Why Trinity?

(sermon 6/16/19)

mellon memorial fountain

John 15:26 – 16:15

[Jesus said,] ”When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.

”I have said these things to you to keep you from stumbling. They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God. And they will do this because they have not known the Father or me. But I have said these things to you so that when their hour comes you may remember that I told you about them. “I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. But now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts.

Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned. “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

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Imagine being a congressman’s spokesperson, and on this particular day it’s your job to give the press a logical, rational, totally normal and explainable reason why the congressman had just been arrested by Capitol police drunk, naked, and dancing in a park fountain. If you can imagine that, you have some kind of an idea how pastors feel every year on this particular Sunday, Trinity Sunday, when we’re supposed to lift up and consider this most fundamental, absolute bedrock piece of orthodox Christian theology, and supposedly explain it and make it more understandable, make some sense out of it, without stepping into one heresy or another, which, honestly, is almost impossible.

As I said in the weekly email, the concept of the Trinity came out of the 4th century church trying to construct a rational, systematic way to harmonize what Jesus had taught about God, and himself, and the Holy Spirit, who he called the Spirit of Truth, the Advocate, or the Comforter; along with what the earlier scriptures had said about the nature of God.

Now, the whole idea of constructing a rational and systematic way of understanding something as irrational and un-systematic as the nature of God is a pretty daunting challenge, to put it mildly, I suppose these early church fathers did about as good a job as they could, or as good as anyone could, which is to say not very.  And yes, they were all church “fathers,” they were all men; that very fact alone shaped the solution they came up with, in ways that are still troublesome to us today. I wonder what the past two thousand years of Christian theology would have looked like if their church councils would have been more diverse, more representative, an even proportion of men and women, and from across a broader geographical and cultural spectrum. I wonder what a group like that would have come up with to try to explain the nature of God.

In any case, what they did come up with was essentially a set of propositions – a set of theological assertions that a person had to profess they believed about the nature of God in order to be considered a good or “true” Christian. There are a couple problems with this. The first is that some of these propositions are functionally illogical, so that when someone questions them, the only acceptable answer becomes “Yes, it’s an illogical mystery, but you just have to believe it, and that’s just the way it is;” which is hardly an answer that would satisfy many people, whether you’re a full-grown adult or a thirteen-year old Confirmand. The biggest problem, though, is that most of the people trying to explain God as a Trinity tended to focus on trying to explain the composition, the essence, the makeup, if you will, of these three persons, or identities, or ways-of-being-God; and the details of how they’re in relationship with one another. But I believe that what’s most important about the nature of a trinitarian God isn’t those points, but the far more basic point that they’re in a relationship at all. That in and of itself is incredibly important, because it can tell us a lot about ourselves. Getting a handle on the reality that God is, at God’s very core, by definition, a relationship, can teach us something important about what it really means to have been created in the “imago Dei,” the image of God.

A couple of weeks ago, the sermon touched on this relationship – I’d mentioned “perichoresis;” the all-important, inseparable relational bond among those three persons, identities, ways-of-being-God that those early church fathers termed Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I’d mentioned that this relationship was one all-focused on acts of love, through continuous acts of creation, reconciliation, and sustaining; all of them doing all of those things simultaneously with and through the others. And so, if an intense bond of love and relationship is the very nature of God, then that is still very important to us today, because being created in the image of God means then that we are created with the primary purpose of being in a similar relationship with the people around us. Our whole reason for being becomes doing all that we can to be in relationship with, and to reconcile with, and to sustain, to seek justice and peace for, all people. It isn’t just something nice that we can add on to whatever else it is that we might think is our real spiritual life; it *is* our spiritual life. It’s our  purpose for being here; it’s our “Job One.”

The concept of the Trinity gives us the answer to the question of what our purpose is; in essence, what the meaning of human life is. And because we know that Christ has taken care of the “vertical” relationship between us and God through his life, death, and resurrection; because we know that there’s nothing that we can do to work to achieve that; because we know that that’s a gift given to us entirely by God, that it’s God’s choice to do so; we now have freedom, we have liberation – we’re now free to focus on this “horizontal” relationship among all of us here. That’s our purpose. That’s our reason for being. In all of its shapes, that’s our call.

I want to be clear – I enjoy all of those deeper discussions and debates about the Trinity, and the nature of the three persons, and all of that as much as the next pastor. But maybe just for today, I want to suggest setting those debates aside, because frankly, it’s impossible to ever rationally understand the full nature of God, so no one can ever know the full truth and reality of those discussions anyway. So today, maybe just focus on that way of thinking about the Trinity that focuses on the idea of God being within a relationship of love – that God, by definition, then, *is* a relationship, one that continuously creates, reconciles, and sustains, out of a deep love and desire for peace and justice for all in the relationship – and that means that we should be, too. Focusing on the Trinity like that can be a huge relief. It should make you happy. It night even make you joyful, maybe ecstatic even. But if it goes that far, just make sure you don’t end up singing and dancing in a park fountain somewhere – and if you do, at least keep your clothes on.

Thanks be to God.

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Can You Only Imagine?

(sermon 6/9/19 – Pentecost Sunday)

pentecost-painting2

Acts 2:1-21

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

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This morning, we remember an event that changed the world forever. Today, Pentecost Sunday, we remember the day that Jesus’ first followers made a radical shift in their mindset, going from people still often hiding behind locked doors, and when not doing that, at very least trying to not draw attention to themselves – not even the resurrection, and seeing the risen Jesus had changed that – to now being people who were literally out in the street, speaking all these languages, and proclaiming the same message that Jesus had proclaimed, the same message that had gotten him killed.

So what was it that caused such a dramatic, and dangerous, change in direction? Well, since we’ve all heard this story so many times, we know the easy answer is the presence of the Holy Spirit. And that’s true, but I think there’s more to it than that. I think that before the arrival of the Holy Spirit, the disciples first had to have time to come to terms with what all had happened, and what it all really meant. Over the better part of two months, they gradually came to understand the significance of Jesus having been killed by the powers that be. Long before anyone ever considered the idea that Jesus had to die in order to pay some debt that we owed for our sins that God demanded and we couldn’t pay ourselves – long before any medieval theologians wrote about that, even long before the apostle Paul  talked about Jesus’ death in those terms – what these first believers focused on wasn’t the idea that Jesus’ death was necessary for some cosmic business transaction with God, but rather, that Jesus’ death was the direct result of what he’d said, and taught, and done during his life. Those in positions of power, and the people who benefited from that power, saw Jesus’ message as a direct challenge to their places of power and comfort – and they were right.

So when the Spirit did come, these disciples had had the time to process all of this, and then, having been emboldened by the Spirit, they went out into the streets telling the people gathered there that Jesus’ resurrection was God’s validation of what he had proclaimed and done – that even though his opponents had tried to silence him, his message was too big and too true for even death to keep him. As he spoke to that crowd, in this part that we read today and as it continues beyond where we stopped, Peter framed the significance of Jesus’ death precisely in the context of his life – and how his message had been one of God’s love and favor for all people, especially those who were being treated unjustly by those in places of power and privilege – the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, the oppressed, the forgotten or ignored – a message that was completely at odds with what Peter called “this corrupt generation,” and it was that, he told them, that they needed to repent for and be saved from.

So to summarize, in the time from the resurrection to Pentecost, Peter and the other disciples had had sufficient time to consider and start to understand the meaning of it all, and then the Spirit gave them the ability and the desire and the courage to catch God’s vision and run with it.

Two thousand years later, with every new person and every new generation, we’re continually re-learning and re-catching the vision that God has for us, and we’re running with it, too. And yes, honestly, sometimes we get it wrong, and sometimes it takes us a long time – sometimes a very long time – to back up and get it right. But the fact remains that God is speaking into all of our hearts, giving us time to discern and understand, and giving us the Spirit to dwell within us just as was the case with those first disciples, enabling us to catch God’s vision for us, and in our own time and place, and run with it, too.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that lately within the context of our own congregation – how this congregation has grown and changed from its origins, when the congregation was mostly made up of potato farmers who primarily decided to build their own church here just so they wouldn’t have to use the toll road to get to church on Sunday mornings. We’re so much different from that now. In fact, we’re different now than we were even just 20 years ago. We’re more involved in mission initiatives than we were in the past, we’re involved in social justice work, our involvement with immigrants and refugees has expanded. We’re building houses with Habitat, we’re working for creation care and decreasing our own congregational carbon footprint, and yes, you called a pastor who even ten years ago, you would never have even considered. Later this week, members of our congregation will go downtown and be part of a protest march led by the Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church, to protest the unjust cash bail system and call for its elimination, and just a couple days later, members of Springdale, for the third year in a row, will show that we’re a welcoming and affirming church by taking part in the Gay Pride parade. Can you imagine that?

The truth is, we’re doing so many things that I don’t have time to mention this morning, and each of them are ways that we offer witness to, and work to advance, that gospel proclaimed by Jesus that was too big and too true for death to silence it. In all likelihood, in the next few weeks we’ll sign on as part of the denomination’s “Matthew 25” initiative, which asks congregations to focus over the coming year on at least one way of working in the world to either “1.) build congregational vitality; 2.) dismantle structural racism; or 3.) eradicate systemic poverty.” And then, at the end of the year, to submit a brief report about our experiences. If anything, our biggest challenge here will be deciding which one of the many things we do to report about.

There’s no question that our congregation has caught God’s vision. Can you only imagine where that vision will take us in even just the next five years?

And beyond the idea of our congregation catching the vision – can you only imagine where God will lead you, personally, in that same timeframe? Pentecost is a great time to think about that – to carve out some time in your busy schedule to think about what Jesus’ life, his message, his teachings, really means in your own life. How does that change how you’d be living otherwise?

And most importantly – where do you see God’s Spirit leading you? What is God’s vision for you now? Where, and what, is God drawing you toward, and realize that in all likelihood, that be a very different direction from where it was just a handful of years ago.

Can you only imagine – what amazing, and yes, sometimes scary, but always wonderful things, does God have in store for you, and you, and you, and me, tomorrow? Next month? Next year? Whatever it is, and wherever it leads, you can rest assured that God will always be walking that journey with us, leading us, comforting us, challenging us, inspiring us, and emboldening us, and all of that coming out of the unimaginable, unending love that God has for us. And that’s good news, whatever language you hear it in.

Gracias a Dios.

“And She Prevailed upon Us”

(sermon 5/26/19)

trust women

Acts 16:9-15

During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them. We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days.

On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us.

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The town of Celebration, Florida was established in 1994. it was the brainchild of the Disney corporation, who used some of the country’s most well-known planners and architects to create a new community, based on the principles of “New Urbanism” – which, in a way, was actually “old urbanism.” Its design features small yards, houses built close together, and all within easy walking distance to shops, businesses, schools, library, and so on. It was designed to combat the typical suburban sprawl of most developments  and minimize our dependence on cars, and to encourage walking and biking and neighborliness and community. The buildings are all of one traditional style or another; comfortable front porches to sit on and interact with neighbors are the norm on the houses. It was meant to be a showcase, a model of all the best that small-town life can be. Norton Commons, in fact, is a smaller local example of New Urbanist planning and design that follows a lot of the thinking behind Celebration. Twenty-five years into that grand experiment, there are a few cracks showing around the edges of the grand experiment; things didn’t always turn out as well as hoped, but by and large, Celebration has been relatively successful in accomplishing its goals, and it’s a very nice place to live.

In the time of the apostles, the city of Philippi was in a way the same kind of thing. It was located in Macedonia, in what’s now the northeastern portion of modern-day Greece. It was built by the Roman Empire as a colony settled mostly by veteran Roman soldiers and was a model city showcasing all the best of Roman life and culture, featuring a large Roman amphitheater and other cultural elements that you would have found in Rome.

It’s here, in Philippi, that the apostle Paul finds himself in today’s reading from Acts. Here, he meets up with a group of Jewish women who have gathered to pray and worship God along the river. One of them is a woman named Lydia. Lydia wasn’t a Jew; she was what the New Testament writers called a “God-worshiper” – a Gentile who for one reason or another never converted to Judaism, but who still worshiped the Jews’ God, and who followed most of the Jewish moral and ethical teachings. Lydia is a dealer in purple cloth, which is a very expensive luxury – only the wealthiest, the “one percenters” of the day, could afford it. Just the fact that Lydia was successfully running any business, and was the head of a household, a homeowner, and apparently owned a  house large enough to accommodate her own household as well as Paul and his fellow travelers, was impressive enough – and based on the nature of her business, she must have traveled in some pretty well-connected circles. She would have had to be careful practicing her non-Roman, non-sanctioned religion; it could have been bad for business, and she would have been taking an even greater risk to be associated with this new Jewish cult that these men, these foreigners, these outside agitators who had come to stir the pot and promote this new Jewish sub-cult here, in this very Roman city. Still, she did offer her hospitality to them, and she apparently laid out a very reasoned, logical, and apparently, a very persuasive argument to Paul – who we know from the writings attributed to him,  had, at best, some relatively ambiguous thoughts about women in positions of power or leadership. But as the passage says, she succeeded in “prevailing upon” them to stay with her. Lydia must have really impressed Paul and the others with her words and actions; when they left the city, they left her in charge of the newly-formed church, which, we read later in this chapter of Acts,  continued to meet in Lydia’s house.

The truth is that women had played a huge role in the beginnings of our faith. Of course, Mary was the first person God told about Jesus’ impending arrival. Later, when Jesus was a man, it was the Syrophoenician woman he met who helped him to understand that he’d been sent to all people, Jew and Gentile alike. Mary Magdalen was the first person to encounter the risen Jesus, and the first to report to the others that he’d risen. And here, in today’s story, Lydia becomes an important leader in the early church.

In each of these instances, the men in the story had a hard time believing the women, trusting them, accepting the truth in what they were saying. And honestly, things don’t seem to be a whole lot better today. Sadly, even now we men often have trouble hearing and accepting the wisdom in the words of female voices. We men have still been raised in a culture that in ways spoken and unspoken teach us to accept the big lie that men just know better. That when it comes to certain things, women just don’t understand, so we have to explain things to them, and to make some decisions for them, supposedly for their own good.

Well pardon me, but from the standpoint of our Christian faith – from the standpoint of the gospel as lived and taught by Jesus Christ – that’s just stupid, and in  my opinion, sinful. We profess a faith that was, as I just pointed out, largely founded on the voices and experiences of women. We profess a faith that claims that all of us, male and female, are created in God’s image, including our intellectual abilities, and all having equal human dignity and value. We profess to be members of the kingdom of God, where according to scripture we are so equal that “there is no longer male and female.” So for us men to continue to not listen to the voices, the wisdom, the experiences of women – to not listen to the Lydias of our own time – when they try to prevail upon us about something, is simply not in accord with the faith that we profess.

Right now, there are millions of Lydias trying to get our attention, as in multiple states, laws are being enacted to all but eliminate, and in some cases to even criminalize, a woman’s right to choose for herself whether having an abortion is the right thing or not. Millions of women in this country – and to be clear, most of them Christians – are speaking out against these laws, trying to prevail upon us with the reality of their own wisdom and God-given right to make that decision for themselves; trying to prevail upon us that frankly, such a decision isn’t anyone else’s business but theirs.

I’m not going to tell anyone what they should believe about whether abortion is right or wrong. There are plenty of preachers in plenty of pulpits who want to do that; that’s not what I’m doing here today.  I’m not here to tell anyone what they should or shouldn’t believe for themselves. I will point out, though, that it’s the position of the Presbyterian Church  that abortion is never the ideal, and a decision to have one is a choice that shouldn’t be made casually – but that it might still be the best of all possible choices for  woman. That it is still a potentially moral choice for a woman based upon her own circumstances, her own situation, her own beliefs, and her own conscience. And that it is improper for anyone else to force their own beliefs on them, and to deny them the God-given human dignity of making such a choice for themselves.

Most importantly, what I want to suggest today is that we all might best live out the principles of our faith – the gospel as lived and taught by Jesus – if we truly listened to the truth and wisdom that today’s Lydias are trying to tell us – and frankly, whether about these new laws, or any other aspects of their being treated unequally in our society. Women know their own situation and conscience better than any man can ever know for them, so whatever anyone personally believes about abortion, we should respect women’s God-given right to freedom of conscience, and to make their own choices based on that conscience. And I say that as a man who was conceived when his parents were high school students, who dropped out of school to get married and raise me, and eventually, my two brothers. I know full well that if abortion had been a legal choice back then, I might not even be here today. Still, I’m convinced that the position most consistent with our faith is to not interfere with a women’s right to make such a decision for herself.

The women in those examples from scripture that I’d mentioned earlier did eventually prevail upon the men who didn’t originally accept what they were saying, and the women were ultimately proven to be right. I truly believe we’d all be living more faithfully if we’d follow those men’s lead, and to let our modern-day Lydias prevail upon us as well.

Thanks be to God.

But Wait, There’s More – Much More

(sermon 5/5/19)

beach campfire

John 21

After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off. When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”

Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; he was the one who had reclined next to Jesus at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?” When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about him?” Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!” So the rumor spread in the community that this disciple would not die. Yet Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?” This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true. But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.

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Today’s gospel text is interesting in several ways. First, in that it’s quite clearly an added chapter to a gospel that had already been concluded with a nice wrap-up at the end of the chapter before – “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” But then you turn the page and you see “But wait, there’s more!” and the gospel continues, by telling this additional story of the miraculous beach encounter between Jesus and some of his disciples. Second, it’s interesting in the way that the disciples recognized Jesus through his repeat miracle of telling them how to catch a huge amount of fish, a parallel to what Luke tells us he’d done early in his ministry when he was first calling some of these very same men as disciples. Related to that, it’s interesting, or maybe more accurately, it’s a little odd, how Peter responds when they realize it’s Jesus on the shore, by jumping up, throwing on some clothes, and jumping into the lake to swim to shore – which everyone knows, unless you’re John Fischbach, that the best way to get back to shore if you’re sitting in a boat is to just stay in the boat with everyone else and row in – and besides, if you’re going to swim in, why do you actually get dressed to jump into the water? You can imagine the other disciples just rolling their eyes and thinking “Well, that’s Peter for you; what are you going to do?”

But I think the most interesting thing about this story is its second part – Jesus’ conversation with Peter. Now Peter, who still has to be stinging from what he’d done wrong – his denial of Jesus on the night of his arrest just over a week before, is talking with Jesus, and Jesus asks him three times if he loves him. And three times, Peter confirms to Jesus that he loves him. Three times, a mirror image of his three denials, each time seemingly erasing the guilt and shame that lingered in Peter’s mind for each one of his denials; and each one being a reconfirmation of Jesus’ having forgiven Peter for those denials. It’s Jesus’ act of giving Peter a new start, and showing his love and acceptance regardless of what he’d gotten wrong before. From Peter’s standpoint, it had to be a powerful expression of love and hope at a time when he needed just that affirmation. That’s an affirmation that we all need at one time or another, when things seem to have gone off the tracks and we’ve messed up, and this story teaches us that Jesus offers it to us just as he did to Peter in this story.

At the same time, as the preacher David Lose has pointed out, Jesus gave Peter  two other things that we all need, too: first, we all need a sense of belonging, of being accepted for who we are by a larger group that helps us have a stable identity and sense of self, and self-worth. Our society touts individualism as maybe the most sacred aspect of our culture, but the reality is that, for better or worse, most of our self-identity comes from how others see and accept us. This is precisely why the way we welcome and accept others is so very important; the way we act and the words we say have immense power to  shape others in their own minds, and to make them feel loved and worthy, or not. In this story, Jesus has let Peter know that there is nothing that he’s done that has removed him from the fold of disciples. He is still a part of the beloved community of faith.

The other thing that Jesus gives Peter is a sense of purpose as a member of this larger community that he’s part of. Feed my sheep, Jesus tells him. Look out for others. Having a sense of purpose – knowing that who we are, and what we do, matters. Knowing that if we weren’t here, if we didn’t show up for life every morning, we’d be missed. It’s a well-proven fact that having sense of purpose in life is a far greater motivator than money, or power, or fame. Understanding that we have something of value to offer to other people is the most important aspect of living a life of joy.

In this story, the risen Jesus offered grace to Peter –  simultaneously offering him forgiveness, and a sense of belonging to a larger community, and giving him a purpose to carry out as part of that community.  And the risen Jesus offers the same to us. Through Christ, here, as members of this community of faith, we have the assurance that we’ve been accepted for who we are by God’s grace alone, and that we belong to this thing larger than ourselves, and that God has called each of us to make a difference, large or small, in this world of God’s creation.

In this world, we all struggle with guilt and shame about parts of our lives, and a sense of isolation and not belonging, and thoughts that we don’t really matter. This story was apparently an afterthought, an addition to John’s first printing of the gospel, but it’s good news for us that it was added – because here, Jesus offers us the cure for all of those struggles – through Christ, we have the assurance of forgiveness and the promise of a new beginning, a sense of belonging, and a sense of purpose. He offers this to us in a way just as real as if, just as he shared breakfast with Peter that morning, he was sharing breakfast with us each morning – and in a very real way, he is.

Thanks be to God.

Obeying God and Not Human Authority – and Figuring Out Which is Which

(sermon 4/28/19)

fork in road

John 20:19-23

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

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Acts 5:27-32

When they had brought them, they had them stand before the council. The high priest questioned them, saying, “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us.” But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than any human authority. The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.”

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This Sunday’s gospel text is John’s account of what Jesus did on the evening of the day of his resurrection – after he’d taken that walk to Emmaus with those disciples and broke bread with them, he then made his way back to Jerusalem and had this amazing encounter with the disciples in the locked room. It was the beginning of their spiritual empowerment, and in John’s gospel, it’s here when the disciples receive the Holy Spirit, instead of on Pentecost Sunday as it’s told in the other gospels. I want us to hold this event in our minds, and in light of it, to think about what’s happening in our first reading, the passage from Acts.

What we hear there is part of a larger story about these emboldened, empowered, Spirit-filled followers of Jesus proclaiming his message and running up against the opposition of the power structure of the time. They’ve been arrested and brought before the Sanhedrin. This wasn’t the first time they’d, as before, been arrested for what they were doing, or the first time they were warned to stop it. But the disciples’ reply was that they had to obey God rather than any human authority.

To consider this passage on the surface, it would be easy to give it an antisemitic reading. YOu know, it was those bad, nasty Jews who were persecuting the Christians, and so the disciples had to oppose them, and so we should hate all the Jews because of that. And throughout history, many Christians have read it that way, and that mindset has obviously been used to justify horrific evil against the Jewish people – even up until this very day, when we’re dealing with the news of the terrorist attack on the Chabad synagogue in California yesterday.

The real message of what’s going on here, though, has very little if anything to do with the religion of the disciples’ persecutors. For the most part, their Jewish identity was merely an accident of history and the context where these events unfolded; The same thing could have happened anywhere, with people of any religious beliefs. At the core of what’s really going on here is the imposition of power by a group silence voices and actions and movements that are seen as a threat to their holding on to that power. And it’s been repeated in the actions of literally every group that has ever held power over others. Every single one of them, regardless of the specific details of their specific identity and from the highest to the lowest of levels; from kings and congresses and presidents all the way down to your local HOA. So before anything else, let’s set aside any lingering antisemitic thoughts about this text; and not not set it aside, but strongly denounce it. That is not its relevant point or message, and to read it in that light isn’t just wrong, it’s dangerous, as we see time and time again.

Having set that aside, now we can consider this very important idea of obeying God rather than human authority. We’ve actually touched on that same idea in recent weeks, as those Lectionary texts pointed toward similar issues. These disciples were engaging in faith-based civil disobedience; claiming that as a matter of their faith, they had to obey a higher moral authority, God’s authority, rather than some human authority. They aren’t the only ones who have been in that position – any time we engage in some act of civil disobedience – disregarding a legally established but morally unjust law, and we’re doing it as an expression of our faith – we’re doing the same thing that these disciples were doing. When Rev. Jimmie Hawkins, the head of the Presbyterian Office of Public Witness in Washington, and others were arrested as they prayed on the steps of the Supreme Court last year as part of the Poor People’s Campaign, their arrest was the same as these disciples being arrested for their own legally forbidden public proclamation of the gospel.

This is one of the most discussed and debated topics in our culture today. It plays out in dozens of ways, and it often puts us into some uncertain territory. People across the entire spectrum of our faith, from the most conservative to the most liberal, claim to do things, all in the name of obeying God rather than human authority. Claiming to obey God over human authority, Rev. Franklin Graham denounces presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg as a fake Christian and an unrepentant sinner bound for hell because he’s gay, and liberal; I’m not sure which of those he considers the bigger sin. For his part, Buttigieg claims to be doing the exact same thing – obeying God rather than human authority – as he advocates various liberal social policies, claiming they’re the most consistent with Christian moral teaching; and recognizes the fact that he’s gay as being a gift from God and just one part of his having been made in God’s image. Claiming to obey God over human authority, conservative Christians protest in front of Planned Parenthood women’s health centers, calling them evil, and the doctors  murderers, because in addition to other things, they perform abortions. At the same time, progressive Christians claim they’re doing the exact same thing – obeying God over human authority – as they organize counter-protests and accompany women through the protestors blockading the entry, so they can get in for whatever health services they’re seeking. You can come up with almost countless examples in our social past and present where two groups holding diametrically opposed viewpoints both claim to be standing up for God’s will, over against some misguided human authority.

So what’s a person to do in cases like this? How are we supposed to know who’s really right, and who’s wrong? How can we really know if we’re on the right side of some issue with absolute certainty?

The short answer is that we can’t. As a matter of doctrine in our Reformed/Presbyterian tradition, we recognize our human limitations, and the reality that as flawed creatures, whether as individuals or councils or other groups, we can, and do, err. Sometimes we just blow it. The history of our faith is full of times when we thought we were right, but the facts eventually showed otherwise. While we pray and try to discern the right way, the truth is that sometimes, we’ll get it wrong.  So while we do our best to seek the mind of God in certain issues, even when we’re really strongly convinced that we’re right, we need to tread respectfully and humbly toward those who share a different view. That doesn’t mean that we have to agree with them, or agree that both views are somehow equally valid or worthy of equal consideration, or that the best approach to the disagreement is always necessarily some kind of a 50/50 compromise; a constant cutting of Solomon’s baby in half. In our assurance, we can take our stands boldly; we just can’t personally demonize, vilify, or spew hatred toward others.

So how do we try to understand God’s will in some issue? Here’s where I think we can look back at today’s gospel text. Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit into those disciples, and in the process, he commissions them to proclaim the same message and mission that he’s had during his ministry. So let this be our touchstone, too. When a disagreement like this happens, whatever the specifics, just ask: what approach is the most consistent with Christ’s actual teaching and message? What approach is most consistent with Christ, the real life, living, breathing, in-the-flesh and in-your-face explanation of what God’s will looks like in human terms? Are people treated with the same compassion and dignity that Jesus offered? Are they treated with mercy, fairness, equity? Does the approach value people over customs, traditions, and yes, sometimes even laws? In short, what is the most loving approach? Because Jesus’ entire ministry – the entire good news that he entered the world to proclaim  – all distills down to the eternal truth that God wants us to offer love to one another – that this is the foremost way of obeying, and honoring, and in the process, actually worshiping, God.

Honestly, when we struggle with the question of “What Would Jesus Do?” we usually already know the answer; we just might not like it. I get that, because sometimes it can be really, really hard to do the loving thing in certain situations. But we always need to remember that we are the spiritual descendants of those disciples that Jesus breathed on in that locked room. We have received that same Holy Spirit within us, too, and that Spirit can, and will, not only help guide us into understanding what’s right, and good, and loving; but will also give us, if we’re willing to accept it,  the strength to actually follow that path, even when it’s hard.

Throughout his week, look for times when you sense that breath of God in your life, trying to open your mind, and your heart, to something in your life, large or small. Allow that Spirit to guide and strengthen you in having the mind of Christ in something specific. That’s how the Spirit will help you find the peace that Christ offered to those original disciples, and to us as well.

Thanks be to God.

Oh Joe, Say It Ain’t So.

rod serling

I was asked to assist a parishioner in an immigration-related meeting in Chicago, and I realized that it would be nice to retire my current, seen-better-days charcoal suit and replace it with a newer one before the trip. I’ve had good experience shopping at Jos. A Bank in the past; they’ve always seemed to offer a good quality, decent looking suit at a reasonable price and with good customer service – attentive without being overbearing. Given my past experience, I looked online and found a couple of suits that I thought I’d like to try, so I reserved them online at one of their two local stores and made plans to go  try them at the end of the day today.

I got to the store at maybe 6:45. As soon as I walked in the door, I saw a well-dressed younger man not ten feet away facing me, fiddling around with something on a rack just in front of him. I got the impression that he worked there, but I wasn’t sure if he did or not since when I walked in the door, he didn’t say hello, or acknowledge me, or even glance up at me. Hmm, maybe I was mistaken and he’s a customer.

As I looked through the rest of the store, I saw an older man speaking with a woman who seemed to be trying to pick out a tie. Clearly, the older man – who from this point on, I’ll call Salesman 1, or just S1 for short – did work there, and the woman was a customer, who I’ll call C2 (I’m C1).

Other than S1, C2, me, and the still uncategorized man just inside the door, there was exactly one other person in the store – a short, husky man wearing a blue blazer and khakis, or maybe tan dress slacks. Like the first man I saw, I couldn’t tell if he worked there or was a customer. As I walked toward him through the store, he lumbered across my path, staring at me, but not saying anything. OK, he must be another customer.

So at this point, that’s the total number of people in the entire store.

Since no one was waiting on me, I made my way over to the suits in my size to scan what they had on the rack while I waited for someone to come over. After doing that for close to ten minutes without anyone asking to help me, I started to walk over to the first, better-dressed uncategorized man I’d seen as I walked in. Just as I got near him to ask if he could help me, he pulled a jacket off a hanger, turned toward me and said, “Oh, I have to see how this looks on me. Mirror, mirror, on the wall….” and he proceeded to go over to a wall mirror and try the jacket on. Oh, well, now I know he is a customer – that could have been embarrassing if I’d asked him for help.

Striking out with him, I then turned my attention to the second uncategorized man, who at that moment had just walked over to a store computer and began typing something in. Ah hah! He *does* work here! (so now we can call this man S2) Getting a bit annoyed by this time, I stand near him waiting for him to finish his typing. When he’s finished, he turns around and looks at me as if I didn’t belong there and half-heartedly asks “Is there something I can do for you?”

Well, yeah… “Yes, I reserved some suits online to try out; I’d like to see them.”

S2 seemed dejected and lumbered to the backroom. He returned and placed one of the suits in a changing room. I tried the suit on. It was a nice (traditional) fit, but I wasn’t sold on the appearance of the fabric, so I slipped the suit off and came back out onto the floor. As I did, I could see that S1 and C2 were still intently trying to find the right tie, and the remaining uncategorized man was milling around the store. I finally saw him refolding some shirts and tidying up the shelves they were on. OK, now I know; he also works here – now we can call him S3. He’s just been ignoring me all this time while trying things on.

By the time I’d come back out, S2 had the second suit. It was a tailored cut – I wasn’t sure if my build could still fit in one of those, so I’d reserved one traditional and one tailored to try for size. This suit was made of a nicer material than the first, and after confirming my suspicions that the traditional cut was the better fit for me, I asked S2 if he had a suit in a traditional cut, but a material the same as or similar to the material of the tailor-cut one.

Upon hearing my question, S2 bit his lip and looked like I’d just asked him to recite the Gettysburg Address in Swahili. “Well – gee, I don’t really know. I’m probably not the best person to ask; I don’t really know that much about the different materials yet; I’ve only worked here since December.”

My inside voice said, “If you’ve been working at a men’s clothing store for at least four months and you still don’t know anything about the suits you’re selling, you’re in the wrong line of work.” My out-loud voice was too stunned to say anything. S2 continued, “I’m going to have to turn you over to ___________ over there (S1); he’s worked here for eleven years. Hey, __________, when you’re free you’ll need to take care of this gentleman.” S1 glanced up at me and grunted, “Oh – OK.” and looked back down as C2 continued her deliberations. And with that, S2 walked away toward the backroom.

I stood there stunned, to be honest. S1 was still standing over C2 as she deliberated over this tie or that one. Across the room, S3 continued fiddling with items on a rack, never looking up.

Just then, another person walked into the store. So now, we have C1, C2, and C3; and S1, S2, and S3. But only for a moment, since at just this moment, S2 reappears and announces to his coworkers that he’s leaving; his shift is over. They call out their goodbyes and tell him they’ll see him tomorrow. I start to wonder if I’ll still be standing here when he gets back.

Meanwhile, C3 walks over to near where S1 and C2 are talking. S1 looks up and asks “Picking up this evening, sir?” “Yes,” C3 replies. At that, S1 looks back down while C2 still ponders, leaving C3 to stand there, just as I’m standing there, feeling a bit foolish and annoyed at this point.

After about five minutes pass, C3 realizes that no one is going to take care of him anytime soon. He looks around and sees S3, still wandering around the store doing nothing and seemingly oblivious to anyone else there. I watch C3 walk across the room, approaching S3. Getting near, he calls out to S3, “I’m sorry, could you take care of me?” At this, S3 holds up a finger to shush him, pulls out his phone, dials a number, and then turns his back on C3 and walks away while talking on his phone.

C3 and I look at each other as if we were in the Twilight Zone. I finally couldn’t take it any more and walked out.

To summarize:

  • I got to the store when there were more sales people than customers.
  • I waited, in retail time, forever for anyone to even acknowledge my presence.
  • When someone did, they proved to be incompetent or intentionally unhelpful so they could dodge out the back door for the end of their shift.
  • One of the three sales people actively refused to offer any assistance to anyone, preferring to just see how they looked in the items for sale.
  • The most experienced sales person there apparently hadn’t learned, in eleven years, how to say “Ma’am, I’ll be right back with you; while you look those over, let me get this man’s order out of the back room for him.”

It was truly the oddest (non-)shopping experience I’ve ever had. I honestly started to wonder if John Quinones was going to suddenly pop out of the backroom, telling me it was all part of a segment for “What Would You Do?” This is the point where I’d usually try to come up with some pithy statement to wrap up with, but honestly, I’m still shaking my head over the whole experience. I’ve always been a satisfied customer of this company in the past, and I’m sure I will again in the future – but today’s experience was just… bizarre. Cue Quinones, or maybe Rod Serling.

Resurrection

(sermon 4/21/19 – Easter Sunday)

empty tomb

John 20:1-18

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

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Well, today is the day! From the standpoint of the church, this is the Super Bowl, the Kentucky Derby, and Oscars night all rolled into one. All around the globe, churches have made sure the grounds are clean and pretty, there are plenty of visitors’ brochures ready to go, choirs and other musical groups have been putting in extra practice, and all the soap dispensers and paper towel holder have been checked and double-checked. And for most of us, whether we’re here almost every Sunday or only now and then, we’re here for this day, Easter Sunday. This is the day that we show up to proclaim Jesus Christ, the one born into this world to proclaim God’s favor and love for all of humanity; a message that so threatened and terrified the powers that be that they had him arrested and executed as a political prisoner, a threat to the empire –  but that on this day, Easter Sunday, God refused to let that death be the final word. Rather, God raised Jesus from the dead, as a validation of his life and his message, and of the entering in of the kingdom of God into the world. On this day, God refused to let that message of love and justice and hope die. That’s what we come here today to profess, and to celebrate. This day, we come together to show our true colors; to show what team we’re playing for, what we stand for, what we believe.

But… it’s that last part, what we believe, where maybe we get a little nervous about this day – when we celebrate the most illogical, irrational, unlikely thing that could ever be imagined – the raising of the dead. Resurrection – the mysterious transformation of a beaten, tortured, stone-cold dead body into a fully alive, improved, eternally transformed, physical person. We can be honest with one another here. We can admit that the whole idea sounds pretty ridiculous – even laughable.

It’s a bit ironic that on this, the holiest of all days in the entire Christian tradition, we confront the intersection of our greatest joy and probably our greatest doubt. On this day, maybe more than others, we hear that voice that we try to push back into the recesses of our brains, to keep buried in its own dark tomb with the stone firmly over the door – but still, the little, disquieting voice still manages to sneak out, and we hear ourselves wondering, “Is the resurrection real?”

I wasn’t there at that tomb in the pre-dawn darkness with the women who’d gone out there that morning. I didn’t see resurrection that day. I didn’t touch it; I didn’t feel it. But in the midst of this Easter intersection of faith and doubt, my heart still overflows with joy and gratitude, because I can still definitely say that I’ve experienced resurrection. I’ve seen it.

Mary experienced it that morning at the tomb, and so did the other disciples later that same day and in the days to come. It was the reality of resurrection that convinced their hearts that Christ, whom they’d seen killed, was indeed risen and alive. It was the reality of resurrection that transformed them from a group of people fearing for their lives behind locked doors, to a group so energized that they had to come out from behind those locked doors and to go out into the street, and ultimately throughout the world, proclaiming the good news that Christ, and his message, and the incoming of the kingdom of God, was alive and well.

It’s the reality of the resurrection – this undeniable encounter with the very living Spirit of the same God who lived as one of us, and walked as one of us, and died as one of us – that we experience when we see the transformation of the lives of countless people in amazing, otherwise inexplicable ways. Giving them the strength to get through difficult situations so terrible that that by any reasonable measure should have crushed them like a Dixie Cup. Giving them the ability to overcome the insurmountable; to forgive the unforgivable; to love the unlovable.

And also we see the reality of the resurrection in the life of love, and support, and affirmation that we all experience together as a community of faith – seeing the risen Christ in the faces of others, and seeing how Christ has transformed them, just as Christ has transformed us, as well. We see the reality of the resurrection when we recognize that through it, we are transformed, but not only transformed – we’re also called to be transformative  – to be the reality of resurrection to others around us.

syria puppeteers

Do you see this? This is a gathering of children whose lives and homes have been destroyed in the ongoing war in Syria. There, in the middle of the rubble that used to be a village they’re gathered around to watch a spontaneous puppet show staged by two puppeteers. Their own lives must have been every bit as destroyed as the children’s, but they still decided to bring at least a moment of laughter to a handful of kids who couldn’t otherwise afford that luxury. Can you imagine that? It’s illogical. It’s irrational. It makes no sense. It might seem small, an insignificant drop of joy in an ocean of despair, and maybe it is, but make no mistake – the greatest evidence of the reality of resurrection is the reality of hope in this world. Every time you see goodness rising in the wake of evil, you see the reality of the resurrection. Every time you see people finding ways to bring light into places of darkness; compassion into places of indifference and heartlessness;  justice into places of injustice and inequity; truth into places of dishonesty and deceit; and healing into places of brokenness, you are witnessing the eternal truth and reality of resurrection. All of it is in one way or another, even if it isn’t recognized as such in the moment, a witness to the reality of the resurrection of Christ – a witness to the reality of God’s validation of Christ’s life and message of love for the world.

So on this, the holiest of all days, celebrate the resurrection. Sing out with your boldest, loudest voices, even if you can’t carry a tune in a bucket. Feel the love and the unity embodied in the bread and cup of Communion. Clap your hands; dance like nobody is watching, or whatever the closest thing to that is for us Presbyterians. Enjoy the fellowship of being here together this morning, and feeling the Spirit of the risen Lord who is present here among us. And maybe a few hours from now, enjoy that traditional Easter dinner that you have planned, full of whatever your own personal traditional Easter foods are. Snack on the leftover candy, and savor the love of family and friends gathered together. Take the time to feel the love in all of this day. And in the midst of it all, recognize that while you might not know all the technical details, the biological, physical aspects of what happened inside that tomb on that fateful first Easter Sunday, you have experienced, and you know, that we worship a God who always brings life from death, hope from despair, and love from hate. Friends, that is resurrection, and resurrection is real. Resurrection is you. And it’s me. Because first, resurrection was Christ. Hold onto that great, eternal truth in your hearts, and let it show in your lives, today, and every day.  Amen.