Archive for April, 2014

The Intimacy of Faith

// April 25th, 2014 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

The Gospel of John is often regarded as a very “spiritual” text, perhaps even an abstract, theological text.  Some think it was included in the canon largely because it made claims about Jesus that other Gospels did not, claims that had become important to the Church, such as Jesus being God and stuff.  This, in turn, creates the possibility of a counter-claim in a culture obsessed with facts over meaning, that John was the latest Gospel, a literary construction produced long after the lived reality of Jesus.  As such, it sometimes gets dismissed.  It is as though the other Gospels tell us about the real Jesus and John is just a cherry tree from which we pick tasty quotes that bolster our theological positions.  This is not fair to the Fourth Gospel, nor is it fair to what our faith might be.

First, the historical reality.  It is probably true that portions of John were written later than other Gospels.  However, it is also probably true that much of the content of John comes from sources contemporary with Jesus.  As with most Scripture, there are layers to the text.  The first layer is the direct witness of the Beloved Disciple who, perhaps along with others, such as the Samaritan woman, Lazarus, and Mary Magdalene, was a part of the Johannine community and contributed an oral, liturgical, and pastoral tradition for that community.  The second layer is the evangelist, who committed this tradition to writing, probably before the Beloved Disciple’s death.  Finally, the text underwent many years of redaction, editing, and amendment to produce the text we have received.  Thus, the Gospel of John is every bit as “historical” as the other Gospels.  More importantly, it includes the direct witness of someone who knew Jesus well and is therefore not merely an abstraction.  Admittedly, this is all nerd stuff, but let’s see where this leads.  (Full disclosure: I know where this leads.)

When we read the spiritualized elements of John, we must never forget that these airy contemplations gain their meaning from the lived reality from which they arise.  In the moment when Jesus is saying his farewell and feeling the weight of betrayal and loss and duty, here is the Beloved Disciple, reclining in Jesus’ bosom (13:23), just as Christ rested in God’s bosom before the creation of the world (1:18).  So it should be no surprise in our text this week (20:19-31) when Jesus appears to the disciples in a resurrected body and that the encounter is nothing but intimate.

Thomas gets a bad rap: the Doubter.  However, his instincts are not that different from the others: he wants to see the man he followed, touch the man he loves.  Mary Magdalene was no different.  When the body was missing from the tomb, she asked “the gardener” where the body was.  In the presence of angels, she wants to be with Jesus, physically.  When she finds him, she immediately tries to touch him.  When the disciples meet Jesus in Thomas’ absence, Jesus shows his wounds and breathes on them the Holy Spirit.  Thomas simply wanted the same experience.  It is not so much about knowing that Jesus lives as knowing the living Jesus.  It is not so much believing that Jesus lives as being faithful in the life of Jesus that we share.

Please join us this Sunday, 11am at Kidd Springs Rec Center, as we discuss Doubting Thomas, the intimacy of faith, and our continuing authorship of the Good News.  Bring your questions, joys, concerns, and, above all, love.

Grace & Peace,

From Death into Life

// April 18th, 2014 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff, DART Stations of the Cross

This is the season when we sit with death and find the way to new life.  Doug Pagitt says that every preacher has four sermons that get preached over and over and over.  I guess this is one of my four.  I’ll take it.

Last night was our Maundy Thursday service.  It was a very Church in the Cliff night.  It was small and intimate.  We ate and drank.  We laughed a lot.  We might have cried a little.  Maundy Thursday is a celebration turned farewell.  It is the Passover meal celebrating the ancient Hebrews’ liberation from Egypt, but it is Jesus’ last Passover meal with his friends.  There is a sweetness in a farewell that we should savor when we are lucky enough to have one.  He knew that he was leaving, going where they could not go, and he asked them to do one thing in his absence: love one another.

Tonight is DART Stations of the Cross.  It commemorates the Passion in words and pictures while riding a train.  I know it sounds odd, but it is oddly affecting.  This is Good Friday.  The name of this day has always bothered me because it glosses over the real pain and loss of the Passion.  It points us forward.  It signals that this is the day that Jesus’ work is done, forgetting that his work is done while sweating blood.  Jesus ached so much for the state of the world that his anguish was literally seeping out of him.  Those who loved him, those who had the courage, saw every step that he took on his way to Calvary.  In the Stations of the Cross, we have the opportunity to do the same.  We do this not for guilt, but for compassion, to feel with Christ and to thereby feel with all those who suffer.  In the Stations of the Cross, we ache for the world; we bleed for it.  Imagine if our concern for the world seeped out of us, unable to be contained.

Then there is the quiet of the tomb.  We must not forget that Jesus was dead.  For some of us, that remembrance might be a day of silence, of prayer, of meditation.  I will be doing some of that.  I’m also going to see Southern Baptist Sissies, the story of four gay men growing up in a Southern Baptist church.  It looks funny and, in some ways, incongruous with the day.  However, in remembering Jesus death and time in the tomb, we must also remember the people that we as Christians have forced into silence and solitude for so many years.  The closet is a tomb.  Fortunately for many, the stone has been rolled away.

What we learn from our queer kindred is what we learn from our own experiences: there is always the promise of new life.  The loss of loved ones, of jobs, moving to a new place, relationships severed, a plan failed, a hope dashed, or just dying to the person others expected you to be – there is always the promise of new life.  The mistake is in thinking that those losses don’t continue to have some claim on us, that they cease to be a part of who we are.  New life is only possible when we contend with death, when we live through it and give it its proper due.

Easter is not exactly Christmas; it is not birth, but resurrection.  It is all the more joyful for knowing the alternative.  The bloom of the wildflowers, the greening of the world, puppies playing in the park, and picnics and potlucks, and the Beloved One of God lives again – life is so beautiful.  So let’s celebrate.

Please join us for the remainder of our Holy Week activities.  We will be handing out prayer cards for DART Stations of the Cross from 5-7pm at Mockingbird Station this Good Friday evening.  Tomorrow, for Holy Saturday, we don’t have any official plans, but I encourage you to go see Southern Baptist Sissies at 2:30pm at the Texas Theater.  Then please join us for our Easter celebration, 11am Sunday at Kidd Springs Rec Center.  Following the service there will be a picnic potluck in the park, weather permitting.  The Kittos have graciously volunteered their house, 310 S. Montclair, if there is rain.

Grace & Peace,

Holy Week: A Meditation on Death

// April 11th, 2014 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

Next week is Holy Week, the culmination of Lent and the gateway to Eastertide.  During Holy Week, we remember the last week of Jesus’ life and the death that has come to mean so much.  Growing up in a prosperous Southern Baptist church, we didn’t do Holy Week, or even Lent, for that matter.  We talked about Palm Sunday, but the gist of those sermons was how wrong the Catholics were and how wrong the Jews were before them.

They were wrong, we were told, because they focused on Jesus’ death.  The Jews failed to understand that Jesus was primarily concerned about the afterlife, so they thought that his death was a defeat.  They sought an earthly king instead of a heavenly one.  The Catholics got that part, but still paid too much attention to Jesus’ death.  We were regularly reminded that there was a reason our crosses were empty.  Oh, what we missed.

You don’t just get to have Easter.  As the story of Lazarus reminded us last week, we must die before we can live again.  It is painful.  Nothing can make up for that sense of loss.  We never simply accept it or move on.  It must be named and grieved and we must allow it to become a part of us.  Loss becomes a persistent memory that is shaped and molded to give meaning to whatever comes next.  That’s why we have Holy Week.

Jesus’ death was the great loss of the movement he began, the movement that eventually became our Christian faith.  Over the last 2000 years, we have defined that defining event in various ways based on our current experience: a model of martyrdom; a sacrifice of atonement that frames our judgment; a wise teacher and provocateur that was executed too soon.  But at the heart of all of our meaning-making is death.

Jesus moved boldly toward that death.  When he came to Jerusalem, he provoked the powers.  He marched into town with a parade of peasants.  He attacked the merchants in the temple.  He embarrassed and exposed the religious authorities.  After the provocations, he retreated with his closest friends to say goodbye.  He told them he loved them and asked that they remember him.  He prayed to God, to find his final resolve and then he surrendered himself to the inevitable.

Jesus died well.  Jesus died for a reason.  Jesus set things in order before he went.  Jesus made sure that the things he lived for continued after he was gone.  Dying well means living well.  It means living in such a way that new life is possible, even after we are gone.  In Holy Week, we remember how to die well, to rehearse grief and loss, and to make it meaningful for us today.  Without that, there can never be new life.

Please join us throughout Holy Week.  We begin Sunday morning, 11am at Kidd Springs Rec Center, for Palm Sunday, a celebration of Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem.  On Thursday, there will be a Maundy Thursday service and meal at the Shirleys’, 221 S. Edgefield Ave. at 7pm, commemorating the Last Supper.  For Good Friday, we take the show on the road with DART Stations of the Cross, a moving meditation on the intersection of the Passion and contemporary life.  We will be handing out prayer cards between 5pm and 7pm at Mockingbird Station.  On Saturday, we recommend viewing Southern Baptist Sissies, a film of a play about four young gay men growing up in the Southern Baptist Church, showing at 2:30pm on Saturday the 19th.  There will be a Q&A with the director following.  Finally, on Sunday, we celebrate the resurrection in our Easter Sunday service with a picnic potluck in the park following.  It would be wonderful to see you at some or all of these events.  Truly.

Grace & Peace,

Mostly Dead

// April 4th, 2014 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

When Fezzik and Inigo Montoya bring Westley to Miracle Max, they are sure that Westley is dead. They do not know so much, as Max explains, “It just so happens that your friend here is only mostly dead. There’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead.” It seems that Michael Goldman, who wrote The Princess Bride, is a student of the Torah.

As good Protestants in the tradition of Luther, we tend to frown on the law as an oppressive force in conflict with the freedom we find in Christ. We tend to see it as a black and white set of rules. However, the law not only requires interpretation, but it has an assumed framework that is anything but black and white. That is, the law assumes that we are always living somewhere between life and death and its goal is to describe for us what it means to move toward life and away from death. Bleeding often moves us toward death, so we want to fix that, we want to account for it in some way and move a person back toward life. By the same token, poverty tends to place people closer to death, so we want to mediate that. We might quibble with some of the specifics of what the ancients thought was death-dealing rather than life-giving, but I hope we can mostly agree with the principle that we should prefer the latter. The good news, then, is that we are rarely all dead; we can almost always be brought back.

As much as many modern Christians dismiss the law as irrelevant – except when needed to beat somebody up – we also tend to ignore the prophets, with their silly cries for justice. In the same way we might think that Jesus trumps the law, Jesus is also the ultimate prophet, so why bother with the inferior ones? Out with the old and in with the new! However, much of what Jesus did and said was exactly the same as what the other prophets did and said. It would be fair to say that Jesus gained a following, not because he was unique, but because he was exactly what his culture had come to expect from one who spoke for God, one who tried to move his people from death to life, one who held the people of Israel to account for the law, especially its requirements for social justice.

The stories we have in the lectionary this week profess the same ethic of life and death, one about the prophet Ezekiel and one about Jesus. Their common thread is that they radically expand our range of mostly dead. In the law, there is a point at which one is, in fact, all dead. It’s a little farther down the road than we think today – three days down the road, in fact – but still, dead is dead. But God, like Miracle Max, says to us, “Look who knows so much.” In Ezekiel’s vision, he sees a valley filled with dry bones, clearly dead. But with the word of God, the bones are covered with flesh, and breathe again. In the story of Lazarus, Jesus waits more than three days to raise him from the dead, clearly dead in the ancient imagination. Jesus, the Word of God, commands him to come out of death and into life. And he does. No matter how dead we feel, no matter how bad things seem, we are only ever mostly dead, and mostly dead is slightly alive with the possibility of living fully.

Please join us this Sunday, 11am at Kidd Springs Rec Center, as we talk about death, new life, coming out, and true love.

Grace & Peace,