The Spirit is our Advocate

Living Stones

This morning the redbirds’ eggs / have hatched and already the chicks
are chirping for food. They don’t / know where it’s coming from, they
just keep shouting, “More! More!”
As to anything else, they haven’t / had a single thought. Their eyes
haven’t yet opened, they know nothing / about the sky that’s waiting. Or
the thousands, the millions of trees. / They don’t even know they have wings.     
         ………….
And just like that, like a simple / neighborhood event, a miracle
is taking place.
—Mary Oliver

      Beloved Ones, as we move into the season of Pentecost, we celebrate the birth and growth of the Church in the world.  We celebrate the stirring of the Holy Spirit within and among us.  We celebrate our call to bring people together in new, creative, and life-giving ways; to work for the common good of all Creation; and to shape life practices that allow all to thrive and flourish.  This is truly good news!  This is good news, even—and especially—in the wake of the heartbreaking news about terrorist attacks in Manchester and Jakarta.  Even—and especially—when those old fears seep in at the seams and our anger rises and we have a hard time believing the callous injustice we witness in our world.  Even—and especially—during these times, we have to trust and draw on the spiritual reservoirs of our faith community.  We have to remember that the Holy Spirit is our Advocate—and that the Holy Spirit is present with us now.
      Like I mentioned last Sunday, the Greek word used in John’s gospel for Spirit is paracletos.  And it is often translated as “Advocate,” which can function in a legal sense—literally referring to one who advocates for you before a court of law.  And it can also function more relationally—referring to one who brings help, consolation, comfort, and encouragement when you really need it.  But in any case, the most essential understanding of paracletos must include its most basic meaning, which is “to come alongside another.”  So, according to John, the Holy Spirit is an advocate that comes alongside us, and stands up for us when we need it, speaks on our behalf when we can’t find the words, lends a helping hand when we can’t carry everything on our own, and stays with us when we’re struggling so we will know that we are not alone.  The Spirit will manifest Jesus’s promise that he will not leave us orphaned but will come alongside us. . . .
      The Spirit will be by our side when our car stops running, when our anxiety spikes, when we feel bombarded by tragic news, when the pipe bursts, when we can’t get back to sleep, when our health triggers concern, when the job feels elusive, when we’re grieving the loss of a loved one, when work is contentious, when we fall out of touch with family, when we are uncertain about the future.  The Spirit is our Advocate—coming alongside us in comforting, encouraging, consoling, and caring ways that help us see and know an otherwise invisible God—and also encouraging us and guiding us to come alongside others.  Luring us onward and outward and toward the world.  With greater and expanding love.  Because this is what the Spirit does:  It slows us down, cracks us open, creates meaningful change in our lives, transforms our hearts, reassures us that we are not alone.  It reminds us to look our neighbors in the eye, to really see those around us, and it invites us to stand up and speak out and demand justice for both friends and strangers.  In other words, the Holy Spirit creates miracles all around us—and it invites us into those miracles.  Let’s celebrate them together!

See you in church,

Christy

This breath of God that fills us

Living Stones 

At Blackwater Pond the tossed waters have settled
after a night of rain. / I dip my cupped hands. I drink 
a long time. It tastes / like stone, leaves, fire. It falls cold
into my body, waking the bones. I hear them / deep inside me, whispering
oh what is that beautiful thing / that just happened?
          —Mary Oliver
         
          Easter came and went.  And it sure looked like a no-contest win for the Empire.  All the social, political, economic, and religious systems that Jesus challenged in his ministry were still in place.  The kingdom—the kin-dom—the commonwealth of God had not arrived in glory to right all of society’s wrongs.  Caesar and Herod were still shoring up their own power.  Caiaphas and the other chief priests still held death-grip control of the religious establishment.  The challenges we all struggle with are still with us.  Jesus was crucified – some say he is risen – but it looks like nothing has really changed. . . .
          In our world, old-growth forests are being clear-cut.  Whales are washing up onshore with bellies filled with tires, car parts, and massive amounts of plastic waste.  Many governments are willing to spend more money on oil pipelines than free access to clean water and education.  The use of nuclear weapons is being bandied about like reckless teenage boys playing chicken.  And now, I guess, we have to protest to insist that science is real and worthwhile; that facts exist?!  It seems that we are actively campaigning for our destruction.  And I wonder what has our celebration of Easter really changed?
          Are we content to find our hope and security in military power, economic dominance, insulated privilege, the denial of climate change, and the abundance of cheap and disposable goods?  Or do we believe that something, in fact, has changed—is different—because of the resurrection?
          We often hear people say, “It’s always darkest before the dawn.”  It always feels the bleakest before real and lasting change comes and transforms us—before that glass ceiling finally shatters—before evil and hate relinquish their strangle-hold on truth and justice and possibility….  And maybe that is what is happening when we find the disciples huddled together in a locked room a few days after the crucifixion.  They are afraid.  They’re just not certain about what—if anything—has changed.
          And yet, this story of the hibernating disciples is also a Pentecost story—a story about the birth of the church—against all odds.  The disciples were gathered there—intimidated and frightened; skittish and suspicious. . . .  And suddenly, Christ is with them.  And he says, “Peace be with you. . . .  Peace be with you.  As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  Then he breathes on them.  Not the rush of a violent wind and the tongues of fire that Luke talks about, but a human exhale . . . and a simple word:  “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
Now, I’ve heard preachers talk about how God must’ve been proud of the duck-billed platypus and the beetle and the blue heron and the moose.  But there is something special about human beings.  God fills human beings with great capacity for meaning and purpose—with the ability to search the heavens—with the power to tend and care for one another and for creation—to write poetry—to play music—to create art and beauty.  And Clivie reminds me: to build his interesting and complex transformer toys!
This breath.  This breath of God that fills us.  It is truly amazing, miraculous.  So extraordinary that we don’t want to imagine losing that breath of God—that creativity, that possibility, that powerful connection to God.
And that breath is what I was thinking about when I read about Ledell Lee last week.  I am always interested when Arkansas makes the news—because that place is so much a part of who I am.  But this week it made the news for a particularly troubling reason:  On Thursday (4/20/17), Arkansas executed Ledell Lee—its first execution since 2005—in a special rush to complete a number of executions before its lethal injection drug expires at the end of this month.  Even the pharmaceutical companies are arguing that there is a public health risk if their drugs are diverted for use in executions, but even so, the execution went ahead.  Now, there are many things that disturb me about this situation, but what especially grabbed my attention was an almost throw-away sentence in an article that stated that on Thursday, Lee declined a last meal and opted instead to receive communion. . . .  Who does that?!  Someone who wants that connection.  Someone who yearns to receive that breath, the Holy Spirit.
And that is the gift Christ left with those disciples.  There was nothing especially remarkable about any of them.  They were a commonplace, odd bunch.  But Jesus breathes on them and tells them to receive the Holy Spirit:  “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”   
So, what has changed?  They’ve been sent. . . .  Jesus says, what I have done in my life is now up to you to continue.  YOU have to keep it going. . . .  They have received the Holy Spirit.  And it charges them to be about something beyond themselves.  They become the Church.  Not just worshipping God, writing scripture, and praying.  But going out and serving people—often people who don’t even offer thanks.  Emptying our pockets for other people’s children.  Finding ways to provide shelter for those in need even though our own carpet needs replacing and our furnace needs work and the ceiling in the fellowship hall is falling down and our kitchen isn’t up to code.  Making time to go over and mow her yard even though our own grass is a foot high.  Speaking out for those with little or no voice—our environment, death row inmates, science, grace.  Offering an ear, a hand, communion. . . .  Prioritizing compassion.  Emphasizing courage, kindness, and sacrifice—even when we might be tempted to focus only on ourselves.
So, what has changed?  These people.  Their hearts. Us.  God has breathed on us.  Filled us with new life.  And the hope of the Holy Spirit.  And our feet are right where they need to be.  To start right here.  Right now.  Moving our world in a new and hopeful direction that values love and solidarity—that embodies the moral vision of our faith—that treasures the gifts of all creation—that sees the blessings all around us and the ways we are all interconnected.  Happy Easter, everyone!

See you in church,

Christy

Unbinding

Unbinding
John 11:1-45
Rev. Dr. Christy Newton
2 April 2017—5th Sunday of Lent

11Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. 3So the sisters sent a message to Jesus,* ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’
4But when Jesus heard it, he said, ‘This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.’ 5Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6after having heard that Lazarus* was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
Then after this he said to the disciples, ‘Let us go to Judea again.’ 8The disciples said to him, ‘Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?’
Jesus answered, ‘Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. 10But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.’ 11After saying this, he told them, ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.’
12The disciples said to him, ‘Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.’ 13Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. 14
Then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead. 15For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.’ 16Thomas, who was called the Twin,* said to his fellow-disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’
When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus* had already been in the tomb for four days. 18Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles* away, 19and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. 20When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’
23Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’
24Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’
25Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life.* Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’
27She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah,* the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’ When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, ‘The Teacher is here and is calling for you.’ 29And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. 30Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there.
32When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ 33When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’
They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ 35Jesus began to weep.
36So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ 37But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’
Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’
Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.’
40Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ 41So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upwards and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.’
43When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ 44The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’ Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.

Remember the questions from Adam’s class last Sunday:  What does it mean to be a Christian?  What are the qualities and characteristics of Christians?  And then to flip it on its head:  What does American culture and society understand to be Christian?  We came up with very different lists.
And I left that conversation feeling like, once again, the Religious Right has coopted and grotesquely distorted popular perceptions of my faith.  And I left that conversation feeling like we need to come out—as a community of faith. As Christians.  As progressives. As socially liberal Christians who adamantly advocate for a social gospel that connects economic, political, and social policies with the good news of Jesus Christ here and now. 
I left that conversation feeling like we need to come out as a Christian people who respond to the vulnerable with compassion; who create communities that welcome, include and care for all people and all creation; who commit ourselves to defeating any and all deeply entrenched systems that discriminate and oppress any of God’s beloved children. 
I left that conversation feeling like we need to spend a little time unbinding what we believe and what we stand for—as well as what we need to repent and what we need to let go of.
Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski’s metaphor of the lobster illustrates what I mean by coming out and unbinding. . . .  The lobster is a soft mushy animal in a hard, rigid shell.  The shell doesn’t expand.  How does lobster grow?  The shell is quite confining.  Under pressure.  Uncomfortable.  The lobster goes under rock formation to protect it from predators, and casts off the old shell and produces a new bigger one. . . .  When that new shell becomes uncomfortable, it repeats.  Repeats… numerous times.  “The stimulus for the lobster to be able to grow is that it feels uncomfortable.”  Today it is so easy to find a quick fix for our discomfort.  Valium.  Percocet… we never need to cast off our shell.  We must realize that times of stress are also times that are signals for growth
In other words, adversity can open us up, unbind us, and lead us out.
     But we must be willing to be authentic—even when it feels uncomfortable and hard.  We must be willing to cast off what doesn’t fit, come out, and unbind our truth—
to say what we believe and why it matters—especially in a world that seems to think that truth is optional and fear is a legitimate tool to “keep people in their places.”  Which is really just another way to oppress, neglect, and maintain the entrenched status quo.
     So, even though it may make us feel incredibly vulnerable, we must shed that hard, rigid, protective yet confining shell that we have outgrown.  And when we do that, each one of us may feel so very alone, but we’re not.  Each one of us has shells we’ve outgrown.  We all have closets we must come out of.  We all need to burst open the doors that confine us and our spirits in small spaces. 
     We need to step out of our closets, unbind our hearts, and live courageously and with authenticity. We can’t be content to drift along, living shallowly in the shadows.  We are called into life-giving transformation and greater awareness of the power and possibilities of deeply living.  We all need resurrection.
     Now, during this Lenten season, we’ve heard the story of Nicodemus.  The Samaritan Woman at the Well. The story of the Man Blind from Birth.  And throughout these stories, Jesus is talking on one level, and the people, accustomed to understanding things simplistically and literally, often fail to grasp his deeper and wider meanings.
     Now, in today’s story, first it’s the disciples—the good ol’ disciples. . . .  They just never seem to get it, do they?  Do they really think Lazarus is asleep?  And then it’s Martha.  She approaches Jesus with a bold faith, which empowers her to speak directly to Jesus.  But even Martha, in her faithfulness, misunderstands Jesus’ talk of resurrection. 
     Jesus clearly tells Martha that Lazarus will live again because of who he is:  “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”  But when she goes back to Mary, she simply tells her that the nice teacher Jesus is here.  Maybe she doesn’t realize Jesus’ immediate intention?  Maybe in her grief, she can’t quite grasp the enormity of his revelation?
     But this resurrection is no futuristic event.  The resurrection Jesus is talking about happens here and now.  It is not something far away.  It is not some divine bribe or cosmic reward.  It is no pie in the sky.  Here, Jesus overhauls traditional understandings of life and death.  Even people who live can be dead.  And even people who die can live.  As if explicitly preparing us for Holy Week and Good Friday, Jesus is saying death is not final, and ultimately, it has no power.  He teaches us that the life-giving power of God is limitless—not just after we die—but NOW. 
Lazarus makes this tangible for us.  His illness—like the blind man’s blindness—reveal the glory of God.  They remind us that resurrection is a possibility for each of us right now.  They remind us of the power of stepping out of our closets, unbinding our hearts, having those hard conversations, and shifting the focus of our lives—from death, despair, fear, anger, and grief to life, grace, hope, and joy.  Even when we suffer agonizing losses and we wrestle with intense grief, trauma, and pain.  Even then, at some point, we will be visited by questions about what new life waits for us.  And then, we will have a choice:  Will we cling to the grave clothes? 
Or will we respond to the voice of Christ who calls us to come out?
Unfortunately, we live in a world where there is a profound focus on death.  Shootings, genocide, terrorism, threat of war, ongoing war. . . .  When Jesus came to Lazarus’s tomb and witnessed so many people consumed by death, he wept.  Not just because he loved Lazarus, but because of the power death wields in the world.  He wept because the destructive power of death was all around him.  He wept because he felt its sharp opposition to God’s generous, life-giving power of love.  He wept because the religious authorities were threatened by his gifts of transformation.  And he weeps still because this same obsession with death continues to be at work in the world. . . .
In the scripture immediately following the one we just read in John, the Sanhedrin—the highest Judean court and governing body—will meet to decide what to do about Jesus. . . .
And heavily dependent on violence to solve their problems, they will decide that Jesus must die.  He’s too much of a threat to the powers-that-be.  Giving Lazarus his life will result in the decision to put Jesus to death. . . . 
The stone was rolled back, Lazarus was unbound, and he left the tomb.  But the price is that Jesus has to enter it. . . .  Life, you see, has enemies.  Good news has enemies.  And even resurrection has enemies. 
But this is not the final word.  It is never the final word.  Grace, transformation, hope, and love have more power, and they offer to unbind us.  THIS is the Christian faith I know:  Throughout his ministry, Jesus teaches us to be a life-giving, gracious presence in a world that glorifies bullies, swoons after violence, and marvels at the spectacle of death.  And he stirs in us the power to rise up and come out of our closets—to embody resurrection and life.
And if we forget this—in our busyness or the in the commotion of the season—if we find ourselves dwelling in the anger, fear, bitterness, or anything else that denies life, let us remember and listen. . . . 
It is Jesus standing just beyond the edge of our tomb, crying out to us in a loud voice, “You, beloved one, come out!”  Life is waiting.

Amen.