14 April, 2006

Good Friday

Was there ever a day that you cursed the sunset?

Friday might have been that kind of day for Peter. It had been a long week. First there was all the preparing for the Passover celebration. Then there was that great crowd that showed up when Jesus and the disciples entered the city, and then there was that big mess the next day at the temple. Jesus with a whip, causing all kinds of ruckus. Then came the big feast, the great Passover celebration. A long, slow, extravagant dinner party, reclining at the table with your best friends in the world, tender roast lamb and unleavened bread with honey and rich wine.

Then, after dinner, Jesus wants to go out for a walk, all the way over there, to this garden, and pray. Seems like he’s always praying. Sometimes by himself, but this time he wants the disciples to come along. And, of course, they go. He’s the Rabbi, after all. They go where he goes, if he asks. He’s the one they have given their whole lives up for, bet the farm on, laid on him all their hopes and secret dreams. For three years now, they’ve been wandering around the countryside, stopping to preach in every little village they could find. Peter, every so often, jokes that he’s forgetting how to fish, not that he really wants to go back to it.

The garden is quiet at night. Jesus takes Peter, and James, and John, and says to them, stay here and watch while I go right over there and pray. Okay, Rabbi. Peter sits down, puts his back against a tree trunk, and waits. The night air is cool, and the tree branches rustle soothingly in the gentle breeze. The stars are clear and bright. The night birds and the little bugs make soft, quiet, contented sounds. The breeze wafts over him the delicious scent of blooming flowers. And Peter leans his head back against the smooth wood of the olive tree and closes his eyes. Only a moment later, it seems, Jesus is shaking him awake. Peter! Wake up! Can’t you watch with me a little while? Okay, Rabbi, I’m up, I’m up. But his eyelids are heavy after the great feast, and soon once again Peter dreams.

The next time he awakes, it is to the flickering light of torches reflected on swords and clubs. And for the last twenty-four hours, Peter has been wide awake, with some tiny part of him thinking that he is, in fact, still trapped in a horrible nightmare.

The disciples have deserted Jesus and fled. Peter denied him three times, and the mocking call of the rooster still echoes in his ears. He was mocked, beaten, executed.

He is dead.

Friday night, Peter has neither eaten nor slept since the feast. And now, as the sky darkens from royal purple to empty black, as all light and all goodness slowly leach out of the world, as all the colors of all the objects around him turn to a lifeless gray, the exhausted disciple slumps to the ground, leans his back against the great stone that covers the mouth of the tomb, and stares with empty eyes into the void.

Peter must endure the long, slow, still hours of this night, not daring to sleep for fear of the horrors that crowd in every time he closes his eyes. He can’t even think about tomorrow, with nowhere to go and nothing to do, or the next day, or the rest of his life.

In today’s gospel story appears for the first and only time a man named Joseph of Arimathea. A disciple of Jesus, so we’re told. The gospel writers tell us that he was wealthy, and a member of the Sanhedrin. And he was probably an older man; with his wealth, he bought a garden, and in the garden he had carved a new tomb. Joseph knew his scriptures. He was seeking the kingdom of God. And he also understood that people die. That’s just the way it is. So he was making preparations.

When Jesus died, this disciple did a stunningly foolish and courageous thing: he went to the governor and asked for the body of a man executed that same day for being dangerous to the state. Working in haste to finish the work before sundown, Joseph carried the broken body of Jesus to his own tomb. In the place the disciple had prepared for his own burial, instead there lies the Son of God.

A huge stone seals the mouth of the tomb. Jesus lies in silent blackness, the air of the tomb filled with myrrh’s bitter perfume almost, but not completely, covering the coppery smell of spilled blood.

* * * * * * * * * *

When I was a little boy, I loved to run and play outside. My grandfather, who was in his youth a semi-professional ballplayer, taught me to love the game of baseball. Along the way, he introduced me to the writings and teachings of a man who would become one of my boyhood heroes: Theodore Samuel Williams.

Ted Williams! Fighter pilot, United States Marine, decorated war hero, sport-fisherman par excellance, and almost unarguably the greater hitter in the history of the game. "The gospel according to Ted Williams" is called The Science of Hitting. My copy is an ancient brown hardback. The cover and spine are almost worn out, the pages are dog-eared and stained, with the dust of thirty years of sandlot ballparks deep down in the creases between the pages.

In case you’re getting worried, that’s about as far as I ever want to go comparing Ted Williams to Jesus of Nazareth. Ted was an atheist, for one thing. And a foul-mouthed, misogynistic, arrogant old man. His temper and foul mouth were legendary, he spit at the fans, and threw and smashed things in his rage.

Before he died, he and his son and one of his daughters made a pact to undergo a bizarre post-mortem procedure. Supposedly written from a hospital bed, where the old man was confined, close to death, the handwritten note was scrawled on an oil-stained piece of yellow legal sized paper. The key line read: "To be able to be together in The Future, even if it is only a chance."

Almost immediately after Ted Williams took his last breath, his son John Henry Williams went to the doctors and asked for the body. There was no announcement of death, no funeral arrangements, no memorial. The body was immediately packed in ice, loaded onto a private jet, and flown, faster than the speed of sound, to a cryonics laboratory in the Arizona Desert.

His body was drained of fluids and filled with an anti-freeze solution. His head was shaved, and then crudely separated from his body. Holes were drilled in the skull. In the process it was cracked nine times. Both head and body were coated with a glycerin solution and lowered into a vat of liquid nitrogen.

The greatest hitter who ever lived, the fighter pilot John Wayne emulated, the man about whom Pulitzer Prize winning author John Updike once wrote "immortality is non-transferable... gods do not answer letters," floats, upside-down, in the silent blackness of a nine-foot-long steel tube maintained at a temperature of 350 degrees below zero.

Only a few short years later, his son John Henry died of leukemia. He was subjected to the same procedure. And now, father and son lie together, in the same shabby warehouse on a side street somewhere in Arizona, in a bitter, unnatural cold, preserved forever.

Just in case.

I dearly wish I was making this up.

* * * * * * * * * *

We are a resurrection people. Tomorrow at the great vigil we will proclaim again the greatest news ever recorded in the history of the world.

But today we remember: he is dead.

Jesus, the Son of God, the Son of Mary, lies in the darkness on the other side of a great stone. He’s not asleep. Not faking it. Not preserved in hope of some future advance of medical science.

He’s dead.

Friends, the wondrous news of Easter is not that death is cheated. It’s that death is conquered. But that’s tomorrow. For tonight, keep watch through the long slow hours. And wait.

12 April, 2006

Bringing an ass to church

A long time ago, in a land far, far away, a land that some of my people claim as their original homeland, a great general stood on the banks of a stream. It was just dawn. All around him his army stood, ready for orders to march. Young men from the provinces, some from noble families, all up before dawn, armor on, tents packed, animals loaded, a hurried breakfast in the dark. Horses saddled for the officers to ride, a great white stallion for the general, and the donkeys hitched to the wagons, ready to roll forward.

But the general hesitated. For in one critical way, this was no ordinary stream. It was a boundary. A line between the north of the country and the south. A line which, so said the government, could not be crossed by a standing army. If the order was given, if the parade of soldiers and supply wagons began, then the general was in fact declaring himself king. A king set in opposition to the current government. Civil war would not be far behind.

The story is told that the general turned to his friends, his advisors. We can still retreat, he said. But then he took a trumpet from one of his heralds, crossed the bridge over the stream called the Rubicon, and sounded the advance. And Julius Caesar cried, alea iacta est! The die is cast.

And mounting his great white stallion, polished armor shining in the dawn’s early light, Caesar rode toward the capital, and immortality.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Some eighty years later, a certain teacher from Nazareth, the leader of a rag-tag band of traveling homeless people, spent the night with his friends in a tiny house in a tiny village just outside the capital city of a far-flung province of the vast Roman Empire. And as the dawn’s light began to break, he rose from his bed, shook his sleeping disciples awake, and went outside, gazing into the distance at Jerusalem.

Jesus hesitated. And then he took a deep breath, and grabbed two of his disciples by the arms, and said,

James and John! Fetch me... a donkey!

Um, sorry, you want what?

A donkey!

Where are we going to get a donkey?

Oh, I don’t know. Go into the next village and borrow one.

What do you want a donkey for, Rabbi?

Just go get one, will you?

And so the parade began. No generals in polished armor on great stallions. No troops marching in proud formation. No, just that up-country preacher and his hick disciples, a great parade of lepers and loose women and beggars, fishermen and tax collectors, stirring up the crowd, hollering and disturbing the peace.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Now, one of these years (but not this year), I’m going to bring a donkey to church.


A real live donkey.

And right about the time we do the palm procession, we’re going to open the back doors of the church, and I'll go back there and try to get on its back, so everyone can see what it’s like for a full-grown man wearing a dress to try to climb on the back of an animal he’s never ridden before.

And then I’m going to ride him right down the center aisle. Now, while I do that, I’m going to have the congregation yelling at me as loud as they can, and waving palm branches all over the place, and try to high-five everyone on the way down the aisle, and just for good measure I‘ll have some of the gentlemen take off their coats and throw them out in my way.

Yessir, right down the middle of the aisle. Right where the donkey will want to go, because, as we all know, donkeys love to carry about two hundred pounds of freight while they’re being shouted at and having things thrown at them.

And, of course, donkeys always do this while maintaining an air of dignified humility.

This is how Jesus entered Jerusalem. A great, riotous, undignified mess. In fact, a delicious farce on the way kings usually entered the capital city. Most undignified. Definitely un-Episcopalian. But a sense of humor is a mighty asset if what you're seeking is God's kingdom.

And yet... the Rubicon was crossed. The crowds proclaimed him king. And before the week was over, he would receive the answer of the governing authorities.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

I’ve always felt somewhat schizophrenic about Palm Sunday’s readings. Every year, we dress up this celebration of the triumphal entry. Every year, we tell the story of the arrest and crucifixion, with even a tiny amount of solemn theater to highlight the importance of the story. Every year, we the congregation are asked to sing, "hosanna!" with the voices of the crowd, and we’re also asked to shout "crucify him," and it’s the same crowd.

It’s all too tempting, in the private chambers of our hearts, to assign the good parts to ourselves and the bad parts to someone else. All too tempting to imagine ourselves in the first celebration but not the second.

But that would be dishonest.

We love winners. We love it when God does what we want. We love it when the hero rides into town on the white stallion and trounces the bad guys. But we don’t like being made fun of. We don’t like it when the one we’re cheering for goes to the church and begins turning over the furniture. If I walked into church and turned over the big honkin' table on the grand high platform under the spotlights, or really brought a donkey to church, some of my beloved parishioners would be planting "for sale" signs in my front yard.

But that’s more or less what Jesus did. He came to town, rejected the movement that would have risen up with swords and clubs, and instead humbled himself before God, doing what God wanted rather than what we wanted. And we killed him for it.

On Ash Wednesday, we called each other to the observance of a holy Lent, a time of prayer and self-examination, a time of self-denial and repentance. Now it is time for the observance, to the remembrance, of Holy Week. Not to forget the tragedy, but to remember.

And to remember that God’s love is the only thing that makes sense out of suffering, conflict, tragedy, and death. God’s love does not do away with these things; the cross should teach us that. No, God’s love doesn’t do away with it, but rather it the thing that makes it possible to bear the pain, to see it, to share it, to pass through it.

05 April, 2006

Fearing the blog

One of the reasons I had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the blogisphere is something that I affectionately termed Robinson's First Law of Consulting: once it leaves your hand, it's gone. You can't take it back. You will always be required to acknowledge that it's out there. Math mistakes can't be corrected. Even when you send the client a new piece of paper, saying "oops, we goofed on our math, here is a new page 36 of the report," you still have to deal with the OLD page 36, and why you made the mistake, and why it makes a difference, and why you weren't smart enough to do it right the first time. "Sorry, I forgot to carry the two" just doesn't work as an acceptable answer.

Even when it's not your fault. A printing error, for example. That's why we had editors and proofreaders. The editor at my first job was amazing. Fast, accurate, smart enough to remember all the different clients, smart enough to know what all the different disciplines of the practice were talking about.

At my first job out of graduate school, we were constantly making last-minute (and I mean, knock on the closed door waving $20 bills kind of last minute) FedEx runs. First one I did, I swore it would never happen again. Not on MY project. Trouble was, I was never really in charge... or at least I console myself with that sometimes. I kept score by pulling off the little tracking number sticky tabs on the package and pasting them on the dashboard of my car. By the time we gave that car away to charity, there was a collection of them, spaced about an inch apart, running all the way across the dashboard to the passenger window.

Sure enough, things got missed. The typos were embarrassing, but the hurried mistakes were worse. Even when it said "draft" on it in big fat letters. Never mattered.

Then there's deliberate misinterpretation. This last week, my bishop was quoted in The Living Church, which was nice, except that he was selectively quoted. In fact, the quotation was lifted in such a manner as to mean exactly the opposite of what he intended to say. And he was only talking about the Windsor Report.

And now, here I am, daring to do the ultimately arrogant thing of talking about God.

Now do you know why I fear the blog? That once you publish something in this format it's out there for the world to see? (never mind there are a handful of you reading this, it's my fear, it doesn't have to be rational.)

For one thing, I'm just not that good. My theology isn't always going to be consistent. My descriptions of God and of scripture and of life are a work in process. But this is a world where nominated supreme court justices are questioned about opinion papers they wrote before my little sisters were born. Here you go, here's enough rope to hang me. Oh, a little more? Sure.

Second, to quote my friend Jim Flowers, you can't talk about the Trinity for more than five minutes without committing some kind of early-church heresy. But what's a little heresy among friends?

Third, I'm a storyteller. I'm going to run out of stories to tell eventually. And if I do this, I can't even move to a new congregation and re-tell them. (okay, this fear makes the massive leap that the new congregation will find and read this. But it's my fear, and it doesn't have to be rational to be real.)