Sunday, April 23, 2017

When in doubt . .

Scripture Reading John 20:19-31 (CEB)  

19 It was still the first day of the week. That evening, while the disciples were behind closed doors because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities, Jesus came and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. When the disciples saw the Lord, they were filled with joy. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.” 22 Then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you don’t forgive them, they aren’t forgiven.”
24 Thomas, the one called Didymus, one of the Twelve, wasn’t with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 The other disciples told him, “We’ve seen the Lord!”
But he replied, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands, put my finger in the wounds left by the nails, and put my hand into his side, I won’t believe.”
26 After eight days his disciples were again in a house and Thomas was with them. Even though the doors were locked, Jesus entered and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here. Look at my hands. Put your hand into my side. No more disbelief. Believe!”
28 Thomas responded to Jesus, “My Lord and my God!”
29 Jesus replied, “Do you believe because you see me? Happy are those who don’t see and yet believe.”
30 Then Jesus did many other miraculous signs in his disciples’ presence, signs that aren’t recorded in this scroll. 31 But these things are written so that you will believe that Jesus is the Christ, God’s Son, and that believing, you will have life in his name.
Yesterday Leah sent me a message asking if I had an idea for the sermon slide this week.  My answer was kind of. Not really.  Maybe a Tree of Life?  You see, I wasn’t sure which way this message was going to go.  It’s Earth Stewardship Sunday, and I typically preach on creation care this week.  But because Easter was late this year it’s also the week when we preach on the story of the disciple we call Doubting Thomas.  What to do?  Preach on Faith?  Creation Care?   

And then a hymn got stuck in my head.  Actually, it’s been stuck there for over a week, but I’m kind of used to that.  I mean, who doesn’t get music stuck in their head from time to time.  In my case, it’s often one of the old hymns that I first learned as student chaplain in a retirement community, where it was quickly made clear to me that 1932 was a very good year for hymns.  You see, I didn’t learn hymns growing up.  The church I attended didn’t sing except on very special occasions, and then the songs were in Latin.  So hymns weren’t part of my religious upbringing.  I learned some gospel music at Bluegrass Festivals, and hymns like Amazing Grace, but when I came to the Disciples I was woefully ignorant of hymns.  I think one of the reasons I kept coming back after my first visit to a Disciples church, initially, was the music.  Congregational singing is glorious!   So anyway, there I was with a decision to make and a hymn in my head.  This particular hymn was written in 1933, but that’s close enough.  

I serve a risen Savior, he’s in the world today
I know that he is living, whatever others say.
I see his hand of mercy, I hear his voice of cheer,
and just the time I need him, he’s always near
He Lives! He Lives!  Christ Jesus lives today!

So, Thomas it is.  Faith. . . and Doubt.  

Poor Thomas.  He really has a poor reputation these days.  I would like to point out a couple of things about Thomas that we usually overlook.  This so-called “Doubting Thomas” is the sameThomas who said “Let’s go die with him.” in the Lazarus story.  Remember?   The disciples tried to keep Jesus from going to Bethany because they were quite certain he would be stoned to death for blasphemy, and very possibly they would be accused alongside of him.  But the very faithful Thomas says, “Let’s go die with him.”   This same Doubting Thomas was, in fact, the very first to call Jesus “My Lord and My God.”    The others had seen him, and acknowledged him as Lord, but in these Easter events Thomas is the first to call him God.   And I have to wonder what it was that Thomas was having trouble believing?  I’m sure he believed the others believed they had seen Jesus.  Perhaps he thought that what they had experienced was a ghost, or a mass hallucination.  After all, it is sort of hard to wrap our minds around someone simply getting up from the grave and walking around.  And not just walking around, but apparently walking through walls or simply appearing in the middle of a room.  These are not things that are in anyone’s daily experience.  NT Wright points out, in the Acts for Everyone Bible Study, that the post-resurrection Jesus somehow inhabits both Earth and Heaven at the same time - his body is physical when it needs to be, and non-corporeal when that is what is needed.  So he can walk through walls, and suddenly appear in their midst, and walk alongside certain disciples carrying on a conversation for hours on the road to Emmaus without being recognized.  And he can be touched.  The women can grab hold of his feet to worship him. Thomas can put his hands in Jesus’ wounds.      This is so far beyond anyone’s comprehension that I kind of don’t blame Thomas for questioning what they had seen.  

Jesus said to Thomas, “Do you believe because you see me? Happy are those who don’t see and yet believe.”   We like to pat ourselves on the back for believing in Jesus even though we have never seen him.  I’m not sure we deserve that self-congratulatory attitude.  Many of us believe because we have been brought up from birth believing. I can’t imagine not believing that Jesus is my Savior. Even during all the years I spent away from Church, angry at God, (although maybe mostly at Church) convinced I was going to hell no matter what I did, I still believed. I believed Jesus loved me.  I believed he had come to save the world from sin and misery.  I believed he was and is, as the old hymn says, the Balm in Gilead.   

Maybe I have a slight advantage over Thomas.   You may find this hard to believe, but I was a bit of a rebel.  When I was in 7th or 8th grade I challenged the teacher at the Wednesday night religion class by asking, “How do we know there is a God?”  Instead of being given an answer I could mull over, I was chastised for disrespect, and told I was simply to believe and not question anything.  I told my father, who, after grumbling about the teacher, took me outside.  He walked me up to a large tree and said, “This is proof that God exists.  How could the miracle that is a tree happen if God’s hand wasn’t involved?”  We talked about trees and other amazing parts of creation for a while, and I understood that he was right.  From that time forward I have had a sort of personal mantra.  When in doubt, look at a tree.  

How many of us have absolutely believed in Santa?  No doubts!  Santa was real!  And the proof was presents!  As time passed that belief may have undergone some changes.  We may not believe in the same way we used to.  But there are still presents.  

Seems to me that's the same sort of proof we have that Jesus is real.  The question isn't whether he was a real person, because the fact that he existed has been recorded in histories other than the Bible, but whether he is our Savior.   The question is whether he is the Messiah, the one anointed by God, to bring the Word to the people who most needed it, to bring light into our darkness.   And the proof, as I see it, is in the presents - the gifts that we have received as a result of our belief in him.

In a conversation the other day I said something  about ways in which Dr. King might have changed his perspective, as evidenced by some of his later writings and interview, had he not died.  It was quickly brought to my attention that he had not simply died, but had been murdered.  And yes he was, but I argued that the manner of his death didn't have a bearing on the body of work he produced prior to that.  It absolutely does have a bearing on how we remember and honor him, and certainly on the ways others have written about him, but not on the body of his written work.  He knew, from the very beginning, that he might very well die because of his work, but he didn’t let that stop him.  The same can be said of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Oscar Romero.  All three were great teachers, writers,  theologians and preachers, men of the cloth who stood boldly against the powers that be in defense of the oppressed.  We would remember them for the body of their work even if they had not been murdered by those whose authority they threatened.  But their martyrdom has assured their place in history as men of great integrity and strong Christian faith. 

Jesus was also a great teacher, and perhaps his sermons and parables and lessons would be remembered and taught today, as the teachings of the great Greek philosophers and great Jewish thinkers of his and earlier times are still taught.  There are certainly many who see him as a teacher, even a great prophet, but nothing more.  There are those who deny his miracles and healings.   There are those who claim he couldn’t have cast out demons simply because they do not believe in demons.  There are even those who doubt his resurrection.  There are numerous theories as to why the stories of his resurrection were told, including the much derided “Dave Theory” (named for the movie Dave, in which a look alike stood in for the President of the United States).  And I must sadly point out that many of those who believe these things are Christians, even ministers and theologians.  Me, I believe in miracles.  I believe that Jesus rose on the third day, and spent the next 40 days teaching his disciples the things they would need to know to continue to carry the Good News into the world.  I believe that they went on to perform healings and other wonders, and that these things are still possible today.  

But the real proof that Jesus is the Savior, the Messiah, the one anointed by God to heal the world, is to be found in the gifts we receive.   The gifts of knowledge of God’s care for us, and God’s forgiveness, the gifts of peaceful heart and serene mind.   But the greatest gift we receive, the one that proves without doubt that Jesus is the one who was sent by God to heal the world, is to be found in the words that he repeated in so many different ways.   “Love one another.”  Love God and love each other.  Go out and feed the hungry, care for the poor, clothe the naked, comfort the prisoner, heal the sick.  Go out and invite everyone on the streets in to join in the banquet.  Forgive your brother or sister as many times as it takes.  Love everyone!  Welcome everyone!   Reject no one, for Christ himself welcomed all to his table.  

When we go from this place today, let us open our eyes to see our risen Savior, our living Christ, in the face of everyone we encounter.

He lives!   He is Risen!  

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Do Not Be Afraid

Matthew 28:1-10 Common English Bible (CEB) 

28 After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to look at the tomb. Look, there was a great earthquake, for an angel from the Lord came down from heaven. Coming to the stone, he rolled it away and sat on it. Now his face was like lightning and his clothes as white as snow. The guards were so terrified of him that they shook with fear and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Don’t be afraid. I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He isn’t here, because he’s been raised from the dead, just as he said. Come, see the place where they laid him. Now hurry, go and tell his disciples, ‘He’s been raised from the dead. He’s going on ahead of you to Galilee. You will see him there.’ I’ve given the message to you.”
With great fear and excitement, they hurried away from the tomb and ran to tell his disciples. But Jesus met them and greeted them. They came and grabbed his feet and worshipped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Go and tell my brothers that I am going into Galilee. They will see me there.”
With great fear and excitement, the women hurried away from the tomb and ran to tell the disciples.   Every preacher knows what that fear and excitement feels like.  They are the feelings with which we approach the crafting of the Easter message.  There’s a lot hanging on the Easter message.  Everybody knows that churches will be filled to the rafters on Easter and this sermon might be our only chance to guilt some of those visiting family members and such into regular attendance!   OK, maybe guilt isn’t exactly the right word.   And certainly, in these days of YouTube and podcasts and live streaming, the message gets out to whomever wants to hear it even when it isn’t Easter.  But the fact remains that congregations have filled the pews on Easter hoping to hear something amazing, and preachers have approached the pulpit with fear and trembling, hoping to measure up to their expectations.  

Do not be afraid!”  The angel said it to the women - although not to the guards on the tomb, placed there by the high priest so that the disciples couldn’t come and steal the body of their rabbi to make the prophecy come true.  They even tried to get Pilate involved.  Matthew tells us that “The next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate 63 and said, “Sir, we remember what that impostor said while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ 64 Therefore command the tomb to be made secure until the third day; otherwise his disciples may go and steal him away, and tell the people, ‘He has been raised from the dead,’ and the last deception would be worse than the first.” 65 Pilate said to them, “You have a guard[of soldiers; go, make it as secure as you can.” 66 So they went with the guard and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone”  (Matthew 27:62-66)   

What they didn’t understand was that Jesus wasn’t like all the other self-proclaimed messiahs that had been plaguing them for decades.  Jesus was the real thing.  His disciples didn’t have to steal his body.  God had already claimed it.  By the time their guard got there to assure that the tomb was sealed against intruders it was already too late.  They did their duty, those guards, standing there to assure no humans came to steal the body.  But when the angel came - clearly not a human with his face as brights as lightning and his snow white clothing - they were so terrified and fainted dead away!  The women, however, did not.  To them the angel said what messengers of the Lord have always said, “Do not be afraid.”   And then, when they were on their way to do as the angel directed, they met Jesus.  And they fell to their knees and took hold of his feet and worshipping him.  

I wonder what he looked like.  No really.  The angel was bright and awesome and terrifying!   On the mountaintop, when he met with Elijah and Moses, Jesus was also bright and awesome and terrifying.  But here, as the women were running from the tomb back to where ever the disciples were hiding, Jesus appeared to them as himself?  An ordinary, human appearing Jesus?  Clearly they recognized him right away.  They didn't have any problems touching him, his feet at least.  But he, too, said “Do not be afraid.” 

Clearly they were not afraid of him.  So what was he telling them not to be afraid about, I wonder?   All we can do, really, is guess.  The devotional we have been reading this Lenten season suggests that the women may have been fearful about what would happen to them in the future, that they may not be able to go back home again after having left families and homes to follow him.  Perhaps, although Mary of Magdalene, for one, probably hadn’t been home in a long time before that.  She was the woman from whom he cast out a demon, after all.  She may very well have been wandering, homeless, for a long time, talking to herself, like some of the homeless women we have all seen.  The “other Mary” mentioned in this Gospel was most likely Mary of Bethany, sister of Martha and Lazarus, so she wasn’t worried about losing her home over devotion to Jesus.  But certainly they, like all the other disciples, would have feared the Temple authorities, those who had Jesus put to death.  

So Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid.”  Then he repeated what the angel had told them, that he would see them in Galilee.  He was telling them, in essence, that they should go home. Leave the place where he died, and where they might still be in danger from the Temple authorities, and go home.  Go back to where it all began.

Jesus told them to go back to the beginning.  Easter is always a new beginning.  Two nights ago, we came to this place to commemorate the death of Jesus. We came here to listen to scripture readings and music that told the story of his passion and death.  We took nails, nails many of us had been carrying with us since Ash Wednesday, that we had been praying over, that we had been figuratively filling with all the sins and character defects we wished to give up, and we hammered those nails into the cross, leaving them behind there, so that come this morning, this Easter morning, we could begin afresh.  We left those nails to represent all of our faults, so that we could go back to the beginning, back to that day when we were baptized and made a vow to turn our wills and our lives over to God, becoming new in Christ.  

Do not be afraid.  It’s not easy to give up all those faults.  We’re actually quite fond of some of them.  How many of us take some pride in being stubborn, for example?  I mean, it’s fairly easy to look at the Seven Deadly Sins and say, “Oh, yeah, those are bad.  I don’t want any of those!”  I mean, no one wants to be slothful, or gluttonous, or envious, or filled with lust, or greedy, or wrathful, or prideful, after all.   Well, gluttony is bad, but then there’s chocolate.  And it’s Easter.  Who can avoid eating a bit too much chocolate on Easter?  Who would want to?  And a bit of lust is a good thing between married folks, right?  And we have a right to be proud of some things, don’t we?  And am I being slothful if I do pretty much nothing on my day off instead of, say, cleaning the house? Or is that self care?  And there are definitely cases of righteously justifiable anger. Surely that’s not a sin.  Perhaps it’s only really a sin if it goes beyond a certain degree.  Maybe we’re operating with the wrong definition of some of those things.  

See - not easy.  And that’s just the Seven Deadlies!  There are all of those other faults and sinful behaviors and trespasses against other people.   We may easily find ourselves thinking, “Oh heavens, I will never be good enough!  I will never be able to really give up all those things.”

My sisters and brothers, do not be afraid.  For the Good News is this - you are forgiven.  You are forgiven as many times as it takes.  It’s not a once and done proposition with God.  Jesus died at the hands of sinful humans, whose sins of fear and pride left them no alternative when their power was threatened, yet even at the moment of his death, Jesus asked God to forgiven them, even those who turned him over to the Romans, even those individuals who beat and tortured and killed him, even those in the crowd who were complicit in his death.  Even Judas, who did only as he had to in order for the prophecy to be fulfilled.  If all of those are forgiven, then surely we are as well.  Jesus told us over and over again, in his parables and his sermons, that ours is a loving and forgiving God.  Over and over again, Jesus spoke words of forgiveness to those most in need of an understanding of God’s grace.   Sometimes he would speak those words and add to them an admonition to go and sin no more.  But mostly he simply spoke words of assurance, that through the grace and love of God, we are forgiven.  

Easter is a day of new beginnings.  It is day upon which we can take comfort in knowing that God loves us, just as we are.   A day upon which the light of God’s love is most evident.  A day upon which we can walk forward into the light, celebrating our new life in Christ. 

And the even better Good News?  It is that we celebrate Easter every single Sunday.  Every single Lord’s Day throughout the year is a reminder and a remembering of the resurrection, of the opportunity for new life that God gives to each of us each and every day, of God’s gracious love and forgiveness.   My brothers and sisters, let us go forth into the world, unafraid, sharing God’s grace and love with everyone we meet.  Let us go out shining with the light of God’s love, celebrating the resurrection of the Christ, and our new lives.   

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Untie Him!

Scripture Reading John 11:1-45 (CEB)

11 A certain man, Lazarus, was ill. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. (This was the Mary who anointed the Lord with fragrant oil and wiped his feet with her hair. Her brother Lazarus was ill.) So the sisters sent word to Jesus, saying, “Lord, the one whom you love is ill.”
When he heard this, Jesus said, “This illness isn’t fatal. It’s for the glory of God so that God’s Son can be glorified through it.” Jesus loved Martha, her sister, and Lazarus. When he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed where he was. After two days, he said to his disciples, “Let’s return to Judea again.”
The disciples replied, “Rabbi, the Jewish opposition wants to stone you, but you want to go back?”
Jesus answered, “Aren’t there twelve hours in the day? Whoever walks in the day doesn’t stumble because they see the light of the world. 10 But whoever walks in the night does stumble because the light isn’t in them.”
11 He continued, “Our friend Lazarus is sleeping, but I am going in order to wake him up.”
12 The disciples said, “Lord, if he’s sleeping, he will get well.” 13 They thought Jesus meant that Lazarus was in a deep sleep, but Jesus had spoken about Lazarus’ death.
14 Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died. 15 For your sakes, I’m glad I wasn’t there so that you can believe. Let’s go to him.”
16 Then Thomas (the one called Didymus) said to the other disciples, “Let us go too so that we may die with Jesus.”
17 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. 18 Bethany was a little less than two miles from Jerusalem. 19 Many Jews had come to comfort Martha and Mary after their brother’s death. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went to meet him, while Mary remained in the house. 21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died. 22 Even now I know that whatever you ask God, God will give you.”
23 Jesus told her, “Your brother will rise again.”
24 Martha replied, “I know that he will rise in the resurrection on the last day.”
25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will live, even though they die. 26 Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
27 She replied, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, God’s Son, the one who is coming into the world.”
28 After she said this, she went and spoke privately to her sister Mary, “The teacher is here and he’s calling for you.” 29 When Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to Jesus. 30 He hadn’t entered the village but was still in the place where Martha had met him. 31 When the Jews who were comforting Mary in the house saw her get up quickly and leave, they followed her. They assumed she was going to mourn at the tomb.
32 When Mary arrived where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.”
33 When Jesus saw her crying and the Jews who had come with her crying also, he was deeply disturbed and troubled. 34 He asked, “Where have you laid him?”
They replied, “Lord, come and see.”
35 Jesus began to cry. 36 The Jews said, “See how much he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “He healed the eyes of the man born blind. Couldn’t he have kept Lazarus from dying?”
38 Jesus was deeply disturbed again when he came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone covered the entrance. 39 Jesus said, “Remove the stone.”
Martha, the sister of the dead man, said, “Lord, the smell will be awful! He’s been dead four days.”
40 Jesus replied, “Didn’t I tell you that if you believe, you will see God’s glory?”41 So they removed the stone. Jesus looked up and said, “Father, thank you for hearing me. 42 I know you always hear me. I say this for the benefit of the crowd standing here so that they will believe that you sent me.” 43 Having said this, Jesus shouted with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The dead man came out, his feet bound and his hands tied, and his face covered with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Untie him and let him go.”
45 Therefore, many of the Jews who came with Mary and saw what Jesus did believed in him. 


I was especially blessed yesterday.  I was a participant in the Relay for Life.  Jane Ono had invited me to give the invocation, which was a great honor all on its own.  But because I am a cancer survivor I was celebrated.  I got a T-shirt and breakfast and a bag full of goodies and even a medal!  The first lap was the Survivor’s Lap, and as we walked around the Fowler High School track the other participants and the Bandits Cheerleaders circled the track and cheered for us.  Some of us were pretty healthy and walked the lap easily.  Some were using canes or walkers, or were supported by caregivers, and it was a little harder for them.  Among the survivors was a woman who had come all the way from LA to join us, who walked very slowly, and who was determined that she was going to complete the circuit.  When she crossed the finish line the applause and cheers were louder than ever, and tears were flowing freely.  It was awesome!  It felt like watching a miracle happen right in front of us.  

As I walked that lap I realized that 18 years ago this week I had the first of many surgeries for my cancer.  I knew that because the Sunday after my surgery the elders from First Christian Church in Orange, California came to pray with me, and the scripture they read was the story of Lazarus.   It meant a lot to me that day, as I was feeling as if I had gotten my life back.  

This particular passage always means a lot to me.  Every time it comes around in the lectionary it impacts my life in a different way.  My freshman year at Chapman I attended worship on this particular Sunday at All People’s Christian Church in LA and Pastor TJ Bottoms preached a sermon titled, “Move the stone”.    He talked about not letting obstacles stop you from doing what God has called you to do.  I kind of needed to hear that as a 44 year old college freshman, and a woman called to enter the ordained ministry.  Both of these things were going to be difficult, but his message that day kept me going through the hardest times.   I even kept a little note on my refrigerator for years that said, “Move the stone,” just in case I forgot.

This is always a pretty hard passage to deal with.  First of all, it’s long.  It’s very long.  There is so much to unpack that a 15-20 minute sermon simply cannot do justice to the totality of this passage.  Second, it has Jesus exhibiting emotions we aren’t used to seeing in him.  In the beginning he seems indifferent to his friend’s illness.  Jesus, who had gone immediately to heal a little girl and a centurion’s servant and many others, stays where he is when he hears his friend is sick.  What was that about?  We think he did that so he could bring Lazarus back later, but it just seems strange that Jesus would let his friends, Mary and Martha, suffer so when their brother died.  He becomes deeply disturbed, some translations even say angry, when he sees Mary weeping and when he approaches the tomb.  He cries, something most of us do when we are deeply moved or grieved.   We tend to think of Jesus as always serene and calm . . . well, except maybe during that one visit to the Temple.  He was pretty angry then . . .  But most of the time, he seemed, you know, Christ- like.  In this passage, however, he goes through all kinds of changes. He exhibits all kinds of emotions. And lastly, after he goes through all of these emotions and then he makes it very clear to all present that he is not raising Lazarus through his own power, but that God is doing it in response to Jesus’ prayer.  By the way, if anyone still doubts that Jesus was fully human, this passage really should convince you of that fact.  

Jesus’ disciples thought he was going to his death, but decided to follow him back toward Jerusalem anyway.  It is worth noting that the one who said, “Let’s go die with him,” was the very same Thomas whom we call “Doubting Thomas” because he questioned whether Jesus had appeared to the others after the resurrection.  (There may be a quiz on this the week after Easter.)   

This time the title in today’s Lenten devotional, which I am sure you all read diligently this morning, took my mind in a whole nother direction.  Jesus said to them, “Untie him and let him go.” 

One of my preacher friends this week wondered how on earth Lazarus managed to walk out of the tomb with his entire body tightly bound as they did in those days.  Someone said “The same way Morticia Adams walks in her tight skirts”.  Someone else said that he lost weight during the 4 days in the tomb so they fell off.  Another suggested he hopped like a bunny.  One even said something silly like, “With God all things are possible” which in this case is not a good answer.   Because Jesus does find it necessary to say “Untie him.”  So the bindings were still there.  They hadn’t fallen off due to weight loss.  God didn’t mysteriously remove them.  He probably did walk the way Morticia Adams does.  Or the way prisoners walk when they are shackled.   One of the translations I looked at this week even said, “He shuffled out of the tomb.”   

Untie him and let him go.  I like the way Lynette Johnson spoke of this phrase in our devotional.  She said, “Jesus calls Lazarus out of the tomb, but he instructs the others present to unbind, to set Lazarus free.  Jesus renews his life, but it is up to others — his sisters, his friends and neighbors, the leaders of his synagogue — to set him free.”  (Society of St. Andrew Daily Lenten Devotional 2017, pg. 28)  

I can’t help but think of all the people who have come forward lately to join the church.  Many of them (but not all) are quite young - high school and young adults. Some have been coming around for years, and some are pretty new to the whole idea of church.  Some of them have come here because in this place they can freely be themselves.  Some of the younger ones have come here because in this place they aren’t told, “You are the future.”  They are told, “You are the Church - now, today.”  Some, maybe even most, come from a different tradition, but find that this congregation and this denomination are the best fit for them.  All of them have said they are willing to be Christ’s hands and feet in the world.  All of them have said they are willing to serve this congregation they best way they can, with the gifts and talents that God has given them.  All of them have heard that still, small, voice telling them, “It’s time to go forward and become an official part of this family,” (even though I suspect sometimes that voice is Jordan’s.)  It is so exciting to me that in this place where I have been called to serve, God is reaching out to such diverse and talented people. 

Jesus has renewed all of these folks, and put them into our hands.  It is our job to untie them and set them free to be the people God intends for them to be.  It is our job to make sure there is a safe place here for them and for all others who come.  Coming to this place, especially for those who are kind of new to the idea of being part of a church family, is pretty exciting.  Now.  But what about later?  Some can’t be here every week, or even most weeks, because of work or family obligations.  How do we continue to nurture them and set them free, if they can’t be here on Sunday?  

Someone said to me recently, “I know I’m ok right now.  It’s the long term I’m worried about.”  When a person has made a significant change in their life, and the excitement of the new thing has worn off, that is when we are most needed.  For Lazarus, everyone would be all over him on this day and for the next week or so, maybe.  But there would come a time when it’s just Tuesday.  The wonderment of his return to life has died down and he has to figure out how to just get from day to day in this new reality. He was dead!  And then he wasn’t!  And that has to be weird to live with.   After I healed from my surgery and my friends stopped coming by to check on me and help with daily chores, I had to find a way to deal with my new reality, one in which the cancer might come back any time or not.  I could ignore it or I could worry about it or … I didn’t quite know what to do, how to live one day after another, in this new reality.  I knew my life would never be the same again.  I had faith in God, of course, and I knew that no matter what, I would be ok.  But what I needed was to have people around who were willing and able to be supportive, even in the ordinariness of daily life, because I really didn’t know how to do ordinary any more, any more than Lazarus knew how to do ordinary anymore.  

Similarly, many among this church family and in my own circle of friends have lost loved ones recently.  Almost before we know it, the services are over, the flood of loving family and friends is gone, and suddenly life is back to “normal,” except that nothing will really be normal again, in the way we’ve always defined normal before.  Ordinariness is taking on a new appearance.  New routines are being developed.   

The work of the church, our work, is best done in the ordinariness of every day.  After the resurrection, after the excitement of new membership, after the surgeries and treatments, after the loss of our loved ones, after whatever it is that marks a new beginning to a life,  that is when the work of the church begins.  The work of the church begins in earnest once the excitement has ended, in the day to day setting free of those who now face a new reality.  To paraphrase Lynette Johnson, we must be the ones who unbind them.  We must be the ones who nurture and encourage them as they go forward into their new reality.  We must e the ones to whom they can turn in their new ordinariness.  When you go out, remember those for whom life has become different - reach out to them, let them know that they are not alone.  Just as our Lord has set us free, let us also be the source of freedom for those who need us in their lives. 

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Myth Busting

Scripture Reading:    1 Samuel 16:1-13 (NRSV)  

16 The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and set out; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.” 2 Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears of it, he will kill me.” And the Lord said, “Take a heifer with you, and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’ 3 Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do; and you shall anoint for me the one whom I name to you.” 4 Samuel did what the Lord commanded, and came to Bethlehem. The elders of the city came to meet him trembling, and said, “Do you come peaceably?” 5 He said, “Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord; sanctify yourselves and come with me to the sacrifice.” And he sanctified Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.

6 When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.” 7 But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” 8 Then Jesse called Abinadab, and made him pass before Samuel. He said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” 9 Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” 10 Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, and Samuel said to Jesse, “The Lord has not chosen any of these.” 11 Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.” And Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here.” 12 He sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. The Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.” 13 Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward. Samuel then set out and went to Ramah.

This has to be one of the most difficult days of Samuel’s very long life.  It is clear that Saul, the king, has been disobedient.  God has told him to go find the next king, one of the son’s of Jesse from Bethlehem.  And Samuel is afraid, because if Saul hears about it, he’ll have Samuel killed.  He might even do the deed himself!  He is not exactly emotionally stable, you know.

You might wonder how on earth an emotionally unstable man like Saul happened to be chosen king of Israel.  After all, they selected him from among all the men of Israel by using lots, which they believed was the best way to make sure that the choice they made was God’s will.    And it was God’s will that they choose Saul, but in this case, God’s will wasn’t exactly running in line with what the people of Israel thought.  You see, they had come to Samuel saying, “Hey, you’re old.  Your sons are useless.  We need someone to lead us.  Give us a king.”  This upset both Samuel and God, both of whom saw this as Israel rejecting their leadership.  God said, “OK.  First tell them what it will mean to have a king, then let them choose one for themselves.”   So Samuel told them how kings behaved - about taxes and taking their daughters as servants and their sons as soldiers, and about all the excesses kings were prone to and the abuses that kings had been known to perpetrate on their people.  And they said, “We don’t care.  We want to have a king like everybody else.”  God said, “Go for it.”  Then God, who knows everything, including who is best suited to being king, selected Saul to be anointed as king, the people cast lots to determine which man of Israel was to be their king, and surprise!  Saul was the winner.   

Sidebar:  Casting lots wasn’t exactly the same as throwing dice or choosing the short straw.  There was quite a bit of religious ceremony involved, as they firmly believed that God’s hand was the one making the lots fall in order for God’s will to be made known.  Indeed, God’s will was made known in this case, although God’s  choice wasn’t what the people had hoped for when they asked for a king.

Saul thought that being the king meant he was in charge.  And he was certainly very good at being in charge of the armies, defeating everyone he came up against.  But he was disobedient to God. He made rash vows which bound even people who had no chance to know about the vow (which nearly got his son Jonathan killed), he wouldn’t listen to Samuel, he even set up an altar and performed sacrifices to the Lord in Samuel’s absence, as if he was a priest or a prophet.  And God finally said, ‘“Enough is enough.  I have chosen another king to take over Israel from Saul.”  So we arrive at today’s story.  And the myth of David, the shepherd boy.  

Samuel has looked over all of Jesse’s sons, or so he thought.  There was one more, he was told, the youngest, but he was out in the fields keeping the sheep.  And from that one line comes the image of David as the innocent young shepherd, much beloved of the people who illustrate children’s books.  (May we see the next slide, please?)   We love the image of this young boy going up against the wisdom of all the warriors and the leaders of the armies and even the king himself to face the giant Goliath, armed with nothing but a slingshot.  That is so awesome, right?  God took this young man, a child really, and performed a miracle so that Israel would win the victory!  

Or not.   Consider this.  The flocks that Jesse’s youngest son watched represented a large portion of his family’s wealth.  He would be out in the fields with them for weeks, maybe even months, at a time.  He would help ewes deliver their lambs, he would chase down any of the silly things that wandered off and got lost (and for those of you who don’t know, sheep are not the brightest animals on God’s green earth!).  And he protected them from dangers, from lions and tigers and bears, oh my.  OK, not tigers.  But hear what the Bible has to say about the David who was eventually presented to Samuel.  “Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome.”    A few verses later, when Saul asks someone to find him a skilled musician to help combat the evil spirits tormenting him, 18 One of the young men answered, “I have seen a son of Jesse the Bethlehemite who is skillful in playing, a man of valor, a warrior, prudent in speech, and a man of good presence; and the Lord is with him.”     An accomplished musician, a skilled warrior, proficient in the use of the sling, a man of valor.  Not a child.  Not an adorable shepherd boy.  A man - a man who had God’s favor from that day forward.  

I know, I hate killing beloved myths.   I love myths and legends.  You should have seen me when I first learned that the legend of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox was an advertising gimmick!  I was devastated.  I was a bit disappointed when these truths about David were pointed out to me, too.  But, we all have to grow up sometime, I suppose.  And the fact of the matter is, this young warrior did go up against Goliath, and did defeat him in what was maybe not quite a fair fight because he was armed with and proficient in the use of one of the deadliest long distance weapons  of the time, and Goliath was expecting hand to hand combat.  (I know, another myth bites the dust.  Sorry.  Not sorry.)

But that’s not the point of today’s story.  The point of today’s story is that Samuel listened to God, went to Bethlehem even though he was fearful that Saul would find out and have him killed.  Samuel listened to God and passed over the first, strong and attractive, son of Jesse, and the second and all of the seven who were presented to him, because no matter how suitable they may have seemed, God knew which one was the right one, and it wasn’t one of them.  And although David was every bit as attractive as his brothers and as strong and as brave, he was the youngest.  The youngest son was rarely ever the one receiving the greatest blessing.  Samuel listened to God even though left to his own human devices (and prejudices) would have chosen the oldest, or the best looking, or the strongest appearing, or the most articulate.   Later, David would be disobedient.  He would commit terrible sins.  He would even be denied permission to build a Temple for God.  But he never lost God’s favor.  He was always “a man after God’s own heart.”  

We have no idea who God is going to choose to do God’s work in the world.  God has made a lot of strange choices.  Rahab, a prostitute, helped God’s people defeat Jericho.  Ruth, a Moabite, became an ancestor of David.   Martin Luther King, Jr., who really only wanted to be the pastor of his church, a church which, by the way, had fired his predecessor for excessive activism, became the leader of the Civil Rights movement.  An Albanian nun who expected to teach all her life, heard God’s call to work with the poor and sick in India, and is now known as Saint Teresa.   So many of God’s choices seem strange to us.  But every choice God makes is the right choice.  Even if the outcome isn’t exactly what was expected, as was the case with Saul, God’s choice is always the right one.  God’s direction is always the right direction.  And we should always listen.

On Wednesday I received a card in the mail with $40 cash inside.  I contacted my friend, who said she was told to send it to me, and that it was supposed to let my light shine.  So I took it with me to the MDA Lockup the very next day and the light of that gift will benefit some child with Muscular Dystrophy.  

When you hear God speaking to you, when that still small voice whispers in the back of your head, or when you are hit upside the head with a God-by-4 (which happens to me much more often than the still, small, voice) - listen!   Even if it seems like a strange direction, listen.   Even if the idea of doing what God says is frightening, as it was to Samuel, listen.  Because the Good News from today’s passage is this - God chooses whom God will, and even if we feel unworthy, even if we think we aren’t good enough, even if we are afraid to step out, even if we think we aren’t the right kind of person to do whatever it is that the voice tells us to do, God’s choices to be his hands and feet and voice in the world are always the right choices. There is no right or wrong kind of person.   God selects us, just as we are, to do whatever best suits the gifts and talents that we have been given, to serve God’s people in the world.    Go out, then, without fear, for God is with you.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Soul Deep Hunger and Thirst

Scripture Reading: John 4:5-42  (NRSV)   

5 So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6 Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.

7 A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” 8 (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) 9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.)[a] 10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” 11 The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12 Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” 13 Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14 but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” 15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”

16 Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” 17 The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; 18 for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” 19 The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you[b] say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” 21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” 25 The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” 26 Jesus said to her, “I am he,[c] the one who is speaking to you.”

27 Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” 28 Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, 29 “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah,[d] can he?” 30 They left the city and were on their way to him.

31 Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” 32 But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” 33 So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?” 34 Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. 35 Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. 36 The reaper is already receiving[e] wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. 37 For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ 38 I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”

39 Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” 40 So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. 41 And many more believed because of his word. 42 They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”

********************************************************************************************I've preached on this particular passage several times.  It does come around in the lectionary once every 3 years, after all.  Most of those sermons I have preached in the past have focused on the woman as a woman, as an outsider, as someone Jesus, as an observant and law obedient Jew, would never have talked to in public.  A sinful woman, perhaps.  Certainly one rejected by most of the other women in her community - although possibly not the men, although they, too, would have probably shunned her in public.  Just sayin'.   I have focused on Jesus' radical inclusion of everyone, even a Samaritan, even a woman whom he believed was busily committing adultery with one of the village men.  Drinking from her cup, and offering in return water that was different from any she had ever tried.  I have talked about how the message of God's forgiveness sometimes comes best from someone who has been forgiven.  I've even sometimes focused the work of Church World Service, which includes helping villages suffering from a lack of water build wells right in their central square, so that the women don't have to walk miles and miles for clean water - and about the lack of drinkable water even here in the US - on the Navajo reservation, for example, and now in Flint, Michigan.   I've taken this passage in all those directions, but the one I haven't touched on is that soul deep hunger and thirst that clearly this woman was experiencing.  

As I’ve often said, every time I read any passage of Scripture I see something different than I have seen before.   It happens to most of us, I think.  It depends a lot on where we are in our lives at the moment we are reading.   Sometimes we see something that helps us through whatever we are going through in our lives.  Sometimes we recognize something after we have come out on the other side.   

For example, look at the woman in the picture on the screen.  Some of you may have been seeing this picture on Facebook with a caption about health insurance, but that’s not where this image originated.   This image of a woman and her children is used as an illustration in the Hunger and Gender section on Wikipedia.   Look at her.  You can almost feel the hunger and thirst she is feeling.  Hers isn’t the “I missed lunch today cause I was busy doing stuff” kind of hunger that most of us have experienced, or the “I’m hungry because I have made a commitment to eat less and get more healthy,” kind of hunger that comes with a new diet plan.  No.  Hers is that soul deep hunger for, yes, food, but also for hope.  Hers is the kind of hunger that can’t be satisfied with a hot meal at a church, although, trust me, that is greatly appreciated.  Hers is the kind of hunger that can only be relieved by knowing that there is something more out there, something better, some hope that the future won’t just bring more of the same.   Hers is the kind of hunger that wants to have hope that at least her children will know something better, even if her life will never change.  That kind of hunger isn’t just about food.  The thirst that drives her isn’t just about water.  

I recognize that feeling in her because I have felt it.  I have often said that the day when I woke up feeling empty inside and knowing it is the day I made the decision to change my life, stop using drugs, and find a new way to live.  Just getting clean helped me feel better, hopeful that my life really could be different.  Discovering that the God I had been taught about in the church I grew up in wasn’t at all the sort of God that these new people in my life believed in also helped.  As time passed, my emptiness started to fill up with faith.  When I found the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and began attending worship, learning more about this loving, caring, forgiving God, I could feel my soul filling more and more.  It has been a process.  There have been times when I felt completely filled, and other times when I still felt like I was lacking something.  There have even been times when I felt that pain, that emptiness again - after my brother died, for example - but because I knew that God was with me I was able to get through.  It was a terrible time for me.  I could barely function, but I had to.  Thankfully, I had faith, a teensy itsy bit of faith, small as a mustard seed, that I would get through that, that the pain would lessen over time, that no matter what, I was going to be ok, and that we would be reunited eventually.   

When I recognized myself in that woman’s picture the very week that the Samaritan woman at the well came around in the lectionary, I knew that her soul deep hunger and thirst was, for this year at least, the part I needed to address.

Maybe you haven’t ever felt this hopelessness, this depression, this despair.  But I suspect most of us have, even if just for a short time.  But if you haven’t, consider that Samaritan woman.  Alone.  Rejected by her neighbors.  Separated by history and conflict from the religion of her ancestors . . .  because the Samaritans were what was left of the ten tribes of Israel that broke away when Solomon’s son Rehoboam took the throne.  They couldn’t go to the Temple in Jerusalem, so they built their own. . .  and she was unlikely to be welcomed there, anyway, even in the court of the women.  And suddenly here is this man, this Jewish man, who speaks to her when no Jew ever spoke to a Samaritan, no decent man spoke to a strange woman in public (and vice versa). He spoke to her of water, living water, and she didn’t understand.  Until suddenly she did.  And that hole in her soul began to fill.  That soul deep hunger and thirst became satisfied.  Her healing had begun.  So she went to tell everyone, and brought them all back to him, to the one who had brought her salvation, healing, and changed her life.

When I was in seminary learning all kinds of theological goodies, I listened to all of the professors and read all of the books and thought most of the discussion around who God is and what God wants from us were word games, right up there with the arguments over the number of angels who can dance on the head of a pin.  None of it sounded like it was something to do, only something to believe and talk about.  My advisor was not pleased to hear this.  But then I took a course on Liberation Theology from the Rev. Dr. Carmelo Alvarez and for the first time encountered a kind of theology that has us out doing what Jesus said to do, working together to change the world the way Jesus was trying to change his world.  And I knew I had found the thing I needed to fill up my soul the rest of the way.  It was what was missing.  It was the “how to heal the world” part of Christianity that I had been yearning for.   Coming to understand that salvation is healing, that Christianity is an active faith, not a passive one, was my Samaritan woman at the well moment.   Suddenly, it all made sense to me.  And I knew I was in the right place.

A while back my friend Danny Bradfield, pastor of Bixby Knolls Christian Church in Long Beach, wrote this.   “SALVATION. You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means. The way Jesus used it, it means finding wholeness. "To save someone" meant to rescue them from oppression, from poverty, from being cast aside or thrown out by society. But that's hard work, so Jesus's followers soon decided that salvation simply meant believing in Jesus. After all, it's a lot easier to walk around saying "believe, believe" than it is to actually help those who suffer from all the classism, racism, sexism, and other sins of society.

The Greek word SOZO is often translated as "saved" (salvation) in English but it really means being made whole/well, starting now (in this life)...The Greek word that is translated as "believe" actually means "be passionately committed to." The Greek phrase for "eternal life" would be better translated as "the life of the ages," referring to a life of wholeness now as well as in the future. Jesus LIVED so that ALL may experience this life of wholeness, but those who did not like his message killed him because of it. But God showed his approval of all Jesus stood for by raising him back to life, to show that the way of life will prevail.” 

The Samaritan woman went back to her village and told everyone what Jesus had said.  Of course they all ran back to hear this for themselves.  And they kept him there for two days, to feed their soul deep hunger and assuage their thirst.  The villagers heard the word from her and that was good but then they heard it from Jesus.  That was like the difference between drinking a cup of water someone brought you and drinking directly from the spring.  Have you ever done that?  We had a spring house when I was young.  The water came through pipes into our house and it was good.  But there was just something about going into the spring house and reaching down with my hand to scoop up that cold, fresh water straight into my mouth.  I imagine it would have been like that.   And then, at the end of two days,  “They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”  

This is truly the Savior of the world.  The Word that he brings is the living water, the eternal food, that heals our souls and enables us to go out to heal the world.  It is that Word which feeds our soul deep hunger and thirst each time we gather for worship, each time we come together at the table, each time we share the Word of our Lord with another.   My sisters and brothers, when we go from this place today, let us go forth ready to share that water and that food, that healing love of God, through our every word and action, with each other and with the world. 

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Take off your shoes!

Scripture Reading: Matthew 17:1-9 Common English Bible (CEB)

17 Six days later Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, and brought them to the top of a very high mountain. 2 He was transformed in front of them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as light.

3 Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Jesus. 4 Peter reacted to all of this by saying to Jesus, “Lord, it’s good that we’re here. If you want, I’ll make three shrines: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

5 While he was still speaking, look, a bright cloud overshadowed them. A voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son whom I dearly love. I am very pleased with him. Listen to him!” 6 Hearing this, the disciples fell on their faces, filled with awe.

7 But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” 8 When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.

9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, “Don’t tell anybody about the vision until the Human One is raised from the dead.”


Sometimes people ask me where on earth I got the idea for a sermon title, or for the direction my message wanders off into.  And I totally understand why they might wonder.  Sometimes I actually know the answer.  Other times it’s more like, I dunno.  I read something somewhere?  Maybe a Facebook post?  Or one of my daily meditations?  But this season, this Lenten Season in the year of our Lord 2017, I have taken my titles and inspirations and scripture readings directly from the Lenten Devotional book you are all reading every single day.  So when you come here on Sunday mornings for the next several Sundays you will hear an expansion on what you just read that morning.  

So, this morning Lynette Johnson wrote about Peter’s response to Elijah and Moses joining Jesus on the mountaintop, noting that this is “one of those stories that highlights Peter’s shortcomings.”  Given that most stories featuring Peter highlight his shortcomings, this is not at all surprising.  She says, “You just want to shake him…!”  Yup.  That’s what I want to do alright.  Most of the time.  I mean, really Peter?  You think that’s  a good idea?

So, in this story Peter, James and John go with Jesus to the mountain top where he is transformed, and the two great prophets Moses and Elijah appear there to speak with him.  Peter says, let us build you huts - or in the translation we used today, shrines - one for each of you.  And you can tell he’s thinking, “Oh Lordy.  Moses and Elijah are standing there with my rabbi!  What can I do?  I can’t just stand here.  I have to do something.  These guys need to have special recognition. I know!  Let’s build something!”  

OK, enough laughing at Peter now.  I mean, which of us would have responded better, I wonder?  I mean, it’s not like we daydream about going with our favorite preacher up to the top of the mountains and Jesus suddenly shows up to talk to her, and we plan out how we will behave, right?   Of course, I’m not totally sure how he knew it was Moses and Elijah - it’s not like they had portraits of them in every synagogue or anything . . . Anyway, the fact that he didn’t immediately fall to his knees in humble adoration kind of makes sense.  Plus, Jews wouldn’t automatically fall to their knees, as they stand up to pray anyway.  But Peter was a do something kind of guy.  When faced with an unknown situation, he looked for something constructive to do.   We understand that perfectly.  Someone dies and we start cooking, or planning how to help the family.  A celebration is coming up?  We start making lists of who is bringing the cookies, and who will open the building.   We hear that a family has lost their home in a fire?  We look for ways to replace what they have lost.   If Jesus, Moses and Elijah should appear here, in this place, I imagine that we would immediately start running to bring out the best chairs for them to sit on and telling the deacons to make sure they are served first, and asking if there is a particular hymn they would like to hear . . .The idea of simply taking off our shoes, of standing quietly with bare feet, in the presence of the holy just doesn’t occur to us.  

I mean, we don’t even always think of taking off our shoes as being a recognition of the sacred.  Yes, Moses was directed to take off his shoes in the presence of the burning bush, as God was present in the bush and in the ground around the bush.  And somehow that makes sense to us, but the idea that we should take off our shoes in the presence of the Holy doesn’t.   Leah and I have a conversation almost every Sunday about shoes.  She takes hers off the minute she gets here on Sunday mornings, and always tells me she’ll put them back on before worship begins. I always tell her I don’t care, and I’m pretty sure God doesn’t either.  (That goes for you, too, Jordan.  When I find a pair of shoes in the church office, I know that Jordan is around here someplace.)  But in this place and time, keeping our shoes on in the presence of the Holy makes sense. Probably because we kind of believe that God is present every where and all the time.  Taking off our shoes in the presence of new carpet, on the other hand . . .  

My mother’s friend Eleanor was one of those ladies whose living room was totally off limits.  It wasn’t a matter of taking off your shoes when you went in.  You simply didn’t go in!  Not if you were a kid, anyway.  Kids were only allowed in the downstairs TV room and maybe the kitchen, but never in the Sacred Living Room, where everything was covered in plastic.  I imagine some adults were allowed into the Sacred Living Room, like for Bridge Club, maybe.  And maybe she even took the plastic off when the Bridge Club came over.  I’m not sure.   But Eleanor’s Living Room was a little bit like the Holy of Holies in the Temple in Jerusalem.  Only the priests were allowed in there, and only one at a time, and only at certain prescribed times, and only if they were wearing the right clothing, because that room was the place where God’s feet touched the earth.  Normal folks could be in the courtyards, although women and non-Jews were only allowed in the very outer areas.   

I have long made it a practice to meet with a Spiritual Director once each month.  She’s sort of a companion on the journey. She works with me on seeing where God is acting in my life, helping me seek discernment in situations where I am unsure where God is leading me.  Sometimes she introduces me to new prayer practices or spiritual disciplines.   My current Spiritual Director recently had new carpet installed in the room where we meet, and as a result we take off our shoes before entering the room.  Last month - as I was wearing boots and she knows that my back is not always cooperative - she mentioned that she didn’t want to make the new carpet an idol, so if taking off my shoes would be a hardship we could wear our shoes into the room instead.  On the other hand, my former Spiritual Director invited everyone to remove their shoes upon entering the space where she met with directees, as we would be welcoming Jesus into our conversation, thus making our meeting space a sacred space.   There is a fundamental difference between these two ways of thinking.  I will not say that one is right and one is wrong.  They are simply different, and different is ok.

The thing about taking off our shoes, though, is that it makes us vulnerable.  Exposing our feet to whatever might be on the ground, or to the cold, or other people’s view is a bit scary.  I mean, our feet aren’t necessarily our most attractive feature.  They aren’t usually something we go around showing off.  We might show off a new pedicure, maybe.  But not our ordinary, every day, raggedy toenailed, un-pampered feet.  When Maundy Thursday rolls around, and Pastor Ochoa and I get out the basins and the water pitchers and the towels, and wait to see which of you all will come forward to let us wash your feet, as Jesus washed the feet of his disciples, which of you will?  Which of you will allow yourself to be vulnerable, to be touched in so intimate a manner, by another person?  

Maybe Peter was feeling so vulnerable already in the presence of Elijah and Moses that he couldn’t even think of becoming more so.  Maybe he wasn’t so much excited as fearful.  And in his fear, he responded in the only way a man of action knows to respond - he looked for some familiar thing he could do.  

Here’s the thing about Peter’s shortcomings that is really, really important for us to remember.  Peter was the one whom Jesus appointed to be the foundation upon which the church would be built.  Peter, with all his faults and shortcomings and even his outright denial of Jesus on Good Friday, Peter was the one whom Jesus appointed to be the foundation on which the church would be built.  If Peter was the foundation, the cornerstone, the strong point on which all else would rest, what does that say about us?  It says that Jesus knew, God knew, that we would make mistakes.  He knew that we would get it completely wrong sometimes.  But he believed in us.  He had faith in us.  Talk about a mustard seed!  Only this time the shoe is on the other foot, so to speak.  Jesus had faith that he could put the responsibility for teaching the world about him and his message, about God and God’s loving forgiveness, about how to live as God’s beloved and loving children, all of that, into our hands, and have it come out right in the end.

My sisters and brothers, the Good News here is we don’t have to have all the answers.  We don’t have to always get it right.  Jesus had faith in Peter, with all his faults and shortcomings, to lead the entire world into reconciliation with God and with each other, and Jesus has faith in us that we will continue to do that very thing.  And if Jesus can have faith in us to do the right thing, even if it takes a bunch of tries, surely we can have faith that through Jesus, we will be transformed into the people God intends for us to be.    When we go from this place today, let us go without fear, knowing that God is with us, and that God trusts us to carry the Good News of his loving care, his forgiveness, and his steadfast love for all, out into the world.  

Sunday, March 5, 2017

It Can All Be Yours

Matthew 4:1-11 (NRSV)

4 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3 The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4 But he answered, “It is written,

‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,

‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”
7 Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9 and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,

‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”
11 Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.


When I looked at the slide show yesterday and got to this one, I thought to myself, “Who is that guy?”  It occurred to me after a minute that it’s Bob Barker from The Price is Right, and that this picture is exactly what I asked for.  I just never realized how much he looked like a preacher before!  People have been going on that show to win great prizes since 1956!  Bob Barker was the host from 1972 until 2007.  And he was sort of a preacher . . . every episode ended with him talking about how important it is to spay and neuter your pets.   But the reason I wanted a picture of him is because he would say things like, “It can all be yours!  If the Price is Right.”  And people would come on the show to demonstrate how well they knew the prices of common and unusual products, and even, sometimes, the price of A New Car!!!  Of course, even on the Price is Right, the prizes aren’t entirely free.  You have to pay income tax on the full list price of whatever you win.  Everything in life comes with a price, also known as, “There is no such thing as a free lunch.”  

Jesus went away into the wilderness, to fast and to pray and prepare himself for the ministry that lay ahead.  He went away by himself to be closer to God, to avoid all the day to day worries and temptations so he could concentrate.  You know the sort of things I mean - the phone call that comes just as you are about to start your personal Bible Study, or the invitation to go do something with a friend instead of your daily workout, or the smell of Kentucky fried chicken in the air when you are looking at the spinach salad you brought from home . . . all those little daily things that interfere with doing what we know we are supposed to be doing.  Jesus went away into the wilderness to avoid all that, and what happens?  Satan shows up.   

According to Matthew, God’s Spirit led him into the desert to be tempted by Satan . . . and maybe that is so, because Satan did have a job to do, after all.  Throughout the scriptures, Satan fills his role as the one who is sent by God to test those most loyal.  He did a serious number of Job, you will remember, but Job remained faithful.  So now it’s Jesus’ turn. Here’s a man hungry and tired and dirty, who has just spent forty days and nights off on his own, camping rough and fasting, and Satan shows up to tempt him to use his powers for his own personal comfort.    “Are you really ready for this Jesus?”  “Yup, Satan.  I’m about as ready as I will ever be.”   

I don’t know about you, but when I read this I sort of puff up a bit thinking, “See, there Satan?  You can’t tempt Jesus!  He’s Jesus!  Perfect in every way, sinless, and un-temptable!”   But I am not sure that’s right.  After all, if Jesus was un-temptable, why would God set this up?  And Matthew makes it pretty clear that God set it up, just like Job’s temptation was a set up.  We have to remember that Jesus was fully human, which means not only that he got hungry and dirty and tired like the rest of us, but that he was also prone to temptation, like the rest of us.  The whole point of Jesus being human is so that we would understand that what he did was do-able for all of us.  The whole point of Jesus being human is so that we would know he grieved when Lazarus died, just as we grieve.  So that we would know he felt the pain of the lash and the nails, and of death, just as we do.  So that we would know that he had to push aside temptation . . . that his saying “No” to the temptation to turn rocks into bread and let angels rescue him and take ownership of the world was real.  Not the “No” of someone who was never tempted to say “Yes,” but the “No” of someone who had to think about if, even if just for a second.  The whole point of Jesus being human is so that we would not sit around saying, “Well, yeah, but that was Jesus!   I’m not at all like Jesus!  He’s God!  I can’t do what he did!”

It’s tempting, though, isn’t it?   To decide that we can’t follow in Jesus’ footsteps because we aren’t Jesus?  We aren’t perfect.  We aren’t the son of God.  We don’t embody God’s Word, as Jesus did.  We can’t do miracles, or cast out demons, or make the blind see or the lame walk, or feed the 5,000, or raise someone from death.  We’re just human.  It is so tempting to think that we are just human and that Jesus wasn’t and so, of course, we can’t do what he did.  But the thing is, Jesus was human.   Jesus was like us, and we can be like him.  And the temptation to believe that we can’t be might be the most terrible of all the temptations we face.

A side note:  For those of you who remember comedian Flip Wilson’s character “Geraldine” - the devil can’t make you do it.   For those who don’t remember, Geraldine (who was Flip Wilson in drag) would tell all these stories about things she and her boyfriend Killer got up to, and would always excuse her behavior by saying, “The devil made me do it!”  That is just plain not true.  The devil can’t make anyone do anything, but can only present us with temptation.  Some are small temptations - like cookies.  Some are larger - like Grand Theft Auto.  But the devil can’t force us to behave badly, and God won’t force us to be good.  We have free will.  We get to choose in every situation what we will do.  Sometimes the choices we are faced with aren’t great, but we always have a choice.   

Just like Jesus did.  More than once in his ministry, he had a choice.  He could have given in to Satan’s suggestion that he turn stones into bread.  He had been fasting for 40 days, so minimal food and drink for over a month!   And the idea of bread, right now, must have been tempting.  But he said no, that God’s word was more satisfying than bread.  Satan’s other offers may have held more or less attraction, but I think the food thing after 40 days of not much food would be hard to resist.  Of course, that’s just me.  I always find food hard to resist, and that’s without fasting.  Maybe being king of the world would have been more tempting to Jesus.  I dunno.  But I do know that later on, right near the end, Jesus asked God if he could let the cup pass from him.  He could have chosen, even at that late date, to walk away from the hard road ahead.  He could have given into the temptation to prolong his life.  But he chose to go forward to the cross.  

Jesus was human, just like we are.  There is nothing he did that we cannot do.    We maybe can’t do it to the extent that he did, but listen.  How many people do we feed at Christian Cafe?  How many people do we feed at the SMART center?  Maybe not 5,000 all at once, but still, a lot of hungry folks are fed.  How many hearts do we heal every time we make it really clear that at this church, “All means All.”?  How many demons of pain and fear and unworthiness do we drive out when we hug someone who has never felt truly accepted before?  Maybe we can’t say, “Get up, take up your mat and walk.” But we can say, “Your sins are forgiven” and know that we have spoken the truth.  That’s what Jesus did.  And that’s what got Jesus in trouble.   

Jesus mostly did human things, not great marvels. If he had done great marvels, I suspect it would have been harder for the Temple to act against him.  I mean, if someone could make armies of angels appear at his back, would you stand against him?  No.  Jesus didn’t do those huge things that Satan suggested.   Jesus mostly did small, every day things. Human things.  Do-able things.  He healed hearts and souls.  He inspired others to share their food.  He laid his hands on people who weren’t used to being touched.  He encouraged people to help one another.  He welcomed those who felt unwelcome.  He turned away from those who would have him hold himself apart, who would treat him like a celebrity instead of “just” a teacher.  He reminded everyone of God’s desire for all of us to be reconciled with God and with one another.  

Our theme for the season of Lent is “With faith the size of a mustard seed.”  The way to avoid the great temptation to think that you cannot possibly follow in Jesus’ footsteps is to have just that much faith - faith the size of a mustard seed.  The Good News is that a tiny speck of faith is all it takes to step out and do the things that Jesus would have you do, the things that Jesus did.  Feed the hungry.  Heal the sin sick soul.  Comfort the lonely, the tired, the rejected.  Remind people that they are forgiven.  Assure people that they are loved.  Love the unloveable.  Stand against oppression - against bullying and hateful talk.  Act in all ways like a child of God, with faith that in Him all things are possible.  Go out from this place today, and be like Jesus.