Friday, April 21, 2017

What is Life?

Easter Sunday
John 20: 1-18
Trending on Facebook these days, if you follow or are on Facebook is a sweet little video of a baby who sees clearly for the very first time or at least it has been on mine.  I’d guess she is about 10 or 11 months old.  As her mother tries to put on a pair of infant glasses the baby flails her arms and twists her head in protest.

But the mother persists and the glasses go on and when they do you see a changed baby.  You see a baby that sees her mother and father clearly for the very first time.  She is calm and she is grinning from ear to ear.  It is such a tender moment, that  moment of recognition of those who love you and care so deeply for you.  It’s like you’re seeing someone for the very first time only with the same old set of eyes.

I think perhaps Mary Magdalene may have felt this way when she encountered Jesus for the first time after his resurrection.   She didn’t recognize him at first but when he called her by name she knew instantly that it was Jesus, the one who took her in as a friend and loved her in spite of all of her shortcomings.

Let us now hear again the Easter narrative as recorded in the Gospel of John, the 20th chapter.  Let us witness what happened on that very first morning…

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.

Who knows what Mary was expecting on that early morning when she arrived at the tomb of Jesus? But I bet you it probably was not what she saw.  An empty tomb was NOT what she expected.  Can you imagine the fear, the unknowing, the sadness, the panic all funneled into that one little second when she sees that Jesus’ body was not there?  She wastes no time and runs back to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the beloved one to tell them the news that someone had taken Jesus away.  He simply was not there.

Well Simon Peter and the other disciple waste no time.  They hightail it to the tomb too, passing each other like a tag team in the Olympics.  The beloved one reaches the tomb first.  With trepidation he looks in and see’s the linen’s.  Then Peter arrives only seconds later and dashes directly into the tomb and also sees the linen’s and the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head.  It was rolled up so nice and neatly.  But no Jesus!  What emotions could have flowed in their veins at that very moment?  What thoughts must have darted through their minds?  Well we don’t know, scripture doesn’t tell us.  I suppose it’s just not important at the moment.

What is important is Mary.  Faithful Mary.  Loving Mary.  Grieved Mary begins to weep.  She peers once again into the empty tomb and this time sees only angels quietly sitting in the place where Jesus’ body should have been. 

Her tears flowed, but then she hears a voice, “Woman, why are you weeping? Who are you looking for?”  She didn’t turn around to see who had just spoken to her.  She was fixated on the cavernous void in the tomb.  In between the tears she says, “They’ve taken my Lord away and I don’t know where.”

Then he calls her name, “Mary”.  She turns. And at that moment, that very tender moment, she knew.  She probably didn’t understand but she knew that Jesus was no longer dead but alive.  She knew at that point that she was not left alone in the garden but had Jesus, her friend, her savior beside her.  He who was tortured and maimed was now made whole. He who once was dead was now alive.  In the calling of her name she need no longer lament, her salty tears can be transformed into tears of sweet joy. 

This is such a tender scene isn’t it?  You wonder how long it lasted before she went back to tell the disciples. 

But, of course, the inevitable happens. The next morning comes like it always does and the question in Mary’s mind could have been, ‘Now What?’  Was this all a dream?  Now what am I supposed to do?  How am I supposed to live my life now that I have seen the risen Jesus, now that I have heard his voice?  In a nutshell for Mary he’s back, but his return does not constitute a return to the way things were, far from it.  Everything was different now.

This is our Christian narrative.  It begins with incarnation, when God becomes flesh in Jesus and culminates with his death and resurrection.   With Christ’s resurrection everything is different.  We see differently because we know that dawn follows darkness, that spring follows winter, and that crocus bloom after dormancy.  That’s resurrection.  Christ’s resurrection cannot possibly leave you in the same place if you take it seriously.  Like grace, as author, Anne Lamott says, it meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us.[i]  It simply cannot.

Jesus’ resurrection does not leave us standing at an empty tomb wringing our hands, weeping our eyes out.  What would be the point of that?  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 no matter what has happened to you?’  How will you play the proverbial hand that has been dealt to you? Resurrection offers us hope and a new way to envision the future so that whatever life hands you, you can prevail, because you know life follows death.

You know, a lot of people live lives of missed opportunities and broken dreams.  They simply cannot envision hope or freedom or a future that can possibly bring them any sort of joy or justice to this world.  They linger in the darkness without ever coming out of the tomb and accepting the gift of resurrection light so they can see anew and that is lamentable.

Sometimes it’s hard, I know that.  This is a very upsetting world and nation in which we live right now.  I can hardly stand to turn on the news, turn on my computer or pick up the paper.  Each day brings new events and there is so much to absorb that I am pained, weary, and angry.  The bombings, the terrorism, the shootings close to home, the possible loss of affordable healthcare, the rise in anti-Semitism and the nemesis of cancer and addiction…it is hard to find hope when really everything seems bleak and discouraging.

A fellow UCC church in Virginia, Little River UCC had its Holy Week sign announcing services spray-painted with a swastika.  A Holy Week sign!?! And the Jewish Community Center there had additional vandalism done to it.  When did we, as a populace become so filled with hatred once again? What has unleashed the powers of hate rather than love?  Yet in the face of all of this they didn’t cancel services, they chose to hold a vigil together to bring about healing and to come together as a community of strength.  They chose the way of love.  They chose to take this malevolent action and turn it into something healthy and healing.  This, my friends, is resurrection. 

And this is exactly why we need to remember the promises of Easter today. This is why we need to understand the resurrection of Jesus Christ as a way of living in this whacked out world.  His resurrection gives us hope that there is a tomorrow, that justice can be the norm, that love can override hatred, and that life can follow death.  So that when we wake up and are tempted to say, ‘now what’ we can turn that phrase and say, ‘what now?’ What can I do to change this world? What can I do to change my life?  What can I do to live into the boldest statement that I can ever make, ‘Christ is Risen?’

So be at peace this Easter day and live into hope not fear, love not hatred, joy not sorrow.  And may the spirit of God be present for you each and every day of your life. 


[i] Lamott, Anne.  Traveling Mercies: Some thoughts on faith.  P. 143

Humbled Again

Maundy Thursday
John 13: 1-17, 31b-38
Have you ever said, ‘I have a thing about feet’.  Well, so what.  We all do.  Our feet are these weird little appendages dangling off of our ankles.  Sometimes they ache and sometimes they stink, but they do get us to where we want to go or where we need to be so this ‘thing about feet’ we should be bronzing them after our passing.  Our feet are essential to the journey.  And yeah, they will get dirty and will be in need of washing, maybe even a good scrubbing.   So sometimes we need to get past our ‘things’ in order to do what Christ asks of us in order to follow him. We can’t wash another person’s foot unless we humble our own feet to be washed.

I can only imagine how it might have been that night in Jerusalem.  The bustle of the city of gold has quieted down and the merchants, well they closed up shop early for Passover.  The Paschal moon shone brightly in the sky much like it did on Monday night of this week.  Across in the valley the donkeys had stopped their grazing and their eyes getting closer to sleep with each lengthening blink.  The hot and dry breeze from the day had cooled down a bit as it wafted through the open windows of the upper room where Jesus gathered his disciples.
And as they were eating their meal Jesus quietly gets up from the table and wraps a soft towel around his waist. An anxious hush falls over the room and the disciples begin to eat a little slower maybe looking up or looking at one another as they wonder what in the world he is doing.  You know that kind of look that you give someone else when you are not quite sure what is happening.  Perhaps you knit your brow in a quizzical way.  And then Jesus drops to his knees and all you can see is his bended head and shoulders.       

Well you can hear the wrestling of their robes as they turn towards Jesus when he comes to them and kneels at their feet.  The water splashes against the sides of the basin and he dips in the washrag and wrings it out.  He goes from one disciple to the next washing each foot and then carefully drying them.  All of them, Simon Peter the denyer, even Judas Iscariot the betrayer are cleansed.  Jesus leaves no one out.  And when he was finished he gave them a cup of wine and some bread and asks that they remember him.  He gives them a new commandment also, and that is to love one another.  Just as he love us we are to love one another. 

Out of all the things he could have been doing that night in preparation for his death, you know the ‘getting things in order’ sorts of things, he chose to be with his dearest and most trusted friends and to wash their feet, he chose to show them his deepest and most intimate love through this one act even though he knew that a few of them would not be there with him until the end.  That didn’t matter to Jesus.

So this night really was a night of selfless love and of how Jesus emptied himself once again and revealed his humanity.  I have only had my feet washed once and I have washed the feet of a Nigerian priest, only once.  It was a humbling experience.  The others in the room were silent and all you could hear was the splashing of the water in the bowl.  You take another person’s well-worn foot in your hand that person’s life and journey really, and pour life-giving water over it, rub it a bit and then dry their foot with a dry towel.  It is an act of great humility and oflove because who really wants to touch another persons feet?  It’s one that we will not do tonight so calm those jittery butterflies and crazy thoughts in your head.  Tonight we’ll just talk about the act of foot washing.

Foot washing? Well this challenges our Western sensitivities doesn’t it?  Because in this self-centered society, where individualism is a primary focus, to put others first is not our MO.  We seek to satisfy ourselves first in order that we can serve others.  But actually foot washing is counterintuitive as most of Christianity is.  We wash the feet of others so that we might be able to follow Jesus.      

Foot washing is an act of intimacy because when we take off our shoes and our socks we are vulnerable.  Most of our feet are sweaty and pungent and so to bear our feet we show our real selves, unbridled.  We are vulnerable; our imperfections are hanging out all over, our warts, our bunions, our corns.  We all are imperfect, and we all are exposed.  And yet, foot washing is transformative and proclaims the power of cleansing, the power of redemption, and the power of acceptance.

For Jesus the act of foot washing for Jesus is a manifestation of his unbounded love for his disciples and for us too. This scripture reminds you to let him touch and see our innermost vulnerabilities.  How will he know how to heal if you don’t offer your fell self to him, feet included?  This scripture reminds us that Christ comes to us on bended knee, willing to love us just as we are, drenching us with water poured and the blessing of life.

Amen.   Let it be so.

Between Palms and Passion

Palm Sunday
Phillipians 2: 1-13
This is certainly a day of unbridled emotion.  The crowds go wild!  From the cheering and the waving of palm branches, crowds cheering and loving up Jesus as King to the somber days of his passion, the final days for him on earth, something had to happen to Jesus.  Something internally I mean.  He can’t just go from the ultimate high to the lowest of lows without some sort of change within him.

You see on Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday we tend to focus on the activities of the week, what Jesus did and what others did for him or to him. But how must he have felt?  What did he do to prepare himself within his psyche and soul for what he was about to go through in the coming days?

Ironically that is the same question before us today.  How will we prepare ourselves to walk with Jesus this week?  Will we desert him or stick with it and stay by him as he endures the humiliation, scorn, and brutality?  This short meditation today, based on Philippians, will help us to make that transition from the festive branches to the splintered cross.  Because skibbl’ing from Palm Sunday to Easter?  Well anyone can do that and, I know, most people do.  But going from the parade to the passion and understanding its implication and impact on your soul, well that’s something else.  Hear now the words of the Apostle Paul in the second chapter of Philippians.       

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

This passage and what Palm Sunday is about is a $5 seminary word, kenosis. Kenosis is Greek and it is not a word that is translatable and yet it is at the heart of our Christian faith.  At best, we understand it as ‘emptiness’ but the deeper significance for our purposes is that it communicates self-emptying and in this passage it is the self-emptying that Christ offers of himself this week and on the cross.  Holy Week forces us to confront kenosis.  His and ours.  We can embrace it or we can shy away from it.

Paul tells us that Jesus was in the form of God but not equal to God.  Therein of itself begins the process of kenosis.  Nowhere in the four Gospels does Jesus point to himself as God rather he humbles himself towards God.  Palm Sunday would be so easy to understand if Jesus came into Jerusalem on that sunny, festive day with his chest all puffed out preparing himself to best Herod.  I think that’s kind of the take we all have of this day.  But he didn’t.  He came in on a dusty donkey so unking-like.   

He knew who’s he was, in whose image he was made but he didn’t go around shouting it out.  In fact he acted quite differently.  He emptied himself taking the form of a slave or rather he became fully human.  He humbled himself and therein lays fulfillment of his power and glory.  It’s counterintuitive I know.  But so is much of Christianity remember?  To be blessed, be a blessing to others.  To receive love-give love, to lead-be a servant, to be first-be last.  It’s this counter-intuitivism that undergirds and motivates our ministry and following the ways of Jesus.  It’s a huge helping of humble pie!

If you think about it, so many before us have sought way of humility, it’s not impossible.  Nelson Mandela, Neil Armstrong, Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Captain Sullenberger to these folks came glory not because they sought it out or even cared about it but because they were obedient to their belief and worked hard at their calling doing what they knew was right and God-pleasing. 

Jesus too was obedient to God and emptied himself into human form and died on the cross and in that moment God exalted him, every knee shall bow. How may we empty ourselves so that God might fill us?  We are asked to walk the ways of Christ in this world especially this coming sacred and holy week.

What things might you do to humble yourself as Christ humbled himself? If you think hard enough you will find that there are many ways that you can empty yourself of your pride, your ego, your need to be the best or the greatest.  How about beginning with something simple – thinking the best of others, forgiving them unconditionally?  Or maybe praying for your enemies?  Now that’s a humbling experience.  Maybe asking God for help to become a peacemaker?  Heaven knows our world is aching for peace right now and there are so many that are in need of the hand of love. 

Humbling yourself is to trust with all of your heart that amidst the turmoil of this day, God will show us the way.  We have been beleaguered with death this week.  Whatever you think, whatever you believe, you cannot deny the fact that death is death.  Is anyone less dead whether it comes from chemicals or missiles being launched, and that people are dying?  Humbling yourself is not powerlessness, it is getting out of your own way to see clear the ethical mandates of God and acting upon them.  This is what leads to greatness and walking in peace is the way of Christ.  He humbled himself and so must we. 

There is a lot ahead of us this week.  Just as soon as the parade ends the betrayal begins.  Public memory is short but ours needn’t be.  Jesus will humble himself over and over again until he reigns with glory on the cross.  Counterintuitive remember?  Come, let’s get now to Jerusalem.


Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Hot Cross Buns

Matthew 7: 7-11
You might remember a rhyme about Hot Cross Buns, those delectable little buns that begin appearing in bakeries on Good Friday.

Hot cross buns!
Hot cross buns!
one a
penny, two a penny,
Hot cross buns!

If you have no daughters,
give them to your sons.
One a penny two a penny,
Hot cross buns!

My dad, whom I think you all know by now was a baker, always brought home hot cross buns for our Good Friday consumption.  If you haven’t had a hot cross bun they are spiced sweet buns filled with raisins or currents and they are marked with a cross on the top either in yummy white icing or cut right into the dough.  Good Friday and Hot cross buns mark the end of Lent and the cross on top of the bun is a reminder of the crucifixion of Jesus and the spices are symbolic of the embalming spices used for his burial.  Although there are other traditions and stories that go along with these delicious little buns that is the one I grew up with.

So it’s always this time of year that I think about my dad and hot cross buns and begin to develop a hankerin’ for them.  When I read the scripture for today from Matthew I was reminded of Hot Cross Buns in a circuitous sort of way.  Stick with me on this!

This is the final sermon in our series entitled, Stone by Stone.  Each week we have offered a scripture reading for reflection that used stones or rocks as a metaphor to help us think about our lives in light of the Lenten season.  We’ve given you visual reminders in some form of a rock to take home with you each week that, I hope, have been helpful.  I promise you that I will not disappoint you this week because I have yet some final stones to be given out.  They remarkably resemble Hot Cross Buns to remind you of God’s goodness and love.

Our scripture today is one that is familiar from the Gospel of Matthew.  It is set within the context of the Sermon on the Mount although it is at almost the tail end of his sermon.  Jesus’ sermon presents his ethical teachings and lines out the ways in which we are to live.  In this passage he is exhorting us about prayer.   From the seventh chapter of Matthew:

Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.  Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone?  Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!

So what, you might ask, do hot cross buns have to do with holy writ?  Well you see it’s the part about the child asking for bread that shakes up the grey matter in my head.  Perhaps because I’m a granny now, or because I have fond memories of my dad. When I asked for bread as a kid I received bread, and when I asked for brownies I received brownies and the same for chocolate donuts, my father never would have brought home a stone or even would have thought about boxing up some pebbles or rocks for me to eat while I watched Saturday morning cartoons.  No, he was a kind and gentle man who knew what I loved, knew what was good for me and granted my wishes, in moderation, of course.  I was never presented a hunk of granite to gnaw on.

Jesus’ argument is pretty simple here, in fact he couldn’t make it any plainer.  It’s his charter for prayer.  The rabbi’s might ask, ‘is there a father who ever hates his son?’  And Jesus asks would a father ever harm his child?  Of course not!  Even those who are evil, he says, still give good gifts to their children, not gifts that would harm them.

In this passage Jesus presents us with two solid facts about prayer.  The first is that God answers our prayers with wisdom and with love.  Our prayers are met with God’s grace and are infused  with divine understanding so that we ultimately receive what it is that God wants us to have or the way God wants us to be. 

So it is appropriate to think about the ways in which God has offered us bread rather than stones when we have asked, and the way in which God offers us salvation and forgiveness through the cross of Christ, the cross magnified even on sweet little buns.  Our prayers are always answered.  That is a promise.  And they are offered in the form of life giving metaphorical bread. 

‘Bread is the staff of life’, they say, we cannot live without it and the bonus here is that our daily bread comes in all forms.  If you think about it, all gifts from God, consumable or not, are bread in essence because gifts from God are life-giving.  And so are God’s ‘answers’ to our prayers even though the ways in which they are answered and the time that it takes for an answered prayer is usually and most often different than what we expect or hope for.  God’s time and our time, not similar.  God’s knowledge of all things and our knowledge of all things, well you can’t even compare that. So that’s the disappointing reality of prayer if in fact it’s all about you, and you getting what you want.

The second fact that Jesus is bringing to our attention is that we need to be unrelenting in our life of prayer even when it appears that it’s not going the way we want it to.  Ask, he says, search, knock keep on, keep on keep on praying, that’s your obligation.  Be persistent in your efforts and your efforts will not go unnoticed.  Praying is so good for the soul and perhaps (and often) it needs no answer.  I feel better when I pray, when I bring every last thing that is weighing me down before the Lord it releases the heavy burden off of my shoulders.  And when I am grateful just expressing it to the divine and wondrous God brings me joy.  No expectations, just here I am Lord, in gratitude, keep me in your grace.

The poet Mary Oliver writes in her book ‘Thirst’ a short poem about praying: 

It doesn’t have to be the blue iris,
it could be weeds in a vacant lot,
or a few small stones;
just pay attention,
then patch a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate,
this isn’t a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.”[i]

God’s voice, our listening.  Our prayers needn’t be fancy, in fact words really aren’t even needed.  Just your persistent and willing presence placed in the presence of God is what prayer is all about.  Ask and it shall be given you, the door will be flung open wide and God will always offer you a loaf of life affirming bread.  Or maybe, if you’re lucky, a hot cross bun instead.


[i] Oliver, Mary.  Thirst. Beacon Press 2006

Pastoral Prayer
Abundant and life giving God we humbly come before you now in prayer.  You above all else are glorified and great and so we offer our grateful praise to you.  We know you want fancy words or correct grammar from us, just a willing and sincere heart placed in your presence.  So here we are, your beloved children asking and seeking.  There is a lot that is on our minds today and so much that resides within our spirit so we entreat you now to bend your compassionate ear towards us and hear us as we pray….

For a healing balm upon those who are ill in body, mind or spirit (mental illness, addiction)
For the consolation that resurrected life brings and peace we pray for those who mourn or grieve
For our country and the men and women who serve in the armed forces we lift up before you Kristin, Michael, Eugene, Nicholas, Gabe, Jason, William, Joshua, Zachery, Justin and Ryan grant them strength and fortitude.
For the newest members of this your gathered community of faith we pray for the hand of Christian fellowship be extended far beyond this day.
For Orange Congregational Church during this time of redevelopment and for the church world wide we pray for guidance and for discernment of our future through you.
Instill within us a thirst for knowledge and may the spirit of joy be with us today.