“Purple Power” © Laurel Dahill, 2016 Easter 6 – Year C May 1, 2016

prince purp suitI was dreaming when I wrote this. Forgive me if it goes astray. But it always delights me when seemingly disparate current events, and the scripture lessons decided upon long ago, all come together to form a unique and meaningful message. Is it coincidence? Is there a divine hand at work calling our attention to something? I don’t know, maybe. But there’s good news to be found in the conjunction of things today.

The first thread in this conjunction comes from Acts, where we find ourselves in Philippi, where Paul meets “A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, and a dealer in purple cloth.” Purple cloth is kind of a big deal. The resources for purple dye are easy enough to come by but processing them is anything but easy. It’s not like other dyes. That makes purple a uniquely valuable item. It’s expensive, and only the elite in the empire get to wear it. It became a marker of royalty. When it comes to clothing the royals, purple reigns.

Lydia, the proprietor of this purple cloth business, is also kind of a big deal. She’s not like other women. That makes her uniquely valuable to us. We know that the role of women at this time rarely included business practices on the scale of international trade. More women in the Bible are unnamed than named, and only the most significant are identified on their own terms, rather than as the wife of someone. Lydia is all of these things, and likely more.

Lydia had the gift of entrepreneurship. She had the skill set to compete at a very high level with other traders and business owners. She was savvy with finances, and had a strong managerial style that afforded her the time to spend with Paul and the others. She had access to domestic resources that allowed her to open her home up to Paul and his travelling companions to stay – for a while.

This purple woman is honoured because she fully lives into all the gifts she was given. She honored God by using all those gifts. Not only does she herself prosper by being her authentic self, but so too do all the people around her. Putting her gifts to work benefits others as well. That’s important. Putting her gifts to work benefits others as well.

As I was reading the lectionary selections for today, I was struck by the coincidence of a dealer in purple with the next part of the conjunction. I’ve been listening to the Prince tribute station on the radio in my car. Prince: another purveyor of purple, if you will. I always liked Prince, and purple happens to be my favourite colour too. But to me, Prince was important for more than just his singing. His iconic use of elaborate purple outfits, and his bold expressions of himself were important to me in my formative years, as I was beginning to discover how God created me.

Prince refused to conform to fashion standards and the expectations of his industry. He expressed who he was in his own way – which was always a little eccentric to say the least. But to me he was brave. He didn’t care what other people thought. God gave him really awesome gifts and talents. He didn’t diminish them around others. Rather, he magnified them and shared them with the world. Because of his generous sharing of himself, he honoured God in his being; and he made my life better in the process.

My high school years, were probably like everybody’s high school years: there were certain types everybody was expected to fit into – the jocks, the gearheads, the nerds, the dweebs, and so forth. If you didn’t choose your box, one was chosen for you. Now, daring to step outside those modes meant unwanted attention, and I didn’t always fit neatly into any one of those modes of being. But to me, I thought if Prince can put himself that far out there, and show the world his authentic self, then I could too. In those formative years, we all needed whatever we could get to get through this thing called life.

As I listen to the tribute station, a certain song comes up from time to time: 7. 7 is Prince’s take on the Book of Revelation. His song rests on the confidence that all the bad things in the vision will fail to overcome love. The seven plagues, the seven scrolls, the seven bowls of tears, trumpets, angels, and so forth, all will fall leaving only love for all space and time. I always thought it was a cool song. But recently when I started listening more carefully to the lyrics. And haven’t we been immersed in the Book of Revelation for weeks now.

The Book of Revelation is a tricky book. It’s hard to read. The imagery in John’s vision is so bold and detailed and often disturbing, that it’s easy to get carried away with them and miss the finer points.

It seems for the past two or three years, at about this time of year, there’s been really broad advertising for a course on the Book of Revelation. I’ve seen several billboards between here and Grand Rapids advertising it. The catch lines say something about the end times, and what secrets Revelation reveals to us, and how we can hope to survive the coming armageddon. The course focuses on the imagery of systematic disasters that befall our world prior to the end of the world. One-to-one comparisons are frequently made to prove that the wars have begun, that the antichrist is among us, and that the seven seals are already being opened. For those who read this book in literal terms, Revelation is a literal script for the end of the world. That’s not the only way to read Revelation.

The excerpts that we follow highlight the places where God’s love comes through the tribulations – a perspective not unlike Prince’s read of Revelation in the song 7. We start out with the salutation, “Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come.” Spoiler alert. Then we read, The Lamb at the center of the throne will be the shepherd that guides us to the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. We read, “the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new; and I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.’” Whatever happens in this crazy world of ours, we can be confident that God’s love outlasts it all, and that we are included in salvation. For every plague, bowl of tears, and trumpeting angel, we are assured that God is greater. All these bad things eventually burn themselves out, while God’s love remains. This is not a read that seeks out harsh judgement and tribulation. It’s a vision of the kingdom of heaven where you can always see the sun, day or night. If the Book of Revelation were not ultimately good news, why would we be reading it in Easter?

So where does this conjunction of impressive fully enlivened people, purple, and Revelation bring us? Why to the Gospel of course! In this section of our lectionary today, we get to see ourselves interacting with Jesus. Where the Holy Spirit once came down upon the likes of Lydia and Prince and the Apostles and all those who inspire our faith journey, and energized in them the courage to live fully into all that God made them to be – now in the Gospel we get to see ourselves on the receiving end of the grace and love of God. We get to decide if we will accept the gift of courage to be fully who we are, and, if we will share that gift with those around us.

Dig if you will the picture: of a man waiting by a pool of healing water. The question isn’t: won’t somebody please let him in? The question is: why won’t he take the last couple steps to his goal? He’s waiting for others to give him permission to take what is rightfully his for the taking. Like those kids in high school: he’s been put in his place, because he didn’t make the choice to enter the pool when he had the chance. The people he’s waiting on to help him, are busy helping themselves to what is rightfully theirs. The man doesn’t realize he doesn’t need anyone to help him in. He needs the courage to take what’s his. That’s when Jesus walks in.

Jesus says, be bold. Get up! Claim what is rightfully yours, and be the full, whole, and authentic person God created you to be. Allowing others to get between you and your fullest self does nothing to honour God. We have already been given permission to be all that God wants us to be. We’ve already been through those waters – in our baptisms. But we all forget that part sometimes. Jesus gave the man at the well the push he needed, in the right direction, to become his full, authentic, and complete self so that he could accomplish all the things God created him to do. His being himself and using the gifts God gave him will be the gift that he gives others.

Throughout our lives we are each given people who push us in the right direction. Maybe it’s a person from a Bible story who exceeds expectations. Maybe it’s an inspiring figure in history. Maybe it’s a rock star that you never actually met. By their example, they show us how to be fully ourselves, to be whole and authentic and complete. We are not here to live in to the wills and whims of others who would be happier if we stayed down, grovelling, needing their sanction and approval to enter some healing water. We been through the healing water in our baptisms, and were marked as Christ’s own, marked to be unique, authentic, and bold to proclaim the good news in our very being.

Being a disciple to Jesus Christ means we live with our eyes turned toward heaven, our feet planted on the ground, and our arms open wide to the experiences of everyday living. The conjunction of all these things meets us at our hearts, the dwelling place of love for all of it. That love is what gets shared with all those around us, when we fully embody the gifts God has given us.

Each and every one of us has been created to glorify God in all that we do, and in all that we are. So be a woman who uses all her gifts to their fullest potential. Dare to trade in imperial purple. Be a man with the courage to express himself – even if it’s different than the other guys. You don’t have to be cool. When all these gifts come together in you, with reckless spiritual abandon, you can be sure that others are inspired to glorify God in their being too.

Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to be the good news for those around us.

Amen.

“We See What We Want to See” ©The Rev. Laurel Dahill, 2016 Palm Sunday – Year C March 20, 2016

I often go looking to other preachers for inspiration when I’m preparing my sermons. It’s helpful to me to hear how other people see things. Preparing for Palm Sunday was no exception, but something unusual was revealed to me that I hadn’t considered before.

The preachers that addressed this special service spent their time on Jesus’ procession into the city. They described it in various ways. One called it the triumphal entry. That’s a phrase that’s familiar to us. Others used illustrations to reframe the event. One said Jesus coming into Jerusalem was like the basket ball court fanfare just before the players enter for a March Madness game. The preacher described flashing lights and fireworks; loud music, and getting the spectators all hyped up to cheer on their team. Another likened the Gospel story to a political convention when the nominee for the ticket is announced. All the delegates are there with their funny hats, and their state signs bobbing up and down. There’s a balloon drop when the candidate is announced and the party goes on all night. Finally, there was the classic reference to the scene in Jesus Christ Superstar with the song Hosanna heysanna, sanna sanna ho… and before long we’re all tapping our feet to that catchy tune. In all of these sermon illustrations, the focus is on celebration. And joy. And victory.

But what if it’s not? Everybody seems to be having a good time… except for Jesus: who is the whole reason they’re all there in the first place waving palms and shouting Hosanna! Jesus isn’t joining in the festivities though. Something’s going on here, and the celebration is a cover-up for it. The Palm Sunday processional liturgy is a biblical red herring. While we’re paying attention to the obvious thing, something more important is happening out of the corner of our eyes. If we choose to turn to face it, we’ll see it; otherwise we won’t.

This is something we do all the time. Perhaps human beings are simply hard-wired to be this way: we see what we want to see. And we don’t see what we don’t want to see. In this case, we want to celebrate the triumphal entry of the King of the Jews into Jerusalem. We want to make a big show of things. Did any of the people there have a plan for what was going to happen next for their king? No. Not really. Nothing specific. There was no plan except for the one Jesus had… and that plan had nothing to do with fanfare and a ticker tape parades – or palms and cloaks, as the case may be. But Jesus’ plan was not something anyone wanted to see. So they didn’t.

Jesus has no illusions as to why he’s going to Jerusalem and what will happen there. He tells his disciples what will happen several times. He mentions it in Mark in two different chapters. He says it once in Luke, and the Gospel of Matthew has Jesus foretell the passion story three times! Matthew writes, “Now Jesus was going up to Jerusalem. On the way, he took the Twelve aside and said to them, ‘We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified.” That to me is crystal clear. I don’t like it any more than the apostle Peter did, but if it’s worth Jesus repeating, there must be something more to it, like it or not. It demands our attention.

Peter said to Jesus, on the occasion of one these revelations, that these things cannot happen to Jesus. (That’s when Jesus responded “get behind me satan.”) If the Son of God says something’s going to happen, we can expect that God has a tremendous grace in store for us. Our job is to look beyond the present discomfort to receive that gift. But Peter doesn’t want to see it, and so he fights it.

Sometimes we don’t want to see those things that frighten us. Those things that make us uncomfortable or anxious are not things we want to invest our attention – and that’s reasonable. When we put blinders on ourselves to the people and events that challenge us, we do ourselves no favours by our willful ignorance. While there may be something distasteful vying for our attention, there’s a good chance that there’s also a grace in there waiting to be discovered. We ignore the uncomfortable things and deny ourselves the gift they offer.

With all the crowds cheering Jesus on as he made his way into the city, there was no way for him to share blessings. The crowds weren’t in a receptive place. They were in a celebratory, noise-making, don’t-rain-on-my-parade kind of place. You can’t talk to people who aren’t listening. Even the Pharisees were like, hey Jesus, do you think you could get them to tone it down a little? And Jesus was like no. There’s not going to be any peace at this point. It wasn’t until Jesus got his disciples into a quiet upper room for dinner that Jesus could finally speak a word.

Jesus said he eagerly desired to eat the Passover with his friends. There was something he really, really wanted to say to them; and he had to be really really patient until he could get his moment. Now, finally it’s here, and they are in a receptive mood to listen.

Jesus does this amazing, remarkable, extraordinary thing with the bread and wine they were eating. Something truly powerful and transformative happened at that meal. There was a grace beyond any grace they’d ever experienced. It’s a grace so powerful, that it has continued unbroken for centuries. Did the disciples ever expect something like this in the midst of the triumphal entry into the city? Could Jesus have even broached this grace while everyone was shouting Hosanna!? No way.

But in that moment, knowing he’s got the disciples in a receptive place, Jesus begins to tell the disciples about another thing that will happen – a betrayal. Let’s listen in… Luke, chapter 22, verses 23 and 24: “Then [the disciples] began to ask one another, which one of them it could be who would do this. A dispute also arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest.” And with that Jesus loses his audience. There’s a pledge to die with Jesus, and a promise of denial, somebody grabs two swords. It’s mayhem. Jesus says enough!

Did Jesus miscalculate? Did he not read his friends well? He had them right where he wanted them – a place where spirit world and material world seamlessly blended. And then he lost them. More accurately, they lost themselves in their own anxiety.

One of the things I often hear about is people who feel trapped in an abusive relationship. The thought of parting ways is so uncomfortable and so challenging, that they refuse to hear that good things can happen for them if they separate. So the grace of peace and serenity go unclaimed.

I also hear from people who suffer from addictions, that they enjoy their lives and friends far too much to consider for a moment that devastating things await them if they continue their current lifestyle. They love the celebration of being high, and don’t want to hear about the difficulties of sobriety, even if it brings them true health and safety. They don’t hear what they don’t want to hear.

Closer to home, it’s becoming ever clearer that the first job of the Take My Hand outreach is to get people to name the problem of suicide for what it is, and not pretend that it’s something else, or that it’s magically gone away. Suicide in our community is a problem, and there’s a grace in it, if only we allow ourselves to turn aside to see it. But we only see what we want to see. We have our work cut out for us.

Our capacity to allow our fears and anxieties overtake our receptivity to God’s spirit of grace is staggering. We are so much more ready to cling to our fears than we are to open ourselves up to grace and love. What really harms us is not our hardwired reflex for fear, but our unwillingness to allow a transformative grace to emerge from those fearful things.

The grace of God, which surpasses all understanding, is perfectly capable to moving through people and events that challenge us. It’s only when we put up a wall to shield ourselves from what we fear that we end up denying ourselves a gift that God has for us.

When was the last time you let yourself get overtaken by your own anxieties that you refused to entertain the notion that God might actually be extending grace? That’s a hard question to answer. Because you never know when or how a challenging person or event might be a vehicle for an amazing, remarkable, and extraordinary thing. You just don’t know until you quiet yourself to let listen for it. Sisters and brothers, trust in God is easier said than done.

At this point in the Passion story of Jesus, the disciples don’t yet know the magnitude of the grace that God has to offer. They have to journey through a time of difficulty and transformation of themselves before they can get to the grace that God offers. They still have to encounter difficult people and frightening events that will challenge them on many levels. We all have to.

Stay with us for the rest of the story of Holy Week. Come back on Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 6:30pm to learn more about the gifts that God has for us. God is not done giving to us. We are not done being able to receive these gifts. Quiet the noise of the world and open your hearts in this most difficult of liturgical seasons to where the spirit world and material world in you blend seamlessly. There is still Good News to be had.