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.

Sunday, March 19th, 2017 – Sermon on John 4:1-42

You can listen to this sermon here.

John 4:5-42
Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard, “Jesus is making and baptizing more disciples than John” 2—although it was not Jesus himself but his disciples who baptized— 3he left Judea and started back to Galilee.

4But he had to go through Samaria.

5 So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6 Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. 7 A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” 8 (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) 9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) 10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” 11 The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12 Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” 13 Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14 but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” 15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” 17 The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, “I have no husband’; 18 for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” 19 The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” 21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” 25 The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” 26 Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.” 27 Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” 28 Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, 29 “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” 30 They left the city and were on their way to him. 31 Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” 32 But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” 33 So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?” 34 Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. 35 Do you not say, “Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. 36 The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. 37 For here the saying holds true, “One sows and another reaps.’ 38 I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.” 39 Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” 40 So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. 41 And many more believed because of his word. 42 They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”

Sermon

Earlier this week, I went to China buffet with a friend. And let me just say, I love China Buffet. I love it. Chinese food is my favorite, and going to China Buffet is like having all the food, right at your fingertips. And of course you can’t pick just one thing. No – you crowd your plate full of fried rice, and noodles, and six different kinds of chicken, a cream cheese wonton or two.

I realize this is might be the worst preaching analogy ever, but I realized this week that the way I feel about preaching on our gospel reading is the exact same way I feel when I’m at the China buffet. There are so many options of goodness in it that I can’t just decide on one thing, when in fact I just want to taste and share it all. Because this text has become this gushing well of wisdom and grace for me this week and all I feel I can do this morning is invite you into the parts the fed me in hopes that they might do the same for you too.

So, this sermon, like my plate at the china buffet, might feel a little crowded. But hopefully you can find something in it that feeds your soul.

Now, before we start at the china buffet, you have to go to the beginning to pick up some tools that will help you, like a plate, and fork and spoon. This morning we need some tools too. Back at the very beginning of John’s gospel we heard this – In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… And the Word became flesh and lived among us… full of grace and truth.

The Word of God became flesh in Jesus and lived among us – which tells us where God lives, among us. And the Word of God comes full of grace and truth. Which is to say that there isn’t room for anything else. And it says that both come hand in hand – grace and truth. One without the other won’t do. If Jesus comes with grace – God’s unconditional love that is for you and for all forever – but doesn’t know the truth of your life, well that only sounds syrupy sweet.

A couple of years ago, a preacher I know was guest preaching at a church. Afterwards, a congregation member said to him, “That was really nice what you said about God. But if God knew who I really was, God couldn’t love me.” All she heard that day was that God loved her. She didn’t hear that God actually knew her, and the truth of her life and still loved her.

Okay, so God comes in grace and truth. The next thing we need to be reminded of is those famous words we heard last week, in Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus – For God so loved the world.

With those things in mind, let’s dive into the text.

The first thing that stood out to me were the words: Jesus left Judea and started toward Galilee but Jesus had to go through Samaria.

Jesus is traveling from Jerusalem to Galilee and it says he had to go through Samaria. Now, you might remember that Samaria was a no-go area for Jews. Samaria was the place of the Other. Those people. In fact, Jews and Samaritans hated each other. They read different scriptures; they worship God in different places – Jews in a temple, Samaritans on a mountain. Now, geographically, if you look at a map, Jesus didn’t have to go through Samaria to get to Galilee. He could’ve gone around it. In fact, that’s what most of the Jews did, so that they wouldn’t come into contact with the Samaritans and become unclean. But then why does it say he had to go through there?

Because it isn’t a geographical need, it is a theological need. Jesus had to go to Samaria – the place of the other, the place of the enemy – because for God so loved the world.

So let me ask you, have you ever avoided something in your life? Taken the long way around so that you didn’t have to confront it. Or maybe it wasn’t something you were avoiding, but someone. Maybe it was a co-worker or a spouse or a friend. And you get really creative about how you’ll avoid that person so that it doesn’t look like you’re avoiding them. But then there is that moment when a voice in side says, “It’s time I cannot avoid this any longer.” Perhaps that is the voice of God at work in your life.

Jesus had to go through Samaria. He couldn’t avoid it any longer. Because God so loved the world. That is the truth. But Jesus in grace and truth. The grace, the love, is that he actually goes there.

And when he gets there, Jesus meets a Samaritan woman at a well at noon. And even more boundaries are broken. Not only is this a Jew interacting with a Samaritan but it is a man interacting with a woman. And it isn’t just any well that they meet at – it is Jacob’s well. Jacob from the Old Testament – Jacob who is part of Jesus’ history and lineage, Jacob who is part of the Samaritans’ history and ancestry. Sometimes when you go through the land of the other, you find part of yourself there. And that you are not so different.

These two people, whose culture and religion says that they should have nothing to do with each other, in the end, they are long lost cousins. Meeting at their ancestor, Jacob’s, well.

Now, Jesus meets this woman at the noon. She has come to the well with her jar at the hottest time of the day when no one in their right mind would go to fetch some water. Everyone else would come in the morning. So all we know is that she is a loner. An outcast. She’s an outcast of the outcasts. This burdensome task of fetching water is even more burdensome because she has to do it alone and it reminds her every day of her status and that she is powerless to the world. And the woman has no name. She has no name.

Sometimes we only identify people by what they’ve done in their life or by what has been done to them. Rather than actually knowing them. By their name.

Let’s give her a name. Someone call out a name for her.

(First service gave her the name Hope; Second service gave her the name Sarah.)

So Jesus meets Hope, who should be an enemy and out outcast to him, but really we learn their family. And he asks her for a drink. Which is just remarkable. Jesus comes in need to the outcast, to the marginalized and says, “You have something I need.” He empowers the powerless. Which is to say God is dependent upon the people that society casts aside. God needs the people we would prefer to go around.

How the world would change if we could see each person as bringing something crucial to this world.

Then they go back and forth a bit about water and how Jesus has a different kind of water to offer her –and Hope snarks back at him a bit, “What are you talking about, crazy man? You’ve got no bucket, where are you going to get this so-called living water you speak of.” And then Jesus says that his water isn’t anything you drink from a well, because that water will only quench your thirst for so long. Jesus’ water will make your whole life spring with water to eternal life. Eternal life in the gospel of John isn’t so much about life after death as it is about new life before death. It’s about new life now. Hope isn’t worried about heaven. She’s worried about her life now. Give me new life now!

And notice what Hope says, “Lord, give me this water so that I will never be thirsty again, or so that I will never have to come back to this place again. This place that I come to alone every day.”

And then Jesus gets really real with her. “Go and tell your husband.” It feels like it’s out of nowhere when in fact it is right on the pulse of her life. “I have no husband she says.”

“You’re right, you’ve had five. And the one you are with now isn’t your husband.”

Now, for too long the church has assumed that we know what’s going on here. That this woman is promiscuous and sinful and Jesus is graciously forgiving her. But the text says nothing about that – all it says is that she has had five husbands and now is with someone who isn’t her husband. Which more likely means that she’s been abandoned five times or widowed five times, and the one she’s with won’t give her the security of marriage. This is not a scandalous story, it’s a tragic one. And the real sin here is the sin of the culture that marginalizes her for such a tragic life.

And perhaps for the first time, someone sees the truth about her life. Jesus comes in grace and truth. And the grace she experiences is that, unlike the rest of her community, Jesus doesn’t let that truth create distance between them.

Hope sees that something is special about him, she then asks the religious question that divides them – we worship God on the mountain, you worship God in the temple. In essence, she’s saying, “Where is God? Where is God to be found?”

And Jesus says, “Hope, neither on a mountain nor in a temple.” Which is to say, God is on the loose. Remember, the Word became flesh and lived among us. The Word didn’t become flesh and live in a building. Or live above us. But among us. Full of grace and truth.

We don’t come to church just to find God here, but we come to church to be reminded that God is already out there. Among you!

Jesus says, “Hope, I AM.” Which is the name of God spoken to Moses at the burning bush.” Jesus is saying, “God is standing right in front of you.”

That God would choose to stand with this woman. This woman who has been cast aside her whole life. That God would choose to even need something from this woman. That…that is like having a gush of water spring up in your life.

Jesus had to go through Samaria. Jesus had to visit Hope, because God so loves the world. And to love the world, God in Jesus brings the two things the world needs most – grace and truth. I know you. I really know you and your life. And I love you.

With that kind of a promise, Hope suddenly has the courage and the confidence to go back into her community that has rejected her, and notice that she left behind her jar. A symbol of her old life. With the well of living water gushing inside her, she didn’t need that jar anymore.

What’s the jar in your old life that you need to leave behind?

She returns home and she says to her people, “Come and see the man who told me everything about my life.” They’ve excluded her from their lives but she includes them in the life of God. And those words, “Come and see”? Those are Jesus’ words when he calls his disciples in the gospel of John.

This unnamed Samaritan woman, who at the beginning of the story was a nobody, at the end of the story becomes not only a disciple of Jesus but perhaps one of his first missionary. Let’s never underestimate someone and the way God can work in their life.

And it is because of her witness that her people the Samaritans proclaim in the end, “We know that this is truly the Savior of the World.” That’s the only time in the gospel of John the word Savior is used. And it comes out of the mouth of the Samaritans. Let’s never underestimate the way God can be at work outside our own religious traditions.

Jesus comes to heal the breaches, the places where we have become divided in this world, with grace and truth.

If you, like Hope, this Samaritan Woman, want to know where to find God, look for the places in your life where grace and truth are colliding. Where people know you and love you. And look for the places where your boundaries are being stretched. Where you are being invited to go through your own Samaria – to bring with you grace and truth – to really know someone and to love them. It will be hard. Your friends will criticize you. But God will meet you there.

That’s all I have on my plate.

And if there is anything of God in the words that have been spoken, may they feed you and bring you to new life. Amen.

Sunday, March 12th, 2017 – Sermon on Nicodemus and John 3(1-17)

You can listen to this sermon here.

John 3:1-17
1 Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2 He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.’ 8 The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? 11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

Barbara Brown Taylor is an Episcopal Priest, a college professor, and New York Times Best Selling author. Some of you, I know, are familiar with her work.

But to those of us who regularly have to stand up on Sunday morning in search of some Gospel Medicine to prescribe to this waiting room, if you will, full of people, she is the Patron Saint of Preachers. Mostly because she consistently performs what can only be called Homiletical Healings – or sermon miracles. If, late into the week, you pray to her, and by pray I mean google her name plus this week’s gospel text, you just might be blessed with a quotable sermon on the very text you are preaching on – and poof, your sermon is saved, healed, resurrected.

This week, I didn’t find a sermon of hers but I was reminded of her most recent book – Learning to Walk in the Dark.

Learning to walk in the dark – it is her current metaphor for what it is like to be a person of faith right now, but it is also her effort to redeem what the world, and especially the church, has demonized – the darkness.

So often we have associated light with all the good things – and darkness with all the bad and dangerous things.

But can’t God work in the nighttime? she asks. Can’t God teach us things in the dark? In fact, I know people who will only go to church during Lent and on Good Friday (which could be described as some of the darkest services in the church year) because it is the only time in the church year when the mood and the minor key worship mirrors what’s inside their life and their heart. There is a reason why some wouldn’t miss a Wednesday evening vespers service – there is just something life-giving and soul-saving about worshipping in the dark.

Then why have we demonized it so? And how is this polarity between light and darkness infecting our conversations around race in this country?

It is easy to see how the church has fallen into this ditch of equating light with good and darkness with bad. Jesus is the light of the world. A light no darkness could overcome, John’s gospel tells us. Or in the First John – God is light and in God there is no darkness at all.

But while those parts of Scripture are true and vital to the gospel – the opposite is also true. God dwells in darkness. And too often we’ve missed or ignored those texts when darkness was God’s preferred stage. God makes God’s covenant with Abraham in the dark of night. Jacob wrestles with God and receives not only a new name, but also a blessing from God at night. When Moses climbs Mt. Sinai and when Jesus is transfigured on top of a mountain, God comes to both of them in a dense cloud.

And then there is today’s gospel text with Nicodemus. Or Nic at Night, as my childhood pastor used to always call it. Did you catch that? That this whole scene happens at night and under the cover of darkness. It’s easy to miss with the light of these All-Star Scripture verses blinding our eyes – “Truly, I tell you,” Jesus says, “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Or “born again” as some texts translate it – creating the verse for the born-again movement. And then the most famous of all – For God so loved the world, the God gave God’s only Son, so that whoever believes in him may not perish, but may have eternal life.”

 I don’t know about you, but these infamous verses generate more anxiety in me than they do comfort. I know that might be a strange thing to hear from your pastor. They are so critical to Christian history and tradition and yet I just don’t know that I understand them. How do I get born again Jesus? And how will I know it’s happened? Where is your verbal emphasis in John 3:16? Is it: For God so loved the world, the God gave God’s only Son, so that whoever believes in him may not perish, but may have eternal life.”

Or is it: For God so loved the world, the God gave God’s only Son.

Which is it, Jesus? Because it matters.

So, I just don’t know that I get them. I’m in the dark, you might say. But then again, so are they. Spoken at nighttime to a man who doesn’t get them either. With Nicodemus, we are not alone, but are in good company.

 How easy it is to forget that these words were spoken to Nicodemus at nighttime and in the dark.

Now, some will peg Nicodemus as the religious elite who is only there to condescend this uneducated peasant Jew. Meanwhile, others will swing to the other side and simply paint him as the dolt who just doesn’t get it. But is there another way to see Nicodemus? Could we see him as a man who is desperately learning to walk in the dark?

More often than not, if we are leaving the comfort of home at night, it’s because we are desperate for something.

When do you bring a child to the ER in the middle of the night? Only when you are desperately afraid that the fever is too high and won’t break.

When do you drive across town and tap on your high school girlfriends window at 1am, risking not only looking like a neighborhood burglar but also running into her parents? Only if you are desperate to know if she will still be your girlfriend in the morning after the fight you just had.

And that’s how I see Nicodemus – as someone who is desperate. The lights of everything he has worked for and everything he thought he knew in his life have gone out. The things he once relied on are no longer reliable. His compass is spinning, he’s lost his way and all he can do is use his hands and his feet to steady himself and find a path forward.

If you are like me, when you are desperate, you think you need more information, more resources, more answers. Something you can master and learn and perfect and get a good grade on and then stand upon having conquered it, just like you did before with the thing that just crumbled beneath your feet. Nicodemus is no different, I think. He is looking for answers. Why else would he call Jesus “Rabbi, teacher,” if he weren’t looking to gain something, receive something from him, something that will fit that huge, oddly shaped hole in his life that has opened up.

Standing in the dark, Nicodemus is looking to be enlightened by Jesus. But what he doesn’t understand quite yet is that isn’t the kind of teacher Jesus is. Jesus isn’t The kind of teacher who, when asked a question, gives a straight answer.

Barbara Brown Taylor suggests that while Nicodemus has come to be enlightened by Jesus but perhaps that is not Jesus’ purpose. Instead, Jesus has come to endarken him so that he loses all confidence in his ability to master the subject matter, all ability to achieve anything, and was driven instead into the arms of the Spirit.”

Nicodemus wants Jesus to give him something. And in the end Jesus takes something from him instead. “Nicodemus, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above… Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit  You must be born from above.’ 8 The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9 And Nicodemus stands there with his jaw on the floor and all he can say is, “How can these things be?”

Nicodemus got nothing of what he was looking for and he left with less knowledge than he had when he arrived. More questions, fewer answers. And perhaps that is the gift. For him and for us.

That’s what being born again, born anew, born from above does after all. It takes something from you.

To be born again is to become an infant child. It is to have everything you think you know taken away from you. Nicodemus, this elite Pharisee and leader, thought he knew all the rules about how God works. But Jesus said to him, Nicodemus, The wind, the Spirit, blows where is chooses. You do not know where it comes from or where it goes. You do not know, Nicodemus. To be born again, to be a child in need is to have your precious and hard-earned independence and knowledge of how you think this world and God work taken away from you. In its place, to be born again is to be given only one thing – the promise that you are held close to the bosom be held and taken care of by the One, the Creator, the Spirit of God who loves you and the entire world.

Nicodemus came at night. Standing in the dark, knocking on Jesus’ door. To quote civil right activist, Valerie Kaur, “Perhaps this darkness is not the darkness of a tomb – but the darkness of a womb.”

Which means God is a birthing mother – both not ready to let you go, for you are like her very own heart, beating twice as fast as her own, and to let you go, to give you to the world would be like giving up a piece of the puzzle that makes her complete. And at the same time, she is so ready to send you out into the world. Because things can’t stay as they are, and the world will be better off with you than without you.

Perhaps this darkness is the darkness of the womb.

The problem with Jesus is he tends to give us the opposite of what we want, because he knows better of what we need. When we want to wield revenge, he puts the weapon of forgiveness in our hands. When we want peace and comfort, he disturbs us with and calls us to the needs of our neighbors. When we want the joy and power of trusting in ourselves and our ability to make it on our own, he puts us back in to the dark womb of God so that we can be stripped of everything we thought we knew and trust solely on the love and care of God our Mother, and then to be sent back out into the world once again.

Perhaps we have gotten the famous texts wrong. These texts that have been used to get us to know something, to give us something  – the right way to be and become a Christian, or the path to salvation and a ticket into Heaven through believing in Jesus. But what if they aren’t meant to get us to know or understand anything but instead are designed to blow all of our circuits and scramble our hard drives of everything we think we know about God and about the world, and as a result, send us rushing back into the arms of God who not only bears you, but bears with you, over and over and over again.

If Nicodemus is the creature who needs to be born, all he needs to do, all he can do, is wait – while someone else, the Someone Else, bears him. Bears with him.

Did Nicodemus ever figure it out? Was he ever born from above? The Scriptures don’t say. All we know is that the day Jesus died on the cross while still in love with this world, Nicodemus was there too to take his body down. And he had with him one hundred pounds of anointing oil for Jesus’ body. One hundred pounds, when two pounds would have done just fine. Did it make any sense? No, it didn’t make any sense at all. But when you’ve learned to walk in the dark, you find your way with your hands and your heart and not just your head. Sure, thoughtful reason might tell you that two pounds of anointing oil would be enough. But your swelling heart knows only the love that has been given to you by the One that has given birth to you.

And for that?

Two pounds is not nearly enough.

Amen.

Sunday, February 26th – Sermon on Matthew 17(1-9)

You can listen to this sermon here.

Matthew 17:1-9
1 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. 2 And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. 3 Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 5 While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said. “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” 6 When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7 But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” 8 And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. 9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

Come, Holy Spirit, our souls inspire, and lighten us with your celestial fire. For if you are with us then nothing else matters. And if you are not with us, then nothing else matters. We pray this in the name of your beloved. Amen.[1]

Well, it was family movie night again. Disney’s Tangled this week. That’s the one about Rapunzel and her long hair. Rapunzel who was taken from her royal parents, the King and Queen, when she was a young child and held in a high tower away from the world by Mother Gothel. Mother Gothel, who only want Rapunzel for her hair and its ability to keep Mother Gothel young and beautiful forever.

Rapunzel’s parents are obviously distraught and grief-stricken. Every year on Rapunzel’s birth day, the whole town releases lanterns into the evening sky  – this beautiful but also brutal memory of the long lost princess. This symbol of memorial but also a sliver of hope. Rapunzel grows up in this tower, watching those lanterns in the sky every year on her birthday, never knowing who she really is – the long lost princess. Never knowing that those lanterns of light were for her. The film is of course filled with the tension of will she or won’t she be released from the prison tower and reunited with her parents.

My son, Elliot, is the kind of kid who he feels that tension, that uncertainty with his whole body. In fact, about three quarters of the way through the movie, with a hesitant fear and trembling in his voice and tears right on the edge of dropping to his cheeks, he asks the question we all ask – what’s gonna happen? When is she going to be with her parents again? Mom, Dad, can we just fast-forward to the part of where she sees her parents again?

And what do you do? We wrap him up in our arms and we say, “Honey, it’s gonna be okay. It’s gonna be okay.”

But this weekend, as we comforted our child, I had a moment where I wondered – am I telling the truth? It’s gonna be okay. Is that true? I mean, sure, for the movie, of course it’s true. But on a bigger level – am I lying to my child?

Later, I remembered that this is the exact question that Peter Berger, a professor of sociology and religion, asks. Berger describes a child crying out in terror in the middle of the night, having had a nightmare. What does the mother do? She gets up, she rushes down to the child’s room, she sits on the bed and she holds that child as close as she can, and she says, “Oh honey, don’t be afraid. Everything is alright.”

And Berger asks, “Is she lying to the child? Does she not know what kind of world we live in? Does she not know that both of them will die? How dare she say everything is alright!”

No, says Berger, she’s not lying. She’s confessing her faith. That despite it all, she and her child are floating on a sea of grace.[2]

I’ve start to wonder if this odd story of Jesus’ transfiguration, which comes about three fourths into the story, is the gospel writer’s way of putting his arm around the reader and saying, “Honey, do not be afraid. Everything is gonna be okay.”

Why do I think that?

Because everything is not okay.

Not yet anyways.

Liturgically, we’ve leapt off the mountain top of the sermon on the mount from the past few weeks and landed down about 12 chapters later here on another mountain top. The mountain of Jesus’ transfiguration. This incredible story of light bursting forth from Jesus in the presence of Moses and Elijah who have been dead for quite some time, and Peter, James, and John who are just stunned by the whole thing. And then this moment of God surrounding them all in a bright cloud, and speaking once again the promise we heard at Jesus’ baptism, “This is my Son, my beloved. With him, I am well pleased. Listen to him.”

It is this unbelievable story that defies explanation but begs for meaning and understanding. Taken in isolation and on its own, all it seems like is a pretty cool magic trick that leaves our hearts and our hands empty. But taken in context, it just might be our very salvation. And what’s the context? Everything is not okay.

Since Jesus’ sermon on the mount, things have only gone downhill. As one scholar has put it, “Jesus has been labeled a blasphemer, accused of demon possession, doubted by his friend and colleague in kingdom work John the Baptist, rejected by his hometown to the point that he stopped doing ministry there, resisted by the very people he came to serve and save, and is the subject of murder plots that will, of course, finally be successful.”[3] Things just aren’t going as we imagined. In fact, just a few verses earlier, Jesus has just told his disciples that he would soon suffer and be crucified and raised from the dead and that they too are called to take up their cross and follow him. This was so off the plowed path that the disciples saw for their life that Peter stood up to Jesus and proclaimed, “God forbid this from ever happening to you.”

You can almost hear the reader wonder: what’s gonna happen? When’s Jesus gonna be raised from the dead? Mom, Dad, can we just skip ahead to that part?

 Everything is not okay.

Because of this stark contrast between what has been happening down the mountain and what happens up the mountain, some scholars are led to believe that this transfiguration story is misplaced. Sort of like an ancient spoiler alert to the end of the story, this passage, some say, was originally a resurrection story that belongs somewhere after Easter, and that it had somehow been mistakenly placed too early in the gospel.

But preacher and theologian Tom Long suggests while that may be true, that it doesn’t matter. Sure, the placement of this story could be historically inaccurate, but theologically, the placement of this story is spot on. That right in the midst of this dark and dreary world, when things don’t seem to be going as planned, Jesus shines with the glory of God and we are reminded of who Jesus really is.

In this beautiful and spooky collision of light but also clouds we are reminded of those claiming and identity defining words spoken over Jesus in his baptism – This is my Son, my beloved; with him I am well pleased.

Just as the darkness of death looms and the doubts of whether Jesus really is the one we’ve been waiting for darken the minds of the disciples (us included), we get to peak through the keyhole of the locked door to the future, to see who Jesus really is. Is Jesus a failed Messiah? Did we back the wrong horse? No, this really is my Son, the voice from the cloud says. Listen to him.

At the moment when Jesus and his life is the most disfigured from what we imagined it would be, Jesus is transfigured before our eyes so that we might not forget who he has been since the beginning. In the midst of what looks like suffering and death, this is a gripping promise of hope. Oh honey, don’t be afraid. Everything is alright, Jesus whispers to his disciples.

But there’s more. If in Jesus’ transfiguration we see who he really is, perhaps we see ourselves and others for real too. This story suddenly becomes just as much about the reader as it is about Jesus. You see, Matthew’s community was in the middle of living through its own crisis. They were likely a group of Jewish Christians who have just been kicked out of their home synagogue, their home church, for believing in this suffering Messiah named Jesus. People whose lives have just been turned up side-down and who are figuring out how to live into this new reality. People who need to see themselves not based on their present circumstance, but to be seen as they were from the very beginning and as they will be in God’s future – as God’s beloved. Made in the image of God. Full of light.

Oh honey, don’t be afraid. Everything is alright, Matthew whispers to his readers.

When your life is falling apart, do you ever need a reminder of who you really are? Who you are beneath everything else. Do you ever wish those around, those whose lives are living breathing collateral damage of whatever mess is happening in your life, do you ever wish they could see you that way too? Who you really are, who you’ve always been since the beginning? And who you hope to be in the future?

A couple of years ago, I heard a story about two kids, Charlie and David, who were not getting along at school. In fact, Charlie and David used to be friends, but now Charlie was bullying David at school. Typically, what happens in this situation is that Charlie is punished for such unacceptable behavior and acting out. But this particular school was trying a new approach to these situations. It’s called Restorative Conferencing. Both parties are brought together along with their parents in for a conference about what has happened. Each person shares the problem as they see it and the effect it has had on them. Together they decide on a consequence for the youth.

But before that happens there is this crucial step that I just marvel at. The mediator asks the group to acknowledge that the problem and the problem story is not the whole story. In this particular situation, the mediator asked this question, “Is this who Charlie has always been? Has this always been his story – being a bully?” And as soon as that question was asked, something soften in David’s mother, who’d known Charlie for a long time. With a heartfelt sigh, she said, “No, that’s not who Charlie has always been. From the very beginning, I’ve known Charlie to be a loving, kind friend to my son, David. Not a bully.” And suddenly, in that moment, Charlie was transfigured in her eyes. Seen for who he has always been since the beginning and not for who he was in that moment. From there, the mediator asked the groups, including Charlie, which story they would like to live out of going forward.

Maybe that’s what it looks like to live out the Transfiguration. Perhaps as Christians, we are called to live this life with Transfiguration lenses. Ones that let you see yourself and others as they were in the beginning and as they really are today, and as they will be in the end – as God’s beloved. Made in the image of God. Full of light.

I don’t know if you are on a mountain top moment of life right now or if you are in the valley of despair or on some incline or decline in-between. But I think this transfiguration story is for us all and we are to carry it with us. In the eyes of God, there is more to you and everyone else, more to your life and the lives of every person than the present circumstances. Whether you can see it or not, you are a child of God, beloved and held in the arms of God, surrounded by a cloud of grace. Full of light.

Do not be afraid. Everything is gonna be okay.

Is this a lie? No. I don’t believe it is. Amen.

__________

[1] This is a prayer that Barbara Brown Taylor regularly prays before preaching.

[2] As told by Tom Long, here: http://www.luthersem.edu/celebration/archives.aspx?m=6158

[3] Tom Long, Whispering the Lyrics, pg. 26.

Sunday, February 12, 2017 -Sermon on Deuteronomy 30 and Matthew 5

You can listen to this sermon here.

Deuteronomy 30:15-20
15 See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. 16 If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. 17 But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, 18 I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. 19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, 20 loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.

Matthew 5:21-37
21 “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder’; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. 23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. 26 Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny. 27 “You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell. 31 “It was also said, “Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. 33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ 34 But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 Let your word be “Yes, Yes’ or “No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.

Well, happy Valentine’s day week. Nothing screams love and affection quite like a gospel reading about lust, adultery, and divorce. But maybe that’s okay – Valentine’s Day isn’t everyone’s favorite holiday.

But we have our work cut out for us this morning. And we will see what we can do with that. But for now, let’s set that reading aside.

Instead, I want to engage your imaginations. I want you to imagine with me for a moment that you are a police officer and you are on the night shift. And you know, it’s Northfield, MN -things are pretty slow. But you like to hang out in the Culver’s parking lot, right there on Highway 3. You have a good view of the intersection, access to the highway in either direction. Plus, the custard flavor of the day is Chocolate Oreo Volcano. It’s a win-win.

Now, it is the middle of the night. A couple of cars come by here and there. But then you see this car coming down Woodley St. It’s a green Ford Focus and you just have this sense that something is about to happen. And as the car approaches the red light, it slows down a little bit, but then without stopping, turns right and accelerates quickly on to the highway.

“Aha!,” you think, “That car just ran a red light. They broke the law.” Plus, you figure it is a bored teenager with a new license and this is a good opportunity to teach them the rules of the road. So, you put down your Chocolate Oreo Volcano, and you quickly follow the car. Eventually, you catch up to the car right around Kwik Trip. Turn on your lights, pull the car over, and you take your time registering the license plate number. Let them sweat it out a little bit. And then as you approach the car, you can see that there are two people in the car. The driver rolls down his window, and you can tell from the size of his eyes that he’s terrified and nervous. And then you glance over at the passenger and you notice that not only is she sweating but she’s also breathing deeply, over and over again. And then as you notice the woman’s round, firm belly, you hear the driver say, “Officer, I’m sorry I rolled through the intersection back there. I looked both ways, I promise. My wife is in labor and I’m just trying to get her to the hospital.”

And now, you have a choice to make: do you either give this driver a ticket for running a red light – which is the law! – or do you let this couple go, and in fact, usher them to the hospital?

So, show of hands, who here would still give the couple a ticket for running a red light?

Who would let the couple go on to the hospital, and in fact, maybe even lead the way?

Exactly. Because while the driver did break the law, the real crime in that situation would be ticketing them and delaying these people in need. Because, what’s at the heart of the law of red light? Why do we stop? To keep us from hurting each other. That’s the heart of it. But then once you saw that the woman was in labor, in order to keep with the heart of the law, in order to not hurt the child or the mother by delaying them, the real law, the law of compassion leads you to get them to the hospital.

So, we can see that we have laws that govern our land and our life, but we have to work the law in the context of a situation in order to uphold the heart of the law. If you just apply law without any nuance to it, you could end up keeping the law but missing the heart of the law.

Our readings this morning take up the law of God and how we are called to use it. To work it. How we are called to understand it. And I think for most of us, most of us think of the law of God as this firm, steadfast thing that never changes. As if it is written in stone. I mean that’s how the 10 commandments came, right? Chiseled in stone.

But we are going to see that even God’s law needs to be worked in order to uphold the heart of God’s law. To begin, we start with Deuteronomy and Moses’ farewell speech.

In our reading, Moses is coming to the end of a very long speech. In fact, it is his last speech – the Israelites have arrived at the border of the promised land. He knows that he doesn’t get to go in with his people. He’s tired, he’s old. This is it for him.

He’s been speaking for about 25 chapters, beginning with the 10 commandments, and then he’s given commentary on what it means to live those commandments out. And now he’s coming to the end of his speech, with a strong climactic point. It is almost as if Moses is saying, “If you remember nothing about what I’ve told you, remember this. Before you head into a new land, remember this about God’s law: I have set before you life and death. Choose life – so that you and your descendants might live.

Choose life. I think from just those two words, we learn two things about God and about humanity. The first thing we learn is from that word “choose.” And what we learn is that God gives us freedom of choice. God gives us power, God shares power with us. Which is a sign of God’s love, right? Any relationship in which only one person holds all the power is an abusive relationship – and that is not the kind of relationship God has with God’s people. So God shares power. God gives us choice. Out of love for us.

The second thing we learn from the words “choose life” is that God has an opinion about our choices. God has a preference. God wants us to choose life. And clearly, life in God’s eyes is more than having a pulse. God is talking about the way we live our life. And does it bring life? Does it lead to “abundant life, extravagant life, my cup-runneth over life”[1]? And not in the sense of do you have a life of comfort, and security and power and prestige. But do we live life in a way that lets life flourishes in the world for myself or for my neighbor, or do we live life in a way that brings death and destruction for myself or for my neighbor. Let me put it this way – every time I choose fear, or dishonesty, or revenge, or resentment. Or every time I think too highly of myself or too lowly of myself, I’m not choosing a way of life that brings life, I’m choosing a way of life that brings death.

Now, is it easy to always discern what is the way of life and what is the way of death? No, it isn’t. We face incredibly difficult situations in this life, and it can be very difficult to figure out which option God longs for us to choose. But as our guide we have those words from Moses – choose life.

And this is the heart of God’s law – choosing life. The flourishing of life for God’s people. The law isn’t this burdensome command from an angry tyrannical god who just thirsts for obedience. The law is a gift from God to serve the flourishing of life in the world. But in order to keep God’s law, we have to work it, to keep asking – does this law still protect the flourishing of life or does it not?

That’s what Jesus and the rabbis would do. They would loosen and bind the law of God in order to keep the heart of it. They would loosen it, meaning making it less strict or easier. We see Jesus do that with the Sabbath Day. Remember Jesus breaks the Sabbath law in order to heal someone – he loosens the law for the sake of life. If you are that police officer, you loosen the law in order to let life flourish.

But now, in our Matthew reading, we are going to see Jesus bind the law, make it tighter, more difficult in order to keep the heart of the law.

So let’s take that idea that at the heart of God’s law is life, let’s apply that to the painful words we heard Jesus say in the Sermon on the Mount. We will see that Jesus is working the law in order that the law might serve life.

So, Jesus says, “You have heard that it said, “You shall not murder’, But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment.” It sounds harsh and strict but perhaps Matthew’s community was struggling with anger issues but they saw no problem with it because it’s not like their murdering anyone? Perhaps people were taking advantage of God’s law by saying, “Well, I won’t murder you but I will berate you and demean you and shame you and embarrass you publicly. But hey, I’m not killing you, so I’m still within God’s law.” It’s only facebook. It’s only twitter. Which is where bullying happens these days. Is the heart of this law that you’re allowed to bring someone right up to the brink of death, but as long as you stop there, you’re okay? Is that choosing life? No, of course not. That’s choosing death. At the heart of God’s law is the flourishing of life, and so at the heart of this law is the respect, reverence, and regard for another human being as a child of God. Jesus binds the law in this context in order to keep the heart of it.

Or Jesus says, “You have heard ‘You shall not commit adultery’ but I say to you whomever looks at a woman with lust commits adultery.” Is this to say that none of us should ever be attracted to another person who isn’t our spouse as long as we live? No, of course not. We’d have to tear out our eyes, and removes our brains. But in this context, perhaps the men of Matthew’s community thought that as long as they didn’t commit adultery, they could still whistle at the women walking by. Still comment on their body and their beauty. Still objectify them. But hey, as long as they haven’t committed adultery, they were still within God’s law. No! That’s not choosing life for your neighbor, that’s choosing death. That’s taking God’s law too literally to advantage you and to hurt another. It misses the heart of the law. It is about not only about honoring and respecting a person’s marriage, it’s about honor and respecting that person. So, Jesus binds the law in this context in order to keep the heart of it.

And then one of the hardest one of all – divorce. Is Jesus saying that God want us to stay in broken, and miserable, and painful marriages? No, I just can’t believe that. I mean, I’m not saying that God likes divorce – no one likes divorce. But this world and this life are just too complicated to draw that line in the sand to say that God would never want you to get divorced. Sometimes, I think in order to choose life for us and for others, we have to choose the end of a relationship. So, what is Jesus saying? Well, remember that back then, women were viewed as property of the men. And perhaps some of the men were just divorcing their wives at the drop of a hat. But hey, they gave them a certificate of divorce like the laws says, so….I’m still good, right? Is that the heart of this divorce law? To keep the man’s hands clean? No, of course not. Divorce meant terrible, terrible things for the wife and the children, leaving them totally vulnerable with no way to support themselves, not to mention the public shaming and pushing to the edge of society to be forgotten. The heart of this law is to value and protect the woman.

So in that context Jesus made it more difficult for divorce to happen, for the sake of life for all. We live in a different context today. And today, sometimes the best way for life for all to flourish is for there to be a divorce. Please know, I do not think Jesus is condemning modern-day divorce. He is simply asking that our decisions as disciples of Jesus be oriented around what brings about the flourishing of life to our relationships, to our community. To our world.

In closing, what are we to do with all of this? Friends, we have just a few more weeks to this season of Epiphany. And this season isn’t about remembering how Jesus began his ministry back then, it is about acknowledging how Jesus’ continues his ministry now.[2] Through you. The salt of the earth. What I take away from these readings, is that you and I, we as a y’all (if you heard the sermon last week), are invited to consider our relationships and how we are engaging in those relationships, and the rules and laws in our own life that govern those relationships. The laws of our government, the laws of our church community, and even the rules that we set up in our own life. And we are invited to put God’s law to work in those situations: are we choosing life, the flourishing of life for me and for my neighbor? It is about being a faithful disciple for the sake of life for your neighbor. Or to put it another way – what’s the most important thing that is happening in your life right now? Not what is the best thing or the worst thing, but what’s happening in your life that feels like it is the most important? And in that situation, what choices do you have? And among those choices, which ones do you think bring life and help and healing and service to the world? In the name of God, make that choice. Choose life. Amen.

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor.

[2] Matthew Skinner, Sermon Brainwave.