April 19, 2010

A blessed Eastertide to all, and welcome to this opportunity to focus on what we share, what brings us together, our common partnership in God’s mission, the mission to heal and reconcile the world that Jesus claimed as his own.

Have you ever noticed that almost every time the resurrected Jesus appears, his disciples respond with fear and anxiety? Each gospel tells about the tomb encounters using the language of fear – the guards are paralyzed by fear in Matthew; the women respond in fear when they discover the tomb empty or when they meet the angels. The Marys try to hang on to him, whether it’s Mary Magdalene meeting the gardener, or the women at the tomb in Matthew. So do Cleopas and his friend on the road to Emmaus. After their fellow traveler begins to explain what’s been going on, they absolutely insist that he stay with them. The disciples in the upper room are terrified when Jesus gets past the locked doors. And even in the scene on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, when Jesus meets the guys who’ve gone back to fishing, and then feeds them from what they catch, they don’t quite have the courage to ask him who he is. Even when they’re not consumed with fear and trembling, they can’t all quite believe he is who they think he is – and it’s not just Thomas who’s uncertain.

Why do people always seem to get anxious when Jesus turns up? It happens all through his ministry – his questioners almost always seem to act out of anxiety. He turns up in the Temple and the authorities get anxious. He turns up in Jerusalem and the Romans arrest and execute him.

Jesus still makes people nervous. That fear and anxiety is what got Oscar Romero shot, and Martin Luther King, and Dorothy Stang.

We’re dealing with much lower level anxieties around here, I hope, but they’ve got the same roots. Why can’t the Episcopalians and the Baptists and Presbyterians all just get along? Probably because each of us is territorial about Jesus. Most of us think we have a monopoly on how to understand him, and worship him, and imitate him. And most of us get a bit nervous when he really does show up and give evidence of his presence in other people and communities, and in ways that simply don’t fit with how we have always done things!

I want to tell you about another resurrection encounter. Lent began this year with a gathering of representatives of the churches involved in Churches Uniting in Christ (CUIC). We came together on Ash Wednesday to figure out if there was any life left in that body, or if we should just give CUIC a decent burial. That endeavor has been moribund for several years because of actions that some deemed offensive, even racist. In the last two years I had come to understand that the wound had something to do with the action of an Episcopalian – for which I tried to apologize to some of those who had been offended. That attempt was rebuffed, and met with a profound urge toward healing and reconciliation. One person said, ‘today is today and yesterday was yesterday. We’re not going to dwell on the past. I’m here to see if we can get this body moving again. It’s time for all of us to grow up a little more and recognize that when we disagree it’s not necessarily because of racism.’ We spent much of Ash Wednesday trying to discover how these seeds of new life might begin to take root and flourish.

The decisions that came out of that resurrection meeting led us toward joint work on ending racism in our churches and the larger society, and on how we could work together to relieve the suffering of Haitians, both here and in their native land. We closed our meeting with a communion service, jointly celebrated by four bishops of the Methodist tradition: United Methodist, African Methodist Episcopal, Christian Methodist Episcopal, and African Methodist Episcopal Zion. And liturgists take note: on Ash Wednesday we sang alleluia with great vigor!

Fear can keep us locked up in our various and separated rooms. But Jesus sneaks in anyway.

We’ve come together here to deal with those fears, small and large, and invite Jesus in, through the open doors of our hearts, to be touched and seen in unexpected ways. Most of us aren’t quite going to believe it, but he’s here, and well beyond here, continuing to challenge us to live in peace rather than fear.

The sacramental experience of eating and serving together is always where we’re going to find Jesus, whether it’s a fish barbecue on the beach, building homes in New Orleans, lobbying Washington on behalf of Haiti, or this meeting here in Tampa.

As we get into it here, we’re are going to experience the eternal tension between what some see as primary about right Christian belief and what others prioritize as good solid Christian action, what some would label as orthodoxy and orthopraxy – or even the old split between “faith and order” and “life and work.” That tension can either be a lock on the door and a refusal to recognize Jesus in our midst, or it can be a reminder to welcome the crucified one.

Will we welcome the crucified one by noting that he only died for us? Or will we really look at that cross? It’s made up of right angles, what mathematicians call orthogonals. We know that God’s geometry can move beyond the predictability of orthogonals – and beyond orthodoxy and orthopraxy. That tension is resolved in resurrection, where God is doing something beyond what any of us can predict or imagine. Our divisions recede, and are transformed in the encounter with the risen one.

There’s another term mathematicians use for those right angles – the technical term for two lines or planes that intersect at a right angle is “normal.” There is a great tendency in conversations like ours to assume that there’s only one “normal,” and that it’s our preferred way of understanding Jesus or engaging the world. God’s geometry has many angles, and all of them can be in right relationship to the Godhead, even if they don’t seem to be normal to us. If God is beyond our imagining, then there must be many normal, right relationships with that Godhead also beyond our imagining. We are, after all, talking about the eternal hyperspace as well as three dimensions!

Our task here in this place is to move beyond the normal and predictable, to a kind of hope beyond imagining, with that spirit of wisdom and revelation of Ephesians. Our challenge is to hope with the kind of wild abandon that expects to find resurrection in spite of the world’s focus on morbidity and normality.

Our job is to hope for God’s commonwealth here on earth, and insist that it come speedily. Together, beyond the paralysis of fear, we can move toward a world with no more abused children, no more war-torn nations, no more neglected and ignored human beings on our doorsteps, no more lives without access to the abundance for which each was created, no more of God’s children who can’t go to school or find meaningful employment. Together we can move toward healing and restoring creation to the garden it was meant to be, that it might support God’s children in abundance, and that there may be marvelous catches of fish to feed them, for eons yet to come. May that be the true normal.

We can hope for that, if we’ll let go of the fear. The next time Jesus turns up, don’t get anxious, get busy, moving toward that normal.