Friday, March 31, 2017


On Lent 5, we hear about Lazarus.
His story falls on Lent 5 because in John’s Gospel,
            this is the tipping point.
Raising Lazarus pushed Jesus’ opposition
            over the edge into a murderous plot.
This is the point at which they realized
            what a revolutionary change Jesus was ushering
                        into the world.

What do you suppose life was like for Lazarus
            before he fell ill?
Scripture doesn’t say.
So it probably wasn’t remarkable.
It was probably typical – an ordinary life.

I asked a friend this week, “How are you?”
He answered honestly. He said “Mixed.”
His life was somewhat afflicted but generally ok.
That’s how life usually is.
That’s how Lazarus’ life was.
Then he got seriously sick and life was a lot worse.
So his sisters sent word to Jesus.
They wanted him to come and heal their brother.
They wanted him to restore Lazarus from illness back to his mixed life.
Sigmund Freud said the goal of psychoanalysis is to cure mental illness
            so the patient can resume a life of “ordinary misery.”
Mary and Martha wanted Jesus to restore the balance,    
            to put Lazarus back the way he was.

That is what a lot of our religion is for.
We have gotten used to life as it is,
            settled into our ordinary misery,
            and when that balance is threatened
            we want Jesus to set things back the way they were.
We don’t harbor much hope that things can be dramatically better
            than they have always been.

We are a bit like the righteous pagans
            in Dante’s Divine Comedy.
Dante had the greatest respect for the virtues
            of great pagans who lived before the time of Jesus.
They were good. They were even noble,
            but in the Divine Comedy, Dante consigned their souls to limbo
            – neither the punishments of hell nor the joys of paradise.
The righteous pagans had lived and died without any concept of heaven,         
            no idea that union with God is possible,
            no hope to see the beauty of the divine and be lost
                        in wonder, love, and praise.
So Dante relegated them to limbo, the mixed state,           
            because they failed to imagine anything better.

I don’t know where righteous pagans go when they die
            and neither did Dante
            but he was making this spiritual point:
It is very hard to achieve what we cannot first imagine.
 If we cannot imagine that life might be utterly new,          
            if the best we hope for is the way things were,
            then we erect a barrier to what Jesus wants to give us.

So Mary and Martha called Jesus to come quick
            and set things back the way they were.
But he didn’t do it.
He waited for two days until Lazarus had died
            and all hope to put things back the way they were
                        was gone.

That’s when Jesus arrived with something better.
He replaced Lazarus’s ordinary life with a miracle.
What happened to Lazarus after that?
We don’t know for sure.
His name is not said again.

But there may be an answer – at least a theory.
No one knows who wrote the 4th Gospel.
Tradition gave it the name of John,
            but it pretty clearly wasn’t John the Son of Zebedee
                        and brother of James.
We don’t know who wrote the 4th Gospel,
            but there is a respectable group of scholars
                        who think it was Lazarus.
It may be that the mystical Gospel,
            the loftiest poetry and the truest knowledge of Christ,       
            came from this man who had seen the other side.
We don’t know that.
But I cannot imagine that Lazarus resumed his ordinary life.
From that day forth, he knew the life giving power of Jesus
            -- not as an idea, but an experience; not a theory, but a fact.
Lazarus knew what Paul meant when he said,
            “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.
              The old has gone. The new has come.”

But is that what we want?
The self-help books and the psycho-pundits on the talk shows
            all have techniques to tinker a little with our lives
            -- countless ways to make a little adjustment here
                        or there so we might, with luck and hard work,
                        make ourselves 3% happier -- 
but without changing anything too much.
On any given day, 3% happier may be
            about as much as we think like we can stand.
So we pray for that, and many a time
            that’s what Jesus does for us.
“I’ll have a Grande grace, Pike Place, not bold,
            with room for cream.”
But sometimes Jesus may have a venti grace in mind
            and our cup won’t hold it.
We need a different cup.

Jesus wants better for us than we want for ourselves.
Jesus wants better for us than we can imagine,
            but it’s natural for us to be afraid of it.
Room has to be made to hold so much grace.
The ordinary things that make is feel safe,     
            the things that give us our hints of well-being,
                        have to fall away to make room
            “for the glory which is yet to be revealed.”

Holy Week is the story of that falling away.
It is a story of death – like the death of Lazarus
             – the kind of death that opens the way to new life
            – not to old life refurbished, buffed and refinished
                        – but utterly new life – a new creation.

This makes a difference for how we understand
            what happens in our life all the time.
It changes how we understand what is happening
            when the ordinary things that make is feel safe,       
            the things that give us our sense of well-being,
                        fall away.

And that is all the time.
As Joni Mitchell so wisely said,    
            “Something’s lost and something’s gained
                        in living every day.”

When life is falling apart,
            in big ways or in little ways,
            how do we understand it?
It’s hard to lose the things that make us happy
            -- jobs, homes, people, relationships.
Even though he knew about resurrection,
            Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus
                        because the Lazarus who came out of the tomb
                        would not be the same man who went into it.
Even Jesus missed the old Lazarus.
So naturally, when we lose what we love, we grieve.

But we do not suffer without hope.
Peter says,
            “After you have suffered for a little while.,
             the God of all grace who has called you
                        to his eternal glory in Christ
                        will himself restore you, support, and strengthen
                        and establish you.”
Paul says,
            “. . . (T)he sufferings of this present time are not worth
             comparing to the glory about to be revealed . . . .”

There is a Zen adage that goes,
            “The barn has burned.
             Now I can see the moon.”

That’s a new meaning for a barn burning.
When the barn is burning in our lives,
            we do our best to put out the fire.
But when the barn has burned, we look for the moon.
When Lazarus has died, we look for the resurrection.
When we lose the things that make us happy,
            we look for the glory of Christ to make us ecstatic.

Sunday, February 26, 2017


A lot of Episcopalians are kinda nervous these days
            because Presiding Bishop Michael Curry
            is enlisting us in something called “the Jesus Movement.”
They say they don’t know what he means.
But when he has invited church leaders
            to try to spell out what “the Jesus Movement” is,
            some of us have nervously shied away from the question.

I can’t say I’m surprised.
It was a running joke back in my seminary
that we had an informal taboo on our preaching.
We were not to say, “the J word.”
We could talk about “Christ” vaguely,
 meaning what Theosophists
            call “the Christ principle” defined as
“a spiritual abstraction and no living man.”
But Jesus of Nazareth made us nervous.
This talk about Jesus feels out of bounds.
We recently asked a group of our Episcopal leaders
            what Nevada needs that the Church might offer.
No one mentioned Jesus. No one said the gospel.
We talked instead in the secular language of the world,
            and Jesus is no part of that.

But today’s Gospel lesson says, “it’s all about Jesus.”
“They looked up and saw no one except Jesus, himself, alone.”
I want to talk about that lesson
It can be hard to really hear a story we’ve read so often.
So, let me tell you another story first – a wild, fantastic, magical story
from an entirely different religious tradition.

The Ramayana is a sacred Hindu epic about Ram, an avatar,
            which is essentially an incarnation of god.
When Ram’s wife Siva was kidnapped by the forest monster, Humbaba.
he enlisted his friends in a bold rescue mission.
About a thousand pages later,
after they had Siva back home safe and sound,         
            Ram threw a thank you party for his comrades.
He gave each of them a valuable ring with a precious stone.

One of his friends was a magical talking monkey named Hanuman.
Hanuman looked at his ring, chewed it up, and spit it in the trash.
Others said, “Look at that foolish monkey,
            ruining and discarding such a valuable gift.”
Hanuman answered, “Not so.
            This ring was worthless to me
            because it had not the name of my Lord Ram
            anywhere on it.”

The others laughed and said,
            “By that standard, you should discard your own body.”
“Not so,” Hanuman replied,
            and he pulled open his chest to show them,
            he had carved the name of Ram on each of his ribs.

That’s the Jesus movement.
It’s a religion -- not about an idea -- but about a person.
A whole way of life flows out of our relationship with that person,          
            but the heart of it is the person, Jesus.
Some of us think we’re too sophisticated for
that personal of a faith.
Well then, just briefly I promise, let’s talk a little philosophy.
Philosophy begins in the basic mystery.
I notice that I am here. You seem to be here too.
In fact, there is a here for us to be – a universe.
We wonder: why is there something rather than nothing?
The Big Bang isn’t an answer. Who lit the fuse?

Western philosophy for centuries answered that question
by talking about Being with a capital B,
            the suchness of things, an impulse to Being that creates and sustains.

Eastern philosophy looked at the emptiness of things,
            the way they seem to come from nothing and return to nothing.
Instead of Being they talked about, Sunyata, the Void.

In the 20th Century, a group of Japanese philosophers
            began reading Western Theology.
They read Karl Barth who was all about Jesus.
And these Japanese philosophers learned something.
They said, the universe is born from the Void because the Void
            is procreative. It is personal. It loves.
The Void is not just nothing.
It looks a lot like a man on a cross.

In the world of philosophy, the hymn came true.
“In Christ, there is no East and West.”
Both sides of the great philosophical divide agreed that
            the Source, the Destiny, and the Meaning of the Universe
            isn’t an idea, it isn’t a spiritual abstraction,
            it isn’t a cosmic order.
It’s personal. The Source, Destiny, and Meaning of Everything
            thinks, feels, cares, desires, intends, and loves.
Christians meet the Source, the Destiny, and the Meaning of Life itself
            in Jesus.
The disciples had two ways of understanding life,
two ways of living it, two ways of being in the world.
They had the law and the prophets – morality and spirituality.
So, when they saw their rabbi talking on a mountaintop    
            with Moses, the father of moral religion
            and Elijah, the father of Jewish spirituality,  
            Peter said to Jesus, “Let’s build three dwellings here
            – one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
He meant it as a compliment, to put Jesus on a par with those giants.
But Peter had missed the point.
So, God showed up as a “bright cloud” and thundered,
            “This is my beloved Son . . .. Listen to him.”
And the disciples were afraid.

They were afraid because they had rashly answered
            life’s ultimate question
            – the question of what really matters
            – and they had gotten it wrong.
In a multiple-choice question,
            with the answers being morality, spirituality, and Jesus;
                        they’d answered, “all of the above.”
But that wasn’t’ God’s answer.
They’d missed that the ultimate value of God’s own self
            was right there in this human person,
this peasant preacher who would end up a convict, this Jesus.
All of morality and all of spirituality lead to this this glory in the dust.

The disciples thought the terrifying cloud was the Epiphany.
So, they fell on the ground and hid their faces.
But the real epiphany happened next
when Jesus touched them, and said,
            “Get up and do not be afraid.”
God isn’t a terrifying cloud driving us to the dust in fear.
God is a brother reassuring us, “Get up and do not be afraid.”
The real epiphany was Jesus, himself.

As a Pharisee, St. Paul practiced the moral life to perfection.
As a Mer-kobah mystic, he achieved the most advanced
            states of spiritual contemplation.
But one day Paul, just like the disciples,
            saw a light shining from Jesus
            – and what he saw changed everything.

Decades later, he looked back on his life,
all his ethical discipline, all his mystical practice, and said,
            “Whatever gains I had, these I count as loss
             because of the surpassing value of knowing
                        Christ Jesus my Lord.”

Paul no longer billed himself as a just man or a mystic.
He didn’t bill himself at all.
He said, “It is not ourselves that we proclaim.
            We proclaim Christ Jesus as Lord and ourselves as your servants
                        for his sake.”

Paul carved the name of Jesus on his bones --
no deeper than his bones -- in his very heart.
Paul tossed aside every prize he had every claimed,
            every success he had ever achieved,
            like Hanuman throwing away the priceless ring, and said,
                        “I’d rather have Jesus.”

Paul’s faith – our faith --  is all in the words of another old spiritual,
            “In the morning when I rise, give me Jesus.
            When I am alone, give me Jesus.
            When I come to die, O when I come to die, give me Jesus.
            You can have the whole world.
            You can have the whole world.
            Just give me Jesus.”