Category Archives: Spiritual Stuff

Breaking the Pattern: A Sermon for Easter Sunday

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MaryAnn McKibben Dana
Idylwood Presbyterian Church
April 20, 2014
Easter Sunday
Matthew 28:1-10 

28:1 After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb.
28:2 And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it.
28:3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow.
28:4 For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men.
28:5 But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified.
28:6 He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay.
28:7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.”
28:8 So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.
28:9 Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him.
28:10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

Sermon audio is here (for a few months anyway–our free account only keeps the most recent 10 sermons)

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I have a quiz for you… let’s see whether your brains are sluggish from too much Easter candy. What is distinctive about these phrases?

Do, O God, no evil deed! Live on! Do good!

Ma is as selfless as I am.

Was it a car or a cat I saw?

Lonely Tylenol.

A man, a plan, a canal: Panama.

Yes, these are all palindromes. Palindromes are words or phrases that read the same forwards or backwards. So if you read any of these phrases from right to left (and disregarding the spaces) you’ll see the same phrase.

What you may not know is that this is palindrome week. All week long the dates have been the same backwards and forwards. Read them left to right or right to left, the numbers are the same:

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Each of these dates reads the same frontwards or backwards. 4-1-2-1-4. And the same would be true the next day. And the next and the next, all week long, April 15, 16, 17, 18, and 19. (Yes, it takes a special kind of nerd to figure this out. I’m just the kind of nerd who enjoys it.)

There’s something very satisfying about a palindrome. It’s very clever when you spot it. There’s an internal pattern to it. Whichever direction you start reading, you’ll end up with the same message. It’s like a seesaw that’s perfectly balanced. There’s this sense of perfection—a statement that’s the same no matter how you look at it.

But you will notice that palindrome week ended today, April 20. 4-20-14 is no longer a palindrome. That pattern has been broken.

And that’s not just a numerical statement. That is a theological statement.

Because today isn’t just April 20, it’s Easter Sunday, Resurrection Sunday, the day that breaks the old pattern. All of the days leading up to this one had their own logic and coherence. The world worked a certain way, backwards, forwards, however you looked at it… but on Resurrection Sunday, everything is turned upside down.

*          *          *

It is daybreak in Jerusalem. The sun is almost ready to spill its gold on the horizon. Maybe there is a mist on the ground, but it is not yet light enough for that mist to bathe the world in a holy glow. Instead that mist hangs over the city and countryside like a shroud.

It is daybreak, after the longest and saddest sabbath Mary and her friends had ever had.

Their friend and teacher had been arrested, beaten, humiliated and executed. His body had been anointed for burial and placed in a cave. The women make their way there, knowing what they will find: a stone rolled in front of the mouth of that cave with all the finality and silence of the whole world.

And as if the stone were not enough, there are guards. The poor women can’t even grieve in privacy, they have to deal with these agents of Rome, these smirking guards, who may have been the same ones who shoved a crown of thorns on Jesus’ head, the ones who divvied up his clothes two days before.

And yet the women come. In Matthew’s telling, they don’t come to anoint the body—that’s already been done. They don’t come with any purpose whatsoever.

They just come to Jesus’ grave,
for the same reason that we visit cemeteries clutching tulips and hyacinths,
or listen to the song that we danced to at the wedding,
or make the Coca-Cola ham just like mother used to.

Because that’s what love and grief require of us.

But the women don’t have any expectation that something unexpected will happen. They know what they’ll find there. Grief, it seems, is its own sad palindrome—look at it frontwards, or backwards, it’s still the same message:

Dead is dead.
The lost ones stay lost.
There is no second chance.
The person is gone and there’s no bringing them back.

Except.
Except.
Except the pattern gets broken this one time.
This one time, two thousand years ago, a messenger comes and rolls up his dazzling white sleeves.
This one time this ambassador from the heavens puts his shoulder against that rock and strains and grunts to move it… or maybe he just flicks it with the power of his angelic fingers. This one time he climbs atop the rock, straddles it like a child and says,
“Look, Mary. Look.
He’s. Not. Here.”

This one time, life stares death in the face and said, “Not today you don’t.”

I don’t know how it happened. I don’t even know what happened. But it has to be more than just the miracle of spring. It has to be more than daffodils stretching their green stalks into the air, and baby birds in nests, and caterpillars turning into butterflies.

It has to be more than that. Otherwise there’s no reason for us to be here. We’ve got better things to do with a beautiful Sunday morning. There are lawns to be mowed; there are bags of mulch stacked along the driveway, waiting to be raked over the hard soil of winter. There’s that email that’s been sitting in your inbox for far too long; you really should answer it. And hey, those checkbooks aren’t going to balance themselves.

And yet here we are. And we’re here because we don’t know how it happened, but we believe—we hope—we know (we hope)… that it’s more than just a metaphor.

Something happened that one time—resurrection happened that one time—and because it did, we look at every other death and grief and dead end and heartache and illness and loss and struggle and say, This is not the end. This is not over, not near over.

*          *          *

Several years ago I was at a church conference. It was the year after my father died and that anniversary was weighing heavily on me. One of the speakers was praying a prayer before communion, and it was going on in the way that those prayers sometimes do, until she got to this line.

Now I know, I know that what was written in her script was “Love is stronger than death.”
And it is. And that’s what today is about.

But what she mistakenly said was, “Love is stranger than death.”
And it is. And that’s what today is really about.

Death is death, it follows the rules. People live, then they die. Beginning and ending, it’s the logic of the world. But love, especially Easter love, is strange. It is unpredictable. Love can bring life out of death; love can move a stone away from a tomb and empty it of its contents; love can inspire a band of women to feel joy and fear. Fear and joy.

They don’t get it; they’re a little freaked out by it… but they like it, and they can’t wait to tell the others. The pattern has been broken.

*          *          *

It’s been twenty years since Hutus took up hate and weapons against their Tutsi neighbors in Rwanda, leading to a genocide that claimed some one million victims. In the two decades since those terrible events, the heartache has continued and in some cases intensified.

You can see the heartache on their faces. Pieter Hugo took these photos twenty years after the genocide.

What you see here are perpetrators standing with their victims. [Click here to view]

Yes, reconciliation has also occurred. An organization called AMI has brought together Hutus and Tutsis for counseling and training, culminating in the perpetrator’s formal request for forgiveness. If forgiveness is granted by the survivor, the perpetrator and his family and friends typically bring a basket of offerings, usually food and sorghum or banana beer. The accord is sealed with song and dance.

Here are some of their voices.

“Mother Mukabutera Caesarea could not have known I was involved in the crimes against her, but I told her what happened. When she granted me pardon, all the things in my heart that had made her look at me like a wicked man faded away.”

“The day I thought of asking pardon, I felt unburdened and relieved. I had lost my humanity because of the crime I committed, but now I am like any human being.”

“I used to hate him. When he came to my house and knelt down before me and asked for forgiveness, I was moved by his sincerity. Now, if I cry for help, he comes to rescue me. When I face any issue, I call him.”

“After I was chased from my village and Dominique and others looted it, I became homeless and insane. Later, when he asked my pardon, I said: ‘I have nothing to feed my children. Are you going to help raise my children? Are you going to build a house for them?’ The next week, Dominique came with some survivors and former prisoners who perpetrated genocide. There were more than 50 of them, and they built my family a house. Ever since then, I have started to feel better. I was like a dry stick; now I feel peaceful in my heart, and I share this peace with my neighbors.” [source]

This is not what we expect. Hutus hated Tutsis and viciously attacked them. So of course Tutsis should hate them right back for what they did. It’s a palindrome—backwards, forwards, however you read it: hate begets hate. That’s what we expect to happen. That’s the way the world works. What goes around comes around. Someone hurts you, you hurt them right back. If your enemy has a weapon, you build a bigger one.

But love is stranger than death.

And this one time, a long time ago, the pattern got broken.

And because it happened that one time, it can happen all the time, again and again and again.

~

photo credit: kevin dooley via photopin cc

Make It Secure: A Post for Good Friday

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Matthew 27: The chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate and said, ‘Sir, we remember what that impostor said while he was still alive, “After three days I will rise again.” Therefore command that the tomb be made secure until the third day.” …Pilate said to them, ‘You have a guard of soldiers; go, make it as secure as you can.’ So they went with the guard and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone.

It’s downright comical. Pontius Pilate and his men actually think that sealing the stone and stationing guards at the door are all it will take to keep the body safely inside the tomb. Pilate’s power is considerable, as far as it goes. But he has no idea what kind of power is at work.

Some folks have convinced themselves that might makes right, that the ones with the money and the status run the show. But they’re wrong. Desmond Tutu used to say to the apartheid government, “You may have the guns, you may have all this power, but you have already lost. Come: join the winning side.”

It was forty-six years ago this month when a bullet pierced the cheek, jaw, and spine of a man standing on the balcony of his Memphis hotel room. He was pronounced dead an hour later, and in that moment, the civil rights movement lost its most visible and captivating leader. The days following Martin Luther King’s assassination were bleak. Riots broke out in a hundred cities. More militant voices urged their followers to take up arms against white America. And the Pontius Pilates of the world chuckled.

And yet here we are, decades later, and King’s words pierce our hearts as much as they ever did. His dream still endures. His vision of non-violence has deepened and expanded to guide every social movement from Cape Town to Tiananmen to Tahrir Square. Meanwhile, the powers that be continue to insist that sealing the stone will tamp things down, that a bullet will silence a voice and a movement for justice.

They honestly think that death will have the last word.

I feel a little sorry for them.

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photo credit: Demmer S via photopin cc

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The message above was adapted from The Fellowship of Prayer, a Lent devotional I wrote for Chalice Press in 2012. A few copies are still available.

Who Do We Say He Is? A Prayer for Christians during Holy Week

origin_76576394Mark 8:27-38 “Jesus asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’
Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’”

Who do we say that Jesus is?

In our finer moments, we declare the truth:
Jesus is the Messiah.
God-with-us.
Savior of all. Shepherd and Friend.
Jesus is Lord of our whole lives.

Who do we say that Jesus is?
In our weaker moments, we utter deceptions:
Jesus is a magician who makes our problems disappear.
A superhero who rescues us from trouble.
Or, he is a nice man who lived once upon a time.
He is inoffensive, benign, sentimental, and dull.
A superstition. A wishful imagining.
A Sunday morning diversion who asks nothing from us.

Forgive us our feeble and false affirmations.
Empower us to answer the question with renewed energy and integrity:

Who do we say that Jesus is?
Love beyond love. Name beyond all names.
Hope beyond wishing. Eternal Mystery.
Word-made-flesh. Our Redeemer.
He lived and will live again.

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The message above was adapted from The Fellowship of Prayer, a Lent devotional I wrote for Chalice Press in 2012. A few copies are still available!

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photo credit: rmarshall via photopin cc

Nuggets from Anne Lamott

FFW

I got to hear Anne Lamott twice at the Festival of Faith and Writing. She was in classic Lamottian form, weaving many of her classic lines with some off-the-cuff stuff. Here are a few nuggets from my notes:

Quoting Geneen Roth: how you do one thing is how you do everything.

[On life's mysteries and needing an explanation] “Figure it out” is not a good life slogan.

Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor. It keeps you from having a sweet dumb regular old life.

[On our culture's discomfort with pain] When we the abyss opens up at your feet, you go to IKEA and buy a nice area rug.

If you’re multitasking, your life will be diminished.

Laughter is carbonated holiness. [a classic]

[On the discipline of writing every day] I am like Dr. Spock with myself: firm and friendly.
and
Don’t tell yourself that you’ll start writing when X or Y happens. If you cannot find me an hour, not even Jesus can help you.

We’re not hungry for what we’re not getting.
We’re hungry for what we’re not giving.

[On embracing the imperfections of others] I want to sit with the screwed up and the fascinated and the ones who wonder.

You don’t need an office, you need the discipline.

[On making excuses to take a break from writing and/or doing those things that are good for you] “Anyone would understand if…” is the voice of the devil.

The hour before the world gets to you is a precious and sacred hour. Evening is OK, but you’re sleepy and you have information toxicity.

Mary and Mary Magdalene didn’t know what the hell was going on at the cross, but they didn’t leave.

Barry Lopez: all we have are compassion and stories.

Five rules of adulthood in America, according to Father Tom (reported in Operating Instructions)
1. There’s nothing wrong with you.
2. If there’s something wrong with you, fix it.
3. If you can’t fix it, pretend you have.
4. If you can’t pretend, don’t show up.
5. If you insist on showing up, you’d better at least act ashamed.

One way to change a community is to subversively sneak books into their hands.

People like to say, ‘You can’t have faith and fear at the same time,’ and I don’t want to sit with them at lunch.

Cookies Help Save Our Lives

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This week’s Blue Room email reflection (subscribe here, though we’ll be going back to monthly-ish once Lent ends) was about the movie Stranger Than Fiction, one of my favorites.

A friend and subscriber sent a message back that it’s also one of her favorites; in fact she taught a Sunday School class on it some time ago. The closing voice-over became the closing “prayer” for the class, and she was kind to send it along as a reminder. Here it is.

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Sometimes, when we lose ourselves in fear and despair,
in routine and constancy,
in hopelessness and tragedy,
we can thank God for Bavarian sugar cookies.

And fortunately, when there aren’t any cookies,
we can still find reassurance
in a familiar hand on our skin,
or a kind and loving gesture,
or a subtle encouragement,
or a loving embrace,
or an offer of comfort.

Not to mention
hospital gurneys,
and nose plugs,
and uneaten Danish,
and soft-spoken secrets,
and Fender Stratocasters,
and maybe the occasional piece of fiction.

And we must remember that all these things,
the nuances,
the anomalies,
the subtleties,
which we assume only accessorize our days
are, in fact, here for a much larger and nobler cause:
They are here to save our lives.

I know the idea seems strange.

But I also know that it just so happens to be true.

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from Stranger Than Fiction, screenplay by Zach Helm