seen the tears of Christ on Palm/Passion Sunday in worshippers overcome by the truthful story of the cross. There have been moments when I have stood around the communion table, when the bread was broken and the cup shared, that I could almost feel the feather of Christ's Spirit brushing up against my cheek. I have spotted Christ in moments when in solitude the Scripture began to burn the brand of truth into my heart.

I have seen Christ in the actions of an African-American woman. She was driving a Cadillac on Montrose Street in Houston. Iris and I were behind her car waiting for the light to change. It was the dead of winter. A chill in the air was biting a homeless man walking by in thin clothes. He was hugging himself to fight off the cold. I could see that the woman in the Cadillac was well off. She wore a coat with a fur lined collar. Out of the corner of her eye, she spotted the homeless man. I watched in amazement and wonder as she opened the door of her Cadillac, dashed across the street toward the shivering man, took off her expensive coat, draped it over the shoulders of the scruffy-looking stranger, hopped back in her car and drove off. It was an epiphany. I was caught off guard in wonder. I had seen Christ.
I have seen Christ on the city streets. I have accompanied Christ on walks for hunger and protests against nuclear weapons and have stood in a circle near some site where a person was recently gunned down, praying for the peace not of Jerusalem, but of Houston, of Philadelphia, of Washington, of the US, of Iraq, of the world. Christ was there. And for a few brief moments I have caught Christ, that cunning fox by the tip of the tail.

Now, you may say that it was all in my imagination. That may very well be true. But, you could say that of any experience of the Spirit world. In Bernard Shaw's play St. Joan there is a dialogue between St. Joan and Captain Robert de Baudricourt, a military squire. Joan says to him, "I hear voices telling me what to do. They come from God. "The skeptical squire responds, "They come from your imagination." To which St. Joan boldly answers, "Of course. That is how the messages of God come to us." (1) Possibly that is why many of us fail to recognize the spirit of the living Christ among us in cognito. We just can't imagine that Christ is present!

Mary experienced the presence of the living Christ. But, she had to stop holding onto the Jesus she had known before the resurrection. So, in the power of her Easter experience, she ran and proclaimed the good news to the other disciples and they too encountered the resurrected Christ. And the good news was spread to about 120 gathered in a room, who later at Pentecost were filled with the burning presence of the Spirit of Christ. And they went into all the earth and told people of all nations that Christ was indeed risen. And after two thousand years you and I heard the good news and the Spirit of the Risen Christ blew through our lives. And we haven't been the same ever since!

One of my favorite writers, Annie Dillard, a Pulitzer prize winning author, has captured the spirit of Easter morning where she writes about the longing to grab hold of the Spirit of the Risen Christ:

You have to stalk the spirit, too. You can wait forgetful anywhere for anywhere is the way of his fleet passage, and hope to catch him by the tail and shout something in his ear as he wrests away. Or you can pursue him wherever you dare, risking the shrunken sinew in the hollow of the thigh; you can bang at the door all night till the innkeeper relents, if he ever relents; and you can wail till you're hoarse or worse the cry for incarnation always in John Knoepfle's poem: "and Christ is red rover ... and the children are calling/come over, come over." (2)

Some gather in churches on Easter morning to fulfill a duty to parents or for the sake of the children. Some gather because it’s a family tradition. Others gather out of habit or routine. Still others gather to cling to some by-gone-Jesus trapped in the tomb of history or locked up in some childhood memory. But some of us... some of us come to hunt for Christ the fox. We come to stalk the Spirit. We gather longing with all our hearts to meet the Christ who comes to us unexpectedly like a whisper. For we believe that Christ is Red Rover. And we are the children standing with our arms stretched across time longingly crying out.... "come over .... come over!"

(1) George Bernard Shaw, Saint Joan. (Baltimore: Penguin, 1924), 59.
(2) Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. (San Francisco: Harper, 1974), 205.