Sunday, April 22, 2012

Even Behind Closed Doors

John 20: 19-31
A.  Post Easter Appearances of Jesus
Last week we heard the resurrection account from the Gospel of Mark.  Mark is the oldest of the Gospels as well as the least descriptive.  There are no embellishments.    Mark ends shortly after we hear about Jesus’ victory over the tomb without much fanfare.  In the words of Dragnet’s Joe Friday Mark it’s ‘just the facts ma’m, just the facts.’ There is a post resurrection appearance but it only takes a verse or two to tell the story. 

The Gospel of Matthew also ends quickly with only one appearance of Jesus after his resurrection.

Luke on the other hand tells us the beautiful story which we refer to as the Road to Emmaus where Jesus walks alongside of two disciples and yet they didn’t know who he was.  Jesus reveals himself when he blesses the bread and gives it to them; it is after that that they recognize him.
The Gospel of John is clearly the most theologically imbued Gospel. Outside of next week when we will hear from Luke, the next six Sundays we will be focused on John.   John contains a high “Christology” meaning that Jesus is already portrayed throughout the Gospel as the risen Son of God. 

I know, Christology, right?  It’s a seminary ‘SAT’ word!  It’s a word that seminary professors use regularly and their students who want to do well in their classes.  But high Christology is what makes John such an endearing Gospel to read.  Jesus say’s “I am the vine and you are the branches, I am the resurrection and the life, and I am the good shepherd”.  After reading the Gospel of John there is no doubt that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life.   

B.  Jesus, the Disciples and Thomas
It’s too bad that Thomas didn’t have the Gospel of John in his back pocket to pull out and read when he doubted that Jesus was none other than Jesus the Christ.  Would have made it so much easier for Thomas.  Throughout time a lot has been written about this doubting Thomas, this somewhat arrogant disciple.  Many menacing sermons have been written about Thomas who had a few qualms about who Jesus really was.  Guess we all have doubts about our faith at times but there is so much more that is happening in this passage that begs our close reflection.

It still had not been twenty four hours since Mary Magdalene stood weeping at that empty tomb and Jesus, disguised as the gardener, appears to her.  She does as he requests and tells the disciples that she has seen her Lord.  They didn’t know what to do and they needed some time to process what had all just happened over this particular Passover. 

A joyful procession, anxiety in Jerusalem, an intimate meal, betrayal, denial, whipping and weeping, death and then this resurrection.  That was their week.  It is no wonder that they are hole up in a house with the doors locked.  I would be too. Who wouldn’t be afraid?

It’s through these locked up, shut up tight, barred doors that Jesus comes to them.  This is his second appearance to his followers after his resurrection.

“Peace” he says, “Peace be with you”.   That familiar, strong and calming voice.  Perhaps it sounded like a parent’s lullaby, or a favorite hymn from your childhood, or like a beloved story told to you over and over even though you know the end, or even a voice calling the sea to stop raging.  It was calm. 

In those four words, “Peace be with you”, Jesus is really saying, be still, be calm, relax, let your fear and doubts melt away, let the wholeness of my love reside in your heart.  He is saying, I am with you.  I will not fail you.  Trust in me.  I will walk next to you wherever you want and need to go.  I’ll be by your side even on those roads that you really shouldn’t be going down.  I’ll manage to get in when the doors have been closed.

Jesus shows them his wounds and again says, “Peace be with you.  God has sent me, so now I’m sending you.”  He breathes on them and at once they are filled with the Holy Spirit.  Jesus gives them his peace, he commissions them for greater work and he empowers them to go out and do this work. 

But Thomas wasn’t there for the first Jesus sighting, he didn’t hear the others story.  Too bad because we know how second hand stories particularly second hand stories of miraculous events, never quite pull the same punch.  Well, a week later when they all were gathered in that house, Thomas too, again with the door shut, Jesus comes to them.  Once more he says, “Peace be with you.”   His reassurance opens their hearts except for Thomas.

But Jesus didn’t tell Thomas off, or give him a good talking to, no reprimands, chastisements, or sarcasm.  Simply he says, “Peace” like he did the first time he came to the others and allows Thomas all the time and evidence that he needs to come around.

C.  It’s all about Jesus
This passage is not so much about Thomas and his doubts.  He’s human just like us.  It’s really about Jesus.  It’s about his tenacity to find us in our deepest, most locked away places.  Those places where we shut him out rather than let him in.  It is about his persistent love and his ability to be incredibly patient with our human foibles and less than desirable habits.

Just when the disciples didn’t know what to do next and rather than take a chance on the unknown outside of the walls, they decided to stay behind a locked door.  It’s Jesus who comes to them.  It’s Jesus who shows them what to do next. It’s Jesus who lifts them up and instills the spirit within them.  Even behind closed doors Jesus comes.  

D.  Our Closed Doors
We’ve all sat behind doors in our lives that have shut out the world, or worse shut out those whom we love.  Perhaps there is something overwhelming you and in order to deal with it you just completely close down.  I marvel at babies who fall asleep in their carriage even though they are at a parade with noise and music, cannons and people.  They just shut down

While it may seem ok at first, the door gets locked and then dead bolted and then even we ourselves can’t get out.  It’s not a healthy or good place to be.  Thank goodness God doesn’t let us alone but persistently and consistently figures out how to enter in and grants us that beautifully understanding peace.
Remember all the while Jesus says, “Peace”, “Peace be with you.” He says, I bring you my peace of love and patience, understanding and guidance.  Be assured that Christ enters into this process with you; he’ll help you with the inner workings of the spirit and discernment.  Be open and believe that you will emerge confidently in his name.  You will.

May that same Spirit who was breathed on the disciples behind their closed door light upon us to comfort and energize us for whatever the future holds. 


Monday, April 9, 2012

Resurrection Vision

Mark 16: 1-8
The dawn revealed ever so slightly a ribboned sky of deep blues and indigo, some magenta with varying hues of orange.   As the sun began to rise over the mountains of Moab, over the Jordan River, and finally over the Mount of Olives Mary Magdalene, Mary, James mother, and Salome got the packages of spices they had purchased at the market and walked to Jesus’ tomb.  The chill of the early morning made them wrap their scarves more tightly around their shoulders.  There was no time when Jesus was crucified to properly prepare his body for burial since it was the Sabbath.  So they went now, in the early morning of the first day of the week to anoint him.
They knew, more than likely, that Joseph of Arimethia had a very large stone placed in front of the tomb, so robbers wouldn’t break in and take Jesus’ body.  But the problem for the women was that it was big and very heavy.  All they wanted to do was see him, to touch his broken body for one last time and to slather on him the spices for burial and this boulder would make it extremely difficult for them to do so. 

By the time they came down the hill towards the tomb the sun was beginning to shine and they saw an unlikely and incredible sight.  The stone had been rolled away from the cave tomb; their anxieties turned to fear, not surprising.

They went in panicked, their faces probably registered trepidation and fear.  They didn’t see Jesus’ body but they did see someone dressed in white.  He reassured them, “Do not be afraid. You’re looking for Jesus, but you see he’s not here, he has been raised.”  The women stepped back with their jaws dropped open in disbelief.  Then the man spoke, “Go tell the disciples and especially Peter the one who denied him; tell them that Jesus is going ahead of them to Galilee where they are to meet him.”  Certainly this must have appeared to be some sort of cryptic message to the women.

They dropped their spice boxes, turned around and fled from the tomb.  They hiked up their robes and began to run back on the same path that they had just traversed.  Terror struck. Amazed.  Quite afraid. They were seized with dread and told no one as they ran.

This is not quite the resurrection story that we celebrate today.  Today we have come knowing that the tomb is already empty, that Jesus has accomplished everything that was sent to do.  He conquered death and sin and he soon will ascend to heaven to prepare a place for us.  All that in a nutshell.

Christ is Risen!  He is Risen indeed!  It is our Easter mantra.  It is a prophetic statement that we claim over and over again.  And unlike those women who first encountered an empty grave, an empty grave does not scare us, we are NOT afraid.  I don’t see any hair raised or terror struck faces here today. 

‘Christ is Risen’ was not a glorious resurrection phrase for them as it is for us; it would have been ambiguous and filled with more questions than answers.  It wouldn’t be Christ is Risen! for the women but rather, Christ….is Risen?  Their lives were changed no doubt to a new reality where they had to recast their vision, reassess their lives and build new ones with Jesus dead and gone.

We’ve come a long way from that first hour and those first few days.  ‘We love to tell the story’ as Kate Hankey wrote in her hymn of so long ago, ‘we love to tell the old, old story of Jesus and his love’.  It is the story of redemption and hope and of God’s love for us.  It is the story of life not death.  It is a narrative that unfolded long ago in a distant land but continues to give us a lens through which we can see our lives.

We have all experienced resurrection at some point in time, probably often if we stop to think about it.  Resurrection is a pivotal moment when you suddenly see dawn emerging out of the darkness of the night, when your torrential tears begin to subside, when your broken heart begins to mend, when just the mere sound of children’s voices or the springtime warble of a red bird once again brings you immeasurable joy. 

At this moment God has parted the waters of chaos and has guided you out of spiritual and emotional bondage.  You are ushered into God’s complete divine presence and grace.  We can emerge stronger than ever in the knowledge that through Christ and his death we are beneficiaries of resurrection vision not just once but as often as needed.

Years ago a man named Bill dropped by my office one day and asked if he could just sit and talk.  “Sure” I said, even though I was in the middle of writing a sermon and really didn’t want to be disturbed.  Bill was a pipefitter and a crusty old man.  He would sit and ‘witness’ to me like evangelicals do and I’d think to myself, come on Bill, I know all this stuff already, I know Jesus saves, I know about the ‘Footsteps in the Sand’ poem.  He would always start off with something about ‘Footsteps in the Sand’.  But God saved me and put me on mute so that I could listen and hear Bill’s story. 

I finally realized that Bill came to tell me his story of redemption.  He came to share with me, to witness and to tell me the same thing over and over again about his former addiction, his adult dysfunctional children who moved back home, and about his beloved wife.  He told me about how God picked him up every step of the way and carried him to a place where he could begin again with resurrection vision. 

Often Bill came for a visit.  And it’s almost as if the minute he sat down he pushed ‘play’ on his life’s tape recorder  and when he left my office he would push ‘rewind’ to get ready for his next visit. Our talks were always the same. Through his visits I learned patience, and beyond that, that once someone has been redeemed and resurrected to a new vision of their life they cannot help but tell other people as often as they can.  His message to me was I have been saved through Christ and an empty tomb is grace, unconditionally. 

Christ’s resurrection does not leave us in the same place.  It simply cannot.  It does not leave us standing at an empty tomb wringing our hands.  What’s the point of that?  His resurrection asks us, ‘What is life?’ “What is my life, what is your life?” ‘How will you choose to live the life that you are given?’  ‘Since you are a witness to the resurrection today what meaning will you make of your life that will embody a resurrection vision?’  A lot of people live lives of missed opportunities and broken dreams without ever taking accepting the gift of resurrection so they can see anew. Bill lived the vision for his life that freed him from his troubles and to see beyond his suffering, will you do so for yours as well?  Christ death and resurrection are over and done with.  Your life is what counts now in light of it all. 

Christ is Risen!  It’s the boldest statement that we will ever be asked to make in our lifetime. 

The Mary’s and Salome did eventually tell someone because, today, thousands of years later we say with conviction….Christ is Risen!  We speak today for those women who were gripped with fear.  We know there is nothing to fear, only resurrection vision to embrace.  We may not knock on someone’s door just to chat and tell them the poem of Footsteps in the Sand but we can tell our own story.  We each have one, you can’t fool me.

This is the Easter message.  Christ’s story, our story, elaborately knit by incredible redeeming love.  We must witness.  If you don’t believe me this year, come back next year and check in, the doors are always open.  By then I will have had a chance to rewind the tape to that old, old story of love…Christ is Risen – He is Risen Indeed!  

So Be It!


Monday, April 2, 2012

Untie that Donkey

Mark 11: 1-11

Palm Sunday by William Hemmerling
It was Passover and Jerusalem was the place to be at Passover.  Jews from all over first century Palestine would make pilgrimage and gather to remember how God had ‘passed over’ their homes in Egypt during the slaughter of the innocents.  They remember how God had protected them from the plagues and how God had brought them out of slavery.

Jerusalem was also the seat of the Roman government in the Mediterranean world in the Roman Empire.  The people were burdened with taxes, economic issues, systems of land debt to the Romans, and Herod, a puppet ruler of Rome was not a happy, or skilled ruler for “all” the people. The people resented him.  They wanted badly to prevent the transformation of Jerusalem into a Greco-Roman city.  This was the situation that year and the people shouted, “Hosanna” which means in Hebrew, save us!  Not hooray, or yippee, not even praise him, hosanna means save us.  Their hope and expectation was for a king who would be able to save them from the Roman authorities and the Greco-Roman influence that threatened their religious identity.  Many believed Jesus was their man. They sang out “Hosanna in the name of the highest, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” 

The ‘Palm Sunday’ narrative is recorded in all four of the Gospels each supplying its own unique details of that day.  Mark’s account is the shortest of the four gospels and it is the focus of today’s reflection.  Hear now the Gospel of Mark, the 11th chapter:

Just east of Jerusalem on the other side of the Mount of Olives lies sleepy Bethany.  Jesus went there often for respite; it was his little ‘get away’ retreat spot.  As he and his disciples were getting close to Bethany, Jesus says to two of them, “Go, run ahead, will you?  Go to the village and when you see a donkey, a colt, untie him, then bring him to me.”  “Oh,” Jesus says, “and if anybody says anything to you, just tell them that I sent you.”  Seems as if Jesus already had thought this donkey fetching through.  In fact, out of the 11 verses that comprise this story, 6 are focused on donkey detail.  It’s a big deal.

I can just hear the two disciples now as they run ahead.  “What the heck?  Why do we have be the ones to get the donkey?  Why didn’t he choose those other two, you know the ones who never do anything?  For this we left our fishing boats and our beautiful Galilee?”  

Beyond their kevetching their mission was successful; and they lead this colt back to Jesus.  Certainly this animal was not fit for a ‘king’ so they put their cloaks on the donkey; at least it would protect Jesus from the dirt and dander of the animal.
The Colt and the King
Jesus began his journey out of dusty Bethany, over the steep incline of the back side of the Mount of Olives, down into the Kidron Valley and into bustling and contentious, Jerusalem.  The disciples followed, the people followed.  People threw their garments on the ground and they ripped down branches from palm trees, maybe even branches from some of the prolific olive trees that dot the side of the Mount of Olives. 

But what about the donkey and those two disciples who were dispatched to bring back such a lowly creature? I bet that they never, in their wildest imaginations thought that they would be untying a donkey that didn’t even belong to them, and then have to bring it to Jesus.  They probably never envisioned that this was ministry, that this mundane detail would become such a large part of the events of the day. 

When Jesus said, follow me, he meant, really people….follow me.  Believe me.  Trust me.  Do as I say.  But come on, untie a donkey?  That probably means cleaning up after the donkey too.  It’s hard to grasp the larger picture when grunt work is all that you are doing in the name of the Lord.

Yet, to follow Jesus is just as much hands on as it is an intellectual and spiritual exercise. 

When I entered the ministry a former colleague of mine asked me if I had my Swiss Army knife on me.  Being a quarter Swiss I had to stop and think for a minute, was he making a joke at my ethnic expense?  No. He was a joker!  He really did want to know if I had a knife with me, he needed the screwdriver because we were erecting the stage together for the upcoming Christmas pageant. 

They don’t tell you in seminary that sometimes you’ll have to fix a leaky faucet, pick up cigarette butts, wash the floors, screw stages together and fix paper jams.  They don’t tell you to keep a Swiss Army knife on you.  And they forget to tell you about all the committees and paperwork that needs tending to.  This is donkey detail!

To be relevant Karl Barth once said, “One should read with the Bible in one hand, and the newspaper in the other”.  I say, “One should read with the Bible in one hand, the newspaper in the other, and have a Swiss Army knife hanging from your belt.”  Then, and only then are you prepared to follow Jesus, to bolster the church and to deal with the grunt work of ministry.

Ministry of the Church takes many hands and hearts.  Hands and hearts that are willing to perform the unglamorous.  

This is ministry of donkey duty, grunt work where we will have to metaphorically, go and untie that donkey.  It behooves us to do it ourselves for in that humble moment you know you are serving not yourself but God.  You have humbly given of yourself and your pride over to the greater need.  We will have to serve in unglamorous ways that equally and ultimately, too, lift up the body of Christ.  Our time and our efforts do NOT go unnoticed; it is all for a purpose which happens to be God’s purpose not ours.  That’s the outer grunt work of being a Christian.

But that’s only part of it.  Between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday there is a whole lot of inner grunt work to be done.  Are we willing to untie THAT donkey even when we don’t know why we have to?  Are we willing to follow Jesus to the end, through the betrayal, the arrest, the interrogation, the denial, the whippings and crucifixion?  Are the sounds of that beast of burden within earshot?  I hope that it is.

The expectation of Holy Week is that we will be with Jesus every step of the way until he hangs upon the old wooden cross.

The expectation is that you will examine your relationship with God honestly to ready yourself for resurrection.

Are you willing and daring enough to cry out from the depth of your being, hosanna, save us, so that your Alleluias on Easter morning will be your authentic voice? 

When Jesus says, follow me he doesn’t specify where and for what reason or what kind of work he wants us to do.  One day you will be a visionary leader and the next day you will be called to change light bulbs.  He simply says, follow, trust me, and believe in me, I will lead you to a better place.  And Jesus, well, he follows through, he does not disappoint us.  He leads us to hope not despair, joy not sorrow, self-sufficiency not helplessness; he leads us to God’s immeasurable grace.  Untie the donkey and ride into Holy Week over dusty and rough terrain.  It may not be glamorous but it will be the best thing you will ever do.

                                                                                               Road of Flowers