Sunday, May 19, 2019

Who is invited?


Scripture   Acts 11:1-18  NRSV

Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ 10 This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. 

11 At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. 12 The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. 13 He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; 14 he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ 15 And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. 16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17 If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” 18 When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”

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It was early days for the Christian Church.  Technically, it wasn’t a church yet. It was still considered a sect of Judaism, like the Essenes.  Jesus followers still obeyed all the Laws of Moses.  They worshipped in the Temple, made the required sacrifices, and paid their tithes as they always had.  The difference was that they believed the Messiah had come, and the other Jews did not.  So they were trying to spread the word about Jesus among their fellow Jews.  And when the apostles and other believers in Jerusalem heard that Peter had not just baptized Cornelius and his household, but eaten dinner with them, they were shocked and they called upon Peter to account for his actions.   I mean, Cornelius, although he believed in the God of Abraham, had not yet become fully a Jew, so a devout Jew could not, by Law, enter his home or eat with him, because he was still considered unclean.  They were, quite naturally, concerned about Peter’s disregard of the Law.  But he told his story, and he asked them, “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?  And truly, they had no answer for this, because he was right!  And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”  

Even the Gentiles. I got interested in that word, Gentiles.  It comes from a Latin word that means “of the same family, nation or clan.”  The Hebrew word used in the same context is “goi” which means non-Jew or stranger, and is used in the Old Testament “to designate nations that are politically distinct from Israel”.  (JewishEncyclopedia.com)  It’s used in the New Testament to mean not-Jewish.  But it is also used by Mormons to mean not-Mormon.  Even Jews are Gentiles, to a Mormon.   Anyway . . .

This was a new thing, a new idea, a new beginning for the Church. I think it might even be seen as the actual beginning of the Church as we know it today.  Because this is the first time that the apostles and the other believers started to really look at spreading the Good News outside of their own family.  Yes, Jesus had preached to Samaritans, and had performed healings and other wonders for Gentiles, like the Canaanite woman (the one who told him that even the dogs can eat the scraps dropped from the Master’s hands) and the centurion’s servant.  But it had not really occurred to these early followers of Jesus that the Good News was really intended to be spread to all the world, not just the Jewish world.  God’s love and grace was universally available!  This was a radical break from the past. This Jesus opened up God’s love to all – and not just Jews.  In Acts 10:34 Peter said, “I truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to God”

Not only that, but adherence to the Laws of Moses would no longer be the deciding factor in who could and could not be part of this new movement.  Peter’s dream had made it clear that the idea that God had changed things in Jesus.   Matthew 5:17 tells us that Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the prophets.  I come not to abolish but to fulfill.  And later, in Matthew 22, he repeats the two greatest commandments, Love God with all your being and love your neighbor as you love yourself, and says  “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”  From this point forward, acting in accordance with the intent behind the Laws of Moses would become more important than following the letter of the Law.  Paul will argue that faith is more important than the Law or works.  Things are getting very different for those early followers of Jesus.   They will keep fussing for a while, over who is and is not invited to sit at the Table with them, but over time it will become clear that salvation through Jesus is available to all people, regardless of who they are or where they come from or what they eat . . .  

I like British tv shows.  One of the shows I enjoy is called “Rev” (episode 2 season 1) It’s the story of Adam, an Anglican priest in London, the vicar of St Saviors, a very large beautiful old church, in a poor neighborhood, that’s kind of falling apart, has maybe 20 people in the congregation on a good Sunday. So it can’t really support itself, which worries Adam and upsets his bishop.  In one episode Darren, a very handsome, charismatic, evangelical young priest, asked if his congregation could use St Savior’s while their building was undergoing renovations.  He offered a 10,000 pound donation (about $13,000 US), which immediately got the bishop’s approval, of course.  So he came to St Savior’s, moved out all the pews, and replaced them with couches. He added screens, a vegan smoothie bar, Christian hip hop, and brought hundreds of very excited, young, well-dressed, financially well off people. Within a couple of weeks it was clear that he thought it was only right for him to take over St. Savior’s entirely because he had a bigger (and therefore more important) congregation .  . . . But he held to a more rigid interpretation of Scripture than is common in the Anglican church.  He taught that homosexuals were not welcome in church, that having women in leadership was unacceptable.  He wanted to ban an old man from church for pinching a girl. (Ok, everyone agreed he did wrong, but banning him from worship?)  He thought the homeless folks and the mentally ill folks who were part of the old congregation probably needed to find a different place to worship.  Father Adam and the bishop turned him away, along with his very large, very generous congregation, because they could not, in good conscience, allow him to reject people in the name of Jesus. 

The sign outside says “New Beginnings Available.”  For the early church, Peter’s experience with Cornelius was a new beginning.   A voice from heaven had said to Peter, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”  And the leaders in Jerusalem agreed.  If God accepts even the Gentiles, so must we. 

In his letter to the Ephesians 2:14-15 Paul encourages the Gentile Christians and Jewish Christians to make peace with each other saying, “For [Christ] is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 15 He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace. 

One new humanity in the place of two.  Everyone is invited.  Everyone is welcome.   No one is asked to leave.  Even if they pinch a girl. Even if they are homeless.  Even if they suffer from mental illness.  Even if they are an addict.  Even if they get arrested for domestic violence.  No matter who you are, no matter what you have done, you are invited to worship in this place. You are invited to join us at the Lord’s Table.  You are invited to begin again - every day if necessary.  Because we are all works in progress.  And we reject no one, because Jesus rejects no one.   All are welcome in this place.  All are invited to join us at this Table.  Because we are Disciples of Christ,  a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world.  As part of the one body of Christ we welcome all to the Lord’s Table as God has welcomed us.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

A Woman's Work (is never done?)


 Scripture   Acts 9:36-43   NRSV  

36 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. 37 At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. 38 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.” 39 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. 40 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. 41 He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. 42 This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. 43 Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.

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Poor Dorcas.  Couldn’t even die in peace.  They just had to bring her back so she could keep doing the good work that she was so well known and loved for. Right? Seriously, the power of women and women’s work to change the world is unparalleled and undeniable.  Peter recognized that, because in her own small way Dorcas was changing the world around her.  She cared for widows who had no one else  - no husband, no son, no community or church safety net to help them.  All these women had was Dorcas.  God also recognizes that, for God gave Peter the power to bring her back to continue her good work and to teach others what it means to be a Christian woman.

I was really tempted to use a picture of women working in a sweat shop to go with my title, but you know, that’s not really what this is about.  This isn’t about labor, or equal pay for equal work, or husbands doing their share of caring for home and children, or human trafficking or any of those other modern issues that concern us.  This is about doing for others out of love.  This is about a servant of the Lord being so greatly loved that they could not bear to lose her.  This is about the power of prayer, so that God’s work in the world may go forward unimpeded.

In the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) many important movements have been started by women in prayer.  The National Benevolent Association began when Sarah Matilda Hart Younkin gathered a group of six women to pray for the plight of the homeless and helpless. Congregations had their Widow’s Mite collection and Dorcas Society to help the needy in their own city, but these six women recognized that a national denominational organization was needed.  There was no such thing anywhere in the US at that time, but they were nothing if not determined.  They collected $86.76 to begin their work building such an organization.  They started small, helping one needy person at at time, then founding an orphans home, and building from there.  It would be 12 years before the National Convention of the Christian Church would recognize the organization as an official agency of the Church.  Today the NBA is “an expansive network of direct-service providers and residential facilities.” If you want to know more, I have a book.   (Inasmuch: The Saga of the NBA.  Hiram and Marjorie Lester)  And there is a website (https://www.nbacares.org/history)  

Global Ministries is a combined effort of the Disciples of Christ and the United Church of Christ to do overseas mission work.  It also began with one woman’s prayer.  During her prayer time in April of 1874 Caroline Neville Pearre was convicted of a call to initiate a women’s organization.  So she gathered a group of women to address the mission and ministry that was then lacking in the church, forming the Christian Women’s Board of Mission to serve both home and foreign mission.  In the first few years they sent missionaries to Jamaica, France, and India as well as a mission for former slaves in Mississippi.  The CWBM quickly outpaced the floundering men’s missionary societies and grew until it replaced the men’s mission organizations altogether and became an official agency of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).  If you want to know more, I have a book.  And they have a website ( https://www.globalministries.org/.)

The Christian Women’s Fellowship grew directly out of the Mission Board and thus celebrates its 145th birthday this year!  Every congregation had some ladies’ society or other, but there was no national organization, nothing to tie all those separate groups together.   In 1947 a plan to do that was forming and in 1949 an organizational meeting of the Christian Women’s Fellowship was held to “work toward a more effective organization of women, with three emphases:  worship, study and service.  All women of the church were to be considered members of the organization. “ (Tucker and McAllister, Journey in Faith, pg 417).   Although the name has changed from Christian Women’s Fellowship to Disciples Women, the focus has never changed.  Gatherings of Disciples women focus on worship and study and service, both in the local congregation as well as regional and larger gatherings.  And, you guessed it, if you want to know more, I have a book!  Plus - they have a website (https://www.discipleshomemissions.org/congregations/disciples-women/)  

And for anyone who likes history as much as I do and may wonder about the role of women in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) I have a book!  Written and edited by women.  (In the Fullness of Time: A history of women in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)  Craddock, Faw, Heimer.  1999)

Dorcas was devoted to good works and acts of charity.  So it should come as no surprise that prior to the founding of the NBA so many congregations had something called a Dorcas Society to help the needy.  Through all the years when so many churches did not allow women to hold positions of leadership or authority, women were nonetheless leading the Church’s efforts to care for the hungry and homeless, widows and orphans, the elderly, and those who needed to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ, following where Dorcas led.  It is no wonder that Peter was led to revive her, to bring her back so that her work could continue.  

Make no mistake, women’s work is never done!  And I don’t mean that in the ‘work all day and come home to cook and clean’ sense.  I mean the work of compassion.  The work of caring.  The work of teaching gentleness and love to the next generation.  Yes, men can teach those things.  But in our present society, and speaking very generally women are typically the ones who teach children in their earliest years about playing well with others, sharing toys with their siblings, saying please and thank you.  Sadly, we are seeing a decline in those teachings.  At last year’s block parties, when children were given a bag of popcorn or a brightly colored cross, they rarely said thank you. Even when asked, “What do you say?” more often than not we got a blank stare.   If children are not taught the basics of getting along well with others in their early childhood, they will probably grow to adulthood not knowing.  They need to learn these things - if not at home, then at school, or even here, in church.  Because all of these things stem from the love commandment.  All of those things fall under te heading of treating others as you wish to be treated.

In his monthly article in the First United Methodist Church newsletter, Ken Robison talked about angry arguments over public safety at a recent city council meeting.  At the end of that meeting, he said, some pastors got up and spoke for peace.  He noted that “those of us who believe in the Christian message of love, grace, and forgiveness understand that peace in a community cannot come solely from more policing. . . . Let us ponder how safe our city would be if children learned from their Mothers the value of God’s love, peace and grace.  If they listened to their Mothers about showing love and respect for their fellow man.  Remember the words of Jesus . . .”Love the Lord your God with all your heart an all  your soul and all your mind and all your strength . .  Love your neighbor as yourself.” . . . How great would Mother’s Day be if all their children heeded this message.   

This passage tells us that many came to believe after Peter revived Dorcas, and perhaps that was because of this miracle that God made possible.  But I like to think that it was Dorcas’ example that prompted interest in the Gospel.  Because  Dorcas lived out the love commandment, doing for those widows according to Jesus’ instructions.  Through her love and good works she taught the people around her what is expected of a Christian. Like many other women of the church, from the earliest days of the church right up to today, she mothered those around her, giving of herself that all might know about God’s grace and love and forgiveness.  Like so many who followed and still follow in her life’s example, she was a woman who answered God’s call, and devoted her life to God’s service.  Let us be like Dorcas.  If we are tired, may our commitment to God’s work be revived as Dorcas was, so that we may be God’s loving hands and feet in today’s world.  


Sunday, April 28, 2019

Hear and Believe!


Scripture John 20:19-31  (NRSV)  


19 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.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace ube with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 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.”
26 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.” 27 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.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 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.”
30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 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.
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The art is ‘The Doubt of St. Thomas’ by He Qi, China/USA.
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 As you all know, I was at the Annual Gathering of the Christian Church in Northern California and Nevada for the last few days along with Jordan and Kathleen.   I  was asked to bring you greetings from Rosario Ibarra of the Board of Church Extension, whom some of you met when she was here a few months back, and also from Monica Joy Cross, Regional Minister of Women’s Ministries who will be preaching here next Sunday.   As with all of our denominational Gatherings and Assemblies, there was plenty of preaching and praying and singing, communion and offerings, and workshops.  Not as much shopping this time as usual, but plenty of informational booths.  We were kept busy pretty much every minute, which is also normal for these events.  Yesterday afternoon I was talking with another preacher, and we agreed that at some point words would happen for this morning’s message.  Neither of us were sure what those words would be, but we did agree that there would be words, and that they would be our own words, which would come to us with the help of the Holy Spirit (and books.  Lots of books. And maybe even some internet research.)   

It is the week after Easter.  And all the disciples were gathered together again in the same place where Jesus had appeared to them a week earlier, on the day of his resurrection.   On that day, Jesus had somehow entered the locked room and stood among them, which is a great mystery all by itself.  Then he showed them the wounds he had received from the Roman soldiers, he breathed on them so that they might receive the Holy Spirit,  and he gave them the power to forgive sins - or not.   Afterwards they rejoiced and they shared this news with everyone who wasn’t there, including Thomas, known as the Twin.  And Thomas didn’t believe them.  Until he saw Jesus with his own eyes and touched the wounds to be certain they were real, he said, he would not be convinced.  

We all sort of shake our heads at Thomas.  Doubting Thomas, we call him.  We think that he should have simply believed what everyone else told him without question.  And yet . . .  Last week, on Easter, we heard that after Mary Magdalene and the other women reported the empty tomb to the disciples, Peter had to run back and see for himself.  He was not about to believe that this impossible thing had happened until he saw it with his own eyes.   And his disbelief may have been because they were women, but it also may have been because it simply wasn’t possible.  Yes, he had seen Jesus perform many healings and casting out of demons.  He had seen Jesus somehow multiply the loaves and fishes to feed a multitude, and change water into wine.   He had even seen Jesus raise Lazarus from the grave!  Yet for some reason, the empty tomb needed to be verified.  Even though Jesus had told them and tried to prepare them for this very thing to happen, Peter, like Thomas, had to see it for himself.   

Nevertheless, we criticize Thomas for his lack of belief.  And I’m not sure why we do that.  I mean, we are kind of serious about teaching our children not to believe everything they hear, right?  We teach them to investigate things, and look for the facts, do some research.  Hopefully we even teach them that Google and YouTube are not the ultimate sources for complete and accurate information.  (Gasp!  I know, right?)  We believe in the scientific method of testing things, proving things, before we are willing to say “Yes, this is a true thing.”  Even our children’s stories, those wonderful tales many of us grew up with, warn us against believing the impossible.  Alice (of Wonderland fame) laughed: "There's no use trying," she said; "one can’t believe impossible things." "I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”  (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson aka Lewis Carroll).  

And even Christians are not expected to simply believe everything they are told.  One of the reasons I found my home in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is because I was told that I was not to simply accept what the preacher said just because she said it.  Rather I was to study and ask questions and test what I was taught.  According to Martin Marty, “Christians are not to be trained to be gullible, regarded as suckers, blinded by naivete.  They are to hear and study, “testing the spirits”. They are to compare testimonies.” (Feasting on the Word: Year C Vol. 2: Westminster John Knox: 2009,  pg. 400) 

So why are we so hard on Thomas?

Here is a thought.  What if Jesus wasn’t chastising Thomas when he said, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”  What if he was speaking to a new, future reality?  Thomas, Peter and all of the others had followed Jesus, the living human person, all over Galilee and Judah and Samaria.  They had watched him do all these things.  They had listened to him preach in person.  They had sat around a fire at night with him and gained wisdom.  But a time was coming when those who had seen him would no longer be around.  A time was coming when belief would come not from the seeing, and not even from hearing the stories directly from those who had been there.  A time was coming when people would believe in Jesus, Lord and Savior, because they heard about him.  Because people spoke of him and wrote about him and sang songs about him.  A time was coming when people would not see, and even so would come to believe.   What if, instead of chastising Thomas, Jesus was prophesying the future - talking about all the generations between the death of the last of his disciples and today - and about all of the nations who would receive the word from missionaries and evangelists who had never seen him with their own eyes.  

Sometimes people will ask me how I can believe in something I cannot see.  God cannot be seen, so why do I believe?  And you know, sometimes I go with the “well, you can’t see the wind, but you believe it is there because you can feel it, and you can see its affects on the things it touches.”   And that is logical.  Most people will agree the wind is real, but many will still have trouble believing in a God they cannot see or touch or hear.  They will not believe just because they hear the words we say, or the songs we song.  They will not be convinced by the most eloquent Christian writers.  But they can be convinced by Christ’s impact on people.   

And therein lies our challenge.  Because people can be convinced of the reality of God and Christ by the way people who profess belief behave, if they see people who proclaim Jesus as their Lord and Savior and preach hate, and profess an exclusionary religion, people might wonder what is so wonderful about Christ?  Or rather, what is so great about Christianity?  Gandhi once said, “I like your Christ, but I do not like your Christians.  Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”   I heard an interview yesterday with the founder of the Satanic Temple* who spoke of how hateful Christians are - of how Christianity is best known for what it is against, rather than what it is for.  And how many who rejected the Christianity of their youth because of this - as he did - have instead joined other organizations which do those things Christians are supposed to do.  I’m sorry, but if Christians seem hateful to the founder of the Satanic Temple, we have a serious problem!   If we seem hateful, if the effect that Jesus has on us, on Christians, is such that we are seen as actively promoting that which is not love, we have a serious problem.  If people are to hear and believe, we need to act more loudly, because they cannot hear us.   If they hear only rejection and condemnation and judgment from Christians, then we are doing something very wrong.  
We are to proclaim the Good News of God’s Kingdom.  We are to proclaim the Good News of God’s love and forgiveness.  We are to proclaim a living Christ - who lives among us, who guides our lives, who teaches us how to live, who commands us to go out and heal the world!   He commands us to go out and love one another, as God loves us.  For God loves us so much he sent his only son to heal the world, all the world, to bring peace into every heart, to bring hope into every situation.  Listen!  Hear and Believe.  Christ is Risen!  and lives among us.  Let us see him in every face, in every voice, in every heart.  

Let us go out from this place, and preach Christ’s love - and if we need to, we may use words.    Amen.


*(The Satanic Temple is a nontheistic religious and political activist group based in Salem, Massachusetts. The Temple is recognized as a church for the purposes of tax exemption, with chapters in 13 states and Canada. The group uses Satanic imagery to promote egalitarianismsocial justice, and the separation of church and state. Their stated mission is "to encourage benevolence and empathy among all people". Wikipedia)

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Sunday, April 21, 2019

Where is he?


Scripture Luke 24:1-12  NRSV 

24 But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen  Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. 10 Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. 11 But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. 12 But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.

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He is Risen!
He is Risen!
He is Risen!
He is risen, indeed.
I started receiving Easter greetings yesterday afternoon when a friend in Australia said “Happy Easter! It is already Sunday here!”  As the dawn broke in country after country, Christians began greeting each other saying, “He is Risen!”   Churches everywhere were filled to capacity.  Well, most churches were.  The Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris was empty, but other churches throughout the city welcomed those whose house of worship had burned.  Three historically Black Baptist churches in Landry Parish, Louisiana were empty because they had been burned to the ground, but those congregations celebrated the resurrection in other places today.    All of these Christians in Paris and Louisiana can sing God’s praises even in strange places today, for they know their Savior lives.  They know their buildings will rise again out of the ashes, their faith in God is unshaken.  

It might be different in Sri Lanka.  Catholic churches across Sri Lanka were filled to capacity when bombs went off this morning.   Eight bombs, targeting four churches and four hotels that cater to tourists, went off this morning.  At last count over 200 were killed, and nearly 500 were injured.   Seven people have been arrested.  The country is under curfew.  They really have no idea yet why this happened.   There may be some who were in those churches and those hotels who will be questioning God this morning.  They must be wondering why?  Why did this happen - today of all days?  They might find it difficult to sing God’s praises today.  They might find their faith is shaken.  

The women went to the tomb to clean and anoint the body of their rabbi, but he was gone.  Can you imagine?  On Friday they had watched Jesus die horribly on the cross.  In the afternoon, just before sunset, they watched him being put into the tomb.  They must have been traumatized.  They must have wondered why?  Why did this happen to him?  But even though traumatized and upset and worried about the future, in their hearts they knew they needed to do this one last thing for him.  So they went as soon as possible after the Sabbath ended to prepare his body as if he had not yet been entombed.  And they found the stone rolled back and the tomb empty and looked at each other asking, “Where is he?”  And men in dazzling clothes appeared and said to the women, to Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James, “Why look for the living among the dead?”   

You know, I kind of hate it when the news makes me toss everything I have been writing and preparing out the window on Sunday morning.  I had some good stuff written.  Easter sermons are hard enough, because this is seen as the Most Important Message of the year!  It is the one that will reach the most people and thus has the potential to make a difference in more lives than on a “normal” Sunday.   The Easter Sermon is kind of intimidating.  It is approached with fear and trembling.  Ok, maybe it’s not that bad.  But for weeks now preachers have been sharing thoughts and ideas with each other in our various chat rooms and internet groups.  

Some said that I must preach from a feminist perspective - because the women were the ones to carry the Good News but the disciples didn’t believe them because they were women.   I must say I was tempted in that direction - because my friend Danny Bradfield (pastor of Bixby Knolls Christian Church in Long Beach) says the coolest stuff.  If you have saw the posts on facebook that say things like “to be biblically authentic, all preaching on the resurrection should be done by women!”  then you may enjoy what he wrote.  “The women stayed with Jesus at his trial and crucifixion, the women didn't desert him, the women returned to anoint his body, the women discovered the empty tomb, and the women were the first to proclaim the resurrection. Even so, God doesn't just call women into ministry, but men, too, so this Sunday I'll do my best to preach an Easter sermon.”  This is especially funny when you realize that even today there are those who believe that women should not be preaching any where any time any way.  Period.  

Some said that I must preach truth to power and use this opportunity to talk about racism and homophobism and zenophobia.  I have even been told that I must not preach the resurrection because you all are here because you already believe in it.   But as you know, if you know me at all, I’m really not good at doing what other people tell me I must do.  I have to do what my heart and my conscience call me to do, what the Spirit tells me to do.  Those other things are important, but you know, I can preach those things any time.  And really, today my heart is with all those people whose Easter celebration has taken a beating.    

And not just those folks whose church buildings have been destroyed in Paris and Louisiana. Not just those who are literally looking for the living among the dead right now in Sri Lanka.  But all of the people who are facing terrible and difficult situations right now.  Like Karen, who is on her way to be with her sister who was diagnosed with stage 3 cervical cancer.  All of the people whose future is uncertain right now - who are waiting for a diagnosis, or looking for a job, or trying to figure out how to pay their bills, or having major issues in their families and relationships.  All of the people who struggle just to get through the day - whose depression or anxiety or PTSD or chronic pain or degenerative illness means that sometimes they have to deal with life one moment at a time.   People whose personal dark time may make it hard to see the light.

The truth of the resurrection is especially important on days when terrible things are happening.  The proof of Jesus’ humanity that we see in suffering and death is even more important when terrible things are happening.  Knowing that our Lord, our Savior, lives beyond the bounds of death is even more important on days when we aren’t sure where to turn.  When everything seems dark, we get to remember that after the very worst day ever, the women learn that something impossibly wonderful has happened.  Their Lord lives!  They might not understand how that might be, but they believe when the messengers they meet at the tomb tell them “He is not here, but has risen  Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.”   They remembered, and they believed and they told all the others.

The other week I talked about Easter people, whose focus is on the risen Christ, and Good Friday people whose focus is on the suffering and death of Jesus.  I’m sort of both, although I lean more toward being an Easter person.  The suffering and death is important and critical because without Jesus’ death there could be no resurrection.  But if there was no resurrection, his death would have had no meaning.  His followers would likely have disbanded and maybe looked for a new teacher.  His work would most likely have been forgotten. 

But from the moment that Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James discovered the empty tomb, from the moment that those two men in dazzling clothes greeted them and asked, “Why look for the living among the dead,” a new thing, a new reality had entered the world.  This man, who had been as human as every other human, who died like every other human dies, had been resurrected!  He hadn’t been taken up bodily into heaven without dying, like Elijah and maybe Moses.  He had died, a horrible, painful death.  They had witnessed it.  They saw him placed in the tomb.  And now he lived!  And they were the first to be told.  They were the first to declare the resurrection!  (Even if the men didn’t believe them.)  

After the worst possible day, the resurrection.  
After the darkness of Friday, the light returned to the world.  
After death, life eternal.  
In our own dark days, we remember the resurrection.   
We remember that there is a light that cannot be extinguished.  
And like the women who discovered the empty tomb, we proclaim the resurrection, whether or not anyone believes us.  
Because we know he is risen! 
We know he lives! 

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Don’t Stop!

Scripture Luke 19:28-40
28 After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.
29 When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, 30 saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31 If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’” 32 So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. 33 As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” 34 They said, “The Lord needs it.” 35 Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. 36 As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. 37 As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, 38 saying,
“Blessed is the king
    who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven,
    and glory in the highest heaven!”
39 Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” 40 He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”
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Lent is nearly over.  There is only this one last week.  If you have given up something for Jesus, you are in the home stretch - and don’t think I didn’t notice a few faces looking enviously at the people eating chocolate and other goodies last night.  Or maybe you’re thinking you can live perfectly well without whatever it was.  Or maybe you have decided you like the new spiritual discipline you have adopted and you will keep doing it.  Yay!   But this final week is also the hardest week because today is the starting point of an Emotional Rollercoaster that will take us from the highest joys and excitement through the depths of despair.    It begins here, with a grand entrance into Jerusalem, Jesus as conquering hero!  Hosannah!  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.

Thursday the family of Disciples gathers for supper, and not just any supper, but the Passover meal. A  meal of looking back to the exodus, a journey of liberation from a life of slavery into the promised land, and looking ahead to another promised liberation from oppression and another promised land.  A bitter sweet meal, for Jesus at least, because he knows what is coming and the disciples (except maybe Judas) are totally clueless.

Then, the arrest, the trial by the Temple leadership, appearing in front of Pontius Pilate, the beating and humiliation by the soldiers and denial by the mob.   Another procession - this one leading out of Jerusalem and instead of riding in triumph, Jesus walks in pain and sorrow.  His death on the cross, and the grief - not to mention paralyzing fear - that his followers felt.  All of these emotions, in just 6 days.

Here at First Christian we commemorate all of those events  We will go through all of those emotions with Jesus and his disciples in our services today and Thursday and Friday.  But many Christian churches do not.  They go straight from the excitement of Palm Sunday to the glorious celebration of the resurrection that is Easter.    They go from Hosannah! to He is Risen!  almost as if overlooking all of the pain in between.

It is difficult to stand in this place where we are today.  We are celebrating, but we know what is coming.  We know it will all end well, but still, we know what is coming.  We are in that in between place where we aren’t quite sure whether we should celebrate quite so exuberantly or tone it down a bit in recognition of the terrible times ahead.  We might even wonder why it is so important to celebrate this day, when we know how short-lived this celebration is going to be.

And the Pharisees said to Jesus, Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

Carol was in the last days of a long battle with cancer.  She had a huge circle of friends and colleagues she treasured.  And so she told a few of the closest that what she really wanted to do was have a celebration of her life - before she died!   She wanted to gather one last time with all of the people she loved for a huge meal and music and sharing.  And that’s what we did.  We had a pot luck and the food tables ran from one end of a large banquet hall to the other, enough and more than enough for the couple of hundred folks who showed up.  A DJ was there, playing all the music she loved best.  There was a slide show, like the ones people put together for memorial services, with photos of her life and her loved ones.  There was sharing - so many stories.  Funny ones and sad ones and bittersweet ones.  And then she spoke, at the very end, from her wheelchair, to thank us all for being part of her life.  She told us to keep celebrating.  Two weeks later she died, but the celebration of her life continued.

It’s hard, to be in that in-between place.  And we have to be careful not to get stuck elevating one part of the journey over another.  That’s what Carol wanted to make sure of - that everyone who loved her remembered all the parts of her life, not just the pain and suffering at the end but the joys and even the daily slogging along.  It would have been so easy to only remember her as she was at the end, in pain, skinny, bald. . . It would have been easy to get stuck in that part of her life.  Or to only remember the good times. She wanted us to remember all of the times - addiction and recovery,  counselor and educator, mother, grandmother, friend, sponsor and a person who battled cancer, conceding her loss with grace.  She knew that no matter what, she was going to be ok.

The Pharisees said to Jesus, Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

We stand here, in this in between place, knowing we are supposed to celebrate, but also knowing what’s ahead, and that makes celebration harder.    We look at the palm branches before us and we remember the fickleness of the crowds - crying out Hosannah! today and Crucify Him! on Friday.    We know, too, that on the other side of the city the Romans are also entering, with Pilate at their head, showing the force of Rome to the crowds who have come from all over the world to celebrate the Passover in Jerusalem.  We know that on Friday Jesus and Pilate’s lives will collide in what looks like a showdown between Rome and God, and even maybe looks like Rome will win.  But it’s not Friday yet.  And today the crowds are celebrating Jesus.  So today, we celebrate with them.

The Pharisees said to Jesus, Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

It is hard to stand in this in-between place.  All of the in-between places we inhabit during our lives are hard. We are really good at looking back and at looking ahead, but we often have a hard time looking at right now.  Living in today. Cherishing today for the blessings it contains.  We tend to temper our celebration with our memory of what was and our knowledge of what is to come.  We forget what it is to be like children, carrying palm branches and shouting Hosannah!  They may not even know what they are celebrating or why, but tell a child it’s time to celebrate and they will celebrate!  We will wander around worrying whether there’s enough food for everyone, or some other mundane concern while the children run around excited, waving their palm branches.  It’s a celebration!  What are we worrying about?

The crowd in Jerusalem that day had no idea what was coming and so they celebrated with all their energy.  They welcomed Jesus, the prophet, preacher, healer and worker of wonders with the 1st century equivalent of a red carpet.  The Pharisees, on the other hand, worried.  They knew the possible political ramifications of all this disturbance in Jerusalem with the Roman governor in residence.  Some of the disciples worried as well.  They had tried to talk Jesus out of coming to Jerusalem, but he insisted.  And so the stage is set for the week that is to come.  But, it’s not Friday yet.  Today is a day to celebrate!

The Pharisees said to Jesus, Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

It’s hard to stand in this in-between place.  And because it is so hard, some of us choose to live at one end of the emotional spectrum or the other.  Some of us are Easter people, always celebrating the Risen Christ, skipping straight from Palm Sunday to Easter, and perhaps forgetting about the suffering and death.  Some of us are Good Friday people, focusing the bulk of our attention on the suffering Jesus, speaking more of his death than of his resurrection.  But, we really cannot be - or should not be - either the one or the other, because Jesus was more than suffering and death, and more than resurrection. He is those things, but he is also son, brother, friend, teacher, healer, prophet.  Today he is the the King, the one who comes in the name of the Lord!   - the one who is celebrated with palms and Hosannahs. The one whose name echoed from the stones of the city.   

If we are silent, even the very stones will cry out!  So let us not be silent. Let us celebrate.  Let us wave our palms and cry Hosannah!  Let us sing the songs of praise - today.  Because today is a day of celebration, no matter what lies ahead.   And when we go from this place, let us continue our celebration, sharing the Good News that Jesus is King!  The one who comes in the name of the Lord!  Let us pass on the spark of our faith and ignite the desire to celebrate our Lord throughout the city, and throughout the land.  

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Extravagant Love


Scripture  John 12:1-8  NRSV   
12 Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

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One of my seminary classmates showed up for class one day just fuming.  She was a member of a large congregation in downtown Indianapolis, in a part of the city where there were a lot of homeless and desperately poor people, an area that was undergoing gentrification.  The congregation had a significant mission to the poor - feeding programs, clothing programs, after school programs to provide a safe place for children to wait for their parents to come home from work.  My classmate was heavily involved in this work and knew that they always needed more funds, more food, and more volunteers.  She had been at a board meeting the day before where it was announced with great joy and excitement that a member had left a substantial sum of money to the church to be spent on the choir.  “The choir?  But there are all those poor people out there!   Why use this money for the choir when we could help so many more people?”  

Why didn’t she sell this perfume so we could help the poor? 

Lazarus, Martha and Mary figure rather prominently in John’s gospel.  We have a lot of clues to suggest they were one of the wealthy families who helped support Jesus’ ministry.  Lazarus could afford to support his two unmarried sisters.  They were able to give a dinner for Jesus and his disciples.  They had a family tomb where Lazarus had been interred.  Mary had a pound of perfumed oil worth nearly a year’s wages for an ordinary laborer.  Jesus obviously felt close to them and they to him.  Jesus wept over Lazarus’ death.  Mary and Martha both felt comfortable speaking to him in a way that they wouldn’t speak to just any man who not a relative.   Luke’s gospel tells us how Martha gently scolded him for letting Mary sit at his feet listening to him teach rather than helping in the kitchen.  And John tells us that after Lazarus died Mary was bold enough to say to Jesus, “If you had been here my brother wouldn’t have died.”  Women simply did not speak to men who were not family members in these ways. 

Like my classmate, Judas wanted to know why this woman is wasting her wealth in this way when it could have been spent to help more people?   

The real answer, of course, is she did it because this is the thing that was important to her.  Serving her Lord in this way was important to Mary.  Helping the choir glorify God through music was important to the woman in Indianapolis.  As Jesus rightly said, “You will always have the poor with  you, but you do not always have me.  He wasn’t making a particular commentary about the inevitability of there being poor folks and rich folks.  After all, Deuteronomy 15:11 says clearly, “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.”  He was simply telling Judas and the other disciples that they would have plenty of time to care for the poor, but his time among them was limited.  He was looking ahead to his death. Mary was anticipating his burial by anointing him ahead of time.  She may not have known the prophetic nature of what she did, but Jesus did.  What she did know is that she felt it important to make this extravagant gesture - to pour out this oil on his tired feet, and then to wipe them . .  not with a cloth, but with her own hair, an incredibly intimate task signifying great love and devotion.  In a few days Jesus would perform a similar intimate task for his disciples, washing their feet at the beginning of a meal.   

My friend Danny Bradfield, Pastor of Bixby Knolls Christian Church in Long Beach, said in recent sermon, “We go to church expecting to encounter Christ - and we do - but more significantly, we go to church to learn how to recognize Christ when we encounter him in the world.”   

We each spend our love on the things that are important to us.  Kathleen and I spent Friday and Saturday at the Community of the Great Commission with a number of other folks who dedicate themselves to outdoor ministries and camp programs.  On Friday we were asked to trace our hands and draw what camp means to us on that hand.   Then everyone shared.  I don’t feel a particular connection to camp, although I believe it is a very valuable experience for young and not so young alike - and you should all go.  I’ve only been to camp once before and that was maybe not the very best camp experience ever.  But aside from me, the depth of the devotion each person there expressed was as awe inspiring as the setting in which we were meeting.   I could feel the extravagant love for nature, for helping young people along their spiritual journey, for sharing their love of God and church with the campers and with each other, that each person there described - that has kept them coming back to camp for 10, 15, 26 years.   For these people and the many others in our region and elsewhere, this ministry is where they pour out their love in gifts of time, talents, and money just as extravagantly as Mary poured out her perfumed oil.  It is where they see Christ.  

We see Christ in every act of generosity, because Jesus’ ministry was all about generosity and abundance.  The miracle at Cana, producing way more wine than could be consumed.  The feeding of five thousand men (plus women and children) with twelve baskets of food left over.  After fishing all night, Peter is sent back out and immediately so many fish fill the nets that the boats are in danger of sinking.  Wherever Jesus is present, there is abundance - enough and more than enough.  It’s the way pot lucks work.  Not nearly enough people sign up but on the day the tables are so crowded with food that there is barely room for it all.  No one is sent away hungry from Christian Cafe.  

Linda is a nurse who was on a mission trip some years ago.  She was handing out pre-natal vitamins one day and realized that there simply wasn’t going to be enough for all of the women in line.  So she started giving out only half as much as each woman needed.  When the person in charge of the mission saw, she said, “No, don’t do that. Give each one the full amount and have faith.”  And lo it came to pass that a truck came, unscheduled and unexpectedly, and on that truck was a goodly supply of prenatal vitamins.   And every woman received what she needed.  

Why didn’t she sell this perfume so we could help the poor?  And Jesus said, ”You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

Well, ok.  But that was then.  Now we do always have Jesus, for he is resurrected.  He is the living Christ.  He dos not require incense or fragrant oils and he does command us to go out and love one another.  So why give to the choir or the organ or the youth group or the camp program?  Or office supplies?  Why not give directly to the poor?  We should give directly to the poor, but also to all these other things, because those things help us serve the poor.  

When we pour out our love on those things that equip us - on music with which to praise God and on raising up our young people in Christ and on sending folks to camp who might otherwise not get to go - we are equipping ourselves to go out from this place to serve God in whatever way we are each best suited.    When we pour our love into those things that strengthen us in God’s service, we are enabled and emboldened to help the poor, the hungry, the desolated, the angry, the depressed, the lonely, the sick, the addicted . . .  When we pour out our love for Christ as extravagantly as Mary poured out the perfumed oil, We are enabled to give more than we can imagine, in ways we could not foresee, to further God’s mission in the world.  We are returning to God the gift of extravagant love that he pours out upon us.