Monday, April 25, 2016

Facing Fear Finding Hope

Acts 11:1-18 
Do you remember a television show named, “Fear Factor”.  It could have been on 9 or 10 years ago when it was on.  Now I didn’t watch it regularly but I do remember that it’s content was pretty disgusting.  Contestants would compete against one another performing three stunts.  The first and the third stunts were usually some sort of extreme stunts like bunji jumping or some other spectacular act that would take all the guts that you could muster up.  The second stunt was more gruesome.  The one time I did watch it I watched the contestants gobble down the intestines of a goat.  It was pretty unfathomable.  The point of the show was for contestants to face their fear so that they might win $50,000. 

Today we will examine what it is to face our fears, whatever they may be.  Hear now the words of God from the Acts of the Apostles, the 11th chapter, Contemporary English Version….

The apostles and the followers in Judea heard that Gentiles had accepted God’s message.  So when Peter came to Jerusalem, some of the Jewish followers started arguing with him. They wanted Gentile followers to be circumcised, and  they said, “You stayed in the homes of Gentiles, and you even ate with them!”

Then Peter told them exactly what had happened:

I was in the town of Joppa and was praying when I fell sound asleep and had a vision. I saw heaven open, and something like a huge sheet held by its four corners came down to me.  When I looked in it, I saw animals, wild beasts, snakes, and birds.  I heard a voice saying to me, “Peter, get up! Kill these and eat them.”

But I said, “Lord, I can’t do that! I’ve never taken a bite of anything that is unclean and not fit to eat.”

The voice from heaven spoke to me again, “When God says that something can be used for food, don’t say it isn’t fit to eat.”  This happened three times before it was all taken back into heaven.

Suddenly three men from Caesarea stood in front of the house where I was staying.  The Holy Spirit told me to go with them and not to worry. Then six of the Lord’s followers went with me to the home of a man  who told us that an angel had appeared to him. The angel had ordered him to send to Joppa for someone named Simon Peter.  Then Peter would tell him how he and everyone in his house could be saved.

After I started speaking, the Holy Spirit was given to them, just as the Spirit had been given to us at the beginning.  I remembered that the Lord had said, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”  God gave those Gentiles the same gift that he gave us when we put our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. So how could I have gone against God?

When they heard Peter say this, they stopped arguing and started praising God. They said, “God has now let Gentiles turn to him, and he has given life to them!”

In first century Judaism there WAS a great fear of one who was “clean” or ritually pure mixing with one who is “unclean”.  We see that issue specifically addressed and laid out in Halakah - Jewish law.  There are certain foods that can be eaten and some that are “tref” – unclean. They are not to be touched.

The other law that we see debated in detail in the New Testament is that of circumcision.  The circumcised or the ritually pure ones did not have contact with, or eat with, the uncircumcised; neither could they go into their homes.  The laws regarding circumcision produced lengthy discussions between the Jews, the God-fearers – who were Gentiles that take on Jewish life but were not converts, and the Gentiles.  Circumcision, God’s covenant with the Jews - it was a big deal.

While it may seem trivial to us, concern for purity was a concern for community solidarity, it was an identity marker as God’s covenanted people.  There was great fear that their identity as Jews would somehow be obliterated.  So they obeyed the laws of God as God’s chosen people.

Now we know that the believers of the early church were certainly not reluctant to voice their differences of opinion.  Peter is sorely criticized for entering their home and eating with the ‘unclean’.  He’s in essence being ‘called on the carpet’ for breaking the rules.  What he did was controversial.  But for a healthy community controversy needs to be voiced not avoided and conflict needs to be transformed. 

So rather than come back at them with a rebuttal, he tells them a story and we see that it changed their lives.  Stories invite people to cross over chasms that might in other ways be too wide to cross.  We know that Jesus told stories in the form of parables; it was a way to make meaning and give understanding to difficult concepts or fears.

So following in his master’s ways he begins the telling of this vision where God tells him to eat unclean foods.  His fear is of eating unclean animals which would in turn render him unclean.  So his fear is much larger that just eating meat, it was of breaking halakah, it was risking isolation for himself from his community, it was a fear of being defiled as well. But God persisted three times and while God didn’t dangle $50,000 over Peter’s head, Peter finally got the point.

Peter’s vision asks him to refrain from judgement, that there is no boundary to God’s love.  That the distinction barriers between clean and unclean will not stand any longer.  It is the enlarging of God’s grace and love that the message of Peter’s vision is trying to say.

By the Holy Spirit’s influence Peter faced his fear and got out of the way.  He let go of his fear and accepts the outcome of his vision, which is inclusion of the Gentiles into the covenantal love of God.  He proclaims, “who was I that I could hinder God?”  Peter, at the moment of realization figured out that he could not manipulate, plead, hinder or stop God.  God made an amendment to the law which now included us, the Gentiles. When Peter stepped aside he saw there was a new vision, a new hope for humanity. 

We all have fear within us of some type.  Often our fears will produce good results and cautious living.  When my kids were little I was afraid that they would be run over in the street so I taught them to look both ways for oncoming cars.  It worked!  They are still alive, they are 31, 33, and 35 and they look before they cross the street.  It was the fear of continued conflict and war that brought 50 countries together in 1945, which in turn gave birth to the United Nations.  Fear is not always immobilizing.  Sometimes it’s good and helps us to look at situations rationally and make sound decisions for safety.   

But more often then not, fear is crippling, it’s stifling, or it can be deadly.  Whether we are impeded by our own fears or fears produced by external factors, we are stunted by these phobias.  High places, dark rooms, creepy crawly things, underneath the bed, the fear of growing old .  And then there are deeper fears such as the fear of failure, of ignorance, the fear of losing yourself, the fear of losing someone else, or the fear of the unknown. 

In it’s most severe form, fear can produce prejudice and hatred and hatred as we know produces violence.  If left unchecked it leads to all sorts of destructive acts: bullying, self annihilation, war, murder.  This is abnormal fear and yet so quickly fear can escalate to this level and we are seeing more and more of it.

We are in a time of discernment now, a time of redevelopment. It is a time of the unknown.  There are new initiatives being explored like the new position of Director of Faith Formation, of becoming an Open and Affirming church, and a new governance configuration for our church that will ease some of the burdens of a structure that is cumbersome.  And you might say – wait – this is too much – I am afraid that I won’t even recognize my beloved OCC. 

I can understand that it is this fear of the unknown that could drive you to shut down and say no but you will be able to recognize OCC, the same spirit of God that has been with us for over 200 years will continue to be with us to guide us and sustain us.  If Peter had said no to his fears WE wouldn’t be here gathered as a church community.  

At this moment in time, with the larger church changing, God is calling us into the future.  The future is always the unknown.  Each day that you get up you face the unknown.  Each time night you lie down you are facing the unknown.  And yet we do it.            

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. talks about facing fear in his book “Strength to Love”.  He says that we first have to honestly ask, why are we afraid?  Facing fear, understanding fear can be a very empowering act in and of itself.  He also says that fear can be mastered by courage.  Even though there are things and situations that might scare us we resolve to go forward anyway and not look back.  Fear is mastered through love and faith.  The first epistle of John tells us, “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear.”

Love in Christ is a perfect love, it is not necessary to fear but to trust in the ineffable power of God.  Peter overcame his fear through the vision and persistence of God.  He was able to traverse the mountains and valleys of fear and enter into the meadows of hope. Through his faith he was able to finally say, “who am I to hinder God???”  Through his faith and courage we are now part of the covenant of God.

Dr. King, at the end of his sermon, “Antidotes for Fear” quotes a motto that, a generation ago flanked the walls of devout people, it read:

“Fear knocked at the door.
Faith answered.
There was no one there.”

Face fear with faith.  Faith that God is doing a new thing with us and that God will not lead us off in the wrong direction.  Remember that God is for us and not against us, loving us all and paving the way into the future. 


Monday, April 18, 2016

The Marks of a Healing Community

Acts 9:36-43
It was a hot and humid morning in August of 1967 which is why I was sleeping in an air conditioned bedroom with the door closed and didn’t hear anything that was transpiring outside of my door.  My mother woke to find that my father had died sometime during the night, without distress.  She did what she had to do that was to call Mr. Muchow, who was our friend from church and the funeral director to retrieve his body.  She called our minister Pastor Duburkee, my two uncles, and my father’s best friend Rolf who came along with his wife, Vera my mother’s best friend.  They all came to the house and still I heard nothing.

I’m not sure if it was God’s providence that I remained asleep or that I was just a tired teenager because I never did, nor still so I sleep late.  But that day I did.  Mom and Vera came gently into the room to wake me. Vera stood by the window just gazing out and mom came over to my bedside and told me that Daddy had died during the night.  She hugged me long and Vera came over too and we cried together.  Why my 53 year old father had died that night, well I couldn’t comprehend any of this.

Mom told me that a few people were here so come downstairs.  I got dressed and as I came into the kitchen where everyone was seated in a circle, a heavy silence fell upon the room.  And that was ok because there were no words that could have assuaged our grief, my grief at the moment.  We all sat in silence and allowed each other the space to mourn on that hot and humid day in August.  And that’s all I remember until the next night.

In St. Louis people are ‘laid out’ not ‘waked’ and my father was laid out for three nights. He was a successful baker, a loved, honest and kind employer, a business man, a beloved member of the church and of the community.  We needed those three nights for everyone to come to the funeral home to pay their respects; lines were out the door waiting to come inside to greet us.  It was demanding and exhausting.  But they showed up.

And the food started coming.  Casseroles and chickens, you name it we had food enough to feed an army as they say.  And after he was buried an aunt stayed on to help mom and me adjust to our new world order.  That’s all I remember but that’s enough.  It was this caring group of individuals who came to be with us at the time when we needed to feel God’s love the most.

We are moving on from the Gospel of John to the Acts of the Apostles, which tells us of the beginning of the Christian community.  As we enter this story we find a community who is wracked with grief.

Hear again the story of Tabitha, the only named woman disciple in the New Testament……

Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity.  At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs.  Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, “Please come to us without delay.”  So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them.  Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up.” Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up.  He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive.  This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord.  Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.

This congregation has just lost its pillar, a beloved saint who was devoted to charity and good works.  Tabitha or Dorcas in Greek is a figure that doesn’t get that much attention in the Bible but it’s a memorable one.  What we have is an endearing snapshot of her life as a disciple of Jesus Christ.  She’s the only woman named as a disciple in the New Testament even though we know that there were others.  It’s clear that she has a solid reputation in the early church and that her loss was keenly felt by the widows, the ones who were lucky enough to have a tunic or two handcrafted by Tabitha.  Unlike today, widows in the first century were the forgotten ones of society so for them to be so involved in this passage highlights Tabitha’s outreach to them.

All of the women with whom she worked were at her bedside crying over the loss of their charitable leader.  Weeping as they washed her body, they showed one another the beautiful fabric and tunics that Tabitha had made for them.  You see she had made a visible difference in their lives.  She was their ‘shepherd’ who tended to their needs and helped them deal with the grief and loss of their husbands.  Tabitha worked endlessly for the welfare of the women through her extraordinary sewing skills.  There were other disciples around her bedside too and when they saw the impact that Tabitha’s death was having upon their church community they sent for Peter because he was not far from where they were and they knew he could help them.

When he arrived, Peter entered a room full of weeping widows so he asked to be alone with Tabitha.  After the room was cleared he knelt down and prayed.  He invoked God’s name through Jesus and asked for the strength he himself would need to heal in God’s name.  When he was finished praying he said, “Tabitha, get up.”  She opened her eyes.  She sat up.  In that moment resurrection again became real.  Hope alive.  And many believed, all because Peter let the healing powers of Jesus flow through him, he let Christ accomplish through him that which he could not possibly do on his own.  Remember how Peter loved Jesus.   

I’d like to talk with you today about the role of a healing community and in particular four marks that when applied can make all the difference in the world for someone who has lost a loved one or friend.  They are prayer, presence, sustenance, and accompaniment.  There might be more but these are the ones that were critical to my healing when my father died and I think what we see in today’s passage.
The initial days after you lose someone are hard, we know that.  You’re shocked, saddened, broken and you go through the motions of what needs to be done as word filters through your community.  It’s so important to have that community there to help you negotiate those days of sadness.  You think you  might want to be alone but to be surrounded by persons you love who can thoughtfully and not intrusively hold your grief with you is a true gift.

Peter prayed over Tabitha, no doubt the women prayed among the tears they were shedding too because we know that this was a caring community who followed Christ.  Prayer whether silent or spoken can put into words the deepest desires and fears, if prayer is for healing it can open you up to so many different ways in which God heals. Praying for specific outcomes can limit the creative power of God.  Offering up prayers on the behalf of someone or the community is a way to give thought and voice to that which is unable to be spoken.  When faced with a loss it is others who can pray for you when you cannot even muster up any cogent thought. 

The women were by Tabitha.  They didn’t flee from her side, they stuck it out and was there to watch her take her last breath upon this earth.  That is such a compassionate gift to give another human being.   It was Henri Nouwen who said in his book, ‘Bread for the Journey’, “One of the greatest gifts we can give others is ourselves. We offer consolation and comfort, especially in moments of crisis, when we say: "Do not be afraid, I know what you are living and I am living it with you. You are not alone." Thus we become Christ-like shepherds.”[i]  The gift of presence, still and silent presence is sometimes all that is needed to console a friend in need.

One of the things I remember from when my father died and also thirty years later when my mother died was the food that people so generously brought over.  Meatloaf never tasted so good!  It was comfort without words, it nourished us and gave us sustenance way beyond a physical feeding.  To know that it was prepared by hands specifically for us to bring us comfort was so wonderful and consoling.  But there are so many other ways in which we can nourish a friend in need if you really think about it. 

And then there is accompaniment.  That means you are in it for the long haul.  Tabitha was brought back to life and so she lived out her life, we can assume, by continuing her acts of charity and kindness. And you can bet your bottom dollar that she was not alone.  As the weeping widows were with her in her death they were with her in her living, probably with a renewed commitment to their friendship and love.  To have someone accompany life with you, that is someone who will walk with you through the valleys of the shadows of death and beside the still waters, is remarkable.  That is friendship in its purest form.

Healing is never easy but it is essential to our living and how much better it is to heal within a community of friends who are willing to carry your burdens, your pain, your suffering and eventually your healing like Tabitha’s?  How can we be a community of healing that practices prayer, presence, sustenance and accompaniment in a more intentional way?  I think a lot of this happens already but maybe there is more that could be done.  Let’s think this through together.  No one should have to suffer alone. 

That hot and humid day in the kitchen way back in 1967 was the beginning of my healing.  And I am ever so grateful for that loving church community who exemplified Christ’s love and shepherding care. 


Thursday, April 14, 2016

The Beloved, Peter and Faith

John 21:1-25
Since Easter we have been looking at what are called the ‘post resurrection events’ or the times that Jesus appears as the risen Christ as recorded in this well loved Gospel of John.

I have chosen to read the passage in its entirety; it is a bit lengthy so hang in there.  From the 21st chapter of John the first verse…..

After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.

When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”

Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; he was the one who had reclined next to Jesus at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?” When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about him?” Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!” So the rumor spread in the community that this disciple would not die. Yet Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?”

This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true. But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.

Here ends our reading and also the Gospel of John.

Imagine having gone through all that the disciples did during the last days of Jesus’ life.  A strange request for a donkey, palm branch waving crowds.  A final meal. Silver coins, darkened alleyways.  A cold night, a hot fire and a rooster crowing.  All the while the intensity grew.

Then, a horrible death that lasted for some time only to be followed by silence, sort of like that initial shock of silence after an explosion when no one knows quite what happened but the deadened silence instills fear.  Burial and Sabbath. 

But Mary witness’ of the empty tomb and her encounter with Jesus give the disciples a glimpse of what Jesus had been telling them about those years that he was with them. Jesus appears to the disciples, and to Thomas.  Seeing is believing but then he was gone again.  And they locked themselves in a room.

Wouldn’t you?  Come on – all these things are strange events and they just couldn’t string them together into any semblance of normal life like it used to be with Jesus.  They were changed and they knew it.  But they just didn’t know what to do so finally they resume life, as they knew it, or tried to at least.

Simon Peter, Thomas, Nathanial and the Zebedee brothers and I’m assuming the rest decide to go back to the Sea of Tiberias or Galilee.  Up north from Jerusalem as the crow flies.  Might as well.  Jesus wasn’t around, it was back to business as usual, the ordeal was over.  I think it must have been a let down and a horribly confusing and mournful time. Here was this man who shook everyone up and turned their world topsy-turvey and then he was gone.  

And after any tragedy or death there comes a time when we realize that we have to pick up the pieces and reluctantly put one foot in front of the other into your newly ordered future.  It’s never easy.

But for Peter the fog lifts and he says, “I’m going fishing!” and the others follow him out on a very unsuccessful fishing expedition.  All. Night. Long.  No. Fish.

Then they hear someone calling from ashore, ‘Cast your nets to the right side of the boat, you’ll get fish there.’  And, of course, it was Jesus.  It was the beloved disciple who hears and understands that it was none other than their much-loved master.  And it was Peter who jumped in the lake and swam ashore.  They eat and Peter get’s his marching orders.

I want to sketch two portraits for you this morning of the Beloved Disciple and of Peter because you need the essence and spirit that both of these men display in this Gospel for a rich life of faith grounded in Jesus.

The beloved disciple, also known as the one whom Jesus loved, is a curious addition to the Gospel of John and you won’t find him in any other New Testament books.  He is commonly identified as John the Evangelist but there is much debate about that since the second century CE.  He has also been identified as Lazarus, Mary Magdalene, an unknown disciple, or as a composite for all faithful followers and disciples of Jesus.  There is no conclusive evidence nor is there any real confirmation on why his identity is concealed.  Suffice it all to say he holds a special place in this Gospel appearing six times and he is very special to Jesus.

If we were to look at the attributes that are displayed in the beloved disciple you’ll see that he is contemplative as he reclines close to Jesus as the last supper.  He is trustworthy, caring and compassionate as he is entrusted the care of Mary the mother of Jesus.  But most of all he is the introspective one, he is the one that takes the time to really know Jesus, to contemplate the mystery of who Jesus is and his divine nature.  The beloved disciple has understanding and lends that to John’s Gospel account.  Remember this Gospel is different from the other three.

And then you have Peter, dear, dear Peter.  Peter is always on the go doing something or other.  He is undoubtedly the leader of the disciples, not always stable in his faith but he tries.  And when he messes up, as in denying Jesus three times, he gets a chance at redemption as we see in the passage read earlier when he declares his love for Jesus three times.   And of course he is the rock upon which the church is built.  He was an active doer, he displays a very human response of faith that is to go out and be a witness, to heal the world. 

These two men are portrayed as rivals in the stories but rather than accept that point of view lets use what they both have to offer as a model for our life in Jesus Christ. 

We know that we need time to reflect upon the grace that God extends to us each day.  The ways in which we have been picked up from our lows and elevated to the heavens of happiness.  We need time in contemplation and prayer, a time to be mindful of our own spiritual need and nature and of those around us.  We need time to ‘Be Still and Know that God is God’, the words of import here are ‘be still’, release the tight grip that you might have on something and to be tranquil in the presence of a God who loves, who gives and forgives and who nourishes us for the journey of life.  Doing this imitates what the Beloved Disciple offers us.

And we also know that part and parcel of Jesus’ message to us is to go and do.  To get out of our easy chairs, off our duffs, get our hands dirty and spread the gospel with our actions. It was St. Francis of Assisi who said, ‘Preach the Gospel at all times and if necessary use words’.  It’s to go to Biloxi, to go to New Haven, to pick up the phone and call others in the congregation who are in need of a caring call, make a meal, advocate for the oppressed, to fling open our doors to each and every person who comes a knockin’.  That’s what it is to feed and tend God’s sheep aka our fellow human beings.  It is the heart and soul of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and it is clear as a bell. This is what we gain by looking at the actions of Peter. 

A balance that is struck when we emulate both the beloved disciple and the apostle Peter is what it means to live your life in Christ.  And you need that balance.  Like yin and yang, milk and cookies one compliments and completes the other.  All prayer with no action is an incomplete photo of faith life.  All actions without reflection is mere busywork.  You need both in a healthy balance to fulfill and be fulfilled in Christ.

And that’s the point.  Sitting in church Sunday after Sunday, hearing these post resurrection stories and encountering Jesus you can’t return home to the same old.  Encounters with Jesus change you as we have been shown today.

Brother Mark Brown from the Society of Saint John the Evangelist in Cambridge Massachusetts reminds us, “The resurrection appearances continue in us—we’re the risen body of Christ. Each of us, in a sense, and in a very flawed way, is a resurrection appearance. The story continues—there is no ending to the gospel, because resurrection continues in us.”

Amen and may it be so!

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Even Behind Closed Doors

John 20:19-31
Last week we heard the resurrection account from the Gospel of John.   The Gospel of John, is clearly the most theologically imbued Gospel.  It contains a high “Christology” meaning that Jesus is already portrayed throughout the Gospel as the risen Son of God.  I know, Christology, is a seminary SAT word, that’s used by seminary professors and their students who want to do well in their classes.  And it’s a good one.  It’s what makes John such an endearing Gospel to read, remember and quote.  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 for us contemporaries that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life.   But one disciple, Thomas, had a few doubts, let’s hear now the story from John the 20th chapter….

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

It’s too bad that Thomas didn’t have this Gospel in his back pocket to pull out and read when he doubted that Jesus was really, none other than his Jesus, now risen.  Throughout time a lot has been written about this doubting Thomas.  In fact in beginning to study this scripture I went to “Text Week”, a reliable source for commentary.  I discovered there were 25 historical commentaries and 135 contemporary commentaries and articles written about Thomas. So I escaped out of the website quickly totally overwhelmed.  Let’s just say to begin Thomas had a few qualms about who Jesus really was. Was this man who claims to be Jesus for real?  So he had a few doubts.  Your doubts, my doubts, Thomas’ doubts, ok...most of us have doubts at some time or another.

There is so much more that is happening in this passage that begs our close reflection however.  It still had not been twenty four hours since Mary Magdalene stood weeping at the empty tomb and Jesus, disguised as the gardener, appears to her.  Then she understands so 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 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 because of their disbelief at everything that happened and their fears of a few religious leaders.
Just when the disciples didn’t know what to do next after Jesus resurrection, they decide to do nothing and to stay behind a locked door.  Why take a chance on the unknown?  It’s so much easier and safer to stick together as a tight little group.  Yet it’s Jesus who comes to them and shows them what to do next. It’s Jesus who lifts them up and instills the spirit within them.

That familiar, strong and calming voice.  Perhaps it sounded like a mother’s lullaby, or a favorite hymn from your childhood, or like a much loved story told to you over and over even though you know the end, or even a voice calling for 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 and locked up tight.

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 the divine breath of God 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 unfortunately Thomas wasn’t there for this Jesus sighting, he didn’t see the scars that the others saw.  Too bad because we know that second hand stories, particularly miraculous events kind of stories never quite pull the same punch.  A week later when they all were gathered in that house again with the door shut tight, at an opportune moment, Jesus comes to them.  Thomas was with them this time with all of his doubts. 

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 and believe like the rest of them.

As I want to reflect on this passage this morning, it’s not so much about Thomas and his doubts and fears.  He’s human just like us and we all live with our doubts and fears.  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 and everyone else out rather than let them in.  It is about his persistent love and his ability to be incredibly patient with our human quirks, our less than desirable habits, or our want or need to keep him at arms length.  It’s about Jesus’ ability to transform the fears of our living, the questions of our faith and his ability to open us to his presence and to help us emerge from those places of doubt.  I don’t know about you but that’s the kind of Jesus I want.

Behind closed doors is a phrase that gets kicked around a lot but I think we know those doors all too well. They are those closed doors that we stand behind trembling with fear, hiding like an animal from its predators.  And we’ve all been there.

We’ve all sat behind doors that have shut out the world to our inner workings, the messy and fearful closets of our souls.  But also the joy of friendship and compassion.  We’ve all huddled behind locked doors and have shut out those whom we dislike, or even those whom we love.  Why do we do this?  What is there to hide?  More importantly what is there to fear?  Are we afraid that we will be harmed?  Are we afraid that we will have to change?  You know when we lock ourselves in we are also locking other people out.  And that is tragic.

It was Ralph Waldo Emerson who wrote, “He has not learned the lesson of life who does not every day surmount a fear.”[i]  Living life means there will surely always be something to fear..the economy, illness, yourself, the other.  Or maybe this, if you have never encountered fear then perhaps you have never pushed yourself to the unlimited possibilities of your life.

It was so wonderful last week to have a packed sanctuary.  There were old friends and strangers; there were acquaintances and families from afar. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if it were like that every week?  The energy was electrifying and the smiles on people’s faces were bright as the sun. The spirit of God was alive and well at OCC.  Thank goodness our doors were open and we were not sitting inside here with the lights off and the doors closed amid fear  Thank goodness our hearts were open to accept those who sat in your unofficial but assigned seats!

But what will happen in a few short weeks?  Will we go back to the same old ways, the same old fears?  Will we settle down again into the same pews, the same rut, the same way of dong things behind the sanctuary doors?

Thank goodness God doesn’t let us alone but persistently and consistently figures out how to enter in and grants us that peace which passes all of our human intelligence and understanding. 

God moves us.  God readies us and equips us with the Holy Spirit to worship, to live our lives faithfully, to witness love eternal and to serve others and work towards justice and peace.  True discipleship is risky business yet we must live our faith and our doubts courageously.  May the doors to this sanctuary, this sacred place swing wide open so that you can embrace this broken world and each and every person who enters it. 

May that same Spirit who was breathed on the disciples behind their closed door light upon us to comfort and energize us for what the future holds for we are an Easter people.


[i] Quoted from Martin Luther King Jr., “Strength to Love”, 1963 in his sermon “Antidotes to Fear”.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Today's Good News

John 20:1-18  

The frazzled woman sits at her desk.  Her eyes were the size of white saucers with little black dots in the middle.  She is surrounded by stacks of papers, she can hardly see the door.  It looks like she is sitting in a hoarder’s den.  This cartoon is one of the cartoons that appeared years ago in Speedbump, a daily cartoon by Dave Coverly.  In the bubble above her head it says “I love them all”.  The caption at the bottom of the cartoon say’s ‘Editor’s Block’. 

Is it coincidence that I think of this cartoon the weeks before Christmas and Easter?  I don’t think so.  The bubble hovers over my head like a red tailed hawk hovering over its prey.  And at that moment I get it, I have editor’s block, not writer’s block.  And so began this Easter Sermon. 

It’s not that there is nothing new to say about the resurrection story, it’s that’s there’s everything to say about the resurrection of Jesus.  There is so much that all of the Gospels record it, hence editor’s block.  Which one?  Which one?  My eyes get as large saucers with those little black dots in the middle.  Each Gospel account is different and each one gives us distinctive information.  Today’s good news is sponsored by the Gospel writer of John.  Matthew, Mark and Luke were cohorts in recounting the event. But John, he goes maverick and writes a very human and endearing story for us to reflect on today.                  

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb.  So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” 

Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb.  The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first.  He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in.  Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself.  Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.  Then the disciples returned to their homes.

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet.  They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 

When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus.  Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”  Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 

Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”  Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

Just like the beloved birth narratives of Jesus that we so adore and long to hear on Christmas Eve we love to proclaim Jesus’ resurrection story over and over and over again each year because this story, even more than Jesus’ birth story is the heart of our Christian faith.  We read into Jesus’ birth excitement and wonder because we know the end of the story.  And the end of the story is today, Easter Sunday. And it’s all good however we know that the Easter story is only the beginning of our journey.  It is a model for how we can view life.

Can you imagine the fear that Mary Magdalene felt when she got to that tomb?  She awakens early, it was still dark.  She grabs the fragrant oils to anoint Jesus’ body because she wanted to complete what she couldn’t accomplish on Friday because it was the beginning of the Sabbath.  And when she arrives at the tomb she sees that that huge stone that had been rolled in front of it had been rolled aside. 

Impossible!  Who could have done such a thing?  Why would someone do such a thing?  She came expecting one scene but instead she found another.

All she could assume was that someone had stolen Jesus’ body.  So she wastes no time and runs back to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the beloved one to tell them the news, or rather exclaim to them that Jesus simply was gone.  I would have high-tailed it out of there too, because when my original expectations are not met I find it a comfort to tell others about my experience. 

Well upon hearing this news Simon Peter and the other disciple don’t waste any time.  They also run to the tomb, yanking each other out of the way but the beloved one reaches the tomb first.  He looked in and saw the linen’s, curious.  Then Peter arrives seconds later and goes directly into the tomb and also sees the linen’s and the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head.  It was rolled up neatly and lying aside, so curious.

The beloved decides to follow Peter and enters the tomb.  And right then and there he believed.  Resurrection sight unseen! A tomb that should have had a body in it now was filled with glorious, dazzling, sympathetic angels. And incredible as it may seem the text, matter of factly says that they go back home and leave poor old Mary weeping at the tomb.

Faithful Mary.  Loving Mary.  Grieved Mary just stands there and weeps.  They just left her!  She peers into the empty tomb and now she too sees the angels gently sitting in the place where Jesus should have been.  I wonder what went through her head because something really out of the ordinary had occurred. 

Even though she still wept.  But they angels ask, “Why are you weeping? Who are you looking for?”  Well she was fixated on the cavernous void of the tomb, who wouldn’t be, and the dazzling of the angels and in between the tears she expresses her deep concern.

But someone appeared behind her and for some reason she thought that that someone was the gardener so she pleaded with him to tell her where he had taken Jesus’ body.   Why would she think it would be anyone else?

But he calls her name.  She turns. At that moment with that simple exchange, that very tender moment she knew that it was Jesus.  She didn’t understand how but she knew that Jesus was no longer dead but alive.  She knew at that point that she was not left alone in this garden but had Jesus beside her, even though he commanded her not to touch him.  He was there.  Resurrection had occurred.  She came expecting death but instead she had encountered life!

In that moment the tectonic plates of the world shifted and it has never been the same since.  That’s why you are here today; in fact that is why this church is here today.  You cannot deny that the resurrection event did not change the world.  Out of the tomb came life.  He who was tortured and maimed was now made whole. He who was once dead was now alive.  Indeed, if you believe like Mary then it has the power to transform your life and the way that you view life in ways that you can’t even imagine.

We are no strangers to resurrection really.  We resurrect things all of the time.  I resurrect an old dress that I haven’t worn in years, I buy some new shoes, perhaps a new necklace and what do you know, that old rag of a dress that has taken up space in the back of my closet is like brand new.  You resurrect a book or a movie that you haven’t thought about in ages and it brings you new insight that you hadn’t envisioned before.  We clear out the debris in the garden to allow the green tips of the daffodils and other early bloomers to peep through promising yellows and pinks and lilacs…..we practice resurrection all of the time.   That is, if we are mindful to it.  It’s a matter of changing our expectations like Mary at the tomb and choosing to see life in all of its glorious forms.

Resurrection…it’s a beautiful thing. It’s too bad that we can’t read resurrection into our lives on a daily basis and fully enjoy it as a gift of grace from God.

This past week has been a reminder of the brokenness in this world.  If ever there is a time that we need to see some resurrection hope, it’s now.  The bombing in Brussels is a reminder that hatred and violence exist.  The list of what’s wrong in this world, the ways in which we hurt one another, devalue one another, hate one another is tremendous.  In fact it is overwhelming.  Each time something like Brussels happens, which is all too often, I come away weeping in my heart for the lives that have been lost, the fear that has been instilled and the continued anger that is released.  O Lord – help us to see a new way that speak life.

At times like these we desperately need to remember and retell the Easter message of resurrection and new life.  We need to use an Easter lens to view the world.  It’s not a lens of pastel bunnies but a lens of realistic expectations for what this world longs for.  We need to resurrect this vision of peace, inclusion and equity that we like to sing about.  The source of new life for us is believing, sight unseen in the overwhelming redemption of this world, thanks to Jesus Christ.
The lens of resurrection is like a kaleidoscope.  You look through the view finder and witness the most beautiful arrangement of jeweled fragments.  And then at the twist of the other end you have another exquisite configuration enfolding before your eyes.  All the while you didn’t know that you had the kaleidoscope pointed at a trash heap.   There can be beauty that arises from the most despicable of places. 

Easter proclaims the mighty and redemptive love of God when we can no longer see it for ourselves.  Believe this.

“Hold firmly” as the Apostle Paul commands us, (1 Cor 15:2) that, “If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain.” (1 Cor 15:13). 

There is no tomb dark enough or deep enough that we cannot climb out of and overcome because Christ has claimed victory.  Hold firmly to it.

Easter gives us hope and resurrection promises all things new.  This is OUR proclamation.  Hold firmly to it today and each day and then be a witness to God’s great and mighty acts. 

May the sheer joy of resurrection reside in your hearts and minds today.  Amen, and AMEN!