School of Love

Why do you call me, Lord, Lord, but do not put my teaching into practice?
— Luke 6:46

 

Something has changed, here in Old Deerfield. Since last time we gathered, something has shifted. It’s as if our sleepy little village has, somehow, awakened.

School is back in session.

The renowned writer and Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, once described fall in America as that “fine and dangerous season [when] all the lassitudes of August have seeped out of your blood, and you are full of ambition. It is a wonderful time to begin anything at all. You go to college, and every course in the catalog looks wonderful.”

My datebook tells me that the year begins in January, and my church lectionary tells me that the year begins in Advent, but I always thought the Jewish calendar got it right when it placed the new year in September. September has always seemed me a time for new beginnings, and not just because it’s the month I was born in. For the children among us, September is a time of new shoes, new teachers, new classmates, and new blank notebooks just waiting to be filled. Even for the rest of us who are no longer children, September can be a time of renewed energy. The air turns crisp, and suddenly our days have a bit more structure and purpose to them.

This is as true for churches as it is for schools. September is the time when travelers return to worship, children return to Sunday school, and choir members return to the choir loft (as ours will next Sunday). There’s a palpable shift, in September.

This is true for churches, and particularly true for us here at the Brick Church. Because this is one of the distinctive characteristics of the First Church of Deerfield: we are a church surrounded by students, and filled with teachers. English, French, Latin, Music, Technology, Drama, Medicine, English as a Second Language, Woodworking, Mathematics, Second Grade — we’ve got an entire curriculum represented here in this church. So let me ask you: what are we all doing here? What have we come here, to learn? What new course of study, are we hungry to pursue, here?

Last year, I read a remarkable book called The Great Spiritual Migration, by Brian McLaren, and the most memorable passage for me, the part that really stayed with me, was his answer to the question I just asked. This is how Rev. McLaren describes his vision for the future of the church:

“What I believe can and should happen is that tens of thousands of congregations will become what I call schools or studios of love. That’s the desired future to which I am passionately committed. I’m not concerned about a congregations denomination, musical style, or liturgical taste; I don’t care if they meet weekly in a cathedral, monthly in a bar, annually at a retreat center, or daily online. I don’t care whether they are big or small, formal or casual, hip or unhip, or whether their style of worship is traditional or contemporary or whatever. What I care about is whether they are teaching people to live a life of love, from the heart, for God, for all people no exceptions, and for all creation. These churches would aim to take people at every age and ability level and help them become the most loving version of themselves possible. They would help people face the challenges of life – challenges that could make them better, self absorbed, callous, or hateful – with openness, courage, and generosity. They would help people recognize when they are straying from the way of love and help them get back on the path.”[i]

McLaren goes on to note that, although there’s plenty of research into the best methods of teaching mathematics — or reading or violin — the pedagogy of love remains elusive. How do we learn to love our neighbor? How do we learn to love our God? How do we learn to love creation?

How indeed?

Jesus has many titles in the gospels: Messiah, Savior, Lord, Redeemer, Son of God and Son of Man. But the title by which his own followers addressed him, was Rabbi — Teacher. And these followers themselves were called Disciples, which means students. The Jesus movement was essentially a school without walls, and its curriculum was love.

It was no lecture class. Jesus spoke to his disciples, yes; he preached to large groups, and held small discussion sections afterwards. But then he showed them what those words meant in practice, by healing the sick, feeding the poor, embracing the outcasts, challenging the powerful, and bearing the cross. And having demonstrated love, he told them, Now,  you try.

He didn’t quiz them — “Now, who remembers which kinds of people are blessed?” — he just sent them out to actually bless people. He sent his disciples out in pairs – with a lab partner! — with instructions to heal the sick and raise the dead. And when the crowds were hungry, he told his disciples, You give them something to eat.

There are some subjects that just cannot be mastered by the intellect alone. They require our whole bodies, our whole selves. They require practice.

Take music, for example. Some of you may remember the old Broadway show, The Music Man. The main character, Harold Hill, is a traveling salesman / con artist who sells band instruments together with the promise that he will teach the youngsters how to play. Not actually being a music teacher, he cannot show them how to practice their instruments. instead, he employs what he calls “the think method” — he assures the kids that if they just think about the piece they are going to play, the notes will come out right.

But a musical instrument is not an abstract idea but a physical body, with which we must cultivate a physical relationship. And this takes practice. If we merely listen to music, but do not practice, then we are learning music appreciation, not actual musicianship.

The same is true when we are learning to drive. There’s a reason why you have to take a road test, and not just a written test, before you can get a license.

The same is true of sports, or art, or science.

The same is true of love.

On the last day before his arrest, Jesus told his students, I’m giving you a new assignment: “that you love one another, as I have loved you. “ It was their final exam. Not a written test, but a road test.

Love, you see, cannot be learned by rote. It is not a subject to be memorized or even a concept to be understood. It is a skill to be mastered. It requires practice.

Which is why it’s not enough, for us to gather here in this room, sitting in rows, listening to my sermon, which let’s face it is basically a lecture. If church is to be a school of love, then there needs to be a hands-on component. Which is why there’s a time every week when y’all get up out of your seats and take the hand of a person near you in a gesture of peace. It’s why there’s a time every month when we fill our arms with clothing and food and supplies to bring to the folks at the Greenfield Inn and the Recovery Center and the Food Pantry. It’s why we gather together in small groups, like our “Being Mortal” book group, to share our stories and talk about things that really matter. It’s why when one of us is in the hospital another of us goes to see them. It’s why we break bread together and sing together. It’s why we baptize our babies together and bury our dead together.

Church is the place where we learn to practice love, so that we may get better at it. We come to church, because we have heard love’s music, and we want to play in that orchestra.

So as we begin this new school year, this new church year, let us re-commit ourselves to be diligent students of love. To practice love daily. To seek always to improve and expand our capacity for love. To be open to feedback and criticism, knowing that this is how we improve. To turn this sanctuary into a school of love, a studio where we practice until the notes of love leap off the page, and the music spills out the window, to fill the streets.

That’s our syllabus, for the year ahead. And in case you forgot to write it down, here again is this week’s assignment (from Philippians 4:8-9):

Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right,
whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute,
if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise:
dwell on these things.

The things you have learned and received and heard and seen:
practice these things.

And may the God of peace be with you.

 

 

 

 

[i] Brian D. McLaren, The Great Spiritual Migration (New York: Convergent, 2016), pp. 53-54.

Liza B. Knapp for the First Church of Deerfield, Massachusetts, September 10, 2017.

Image: from Pinterest; original source unknown. Zoom in and check out the sentences on the blackboard.

When Disaster Gets Biblical

The waters are slowly subsiding from Southeast Texas, which Hurricane Harvey inundated with over 24 billion gallons of water.  Meanwhile, the Caribbean is recovering from Hurricane Irma, and bracing for another storm right on its heels. The news media have described these storms as historic, record-breaking, unparalleled, unprecedented. For some, there was only one word that seemed sufficient to capture the scope of the disaster: Biblical.

So we turn to scripture, to make sense of the storm.

The story of Noah’s ark is probably the best-known story in the Bible. Most of us learn it as children, whether or not our families attend church or synagogue. Songs, books, and toys all tell the familiar story of how Noah collected the animals, two by two, into his wonderful boat. It is a story with undeniable kid appeal.

Perhaps because we learn it as children, it is easy to dismiss Noah’s ark as a mere child’s fable, to see the story of the flood as colorful fiction. Although tabloids periodically announce the supposed discovery of the ark on some remote mountaintop, most of us question the historical reality of a worldwide flood, or the practical feasibility of transporting all the world’s creatures in a single hand-made boat.

I’m hardly a literalist when it comes to scripture, but think that we perhaps make a mistake, when we too readily dismiss Noah’s story as a fable. What if the story was fashioned in response to a real event? How would it change the way we read it?

Consider this: geological evidence shows that thousands of years ago, the entire Black Sea changed abruptly from freshwater to salt. At the same time, the borders of the Sea expanded dramatically. One theory is that melting glaciers gradually raised water levels in the North Sea to the point where they crested the Bosporus and a huge volume of sea water flowed suddenly into the low-lying Black Sea basin. The resulting flood could have raised the surface of the Black Sea by six inches a day, flooding 60,000 square miles within a few years.

I don’t know if this event is the one behind the story of Noah and his ark. But to those living on the shore of the Black Sea at the time, it must certainly have seemed as if the entire world had disappeared under water. Everywhere they had ever known would have been engulfed by the relentlessly rising tides.

My point is not that the Biblical flood is an historical fact, but that it could have been. For things this sudden and tragic have indeed occurred, and do indeed occur to this day. An earthquake devastates Haiti or Chile, a tsunami engulfs Japan, a hurricane ravages the Gulf Coast, and the known world disappears in the blink of an eye.

Noah’s Ark is at once a beloved children’s fable, and a real-life tragedy. As children, we naturally identify with Noah and his family, safe and snug together in the ark, with all that fabulous menagerie of beasts as our personal pets. As children, our world is our home, and we trust that our parents will protect us. But as adults, we begin to see the world beyond our home. We begin to put ourselves in the place of those left behind as the waters rose. We become aware of the tension behind the tale, the fear behind the fable.

The story of Noah and the ark is, ultimately, a tale told in the aftermath of a natural disaster, to the children of those who survived. It addresses the questions all survivors ask: Why did this happen? Why were they lost? Why was I spared? Could it happen again? And finally, fundamentally, where was God?

The story of Noah’s ark offers one set of answers to these questions. Why did this happen to them? Because they were sinners. Why was Noah spared? Because he was righteous. Where was God? In the flood.

These were the answers that the survivors of the flood offered to their children. And they are often the answers that we offer to our children – and ourselves — today. We want to reassure ourselves that tragedy cannot befall us, and so we distance ourselves from the victims of that tragedy. We tell ourselves, we are not like them. We tell ourselves, it could never happen here. And we tell ourselves, God will keep us safe.

The problem is, these are the wrong answers.

They are the wrong answers, for the Texas mother who has just identified the body of her 25-year-old son who went out in the storm to rescue his sister’s cat. They are the wrong answers, for the man who watched the family van plunge beneath the flood waters, carrying three generations of his family with it. They are the wrong answers, for the homeless family, the grieving widow, the orphaned child. They are the wrong answers.

So I offer you instead a different Biblical disaster story, less colorful, less well known. A tower collapses in Siloam, in the south part of the city of Jerusalem. Eighteen people re killed. Jesus asks his followers, “Do you suppose that those eighteen on whom the tower fell were worse sinners than all the other people in Jerusalem?” And then he answers his own question: “I tell you, no.”

In that simple sentence, Jesus changes the moral of the story. “I tell you, no, but unless you all repent, you will all likewise perish.” The natural disaster was not an act of judgment. It was not the victims of the tragedy who needed to repent, but rather those who blamed the victims for their fate.

When an earthquake devastated Haiti in 2010, conservative televangelist Pat Robertson claimed that Haitians must have been cursed by God because of their ancestors’ pact with the devil. After Hurricane Katrina, a number of pastors speculated that God was punishing New Orleans for its gay and lesbian community. Reverend Jerry Falwell famously claimed that abortion was to blame for the 9/11 terror attacks. It would be easy to dismiss such hard-heartedness were it not so widespread. We want to believe that only the guilty suffer; we want to believe that tragedy can be avoided if only we follow the rules. Last week the New York Times interviewed the bewildered sister of a man who had drowned in Houston. “He was a minister,” she said. “He followed all the rules.”

Why do such things happen? The answers that we offer our children in the tale of Noah may seem reassuring to those of us who have so far escaped disaster. But ultimately, there are no easy answers to these questions.

Jesus never did tell his followers why those eighteen people died so suddenly and senselessly when the tower of Siloam fell. But Jesus did tell them, over and over, by word and by example, how to respond to such suffering: not with judgment, but with compassion.

What story, then, shall we tell our children, when the flood is over?

The Reverend Fred Rogers – known to most of us simply as “Mister Rogers” —  once said that, “When I was a boy, and I would see scary things on the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”

And so it was, in Texas. Volunteers and first responders searched the flooded streets, helping people to escape from the rising waters. They carried their neighbors to safety, in boats, in kayaks, in their arms and on their backs. A group of neighbors formed a human chain to help a man to safety from his flooded car.

In the midst of the storm, these are the only stories that make sense.

And maybe this is the story the Bible has been telling us all along, if only we have ears to hear. Because Noah wasn’t alone on that boat; he brought along every type of animal he could find. Noah was more than a survivor.

He was the one who rescued all of creation.

 

 

(by Liza B. Knapp, for the First Church of Deerfield, Massachusetts, September 3, 2017; published in part by the Greenfield Recorder on September 9, 2017.)

(image: Edward Hicks, Noah’s Ark. Phildelphia Museum of Art.

God’s Intent

“Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people from starvation… So have no fear.”  (Genesis 50: 20-21)

God never speaks to Joseph.

God spoke to Joseph’s great-grandfather, Abraham; God told Abraham, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you.”

God spoke to Joseph’s father, Jacob, and told him, “Know that I am with you, and will keep you wherever you go.”

But God never speaks to Joseph; at least, not in so many words.

The God of Genesis is a talkative God. Adam, Eve, Cain, Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Hagar – God speaks to each of them by name. But with Joseph, God’s presence is never a voice – always a dream. And not the kind of dream that Jacob had in the wilderness, the dream where God stood beside him and promised to care for him. No, Joseph dreams of sheaves of corn, and stars in the sky.  He interprets those dreams as signs of a great destiny; his brothers interpret them as a sign of a great arrogance. But really, who is to say? Sometimes an ear of corn is just an ear of corn.

The story of Joseph and his brothers takes up the last 14 of the 50 chapters of Genesis, and in all that time God speaks only once, to Jacob. To Joseph, God speaks not a word.

I find that interesting.

I find that interesting, because, at the end of the story, Joseph is confident that his whole life has been under God’s care, his whole journey bent to God’s purpose. This despite the fact that some really terrible things have happened to Joseph.  As a young man, he is sold into slavery, and taken to Egypt, to live among people who do not understand his language or his faith.  The wife of his first master falsely accuses him of attempted rape (an accusation that, in another country, in another century, would surely have resulted in lynching). Joseph is unjustly incarcerated, for at least two years. Worst of all, this whole chain of events is set in motion by an act of betrayal, for it was Joseph’s own brothers who sold him.

Joseph eventually is freed from prison when Pharaoh hears of his skill in interpreting dreams. It turns out Joseph has also has a gift for predicting agricultural futures, a skill that strengthens Pharaoh’s rule and helps Egypt survive a long season of famine.  It is this famine that brings Joseph’s brothers to Egypt, in search of food.

They do not recognize their brother; but Joseph recognizes them.

Finding his brothers on their knees before him, Joseph does not seize the opportunity to punish them, or even to berate them. He embraces them, and pardons them, and tells them, astonishingly, “it was not you who sent me here, but God.”

Seriously?

When I hear someone describing some tragedy or loss — or, worse, some injustice — as “God’s will,” it always seems to me like a cop out, a convenient way of putting difficult emotions back in the canister. It drives me crazy when people shrug off suffering with a pious platitude. After all, the prophets and the psalmists never let God off the hook that easily. They lamented. They complained. They raged against injustice. And rightly so.

And yet: I also know that experiences in my own life that brought me pain have also given me strength, and compassion, and insight. Through them, I have been shaped, and molded, and equipped for my calling. This is a paradox – that God can use suffering to heal suffering. That God can use evil to defeat evil.

And so, at the end of his long and winding road, Joseph can tell his brothers, “Do not be afraid. You intended it for harm, but God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people from starvation.”  The Hebrew word translated as “intended” here can also be translated as planned, purposed, crafted, fashioned, shaped. God never speaks to Joseph; but God’s hand has been upon him all along, shaping him for service, bending his life toward good.

There are two important points we need to recognize about this conclusion, lest we fall into platitudinous piety.

First: it is Joseph’s conclusion to make – not anyone else’s.

It is Joseph’s conclusion to make, because his suffering, his trials, are his to interpret. Imagine if his brothers had said, “hey, look where you ended up, guess it’s a good thing we sold you.” Only Joseph can say when, and how, his life makes sense. On the other hand, the brothers have their own lives to interpret. What do they make of the famine that brought them to bow down before the brother they had harmed, and lost?

Second: it is a conclusion is made only in retrospect.

It would be nice to know our destination in advance. It would be nice to know, as Abraham did, what God has planned for us. It would be nice to get a set of instructions, as Noah did, telling us exactly what to do.  But most of the time, it doesn’t work that way. God never speaks to Joseph; it is only in retrospect, that Joseph sees his destiny plain. It is only when God’s end is in sight, that Joseph sees the meaning of it all.

Let us be clear. A famine is not a good thing. Betrayal, enslavement, and imprisonment are not God’s will for anyone. But even great harm can summon forth great good, for good is always God’s intent.

Of course, it is hard to imagine what sort of tool is being fashioned, when the metal is still in the fire. When we are being painfully bent out of our old shape, when our previous identity is melting away, it is hard to believe that we might be molded into something new.  And for some of you, perhaps, this is such a time. Indeed, I believe that for our nation, this is such a time. Our country’s path has taken a turn for the worse. The flames of racism and bigotry have been stoked and it remains to be seen what sort of people will emerge from the fire.

But imagine the possibility that, like Joseph, we may emerge from this trial with a new sense of calling. The possibility that, like Joseph’s brothers, we may emerge from this trial with a new sense of humility. The possibility that our own family history of enslavement may be at last exposed, and repented, and redeemed.

Joseph’s story challenges us to look honestly upon the lives we have led— not just the comfortable stuff we put on our resumes,  or post on our Facebook pages, or submit to our college alumni bulletins, or write in our history books, but the betrayals and injustices and injuries as well — and to consider how we might yet employ of all of this toward good.

God never speaks to Joseph. But Joseph’s story speaks to me. And it tells me this:  that whoever we are, wherever we’ve been, whatever kind of shape we are in right now, we may yet be shaped for God’s purpose. God intends all of us for good, and not for evil; for compassion, and not for hatred.

So, Joseph told his brothers, have no fear — neither of the past nor of the present, for the future is yet to be revealed.

May our lives be bent toward good, and may God be with us all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Not the Jesus I know: thoughts upon having the Hell scared out of me

“Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus?”

The young man took my hand in a gesture of friendship as we stood next to one another in the middle school auditorium. All around us, other pairs of strangers asked one another the same question.

We had just finished watching a performance of “Heaven’s Gates and Hell’s Flames,” a travelling evangelical road show that has been touring the world for over thirty years. The play consists of a series of vignettes acted out by local volunteers. In each scene, an individual achieves or fails to achieve salvation before dying abruptly, by violence, accident, or overdose. Those who succeed ascend to a glittery silver-lame heaven, where they are greeted by Jesus. Those who fail get dragged off into the flames of hell by Satan, who in this production bears a striking resemblance to Darth Maul.

The entire production is designed to scare the hell out of you, literally.

In this particular performance, the saved include an American soldier, a battered spouse, a bullied teen, a church-going family, and a pair of construction workers. The damned include a drug abuser, a murderer, a porn fan, and a working mom too busy to attend church.  Are skipping church and murder really comparable in the eyes of God?  Maybe; for as the playwright frequently reminds us, it is not on the basis of our good or bad behavior that we are judged, but solely on whether we have accepted Jesus as our personal savior.

Hence the question.

The young man asked with such evident kindness that I smiled and replied, “Yes.” He smiled back, but I felt a twinge of pain at my well-mannered dishonesty. I had told the truth, but not the whole truth. A more honest answer would have gone something like this: “Yes, I know Jesus. But if you are asking about the figure I saw depicted here tonight: No, I do not know him. This is not the Jesus I know.”

Before I proceed, I would like to make clear that my comments here are in no way meant to be critical of my many neighbors who appeared on stage last night. I could tell that they were earnest in their desire to serve, and to save. There was both faith and talent on stage; and I appreciated the joyful exuberance of the play’s Jesus, as he sprinted on stage, newly liberated from the tomb. My issue is not with the actor’s interpretation of Jesus, but with the playwright’s interpretation of Jesus.

First of all, the Jesus of Heaven’s Gates is oddly passive; after that initial joyful sprint, he is pretty much confined to heaven, aka backstage. He appears at the top of the stairway to paradise, to embrace those prudent souls who are saved; but he is notably absent when the damned are dragged off screaming into hell. At these moments, it is the devil alone who commands center stage, as projected flames flicker on a large screen.

I find myself fighting the urge to shout at the stage: WHERE IS JESUS? I am left wondering: is he deliberately absent, or just powerless before the devil? He is always in the wings, never a witness to the torture. The stage directions preserve plausible deniability, and we are never permitted to question him directly.

Indeed, the Jesus of this play has apparently been silenced by death; he is given no dialogue. If he were allowed to speak, what might he say about these terrifying scenes? I found myself imagining the play’s Jesus suddenly shouting out, interrupting the script with his own words from the gospels: Not everyone who calls me ‘Lord’ will enter heaven, but everyone who does the will of God…Whatever you do for the least of God’s children, you do for me… Those who seek to save their own life will lose it… Do not be afraid! Instead, a silent Jesus appears only briefly before being whisked backstage again behind the silver lame curtains – like a hostage trotted in front of the cameras but not allowed to speak for himself for fear that he would denounce his captors’ beliefs.

The ultimate power in Heaven’s Gates is neither Jesus nor Satan but rather the “book of life,” a magical tome in which the names of the saved are inscribed, at the exact minute when they first pledge themselves to Jesus. The playwright evidently gets this idea from the visions of John of Patmos in the book of Revelation, because as far as we know, Jesus himself never spoke of such a book. Yet in the play, the book looms large, overshadowing the testimony of the four gospels or the letters of the apostles – including the letters of John, who wrote that whoever lives in love lives in God, and the letters of Paul, who wrote that nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ. Not even a silver lame curtain.

In the world of Heaven’s Gate, prudence is the primary Christian virtue. The most important thing is to get in the book in a timely manner, so as to avoid personal catastrophe in the event of unforeseen demise. Faith is sold as a form of personal hell insurance, and the only unforgivable sin is to be caught unprepared.

But surely it is not prudence, but love, that is the key to eternal life? Extravagant, unconditional love, love for enemies as well as friends, love for sinners as well as saints, love for neighbor as well as self, love for strangers as well as siblings? Fearless, imprudent love?

In one of the play’s more harrowing scenes, a young woman dies of an accidental drug overdose. When she appears at the gates of heaven, she is denied entrance. Remembering her late father’s faith, she cries out in terror for him to help her – Dad, I’m scared! Dad, help me! – but her father never appears. He is apparently too busy enjoying heaven, to be concerned about his daughter’s fate.

As I watched the scene, one phrase repeated itself in my head: how much more. It is a phrase that Jesus used more than once, to describe the love of God. As in: if you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your father in heaven give good things to those who ask?

And so as I watched the actors, I found myself thinking, if we, who are merely human, love our children — even when they make mistakes, even when they rebel against us, even when they fall into addiction  — how much more must God love them? If a parent’s love for their child can continue, even after the child’s death, how much more must God continue to love them? If the resurrection means anything, it means that death is no obstacle to God’s love.

So, yes, I know Jesus. He’s the one who loved us all the way to hell and back again.

Photo: Petr Kratochvil

Eppur si Muove (or, the Gospel According to Galileo)

“Who will roll away the stone for us?” (Mark 16:1-8)

They were the witnesses, these women who came to the tomb on Easter morning. When the other disciples turned and fled, these were the ones who remained to the very end, to bear witness to Jesus’ trial and crucifixion. How long would it be before those images stopped crowding out all the others? How long would it be, until they could think of Jesus and remember him in life, instead of in death?

Only a few days have passed.  These women are still in those first numb, surreal days of grief, when the heart struggles to absorb what the eyes have seen.  And so, as people do at such times, they take comfort in the rituals of mourning.  It makes them feel less alone. It gives them something to do. And so early on Sunday morning, they go together to the tomb. They are going to anoint Jesus’ body for burial. They know that, after this, there will be nothing more they can do for him; but this morning, they are going to care for him, one last time.

But there is an obstacle to overcome. Who will roll away the stone for us? they ask. Who will clear away the barrier that seals Jesus in, and keeps us out? For it is very large.

As large as barrier between the dead and the living.

But they come to the tomb and find, to their surprise, that the task has already been accomplished.  Someone, or something, has already rolled away the stone. A mysterious stranger at the tomb tells them Jesus has gone on ahead of them, to Galilee. Not only has the stone rolled away; Jesus himself is on the move.

So, who did roll away the stone? How did it move? We don’t know. We never see it happen, have you noticed that?  It’s not a part of Mark’s gospel – or Matthew’s or John’s. All we know, is that the rock is there on Friday, and gone on Sunday, but no one sees it move. Luke speaks of an earthquake, and of angels, but no one else seems to remember that, so it seems likely that Luke is just guessing.

We just assume that it happened. But no one else was at the tomb when it happened.

Did it suddenly burst open, raising up dust and startling the birds? Or did it move so slowly and imperceptibly, that no one passing by noticed its motion? We don’t know. Did Jesus himself rise, and put his shoulder to the rock? Or was it moved by the hands of angels? Did those angels look just like us?

All we know is we arrive there on Easter morning, and the stone is already gone.  While we are still sleeping, still grieving, still despairing, God is already changing the landscape.

The gospel of Mark ends abruptly at this point. The other gospels tell how Mary saw Jesus in the garden, how Peter ran to the tomb, how Jesus appeared to the other apostles. But Mark tells us just this: that the women ran away and told no one, for they were afraid.

What were they afraid of? These were not easily frightened women. These were the ones who stayed the course, even when the men in Jesus’ company fled.  These were the ones who had faced the cross, and marked the tomb, and returned to honor the body of a man that the Roman authorities viewed as a dangerous subversive. They were not a timid crew. So what were they afraid of?

Were they afraid that no one would believe their witness? After all, they were women. It wouldn’t be the first or the last time a woman’s witness was discredited.

Or maybe they were afraid to believe it themselves. They had witnessed the shattering of their hopes, when the stone sealed the tomb. Maybe it was too much for them to absorb the shattering of their despair, when the stone rolled away.

And there, after all, something reassuring about immobility. The stones in our path are reliable landmarks. They tell us where we are. They define where we can go. They divide what’s on this side, from what’s on that side; what’s possible, from what’s not.  When the very stones start rolling away, when the earth itself begins to move, well, anything is possible. All hell can break loose. Literally, in this case.

Sixteen centuries after that first Easter, Galileo Galilei was condemned by the Church for daring to suggest that the earth moved around the sun, rather than the other way around. He was forced to recant on his knees, but there is a legend that as he rose to his feet afterward he whispered, “eppur si muove” – “nevertheless, it moves!”

Whether we know it or not, it moves. Whether we like it or not, it moves. The very thing that we thought was immobile, impassible, impervious to change — it moves.

It moves, and all those beliefs we thought were set in stone, move with it. All of our assumptions, about life and death, about victory and defeat, about power and weakness – they all begin to crumble.

After all, those who condemned and executed Jesus were confident in their belief that God was on their side of that stone. And those who mourned him believed that he was on the far side of the stone, and lost to them forever. Neither group considered that the stone itself might move.

Neither group suspected that God’s version of the story might end, not in death for some and life for others, not in triumph for some and defeat for others, but in reconciliation. The reunion of the condemning and the condemned.

I think many of us — maybe most of us, lately — live in a pre-resurrection world, a world of impenetrable barriers and insurmountable obstacles. We have all seen enough crucifixion lately to believe in Good Friday, and we know just how large the stones are that separate us from one another.

And so we find ourselves living in that time in between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, when the world seems permanently divided — between the winners and the losers, between the privileged and the poor, between the insider and the outcast. When find ourselves on the sunny side of the stone, it is still tempting to believe that God is on our side. And when we find ourselves in buried in darkness, we wonder if God has abandoned us forever.

But it was on that long bleak Saturday, on that day between Good Friday and Easter, that the rock began to move, and the world began to turn. And so it is today. Whether we know it or not – whether we believe it or not – even in the darkness, Love can still find the leverage to roll that stone away.

Just how that will happen, we may not be able to see right now. Perhaps God will send angels. Perhaps those angels, will look just like us.

But know this: that even now, God is at work to change the landscape.

Eppur si muove.

Alleluia.

 

Easter Sunday Sermon by Liza B. Knapp for the First Church of Deerfield, Massachusetts.

(photo: Wikimedia. One of the sliding rocks of Racetrack Playa. Read more about this wicked cool phenomenon here.)

The Stones Cry Out

I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out. (Luke 18:28-48)

This is the day that will seal his fate.

He does not enter the city quietly. He does not try to blend in with the crowds. Instead, he makes an entrance, much as a military general might enter in triumph, riding upon a his steed, surrounded by loyal soldiers, greeted by a cheering crowd.

But his ride is no war horse, and his disciples are no army. Their only power, is the power of their testimony. Luke tells us that as Jesus came into the city from the Mount of Olives, “the whole multitude of his disciples began to praise God with a loud voice, rejoicing for all the deeds of power they had seen.”

That loud voice is their only weapon. But it is threatening enough, to the powers that be.

Those words — blessed is the King who comes in the name of God – are enough to convict Jesus and his disciples as enemies of the state. No wonder the Pharisees in the crowd urge Jesus to silence his disciples. After all, they know how the Romans deal with public dissent. They have seen the crosses before.

And so the Pharisees say, Teacher, order your disciples to stop! But Jesus replies:

Were they to be silenced, the stones would cry out.

**

I used to imagine that this as a something miraculous and joyful – maybe loud, rocky clapping, or a ringing of bells – the sound of creation itself bearing witness to the presence of God.

I used to imagine it that way, but now, I’m not so sure.

Luke doesn’t say, the stones will shout for joy – although some Bibles translate it that way. Luke says, the stones will cry out. It’s the same Greek verb that Luke uses for the blind man, who cries out to Jesus for healing. It’s the same verb Luke uses for the possessed man, who cries out to Jesus for deliverance. They cry out, save us.

Which, by the way, is the meaning of the word Hosanna.

Jesus speaks of the stones again, in his very next words. Jerusalem, he says, if only you knew the things that make for peace.  But the days will come upon you, when your enemies will surround you, and crush you, and there will not be one stone left upon another.

Is it then, I wonder, that the stones will cry out?

**

Palm Sunday is one of those holy days that move around from year to year. Like Passover, and Ramadan, and Easter, it falls on different calendar dates in different years.

In the year 2011, Palm Sunday fell on April 17th.  It was on that date, in the year 2011, that a group of peaceful protestors gathered outside their mosque in the city of Homs, in western Syria. They were calling for an end to nearly five decades of martial law. They carried no weapons, except their voices. But their voices were threatening enough, to the powers that be. They were met with a rain of bullets that killed twenty five people.

The next day, more protestors filled the streets. One of them told a news reporter: ‘I am forty-five years old, and this is the first time in my life that I have broken the barrier of my silence.’  

For weeks, the protests continued — but so did the gunfire, until eventually the protesters took arms themselves, and the government responded by laying siege to the city, and bombarding it with artillery.

On Palm Sunday, in the year 2011, Homs was a city of 1.4 million people. Today there are less than half that many living there. Drone footage over the city shows block after block after block of walls ripped off, roofs collapsed, rubble littering the streets. In the oldest part of the city, there’s barely a single intact building. There are just stones.

But the stones still cry out. More forcefully and more eloquently than any words, the stones bear witness to the injustice done there.

The people who took to the streets of Homs on that Palm Sunday took the same leap of faith that Jesus and his disciples took on the very first Palm Sunday, nearly 2000 years ago. Speaking truth to power is never without risk.  The cross, the tear gas, the fire hoses, the bullets, the bombs — the tools of empire may change, but the rationale is the same. Then as now, the oppressor offers a choice: silence, or violence.

But then as now, the words of Christ ring true: Your violence cannot hide the truth, for God is our witness. Silence these voices, and the very stones will cry out.

***

Today it is Palm Sunday, when Jesus and his disciples take to the streets, shouting Hosanna. By the end of this week the disciples will have been driven into hiding, and Jesus himself will be dead and buried, beneath the rock. Yet even then, the stone will have its say.

But that is a story for next Sunday.

Today it is Palm Sunday, when the streets ring with the voices of those who will be silent no longer.  And we cry out with them, for this is our work this day: to find our voice, to speak our truth, to risk the cross for freedom’s sake. To take the step that may seal our fate.

Let us bravely cry Hosanna today, so that in the fullness of time, we may shout Alleluia when the stones at last roll away.

 

 

Sermon by Liza B. Knapp at First Church of Deerfield, MA, on April 9, 2017

Photo: Destruction in Homs (20120, photo by Bo Yaser. Published on Wikimedia Commons.

Matthew 5:45

The man stood on the mountainside
and turned to face the crowd.

Son of Man —
Child of Earth —
speak to us of God.

Whom shall God bless with warmth and sun?
On whom shall sweet rain fall?

On every one, both good and bad,
for God so loves us all.

Whom shall God curse with plague and storm,
with fire, and with flood?

I came to save, the stranger said —
It’s you that call for blood.

 

 

Love and Anarchy

Yes, love is free; it can dwell in no other atmosphere. In freedom it gives itself unreservedly, abundantly, completely. All the laws on the statutes, all the courts in the universe, cannot tear it from the soil, once love has taken root.–Emma Goldman

You wouldn’t think that Saint Valentine and Emma Goldman would have a whole lot in common. Saint Valentine, after all, was a 3rd century Christian priest, while Emma Goldman was a 20th century Jewish anarchist. Valentine gave his life in support of Christian marriage, while Goldman was an advocate of free love unfettered by marriage. And yet when it came to love, they agreed about one thing: Love cannot be legislated. We can neither be forbidden, nor forced, to love.

It burns like blazing fire, like a mighty flame.
Many waters cannot quench love;

rivers cannot sweep it away.
(
Song of Songs 8:6-7)

In Valentine’s day, the emperor Claudius forbid soldiers to marry, just as the state of Alabama would later forbid interracial couples to marry, just as the US Congress would later forbid same-sex couples to marry. But in each case, there was absolutely nothing the state could do to prevent them from falling in love. As songwriter Holly Near puts it, “Kids are gonna love who they damn well please.”

The love we are speaking of here is passionate, sensual love, the love shared by lovers. There are of course, other kinds of love: love among friends, love among family. The ancient Greek language had different words for each: Eros, Philios, Storge. They are not wholly separate things, of course — lovers start families, friends become lovers – but there is a different quality to each. Both state and the church typically endorse and encourage familial love and friendship; but Eros – that one’s a troublemaker.

The Christian church has never really known what to do about Eros. It is never mentioned in the New Testament, although it is rapturously and lyrically celebrated in the Song of Songs. Jesus remained silent on the subject; the apostle Paul was famously celibate and urged others to follow his example. The church has historically been conflicted as to whether sexuality was a blessing or a curse. For this we can perhaps partly blame Saint Augustine, who came up with the idea that Original Sin was somehow passed on to each generation via sexual reproduction.

Yet here in the Bible we find the Song of Songs, these lush verses of scripture, extolling Eros – sensual, passionate Eros – in metaphors so sexually charged that the book would doubtless have been banned by some well-meaning school board, had it not been, you know, sacred.

Jesus did speak constantly of Love, exhorting us to love our neighbors, to love God, to love our enemies, even, but the love he spoke of was not romantic love, but unconditional love – not Eros, but Agape. The love of God, the Love that is God – that’s Agape.

Yet Eros, too, is a form of love, and bears the marks of divinity (as CS Lewis once said).

The love between lovers awakens us to beauty. It gives birth to joy and gratitude. It stirs us to generosity and tenderness. In this, it is like that Love which is God.

Love blesses that which the state condemns. It permits that which the law prohibits. It unites that which society divides. In this, too, it is like that Love which is God.

As Valentine and Goldman both knew, Love does not follow the rules. It does not stay within the lines. Love can blossom between black and white, Jew and Gentile, Arab and Israeli, native and immigrant, Muslim and Christian, Montague and Capulet. There is an element of anarchy in Love. Love is a law unto itself.

Jesus understood this, for he told his disciples that love of God and love of neighbor was the sum total of the law. Saint Paul, that confirmed old bachelor that he was, understood this also. Even Augustine of Hippo – yes, the same Saint Augustine that I just blamed for that whole Original Sin thing –even Augustine knew this to be true. Augustine lived with a woman for many years, had a child with her, but never married her, because his mother forbid what she saw as an “unsuitable” match. One wonders what might have happened, had Augustine met Valentine.

Years later, Augustine preached this sermon:

Once and for all, I give you this one short command: love, and do what you will… Let the root of love be in you: nothing can spring from it but good.

And so, beloved, let these words be our benediction and our charge this day:

Love, and do what you will.

Both Emma and Valentine would agree.

 

by Liza B. Knapp, for February 12, 2017, ‘Love Sunday’ at First Church of Deerfield, MA

image credits:
Emma Goldman photo by Chicago Daily Tribune, September 8, 1901 – Life and Conflict in the New World, Emma Goldman Papers, UC Berkeley, Public Domain.
Saint Valentine window cc.Flickr.TheRevSteve

 

MLK Day Prayer

Still-speaking God:
We give thanks to you
for the prophets of the past,
but we confess:
your modern-day messengers
make us uncomfortable.
Forgive us, God, and disturb us.
Send your Spirit among us,
that we may hear your Word for us,
in the words of our scripture,
in the whispers of our hearts
in the warnings of your prophets,
and in the weeping of the world.