Friday, April 23, 2010

Easter 4, Year C, April 25, 2010

Acts 9:36-43, Psalm 23, Revelation 7:9-17, John 10:22-30

Good Shepherd, preached by Rev. Peter Courtney

He was close to invisible most of the time. Richard was supposed to teach theology; instead he hid out in his apartment and drank. He was enabled in all this by an absent administration, a faculty which was 50% alcoholic and numerous student friends, paramours and hangers on who pretended to take care of him.

He did come to teach a class from time to time. He did a Glen Beck impression by drawing circles and arrows on the blackboard over and over again. The circles on the board mirrored his lecture which went around in circles. Out of this Hieronamos Bosch morass Richard would say with all of his waning force, “Don’t become hucksters.”

We knew what he meant. Don’t sell out. Don’t allow the power of the Gospel to be watered down into convenient, cute, effete religious trinkets. Tell the truth. Don’t bring contempt on the theological enterprise. Don’t be wimps. In a word: Be good shepherds.

Jesus tells us in the scripture today from John 10 that he is a good shepherd. His hearers knew that a “good shepherd” is an oxymoron. There is no such thing. You can be “good” or a “shepherd” but not both. Shepherds were always bad; good for kicking around, abusing, mistrusting and firing.

So there is plenty of irony in this statement. Jesus chooses be somebody and do something well that no one else wants to be or do.

All shepherds are hirelings. Shepherds were people paid a pittance to take out the trash, to teach children, care for the sick, pastor congregations. There was no career path except death and no advancement opportunities. A Chief shepherd was in charge of a bunch of unemployable layabouts. Worse, the chief shepherd was caught between his useless employees and an irascible management. Most people when given a choice turned down the chief shepherd job.

Jesus knows his sheep and calls them by name. He really knows them. He knows they are lost, silly, easily distracted and valuable to the owner.

Debby and I saw the perfect shepherd in Queenstown, NZ a couple years ago. Her name was Val. She was a border collie. Her zeal for the sheep was so huge she had to be tied up or she would herd sheep 25 hours a day and literally run herself to death. “Best dog I ever saw,” said her droll owner.

Val was living out her breeding and DNA. She knew nothing else, just sheep. A couple of whistles and a wave and she ran up a 1,000 foot hill and 45 seconds later came back driving some sheep only she knew were there. It was a real tour de force. She was a shepherd; she was no hireling but a true amateur.

Most people who do ministry do it because they can’tnot do it. It is part of their DNA. Like Val they have a passion for ministry, for shepherding. They know of no other way to be and do. Their life is one of service and compassion. They are not hirelings, but good shepherds.

Good shepherds run the same risk as Val the sheepdog. They risk of burning out; they live in peril of having nothing left for self at the end of the day; they end up spent, empty and useless to themselves and others.

I am convinced this is not what Jesus wants for Val or for us. Jesus is the good shepherd. He lays down his life so that we do not have to. Jesus lays down his life so that we can pick ours up. In the power of the risen and ascended Christ we pick up our lives and walk as light in the midst of darkness. We will not find our way if we have succumbed to guilt or compulsion or even our own DNA and lay our life down.

Our God is one of life and light; not of darkness and death. Jesus who is our life, lights our way as we become Good Shepherds ourselves. If we are spending our spiritual and physical capital in a frenetic race to be good shepherds and end up effete, tired, worn out, cynical, angry, we have lost the race.

Our first task is to shepherd ourselves. This we do by defining ourselves for ourselves. If we don’t decide who we are, someone else will be happy to try. When we define ourselves others will try to change the definition. They will say we are not good shepherds; they will call us names, just as Jesus said they would. We use the power of his resurrection to be good shepherds. We maintain our identity against the principalities and powers of culture, of local coercion, of insularity, bigotry and other’s self-interest. We will be called selfish and full of ourselves. Then we will know that we are good shepherds indeed. We have found our home and have taken ourselves there. The one who brings us home, is Jesus.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Easter 3, Year C, April 18, 2010

Acts 9:1-6 [7-20], Psalm 30, Revelation 5:11-14, John 21:1-19
Do you love me? Preached by Rev. Peter Courtney
Joe Garagiola tells about a time when the great Stan Musial came to the plate in a critical game. Musial was at the peak of his long and illustrious career. Opposing him was a rookie pitcher who fervently wished he was somewhere else. Garagiola was catching and called for a fastball which the pitcher shook off; Joe signaled for a curve and again the pitcher shook him off. After the pitcher shook off even his specialty pitch they had a mound conference. "I've called for every pitch in the book; what do you want to throw?"
"Nothing," was the pitcher's shaky reply. "I just want to hold on to the ball as long as I can."
Once again our hero Simon Peter is on the mound. As usual he is consistent. When in doubt, go to work. “I’m going fishing” he says. His partners decide to go with him. So far in his career as a rookie apostle Peter has been striking out pretty regularly. When given several chances to man up and say he is one of Jesus’ followers he pretends he doesn’t know who he is. He just holds onto the ball. Now he is on his own turf, his very own Galilee. He is a professional fisherman who catches nothing until Jesus tells him to fish on the other side of the boat. How patronizing and insulting! Even complete fishing rookies know this suggestion is bogus. Perhaps out of desperation Peter complies and catches enough fish to represent the mission to the whole world.
Jesus is not done with poor Peter. Jesus gives him the third degree repeatedly asking how much Peter loves him. There is plenty of irony to go around. Peter is still sticks to his story claiming he loves Jesus more than anything. We know he loves Jesus more than anything except his own skin. Jesus chooses Peter, perhaps the most gifted and most flawed of all of his disciples.
Jesus is electing Peter to a job that will cost Peter more than he knows. He uses the common household tale about what it is like to be young and independent and then old and dependent.
It turns out that feeding Jesus’ sheep and lambs will be the easiest part of Simon Peter’s new job.
Jeff Bullock tells the story of a time he was waiting for a hot dog on a New York corner. No sooner had he paid for his hot dog than a man came up and arm wrestled him for it yelling: “Feed me, feed me!” The hot dog seller offered to feed the man who cried out: “No I want him to feed me.” Jeff won his hot dog back but ended up diminished and ashamed. He had enough money on him to buy 20 hot dogs and he had refused to do so. In telling us the story Jeff is admitting he missed a ministry opportunity.
Ministry means God ties a belt around us and leads us places we do not want to go.
Garrison Keillor writes about Larry, a resident of the fictional town of Lake Wobegon. Larry was saved 12 times at the Lutheran Church a tradition not known for its evangelical enthusiasm. It never occurred to the pastor to call for penitents to come to the altar of forgiveness. He had just preached a dull sermon on stewardship. But there was Larry Sorenson crumpled up at the communion rail weeping and wailing and confessing his sins.
Keillor says: "Even we fundamentalists got tired of him. God doesn’t mean for you to feel guilty all your life. There comes a time when you should dry your tears and join the building committee and grapple with the problems of the church furnace and the church roof. But Larry just kept repenting and repenting.”
--Garrison Keillor, Leaving Home
(New York: Viking Press, 1987), 182.
It’s true isn’t it? Religious feelings of repentance and amendment of life are so, well, religious. But then game of life begins and we are on the mound clutching our ball hoping against hope that we will be magically delivered from ever having to make the pitch.
God can and does call the competent and willing. Unfortunately for all the rest of us God calls us too. Just be aware that what you catch may be very surprising.
Even more surprising are the choices God makes. He chooses impetuous, reckless, feckless Peter. God chooses Paul of Tarsus a religious bigot and fanatic. When the inning is over, with any luck we will have made our pitch because God we answered God’s call to get in the game.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Easter 2, Year C, Sunday, April 11, 20010

Acts 5:27-32,Psalm 150, Revelation 1:4-8, John 20:19-31
Opera and Gospel, preached by The Rev. Peter Courtney

When I was young I knew that operas were boring plays with fat ladies singing high notes with warbly voices in languages I did not speak. It was against all reason that Debby and I subscribed to our local opera company a number of years ago. Puccini’s La Boheme was on the menu. While still pretty ignorant of opera, I know that everyone was supposed to die in the end and that the very appealing Mimi who sang such exquisite songs with and to Rodolpho was doomed from the get go.

La Boheme is not like Road Runner. The coyote in the Road Runner cartoons on Saturday morning does not really die. No death, no grief even when the coyhote runs into a tank or is blown away by dynamite. The roadrunner honk-honks his way over the horizon having bested the coyote yet again. Sure enough the next episode arrives complete with a perfectly fit coyote scheming away to do in the roadrunner.

I knew Mimi was a goner. Even during the curtain call I was sure the actress was a stand in, that Mimi, the real Mimi was gone forever; she had died and was going to stay dead. And I wept for Mimi. The music took me places I never intended to go. I have now seen Boheme 4 times and still get teary.

Today we visit the apostle Thomas in a different tragic aftermath. Thomas missed out on all of the action. He was not there for the breathing of the Holy Spirit. He was not there to exchange the Peace with Jesus. He was not there to see Jesus enter the upper room through a locked door. He was just not there and just did not get it.

Thomas takes takes the scientific view:
“Except I put my hand in your wound in your side and my finger in the mark of the nails” he said, “I will not believe.”
He knew Jesus was dead and that all things being equal Jesus was likely to stay dead. No curtain calls, no magical resucitations, no new cartoon frame with re-vivified characters, just the gate of death.

Thomas is right. The Gospel is not a fairy story like Peter Pan where Tinker Bell comes back to life because the children are asked to try really really hard to believe in fairies. Thomas did not believe in fairies. He believed that dead is dead. Dead is dead and no amount of romance or TV writer ingenuity is going to make it into something else.

It is good to believe in death. It is an important corrective to the notion that we will live forever. All the important people from earlier generations in my life are now dead. ft is a sobering thought. No wonder we like Road Runner.

Thomas has not reckoned with God. God is God of the living not of the dead. God calls all of us, even the dead, into life. Thomas is a contemporary man. He acts as a functional atheist which is what most of us do most of the time. We act and live as if God were not in the equation. We act as if God were a minor subset of negotiable entities which can be cancelled or erased with no noticeable effect.

When Thomas says: My Lord and My God! He rewrites the script for every play, for every cartoon, for every fairy story. It is now called Gospel: Good News. It too brings tears to my eyes.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Easter Day, Year C, Sunday, April 4, 2010

Isaiah 65:17-25, Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24, 1 Corinthians 15:19-26, Luke 24:1-12
The Jesus Seminar, preached by Rev. Peter Courtney

Every year around this time the media magi think it would be a good idea to present any scholarly evidence they can find to prove that church goers are a sorry, deluded lot. I suspect they don’t care about the questions, but they hope the headlines will sell papers or advertizing. Part of their arsenal is the large number of biblical scholars who basically tell anyone who will listen that the church made up most of the stories about Jesus.

The truth is that the scholars are correct. The church did write the gospels and the gospels other people wrote with whom the powers didn’t like got excluded. Winners have always written history. But we have these stories have endured and here we are hearing them again. What are we to make of them.

I was sitting in St. Peter’s Church, Charlotte, NC catching my breath between Good Friday mediations. I was kind of drifting during the periods of silence between my remarks and the music.

Suddenly I was aware of an angel. A curious sort of angel, really, but an angel nonetheless. A young man of about 25 was lurching up the chancel steps holding onto the rails for all he was worth. He was trembling violently as with palsy. He clutched several pieces of Xeroxed paper in his hand.

He could have turned towards the rector who had invited me to preach on his left, but it was me he wanted to deliver his message. He was an angel, and angels deliver messages. He proffered the Xeroxed sheets which I accepted, and then he spoke in a low, trembly, but clear voice: “I am David Johnson Bullock. It is a miracle that I am alive. I had a near fatal motorcycle accident and Jesus brought me back from the dead. I give you these papers to prove that Jesus is alive and that he is raised from the dead that all might believe.” I thanked him. He turned on his heel and stumbled back down the steps and out of my range of vision. David be a brain-damaged angel, but an angel he is.

According to the Jesus Seminar, we must be brain-damaged to be here today celebrating an early church ruse and delusion. Many of us know different. We know by the message of an angel or a host of other experiences too numerous to fit in all the books of the world, that Jesus is alive. He is risen from the dead. We know further that we have been raised with him as the Apostle Paul proclaimed we would be. We know it because we gather weekly for the Prayers and the Breaking of the Bread. We know because we have seen miracles or lived them. We know because we have experienced holiness in ourselves and others. We know because we have been represented at the throne of God in worship. We just know by faith.

We don’t think the Jesus Seminar folks are bad or stupid. They are scientifically correct. They are also myopic. They ask questions that really don’t matter very much to those who are of the household of faith. When they solve all the rational problems of biblical interpretation, we will still be praying and breaking bread. We are brain-damaged, but hardly heart broken.

Every year someone asks me if I believe that Jesus was raised from the dead. I have several answers. One is: “It certainly seems like a very good idea!”

On a more serious note I usually say: “I don’t know about Jesus, but I know that I am raised from the dead.” Lots of us were lost and now are found. Lots of us were dead, or left for dead, or written off, or counted as nothing and then came back to life. These miracles happen all around us, often to us. What kind of God would we have who couldn’t do at least as much for his son and she does for so many of us?

Friday, April 2, 2010

Good Friday, Year C, Friday, April 2, 2010

Isaiah 52:13-53:12, Psalm 22:1-21, Hebrews 10:16-25, John 18:1-19:42
Too soon for contrition, preached by Rev. Peter Courtney

Our mission, if we are willing to accept it, is to listen and reflect upon Jesus’ words from the Cross. Let us begin before the beginning with the next to the last of Jesus’ words from Luke 23:27

“A great number of the people followed him, and among them were women who were beating their breasts and wailing for him.28 But Jesus turned to them and said, "Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. 29 For the days are surely coming when they will say, 'Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never nursed.' 30 Then they will begin to say to the mountains, 'Fall on us'; and to the hills, 'Cover us.' 31 For if they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?”

If evil such as this can happen to the Lord of Life, to the one they call “The King of the Jews” what makes even these hardened professional mourners think that it will not happen to them? Jerusalem’s fate will be so awful that a childless woman would be considered blessed in comparision. At least she will be spared the heart-rending butchering of her offspring as the temple is destroyed. People will beg for a catastrophe to relieve the horrors of what is to come. Israel had begged for this relief before in Hos 10:8

“The high places of Aven, the sin of Israel, shall be destroyed. Thorn and thistle shall grow up on their altars. They shall say to the mountains, Cover us, and to the hills, Fall on us.”

Jesus refers to himself as “green wood”. We know about green wood. It bends, it is supple, it may have suckers growing out from it. It smells and runs with sap and moisture. It cannot be worked, but it does bend. It cannot be used for a fire since it does not burn. It is hard to destroy. In picking green wood the people are choosing unwisely if their goal is to destroy him. The city of Jerusalem on the other hand is the more appropriate target. The city is represented by the women of Jerusalem. Are they the dry wood? Are they tinder for the holocaust which is to come?

Jesus “the green wood” is a rich and appealing metaphor which has no clear meaning. Jesus green, young, fresh, sinless, undeserving? Jesus not ready for burning on the one hand. On the other, Jerusalem dry, old, stained, steeped in sin, ready for immolation and deserving of it too. These are the images which come to mind and heart. They are about unfairness and proportion.

Unfair because Jesus had done nothing except his Abba God’s will. Jerusalem on the other hand had persecuted the prophets before him generations ago never mind now. And proportion. Justice decreases in inverse proportion to the the distance between what seems fair and what actually happens.

There is nothing unique going on here. The disproportion is older than history itself. It is certainly as old as Hosea, going back to the time when these people’s ancestors spoke ill of the prophets and rewarded the false ones. And so we come on the Good Friday to the Cross of Jesus where he says:

Luke 23:34 Then Jesus said, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing."

A dear friend of mine very rarely makes mistakes. When he does he always exclaims: “I didn’t mean to. I didn’t do it on purpose.” Neither of us believe he did it on purpose and I suppose that by pleading innocent motive he expectes quick forgiveness. As T.S. Eliot would have it.

“Now is too late for action, too soon for contrition.” TS Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral.

Jesus does not question the motives of his executioners. If he had, he would have called attention to their shadow. They, of all people, knew exactly what they were doing.

The Jewish leaders sought to silence the annoying refrain of a renegade rabbi whose litany was love, who healed on the sabbath, who didn’t wash his hands, who kept company with ritually unclean types and so on.

The Roman government was getting rid of a potentially dangerous political influence. Roman and Jewish leaders subscribed to the original domino theory: If the camel’s nose gets in the tent, he’ll want all the way in next and be invited to dinner too. Today it sounds like: If we let “them” in, they’ll take over. Jesus was uppity and uppity must be put in her place.

Those whose job is to keep the uppity in their place refer to it as justice. In 1936 Georges Bernanos has one of his characters in The Diary of a Country Priest, say:

Justice in the hands of the powerful is merely a governing system like any other. Why call it justice? Let us rather call it injustice, but of a sly effective order, based entirely on cruel knowledge of the resistance of the weak, their capacity for pain, humilation and misery. Injustice sustained at the exact degree of necessary tension to turn the cogs of the huge machine-for-the-making-of-rich-men, without bursting the boiler.

Jesus asks his ABBA God to forgive his killers, not because they didn’t mean to, not because they didn’t know what they were doing, but because forgiveness is all that God is about. God forgives the unforgiveable. God even forgives pious killers who have plausible excuses for their behavior much more elaborate than “I didn’t mean to, I didn’t know what I was doing.” One can almost hear the voices: “He deserved it. He got what he deserved.”

Jesus refused a natural and understandable rush to judgment. He refused to judge those who had lynched him. He refused even to judge injustice.

From James Baldwin:

If one really wishes to know how justice is administered in a country, one does not question the policemen, the lawyers, the judges, or the protected members of the middle class. One goes to the unprotected-those, precisely, who need the laws's protection most-and listens to their testimony.

This is Good Friday in part because we are asking the executed to forgive us our cruelty, our snobbery, our rush to judgment, our self-righteousness. For once we are directing our hearts, our questions to the only one who forgives, even those who do know what they are doing.

From TS Eliot again:

The dripping blood our only drink,
The bloody flesh our only food:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood —
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday . . . good.
T. S. Eliot (1888-1965), Anglo-American poet, critic. East Coker, pt.4, in Four Quartets.

Maundy Thursday, Year C, April 1, 2010

Exodus 12:1-14a, Psalm 116:1, 10-17, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, John 13:1-17, 31b-35
Courting Imperfection, preached by Rev. Peter Courtney

A company was experiencing terrible morale. Nothing they did seemed to work. Even giving everyone a raise didn’t seem to help much. In desperation and little hope they hired a consultant. After listening for a while the consultant concluded that the employees did not know one another well. They had all been so carefully taught to look good and sound good that none of them ever encountered the other in anything but “dressed up mode.” The more they met the successful persona in each other, the more inadequate they felt and the more competitive they became.

The consultant proposed a neat idea. She called the whole company together; it wasn’t a large one. She provided each person with a whole sheet of large stick-on red dots. She invited everyone to place a red dot on any part of their body which had been injured during their lifetime. She had to provide extra sheets of red dots because the more people examined their experience the more they discovered wounds. Most of the people had dozens of red dots on their broken hearts, or where their feelings had been hurt. Many more had red dots all over their heads as their perceptions of themselves had been damaged.

Seeing one another covered with red dots was an amazing discovery. Perfect people disclosed they were neither immortal nor impervious to the vicissitudes of life. Porcelain dolls turned Raggedy Ann. They all found out about each other’s struggle. None was perfect nor even successful all the time.

Oh how badly we want others to believe that we are handsome, thin, rich, and smart. Jesus washed his disciples’ feet even though they thought they weren’t good enough.

He washed their feet as unwilling guests. Foot washing was common garden variety courtesy, the kind of thing expected to be done for people you didn’t even like.

Foot washing or even hand washing is expected. Jesus’ hospitality at dinner is different. Very few if any of Jesus’ guests at dinner would have passed even the most cursory social scrutiny for “B” list never mind the higher reaches of social acceptance. No one is expected to invite people they don’t like to dinner; no one wants invite people for dinner when they are covered with red dots. We want people on their best, preferably better than their best. Then as now we prefer to invite people who would make us look good and make us feel good.

I remember an evening in which my children and I were invited to dinner by some not very appealing people. Not wanting to be rude, I accepted. On a breathless August Sunday afternoon we went to their very small, very hot house barely containing two very unruly children. Dinner took forever to appear and when it did it was four starches of the same color and well-done greasy meat. My children still remember it as a very trying experience although their behavior was beyond reproach.

Being a host to unwilling guests must be very trying. Yet Jesus our host calls us, his trying, phony, children into fellowship with himself. Jesus offers himself as food itself. He is the hospitality. We can be very unruly and unwilling guests, yet he continually pours himself out for us that we might notice our own wounds until we finally notice — our wounds are His.