Sunday, June 25th, 2017 – A sermon on Hagar and El Roi and Genesis 21:8-21

You can listen to this sermon here.

Genesis 21:8-21
8 The child grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. 

9 But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. 10 So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” 11 The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son. 12 But God said to Abraham, “Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named for you. 13 As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.” 

14 So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba. 15 When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. 16 Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, “Do not let me look on the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. 17 And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. 18 Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” 19 Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink. 20 God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow. 21 He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.

Throughout the history of the church we, the church, and we, individuals,  have emphasized and deemphasized certain parts of Scripture as we strive make sense out of the life we live. We have put certain texts in the center of our faith and others at the margins of our faith.

And for good reason. There are parts of Scripture that seem to carry more weight and meaning for our lives. For example, Psalm 23 means a lot more to many of us than say….Paul telling Timothy to take a little wine for his upset stomach.

Or if you just take a moment and think about the Bible stories or Bible verses you more or less know by heart, by doing so you’ll start to see what parts of Scripture the church has lifted up over the years and what we have found valuable.

But, I’ll be honest, I think we are moving into an age where we are called to start shining a light on some of the dustier parts of our bible. Some of the passages and stories that we’ve dismissed or overlooked in the past few centuries.

For example, we have spent so much time teaching people the story of the so-called Original Sin through Adam and Eve and thusly shaming people as sinful and fallen creatures (which we are), but we have emphasized it to such a degree that we can barely accept and hold onto (or have ever heard, for that matter) the story of the Original Blessing – when you and I and all people are made in the image of God. What would happen to a generation of people if that were their foundational bible story?

Or the Church for a long time now has been in the after-life business, of splitting hairs about who gets into heaven and who doesn’t. But what would happen if we started holding on to the passage from the Gospel of Luke that says, “All flesh shall see the salvation of God”? How would that change the work and mission of the church?

Or over the past few weeks, as we have tried to debate what is justified and unjustified killing of a black person, perhaps we ought to gather around the text from Ezekiel that says, “I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord.” What if we started there?

So, I think that’s what we are being called to do – to venture with a flashlight into the hidden and unseen parts of scripture and to look around a bit and shine a light on other words of God.

With this in mind, this morning, you and I have an opportunity to learn (or re-learn) and reflect upon a story for scripture that has too often been neglected in the life of the church – the story of Hagar and her son Ishmael. A story that for some reason doesn’t exist in our children’s bible. A story that, as you can read in Nathan’s beautiful reflection on the first page of your bulletins, is given almost no attention in our church hymnody.

Now, in order to hear and know Hagar’s story, we have to go back a bit.

Last week, we heard about Abraham and Sarah – an aged and barren couple through whom God promised to make a great nation. That their descendants would be a numerous as the stars. And through them, the entire world would be blessed.

But that didn’t happen right away. Month after month, old Sarah remained childless. And so Sarah starts to wonder if she’s the problem – that God’s promise of offspring is a promise for Abraham and not a promise for her. So, they take matters into their own hands and try to help God along a bit and Sarah gives her Egyptian slave-girl Hagar to Abraham as a wife. So that’s how Hagar comes on to the scene. She is their Egyptian slave-girl, through whom they think they can have children.

Now, one of the painful truths about this story is that it includes both economic and sexual exploitation. For Hagar’s sake, let’s give voice to that truth –that Hagar was owned by another human being (economic exploitation) and that no one asked her consent (sexual exploitation). Some scholars will say that there is no reason to judge this behavior – it was commonly understood and well within Sarah’s right to do so. Yeah, well… in this day and age? We know that people can be well within their rights to do something and for it to still be wrong. In this day and age, when we have to create $1 million anti-sex trafficking campaigns simply because the Super Bowl is coming to our state…we darn well better name and condemn the sexual exploitation happing within our own Holy Scriptures and within our own culture.

So, Hagar gets pregnant with Abraham’s child – and then the conflict begins. Hagar looks at Sarah with contempt. Sarah looks at Hagar with contempt. Eventually, Abraham gives Sarah permission to do what she wants with Hagar. So Sarah does what most of us do, we take our internal pain and grief out on others around us. Sarah begins to mistreat Hagar and Hagar runs away.

And then the story follows….Hagar. Into the wilderness. In fact, it says, God found her there. God has chosen Abraham and Sarah for descendants and blessing, but God follows the outsider, the exploited one, into the wilderness.

And then notice…God is the first one in the story to use Hagar’s name. Before she was just referred to as “the slave-girl”. But God calls her by name. I have called you by name and you are mine. We know that Scripture.

God says, “Hagar, where are you running from and where are you going?” All Hagar can tell God is where she is running from – Sarah. She can’t tell God where she is going because what kind of future could a girl like her possibly have.

Well, God has a future for her. And yes, God tells her to return to Sarah and Abraham. But she doesn’t return empty handed. She doesn’t return the same as she was – because God, in the wilderness gives Hagar her very own promises – “I will greatly multiply your offspring, that they cannot be counted for multitude.” What we learn is that God is now committed to the life of Hagar and her soon-to-be son, Ishmael.

At this moment, something happens that never occurs in the rest of Scripture. Hagar, the unchosen and victimized, but also strong and courageous slave-girl, is the only person in Scripture who gets to rename God. “You are El-Roi” she says. The God who sees me.

Hagar – a foreign woman, outside the “chosen” people, gets to give God a new name. El-Roi.

So, Hagar returns to Abraham and Sarah. And the years pass, and as many of us heard last week, Abraham and Sarah give birth to a child, Isaac. Our reading this morning picks up with Isaac being weaned (likely 3 years old) and suddenly the conflict starts up again.

Sarah wants Hagar and Ishmael gone, not wanting Ishmael to receive any of Isaac’s inheritance. Both would have legally had a right to the inheritance, but you see when it’s my child whose future is at stake, too often – like Sarah- our vision, our own seeing, is narrowed to exclude the children of others.

Now, God tells Abraham to let it happen, but God does so while also reiterating the promise that God will make a great nation out of Ishmael as well. And so Sarah and Abraham cast out Hagar and Ishmael.

And then, again, the story follows…Hagar. Not the chosen people. But the outsider, the unchosen ones…Hagar and Ishmael. Out into the wilderness. And then we hear these heart-shattering words, “When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes and sat down a good way off because she could not look upon the death of her child.”

And then it says Hagar cried.

And then it say God heard…God heard the voice of the boy. Sarah and Abraham may have cast Hagar and Ishmael out of their lives, but Hagar and Ishmael cannot be cast out of the life of God. God hears the voice, the cries of the boy. God has ears for the wailings of the little ones. Surely God heard the cries of Diamond Reynolds’ daughter as she says to her mother in the back of that police car, “It’s okay. I’m right here with you. Momma, please stop crying, I don’t want you to get shooted.”

God hears the voice of the child. Surely, God heard the voice of that child.

And then God promises, again, to Hagar that God will make a great nation of Ishmael, and then God opens her eyes. God sees her –El Roi – but then God helps her to see, and shows her a water well, to give the boy a drink. And then verse 20 says, “And God was with the boy.”

So that is the powerful, but often unknown story of Hagar and Ishmael. Why do you think we have, like Sarah does to Hagar, cast this story out into the wilderness of our story-telling and memory?

Listen to this quote from my former Old Testament professor, Terry Fretheim: “I cannot recall having heard a sermon on these texts. One wonders why this story has been so neglected or considered a story only with a negative purpose. Is it because Abraham, that exemplar of faith, does not come off so well? Is it because the main characters are women? Is it because Hagar and Ishmael stand outside the community of faith? Indeed, Hagar has several strikes against her: she is a foreigner, a slave, a woman, and probably black (at least African)…Is it because Muslims track their roots back into these stories, and understand themselves to be heirs of Abraham as much as do Jews and Christians? Is it possible that the story of Hagar and Ishmael is neglected because God makes promises to them..?”[1]

Did you know that our Muslim brothers and sisters trace their lineage back through Hagar and Ishmael and back to Abraham?

We don’t know why the story has been cast out, but today is a good day to shine some light on it. Because our Muslim brothers and sisters have just finished their Holy month of Ramadan, and I’m sure they would be overjoyed to know that their Christian brothers and sisters were thinking of them.

Today is a good day for us to shine a light upon this story because just this past week, religious leaders from around the world released videos asking people to befriend people of other faiths.

We are so used to saying the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. What if we started adding Hagar’s name to that list. We believe in the God of Hagar.

We believe in the God of Hagar because in Hagar we have a story where not everything that we do to others and not everything that is down to us is God’s will. God did not intend for Abraham to have offspring with Hagar. Our own plans, our own misunderstandings of what God wants can disrupt what God would have happen in the world. But…the God of Hagar will use and can even bring blessing out of our moments of distrust or unfaith.

We believe in the God of Hagar because in Hagar a story where Hagar’s life matters to God. Ishmael’s life matters to God. God will not be deterred by the ways we try to cast aside and hide others from our life. The lives of the marginalized and the oppressed and the vulnerable matter to God.

We belive in the God of Hagar because in Hagar we have a story about a God who has other stories. And other promises. And other people. God is not exclusively committed to us. Which reminds us (and frees us) that we never have and we never can know all there is to know about God. Yes, God loves you. Yes God is with you. But not only you.

So may the God of Hagar see you. May the God of Hagar hear you. And may the God of Hagar stretch you into a love that is gentler, a mercy that is wider, and a thirst for justice that is greater.

Amen.

[1] Terence Fretheim, Abraham, pg. 93.

Sunday, June 11th, 2017 – A Sermon on the Holy Trinity and Genesis 1 and 2

You can listen to the sermon here.

Genesis 1:1-2:4a
1 In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2 the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. 3 Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. 4 And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day. 6 And God said, “Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” 7 So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. 8 God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day. 9 And God said, “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. 10 God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good. 11 Then God said, “Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.” And it was so. 12 The earth brought forth vegetation: plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that it was good. 13 And there was evening and there was morning, the third day. 14 And God said, “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years, 15 and let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth.” And it was so. 16 God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars. 17 God set them in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth, 18 to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. 19 And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day. 20 And God said, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.” 21 So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good. 22 God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” 23 And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day. 24 And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.” And it was so. 25 God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And God saw that it was good. 26 Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” 27 So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. 28 God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” 29 God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. 30 And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. 31 God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.

2: 1 Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. 2 And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. 3 So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation. 4 These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created.

Last week Pastor Pam began with a Happy Pentecost. Today, we can begin with a happy Holy Trinity Sunday.

I’ll admit, I’m delighted you’re here. At second service last week, in talking about the Holy Spirit, Pam gave a hint that today would be Holy Trinity Sunday and that we’d be talking about all this “God is three but also one. God is one but also three” stuff. And I thought, “Noooo. You’re not supposed to tell the people Holy Trinity Sunday is coming up. You’re supposed to blindside them with it – let them arrive on that Sunday, get cozy in the pew, lock the sanctuary doors, …and then tell them it’s Holy Trinity Sunday.

(True story: A former church I was at had it in their church history that the ushers used to lock the doors when the sermon started.)

Because, let’s be honest, today is the one day in the church calendar when we celebrate everyone’s favorite church word – doctrine. The Doctrine of the Holy Trinity. I’m not sure of anyone who isn’t slightly threatened by that word. Or if not threatened by it, uses it as a threat to others. It’s about as comforting as a cinder block pillow. Even phonetically, it is such a hard word. Doc-trine.

Last week, in Pam’s sermon (and for those of you counting, yes that is the third time I’ve referenced it. It was a great sermon. You should listen to it). She talked about Pentecost as the third child of the Church Feast days – the one whose baby book never gets finished, in comparison to Christmas and Easter. With that in mind, I can’t help but think about today, Holy Trinity, as that family closet that no one wants to open. Because it is just a disaster in there. Or, for some of us, it isn’t a closet – it’s a whole room. In our house, it’s the guest room that rarely is prepared for guests.

But seriously, this closet is where we just shove things that are just sort of in the way, right? We think we need to keep but we don’t really want to look at anymore. And Holy Trinity Sunday and the doctrine of the Holy Trinity sort of feel like that. We know we should keep around what’s in there, but we’re terrified to open that door, because who knows what’s going to come falling out.

In fact, most preaching resources will tell you – don’t open that closet. Don’t preach about the Holy Trinity. Because one of the worst thing a sermon can be is boring. We’ve been told to keep this away from you so as not to be boring –but I’ve recently been reading about how for too long theology has been taken away from the people and been given to the elite, the professionals, the religiously educated. I cannot tell you the number of times I hear someone say, “Well I’m not theologically trained but…” It’s like you think you have no business talking thinking or proclaiming things about God unless you’ve gone to seminary.

Well, today, I hope to challenge that thinking…that theology needs to be kept away from the people. I mean, this is why we do things like Pub Theology and Manna and Mercy. To invite you into this work of the church, the community.

So, this morning, I want to open that closet to the doctrine of the Holy Trinity and share with you my insight, and hopefully that will invite your own thoughts and reflections on this central but confusing church teaching.

And in order to tell you about my insight, I want to tell you about something that happened to me last week. My family had a garage sale. And in order to do a garage sale, we had to go through that family closet. And there is something that happens when you open that closet door and start going through it again.

You find the orange and white striped onesie, covered in stains, that remind you of the days when the kids were young, and you can still feel their little peanut bodies, nuzzled in your arms.

You find the blue plates and bowls you got from your wedding, with chips all over them because the sink in your seminary apartment was too small.

You find old birthday cards and the shirt your mother was so excited to give you but it just didn’t fit right.

It’s all of these things that remind you of your relationships. Your relationship with your family, your loved ones. Maybe even painful relationships

And I guess that’s what I find when I tenderly and carefully open the door to the doctrine of the Trinity. There is a lot to deal with in there. It’s overwhelming. But, I think, in the end, it is all about relationship.

Because in the end, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is all about how God, at God’s core, the foundational nature of God, is a relationship.

The doctrine of the Holy Trinity says that God is one. But God is one in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And that word persons is important. It isn’t modes or ways of being. It isn’t like how I am a husband, but also a father, but also a trumpet player. It is three distinct persons.

I don’t pretend to understand how it works, but what I’ve come to learn is that to proclaim a triune God is to proclaim that God is in God’s nature a social, communal, relational being. Within God’s very self, God is a community.

We can see this in this morning Genesis reading.

While the word trinity and the doctrine of the trinity doesn’t exist in Scripture, the doctrine of the Trinity seeks to describe the God revealed in Scripture, and often times people turn to the first creation story found in Genesis 1.

In this story…notice that God does not just create stuff –God creates community. Almost everything in the creation that is called good is a pairing, a relationship, a community.

The dry land and the waters – and it was good.
The plants yielding seed and the trees yielding seeds – and it was good.
The greater light and the lesser light – and it was good.
The male and the female…the human community – and it was good.
And everything together – very good.

God creates community. And not only does God create community, but get this, God creates community communally.

God creates community communally.

God creates with the earth – let earth bring forth vegetation.
God creates with a divine community – God said, “Let us create humankind in our image”
God invites humankind into the creative process – not only can humankind create and multiply but humankind is given the tender responsibility of caring for the earth.

In the very creation of the earth, God invites the creation to have a crucial role. To participate. That’s what the Triune God is like – God is a sharing relationship of creativity. God creates community communally. Augustine once wrote, “Without God we cannot; without us, God will not.”

Dare I say, God needs you. To help God care for this creation, for this world, for this people.

Now, this creation story was written down during a time when the Israelites were enslaved in Babylon. They were living in exile and they had lost everything. And as slaves they were seen as worthless and discardable. And along comes this revolutionary narrative of the creation of the world, in which God not only calls God’s creation very good but in which God needs God’s people for the flourishing of the world. Do you think the slaves were ever told that they were needed? Do you think they were ever told that they were a good creation?

What a remarkable and revolutionary promise to hear in that context. But we hear it in our context. So let’s take our context…

We live in culture where we may not be enslaved directly but we are enslaved, as a friend of mine says, by isolation. We are told that we should be able to make it on our own. You just need to work harder and achieve more success for yourself. That you are only worth something if you get good grades and go on to college (but let’s be honest, even that isn’t good enough any more…now you need grad school). We are told that we need to be independent and self-sufficient, and the moment you need help, the moment you need others can feel like a moment of failure.

And this is beyond damaging to our humanity, to our divinely proclaimed goodness. Because, as one of the many counselors I’ve seen in my life once said, “The first thing to go when we are tired and disconnected from each other is our generosity.”

When we become disconnected from each other, the first thing we lose is our generosity with one another. We stop being generous, and patient and kind and loving and graceful and understanding.

And it is into that context of ours that Genesis 1 and the doctrine of Holy Trinity get to proclaim…you are made to be in community with each other just as God is made to be in community. It is a creation story that says you are beautiful, you are valuable and you are needed by God for the flourishing for this world. In fact, that is where the image of God can be seen…in you and in your relationships with those around you.

As one theologian would say, we are only fully human when we are encountering one another. Which should mean that every single interaction we have with another human should be seen as a sacred moment. Because it can hold within it the image of God.

Can you see how your life – and in particular your relationships, your community – is part of the very life of God? Can we as a church see how our life together and in this community is part of the very life of God?

A well-seasoned preacher, Richard Lischer, wrote a remarkable book called Open Secrets.  It is about his first year out of seminary and his first parish – a tiny, Lutheran congregation in the cornfields of Illinois. Just out of seminary, Lischer spent that first year showing off his preaching skills.  He used big words.  He referenced great works of literature to show how well read he was.  He spoke with what he called a Kennedy-esque urgency and eloquence.  In those days, he said, the gospel lived or died by my personal performance…and how ridiculous I must have looked to my congregation. But then he asks the question: why couldn’t I see the kingdom of God happening in our little church? Why did I think I had to find it in a book?  People in our congregation, every week, volunteered to exercise the legs of a little girl with cerebral palsy, so that her muscles wouldn’t grow weak.  People helped one another put up hay before the rains came.  When a neighbor lost their farm, we all grieved with him and we refused to bid on his tools at auction.  Weren’t these all signs of the kingdom of God, Lischer asks?  Why couldn’t I see them?[1]

Here is the thing: today maybe about a doctrine, but you are living doctrine. You belong to this communal, relational God. In belonging to God, you belong to the life of God, which is to say that the dance of the Trinity involves you and your life and the life of this congregation. And I can see it. I can see it in the way you welcome strangers into this place. I see it when the called to care ministers put out a call for meals for a family that is struggling and you step up. And you start feeding strangers. I see it when I hear about a member getting cancer and another member who is more or less a stranger saying, “I’ve had cancer before. I know what that’s like. I’m going to drive that person to every one of their treatments.” I see it in the way in which you gather our people in prayer when one of our beloved ones have died.

I need to be reminded to not look for Godin a book, but to look up and to look at the community of God. To see the image of God at work in and among us.

In a moment, we will sing a hymn called “Touch the Earth Lightly. May we touch this earth, this life lightly.…because we carry with us the image of God. And because the grace and love and community of God that is not only with you but is also at work among you. I can see it.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

[1] Richard Lischer, Open Secrets, p. 72-75.

 

Sunday, May 28th, 2017 – Sermon on Acts 1:6-14

Audio will be uploaded shortly.

Acts 1:6-14
6 So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7 He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” 9 When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11 They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” 12 Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. 13 When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. 14 All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers. 

On January 5th, St. John’s member Milo Quinnell died at the age of 88. While it was a peaceful and love-filled death, with his family by his side, it was also quite unexpected after some medical complications.

Some of you knew Milo and some of you didn’t, but he was a loveable human being with a heart-warming grin and quiet humor that was pleasant and comforting to be around.

Well, this past week, I was out to the house to visit Milo’s wife, Elouise. We did what we normally do, which is sit at the kitchen table, by the window looking out at the birds and the newly planted fields, catching up on the ins and outs of life. The kids, the grandkids, the graduations and the birthdays.

But as we sat there, I noticed a picture in the kitchen I had never seen before. Either it had been there for years or it was brand new. Either way, it caught me off guard and, for a moment, took my breath away.

FullSizeRenderHere is the picture. And as you can see, it is the picture of a flag pole with the flag at half-staff and three people standing around it, with their necks craning toward the sky.

As it turns out, this photo was taken on January 5th, the day Milo died. The family had just returned home from the hospital. Milo was a veteran and so in honor of him, Elouise wanted the flag on their property to fly at half-staff. But the flag itself was quite tattered. She had a new one to use – so that day three of the grandchildren were taught how to properly raise a new flag. By unfolding it out at the pole, without letting it touch the ground, and then raising it all the way up to the top, before lowering it half-way, in honor of Milo.

And with those three grandchildren looking upward, perhaps just to the flag, perhaps to the heavens too, wondering about Milo and death and the great beyond, someone thought to capture that moment in what I think is a remarkable photo.

Now the reason this photo took my breath away is because I’ve had the Acts reading rattling around in my head all week. And as soon as I saw that photo of those boys, standing there, looking upward toward heaven, I couldn’t help but think about that scene with the disciples, standing there looking upward as Jesus ascends toward heaven.

The story we just heard from Acts is the story of Jesus’ ascension into heaven. Ascension Day, if you will, which the Christian calendar always recognizes 40 days after Easter, which just so happens to have been this past Thursday. But since most of us weren’t in worship on Thursday, because there wasn’t any worship here on Thursday, we get the story today.

So, it’s the beginning of the book of Acts, which is sort of like the sequel, or the continuation of the Gospel of Luke. Jesus has died on the cross, been raised from the dead, and now according to Acts, has been appearing to the disciples for 40 days and speaking with them about the kingdom of God. And now everyone is gathered together and the disciples ask Jesus a question. And if you listen closely, I think you can hear their desperation. “Lord, is this the time? Is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”

We’ve asked questions like that, haven’t we?

Lord, is this the time? Is this the time when I’ll get a second interview and my life will finally get straightened out?

Lord, is this the time? Is this the time when I’ll finally find lasting love?

Lord, is this the time when my child be whole again?

Is this the time when I won’t have to be terrified to look at the news notifications on my phone?

Is this the time when I won’t be so scared to speak up for myself?

Is this the time when worship will finally speak to me?

Is this the time when I stop feeling so invisible to the world?

Lord, is this the time? They ask?

And Jesus says to them, “It is not for you to know the dates and times…but I promise you will receive power from the Holy Spirit when She comes. And you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and all the earth.”

And then all of a sudden, Jesus starts to be lifted up. Floating in the air on a cloud and out of their sight. And as the disciples are gazing up at heaven, two men in white robes appear and ask “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” Then they returned to Jerusalem and went to the room upstairs, constantly devoting themselves to prayer.

That’s the story of Jesus’ ascension. Okay, now be honest – raise your hand if this past Thursday at some point you thought to yourself, “Hey, today is Ascension day.”

Exactly. Very few of us. Because we don’t really think about it anymore.

You see, Ascension Day used to be a really important day in the church, up there with Christmas and Easter and Pentecost. But now it’s almost as forgettable as the disciple Bartholomew. And at first I thought it is because our modern minds don’t really know what to do with the ascension of Jesus. That it is just sort of weird – like the wizard floating off in a hot air balloon at the end of the The Wizard of Oz.

And then I saw that photo of Milo’s grandchildren looking upward. And with this text in mind, I thought of that question– why do you stand looking up toward heaven?

And in my heart, I heard an answer – Because they miss him. Because they long to have him back. Because life is terrifying without him.

Because this is grief. This is what we do. We find ourselves lost in wonder as we caress the grave stone or touch the name etched in the copper plate on the columbarium, or as we lower a flag in honor of a beloved grandfather. Life can be both awful and terrifying without the ones we love – and so we gaze off into the distance. We stand there looking up at the heavens.

Why do the disciples stand looking up toward heaven? Because their beloved leader whom they just got back from the dead has just left them behind and they miss him and they are terrified of doing this alone.

Which is perhaps the real reason why we struggle with Ascension Day in the Church. Since Ascension day, for two thousand years, the church has been waiting for Jesus’ return. And for just a moment this day, this text touches on our greatest fear – that perhaps Jesus is not with us. And that’s terrifying.

51 Sundays a year, I feel so committed to the promise that Jesus is Emmanuel – God with us.[1] But this Sunday seems a little different. In the Christian calendar, this Sunday between Ascension and Pentecost seems to be the one Sunday a year when we are called to sit in the presence of absence. Jesus has left but we haven’t received the promised power of the Holy Spirit yet. And we are left here to…wait.

That’s what the disciples are asked to do in this moment of absence. To hurry up and…wait.

When the two men show up and ask why the disciples are standing looking up toward heaven, notice that they don’t demand that the disciples get it together and get to work. No, they simply reaffirm the promise – that Christ will come again. Which means you’ll have to wait. So, the disciples return home to an upper room to pray. And to wait.

And so, as one theologian has said, “The first great act of the apostles occurs when they hike back to Jerusalem . . . and wait.”[2]

God will show up, Jesus says. The power of the Holy Spirit will come. God will ignite you as witnesses and participants in the coming of God’s kingdom. Jesus will return, in surprising and unexpected ways, the two messengers said.

But today, the disciples (and we) are asked to wait.

How good are you at waiting?

I wonder what you are waiting for in your life right now?

Based on this story, there seems to be something divine, sacred, transformative about waiting. It is something God can work with.

Because God certainly could have sent the Holy Spirit instantaneously after Jesus departure and left no one waiting.

But instead God asks the disciples to wait.

Have you ever really waited for something – on the edge of your seat? You see, this is the moment when something new is about to happen. And everything is springloaded and ready to move but you can’t move yet because you have to wait to see what happens next. Some of you who have played tennis will get this. There is a moment in tennis when the player hits the ball and the ball hits the top of the net and it goes straight up in the air. And for a moment, everyone waits…because you don’t know if the ball will land on this side of the net or that side.

This is like that moment. Something is about to happen. But we have to wait for it. This is that in-between moment, that Holy Waiting Time, in the creation story when God has made the human out of the dirt but hasn’t breathed the breath of life in yet. This is that time when the water has broken but the child has not yet arrived. This is the time when the people of God are being shaped into the body of Christ on earth. And that shaping, it can take time. And the power and the promise of the Holy Spirit, the holy breath, will come, but not just yet.

For now, the disciples are called to wait.

And it is an active waiting. An expectant waiting. A waiting that makes you watch more closely with your eyes and listening more carefully with your ears. For what God might be up to next.

And this kind of waiting – this available and attentive waiting – it takes courage. Waiting is hard. How do you know when to stop? How do you know when precious time is being wasted? To wait like this takes courage because it is to trust that God is up to something, even in what feels like God’s absence. That God is not passive but active and alive in this world. And to trust that when the time to respond arrives, you’ll know.

And look what happened when a couple handfuls of heartbroken disciples decide to wait in prayer – they become the Church.[3] And from their courageous waiting…comes you, the Church of St. John’s of 2017.

And if I learn anything from Jesus’ ascension and the time before Pentecost, it is that God has made holy those waiting times. That even in what feels like God’s absence, God is doing something. Preparing us for what’s to come in this beautiful but scary uncertain world.

So, in closing this morning, I want to invite you into some intentional waiting. As you wait to receive communion today, or as you wait for others to finish receiving communion, I invite you to open your eyes and ears to what’s happening around you and let it be a holy waiting. Let yourself learn something about this community or this sacrament that you’ve never noticed before. As an act of discipleship in which perhaps God is preparing you for something you cannot see yet.

Holy are the waiting times and blessed are those who enter them.  Amen.

[1] Sam Wells, http://www.stmartin-in-the-fields.org/wp-content/uploads/May-17-SW.pdf

[2] Matthew Skinner, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=884

[3] Barbara Brown Taylor, “The Day We Were Left Behind”, Christianity Today, found at: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/1998/may18/8t6046.html?start=2

Sunday, April 30th, 2017 – A sermon on the road to Emmaus and Luke 24:13-35

You can listen to this sermon here.

Luke 24:13-35
13 Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14 and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15 While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16 but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17 And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. 18 Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” 19 He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20 and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. 21 But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. 22 Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23 and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. 24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” 25 Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26 Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” 27 Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. 28 As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 29 But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. 30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. 32 They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” 33 That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. 34 They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” 35 Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

Earlier this week, my son asked, “Dad, what does tagalong mean?”

At first, I explained the verb version to him. To tag along. Elliot, it’s when you follow or go along with a person or a group somewhere. You tag along with them.

But then I immediately realized that there is an entirely different way of understanding this word and it’s pretty loaded. The noun version. To be a tagalong. How am I going to explain this to him in a way that is both true and compassionate. And as I thought about it, I was quickly transported back to those treacherous moments in middle school and high school, and college, and even still sometimes today, when you yourself feel like a tagalong. We’ve all felt it. That feeling of being on the outside of a group but desperate enough to just sort of linger behind them, hoping for a natural and smooth way to blend in.

The dictionary definition is a little too blunt on this one. Tagalong – “a person who follows or goes somewhere with another person or group often in an annoying way.”

So, I stumbled over my words with Elliot as I did my best to say, “A tagalong is someone who sees someone or a group of people doing something that they want to be a part of, and they join them in it.”

And as soon as I said that, it dawns on me. Oh my goodness – Jesus is a tagalong. On the road to Emmaus – he is such a tagalong.

I rushed over to a bible and open it up to Luke 24, and it’s true. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them. And not only is Jesus a tagalong, but his opening line is the most tagalong question there is, “Uh, hey guys, whatcha talkin’ about?”

And then Cleopas, who is sad and hurting and grieving Jesus’ death, isn’t exactly the kindest person to Jesus, but then again that’s what we do when we’re hurt – we take our hurt out on others. Cleopas says to Jesus, “Are you the only kid in school hasn’t heard about what’s happened?”

And I realize I am quite likely putting a 21st Century spin on a 1st Century text, that may or may not have known of tagalongs, but I gotta say that for the insecure 13-year-old self that lives inside me who knows what it’s like, this was such good news. My heart sings at the fact that if high school is a metaphor for the gospel, Jesus is the tagalong and not the captain of the football team. And my heart aches as I think of the ways I’ve dismissed the tagalongs too.

You’ve seen those shirts that say, “Jesus is my boyfriend”, I want a shirt that says, “Jesus is my tagalong.”

But seriously. This is really good news that Jesus tags along with them on this road. Because the road to Emmaus is the road of deep disappointment and despair and fear, and the truth about life is that we all have or we all will walk it.

The disciples are walking it because the only thing they are sure of is that their hope died on Good Friday. And any Easter hope that is alive is rumor. Jesus, the hope they carried, had been crucified and buried. That’s all they know for sure.

We walk the road to Emmaus for many reasons. Perhaps it is because we watch as family and friends, neighbors, strangers, and students, or we ourselves are threatened and silenced because of the color of our skin. And we’ve grown weary and tired of not knowing what to do about it. Or perhaps it is because we’re at that age where our family members are declining and we don’t know how to help. Or perhaps it is because the person we always thought we would be shifts and fades as the real possibility of divorce, or barrenness, or a devastating diagnosis set in.

We all walk this road to Emmaus. It’s the road where we’re desperate for companionship but everyone’s a stranger. And at the same time, on this road, every stranger is a potential friend.

And of course it is a road. Of course it is a road to walk. Because when you are grieving, the only way out of it is through it – with your body. Too often we’ve turned grief work into something we do in our heads. You need to grieve, the therapist says. Yes, but how? Author and funeral director, Thomas Lynch says, “Grief work…is not so much the brain’s to do, as (it is) the body’s. (Grieving) is better done by large muscles than gray matter; less burden of cerebral synapse and more of shoulders, shared embraces, sore hearts.”[1] This is the gift and the wisdom of a traditional funeral. We carry with our shoulders the body of our beloved and we walk them to their place of rest. It is how we grieve. It is how we get through.

So of course it is the road to Emmaus. Because in times of grief and deep disappointment, we need to move our bodies, putting one foot in front of the other.

And of course it is the road to Emmaus. The gospel says that Emmaus is 7 miles outside of Jerusalem. Seven being the symbol of perfection – I’m not sure what to make of that, but there’s something there. But here’s the thing, no one can find Emmaus. Historically, no one knows where it is. Archeologists cannot find it. Perhaps the road to Emmaus is a synonym for not knowing where you are going. Which sounds a lot like times of fear and grief and disappointment.

British psychologist Colin Murray Parkes has said that most of the time we think we know where we are going and who is with us, “except that when we’ve lost one we love (when we grieve, when we are living in the land of disappointment), we no longer know where we are going or who is going with us.”[2] Perhaps these two disciples have no clue where they are going. They’re just going. One step at a time. And Jesus, whom they’ve known and who knows them, goes with them, but they only see a stranger. A tagalong.

But then when they welcomed in this stranger and eat with him, then they recognized him as Jesus who was with them along.

Notice that it is rarely in the moment that we can see Jesus. In the moment of loss and grief and disappointment, our ears are ringing and our vision is narrowed. Usually it’s when we look back that we can see the places where God was with us.

They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road?” And they joyfully rush back to Jerusalem and tell the others what had happened to them on the road.

Now, Luke’s first readers would’ve smiled at this line. For they knew about the road. The road was more than a highway; it was a symbol for them of the whole Christian life…In fact, these early Christians were called by friends and enemies a like, “(people) of the Way”. And the word “way” and “road” are the same in Greek. In other words, early Christians were known as “people of the road. [3]

The truth of the Christian life is that Christ becomes present to us as we walk down the road together. Putting one foot in front of the other.

And at its most basic form, the gospel in this story is that Christ is with us on that road. Even when we cannot recognize him. Even when we don’t know that the face of Christ can be seen in the stranger beside us. There are “strange graces that come to our aid only on a road such as this.” (Jan Richardson)

In his remarkable book, The Road, Cormac McCarthy tells the story of a father and a son walking alone through a burned and devastated America. Nothing moves in the ravaged landscape (except) the ash on the wind. It is cold enough to crack stones, and when the snow falls it is gray. This father and son are on a journey to the coast, having no clue what awaits them there.

It is the story of an image of the future in which no hopes remains, except that the father and son are sustained by their love for one another.

Throughout the book, there is this theme of fire. Naturally, as travelers on the road of a dystopic America, fire would be very important. They are constantly looking for wood to start a fire, waking up to a fire that’s almost burned out. The father holds the son close to the fire to warm him at night. But this theme of fire isn’t just about the fire that burns outside – it is about the fire that burns within. The father and son have this phrase they use together on the road – we’re carrying the fire, they say. The fire of hope.

Early in the book, late at night, the small boy says to his dad,

We’re going to be okay, aren’t we Papa?
Yes, we are.
And nothing bad is going to happen to us.
That’s right.
Because we’re carrying the fire.
Yes. Because we’re carrying the fire.

Towards the end of the story, the father has grown weak and ill. He’s developed a bloody cough and he knows his end is near. And he tells his son to go on without him.

I want to be with you, the boy says.
You can’t.
Please.
You can’t. You have to carry the fire.
I don’t know how to.
Yes you do.
Is it real? The fire?
Yes it is.
Where is it? I don’t know where it is.
Yes you do. It’s inside you. It was always there. I can see it.

 Brothers and sisters, we are the People of the Road. People of the Way. The way of forgiveness and grace and hope, even when we can’t recognize Jesus and all seems lost. We are the people of the way, walking together and trusting that somewhere along the way, we will recognize that Jesus has been with us the whole time.  Together we are a people who put one foot in front of the other, not always knowing where we are going, but trusting in the presence of God with us.  And in that way, we are carrying the fire. Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking with us on the road? the disciples asked?

When Christ is with us, there is a burning in our hearts. When Christ is with us, there is a fire inside and hope is alive. It may feel like a small ember that is growing cold, but if you can keep the door to your heart open and not lock it up, God will breathe the Spirit of life on that tiny ember to grow a fire of life inside your heart.

And here is the thing – Christ is always with you. Especially on the road to Emmaus. Which means hope is alive and the fire has not gone out.

Carry that fire. Care for it, protect it like a candle in the wind. Because there are all sorts of forces in this life that will try to snuff it out.

And it is only fitting that this morning we have a baptism for Ozzie and the welcoming of new members. Today we lift Ozzie Taggart as one who is on the road with us and we say that he is carrying the fire too. We give him a candle representing that fire. And we recognize new members who have chosen to walk the road with us and we give each household a candle too.

Thank you for welcoming these people on the road with us. And thanks to them for welcoming us on their road. At times, we may be strangers to each other, but I trust that along the way, we will stop and look back, recognizing the face of Christ in one another.

Is it real? The fire?
Yes it is.
Where is it? We don’t know where it is.
Yes we do. It’s here. Among us.

We do not walk alone. Christ has come along with us. And the fire is alive. Thanks be to God.

[1] Thomas Lynch and Thomas Long, The Good Funeral, pg. 65.

[2] Ibid., pg. 224.

[3] Tom Long, Whispering the Lyrics, pg. 98.

Sunday, April 16th, 2017 – An Easter Sermon on Matthew 28:1-10

Audio will be posted shortly.

Matthew 28:1-10
1 After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2 And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4 For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. 5 But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 6 He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. 7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples, “He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” 8 So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9 Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

People of God, if you hear nothing else today, hear this and let it sink into your body – grace, peace, and mercy are yours from the risen and living Christ. Amen.

Will you please pray with me. Spirit of the Risen Christ, break through the tombs of our hearts and free us from fear. Resurrect our hope and enliven our love for one another. Raise up within each of us here the desire to be your faithful family forever. Amen.

 Well, it wouldn’t be Easter if we didn’t do this ancient tradition –so let’s go for it.

I’ll say, “Alleluia, Christ is risen!” You respond – “Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia!”

Alleluia, Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!

On Thursday this week – this community gathered together here for worship. We felt the weight of hands upon our heads as forgiveness was proclaimed for each of us. We witnessed Jesus’ humble love for his disciples as we heard the story of him kneeling down and washing their feet and giving them a new commandment – to love one another as he has loved them. And then knelt down as we took into our bodies the grace and love of God through the body and blood of Christ, the bread and wine of communion.

On Friday, this community gathered here again. And we sat in the darkness of Good Friday together. We listened with our ears and sang with our lungs the story of God’s death, as Jesus’ was betrayed by friends, beaten by enemies, and broken by a cross and buried in a tomb. All the while, Jesus pouring out his love for his friends and entrusting us to each other and making us into a new human family.

They were beautiful and meaningful services– some of my favorite of the entire year, actually.

But here’s the thing – if it weren’t for this story – the story of the Resurrection – proclaimed last night at the Easter Vigil and this morning – if it wasn’t for this story – I don’t know that we would still have those stories. Would they have stood the test of time? Who knows.

Which is to say that today is the linchpin of what was started on Thursday. So thank you for being here to help us proclaim this part of the story. So know that you being here today, regardless of whether you have been with us these past three days or whether you’ve haven’t darkened the door of a church since last Easter – today connects you to those stories too. The forgiveness of God is for you too. The new commandment to love one another as we have been loved is still for you. And the love poured on the cross is for you. And that the new family of God includes you too.

So, today’s story is the story. The one that stitches all of us and these stories together. But it doesn’t stitch them up, like a nice closed seam as if this is the end of the story of God. No, today’s story breaks everything open as if it is just the beginning of the story of God.

Out of all of the Gospel’s stories, Matthew’s version of the resurrection that you just heard is the most dramatic.

Mary Magdalene and the other Mary (I’m not sure how she feels about that title for the rest of eternity – the other Mary) go to the tomb where Jesus was buried. And suddenly there was a great earthquake. It is the only story of the resurrection to include such a thing. Which is Matthew’s way of saying that what’s about to happen will change the entire world. The foundations of the earth will be shaken and broken. The fault lines of history are beginning to shift.

Along with an earthquake, there is an angel appearing like lightning and sealed tombs being ripped open and soldiers falling from fear and becoming like dead men.

And let’s pause and recognize that it’s the soldiers, who are brought to their knees. Armor and weapons and flexed muscles will never hide or protect us from our fear, folks.

And then the angel appears to the two Mary’s and gives them a message. First, do not be afraid. Second, I know you are looking for Jesus, but he is not here; he has been raised. Come and see. And then thirdly, Go and tell. Tell the disciples he has been raised from the dead, and indeed his is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.

That’s the message – Do not be afraid. He is risen. Go and tell. And so they do. They run in fact to go and tell. And then along the road, Jesus jumps out suddenly from behind a tree or something, he greets them and then he sort of repeats the message – “Do not be afraid. Now, go and tell my brothers to go Galilee; there they will see me.”

There you go, that’s the story of Easter according to Matthew. And I’m left wondering a…why do the angel and Jesus make the women the messengers who carry this earth shattering news that Christ is risen?

Haven’t they done enough?

I mean they are the ones who stayed at the tomb, grieving that first night, until who knows how late. They are the ones who got up early to come to the tomb to grieve some more. Meanwhile, Jesus has had three days of eternal rest going for him.

Please tell me that Jesus is different than the stereotypical male, who tells the women to do his work for him. Or was his resurrection life schedule just as busy and booked as ours that he only had time for a quick hello, but he’d catch up with them later? They’d grab coffee when things slowed down a bit.

But really, maybe the greater question is – why put this earth shaking, world shifting news that Christ is risen, that death is dead and hope is alive, into the hands of just two grief-stricken women.

I mean, we ensure the proper delivery of the Oscar’s Best Picture winners better than that. At least, now we do.

But Jesus leaves this news upon which the entire world shifts up to just two women who are both overwhelmed with fear and joy?

Don’t you think the Son of God and the heavenly chorus would make better and more trustworthy candidates for the proper delivery of such critical good news?

No. Of course not. Because the earth does not shake, and the world does not shift when the powerful remain powerful and the powerless remain powerless.

You see, the testimony of women would not have been trustworthy in Jesus’ day. So what does Jesus do – he gives them message that changes the world. He gives the powerless the most powerful message and tells them to proclaim it! As an embodied sign of the resurrection – that the kingdom of heaven is here and the world will never be the same.

And did you notice that Jesus changed the message. The angel told them to go and tell his disciples. Jesus said, “Go and tell my brothers.

You remember the disciples  – the ones who when the moment of truth came they bailed. Abandoning and denying Jesus while he hung on the cross. Those disciples. What does our world do to abandoners and betrayers? Well, in our country, we throw them in solitary confinement to rot for months on end. You abandon, you betray us, we will give the ultimate form of abandonment – total isolation.

But Jesus – he calls them brothers.

In the light of the Resurrection, Jesus trusts the ones who are said to be untrustworthy. He claims as family the ones who had denied him as family. The kingdom of Heaven is here and the world will never be the same.

As Preacher William Sloan Coffin has said, what we proclaim today is not just about “one man’s escape from the grave, but the cosmic victory  of seemingly powerless love over loveless power.”[1] And that will makes the ground beneath our feet (and our knees for that matter) quake.

And now we are the ones who get to proclaim that good news. And listen to how we proclaim this gospel news:

Alleluia, Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia!

 Think about what we are saying there. How is Christ risen? Christ is risen indeed.

Think about that word – indeed. Break it open like the tomb. Christ is risen in deed.

In meaning…in. Deed meaning…action.

Jesus doesn’t say, “Hey! I’m alive. So, you know, it’s all good. Carry on.” No, he says, “Go and tell everyone, I’ll meet them in Galilee. There they will see me.”

What could he mean by that? Why Galilee? Well, Galilee is back where it all began. Back where Jesus found the disciples living out their everyday lives. Jesus says, “Go, I’ll meet you back in Galilee. I’ll meet you back in your ordinary lives! And together we will live life differently.” Living life trusting that death has died – it has no power over us and we need not be afraid. Trusting that if death has died, then the means of death are gone too – guilt, shame, exclusion, fear, worthlessness. They are dead too.

This good news -we proclaim it with our bodies. In deed. Not to make it true, but to show that we trust that already is true.

Theologian Peter Rollins was once asked if he denied the resurrection. And he said this, “Okay, this is the time to fess up. Yes, of course, I do. Everyone who knows me knows I deny the resurrection. I do deny the resurrection…every time I do not serve my neighbor. Every time I walk away from people who are poor. I deny the resurrection every time I participate in an unjust system.

And I affirm the resurrection every now and again – when I stand up for those who are on their knees. When I cry out for people (who have been silenced.). Every time I weep for those who have no more tears to shed.”

We proclaimed the resurrection with our bodies, Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed.

Now here is what I know to be true. The world does not stop for Easter. Our beloved ones still died this past week. Our country still dropped the biggest non-nuclear bomb this week. Arkansas is trying to increase its rate of executions this week because it’s lethal drug is about to expire. We’d rather see a life expire than a drug expire.

The world does not stop for Easter. I know that some of you go home to a tense dinner table, or to the never-ending job search, or to illness or addiction, or to loneliness.

But here is what I also know is true – Easter will not stop for the world. All of those things will not stop the undying love of Christ from breaking out of the tombs we bury it in and coming to you and through you for the sake of the kingdom of Heaven. Which is here. Now.

So when you leave here –make sure you get some egg bake. Because it is a good deed. It helps send our kids to camp and mission trips.

But also leave knowing that the ground beneath your feet is shifting and moving. Tilting its way towards grace and hope.[2] May that give you good courage to face what’s ahead of you with Easter hope. Trusting that the tomb is empty. Christ is alive. Indeed.

For as we will sing is just a moment – The strife is over, the battle is done. You are freed in love to go and love freely. The Christian faith proclaims that we are the body of Christ now. Which means today is our resurrection day too.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] William Sloan Coffin, “Our Resurrection, Too”, The Collected Sermons of William Sloan Coffin, Vol. 1, pg. 67.

[2] Tom Long, Matthew, pg. 322.

Friday, April 14th, 2017 – A Good Friday Sermon on the Gospel of John 18-19

You can listen to this sermon here.

Grace, peace, and mercy are yours from the Crucified Christ. Amen.

If you take a drive down 3rd street here, about three blocks or so, you’ll see the old Northfield Train Depot under construction. Many of us have watched over the past year as it has been uprooted from its old home on one side of the street, to its new, more prominent home on the other. No longer hidden behind buildings, but out there in the open for all to see. We’ve watched as workers have cocooned themselves underneath the depot each day in the winter months, building a new foundation for something I wasn’t sure would survive the process. But slowly but surely, like an injured human going through rehab, it is starting to stand up straighter. Its face is brighter and its color is starting to return.

And if you look closely, you can see a small yellow with black lettering sign right next to the building that says, Caution: Depot Being Saved. I slammed on the breaks the first time I saw it last week. Is that really what it says, Caution: Depot Being Saved. Not Caution: Depot Under Construction. Hard Hats Required? Not – Caution: Loose Soil. Watch Your Step. Not even – Caution: Depot Being Restored?

No, it says, Caution: Depot Being Saved.

Who knew salvation was so risky and needed to come with a warning sign.

I thought that could be a good sign for us this Easter weekend: Caution: Humanity Being Saved.

As we continue on this journey of the Great Three Days, today we walk to the cross. And we can try to make sense of it. We can try to explain it. Or better yet, we can just try to experience it with our bodies. To listen with ears and sing with our lungs the story of God’s death and our being saved through it. And to see what stands out to us in our particular moment in life. This is the story so many of us need. A God who suffers with us in our need.

Here is what stood out to me.

In a few moments, you will hear John Ferguson begin our Gospel reading this way, “After Jesus had spoken these words…”

That’s how it begins.

Which begs the question – which words? What did Jesus say right before we head into the passion story?

Well, he’s praying. And he finishes his prayer this way: Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me maybe in them, and I in them.

Those are the words. And it is immediately after those words, that Jesus and his disciples head out into the garden to meet the lynch mob looking for Jesus.

Whatever follows, whatever we’re about to hear, whatever we can hold onto and dare to digest…is for the sake of making God known to us. So that we would know God, and know that Jesus, and the love that God has for Jesus, are alive in you.

There are all kinds of moments in the story that will share this with us, but I want to draw your attention to one moment in particular. That moment at the foot of the cross, when Jesus is in the last moments of his death. Hanging there on the tree, looking through blood and sweat and pain and human cruelty and human shame and betrayal and sadness, he sees his mom.[1] And the one disciple who stuck around. And he says to his mother, “Woman,” and the gesturing with his eyes to the other disciple, “behold your son.” And to the other disciple, “Behold your mother.”

And immediately after that, Jesus says these words, “I am thirsty.”

I am thirsty. Most of us hear that as a sign of his humanness and his tortured death. But I think it is more.

A couple of weeks ago, some of us heard another story from the Gospel of John, about Jesus meeting a woman at the well. And there he said, “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.” And the woman says to Jesus, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty.”

And he does.

But now Jesus is thirsty. Why?

Because in this moment, Jesus has finally, fully poured himself out for us. Giving the world all of the living water that was within him. And in doing so giving to us all that he has .

And the moment when that is complete – the moment he becomes thirsty, fully poured out of living water – is the moment from the cross when he creates in us a new human family. Giving up his seat at the family table, offering his chair to this beloved disciple who is unnamed (maybe because your name belongs there).  “Mother, this is your son now. Behold him.” “Beloved, this is your mother now. Behold her.”

And in that is our salvation. In that is our being saved. Jesus pouring himself out for us on the cross in love, so that we might be created into a new human family.

At the foot of the cross. God makes the human family complete. By making us God’s family. By pouring out God’s own life and living water into us. So that the love with which God has loved Jesus may be in us. So that God may be in us. In our life… together. Because that is the way. The way to abundant life. New life now. Eternal life. That is the way we are being saved.

Preacher Michael Curry tells a story about an interview he heard on NPR years ago. It was an interview with a man named Norman Gershman. He is a noted photographer. He had recently completed a documentary and published a photographic essay entitled, “God’s House.” It’s the story of the Muslims of Albania during the Second World War. As the armies of the Third Reich were infecting Europe, destroying everything that they touched…rounding up Jews and others and killing them, the Nazi armies moved toward Albania. Word was forwarded through diplomatic channels to the Foreign Ministry of Albania, that they were determined to turn over the names of all Jews living in Albania.

The foreign minister of Albania was a Muslim.

And he refused.

Before the Nazi arrived in Albania, the Jews of Albania disappeared. The reason was that this foreign minister organized a network of Muslim communities. And there were the words he used to inspire them – “The Jewish Children are your children. The Jewish people shall eat at your table and sleep in your homes. For the Jewish people are our family.” And the Muslims of Albania saved over 2,000 Jews from the Holocaust.

At the foot of the cross, Jesus saw his mother and his disciple and said, “Woman behold your son.” And to him, “Behold your mother.”[2]

And then Jesus, “I am thirsty. I have poured it all out for you to see. My living water is no longer in me. It is in you. The human family.”

On the cross, Jesus shows us the way. That we are most alive when we pour ourselves out in love for one another. As one family. And like that depot, being saved like this – it will up root us. Caution: it will put our comfortably settled lives at risk. We will no longer stand in the places we’ve always stood. We will be changed. We will be different. But through it we will be given a new foundation to stand on. And the color of life (abundant life) will start returning to our cheeks again. When we pour ourselves out in love for each other. Our new human family.

And that sign idea from earlier – I got it wrong. It shouldn’t say, Caution: Humanity being saved. It should say, Caution: Human Family Being Saved.

May we all meet each other tonight at the foot of the cross – the place where we are being saved.  Amen.

[1] Michael Curry, http://download.luthersem.edu/media/cbp/cbp2010/20101004-s.mp3

[2] As told by Bishop Michael Curry at Luther Seminary in 2009. http://download.luthersem.edu/media/cbp/cbp2010/20101004-s.mp3

Sunday, April 2nd, 2017 – Sermon on Jesus and the Dead Man in John 11:1-45

Audio will be posted shortly.

John 11:1-45
1 Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2 Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. 3 So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” 4 But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” 5 Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6 after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. 7 Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” 8 The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” 9 Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. 10 But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” 11 After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” 12 The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” 13 Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. 14 Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. 15 For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” 16 Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” 17 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. 18 Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, 19 and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” 23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” 28 When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” 29 And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. 30 Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31 The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32 When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34 He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus began to weep. 36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” 38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” 40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” 43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.” 45 Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.

Friends, grace, peace and mercy are yours from the one who lived for us, who died for us, and who now claims victory over every grave, Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior

A couple of years ago, there was a Christian radio talk show host who was taking calls from the listeners. A woman named Barbara called in. Barbara shared that she had problems. A lot of problems.

She had problems with her boss at work, she had stress in her marriage. She was in conflict with her teenage children. She had bouts of depression. As she continued on, the talk show host interrupted her and said, “Barbara, let me ask you something. Are you a believer? If you are not a believer, you’ll never solve any of these problems. Now, Barbara, are you a believer?”

Barbara hesitated a moment, “I…I don’t know” she said.

“Now, Barbara, if you are a believer, you would know it. Either you are a believer or you are not. Now, Barbara, are you a believer?”

“I’d like to be, I think. I guess I’m more of an agnostic at this point in my life.”

The radio show host rose to that bait, “Now, Barbara, there is a book I’ve written that I’d like to send you….And in this book I have indisputable, irrefutable proof that Jesus Christ rose from the dead and he is who he says he is. If I send you this book, will you become a believer?”

I don’t know. I’ve had a lot of problems with preachers.”

 “I’m not talking about preachers, I’m talk about proof. I’ve got irrefutable proof. Now, if I send you this book, will you become a believer?

“I don’t think you are listening to me. I am having trouble at this point in my life just basically trusting.”

 “Barbara, we’re not talking about trust. We’re talking about truth. Now, if I send you this book with proof will you become a believer?”

“Yeah, I guess so. If you send it to me, I’ll become a believer.”[1]

I don’t know about you, but I resonate more with Barbara than with the Christian radio host. Believe. It’s a hard and complicated word in Christianity these days. For the host, to believe is to have irrefutable proof. But for Barbara, just trusting was hard enough.

Believe – it is a word that that too often seems synonymous with data and proof. And too often, it can make us stumble and fall, believing that we are not believers and that perhaps we don’t belong here. Just this week, I heard three people say, “That word believe. That’s where I struggle.”

Believe – it is used 7 times in all of Matthew. 15 times in Mark. 9 times in Luke. And in the gospel of John…84 times. And it is a word used 8 times in our gospel reading today. Interestingly enough in one of the most difficult stories of John to believe – the raising of Lazarus.

If you ask me if I believe the story we just heard, my head starts to spin. If I do believe it, if I do take it literally, all sorts of questions start to creep up. Does Jesus really wait until his friend is dead so that he can prove a point to everyone else? Did anyone ask Lazarus what he wanted from all of this – what if death was a welcomed gift to him and now to rip him back from the beyond? What is Jesus going to do when Lazarus dies a second time? And why did Jesus pick Lazarus to raise again –was it because Jesus loved him? Why not Nicole, or Jenny, or Chuck, or Paul, or Andy, or Simon, or any of our loved ones?

But I think our English language fails us here. You see, the word in Greek for believe – pisteuo – is not meant to be a brainy, cognitive word with facts in mind. But rather is to convey something of the heart. Something of relationship. In fact, a better translation, scholars say, is…trust. If I ask, “Do you believe me?” – you are going to think about what I’ve said. If I ask “Do you trust me?” – you are going to think about our relationship.

If you ask me if I trust this story, suddenly something new opens up in me and I’m invited into a deeper wonder about what this story is inviting me to trust about God.

So, if to believe it isn’t to think correctly, but rather to trust, to give your heart to, I want us to spend time at those places in this story where Jesus invites others to trust in him. Because when he does and when they do, something happens there.

Jesus is with his disciples and he’s just heard that his beloved friend, Lazarus is ill. And in what seems to be an unusually compassionless moment, Jesus doesn’t go right away. He hangs around for two days. And then once Jesus is seemingly aware that Lazarus has now died, then Jesus says, “Let us go to Judea again.”

But the disciples don’t want him to go – Judea is where the danger is. That’s where they tried to stone Jesus. Judea is where Jesus (and presumably the disciple’s) life are under threat.  It is where death is. Not only Lazarus’, but Jesus and perhaps the disciples’ too. Jesus says, “We’re going there because Lazarus is asleep and we are going to wake him.” Terrified and self-protective and misunderstanding him, the disciples say, “If he’s asleep, he’ll….he’ll be alright.”

They don’t want to go. So, Jesus has to be clearer: “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may trust.” They don’t want to go, but they have to go, because there is something about Lazarus’ death that is for the sake of their trust in Jesus. Please notice that Jesus invites them to trust while they are already his disciples. Which says you can still be a disciple of Jesus and still be a bit shaky on the trust thing. Now, having told them that this is for the sake of their trust in him, then Jesus says again, “C’mon. Let us go to him.”

And surprisingly, Thomas says “Okay, let us go. Let us go and die with him.” I think that line is profoundly beautiful. Thomas, the one we so often call doubting, is the one who is brave.  You see, when we start to trust Jesus, we can do brave things. We can go to Judea. The place where death and danger are. We can face death together. Let us go and die with him, Thomas says.

They arrive at Bethany. Martha hears that Jesus has arrived and she goes to confront him.

Lord, if you have been here…my brother would not have died. Are there anymore hauntingly truthful words to the human experience than that? This is the question we all ask. And it brings comfort to hear someone so close to Jesus, whom Jesus loves, like Mary, to ask the same question.

So, what does Jesus do. Standing at the tomb of Martha’s grief, Jesus assures her that Lazarus will rise again. She hears this as a pretty thin statement of comfort. Yes, I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day. But Jesus jumps in and says, “Martha, I am the resurrection and the life. Martha, those who trust in me, even though they die, will live, 26 and everyone who lives and trusts in me will never die.”

Which is to say that Jesus isn’t just Lord of the world beyond, he is Lord of this world. It is to say that Jesus didn’t just come to give us life after death, he came to give us life before death.

And then Jesus asks her a question: “Do you trust this?” Just like the disciples, he invites her to trust him. And please note that Jesus loved Martha before she confesses her trust in him.

But Martha does confess, “Lord, I trust that you are the Messiah.” And notice what Martha does now that she trusts him, she goes. The disciples trust him and they go to Judea the place of death. Marth trusts him, and she goes. She goes back to her house, the place of death. When we start to trust Jesus, we can face death again, in a new way. Without all the avoidance and the fear. But with new hope.

Pretty soon, Jesus asks to be taken to the tomb of his friend. And the first thing Jesus does is he cries. He weeps. And it is the shortest verse in the Bible, because nothing can describe pain this deep. Only tears will do. We try and we try to use words but they fail us. No words can match what we feel inside. The first thing Jesus does when we show him the dead places in our life is he weeps. Can you trust that?

Jesus tells them to roll away the stone. But they don’t want to. It stinks in there. Which is so honestly human. The last thing we want to do is actually look at and smell the dead parts of our life, let alone invite God in there.

But he reminded them that they can trust him.

And so they do it anyways. And then Jesus prays a prayer that everyone seems to be eaves dropping on. “Lord, I have done this so that they might trust in me.” He’s invited the crowd to trust in him. And then out of his depths Jesus roars, “Lazarus, come out.”

And he does. And listen to what Jesus says next. Jesus says to the crowd, “Unbind him. And let him go.” Jesus doesn’t say, “Unbind him and welcome him home.” Or “Unbind him and give the man some water!” He says, “Unbind him and let him go.”

Jesus says to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea. Again, I say, Let us go.” Thomas say, “Yes, let us go and die with him.” And now Jesus says to the crowd, “Let him go!”

What could that all mean? I can’t be sure, but I’m drawn to the fact that every time Jesus invites someone to trust in him and they do, he sends them out to go somewhere. Every invitation to trust in Jesus seems to lead to movement. And what’s the movement? To face the scariest thing in the world – death, or the parts of our life that are dead. To face death in good hope. Trusting that death isn’t outside the realm of God’s presence and love and life can be found there.

Faith, belief, trust in God revealed in Jesus – it doesn’t protect us from the scariest parts of life, but rather helps us to face them. Together.

Where do you see people trusting in God and then stepping out into places of death in order to fine life there? I see it in the White Helmets – the Syrian Volunteers who wait each day for the sound of bombs dropping. And when the bombs drop, they rush in. To search and rescue survivors. They know there is death there – 166 of them have died in their work. But they go anyways. To find the life.

I see it in Canada, as they cross the one-year mark of, unlike many other countries, opening their homes to Syrian refugee families.  Of risking life in the midst of death.

I see it in the people brave enough to go to their first AA meeting. I see it in the AA sponsors, brave enough to answer the phone when a stranger maybe desperate and hurting.

I see it in the gay, lesbian, and transgender people of the last century who were willing to hear God call them by name and to come out of the tomb of isolation and prejudice that society put them in, and then literally risking their life in order to pave a path for those today to be welcomed and included in communities and churches like this one.

Where do you see people trusting in God and then going out into places of death, in order to find life?

Friends, God is standing outside our tombs of fear and brokenness and hesitation, calling us by name. Inviting us to come out of our tombs and to trust that nothing – nothing – can separate us from the love and presence of God.

So, let us go and die with him. Risking life for the sake of life, for the sake of each other. For while in the midst of life there is death, in the midst of death there is life. And Jesus is the resurrection and the life. And we can trust him. Amen

[1] As told by Tom Long, in a sermon at Duke Chapel on May 1st, 2011.