The Gift of Forgetting Our Place: Sermon for Easter 2016

Many of you know I grew up in the South. And, one of the things I remember hearing about growing up, at school and in the neighborhood was the importance of “knowing your place”. Where I grew up, for instance, children were supposed to know their place and to be quiet and obedient.

Girls were supposed to know their place too. I remember trying to play Little League baseball with my friends. I loved baseball, and I could hit or throw better than almost any boy I knew. But when I tried to play, the everyone made it very clear to me that I had forgotten my place.

That was pretty frustrating. But, sometimes, things were a little more serious than baseball.

Where I grew up there was a train track that ran through the center of town, and it was literally a dividing line. If you were white, you lived on one side of that track. And if you were black, you lived on the other side. I don’t remember anyone ever teaching me that, but I do know that we all knew it. And I know that we all were all expected to know our place relative to it.

Things like that don’t just happen in the South. And they didn’t just happen in the past either. There is still injustice today, and there has been for longer than we know. And throughout history, time and again, when someone has “forgotten their place”, at least in the eyes of people with power, there have been heavy consequences.

Jesus knew about that. He was a Jewish man living where the Roman Empire controlled everything. He wasn’t a citizen, and he had no rights. And even in his own community, he really had no standing. He was just the son of a carpenter. No money. No power.

But, when he grew into a man and started to attract followers, that’s when things became really dangerous. He was teaching the crowds. He was healing people. He was being talked about like a new king. And that was dangerous, because there he was, showing the Romans and the religious officials and the powers that be, that he had forgotten his place.

And so, they decided to remind him. They arrested Jesus, convicted him, and sentenced him to die by crucifixion, a punishment that only a non-Roman citizen could receive. Even by his manner of death they tried to put him in his place. And as his tomb was sealed, they thought they had succeeded.

That’s the story of Good Friday. It’s a grim one, perhaps one we don’t want to hear on Easter morning. And yet, it’s one we hear everyday. That’s because this world, while not a bad place, is a badly broken place. It’s filled with pain and suffering, war and violence, hatred and injustice.

And if you listen too much to the world that surrounds us, you might believe that this is the way it’s supposed to be. And you might believe that there’s nothing you can do to change that.

Put another way, you might know your place, and you might even accept it.
That’s not surprising, really. You can’t be a realist and live in this world without being aware of what surrounds us. But accepting it, and accepting your place in the whole thing? That’s not mandatory. We may live in a Good Friday world, but the doesn’t mean we have to have Good Friday faith. We don’t have to accept our place as passive participants in that world.

picmonkey_image-1That’s especially true because of what today’s Scripture tells us. On the first day after the Sabbath, at her first opportunity, Mary went to Jesus’ tomb. But when she got there the stone that was supposed to be sealing it had been rolled away, and Jesus was gone.

Mary went to the man she believed was the gardener and asked what happened, and in that moment the possibility that Jesus had risen was so ridiculous, so unbelievable, that at first she didn’t even realize that she was talking to Jesus himself. Even Mary, perhaps his most devoted follower, couldn’t believe that somehow Jesus wouldn’t accept his place and that, somehow, Jesus wouldn’t just stay put.

That’s the good news of Easter. When the world told Jesus he had forgotten his place, he showed them that he did indeed know it, and it wasn’t in the tomb.
And that good news still matters today. Because for all the ways the world tries to extinguish hope, for all the ways it tries to put that God’s love back in the tomb, it just will not stay put.

That’s true no matter what. And that’s why even in a world dominated by injustice, by narcissism and self-interest, by a culture where too many look out only for themselves and those like them, Jesus reminds us that’s not who we are supposed to be. That’s not real life. That’s not real wholeness. And that’s not real hope.

Put quite simply, that’s not our real place.

I believe at some level we all know that, and that today we are here, because, at some level, we believe in a better way. We believe just as he was risen 2000 years ago, he is still risen today.

And, because of that, we begin to know our real place in the world.

One of the greatest examples of moral courage I know comes from the stories of the young African-American students of the 1960’s who tried to integrate lunch counters throughout the South. They would enter these restaurants and stage sit-ins, staying perfectly still even in the face of verbal taunts and horrible violence.

The students were often accused of forgetting their place. But how wrong those accusations were. They knew their place, and it was sitting right there at those lunch counters.

So many of those who participated in those sit-ins were people of faith. They believed in a real way in the Jesus who knew his rightful place, and so rose again, and they drew strength from a faith that said they would rise to theirs too.

That is an Easter faith. It is a faith that rejects the lies of hate and violence, fear and bigotry. It is a faith teaches us our real place and that raises us up with Christ.

Easter wasn’t a one time event that happened 2000 years ago. Easter still happens, every day of the year and all around us. Because Christ triumphed over death all those years ago, we now rise in the face of a whole new set of tombs, and the Easter story lives on.

It lives on when an addict lays down their addiction and chooses life. It lives on when a gay kid, bullied for years, refuses to believe that they are anything less than God’s beloved. It lives on when we cross lines that were drawn by fear, and extend our hands to those who at first glance seem nothing like us.

But mostly it lives on when we forget our place, and least the one that the world tells us about. And it lives on when we start proclaiming an Easter faith that says that no living person’s place is in the figurative tombs of this world.

That’s the good news of Easter. But that’s also the easy part, because there is a challenge. Even in good news there is always a challenge.

And the challenge is this: if Jesus doesn’t stay put, than neither can we. After all, Mary went looking for him just three days after what was supposed to be the ultimate end, and found he wasn’t where they had put him.

And so, 2,000 years later, where is Jesus now? What is he up to? And where does he want us to be?

That’s the big question. Each of us needs to find what is holding us back in our old places, and to remember our real places in this world. For each of us it will look a little different. I cannot tell you where yours is exactly, but I can tell you this: wherever it is, there will be life, and there will be light, and you will be more fully yourself in that place than you have ever been before.

And I can tell you this as well: you don’t have to find that place alone.
Last night some of us gathered here for the Easter vigil. It is an ancient Christian tradition that on the night before Easter new believers were baptized and welcomed, and the Paschal light was lit for the first time. That’s why the Paschal candle is burning this morning next to the baptismal font. It’s a visible sign that Jesus has risen.

That same flame burns now for all of us. It’s a sign that we are Christ’s, and that our place is with him. And it’s also a reminder that we have a job to do, and that is to carry this light out into the world, and to remind others of their place as well.

Because their place is as beloved children of God. Their place is as the ones for whom Christ also rose. Their place is as people who belong not in the tombs, but in the light.

Proclaiming that truth is the work of Easter.

And so, together we do that work. And as we seek to follow a Jesus who for our own good just won’t stay put, may we learn to forget our place, at least the one that the world has told us to accept. And may we guide one another by the light of Christ out of the tombs, and to a truer place than we have ever known. Amen?

Unlikely Disciples and the Roadmap of Grace: Sermon for June 16, 2013

"Anointing His Feet", by Wayne Forte

“Anointing His Feet”, by Wayne Forte

Soon after I moved to Massachusetts, I met a friend whose Christian life really impressed me. She was involved heavily in her church and she did a lot of outside ministry work too And she carried herself with a humility but also a quiet certainty of who God was and who she belonged to.

I attributed it to the fact that she had grown up with a parent who was in the clergy. I thought surely that was what had shaped her faith and her interests. And one night we were talking and she was telling me about some of the ministries she was involved in. And one of the ones to which she was most devoted was a ministry to people in prison. And so, I asked her what had caused her to get interested in prison ministry.

She replied, simply: prison

What I hadn’t know until that point was that she herself had done time. As a young woman she had battled a serious addiction. And one night she made the choice to get high, and she stole a car. And she ended up going from a well-known New England prep school to serving several years in a Georgia prison

I was thinking about her when I was reading this text because this is the classic text about unlikely disciples. Jesus is invited to a Pharisee’s home to eat dinner, and you should always be a little wary of dinner invitations from Pharisees, because it’s probably less about getting to know you, and more about looking for what you’re doing wrong

And on this night, something scandalous happened. A woman, who was apparently known to be a sinner, came into the dinner party. She had a jar of expensive oils with her. And on the ground she wept and washed his feet with her own tears. And then she anointed them with the oil.

The Pharisees were aghast. This was all the evidence they needed that this man was not a prophet. If he were, he would have known who she was, and he would never have let her come near him.

But of course he does. Jesus lets everyone come to him. He allows her to bathe his feet with her own tears. Tears shed for a life ill lived. Tears shed for a redemption that is to come.

And he uses it to teach them.

Jesus asks Simon about a man who forgives two debts. One is small. And the one who is forgiven does love the man who does it. But one is big, and how much more does that person receive in the forgiveness? The one whose life is changed most drastically will become the one who most loves the one who forgives.

For the woman who was washing his feet, who probably was Mary Magdalene, there had been a life of bad choices. And yet she was one of the first to recognize the grace that was in Christ. So much so, that it is she, not the disciples, who anoints Jesus for the first time. Her debt had been large, and now she saw it being forgiven purely out of Christ’s love for her.

Sometimes the people who need grace the most are the first to really understand it when it’s offered. And sometimes they are the people who we never would have expected.

In college our chaplain was a man named Sammy. And he had gone to seminary in New York City during the 1950’s, but afterwards he returned back to south Georgia, where he had grown up. And one of the reasons he came back was that he wanted to work for civil rights.

One Sunday he delivered a sermon about segregation to his entirely white congregation. And afterwards someone came up to him and said, “some people aren’t too happy about your sermon.” And the same guy said, “you see that man over there? He’s the head of the Klan here in south Georgia.”

From that point on Sammy and the head of the Klan butted heads, and it was made clear to Sammy that he was not wanted there. And then, one night, he got a call. It was the Klan leader asking him to meet him out at a bar on the highway. This was the sort of bar where there was a lot of drinking and fighting and sympathy for the Klan, and he was a little worried about why he was being called out there.

But when he got there, the Klan leader was sitting at a table. And he was broken. And he told him how he couldn’t stop drinking, and how his wife was leaving him, and how his whole world was falling apart and now he was questioning everything about how he had lived his life. And he said to Sammy, “Reverend, would you pray for me.”

And Sammy looked around at the bar and said, “Here?”

And the man replied, “Pastor, don’t you believe in Jesus?”

This man whom he had disagreed with in every possible way taught him something about the grace of God that night. First, that no one is beyond it. And second, that Jesus is everywhere waiting for us to accept it. Even in that south GA roadside bar, and even to a Klansman.

Sometimes the best representatives of Jesus’s grace are not people who have led perfect lives. Sometimes they are people who have struggled to make the right choices. Sometimes they have a past. Sometimes there are things that seem shameful. But they are often the best witnesses to the fact that Jesus’s grace can find you, no matter where you are.

For the disciples this was an issue. They were already facing problems. And now the face of the movement, this man they followed, was letting this woman with a past touch him in front of the Pharisees. It didn’t look good. Surely there were “better people” who could attest to who Jesus was.

In the musical Jesus Christ Superstar the scene is played out like this, with Judas singing these words:

It seems to me a strange thing, mystifying
That a man like you can waste his time on women of her kind.
Yes, I can understand that she amuses,
But to let her kiss you, stroke your hair, that’s hardly in your line.
It’s not that I object to her profession,
But she doesn’t fit in well with what you teach and say.
It doesn’t help us if you’re inconsistent.
they only need a small excuse to put us all away.

Judas was right. They only needed a small excuse. But he was wrong about the rest. No one could preach to the grace of Christ more than this woman could. And so when he sings about “wasting your time on women of her kind” he couldn’t be farther off the mark. Unfortunately, that’s how society, and often the church, sees some people sometimes. As wastes of time.

But they are not wastes of time, but are often the best witnesses to Christ’s grace. Last week I told you the story of a ministry in Nashville called Magdalene House, and the business the women run called Thistle Farms. I didn’t tell you what some people in Nashville often said about this ministry. Things like, “Why waste your time and the church’s resources on these prostitutes. Use it on “nice” people.”

This church was the sore spot for the diocese. Never got funding, etc. They were sort of ashamed of it.  Yet this program changes lives. Women who had been left for dead are now self-sufficient, healthy, and full of hope.

And they also become witnesses.

I participated in a baptism service for them once in a river. You could almost feel the release of the past, and the river could have been their own tears. And I wondered, why are these women’s stories not plastered in every church in the diocese? This is grace. This is what the Gospel is all about.

We’re the church and this is what we do. We welcome people with a past. Because there are things in all of our lives that we regret. The ones who accept Christ’s grace belong here the most because they are some of Christ’s best witnesses to the Resurrection, because they themselves have been resurrected.

The thing that I’m always struck with about people who have truly been transformed by God’s grace is that they don’t deny where they came from. They may not tell you about it all the time, but they don’t deny where they were. Part of that is because they’ve come to realize no matter where they were, Jesus was already there. They never would have found a way out if he hadn’t been there, offering his grace.

Hhe was there in prison with my friend who served time. he was there in the roadside bar with the klansmen. and he was there on skid row in Nashville with the women who were trying to escape a life of addiction and being treated as commodities. And he’s there in all the dark places of our lives.

Our affiliation with the UCC teaches us that. The United Church of Christ has a slogan: No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here. And that’s the truth of the Gospel. We are welcomed no matter where we have been. And we are welcomed because where we’ve been is not where we are ultimately going.

Our past brought us here today, and it informs our journey. But it does not dictate it. Only Christ does. And grace is our only roadmap on the journey of life.

If it can find the young woman in prison, the alcoholic at the roadhouse, and the women on the streets, then surely it can find us. And it is only when we truly receive that grace, that we can truly follow Jesus. Without it, the words of the Gospel are hollow. But with it, they are everything. May Christ’s grace illumine even the darkest corners of our lives, and bring us all to the table with him. Amen.

The First of the Resurrections: A sermon for Easter Sunday, March 31, 2013

150400_10100264762650368_2031715009_nAlleluia, Christ is risen!

The Lord is risen indeed, and on Easter morning we are filled with reminders of resurrection and new life. There’s music, and flowers, an Easter egg hunt, and more. On Easter morning we are filled with joy, and filled with hope.

But it is such a contrast from what was happening here in this sanctuary just two nights ago. Good Friday is the most somber day of the church year. No music, no candles, no flowers. We told the story of Christ’s betrayal and death. And then we prayed and left in silence.

Good Friday is about the worst that the world can do. And on Friday we prayed for the pain of the world. We took turns lifting up and naming the things that make this world so hard: war, addiction, abuse, environmental concerns, bullying, oppression. We named them one by one, and then we sat in silence, and prayed for a better world.

And today we come back. We come back because we believe that Good Friday doesn’t have the last word. We come back because as much as we live in a broken world, we believe that something better is possible. We come back because we want to see resurrection for ourselves.

On the first Easter morning nearly 2000 years ago, Mary went back. She went back to the tomb where she and a handful of others had laid Jesus two nights before. She went back because she was looking for something, what she may not have even been sure of.

Mary was expecting to see that tomb sealed up. She was expecting to see the grave. She was expecting to find memories, but not much hope.

But when she gets there, the stone is gone. Jesus isn’t in the tomb. And her first reaction is not, “Christ is risen”. It’s to find the gardner and say “what did you do with him?” Mary thought that what was bad had somehow gotten worse.

But then, something happens. She looks at that gardner again. He speaks to her. And her eyes are opened, and she knows it’s him.

What Mary saw that day was more than unexpected. It was improbable.  It was resurrection.

Now, you and I, we may not have literally stood outside an empty tomb. We may not have seen Jesus literally rise from the grave. But that doesn’t mean that we are not also witnesses to the resurrection.

When Jesus rose again, it was more than a man being raised from the dead. It was the triumph of love over the worst that the world could do. It was proof that in the end love wins. It was the first resurrection of many, and, even more spectacular, you and I have seen some of them.

You see, resurrection comes in many forms. And if we dare, like Mary, to go to the hardest and most broken places in our lives, we will see it too.

A year and a half ago, Hurricane Irene swept through our Valley. A few days ago I was looking at pictures of the destruction. And then yesterday I drove over those same roads and went into some of those same buildings. A community has rebuilt itself. That is resurrection.

A man I know had been bullied repeatedly as a high school student years before. He had endured slurs and name-calling day in and out until the point he thought he just couldn’t take it anymore. And yet, he found a way to keep going. And now he works to reach out to kids like him who are going through the same things, and to give them hope. That is resurrection.

A woman I know found herself slipping deeper and deeper into addiction. The more she tried to stop drinking, the more she wanted to drink. She though she was hopeless. But one day she walked into a room full of people who had all faced the same thing, and she sat and listened to their stories, and she told them hers. And for several years now, she has been sober. That is resurrection.

Chances are, you know a few stories about resurrection too. Ether you’ve lived them, or you’ve seen them. And if you have, you can’t help but be transformed by them.

When Mary saw that Jesus lived once more, she couldn’t keep it to herself. Scripture tells us she had to go and tell everyone. She was the first one to see it, and the first one to proclaim it.

I don’t think we are all that different. When we see a story of new life, when we see a story of love triumphing over hate or ignorance or fear or violence, we can’t help but tell it. We share it with each other. It goes viral in our conversations, over telephone lines, and on our Facebook lines. When we see a story that inspires us, it becomes a resurrection story, and we can’t keep quiet.

And that’s what being a Christian is about. It’s about believing in a resurrection so incredible that you can’t keep quiet. You have to show the world what you have seen.

Now, I don’t mean by that that you need to be beating everyone over the head with a Bible, or shouting from a street corner. Really, if you want to be a good witness to the resurrection, you probably don’t even need to do a whole lot of talking. In order to show the world what you have seen, you have to do something much harder. You have to live it.

There’s a quite attributed to St. Francis. He probably didn’t say these words, but he said something pretty close, and in the same spirit: Preach the Gospel at all times, and if necessary use words.

He was right. It’s not enough to just tell the world what you know. You have to actually live your life in a way that shows that you believe it. You can’t claim to believe in the triumph of God’s love over a Good Friday world and then live as though the deck is stacked, and as though you can’t do anything to change it. You can’t say you believe in the triumph of love on Sunday morning, but then live like you don’t the rest of the week.

Instead, you can choose this. You can choose to preach the Easter story, not just today, but everyday. You can choose to cultivate hope, to encourage transformation, to stand alongside the oppressed, to work for justice, to side with the powerless, and to bind up the brokenhearted. You can choose to give the best of yourself to the God whose love was to great to be contained by the tomb, and not to a culture that tells you the tomb is the final word.

Between this Easter, and next Easter, you can be a witness to the Resurrection, and you can witness more resurrections than you could ever believe. Because if you look at the world with Resurrection eyes, you’ll find that resurrection is everywhere. Maybe even in yourself.

We are a world in need of new life. We are a world in need of love. We are a world in need of resurrection. And who better to help than the people who believe in the one who was Resurrected?

That’s our job as Christians. Deep in our hearts, we know that. We know that, or else we wouldn’t be here today.

There is a world waiting for the stones to be rolled away. And it’s time to go out and meet Christ in it. In our hearts. In our homes. In our communities. And in our world. New life is coming. And it starts with him.

Alleluia, Christ is risen…