Sunday, April 28th, 2013 – Sermon on Acts 11:1-18

Acts 11:1-18

A couple of weeks ago, I called up a friend of mine who is also a pastor. I asked him how Easter went. That’s what pastors often do. Holy week and Easter can be exhausting, so we care for one another by asking how it went. Now, typically you get the standard answers: It went well; the services were quite meaningful this year. Or – it was fine. Nothing out of the norm. But my friend, he responded in a way I wasn’t expecting. He said, “Well it is still Easter and it is going well.” It is still Easter, what do you mean? “There are fifty days of Easter, so we have a couple more weeks to go.” Embarrassingly, I didn’t know that. But he is right. There are 50 days of Easter. Just like there are 12 days of Christmas. 40 Days of Lent. There are 50 days of Easter. Which means we are still in the season of Resurrection. A season where life comes out of death.

In this story from Acts, we get to witness life coming out of death. See if you can spot it.

Our story for today begins with what we might call a church council meeting. Peter, the apostle is there along with other followers of Jesus. The text says they were “circumcised believers” meaning they were Jewish. Remember, Christianity came out of Judaism and the earliest Christians were Jewish. Now, at the council meeting, there is trouble. The council is having a bit of an argument. You see, Peter has done something that the other followers did not like. And now they are asking Peter to explain himself.

The full story begins back in chapter 10. There was a soldier in the Roman army, named Cornelius. Cornelius loved and worshiped God. But Cornelius was a gentile. He was not Jewish. He was not circumcised; he did not follow Jewish dietary laws. To other Jews, Cornelius was a filthy, immoral man. He would be considered unclean and it was against the law to associated with him. He was an outsider when it came to the first Christians.

But one day, Cornelius had a vision. A vision in which God told him to send his men for Peter the apostle. And so he does. Now, as Cornelius’ men were on their way to Peter, Peter also sees a vision. Only Peter’s is a bit different. In Peter’s vision, the heavens open up and a large sheet – almost like a picnic blanket – comes down out of the sky and on it are all sorts of forbidden animals. And by forbidden, I mean animals Peter could not eat. Animals like camels and badgers, pigs and rabbits. As a good Jew who followed the dietary laws found in the book of Leviticus, Peter knew immediately that these animals were off limits. But then a voice – a voice that Peter recognized as the voice of God, says, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.”

Now, I love this next part. Peter says to the Lord, “No.” He says, “No, Lord, I will not eat those animals for nothing unclean has ever entered my mouth.” Peter says no to the Lord’s command.

Notice the irony. Cornelius, the man who is outside the church, says yes to God. Peter, who is inside the church, says no to God. In fact, Peter and God go back and forth three times until God finally declares, “Peter, what God has made clean, you must not call profane.” And then, *poof*, the vision is gone.

Almost immediately, after Peter’s vision, Cornelius’ men arrived at the house, asking for Peter. They told him how Cornelius, a gentile, had been told by God to send for Peter the apostle. Without delay, Peter began to understand what his vision was about. Here, Peter, a Jew, was being summoned by Cornelius, a gentile. Peter should have said no, because it would be unlawful for a Jew to visit a gentile. But…what God has made clean, you must not call profane.

So off Peter went with the other men to the house of Cornelius, where he met a whole house full of other gentiles. Peter spoke to them about God and the Holy Spirit fell upon all of them. So, what does Peter do? He baptizes all of those, unlawful, dirty, and immoral gentiles. And from that moment on, the circle of God’s family got a whole lot bigger. Now, it wasn’t just those who were Jewish. It was the gentiles too. The promises of Christ were truly for all.

That’s what the big fuss was about in this so-called council meeting. The other Jews were upset that Peter had welcomed Gentiles into the faith. “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” So Peter tells them his story. After which, Peter asked them, “Who am I to hinder God?” After Peter asked it, the whole group fell silent. Suddenly, they were no longer fighting. Instead, they were praising. All of them, right then and there, praised God, exclaiming, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”

Earlier, I invited you to keep an eye out for life coming out of death within this text. Could you see it?

Cornelius was as good as dead. Why? Because he was excluded, as a gentile, from worshiping the God he loved. But then, with the help of Peter, God broke down the doors of the church and let Cornelius and all the other gentiles in. And suddenly, there was life in the midst of death for Cornelius.

And then Peter. Peter was dead. He followed the law so well that it killed him. He followed it so well that he put the law above God’s very own voice and new command. So Peter too was dead, until he risked breaking God’s law by entering the house of a Gentile! And what do you know, the Holy Spirit met him there. In the foreigner. In the outsider. And suddenly, Peter was made alive again too. When he stopped putting God’s law above God’s people.

And then the council. The council of faithful Jews, who demanded explanation from Peter. They were dead too. They, like Peter, were dead by the cancer of prejudice. Their desire to exclude others from the grace of God. But even they were brought back to life. After they heard Peter’s incredible story, they were moved to silence and began to praise God for the inclusion of those filthy, immoral gentiles into the grace of God.

This is a story about God doing a new thing. God has broken God’s own law in order to make the circle bigger and to allow more people in. God destroyed that dead place of exclusion by being more inclusive. God’s always about bring life in the midst of death.

Now, this story may not seem like a big deal to your life. I mean, it’s just another Bible story. We hear a different one each week. Who cares, right? But this particular story should have a special place in your heart and in your life. Because this story is your story.

Almost all of us here are gentiles. Most of us are not of Jewish descent. Which means our ancestors were once kept out of the church. Because of this event, your ancestors were welcomed in. You were welcomed in. You were brought from exclusion to inclusion. From death to life. We are resurrected people. Which means we are called to risk living out a resurrection like life. You and I are called to find the places of death and decay in this life and demand that life spring forth from it! Resurrection living is when we stare death in the face and we demand life.

Now, what does that look like? I recently heard the story of a church that got a new mission statement – “Sharing the Love of Jesus with all people in the Hilltop”. They put these words in big letters in the narthex so that everyone could see them and would be reminded of who they were called to be. One Sunday morning, Kathryn, a member of the council and a person who had helped come up with the mission statement, was standing at the top of the stairs, greeting everyone who walked in. Then, into the church, walks Orpah. Orpah was visiting the congregation for the first time. Now, Orpah had been raised out in the country. This was the city, where she was known as a hillbilly. But, she had been asked by the pastor to come to church, when he had been out knocking on doors earlier in the week.

So, on that Sunday morning, Orpah put on her best cotton dress and walked into church. And as she was coming up the stairs, Kathryn, the greeter, saw her as someone else. As a hillbilly. As someone who wouldn’t fit in at this church. So with the words “Sharing the Love of Jesus with all people in the Hilltop” in the background, Kathryn said to Orpah, “Honey, this is a respectable church. There are a lot of other churches in this neighborhood where you might feel more comfortable.” It was a not so subtle way of inviting Orpah to leave.

And do you know what? Orpah didn’t listen. She walked right into the sanctuary and sat in a pew for worship. And the next week, Orpah brought her husband. And the week after that, she brought her daughter and her grandchildren. Soon enough, they were regulars at that church.

At the top of the stairs that day was a place of death. Where one was being kept out of the church. But Orpah wouldn’t have it. She demanded life in the midst of death and took her pew for worship. That’s resurrection.

If we keep our eyes open for it, there is resurrection happening all around us. I see resurrection when the mother of a former drug addict gives her cell phone number to another addict who is trying to get his life back together. She gives him her number and says, “You call me when you need help. Because I’ve been through this before and I’ll help you.” That’s resurrection. That mother looked death, drug addiction, in the face, and said, “You will not win. Not if I can do anything about it.”

I see resurrection when a spouse in dysfunctional marriage bravely picks up the phone and calls a marriage counselor, in hopes of healing their relationship. That’s resurrection.

I see resurrection when a young person, who has always believed that God was just like their father. Their abusive father who abandoned them long ago, never to return. I see resurrection when that young person dares to risk believing that maybe that’s not what God is like. That maybe God is not like the father who abandoned them. But maybe God is different than that. That’s resurrection.

Friends, it is still Easter. I can’t help but wonder who is standing behind locked doors now. And how might God be trying to break that lock in order to let more people in. I can’t help but wonder who is living in a place of death in our community and who it is that God is calling to bring about life there. I can’t help but wonder what in your life feels like it is dead and is in desperate need of new life. May you and I be people not who simply believe in the resurrection, but who live it out. By demanding life in the midst of death. AMEN

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Sunday, April 21st, 2013 – Sermon on Revelation 7:9-17

Revelation 7:9-17

In January, a group of about 22 of us gathered together for 7 weeks, to venture into the murky waters of the book of Revelation. At one point, one person asked, “How come I’ve never heard a sermon on Revelation?” I couldn’t answer her, but I suspected it was because this is a book that frightens. It scares most of us and we don’t know what to say about it. So I vowed that the next time Revelation came up in the lectionary, I would preach on it. So here we are.

So, what are we reading in the book of Revelation? Well, first off, we should be clear, we are not reading a book. We are reading a letter. We are reaching our hands back into the mailbox of history and lifting out a letter that was not written to us. It was a letter written to seven different churches in Asia by a man named John. John is writing from the island of Patmos, where he was sent into exile because the Roman Empire didn’t like what he was preaching. He was a threat to their power, so they kicked him out.

You see, back in the day, being a Christian wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. To be a Christian often meant living a life of persecution and suffering. Daily fears of violence and attack. That is the world that John, the author, is living in, and the world his audience is living in. He is not writing to 21st Century United States. He is writing it to 1st Century Christians who face constant threats of suffering and injustice due to the overwhelming imperialistic power of Rome. So the fear and insecurity that was shaken within all of us on Monday afternoon as we learned about the bombings in Boston. That was an everyday reality for them. For us, we have the luxury of forgetfulness. I mean, that’s why it is still shocking to us. Because we forget about Newtown. We forget about Aurora, Colorado. We forget about 9/11 and Oklahoma City. But they could never forget. Because the threat of violence was constant.

And so John is writing to these churches pastorally. Knowing the struggles that they are going through as a community of faith under the Roman regime. But again, what is it that he is writing. Is it a prediction and a play-by-play of how the world is going to end? Is it hidden clues about when Jesus is going to come back so that we can all be ready for it? I think that’s how most of society has been taught to understand the letter of Revelation. But I think something else is going on here. I think John is trying to tell his people (and us) something, but I don’t think it is about how the world is going to end.

Sure, there are scary and confusing symbols in the letter of Revelation, including seven-headed beasts, horses of all different colors, dragons, lakes of fire, and seven frightening plagues. But if we can carve our way through some of the confusion and strange imagery, we will find a letter of eternal hope for those living in hopelessness.

This is a letter not about the end of the world but about the end of suffering. It is about the end of the powerful crushing the powerless. It is about the end of bullying, and a life of fear. It is about the end of hunger and the end of thirst. It’s about the end of tears. For all tears will, in the end, be wiped away. What good news. But perhaps most importantly, I think, it is about the end of the walls that we build between ourselves.

Did you hear the beginning of Revelation reading today? Today we parachute down into chapter 7, where John writes, “After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.”

In the throne room of God, there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.

Numbers are very important to John and the letter of Revelation. Numbers are all over the place. John is a numbers guy. He is the one who counts everything. He’d make a good treasurer. Revelation is written to seven churches. In his vision of the risen Jesus, there are seven golden lampstands and seven stars. There were twenty-four elders in the throne room, beside four living creatures. The beast has seven heads. John even talks about 12,000 people from each of the 12 tribes of Israel. Numbers, numbers, numbers. They are all over the letter of Revelation.

But then…suddenly, John, the one who loves to count. The one who counts everything, enters the throne room of God, and the number of people who were there was so great that no one could ever count it. And it wasn’t just people. It was people of every nation, from all tribes and languages. This is a cross-cultural experience. People of all tribes and all nations. Which means the people who don’t speak the same language, who do not look the same will be standing side-by-side. If Revelation is about the end of something, it is about the end of the walls between us. That is God’s end game.

And then John is asked by one of the elders, “Who are these people and where have they come from?” I love that question. I mean, Heaven, just like the United States is going to have an immigration problem! I mean they don’t know who these people are or where they are coming from? We seem so concerned with keeping people out, whereas the throne room of God is about letting people in. Letting people in…especially, as the text say, the ones who have come out of the great ordeal. Meaning, the ones who have come out of great suffering. That is who fills the throne room of God. The broken and the outcast. The marginalized.

If I am reading this text in a helpful way, this is a text about inclusivity, rather than exclusivity. It seems to me that the way of Jesus and the way of God is to always make the circle bigger. Inviting more and more people into the fold.

So, now, even though the letter of Revelation was not written to us, I think it can still have meaning for us. It can still be the word of God to us. But we have to be willing to ask: in light of this text, how then am I going to live my life today?

If the throne room of God includes people of every nation, every tribe, of all languages. If the throne room of God tears down the walls that exists between humanity, than why should we wait any longer? If that is the hoped for future that John the prophet sees and shares with us, why should we wait until the end of days? Let’s begin tearing down the walls between us now. If that is God’s end game, let’s do it now. Let’s tear down the walls regarding races and people of different countries. Let’s tear down the walls regarding people of different religions. Let’s tear down the walls regarding people of different sexual orientation. Let’s bring about heaven here on earth.

Now this is a notoriously difficult and long struggle that demands courage, persistence, patience, and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Because it seems to me that we are hardwired to build walls and exclude others.

I heard a story a couple of weeks ago that left me feeling very, very sad. My 5-year-old niece came home from kindergarten and told her mom that kids at school were making fun of Shawana. Why? Because she smells different. Because she comes from a culture where what smells good to them, does not smell good to us. And what amazes me, is that I think…I think…when all of us hear that, it sounds wrong, doesn’t it? 5-year olds shouldn’t be doing that to 5- year-olds. And yet it happens among those of us who are adults. I hear the same kind of comments coming from adults. I hear comments that say, “This person is different than me. They don’t look like me. They don’t speak like I speak. They don’t act like I act. Therefore, I am going to build a wall between myself and them.” Why doesn’t it break our hearts when it happens among adults? We ask our children to be inclusive and respectful of everyone but then us adults are some of the worst offenders.

There was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.

This is God’s end game that you and I get to participate in and promote. So let’s live like that now. It’s not like we don’t have the capacity for it. One of the most amazing things that happens after a terrible disaster like Boston, is stories start coming out about how people cared for one another in the midst of the disaster. Strangers opening up their apartments to other strangers. People bringing down food and drink for people in need. When disaster strikes, people no longer care what you look like, what language you speak, or how you smell. People were like little Christs to one another. That’s what Martin Luther thinks we are called to be – Little Christ’s in the world.

So what would it be like for you to be a little Christ to the world? What would it look like to shepherd people into inclusivity? What would happen if you gave up all desire to exclude people in your life?

At the coffee shop where I write many of my sermons, above the door way it says, ‘God be with you.” That is an inclusive blessing because it excludes no one. It doesn’t matter who walks through that door, the blessing is theirs. God be with you.

Make the circle of your life bigger. Let’s you and I try to offer that blessing – God be with you – to all the people we encounter this week. No matter what country they are from. What language they speak. No matter what we might assume about their life based on the way they act or the way they dress. Let’s just try it. Try to let more people into our life. To give up the desire to exclude anyone. Tearing down the walls we have built up, that shelter us from people on the outside. I am willing to bet that if we do, our life will be brighter and along the way, we will encounter the spirit of God.

William Sloan Coffin, a famous preacher, once wrote – we are all young and in need of growing up. I think he is right. Because so often, I think we are still a group of kindergarteners who are excluding each other. When will it stop? We learn in Revelation that it stops at heaven’s gate. But why wait until then? May we bring about heaven here on earth. And may God be with you. AMEN

Sunday, March 31st, 2013 – Easter Sermon on Luke 24:1-12

Luke 24:1-12

Did you hear? Did you hear how our gospel reading for today began? But on the first day of the week. But. But on the first day of the week. The first words of todays gospel assumes that which has gone before it. But on the first day of the week. But what?

That word. But. It’s a powerful word. In fact, a friend of mine has helped me to get a deeper understanding of this word. You see the power in that word is that it cancels out everything that went before it. It can ruin everything that has been said before it. It can mean bad news is coming. And we know this.

Honey, I love you…but….I’ve met someone else.

I’m sorry I did that…but…you started it.

Your heart is in good shape…but…your kidneys are in trouble.

While that word can means bad news, it can also mean good news. It can undo everything that has happened prior to that word. It can reverse what we think is an unfortunate future. And what welcome news that can be…

There was a car accident…but…everyone is okay.

I never thought I could get pregnant…but…it happened.

They said school wouldn’t be closed…but…it is!

The word ‘but’ can be the bearer of either good or bad news and in order to know you have to know the context.  You have to know what immediately precedes it.  For today’s reading, just before our text, Jesus was buried in a tomb. And then the very next word is but, and suddenly it all is called into question. Jesus was laid in a tomb…BUT…when they went there at early dawn, taking spices to anoint his body, they found the stone of the tomb had been rolled away.

And suddenly, everything that had happened prior begins to dissolve away. Early in the morning, they enter tomb to discover that there is nobody there. As in…no body…there. Until there was. Two of them. Bodies, that is. Two men in dazzling white robes suddenly standing beside them.

And from their lips comes a question: Why do you look for the living among the dead? And there it is. The word they had wondered about, but hadn’t said yet. Living. Living. Is it true? Could Jesus be…alive? The truth is they weren’t looking for the living among the dead. They were looking for the dead among the dead. Until they saw that tomb all empty and hollow.

Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.

Remember how he told you. And they remembered. And then they told it. To the eleven disciples and anyone else they could. And if you’ve forgotten who the “they” is in this story, here is where you get your reminder. It’s women. All women. Mary Magdelene, Joanna, Mary the mother of Jesus, and the other women. That makes at least 5 women in all. This was quite literally the first ever church ladies group. And it isn’t incredible that women who are not mentioned nearly as much in the Bible are the first to bring us the good news to the resurrection.

But this news about the resurrection. This news about the one who is now living. It didn’t land so well. The women went and they told the other disciples and all the people in their community.They told their friends and their family. Their neighbor. The one who watches their kids on Tuesday mornings. And no one believed them. You see everyone thought it was an idle tale. Which…is a nice way of putting it. Or should I say a nice way of translating it.

The greek word there is leros. Say it with me now….leros!.

Shhhh….you can’t say that in church. You see “an idle tale” is the g-rated version of what the disciples thought about the resurrection. It’s the Disney version. The real word stinks a little more.  Leros means garbage. Lunacy. Dribble. Or more fully…manure.

The women come to tell everyone they know this good news and they respond by saying, “No way. You must be crazy because that is garbage. Lunacy. That is….” Well. You get the point.

No one believes the resurrection. Not at first any ways.

And so if you are here on Easter Sunday perhaps with a little bit of protest, because you are not much of a church goer because it just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Or even if you are some one who comes to church every Sunday and you still don’t know if you believe in the resurrection, then I have good news for you. You are not alone. Because the disciples didn’t believe in it either. At least not at first.

Which means even for the most faithful people – Jesus’ followers – doubt and faith go hand in hand. They are woven closely together. Two sides of the same coin.

Which is good news for us…because who can believe in the resurrection? It’s easy to believe in a soul leaving a body and softly and beautifully floating up to the heavens. That’s easy to believe in. Most of us do. But resurrection? It wasn’t just Jesus’ soul that was missing from the tomb. It was his body. This is crazy stuff. And then, on top of that, we forget that the Apostle Paul says that if we have a death like Jesus’. Then surely we will have a resurrection like Jesus’.

In fact, I was just having this conversation with a woman this past week and when I told her that it isn’t just our souls that are brought into the arms of God but our whole bodies. She gave me a look that just about said, “Leros!”

I know it sounds crazy, but as Christians we don’t just believe in the immortality of the soul. No, we believe in resurrection. Which includes the body. Your body. And mine. And that’s the part that’s even harder to believe about today. That today, Easter Sunday, has just as much to do about you and I as it does about Jesus. Because it is today that you and I are promised a resurrection like Jesus’. That is our bodies. Not just our souls.

And it sounds crazy. It does sound crazy. It sounds like leros. But truth be told, more recently, it’s started to sound less crazy to me. You see someone once gave an understanding of the resurrection that I had never heard before. Why the resurrection? Because God loves bodies. Not just souls. (Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World)

And that’s good news. Because our bodies matter. They matter to us. And they matter to God.

For it was the birthmark in my wife’s left eye, in her very body, that I first fell in love with.

For it was the body of a loved one who embraced you at the death of your loved one.

For it was your body and your lover’s that created that little body that sits beside you.

For it is the bodies of homeless men that the hospitality house provides shelter.

For it is with our bodies, our very hands that we offer peace to one another over and over again.

Why the resurrection? Because God loves bodies. This is why God has given us bread and wine and blessed foreheads as the means of God’s grace. Because they are things we can feel with our bodies. Sometimes the only way to the soul of someone is through their body.

So whatever today is about, know that this resurrection has just as much to do with you as it does with Jesus. Why? Because God loves bodies. And God loves your body. So much so that whenever it is that your light of life grows dim and goes out, God will welcome you. All of you. Not just your soul but your body too, into the arms of God that won’t ever let you go. Not then. Not now.

As you can see, this is something that is so out there. It is so out there. So unbelievable that, like Mary and the other women, the people closest to us will not believe us. So don’t ask me how it works – this resurrection thing. Don’t ask me to prove it to you. Don’t ask me to explain it. Because I can’t. Most of the time it just sounds like leros, garbage. A lie. But…it also sounds like the greatest news we can hear. That God would love all of us. Not just our souls. But our bodies too. Amen