Prior to Easter we sent out postcards, inviting about 3,000 local households to worship. This week, while checking the mail, I noticed that one of them had been returned. On one side, scribbled in red ink, a person had written, “Save me from your followers.” And on the opposite side, next to the word, “Forgive,” the same person had printed the cursive designation for cow manure. I received this returned postcard in an attitude of prayer and immediately found myself meditating on that wonderful Greek word that started it all.

Matheteusate. In English we usually translate this term with two words, “Make Disciples,” but really it’s just the plural noun, Disciples, that’s been changed into a verb. Matheteusate. When the resurrected Jesus uttered this imperative expression to those limping and emotionally traumatized followers—those eleven, left-over followers—everything changed. The first thing that changed, of course, related the impression that we have of Jesus himself. Who is this person? Suddenly, rather than seeing him as some localized hero from Galilee, whose influence ranges from Samaria to Jerusalem, this is what we hear him say,
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me…”

In The Time Traveler’s Wife, the movie that’s been adapted from Audrey Niffengegger’s first novel, the main character is afflicted with a genetic disorder which uncontrollably causes him to slip out of one time and into another. Henry DeTamble can flit from the present to the past and to the future and back again—all without wanting to and all without being capable of changing anything that happens. And at the point in the story when Henry’s little girl is five years old, he dies. His wife and everyone who understands the man’s condition is utterly distraught. But six years later, while the daughter is playing in a meadow, he appears again. He appears from the past, coming from the day of the girl’s birth, and then, after embracing his wife one last time, Henry fades again. That’s all he can do. And, you see, what strikes me about this scene is that Jesus could have done something like that too.
Jesus could have simply appeared and hugged everyone. Just imagine. Eleven quick hugs and he could have been done. And he could have simply whispered in each person’s ear how much he loved them and how proud he was. But instead, Jesus makes a cosmic statement that resounds to this place and to this time. Jesus, in Matthew 28, claims authority over everything. He then sends his followers out to everyone, with the charge that every commandment that he’s ever taught should be obeyed by every disciple who will ever come into existence.

I once played with a little boy at the beach. We were in college and his mother had taken a leave of absence when she became pregnant. The boy, now about three years old, stood in front of me with his belly button exposed. Laughing I pointed to his stomach and said, “What’s that?” He got this serious look on his face and he said, “That’s Jesus.” His mother then explained, “that’s Jesus in Matthew’s heart.”

Years later, a nine-year-old girl with special needs, looked at me and made a muscle. She flexed her skinny biceps and pressed her teeth together to show how much she strained her frail body. I said, “Who are you?” She replied, “Jesus is doing this inside of me.”

You see, the sweep of Matthew 28 assignment boggles the mind. And when we consider the fact that the historic Jesus himself never traveled beyond a hundred mile radius of his own hometown, it seems a little unfair.
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”

And yet, with the succession of one belly button at a time, we do it. With the flexing of a little bicep, it’s done. You and I both the recipients of that audacious commission and—Lord help us—we are its only all-too-vulnerable vehicle to the next generation.
Donald Miller has written this great book, A Million Miles In a Thousand Years, and in one of the chapters he mentioned meeting someone named Bob. Bob, of course, sounds like an ordinary name of some ordinary guy. But this guy happens to be lawyer who works with various heads of state on the continent of Africa. So, according to Donald Miller, one day Bob becomes nervous about what he might say to these foreign diplomats, and on a whim, he says to his small children, “What would you ask the Prime Minister of this country or the Secretary General of that nation?” And, among the answers he got, was this: “I would ask them if they’d like to sleep over.”

Now if that sounds naïve or preposterous, I’m sure that you’re right. But what Bob discovered, after prompting his children to write letters, is that at least some of the world’s leaders are eager to sleep over. And as they awake and eat pop-tarts and sip coffee, they let down their defenses and they talk. And they listen.
Moreover, the risen Jesus is always there, not simply because Bob interjects him into the conversation but because the world leaders ask questions about the books on the shelves and the pictures on the walls.

“We are engaged in a two-way exercise,” writes Lesslie Newbigin.
“We have a story to tell, a name to communicate. There are no substitutes for this story and this name. We have to name the name and tell the story. But we do not yet know all that it means to say that Jesus is Lord. We will have to learn as we go along… We are missionaries, but we are also learners, only beginners…” (Truth To Tell, p. 34).

You see, what’s so compelling about Jesus’ words—“Go therefore and make disciples”—is that they are not heavy-handed at all. It’s not as if he’s saying to the disciples, “You have the answer, and now go and prove how right we’ve been!” He’s charging us to go with the promise of us discovering more and more of what his Lordship and his Salvation mean. The more sleep-overs we have—the better. The more belly buttons to which three year old boy point and say, “That’s Jesus,” the better. The more the girl with special needs will flex her skinny arms and say, “Jesus is doing this,” the better. Amen.

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An Unguarded Moment

April 12, 2010

At the funeral home, with the family members in folding chairs, while gesturing toward the registry book for people to sign their names, Shawn Hennessey exudes a calm and cordial perspective on life, and on death. “This concludes the service,” he says, standing tall, in his black suit and white pressed shirt. “If the pall bearers would be so kind as to meet me at the front door of the parlor, and then at the grave site, we would appreciate your help…” Hennessey’s voice trails off as the mourners then mill around for a few minutes before, lingering in the parking lot. I remain behind so that I may eventually walk in front of the casket in procession. Shawn has asked if I’d like to drive with him to the cemetery. I say Yes. With the deceased then placed securely in the back of the hearse, he opens the passenger door and closes it behind me. He then walks around to the driver’s side, reviewing directions with his associates. A police officer waits near the boulevard to stop traffic; he’s wearing dark sun glasses and a shiny black helmet. All the cars are lined up with their flashers blinking. They have little purple flags affixed to their windshields. In the lead car I am waiting in cloistered silence, and that’s when it happens.

Now, before we go any further, I’d like to review with you the possible explanations for the resurrection of Jesus. One is that it didn’t happen, and we’ll talk more about that in a minute. The other, of course, is that it did happen, but that it happened symbolically, as people who believed in Jesus and followed Jesus during his lifetime began to remember him in an extremely vivid way. A third explanation is that Jesus raised himself, that he actually lived his life in such communion with God that when he died he could simply re-occupy and reanimate the same bodily space that he occupied before. Finally, another way to conceive of the resurrection is to say that it happened, and it happened like an intrusion. It happened as God vindicated the life of Jesus as the only sinless human being and as the harbinger of things to come. Through the centuries, these have been the explanations that have been offered. And, just so you know, if I had to choose, I would choose the latter explanation. But I would choose it, not because it happens to be the officially sanctioned and orthodox, explanation of the church. I would choose it because of what I experienced at Hennessey’s funeral home.
“While they were going, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests everything that had happened. After the priests had assembled with the elders, they devised a plan to give a large sum of money to the soldiers, telling them, ‘You must say…’”

You see, something happens to us as we hear the official word, coming down from on high, and in the case of those original members of the guard, or the militia at the tomb of Jesus, the official word is this:
“His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.”
Now there’s a reason why this simple declarative sentence has to be the official word, and that reason is that we like the way things are. The status quo suits us. We’ve become accustomed to certain officials, to certain authorities, to certain highfalutin, blue blood leaders, being in charge and we are comfortable with the way that Shawn Hennessey manages death. If Shawn Hennessey doesn’t manage death with a professional flare—if he doesn’t call ahead to make sure the police officer stops traffic—what are we supposed to do next?

Think about it. Think about how the report of the Sanhedrin, not only has it’s own built in bias, but how it’s still matriculates today…

• In the flight attendant who is trained in deep acting. Think about how she must say the same spiel about flying the friendly skies whether her marriage is going down the tubes or not, whether the guy in Seat 17D is obnoxious and causing trouble or not.

• At the beginning of the latest and greatest installment of the Iraqi War, CNN carried these hilarious news conferences in which the Iraqi Defense minister at the time repeatedly told the press that Saddam Hussein’s imperial guard had beaten back and routed the enemy. He said, you got the feeling, because someone told him, you must say…

• A recent French television program involves a beautiful host who instructs the show’s participants to send a charge of 460 volts through a member of the studio audience. According to the documentary, The Game of Death, the person who supposedly receives the shocks is really just an actor. But what’s fascinating is to know that, within the context of the chanting and cheering and hoopla of the television show, over 80 percent of participants will inflict whatever kind of harm the beautiful host tells them to inflict.

So, here’s my imagined scenario. Suppose, while in the hearse at the Hennessey funeral home, I had heard a knock from the casket. And suppose I had heard a voice in the silence. And suppose I had seen the face of the deceased, peering out of the darkness. Would I have been willing to stop the official procession to the cemetery? Would I have told Shawn Hennessey, “Hey, you’re doing a great job with the pall bearers, but I have some news?” Would I have dared to direct the cop in the street to stop directing the traffic in the street? The truth is, I don’t know if I would have had the strength of character to do any of those things—even if, by some miracle, I had heard the voice or had seen the face. When the official word comes down, something happens to us, and that something reveals our nasty, almost demonic, co-dependence on the status quo.

Some of the guard, according to Matthew 28:11—15, had been told to say something. Their palms had been greased with a certain sum of money. And the question is—what are we being told to say or paid to say today? Today, the resurrection of Jesus is already believed by a sizable percentage of the American people and I guess that’s good. That’s good, right? Belief in the resurrection is good, right? But, you see, the pastor of the Community Church of Joy, had a massive heart attack while oozing the same orthodox opinion. Walt Kallestad had led the small Lutheran congregation from about 200 to a campus, teeming with thousands upon thousands. But, after facing death and recovering, he returned to his upscale mall and to his large, well-trained staff to make the following correction:
“What we became was a dispenser of religious good and services where people came to get instead of a missions station where people are launched to give. By creating excellent spiritual products we believed that we could eventually change the consumer mind-set and transition people into ministry… But what we found is that the transition rarely occurred because we were forced to neglect the very process along which the transformation takes place—loving and healthy relationships in the community of God. As I began to realize how far we were missing the mark in terms of community, I began to die inside.”

Walt Kallestad began to die inside. And then he nearly did die. And that reminds me of the guard in Matthew 28:4, who became like dead men—all because they’ve been enlisted in the propping up of the status quo.

Let me tell you something. This is hard. Latah Valley is hard. And it’s made most difficult because the community of faith in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ must be a community that’s grown out of a thousand unguarded moments. Do you know what an unguarded moment is? An unguarded moment is when you don’t go back to the chief priests and the elders and allow them to explain your experience of the risen Christ. You don’t go back. Not to them. You don’t do your duty. And for once in your life you careen off of the hard edges of the mystery. You careen and you carom around from conversation to conversation and pretty soon you wind up in a place like this one. And, this is hard.

Latah Valley is hard because we are not asking you to sit still and imbibe the official report of the church or the official talking points of your favorite political party. We’re asking you to mingle, to mix and to mingle with the Mary’s of this world and with the Galilean fishermen of the world. And we’re asking you to let your guard down, at least for a moment.

Amen.

Imagine that your life is being written. Where are you? Are you currently in the middle of the first chapter? Has most of what’s going to happen already happened? Have all the conflicts been resolved? Are all the villains being punished? Are all the heroes lining up to receive their accolades? Will there be a surprise ending? Are these very moments in fact the final few pages and you just don’t know it?
On Easter she awoke early and got dressed hastily. Driving down the highway she pondered the scientific possibility of a human being rising from the dead. If she thought about it too much, it hurt. She should just believe it and stop thinking. Thinking always got her trouble, like the time that she thought about the perfect man of her dreams. She thought about him, but never met him. She met somebody, but it turned out that he wasn’t that dreamed-of man. And so, arriving at this glorified barn of building, she took her first steps across the blacktop toward the so-called Latah Valley Presbyterian Church. Would the coffee be any good? Would some stranger with bad breath ask her to scrawl her name and address on mangled piece of white cardboard? O… God… What’s next?

Imagine that your life is being written. And if so, who’s the author? Is it you yourself, alone? Is it someone else? Or is a collaboration of researchers and artists who just find everything that you say and do so fascinating?

Donald Miller talks about these film writers who approached him about turning his life into a screenplay. Ben and Steve try to explain that real life—everybody’s real life—is boring. For a movie to be successful, however, the audience has to like you, and they have to sense that the experiences of your life are going somewhere, that there’s a semblance of a story with a satisfactory ending. “It’s like music,” says Steve.
“Music obeys form and structure. There are scales and harmonics; there are principles a musician adheres to, in order to make music. If he doesn’t, it’s just noise. It’s the same with story. If you don’t obey certain principles, the story doesn’t make sense. Without story, experiences are just random.”

“Experiences are random,” I repeated.
“Noise,” Ben said.
“Noise,” I repeated.
“That’s brilliant, right?” I asked Ben.
“Probably,” Ben said.
“Are we still talking about the movie?” Steve asked.
“I don’t know,” Ben said after a moment of silence” (A Million Miles In A Thousand Years, p. 26).

You see, believe it or not, there are a whole host of people like Donald Miller who feel insecure about their own life stories. And maybe, you and I are among them.
Jesus of Nazareth, in today’s passage, does not play a leading role. The story, of course, is all about his life, his death and his resurrection. It’s all about how he gathered together this group of scraggily fishermen, a spare tax collector and one misfit zealot. It’s all about how he walked with them from Galilee to Samaria and then back around to Judea and to the city of Jerusalem. It’s all about how he taught and performed miraculous healings along the way. It’s all about this final week, when the religious authorities became nervous because of his influence on the crowds. It’s all about how they conspired to take care of him, which is just a pleasant law-abiding euphemism for betraying him, for arresting him, for torturing him and for killing him. And so, at this stage of the creative process, the story of Jesus is reduced to noise, and to background noise at that.

“Jesus… Jesus… Jesus…” Douglas Coupland listens to the AM radio stations. He driving through the desert, somewhere in California, and all he hears is the static of Jesus. Jesus is the cure to the common cold. Jesus will help you get a job. Jesus will improve your credit rating. Jesus is your ticket to heaven. Jesus will introduce you to all the right people. And pretty soon, in spite of his genuine curiosity, Douglas Coupland has heard all he wants to hear about the seemingly endless and random needs that people want to be satisfied by Jesus. He can’t think of anything as boring as all that, except of course if he had to think of his own story.
“After the Sabbath, and towards dawn of the first day of the week…”

That is, after the religious holidays are over, and at the start of another long week at work, someone gets up early. So early in fact, there’s no noise. Even the guards, who are paid to stay up at all hours, are “like dead men.” Their eyes have that comatose glaze. Like stroke victims, the faces are unresponsive. Their limbs are temporarily paralyzed, as the sunrise glimmers off their polished helmets. The story of Jesus here in Matthew 28 has paused. It hasn’t ended as we thought. It has paused. It hasn’t been reduced to mere noise, as we’ve feared. It has paused. And we know this because the women, known to us as Mary and the other Mary, have stumbled upon a bookmark.
Now, to refer to the resurrection of Jesus as a bookmark in the pages of history is something that first occurred to me when I read a theologian, named Wolfhart Pannenburg. I call him Wolfie, and what Wolfie says about the resurrection of Jesus can be summarized in two words. Retroactive and Proleptic. First, the resurrection of Jesus is retroactive in that it confirms everything that the pre-Easter Jesus said and did. It tells us that although the first part of the story appears to have ended unceremoniously, there is still more. Second, the resurrection of Jesus is proleptic in that it anticipates where all of history and where each individual life is going.

Earlier this week, my family visited Silver Mountain, which combines the best of a ski resort, a golf resort and a water theme park. So, on Monday, after Jesus had entered Jerusalem, we rode the gondola up to the top of the mountain. The concierge had told us that they would have to close the mountain at 1:30 because of the high winds and the expected rain, and I thought, “Close the mountain? How is it possible to close the mountain?” And then, as we rode up the gondola, reading the warning signs in six different langauges, I understood why closing the mountain made sense. At various intervals, as we made the 20 minute ride, the powers that be, the tired and now faceless guys who ran the machine, stopped us as we hung over an abyss. We hung there, swaying in the silence and I thought to myself, God, closing this mountain makes total sense. My energetic son, however, had a different idea. He thought, “Why don’t we make up a story?” “Okay, you start,” I said, and then we were off. Each of us took turns offering a sentence or more, which would carry the story forward… I won’t bother to tell you the story because it degenerated into utter non-sense. But, you see, as the gondola started moving again over the abyss I realized something the Easter story that we’ve read this morning. And it’s simply this: I’m so glad that I’m not the one who’s telling the story. I’m so glad that when I look into the eyes of my children and my wife and into the eyes of the average stranger who runs the gondola that I’m not in charge of keeping the story going. In fact, I wonder. I wonder, if the cable snaps and we plummet down into the abyss, I wonder if the mountain isn’t marked and if the story doesn’t continue after a brief pause. Amen.

Earlier this week, my family visited Silver Mountain, which combines the best of a ski resort, a golf resort and a water theme park. So, on Monday, after Jesus had entered Jerusalem, we rode the gondola up to the top of the mountain. The concierge had told us that they would have to close the mountain at 1:30 because of the high winds and the expected rain, and I thought, “Close the mountain? How is it possible to close the mountain?” And then, as we rode up the gondola, which had been made and manufactured in Switzerland, I understood why closing the mountain made sense. At various intervals, as we made the 20 minute ride, the powers that be, the tired and now faceless guys who ran the machine, stopped us as we hung over an abyss. We hung there, swaying in the silence and I thought to myself, God, closing this mountain makes total sense. My energetic son, however, had a different idea. He thought, “Why don’t we make up a story?” “Okay, you start,” I said, and then we were off. Each of us took turns offering a sentence or more, which would carry the story forward… I won’t bother to tell you the story because it degenerated into utter non-sense. But, you see, as the gondola started moving again over the abyss I realized something about stories. A story will only distract me so long as it’s grounded in something that’s real, in something that raw. You see, I don’t mind a little imagination. In fact, I prefer a great deal of imagination. But somewhere along the ride, there has to be something or someone that we don’t make up. There has to be a tether to human history that can’t be fabricated by human hands or by human machinery or by human ingenuity.

“After the Sabbath, and towards the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary of Magdala and the other Mary went to visit the tomb.”

They went to hang over that yawning crevasse of death.

“And suddenly…”

And suddenly something real, something raw interrupted their made-up story.

For the Season of Lent this year I didn’t really give anything up. But I did start a program of reading to the children at Liberty Park Day Care. Every Wednesday morning, for about thirty minutes, I go. And every Wednesday the kids crawl all over one another, competing to pick out a book. Once upon a time, there’s a cat… There’s a snail… There’s a monster who wants a friend… There’s a little boy riding a bike… There’s a little girl sleeping beneath the moon… And, you see, everyone once in a while, as I gaze into the faces of the children, I see them resting and wondering and I experience us all, searching for the story in which we ourselves belong.

And so, could this be it?

“Come and see the place where he lay, then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has risen from the dead and now he is going ahead of you to Galilee; that is where you will see him…’”