As Much As They Wanted

(sermon 7/25/21)

2 Kings 4:42-44  

A man came from Baal-shalishah, bringing food from the first fruits to the man of God: twenty loaves of barley and fresh ears of grain in his sack. Elisha said, “Give it to the people and let them eat.” But his servant said, “How can I set this before a hundred people?” So he repeated, “Give it to the people and let them eat, for thus says the Lord, ‘They shall eat and have some left.’” He set it before them, they ate, and had some left, according to the word of the Lord.

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John 6:1-14

After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick.

Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do.

Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?”

Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted.

When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”

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Presbyterian. Baptist, Lutheran, Catholic; it doesn’t matter the tradition; it doesn’t matter how similar or different their theologies might be; there’s one thing that virtually every single one of them and all the others say: “If there’s anything that this church does well, it’s cook. Or sometimes, they’ll say “eat,” but ultimately it makes the same point – that they enjoy the fellowship and camaraderie of preparing and sharing a common meal. There’s something wonderful, something magical, something genuinely miraculous, that happens in the coming together, the sharing of the work of your hands and hearts, of temporarily setting aside any diets, and indulging in the feast and the festivities. It doesn’t matter when someone says that Presbyterian Mrs. McNeil’s ambrosia is the best in the world, that the truth is it tastes exactly the same as Methodist Mrs. Hudson’s down the street; the added aspect of knowing and caring for the people who made all the food, and the people you’re sitting together eating it with, just makes it taste better, and everyone can say that their church makes the best food, and has the best meals, and for them, every one of them is right.

The whole idea of the goodness of food and table fellowship is an important aspect of life in general, but religious expression in particular. And arguably, nowhere is that more true than in the Christian faith. Of course, that’s rooted in the Jewish faith but we take it yet a step further than our Jewish siblings in faith. Both of our traditions start with the first shared, common meal in the Garden of Eden, and while admittedly, that got things off to a rough start, things definitely got better after that. We both have a shared tradition of God providing manna and quail for the common good and sustenance of the Hebrews as they wandered in the Wilderness, awaiting the fulfillment of the promise of being led into a land flowing with milk and honey. We share instructions from God to always share food and drink and hospitality with others, both those we know and those we don’t, sharing whatever we have whether it’s a little or a lot. We share sacred texts that describe the coming fulfilment of the kingdom of God as being like an eternal, unending banquet of the richest foods and finest of drink. In the Passover meal, Jews remember and give thanks for God’s loving faithfulness, while remembering the blessings, and tragedies, within their faith history, as well as remembering the suffering endured by others who were also caught up in that history. And of course, we Christians similarly give thanks for God’s faithfulness and our own faith history, when we participate in the Lord’s Supper; and we believe that in some inexplicable, even miraculous, way we’re united with the Spirit of Christ in the sharing of the bread and cup; in this meal as actual sacrament.

The symbolism, and the reality, of the table-sharing of food and drink – the sharing of hospitality, with God and with each other – is powerful.

We can hear both of today’s Lectionary texts, and we can savor the richness of the details provided in them while our imaginations can be inspired as we fill in the details the authors left out. One thing that we can do that’ probably counterproductive is to get too wrapped up in trying to understand or explain the miraculous multiplication of food that takes place in both of them. Neither author is concerned with explaining the mechanics, the physics, of how it worked, both of them probably considering it unknowable and in any case unimportant as they both focused on the same actual point: in the midst of human need, the resources available are shared generously, even though it seems completely inadequate to meet the need, and the result is that God will make something happen that is wonderful, beyond any human ability, or expectation, or explanation.

This is the point – the good news – that we can hear in both of these accounts: that the miracle isn’t in the mechanics, but rather, in the reality that God blesses and multiplies our faithful and loving acts of generosity and hospitality, often in ways we may never even see.

This point – this good news – doesn’t deny or sugar-coat the reality that despite our actions, some people will still go hungry or otherwise suffer. We can’t understand why sometimes, we see God at work in the world in some places, but not in other places that need help at least as much as the others. I wish that weren’t the case, but we all know that it is. These stories point out, and the fact remains, though, that God’s abundance is capable of appearing in the midst of human need. So we’re all challenged, then, to be present in the midst of that need and to extend generosity, in the same way as Elisha and his servant, and Jesus and the young boy who gave up his lunch and changed the world. Through our actions, and our resources, no matter how seemingly small, God may very well work a miracle in the life of another.

It’s in that spirit of generosity and hospitality that, in addition to our ongoing commitment to our food ministry with Portland Avenue Presbyterian Church in West Louisville and La Casita Center in downtown and South Louisville, we’re also applying to partner with Dare to Care to create a food pantry here in the east of the city, where hunger and food scarcity is also real, even if often hidden. We’re moving forward, confident of the good news embedded in these two texts, of God’s truly miraculous multiplying abundance.

He’d been out of work for many months now. He’d had a decent job, but that was one of the non-human casualties of the pandemic. Since then, he’d burned through his life’s savings just to survive, and now he’d found some work but it only paid a fraction of his old job, making it just barely possible to keep his head above water most days, and too many days, not. Often skipping meals just to cut corners to the bare minimum, while the calls from the collection agencies made his life a round-the-clock, nonstop living hell. His life had been turned upside-down, going backwards in what was supposed to be the prime earning years of his life, filled with fear and stress and no small amount of embarrassment and shame, as he tried to put on a good face around his friends, and not let anyone see his deep suffering and need.

But one of his neighbors did see it, though. And one day on a whim, the neighbor invited him to a dinner they were having at the neighbor’s church, figuring that at least that night, he’d be able to enjoy a decent hot meal. And on a whim, and with the same thought in his mind, he accepted the invitation. When they arrived at the church, the neighbor said to him, “Oh, let me give you the nickel tour of the place before we go in to eat,” and they walked around the building, peeking into the sanctuary and the various rooms and spaces.

“And this,” the neighbor said as they stepped into one room, “is what we call Leo’s Little Store. It’s a food pantry that we run, getting free and healthy food into the hands of individuals and families who need a little help getting through rough patches in their lives.” The two stood there for a moment, until the neighbor broke the silence by asking, “Hey, didn’t you tell me once that you had a family member who was having trouble making ends meet? I’d bet they could use a bag of two of free groceries; we could pack some up and you could put them in your car for them. Do you think they’d like that?” It was an obvious lie, they both knew; a plausible fiction that might enable him to accept some help while saving face and without hurting his pride.

He felt his face getting red, fully aware of what his neighbor was asking without asking. He felt simultaneously embarrassed and grateful, as he heard himself saying, “You know, yes, I think they’d really appreciate something like that.”

Once the groceries were stowed away in his car, he and the neighbor went into the dinner, where there was more food than that number of people were ever going to be able to finish; there was going to be plenty left over afterward. He filled his plate to overflowing with all the standard dishes common to pretty much all church potlucks; nothing elaborate but everything warm and delicious, prepared and shared with love. He sat there enjoying the friendship of his neighbor and the conversation and warmth of those sitting at the table along with him. It truly was something miraculous, he thought, how this made him feel so much better to know that people cared for him and were there to help. He momentarily excused himself from the table and went back through the line to get a small second slice of Mrs. Klinger’s cherry pie, and as he did, he thought to himself that this was the best meal ever. And he was right.

Thanks be to God.  

One Thing

(sermon 7/18/21)

2 Samuel 7-14a

Now when the king was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him, the king said to the prophet Nathan, “See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.” Nathan said to the king, “Go, do all that you have in mind; for the Lord is with you.”

But that same night the word of the Lord came to Nathan: Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?”

Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David: Thus says the Lord of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel; and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and evildoers shall afflict them no more, as formerly, from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies.

Moreover the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me.”

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I’m going to guess that at some point or another, most of us have seen the 1991 movie “City Slickers.” If you have, you’ll likely remember that in the movie, Billy Crystal plays Mitch Robbins, a stressed out, angst-ridden guy who’s going through a mid-life crisis who ends up going on vacation with a couple of his equally angst-ridden buddies to a dude ranch out west, to work as cowpokes on the ranch’s annual cattle drive. Pretty quickly, Mitch gets on the wrong side of Curly, the head cowboy, played by Jack Palance. And if you’ve seen the movie, you also probably remember the scene where the two of them are riding along on their horses and having a heart-to-heart conversation, where Curly tells Mitch that the whole secret to life, the whole secret to having a good, fulfilling, contended life, is for a person to just stay focused on one thing, and that, even though he used more flowery language, nothing else mattered. When Mitch asks him what the one thing is, Curly answers “That’s what you’ve got to figure out.”

That’s more or less the same message that God is reminding David of through the prophet Nathan in today’s first Lectionary text from the Second Book of Samuel. We heard that once David had gotten settled in as the ruler of the united kingdom of Israel, he then turns his attention to making a permanent, sacred space – a temple – to house the Ark of the Covenant and to be a dwelling for God, of sorts, on earth. Maybe David’s motivation was a matter of faith, of devotion and a desire to please God; or maybe it was a concern out of bad optics – that people might take a dim view of his concentrating on his own physical comfort, building a palace for himself without making a space for God and the Ark. In all likelihood his motivation was a bit of both, but ultimately, whatever his motivations, God reminds David that God had never actually asked him to build a temple – that since the time of the Hebrews wandering through the Wilderness with Moses, God had been getting along just fine without any permanent structure, thank you very much, and in essence, God tells David to just stay in his lane – to keep focused on, if not literally one thing, at least, the particular one group of things, that God actually had entrusted to him.

While in this particular story, I don’t think David felt as conflicted or angst-ridden as Mitch in the movie, but what about you? Have you ever felt overstressed because you’ve spread yourself too thin, chasing too many commitments in too many directions, not able to see your real priorities? Henry David Thoreau famously encouraged us all to simplify our lives in order to find peace, contentment, happiness. He certainly wasn’t the first or the last to do so. This text brings home to us that this act of simplification, staying focused, staying in our own lane, isn’t just common sense, or just a good idea, or a bit of Dr. Phil pop psychology, but it’s an important aspect of our faith; it’s an important spiritual discipline – to try to discern where God wants us to focus – either for ourselves, in our own personal lives, or as the church – and then to stay focused, to stick with it, and not get distracted by other directions, no matter how good those other directions might seem. Finding our “one thing,” or probably more accurately, our “one path” of particular things.

Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean that we’ll never need to adjust our focus, or, to use the earlier analogy, that from time to time God won’t want us to change from one lane into another. Times change; situations change; God’s will for us will change. So we can’t confuse discernment of focus with just sticking with tradition or “that’s just what we’ve always done.”

Practically every individual, every pastor, and every congregation, is recognizing that we’re currently living in a special time; one where it seems that God may be calling on us to change lanes. For us here, a part of that is discernment about how our focus might change after the closing of our preschool; what new avenues of mission and community connection God may be leading us into. Even as we’re planning for the official recognition and celebration next month of the preschool and the immense impact it’s had in the lives of people for decades, there are other really intriguing and exciting potential new ways for us to engage our faith with the community, and to be even more strongly a Matthew 25 congregation – ways that have seemed almost to arise out of the blue, but I believe it isn’t at all coincidental.

And all that leads to a critical question: how do you know if, or when, or how, God is calling us toward a particular different focus; to a new “one thing” or one path? How can we weigh potential options to determine whether they’re God’s will, or our own? How do we do that in the life of the congregation? How do we do that in our own personal lives?

Well, in the movie, Curly didn’t offer Mitch any specific answers, and in today’s text God leaves it a bit ambiguous with David too, not explaining specifically what he should be focusing on, but only what he shouldn’t. Still, the text points toward a principle that I think can be helpful.

By referring to all the years that the Ark had no permanent home, God was emphasizing that God’s primary presence, and primary focus, was within human lives, human bodies, human concerns. *That* was God’s focus, and God’s home.

So as we go through our discernment process of what our ministry and outreach should look like, maybe our yardstick should be to ask: Is this thing being considered consistent with our goal – as people of the kingdom of God – to glorify God by showing God’s love to others, and making that love real in their lives in clear, concrete ways? Does this thing we’re considering make effective and proper use of the resources God has made available to us? And at the same time, are we avoiding trying to bite off more than we can chew? Are we not trying to take on a job God has in mind for some other person, some other day?

As we think about those questions, it’s possible that we might occasionally get something wrong – I mean, even Nathan originally told David that building the temple was the right thing to do, before having to backtrack after his vision. But the totality of David’s story in the scriptures shows us that even when he got things wrong – and he got a lot wrong; a lot worse than what he got wrong in this particular part of his life’s story – God never abandoned him. God’s love for David remained, his entire life. God made good on the promise to make David a “house”, an eternal dynasty, through Christ. A big part of the good news we can take home from this story, and a big part of what we give thanks for as we share in the Lord’s Supper this morning, is that even when David got things wrong, even in his imperfections, God never abandoned him. And as we continue our process of discernment, as we get some things right and some things wrong, God will never abandon you, or me, or us in our life together. In fact, maybe that promise, that assurance, as far as we’re concerned is God’s own “one thing.”

Thanks be to God.

Two Cousins

(sermon 7/11/21)

Mark 6:7-30  

Jesus called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.

King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”

For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.

But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.”

The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.

The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught.

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I had a cousin named John. Actually, he was my mother’s cousin, which I guess technically made him my first cousin once removed, even though we always just called each other cousins. But whatever ancestry.com might consider us, it didn’t really matter because John was only about a year and a half older than me, and we grew up together, went to school together, played on the same Little League team together, and lived in the same small town never more than a mile or so apart, and actually just two doors away on the same street for a while when we were really small; so for all practical purposes we grew up together as if we were brothers.

As adults, we both settled down in central Ohio, built careers, raised families. We stayed pretty close, even though we lived almost an hour apart, but still, family and work obligations and all the other realities of adulthood kept us from seeing as much of each other as I’d have wanted.

At way too young an age, John died from the affects of cancer, diabetes, and ultimately, kidney failure, while I ached to have been able to be an organ donor and wishing I could have spent more time with him in his last days. Still, while had been different than when we were kids, there was, and always will be, a special bond between the two of us.

The gospels tell us that Jesus and John the Baptizer were relatives; traditionally, they’ve been called cousins of some kind. I’ve always been intrigued by the details of their relationship that the gospels don’t give us. Were they close? Or were they cousins like the ones you like, or maybe not, but you only see once or twice a year at weddings and funerals?  We’ll really just never know, but it’s interesting to think about.

The lives of these two cousins intersect in this section of Mark’s gospel. Mark starts to tell a story about Jesus sending out the disciples, two by two, out into the towns and villages to proclaim the gospel, the good news of the coming of the kingdom of God and of God’s goodwill and favor for humankind. Then, right in the middle of the story, while the disciples are out in those towns that we never hear any details of, and before they return to tell Jesus about their experiences, Mark pauses the main action to drop in a secondary story. In this case, as you heard, it’s a story detailing hos John met his end. It’s an open question why Mark did this here. Was it to make a connection in the minds of his readers between John’s proclamation about the coming kingdom, and that of the disciples? That in John’s absence, the disciples now have the primary charge from God to take the message of the gospel outward, even further than John could have himself, and in an enhanced manner? Maybe it was some of that, and maybe even all of that, but maybe it was something else, too.

The whole sordid story of how John was killed is told as a kind of a flashback-within-a-flashback, starting with King Herod and his buddies talking about Jesus, wondering where his authority and power came from, and Herod remembering back to John the Baptizer. The Herod in this story is Herod Antipas, one of the sons of Herod the Great, who was king when Jesus was born. Now that Jesus is an adult, that Herod is long gone. But before he died, he realized that none of his sons were competent enough to handle the entire kingdom after him, so he divided it into three smaller kingdoms, each of them still under the authority of Rome. In this story, Herod Antipas was trying to be a big shot, impressing his friends with a big, lavish party, and he tries to impress them even further after Salome, his wife’s daughter, dances for him and his drunken buddies, which is actually pretty creepy if you give even a moment’s thought to it, by promising her whatever she asks for, even up to half of the kingdom, which actually wasn’t even his to give away. In the story, Herod gets manipulated by Herodias, his wife, and he doesn’t have the strength to avoid going along with John’s execution. He doesn’t want to lose face with his guests. It’s a story of a very weak ruler, in both power and character. What makes it even worse is Herod’s own apparent love-hate relationship with John – his conscience being pricked by John’s preaching, but still being intrigued and drawn to it. All in all, the flashback paints a picture of a sometimes evil, but always weak and pathetic person.

As I mentioned, Mark starts this inserted story with Herod thinking back to this memory. Now, he and his cronies were talking about Jesus, when Herod offers his opinion that Jesus is the return of John, whom he’d killed. Herod is being haunted, if not literally, at least figuratively – mentally, emotionally, spiritually, by what he’d done in his past.

Maybe that’s why Mark drops this story right here. The disciples are out proclaiming the good news of God’s favor to all people. Proclaiming liberation, redemption, a release from captivity and suffering and sorrow and guilt, a soothing of regrets, because of God’s proactive, unilateral choice to pursue humanity and bring us into covenant and relationship. By putting the Herod story here, is Mark making the case that the gospel could be good news even for someone as tormented and selfish and sniveling and conflicted as Herod Antipas?

In our own way, I believe that each one of us is being haunted by something in our past. It might be something relatively small that’s stuck with us, or it might be something really serious. You uttered a poorly chosen word or offered a careless, hurtful comment. You weren’t attentive enough to your children, your parents, grandparents, siblings, your dying cousin. You exploited someone who trusted you, causing them harm for your own personal benefit, maybe they never even knew it, and then again, maybe they did. You cheated on your taxes; you cheated on your business partner; you cheated on your spouse. You were too afraid to do the courageous thing that you could have done to help someone, but you were more concerned for your own skin or your own image, your standing in other people’s eye, not wanting to upset the status quo your other relationships. Whatever the actual details, all of us – all of us – carry something that haunts us.

And it isn’t just you and me as individuals, either. Our society is haunted by all of its past wrongs, too. Our abuses of power, our concern for our image over integrity. Our cowardly turning our backs on people in order to save face or retain power or preserve economic interests. Our wrongful treatment of so many different minority groups of people here and abroad, and all of these having a very real and negative affect on our present. Many voices haunt us, and sometimes, it can be exhausting.

But eventually, Mark does tell us in his gospel, just after this flashback scene, that the disciples who had been sent out by Jesus returned, and they reported back about what had happened as they proclaimed that good news.

Hear that same good news today. The news that despite whatever you’ve done in your past, or left undone, small, medium, or large, there is nothing you could have done to place yourself out of reach of God’s love and embrace. There’s nothing in our life that’s too much for God to forgive, to remove from your shoulders and your mind. Nothing.

It’s true that God’s love and acceptance doesn’t take away the harm that we’ve caused. It doesn’t remove the hurt, the scars. You can’t fix everything; you can’t bring John back from the dead. And this love and acceptance definitely comes with the expectation that we’ll do everything in our abilities to right the wrongs we’ve caused, to mend the tears, to restore and make reparation for our wrongs. But even with that, remember, dear precious child of God, you are considered forgiven, and precious, and beloved, and worthy by God. Today and always, you are held in the loving, protective, eternal hand of God, and there’s nothing that can snatch you out of that hand, and there’s nothing that will cause God to let go of your hand.

I did let go of John’s hand the last time I saw him, after a long, silent final hug. Yes, the silence spoke the regret for allowing petty busyness to keep us apart, and for lost opportunities to be together as much as we’ wanted. But it also silently spoke of a lifetime of joy, and gratitude, and love. As much sadness as there was in our goodbye, there was peace in it, too, knowing that some day, we’d be reunited again as cousins, or brothers, or whatever we really were, without any nonsense getting in between. And that peace comes out of the assurance, the good news, that those disciples proclaimed in those towns and villages, and by extension to Herodias, and to Salome, and Herod, and to you, and to me.

Thanks be to God.

Three Times

(sermon 7/4/21)

2 Corinthians 12:2-10  

I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows— was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. But if I wish to boast, I will not be a fool, for I will be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me, even considering the exceptional character of the revelations. Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”

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Last Sunday I mentioned a few television shows and movies. Not to get in a rut, but as I was studying this particular text from 2 Corinthians, considering its backstory and trying to understand what Paul is getting at, another movie came to mind. The movie “Office Space” is a goofy comedy movie from 1999 about a poor guy with no real ambition, going nowhere, stuck in a dead-end job in the mind-numbing bureaucracy of some big corporation. Part of the overall plot of the movie is that the big corporation has brought in a couple of outside consultants to study their operations and come up with ways to make the corporation more efficient, and ultimately improve the corporate bottom line. It just so happened that both of the consultants were named Robert, so in the movie they just get referred to as “The Bobs.” Now anyone who’s ever worked in the business world knows the dread that comes when you hear the company has hired consultants to come in and streamline things and tell the company how it should really be operating, because this process almost always ends up eliminating some jobs, and adding workload and causing other difficulties for the employees who remain, and while they might get some things right, they can also get a number of things wrong – sometimes really wrong – and in fact, that’s what happens in the movie.

Consultants in the business world are an interesting bunch, and having been an architect, I was generally considered a kind of a consultant, so I feel I can talk about them. They usually have some kind of specialized competence, and they try to apply that competence to benefit their clients. But as outsiders, the fist thing they have to do is to learn their client’s actual business model, their operations, their corporate culture, and then, after they’ve got a handle on things, they’ll make recommendations to the client regarding the way they should really be doing things. Many years ago, a business associate of mine said that “A consultant is someone who asks to borrow your watch, and then charges you to tell you what time it is;” and while he meant it to be funny, there’s at least a bit of truth to that. But before they can charge you for anything, they need to get hired, and they do that like any other business – by gaining a client’s confidence thro8ugh touting their qualifications, their expertise, their past successes, and making a case for why they’re the best one for the job.

There’s something very similar to that going on as the backstory to this text we heard today, to what Paul is saying in this passage. Paul takes pride in the fact that he’s the one who got the church in Corinth started. He went to the city, proclaimed the gospel there, made some converts, and got them organized and structured as a church; and then, consistent with the way he understood his call, he moved on to do the same thing in other cities.

But apparently sometime after he left, some others showed up on the scene in Corinth; people who claimed to be able to help them even more than Paul. But these were people who Paul said were in some way, we’re not sure the details, skewing the real message of the gospel. They were apparently touting their credentials to the small church; earlier in this letter he sarcastically refers to them as so-called “super apostles”. Based on what Paul writes in this passage, these newcomers were trying to sell themselves, similar to the Bobs, as having more credibility, more qualifications, more authority than Paul, so the Corinthians should listen to them. You could imagine their arguments: Paul wasn’t one of the Twelve; he wasn’t directly taught by them; he actually used to persecute Christians. What’s so special about Paul? Why should anyone listen to him? It seems that these would-be super apostles were trying to build themselves up by tearing Paul down.  

In response to this, to reestablish his own qualifications and credentials, Paul writes what we heard this morning. He wants to reassert his own authority, but he doesn’t want to sound arrogant or boastful himself, so he engages in this little bit of wordplay where he talks about himself in the third person – “I know someone who was taken up into the third heaven, into the very dwelling place of God, and who heard deep, divine revelations that mortals are forbidden to hear or repeat…” It’s an age-old tactic of saying something without actually saying it or taking ownership of it, while still making the point, and in this case, the point is made. Paul has credibility due to the amazing revelations that he’s received directly from God, he tells them – in fact, it’s enough to make him want to boast about it. IN the English translation, Paul says he needs to be cautious so he doesn’t get “too elated” about the fact that he’s has these special visions or experiences. That translation, “too elated,” is probably a little too polite; the Greek here actually means to be conceited, arrogant, cocky. So Paul tells the people in Corinth that in fact, his credentials are such that he *could* be boastful, but he’d never want to do that; it just wouldn’t be right.

At the same time, we hear Paul say that it’s what he describes as a “thorn in the flesh” –  we don’t really know what that means, exactly, but it’s some kind of problem or distraction – that keeps him preoccupied and unable to be boastful. In fact, he says, it was such a problem that “three times” he prayed to God that this “thorn” would be taken away from him, but to no avail – it’s kind of a parallel, whether he intended it or not, to the three times that Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane that God would remove this cup from him, that he wouldn’t be crucified. Paul says that God told him, “My grace is sufficient for you.” Don’t struggle and strive for glory or greatness, or to assert your authority, which doesn’t come from you anyway. There’s no need to be boastful or arrogant; there’s no need to feel cocky or lord it over others because of your standing and place of authority in the kingdom of God.

Arrogance, conceit; they always cloud a person’s vision and ultimately lead to self-righteousness instead of God’s righteousness. Don’t get too full of yourself, Paul, Christ tells him. My grace is sufficient for you.

It’s a good reminder for all of us. We can all, at one time or another, get a little full of ourselves. From time to time, we can all feel like people aren’t respecting our authority or our dignity, and we deserve a bit more deference than we’re getting in the moment. But the message Paul got is the same message Christ gives us, too. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Don’t get too boastful; that just ends up leading you in the wrong direction. Instead, try to remember all the goodness and blessings that God has given you, and remember that it wasn’t through any of your own doing; it was a gift, so rather than boasting, be humble and grateful.

Paul offers a good reminder for us as individuals and as people of the kingdom of God, and given that it’s also Independence Day, it’s a good reminder for us as a nation, too. There are so many great and wonderful things about our country that we can and should be rightly proud of. From our seemingly endless natural beauty, to the beautiful concepts in our founding documents. To the spirit of opportunity, progress, and advancement. To our scientific, cultural, educational, and social advances that have led the world. To the overarching goodwill and good-naturedness of the people.

But it’s no big secret that just as we have greatness, we also have great failures. And if you really think about those failures, almost every single one of them arises out of having slid into an attitude of self-righteousness, conceit, arrogance; forcing our own attitudes, trying to assert our strength and power over others. Other countries, other people, even other people within our own country. Our global successes have been great, but those successes have often planted those seeds of boastfulness, exceptionalism, and have led us into paths very different than the ways of the kingdom of God.

We do fail in this regard sometimes. Honestly, it’s inescapable. But that’s why what Paul says here is so important, such good news – that even when we do slide down that wrong path, God is still with us, reminding us that it isn’t all about us. That God has bestowed grace upon us in sufficient measure for all that we need – maybe not all that we want, but all that we need, and as a gift, not through our earning any of it through our actions. So our mindset can be one of gratitude and not boastfulness, and our actions toward others can be actions of grace.

So this weekend, let’s all give thanks to God for all the good that God has blessed us with. Let’s be proud of the real good in this country. Let’s be aware of and repentant for the bad; for the harm that we’ve caused. Let’s recognize that the harm almost always comes out of a boastful attitude that leads us to think that we’re somehow more special, more right, more beloved in God’s eyes than others. Let’s always be thankful for the wonderful news that first and foremost, we’re citizens of the kingdom of God, and that Christ tells us, “My grace is sufficient for you.” Now, if the Bobs offered advice as good as that, they’d be worth their weight in gold.

Thanks be to God.

Four Lives

(sermon 6/27/21)

Photo by Juan Pablo Serrano Arenas from Pexels . Used with permission

2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27

After the death of Saul, when David had returned from defeating the Amalekites, David remained two days in Ziklag. David intoned this lamentation over Saul and his son Jonathan. (He ordered that The Song of the Bow be taught to the people of Judah; it is written in the Book of Jashar.) He said: “Your glory, O Israel, lies slain upon your high places! How the mighty have fallen! Tell it not in Gath, proclaim it not in the streets of Ashkelon; or the daughters of the Philistines will rejoice, the daughters of the uncircumcised will exult. You mountains of Gilboa, let there be no dew or rain upon you, nor bounteous fields! For there the shield of the mighty was defiled, the shield of Saul, anointed with oil no more. From the blood of the slain, from the fat of the mighty, the bow of Jonathan did not turn back, nor the sword of Saul return empty. Saul and Jonathan, beloved and lovely! In life and in death they were not divided; they were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions. O daughters of Israel, weep over Saul, who clothed you with crimson, in luxury, who put ornaments of gold on your apparel. How the mighty have fallen in the midst of the battle! Jonathan lies slain upon your high places. I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women. How the mighty have fallen, and the weapons of war perished!”

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Mark 5:21-43

When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea. Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.”

So he went with him. And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’” He looked all around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?” But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.” He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. When he had entered, he said to them, “Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!” And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.

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At some point this past month, George and I got hooked on the television series Sense 8, and we ended up binge-watching its entire run in just a few weeks. The details of the show often deal with mature themes, but its basic premise is that there are some people living among us who have this sensate connection with one another, in small groups or clusters – it’s telepathic, but more than that; they can not only feel one another’s joy and sorrow and fear, but they can actually also appear to each other at various times – usually times of personal crisis – they can even live through each other, each one of the very different people from all around the world using their own talents, skills, knowledge base, to help one another get through these crisis times. It’s really a fascinating concept, to imagine people having that kind of a bond. Almost immediately after we watched all of this show, we stumbled across another one called Manifest, which is a much more family-friendly series, with a very different plot, but with a similar premise of a group of very diverse people whose lives, thoughts, feelings, were somehow mysteriously interconnected. As I thought about the draw that these shows have for me, I guess I’ve been attracted to shows like that for some time now. One of my favorite all-time movies is the film “Crash,” which examines the complex ways that a group of random people’s’ lives weave together, in ways not at all as telepathically or mysteriously as those two television shows, but just through very real, everyday events; how the lives of very different people, at their best and their worst, are still connected into some larger whole.

Today’s two Lectionary texts tell us about four people directly, and a few others who are standing just offstage, I suppose. In the first reading, we’re looking through a window, observing the anguish, the grief being suffered by David at the precise moment he learns about the death of King Saul, and especially Saul’s son Jonathan. The scriptures tell us here and elsewhere that David and Jonathan had a very deep, abiding love for one another, and even while David ended up marrying Saul’s daughter Michal, it seems that David had a deeper bond with Jonathan, Michal’s older brother; it was a relationship that David says in this particular passage what “wonderful, passing the love of women.” But now, in this moment, he’s learned that Jonathan is dead. As he eulogizes Jonathan and Saul, there doesn’t appear to be any bottom to his grief.

A thousand years after David, Jairus was beginning to feel similarly overwhelmed with grief as he’s dealing with the reality that his daughter is about to die. Mark tells us that Jairus is a leader in the synagogue – we aren’t sure exactly what kind of leader, or if he’s an official leader or one based on his prominence in the community or the length of time he’d been part of the synagogue, but what is clear is that whatever kind of authority he had, no leader of a synagogue, no leader of a church, not even a future king, can escape the pain and grief of the death of a loved one.

Jairus, beside himself in grief and panic, reaches out in every way he can to maybe save his daughter. He’s heard about Jesus and hopes that the stories about him are true, that he can heal people. Mark doesn’t tell us that Jairus is a secret follower of Jesus, like Nicodemus or Joseph of Arimathea in other stories. Jairus doesn’t ever offer any kind of profession of faith about Jesus being the Son of God, or the Messiah. Honestly, with his daughter in such a precarious position, Jairus would have probably been willing to profess that Jesus was a ham sandwich, if that’s what it would have taken to get him to come heal his daughter, and frankly, in the same situation we’d likely be willing to do the same thing.

At very least, history has given both David and Jairus the respect of telling us their names. Sadly, the men who wrote these stories for us didn’t offer the same degree of respect to the other two people , the women, who we focus on today. We’ve looked through a window observing David’s grief by way of our first reading, and Mark has given us a framed view of Jairus pleading with Jesus to help his little daughter; now he frames another view for us.

As Jesus is on his way to see Jairus’ daughter, we see this woman who had been suffering and in ill health for twelve years. She’d seen a whole hospital’s worth of doctors and bankrupted herself in the process, getting lots of advice and lots of treatments but not any actual improvement; in fact, we’re told she’d only gotten worse. This woman, this one whose name is lost to us, takes control of her own well-being now, working her way through the crowd and somehow pushing through all the others thronging around Jesus at least enough to get a momentary brush of Jesus’ clothing, and after confronting her, Jesus tells her that the faith she exhibited in trusting that Jesus could help her, and doing something about it, has made her whole again, after all those years of suffering.

The fourth person who receives attention the second nameless one – is Jairus’ daughter. A completely innocent player in this whole drama, the one we never hear a single word from, the one with the least power or control over anything. Here, Mark directs our view through one final window, framing one final scene – Jesus and the girl, and her parents, and a small handful of others – Mark isn’t clear whether it was a few of Jesus’ disciples, or some other family members, I suppose it was probably some of both – gathered around her bed as Jesus gently, lovingly holds her hand and said the simple words, “Talitha cum;” “little girl, get up;” the words not in the Greek of Mark’s writing but the Aramaic that was Jesus’ first language, suggesting that whatever else Jesus may or may not have said, he most likely said these exact words, written for posterity, but first recorded to memory, in all probability by someone who had actually been in that room and heard it.

And outrageously enough, she does get up, and while she starts coming to terms with the fact that she’s back in the room and no longer wherever she was just moments earlier, Jesus tells someone to go get her some soup, or maybe some peanut butter and jelly toast, because she must be famished.

People have debated this story since probably it was first told, whether the little girl was really dead or not; whether Jesus actually raised her from the dead or whether she just appeared to be dead. It seems at least that everyone involved in the story believed she was, and no doubt Mark did too as he documented it. But the point remains that whatever a person believes about that, what Jesus did in that room was every bit as much a miracle, because he gave the girl, and Jairus, and all who loved her, new life, new hope, and a new recognition of their interconnectedness. Their sorrow was connected to each other’s sorrow; their joy was connected to each other’s joy. What Jesus said, and did, in that room didn’t just change the little girl’s life, but everyone’s in the room. It seems that Jesus was speaking to the little girl, but not only to her.

Mark frames this view for us, but if we step closer to the window, we can see more of the room within the frame, and maybe we can see that it isn’t only that small group gathered around the bed at all. David is there too, and so is the formerly hemorrhaging woman, and for that matter, Saul and Jonathan are there, too – all of them connected, sharing in this most intimate of human moments, overlaid with this most miraculous of gifts that Jesus gives to all of them. In a very real way, when Jesus told the little girl to get up, and to come into this new realization, this new life, he might just as well have sad *all of you* get up. And we step a bit closer still to the window, and we see even more of the room, and we see still more people are there – and somehow, maybe as if in a dream where time and space bends and twists, it isn’t just the girl’s little room but now it actually goes on forever, and everyone ever born is right there with the little girl and her parents, connected in this moment, gathered around the little girl and her family. All of you, get up, Jesus seems to be saying. All of you. You who are like the little girl, powerless and whose life is being shaped by forces outside of your control. You who are like Jairus, emotionally empty and spent, feeling like you just don’t know how you can keep going as you deal with the illness and suffering of a family member. You who are like David, suffering the deflating, all-consuming gut-punch of having lost the love of your life, regardless of whether they’re the same or opposite sex. All of you – you who are on the top of the world, and you who feel like the whole world is on top of you; you who have deep faith, and you who wonder in your most honest of moments whether religion is all just a con game or a racket. Get up, Jesus says, recognize this life, and this hope that you were designed for, this connectedness that you have with everyone else, great and small. In truth, all of our lives are intertwined, even more intricately and mysteriously than the lives of the people in Crash; and while the premise of shows like Sense 8 and Manifest certainly aren’t the gospel, in one way they aren’t too far from it, either, because we are, in fact, fearfully and wonderfully made, as the Psalmist says. We are more magically, mysteriously, gloriously, intentionally connected to one another by our common Creator as the whole family of God. Get up, Jesus says, and recognize this life that you were really meant to know. Life is uncertain, yes, and it will often be hard, and sometimes even scary, but it is also beautiful, and wonderful, and in all of those things, you aren’t going through them alone. God is with you, and when we’re lucky enough to recognize it, so is everyone else. That’s the good news of the gospel. That’s what Jesus was saying in that room. That’s what the church is, at least on its best of days. Get up, he says – there’s a place in the room, at the Table, in the family of God, for all of you.

Thanks be to God.

Five Words

(sermon 6/20/21)

Mark 4:35-41  

On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

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There was a Facebook meme that showed up on my timeline maybe a week ago that asked, “Four Words that Any Woman Would Love to Have Whispered in Her Ear.” There were hundreds of answers, all of them along the lines of “You’re so beautiful tonight.” “I’ll love you always.” “Will you marry me?” I was in an ornery and funny mood at the time, so I offered a different one: “I lowered the seat.” That was actually my second thought; I first thought that an even more magical whisper would be “I took out the trash;” but that was five words so I had to come up with something else.

Weirdly enough, just a few days later I saw a similar meme that did ask for five words –  “Five Words that Will Ruin Any Vacation:” I thought about it for a moment and then typed “What’s that weird engine noise?” Kay Sherrard saw my comment and offered her own take on the same idea, drawing on some personal experience that she and George had on one trip: “Why is the engine smoking?” With a little thought, you could easily come up with some of you own: “We can’t find your luggage.” “Your boss says come home.” “We’re hijacking you to Cuba;” or maybe even a bit more exotic, “Pirates have boarded the ship!”

I enjoy little challenges like that meme because it’s actually an exercise in reductionist storytelling, and, contrary to what you might think from some of my sermons, I really like the creative challenge of painting a broad mental picture, evoking a much more complex and nuanced story, using just a bare minimum of words.

While today’s familiar gospel text is mad up of a lot more than just five words, some of its key elements actually are conveyed that way, with the fullness, the depth of their content going far beyond their word count.

As Jesus and this little flotilla of fishing boats making their way across the Sea of Galilee to the opposite, Gentile side, the wind kicks up into a chaotic, terrifying situation, as large waves pummel the boats and threaten to capsize them all, far away from the shoreline. And somehow, in the midst of that, we hear that Jesus is sleeping through it all, lying on a cushion in the rear of one of the relatively small boats – he had to have been getting lurched and tossed around pretty badly by the waves, and he almost had to be getting doused with water ad the waves pounded and splashed over the sides. But still, he managed to sleep through it, in spite of the clear danger they were in. It’s here where Jesus’ disciples offer the five words that speak volumes in the major themes in this story. They ask, “Teacher, do you not care?!”

Now, before you point out the obvious, yes, I know their whole comment was longer than that; I can count; but I think these five words are actually the distilled version of the totality of their thoughts and feelings in that moment. “Teacher, do you not care?!”

And once he’s awakened, Jesus offers a simple reply to them, one that can similarly be distilled to just five words: “Have you still no faith?” And then he calms the storm, bringing calm and order out of chaos and confusion and danger; leaving the disciples relieved, to be sure, but also with at least as much concern and anxiety as they wrestled with the implications of what had just happened when they woke Jesus, probably only hoping he’d help them bail out some of the water, but he ends up commanding the water and the wind in the same way that God does in the Genesis accounts of creation.

There might not be any gospel story that we could all, to a person, identify with more than this one. Because we’ve all, in multiple times and situations, faced challenges – very real, often terrifying, maybe sometimes even life-threatening, challenges, that could overwhelm us at least as much as any storm at sea, and being people of faith, looking for God’s presence and assistance, but finding God to be frustratingly silent or absent; as oblivious to our struggles as Jesus was while he was sleeping on the boat, and in those times, we’ve likely all used the same or very similar, five words: “Teacher, do you not care?” “Do we matter to you?” “Can you really help me?” “Are you even really there?”

It’s interesting that in Jesus’ answer to the disciples, when he asks them “Why are you afraid?” he doesn’t tell them that there isn’t anything to be afraid of – there clearly is. But he tells them to place their faith, their trust, in God; placing their fears, and worries, and their anxiety in God’s hands, no matter how uncertain the situation might be. Because the Holy One, seen or unseen, bidden or unbidden, recognized or not, is still present and has promised to hold us in love and care. As we grow in our faith, we see more and more deeply that this is true – that no matter how real the fearful situations are, they can not, do not, will not have the last word.

In Mark’s gospel, Jesus is often portrayed as being amazed, dumbfounded, annoyed, even downright angry, at how often the disciples seem to be clueless blockheads that always miss the point of what Jesus is saying or doing. And maybe that’s the way this story is meant to sound, too. It’s easy to read that tone into Jesus’ words. But it’s also possible to read his words in a more caring, a more loving tone, the way I tried to read it here this morning. God at creation, Jesus in the boat, Christ in the quiet of our own hearts, says “Have you still no faith?” “Place your trust in me.” “I am at your side.” “You are precious to me.” And to those terrified disciples in the boat or to us as we wonder what the future of our life together in the faith will bring, or as we examine all the contours and stories of our own lives, maybe the most poetic, the most beautiful, the most reassuring five words – maybe the summation of the totality of the gospel itself – “I am with you always.”

Thanks be to God.

What, Are You Crazy?

(sermon 6/6/21)

Mark 3:20-35  

The crowd came together again, so that Jesus and the disciples could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.

“Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”— for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.

Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

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It was an interesting job the ad agency had landed. The local Country & Western radio station, a long-time familiar spot on the radio dial, wanted to up its game and refresh its image – to become more visible, more memorable, and hopefully attract some newer, younger listeners. The agency’s creative team needed to come up with a new logo, and a simple, to-the-point catchphrase that would stick in people’s minds, and then build a comprehensive advertising and promotional strategy around them.

The plan they came up with would kick off with multiple placements of a television commercial to introduce the new catchphrase. In the commercial a man is sitting in an bare, empty room; other than his chair, the only piece of furniture is a small table with a radio sitting on it. The man is bound up in a straight jacket, while the radio plays various styles of music – Top 40, jazz, rhythm & blues, classical; and with each one the man gets more and more agitated, his face scrunching up in disapproval and even pain, and he wriggles and struggles to get out of the straight jacket. His eyes are wild. A little bead of sweat runs down his forehead as he gets more and more agitated. Finally though, the music changes to Country & Western – and you hear the dulcet tones of Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson; Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette. And with that, the man relaxes. He’s calmed. He smiles, and finally, this “real” music energizes him, and he finds new strength, and he jumps up out of the chair and bursts out of the straight jacket, and as the music comes to a twangy guitar-chord finale, the announcer says, “K95 – Crazy about Country!” And with that, an ad campaign was born.

Unfortunately for the ad agency, it was a short-lived campaign, because almost as soon as the commercials began running, the station started to get complaints about the commercials – saying that the ads reinforced insensitive and incorrect stereotypes of people with mental illness or disabilities; painting them all as crazed, wild-eyed lunatics needing to be physically restrained; and it took people in the opposite direction from forming more accurate, healthy, and constructive attitudes toward mental health issues. The radio station realized that the people complaining had a valid point. They quickly pulled the commercials, and the catchphrase, and came up with a completely new, retooled ad campaign.

The problem of unhealthy, stigmatizing attitudes about mental illness has been with us probably since the beginning of the human race, and as you heard, it’s an element in today’s gospel text. Maybe this particular story would have been a little more appropriate if it landed a couple of weeks earlier in May, which is Mental Health Awareness Month, since the passage deals with people thinking that Jesus was out of his mind – crazy – or possibly even possessed by a demon, as much mental illness was believed to be in Jesus’ time.

But just what exactly was Jesus doing in this story that made so many people, even his own family, think he’d lost his mind? I mean really, he just seems to be helping people in this story. What’s wrong with that? What’s Jesus doing that draws such a response?

Well, a few things, I suppose. First, by associating with the kind of people who were thronged around him, he was rejecting society’s attitudes about who were “good people” and who were not so good; the traditional norms of who were socially acceptable and who weren’t. Jesus was choosing to associate with those who were sick, those who were assumed to be possessed by demons, those born with physical or mental infirmities – essentially, all those who made supposedly “normal” people uncomfortable, and who were therefore pushed to the margins. These were people whose suffering or difference was often even seen as God’s punishment for something unnatural or sinful or evil about them. These were precisely the people Jesus was not just associating with, and not just associating with, he was actually caring about them; he was saying they were of equal worth in God’s eyes; he was healing them because they were precious, and beloved, not evil.

Another other thing that Jesus does in this story that makes people think he’s lost his mind is that he prioritizes people’s lives, their needs, and caring for them, over cultural, and particularly religious, traditions and dictates, instead of the other way around. He doesn’t disrespect those traditions or throw them out; on the contrary, throughout Jesus’ life, we see him continually and enthusiastically participating in the traditions of his Jewish faith – but he called for those traditions, and by extension any particular religious or cultural traditions, then or now, to be given their proper place. Jesus was teaching that whenever we prioritize following rules over loving and caring for people, and meeting their needs – even when we might be trying to do so with the most sincere, devoted, pious of intentions – we’ve actually missed, and frankly, we’ve abused, the whole point of the rules God gave us with the intention of us flourishing, and the intention of all people knowing a peaceful, just, and abundant life.

What people saw as crazy in Jesus actions was that he cared so much for these people that religion and society cared so little for, that he considered them family – adopted family members, parents, siblings; all part of that “infinitrinity” that is the family of God, the kin-dom of God, that I mentioned last week.

That’s why people thought he’d lost his mind. it didn’t align with the ways of the so-called “real world,” with supposed common sense, with the way that people said things really worked.

Jesus’ actions here point to the reality that if we’re going to follow his lead, there are going to be times when we’re going to have to do some things that many in our society, and even many in our religious structures, will consider crazy, too. Reaching out to hear, and learn from, and care for, and lift up, the people our own culture pushes down or aside. Prioritizing people over profits. Creation over environmental exploitation. The beauty of human diversity, the full range of what it means to be created in the image of God; over racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, and other forms of bigotry and hate; even when it’s embedded in our society and considered acceptable and right, and yes, sometimes, even considered godly.

As I mentioned earlier, today’s gospel would fit in May, Mental Health Awareness Month – but it does also fit pretty well in June, Pride Month, too, when we celebrate, welcome, and affirm LGBTQ+ folk in church and society. In this text, we’re told that when Jesus’ family arrived to take him home, possibly even having to forcibly restrain him in order to do so, people told him his family was outside, and without dismissing his birth family, he gestured to all the outcast, socially unacceptable people gathered around him and he said that these were all just as much his family, too. One of the all-time great gay anthems, one that always gets a lot of play this month, is the Pointer Sisters’ “We Are Family,” and in this gospel text, Jesus, as he surrounds himself with all those pushed down, pushed aside by society, says, “Yeah – we really are.”

So if we’re going to follow Jesus, and sometimes we’re going to need to act in ways that others might consider crazy, and we might even take some heat for it, as Jesus did, this might be a good time for us to ask ourselves: are we doing anything, particularly as a matter of our faith, that the world – that people we know – maybe friends, close friends – maybe even close family members, people we love – might consider crazy?

If we can’t think of anything like that, the odds are pretty good that we’re probably missing some opportunity that God is placing in front of us to courageously live and act as the people of the kin-dom of God.

I know that doing some of those kinds of things can seem risky, maybe even scary. Maybe we might think them crazy ourselves. But the good news embedded in all this is that through Christ, God did what the world might consider the craziest thing of all – to leave the beauty and perfection of eternity to dwell in this world, which is filled with pain and suffering and real evil, and that can often be anything but beautiful and perfect. And God did it in order to live among us, and as one of us, in order to love us, and to show us this crazy, eternal way, this alternative to life as the world defines it. And through this crazy act, God not only shows this life to us, but through the Spirit, actually empowers us to live in this different, supposedly crazy way. Our good news is that through Christ, we’re released from our own straight jackets; we’ve been liberated; freed and enabled to live in this way that Jesus modeled and called us toward.

At least, that’s what I get out of this passage. Or maybe I’m just crazy.

Thanks be to God.

Infinitrinity

(sermon 5/30/21 – Trinity Sunday)

Photo courtesy La Maison Laide. Used with permission.

John 3:1-17

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 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.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 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?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 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.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? “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. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. “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. “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.

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Romans 8:12-25

So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh— for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

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Today is Trinity Sunday, when we recognize an important, but maybe the strangest and most troublesome bit of theology and church doctrine. In an age where it seems backward and irrational enough to simply believe in any God at all, it almost seems like we Christians intentionally set out to up the absurdity ante by defining our God in some mysterious, completely inexplicable and confusing way that seems to beg people to reject the whole idea. I mean – a God who is simultaneously a single One, and yet, still distinctly Three; simultaneously both and neither. What is any serious, thinking person supposed to make of that? So before anything else we might say about the Trinity, let’s admit that the whole idea is problematic. That it’s impossible to actually explain in any empirical, analytical way, and it’s even more impossible to try to illustrate with analogies – the Trinity is like the three lobes of a three-leaf clover; or the solid/liquid/gas states possible of water; or like a single actor playing three different roles, in three different costumes and at three different times, in the same play. You’ve undoubtedly heard all those and more, and the truth is that every single one of them veers into some heresy or another that the early church fathers adamantly rejected. There simply is no way to give an acceptable technical illustration of how these three “persons” of God exist and interrelate – heck, even using the term “persons” causes problems, and don’t even think about talking about three “parts” of God.

The concept of the Trinity is so troubling that it can lead a person to think that the whole idea is nonsense – or at least if it isn’t nonsense, if it’s impossible to actually explain, it surely can’t be very important to us and our own lives of faith. I absolutely understand if someone reaches that conclusion. It’s perfectly logical. But I still think it’s mistaken.

In fact, I believe that the concept of the Trinity tells us something absolutely vital about God, and about us as well, and about the relationship between us and God. But in order for it to do that, we have to stop trying to categorize and compartmentalize God’s being, and start concentrating on the larger idea behind the concept. We need to stop seeing the Trinity as a math problem, and start seeing it as poetry.

What was the actual idea about God that the pre-scientific, early church fathers were trying to convey about God when they came up with their understanding of the Trinity; of explaining the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – or as we’d more accurately say today, Parent, Child, and Spirit?

I think that maybe the Eastern church, based in Constantinople, was a bit more successful than the Rome-based Western church in focusing less on trying to parse God, or to diagram God as if God were a sentence; and more on what they called “perichoresis” – meaning a kind of circular, intertwining, self-giving relationship – a dance, actually. It’s a concept meaning that by very essence, God exists in a relationship – that the very core of God’s design, God’s being, *is* a relationship. One that is intense, inseparable, so intimate and self-giving as to be intersecting and even interpenetrating; an eternal, unending dance of pure love, and equality, and dignity, and peace, and joy.

And because that’s God’s design, and we’re created in God’s image, we’re designed to form and foster those kinds of relationships too, or at least as close as we can get to them – those kinds of relationships among ourselves, and between us and God. It means, then, that everything that we do in living out our faith, and living and interacting with others and all of God’s creation, should always be moving more and more toward those same kinds of loving, intense, equal, joyful, eternal dance. This is our design. This is our primary mission in life.

We heard today’s gospel reading from John because it’s one of the few passages in scripture where Father, Son, and Spirit are all referred to in pretty much the same breath, setting the stage for the need for some kind of a doctrine of the Trinity, so it’s an important text for today, and also for thinking about God’s “only begotten Son.” But we also heard from Paul in the Letter to the Romans, that we ourselves have been adopted as God’s children; that we have been grafted into God’s family tree as it were.

And that’s an intriguing truth. Because it means that while the actual being of God, through begetting, is an eternal Trinity; the whole family of God, through adoption – through the Holy Spirit dwelling within us, and God decreeing us worthy to be called and treated as children – through adoption, the kingdom of God could actually be thought of as an “Infinitrinity.” In fact, considering this adoption/family status that God has given us, many people have started to refer to the “Kin-dom of God,” emphasizing the family relationship, instead of the “Kingdom of God,” which emphasizes being a beloved part of God’s family, rather than the forced relationship between subjects and a king.

My daughter Andrea got married two years ago. Her husband, Stevie, is Irish, having grown up in a suburb of Dublin. When they got married in Columbus, Stevie’s parents and a large contingent of his family traveled to Ohio for the wedding. At the reception, there were times when my new Irish family would take over the dance floor, gathering in a large circle for some traditional Irish dancing, and as they did, they invited us Americans into the circle, and into the dance, as well. As the music played, and with interlocked arms, the circle moved around, and moved in, and moved out, and many of us were trying to learn the steps quickly while others knew exactly what they were doing. It was an amazing. It was a symbol, but more than a symbol, of the coming together of these two families, and the forming of a new, expanded family that ultimately transcended time or physical distance. It was a beautiful thing; it was a relative moment but in another way it was also eternal. I’m sure that you’ve all been part of a similar experience, some simple but eternal dance like that; that if you think just a minute about it, says more about the meaning and the significance of the Trinity than a whole roomful of arguing theologians probably ever could.

Once we’re able to travel again, I’m looking forward to the day I’ll be able to see and laugh, and maybe even dance with, my new Irish family, this time in Ireland. On a similar, but even deeper level, I also look forward to the day – hopefully not anytime soon, mind you, but I still look forward to – the day when I join in the great eternal dance with the Parent, the Child, and the Spirit, the Trinity, and with the whole adopted family that they’ve welcomed into the circle of the Infinitrinity. Because I know that together, we’ll all be part of that grand, glorious circle, and that dance, I say     

Thanks be to God.

Reversals

(sermon 5/9/21)

Acts 10 (excerpts)

In Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of the Italian Cohort, as it was called. He was a devout man who feared God with all his household; he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God. One afternoon at about three o’clock he had a vision in which he clearly saw an angel of God coming in and saying to him, “Cornelius.” He stared at him in terror and said, “What is it, Lord?” He answered, “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God. Now send men to Joppa for a certain Simon who is called Peter; he is lodging with Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the seaside.” When the angel who spoke to him had left, he called two of his slaves and a devout soldier from the ranks of those who served him, and after telling them everything, he sent them to Joppa.

As they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted something to eat; and while it was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. Then he heard a voice saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” The voice said to him again, a second time, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” This happened three times, and the thing was suddenly taken up to heaven. Now while Peter was greatly puzzled about what to make of the vision that he had seen, suddenly the men sent by Cornelius appeared. The Spirit said to Peter, “Look, three men are searching for you. Now get up, go down, and go with them without hesitation; for I have sent them.”

They came to Caesarea. Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his relatives and close friends.

Then Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.”

While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.

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It’s inevitable, really. It happens to all of us in different ways from time to time throughout our lives. I’m talking about the reversal. You’re apparent, and you raised your child from infancy, always teaching them, always explaining life and the way things work to them, and then suddenly, one day they’re teaching you something you never new. Or you’re a supervisor, a manager, and one day one of your trainees shows you how to do something better than you ever could. Or you’re a teacher, instructor, professor in academia, and one day one of your students offers a fresh new insight that had never dawned on you before in all of your years of experience.

The reversal in those cases is a bit bittersweet – because really, who ever enjoys being moved to second chair when you’d always been in the first chair up till then? – but at least there’s a sense of satisfaction, of pride, sometimes even some joy in it, because it means you’d done your job of teaching them well, and really, that’s the way things are supposed to be in both the micro- and macro- of human existence – “I must decrease so that you can increase,” as has been said. Those kinds of reversals are expected.

The unexpected ones feel different, though. They’re the ones where the reversal comes entirely out of the blue. Where the one teaching you some lesson isn’t anyone you’d ever imagine. The teacher is someone unexpected, or it happens in a surprising way or setting. That’s the kind of reversal we see in this reading from Acts today.

This is an event that happed after Pentecost, which we’ll observe in two weeks. I’m not sure why the Lectionary bounces around chronologically here, but on Pentecost, we see Jesus’ disciples flowing out into the streets in Jerusalem, speaking in tongues, and Peter speaking out, proclaiming the gospel to the Jewish pilgrims there for the religious holiday, and proclaiming to them that Jesus was the messiah.

As we heard, when this story begins Peter has had this strange vision, three times in fact, in which God tells him to not consider anything unclean and unacceptable to God, even something the scriptures, the Law, declared to be unclean, if God declares it to be clean and acceptable. Peter probably wasn’t completely certain what this vision was all about, or how it might apply to him in the moment. He was probably still trying to understand its implications when Cornelius’ servants arrived looking for him. They ask Peter to visit Cornelius, a Roman centurion in Caesarea – a good Gentile, we’re told, but a Gentile nonetheless, and maybe even worse, a Gentile who was part of the Roman Empire’s occupying military force – surely, someone the Law would consider unclean to a good, devout Jew as Peter and pretty much all of Jesus’ disciples were.

Apparently, Peter was able to at least make some immediate connection between his vision and his current circumstances, though, since he invited these unclean Gentiles to spend the night there, at the house, recognizing that offering hospitality to others is more important than maintaining rules of ritual purity.

When they did arrive in Caesarea, even though Cornelius had sent for Peter, to learn from him, the reverse actually happened – Peter learned by listening to Cornelius, that the message of the gospel isn’t just for Jewish ears, and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit isn’t just for Jewish hearts, but for Gentiles, too. And just as Phillip came to understand the universality of the Kingdom of God in his encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch, now here Peter learns the same thing. Just as at Pentecost, Peter ends up preaching, and people are again speaking in tongues – but where on Pentecost, it was the speaking in tongues that brought the audience to hear Peter’s preaching, and it was his preaching that led many of those listeners to follow Jesus; here, in Caesarea, Peter says that it’s him who’s learned something. And the speaking in tongues comes only afterward. In this story, God uses a very unlikely and surprising person to teach Peter an important lesson about the kingdom and the gospel – that there is no one who God considers unclean – that all people are God’s people; that all people are loved by God, that all people – all people – are created in God’s image, and dwelt within by God.

It wasn’t anything new for God to teach things to people in unexpected ways, through unexpected people, with the teacher becoming the student, and the new teacher being someone from completely out in left field. Even Jesus himself experienced this, in his surprising, even shocking, experience of being schooled by the Syrophoenician woman who taught Jesus that his mission was to Jew and Gentile alike.

I’ve come to think that this is God’s favorite manner of revelation, because its very outrageousness and surprise shakes us out of our assumptions and our complacency enough to actually be able to see and understand the message God has in mind. It’s easy to miss, or even intentionally ignore, some important but challenging message delivered in a way that’s too conventional, too expected, too polite. The scriptural account of God’s actions in human existence seems to be a strong witness to the idea that important messages like that often need to be conveyed in ways that are unexpected or even shocking, whether in Peter’s time or in our own.

If that’s true, then who in our own lives might God be using to speak some truth to us? What unexpected people, situations, what unexpected ways might God be using to try to expand our own understanding about God and the nature of God’s kingdom? I mean, most of us can imagine experiencing an encounter with the divine on some majestic mountaintop, or in the middle of an old-growth forest, or while watching some breathtaking sunset on a deserted beach. That’s where we expect to find God. But what if the reality is more often that God is in the unexpected? What if God is trying to speak to us through people and situations that would shock us to even imagine? What if God is less about the beauty of the rain forest and more about the shock of the reversal?

I invite you to think about the people you know, in whatever way, large or small. And imagine the person, or people, that you’d consider the least likely candidate for God to use to teach you something important. Now ask yourself, what if God actually is using that person to try to break through to you – and if so, what might that something be? Recognize that unlikely person is a beloved child of God, created in God’s image every bit as much as you, that they illustrate some particular facet of the multifaceted image of God just as much as you. Consider what surprising, unexpected insight God might want you to learn from them.

It’s an important, humbling exercise that we should all do for ourselves as individual Christians, but also in a collective sense, as the church. Even we Presbyterians, who place a high value on things being done “decently and in order” have to admit that so often, God is the God of the reversal. The unexpected. the unorthodox; the indecent and disorderly. The God of “we’ve never done it that way before;” the God of “well that would be different;” the God of “I’d never thought of it that way before.” Because of the very outrageous, unexpected way that God dwelt among us as one of us, and that God reconciles with us, we should always remember that God might very well be trying to do something unexpected at any time, in any way. Maybe sometime this month. Maybe this week. Maybe even yet today. The idea that God is the God of the unexpected, the God of the reversal, is good news for all of us because it means then that we can have hope in all things, in all situations, even when the odds don’t seem to be in our favor. It’s good news for us because the most powerful ways that God shows us how loved and precious we are so often revealed to us in the unexpected, in the reversal. Our God is indeed the God of the great reversal. Phillip and the Ethiopian eunuch learned that. Peter and Corneilus learned that. And, with God’s help, so will we.

Thanks be to God.

Sit Down, We’ll Eat, We’ll Talk

(sermon 4/18/21 – Third Sunday of Easter)

Image by Tri Le from Pixabay

Luke 24:36b-48  

Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence. Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

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It isn’t any secret, any great mystery, that our world is filled with division. Differences. Arguments; ways of thinking and understanding the world so opposite that a person on one side of a disagreement can’t even imagine how a person on the other side could ever think the way the do. That’s clearly no mystery; that’s simply our daily existence. The mystery is why anyone thinks it was ever any different. Human reality is that it’s always been this way, and if we ever lived in a time or place that we didn’t personally experience those vast differences, it was only because we were privileged, or more accurately handicapped, by living a very sheltered and narrow existence where we didn’t have to be aware of such vast differences.

Those differences certainly existed in Jesus’ time; we hear it in the gospel accounts of the crucifixion. Crowds around the cross – Roman soldiers, religious and civic leaders, and ordinary people alike – were mocking and ridiculing Jesus, taunting him. To them, he was a traitor, a troublemaker. Even among those who might have otherwise been sympathetic to his cause, some of them disapproved of his words and his unsettling, confrontational methods, thinking he was only angering the authorities by breaking their laws and customs, and ultimately he was hurting his cause and not helping it. Many people were very glad to see Jesus, the troublemaker, the discomforter, the gadfly, finally getting his, and to be clear, in accordance with the law of the day, Jesus got exactly what he deserved.

At the same time that those people were cheering on Jesus’ execution as a victory for law and order, there were obviously others, many others, who were having the worst day of their lives. They were emotionally gutted, completely demoralized, in shock because of what was happening. And then, just these few days later, everything changed.

If today’s gospel text seems almost like a replay of last week’s, that’s because it largely is. Last week, we heard John’s version of Jesus’ appearance to the disciples that first Easter Sunday evening, and this week, we heard Luke’s version of the story. They’re pretty similar, but there are some differences. According to Luke, Jesus had appeared to some of his disciples earlier in the day and walked with them as they journeyed out from Jerusalem to Emmaus. Now, those disciples had rushed back to Jerusalem and had told the others about having been with Jesus, when out of the blue – just as John told us last week – Jesus shows up in their midst, and from the sound of things, he does it about as nonchalantly as a teenager walking into the house after school and saying “Hey, how’s it going; do we have anything to eat?”

In fact, that’s an important difference between John’s account of that night and Luke’s Both emphasize that even though it was somehow different, Jesus did have a physical body. He wasn’t just a spirit, he wasn’t just a ghost, because if he were a ghost would signify that he was actually dead. No, he had mass, shape, form – he had corporeality. Luke even doubles down on this point more than John, by including the detail of Jesus eating the broiled fish, and likely having some wine to wash it down with. There’s a corny old joke – a skeleton walks into a bar and says “Bartender, give me a beer and a mop!” Luke’s point here is that that didn’t happen – Jesus was real; he was physical; he had a body. In short, Jesus was truly resurrected.

We need to admit here that no matter who we are, at some point, or at many points, we’ve wondered about the factual aspect of the resurrection. We may have completely rejected the idea as a literal event. That’s understandable, because on balance, all of us are reasonably sane and rationale and logical and scientific, and the resurrection is none of that. And many of us have also said something along the lines that if somehow it ended up being possible to categorically prove that Jesus wasn’t resurrected, or that his resurrection was purely spiritual, or that accounts of his resurrection are meant to be allegorical or metaphorical, that it wouldn’t really change our faith much at all; because so much of our faith is about life in the here and now, regardless of the possibility of some “golden ticket” to heaven, and eternity.

I get that, and on some days, I’ve even said that. It’s a true statement. But still, even for as postmodern, post-traditional, progressive as my own personal theology is, I still believe – on most days, anyway – I still believe in Jesus’ real, physical resurrection. I believe that his resurrection was indeed metaphorical on several levels, but I think it was much more than that, too. Maybe if I’m being completely honest, and I do try to be – I don’t believe in Jesus’ literal resurrection because of any complex theological arguments or “proofs” for it, or because it’s seen as the fulfillment of ancient prophecy – but instead, maybe I believe in it just because all reason and common sense and the smart money says that I shouldn’t, and because of that, I do, because that’s just the kind of person I am, and that’s just the kind of God I think God is.

To me, the resurrection would be the best, most effective way to put the world on notice that while it and its power thought it had the upper hand in the universe, God is always working behind the scenes and will ultimately play the trump card.

To me, the resurrection would also be the best, and maybe the most artistic way to affirm that we creatures formed from the dust of the earth aren’t just trapped in some unfortunate and ultimately useless and unimportant accident of evolution – but rather, that our having been created this way, life with skin and bones and warts and bruises is indeed good, and blessed, and what God intended all along; and that physical enjoyment in this world is also something good, and blessed, and planned.

And to me, the resurrection would also be the best and maybe the most poetic way to teach us all the reality of hope. It’s been written that the power of the resurrection is the power to plant the seeds of transformation. If resurrection is real, any kind of change can be real. Closed minds can open. Hatred can be transformed into understanding and compassion. Fear can be released and replaced with confidence and real security. If something like Jesus rising from the dead is possible, then so is stopping gun violence and police abuses of all kind be possible, too. If something like Jesus rising from the dead is possible, then erasing great swaths of racism and bigotry, and poverty and sickness is possible, too.

In short, I believe in Jesus’ resurrection because it would be the greatest single validation of the goodness of our physical lives here and the hope that solving so many of our problems is possible, and I refuse to give up that hope because I believe that God doesn’t want me, or you, or anyone, to give up that hope. So when Luke tells us that Jesus appeared in that room with his disciples, his friends, and he told them “Sit down; we’ll eat, we’ll talk,” and he proceeded to open up the meaning of the scriptures to them, and the deep truths of the faith to them; as rational and cynical and jaded as I am – on many days, anyway – I still believe it.

I believe it because I believe in the power, and the artistry, and the poetry that would be embedded in God using this ornery way to poke a stick in the eye of the powers of the world while simultaneously showing us how good, and blessed, and loved we are. To me, the idea that God would be willing to be so irrational, so illogical, to show me, and you, how loved we are is true gospel to my heart, gospel that we can all grasp onto in a world that claims to be logical and rational but that, as the news shows us every single day, ends up being anything but. I guess that in the end, in choosing to believe in the resurrection, and all the good news it would affirm, I’m not really choosing between logic and illogic – I’m just choosing which illogic to put my trust in – the world’s version, or God’s. And I believe – on most days, anyway – that I’ve chosen wisely.

Thanks be to God.