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.

Doors and Windows and Data Points

(sermon 4/11/21 – Second Sunday of Easter)

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

John 20:19-31
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

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It was a perfectly reasonable thing to do. Any rational person would have done the same thing; you would have; I would have. The threat was real and undeniable; the power of the empire had had enough of the threat and challenge to their own authority that Jesus posed, and they’d arrested him, abused him, and killed him in the most shameful and humiliating way they could, to make an example of him to anyone who might even think of similarly questioning their authority. And that put Jesus’ followers directly in their crosshairs. The threat of death for them was very real, and waiting for them outside their door, out in the street, out in the public places, and so, on this day, just two full days after Jesus had been killed, the disciples were keeping as low a profile as they possibly could, hunkered down inside, behind a locked door, worried about the threat outside and wondering what was to come next. What would they do, where would they go, what would happen to their movement – what would it look like? Would it even survive at all, now that Jesus was gone?

But then, suddenly Jesus wasn’t gone. He was right there, with them, in that room. Somehow different, but somehow also the same, but in whatever way he was there, and very, very real. In the midst of their worry and fear, and their very real concerns and questions about their own safety and the survival of the movement, even through the locked door Jesus was present.

It isn’t hard to see at least some partial parallel to our own current situation in this story. We’ve all been hunkered down behind our own doors, and for a lot longer than just a few days, out of concern for a very real and potentially deadly threat that’s been just on the other side of our own doors, even if it was the power of pathogens and not the power of empire that we’ve been worried about. And in a very real way, we’ve had similar questions, too. What would our own present-day version of the same movement started by those disciples look like after we came back out of our time behind doors?

And it isn’t just the pandemic that’s given us pause. It’s more than just that. A recently issued Gallup poll shows that church membership has plummeted in the last ten years, more sharply and quickly than at any other time in our history. In 2010, about 70% of Americans were official members of a church, synagogue, or mosque; in 2020 that number had dropped to 47% – less than half of Americans for the first time since polling began. And that drop was seen across the board – in virtually every race, every age, every socioeconomic level, and across all denominations, liberal, conservative, or middle of the road.  A significant part of that drop can be attributed to a generational shift, where people are far more likely to participate in groups or organizations without ever taking the step of becoming an official member. This phenomenon can be seen in the full range of social or cultural institutions, from churches to museums to the Moose Lodge. But that generational shift doesn’t explain it all, or even most of it. What other polling suggests is that the drop is more related to the fact that the general public’s overall impression of churches, and church people, has turned increasingly negative. They see the church as a whole as a negative force in society; an institution that’s racist, anti-woman, anti-LGBTQ; anti-science, anti-environment, and a host of other things that they see as just being common sense. Most of them have moved well past those issues, and they tend to see the church as a monolith, and a backward, obstructionist one at that.

There’s a term used in social science and political circles known as the Overton Window. The Overton window essentially brackets the range of issues, both social and economic, and from more liberal to more conservative, that are considered socially acceptable, without being considered radical or unacceptable at any given point in time. And of course, over time the Overton Window – the range of socially acceptable positions – shifts. In the last decade or so – roughly the same time church affiliation has taken that dramatic nosedive – social attitudes have changed even more quickly than usual, and the Overton Window has shifted accordingly, moving in a much more progressive direction. And what the general public perceives to be the social positions of the church are now very much outside of the Overton Window. The public has moved on, and they have the impression that that the church hasn’t. They perceive the church to hold views that just aren’t any longer within the Overton Window – that we aren’t just failing to realistically address the issues inside that window, we’re stuck wasting time arguing about the color of the curtains – we’re missing the whole point.

But here’s the rub: in another recent survey, this one by PRRI, it turns out that in the U.S. there are actually some 35 million Christians, spread across all traditions and denominations, that are consistently progressive regarding those particular hot-button social issues that the public sees as dealbreakers. And there are only about 17 million Christians that are consistently conservative regarding those same hot-button issues. That’s right – in this country there are almost twice as many consistently progressive Christians as there are consistently conservative ones. That might come as a surprise to you.

So where am I going with all of this? What’s my point? Just this:

While we’re still behind our locked doors right now, and we’re starting to wonder what a post-Covid church will, or should, look like; or even, given that scary-sounding Gallup poll, if we’re even going to survive at all; we need to remember a few very important things. First, our situation today isn’t anywhere near as dire as it was for those disciples gathered together on that first Easter Sunday evening. But Christ was present with them. He comforted them. He inspired them, emboldened them; he breathed the Spirit upon them; he gave peace to them. Remember, friends, that Christ is with us in every bit as real a way as he was with them, and he is offering us the very same comfort, and strength, and inspiration, and peace.

The other thing that Jesus did with those disciples was that he told them that at the right time, they were going to have to leave that room. They were going to have to go out, and tell their story, tell their truth. They were going to have to share the good news with others. That would come with challenges and setbacks, to be sure, but that he would always be with them, and because of that, they would succeed. They did eventually do that, on Pentecost Sunday, and in spite of how dark things looked on that Easter Sunday evening, when they did go out, they changed the world forever.

When we similarly come out from behind our own locked doors and come back out into the world, the same risen Lord will be dwelling with us, and empowering us, and emboldening us. We’ll have the ability to proclaim our story, our truth; the same good news of God’s love for all people; of God’s embrace and compassion for all people. And we’ll have the ability to share with others – our friends, neighbors, coworkers, others, whoever – that this good news includes the truth that God stands for – and contrary to what they might have thought, that the church; at least *our* church, believes that this good news includes:

  • caring for the poor and suffering and sick; and working to end the systems that cause their poverty and suffering and sickness;
  • demanding justice and equity for people of all races, and working to end the systems that cause those injustices;
  • extending the full dignity, acceptance, equal rights, and equal protection under the law, for people of every sexual orientation, gender, or gender identity; including marriage equality and full equality in the life and leadership of the church;
  • compassion for all those who are fleeing to this country for their survival; and working to end systems that cause their suffering, both in their own home country and in our own.

As our doors reopen, and as our society’s doors reopen, be loving and be bold in sharing this truth about our gospel, and our church, and our beliefs. And all the while – and this is important – make sure that you point out that your beliefs about these hot-button issues are because of, part of, your religious faith, not in spite of them. And if the people you share that with seem surprised, maybe say “Even though I guess I can understand that, really, you shouldn’t be. But maybe you should join us sometime.”

With Christ, and with the boldness and love and truth that he empowers us with, we can change the world, too. And it will all start, as it did with those disciples, when we open our doors, and leave our rooms, and step out into the world again, on Pentecost Sunday.

Thanks be to God.

On This Morning, On This Day

(sermon 4/4/21 – Easter Sunday)

They took Jesus; and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them.

After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), “I am thirsty.” A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes. But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her. – John 19 & 20 excerpts

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This morning is not like any other morning.

This day is not like any other day.

Because this day, this morning, beloved child of God, is the day, more than any other, that we recognize, and celebrate, and give thanks for the great, eternal, divine truth of the universe – that God’s very being is love. God’s very essence is love. God’s purpose, and the purpose of all of creation, is love.

This day is like no other, because this day, more than any other, we recognize, and celebrate, and give thanks for the great, eternal mystery – that in Jesus Christ, God entered our human existence to show us what love looks like in the flesh. God with skin on, love with skin on, it’s saying one and the same thing. And we celebrate that through Christ, we are not only made at one with God, not only made at peace with God, we are inextricably, inseparably united with God, the divine source of all love. And on this morning, on this day more than any other day, we celebrate that Christ has done this, not through some eternally mandated spilling of blood to appease some bloodthirsty God who requires the sacrifice of life in order to be able to forgive sin, as if God wasn’t great enough or powerful enough to do that without it; no. And we celebrate that Christ accomplished this, not by giving up his life so that God would have some literal capital, the resources needed in order for God to literally “buy us back” from Satan, as if God wasn’t greater and more powerful than Satan and evil anyway; no!. On this morning, on this day, we recognize, and celebrate, and give thanks for the reality that Christ made that oneness with God, that unity with God, possible for us simply by virtue of revealing the true fullness, the depth, of God’s love for us – God’s desire to be at peace with us, in relationship with us, and to share in our lives, in our joys and sorrows. Christ accomplished this by showing us the kind of love God’s love is – a sacrificial love that is deep, and broad, and often costly, sometimes even costly to the point of death, as it was for Jesus – but still, a love that is unconditional and unending.

And in the process of revealing that truth about God, Jesus also shows us what our love for God, and for one another, should look like, too. Our love must look like caring for one another, just as Jesus’ did. Our love must look like lifting up one another, just as Jesus’ did. Our love must include sharing table, and for that matter, everything else with one another, just as Jesus’ did. And yes, just as Jesus’ did, our love must always speak truth to power, standing up against exploiters and abusers and oppressors of every kind on behalf of one another, even when that comes at great cost, as it did for him.

This day, this morning, we recognize, and celebrate, and give thanks for, the affirmation, the confirmation, the validation, that God has conveyed upon us, through God’s affirmation, confirmation, validation of Jesus that was conveyed when God raised him up, on this day, on this morning.

So wherever you find yourself this day, however you come to worship today:

  • Whether you’ve come with feelings that you just aren’t good enough, not for others, or even yourself, let alone for God;
  • whether you’ve come with the particular fears and stresses that come with your age, whether that age is old or young; or the stresses and problems that come from finances, whether you’re rich or poor;
  • whether you’ve come carrying the burdens of being treated unjustly, unequally, by people and systems that view themselves as superior to you, and you to be lacking and worthy of their scorn or injustice, because of what you look like or where you’re from or who you love or how much you earn or where you went to school or if you went to school or for any other reason – in other words, whether you’re being treated unjustly simply because of *who God has created you to be*;
  • whether you’ve come mourning loss – loss of loved ones, loss of security, of opportunity, of health, of mobility, of independence, loss of a year’s time with family and friends; whatever;
  • or whether you come today filled with a spirit of contentment, comfort, peace, and gratitude;

Where*ever* you find yourself, how*ever* you’ve come to this morning, this day, take heart.

Take heart; be at peace; be filled with love and joy, because when God rolled back the stone from Jesus’ tomb, when God raised Jesus from the dead, it was indeed that eternal validation that Jesus’ life was true. That his words were true. That the good news, the gospel that he proclaimed of God’s love for all people; the same gospel that you have believed, and trusted in, and professed in our own lives and words and deeds – that gospel is true.That is the great truth that this morning, this day, gives witness to.

Take heart, and be filled with joy, because in Jesus’ resurrection, God shows you, and me, that God didn’t just dwell among us for a few years two thousand years ago, but rather, God dwells with us still. God dwells with us, and within us, and loves us just as we are, just as we come, now and for all time.

Take heart, and be filled with joy, knowing that God’s raising Jesus from the dead affirms that God will never abandon you. Knowing that whatever your happiness and joy, God will celebrate with you; God will sing with you; God will dance with you. And knowing that whatever your suffering and trials, God will walk with you; God will strengthen you; God will comfort you; and God will share in your suffering.  

God’s raising Jesus from the dead is the great eternal “Yes” to love, and life, and all that is good, in other words, all that is of God; and it is the loud, bold, unshakeable “No” to anything that would oppose it.

So yes, beloved child of God, take heart. Recognize, and celebrate, and be grateful for this day, this morning, for this good news of resurrection for you, and for me, and for all people. Celebrate this day, because on this day, more than any other, we joyfully remember and proclaim that Christ is risen – he is risen indeed!