David in the Village and Beyond

(sermon 6/24/18)

child versus sumo wrestler

1 Samuel 17:1…49

Now the Philistines gathered their armies for battle. And there came out from the camp of the Philistines a champion named Goliath, of Gath, whose height was six cubits and a span. He had a helmet of bronze on his head, and he was armed with a coat of mail; the weight of the coat was five thousand shekels of bronze. He had greaves of bronze on his legs and a javelin of bronze slung between his shoulders. The shaft of his spear was like a weaver’s beam, and his spear’s head weighed six hundred shekels of iron; and his shield-bearer went before him. He stood and shouted to the ranks of Israel, “Why have you come out to draw up for battle? Am I not a Philistine, and are you not servants of Saul? Choose a man for yourselves, and let him come down to me. If he is able to fight with me and kill me, then we will be your servants; but if I prevail against him and kill him, then you shall be our servants and serve us.” And the Philistine said, “Today I defy the ranks of Israel! Give me a man, that we may fight together.” When Saul and all Israel heard these words of the Philistine, they were dismayed and greatly afraid.

Now David was the son of an Ephrathite of Bethlehem in Judah, named Jesse, who had eight sons. The three eldest sons of Jesse had followed Saul to the battle. David was the youngest; he went back and forth from Saul to feed his father’s sheep at Bethlehem. David rose early in the morning. He came to the encampment as the army was going forth to the battle line, shouting the war cry. He ran to the ranks, and went and greeted his brothers. As he talked with them, Goliath came up out of the ranks of the Philistines, and spoke the same words as before. And David heard him. All the Israelites, when they saw the man, fled from him and were very much afraid.  David said to the men who stood by him, Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?”

When the words that David spoke were heard, they repeated them before Saul; and he sent for him. David said to Saul, “Let no one’s heart fail because of him; your servant will go and fight with this Philistine.” Saul said to David, “You are not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him; for you are just a boy, and he has been a warrior from his youth.” But David said to Saul, “Your servant has killed both lions and bears; and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them, since he has defied the armies of the living God.” The Lord, who saved me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, will save me from the hand of this Philistine.”

So Saul said to David, “Go, and may the Lord be with you!”  David took his staff in his hand, and chose five smooth stones from the wadi, and put them in his shepherd’s bag, in the pouch; his sling was in his hand, and he drew near to the Philistine. When the Philistine looked and saw David, he disdained him, for he was only a youth, ruddy and handsome in appearance. The Philistine said to David, “Am I a dog, that you come to me with sticks?” And the Philistine cursed David by his gods. The Philistine said to David, “Come to me, and I will give your flesh to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the field. But David said to the Philistine, “You come to me with sword and spear and javelin; but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This very day the Lord will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down and cut off your head; and I will give the dead bodies of the Philistine army this very day to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the earth, so that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that the Lord does not save by sword and spear; for the battle is the Lord’s and he will give you into our hand.”

When the Philistine drew nearer to meet David, David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet the Philistine. 49David put his hand in his bag, took out a stone, slung it, and struck the Philistine on his forehead; the stone sank into his forehead, and he fell face down on the ground.

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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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David lived in the village, out in the middle of nowhere, a young, good-looking but scrawny kid, living with his parents and his older brothers and their families. Being as young as he was, his contribution to the family’s work was to be the shepherd of the family’s flock of sheep and goats, while his older brothers did the tougher work.

But now, the king was at war, and that tougher work meant that his brothers were fighting in King Saul’s army against the Philistines, those perennial adversaries of the Israelites who seemed to always be mocking them and their God. On this particular day, the armies were encamped, facing each other, at a place not far from David’s village – so close, in fact, that David’s mother decided to send her boys a care package – sending them some good home-cooked food that had to be better than that army food, maybe forwarding on a letter telling how everyone was at home and encouraging them to be careful, and sticking in the last few hometown newspapers, maybe sending them a few pairs of fresh new socks, whatever. And once the package was ready, David was sent out to the encampment to deliver it. Once he got there and did that, he decided to stick around for a while, because frankly, herding sheep is kind of boring, and this was all very new and different and exciting, and really, wouldn’t you? What he saw there was unbelievable. Goliath, this big, hulking mountain of a man, standing out on the battlefield, taunting and mocking the Israelites to a one-on-one face off, calling them out and mocking them, and everyone, even the King himself, was cowering in fear.

Everyone, that is, except David, who, on this particular day, said no. Enough. Why should we put up with this bully? Why are we afraid of this big blowhard? Why? Maybe to some degree, it came out of that mindset that all young people have that they’re immortal, but he trusted God, and maybe figuring that no one else was going to challenge him, and if they didn’t, the Philistines were going to beat the Israelites, David figured he really didn’t have anything left to lose. And so he stood up to the man.

Of course, we know how it turned out. Because of this young, scrawny kid’s trust in God, and his willingness to stand up and do something about this injustice, God used David to advance peace and justice for the people.

There was another David, in another village – only this wasn’t a village out in the middle of nowhere, it was Greenwich Village, in the middle of Manhattan, and the year was 1969. This David didn’t live in the Village because that’s where his parents were; he lived there because it’s where they weren’t. They’d thrown him out of the house when he tod them he was gay. He was a young, good-looking but scrawny kid who was homeless, living on the streets, and who had to use all of his wits just to survive, which was all the harder because the world considered him a criminal, or a moral degenerate, or mentally ill, or maybe all three. He wasn’t even old enough to drink legally – but he had a fake ID that looked real enough, if you didn’t look too hard. In those days, New York’s liquor control authority could designate a bar or restaurant a public nuisance, and would revoke their liquor license, if it served even one customer who was gay, or who even seemed to look, gay, whatever that meant. What that led to was that most of the bars where gays could go were owned and operated by the Mafia, who could use their connections and bribes to usually keep the police away from the place, at least during the peak hours, and who would get tipped off before any raids did happen, so they could hide most of the money in the register so it wouldn’t be confiscated in the raid.

On this particular night, David decided to use his fake ID to get into a nearby place like that, a grimy little hole in the wall called the Stonewall Inn.

1 - Stonewall Inn

On one hand, he hated the place. It was dark, and dirty, and it sold mob liquor and beer, most of it coming off of highjacked trucks, all of it watered down and priced at twice what it would cost at the bar a few doors away. On the other hand, in a world that was completely hostile to him, it was his sanctuary – it was his equivalent of a church, where he could go, and relax, and feel reasonably safe, and where he could enjoy time together with his friends, being validated and not judged, and form a community, one to replace the community outside the doors that had rejected him. It wasn’t much, but it was one of the few places where he could just be himself.

But this night, there would be no sanctuary, because in a highly unusual situation, the bar was raided without any advance tip-off, during its peak business hours. In those days, if a person got arrested in a place like that, their name was printed in the paper, maybe even their picture would be printed. Many people were disowned by their families, many people lost their jobs, a number of people even killed themselves out of the humiliation and the consequences that would come from getting arrested. The police would taunt David and his friends mercilessly, and often beat them with their nightsticks, almost like it was a sport. Usually, when they were arrested, people wouldn’t do anything. They never tried to fight it, or to claim that they had a right to privacy. What could you do? You can’t beat City Hall, or the police.

But this night, something was different. Something clicked. This night, as the police started dragging people out of the bar and putting them into a paddy wagon to take them in for booking, something snapped. David and his friends suddenly thought, why are we allowing ourselves to put up with these bullies? No. No more. And so, on June 28th, 1969, David and his friends, a bunch of brutalized and harassed street kids who figured they really had nothing left to lose, stood up to their Goliath, the police and the system that criminalized them. Together, they fought back, engaging in an uprising that ran for three consecutive nights, but that really is still going on in many ways even today. Their courage in standing up to their bigger, more powerful enemy that night was the thing that got the gay rights movement to finally take off, causing positive change to the world, and yes, the church, too. God used David and his friends to bring things a little more in line with God’s wishes for justice in this world. If you’d said to David that God had used him this way, he’d have laughed at you, or maybe even spit at you, but still, that’s exactly what happened that night.

My first point here is that just as with the biblical story of David and Goliath, God uses unexpected, and often unlikely, people as agents of positive change in the world. And my second point, which we see in the story of David in Greenwich Village, is that by coming together, we can achieve far greater good than we could ever achieve by ourselves. Honestly, this is one of the key principles behind why Christ established the church itself, and it’s a key principle in our theological understanding that we’re called to be a connectional church, not just a lot of separate, independent congregations.

We know these things are true. We’ve seen how God can and does use normal, everyday people, often bringing them together as a group, in order to bring positive change. We saw it in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, when people of faith, including the Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church, Eugene Carson Blake – there he is in the spiffy straw hat, arm in arm with Dr. King –

2 - ECB and MLK Wash DC 1963

people of faith, and people of no faith, coming together to march in Washington, and countless other places. The power of their witness was the power of David over Goliath, and they brought real, positive change to our society.

We saw it just this past week, too, in several ways. Last Saturday, the Presbyterian General Assembly kicked off in St. Louis with a worship service. During the service, an offering was received, which was to be used to pay the bail of non-violent prisoners who were stuck in jail awaiting their trial, sometimes up to a year waiting for a court date, even before any possible conviction, stuck in jail because they couldn’t afford bail. It is truly the reinstitution of debtor’s prisons, one of the key grievances against England that spurred the American Revolution. Then, on Tuesday, a thousand Presbyterians marched through the street

3 end cash bail 2018a(1)

from the convention center to the city jail, where J. Herbert Nelson, our current Stated Clerk, delivered a check for what was received in that offering – more than $47,000,

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which was two or three times the typical offering during opening worship of a GA. Coming together, the church literally set the prisoners free, and the scriptures tell us to do. Their power was the power of David over the Goliath of an unjust bail system that oppresses the poor and people of color.

We saw the same thing just yesterday, when people from all over the country came to Washington in a mass rally for the New Poor People’s Campaign,

6 poor peoples campaign

speaking up for the poor and all oppressed people in our country. This movement has been staging rallies and protests in virtually every state in the union, and they have been noticed. Their power is the power of David over the Goliath.

And we see this same truth in the countless protests around the country of our current immigration policies.

7 immigration protest

Their power is the power of David over the Goliath of immoral and unjust federal policies – and their message is getting across to government leaders, and forcing them to change at least some of their policies.

But these truths are just as true when we aren’t protesting or rallying; they’re just as true when the only sit-in we’re taking part in is the one around our own dinner table. God works through the David’s of the world – the seemingly small, he seemingly weak, the seemingly outnumbered and outgunned – unexpected, unlikely people. People like you and me. God will work through us to enable us to overcome the Goliaths in our own lives.

What’s the Goliath in your life today? What’s the seemingly insurmountable giant that’s causing you fear, worry, anxiety? Whatever it is, remember that God empowers and equips and enables you to become a David, too – because the Spirit of Christ – the same Spirit who has power over the wind and the waves, and who commanded them to be still, and they obeyed – that same Spirit dwells within you, and within me.

Thanks be to God.

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A House United

(sermon 6/10/18)

hand in hand

1 Samuel 8:4-20

Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him, “You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.” But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to govern us.” Samuel prayed to the Lord, and the Lord said to Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. Just as they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so also they are doing to you. Now then, listen to their voice; only—you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.”

So Samuel reported all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. He said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”

But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; they said, “No! but we are determined to have a king over us, so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.”

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Mark 3:20-35

The crowd came together again, so that they 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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What goes around, comes around. That must have been what Samuel was thinking as he sat considering what the people were demanding of him. God had first called him as a prophet when he was just a young child, to deliver the message to Eli, a chief leader of the people, that his time in power was coming to an end, as punishment for the misdeeds and corruption of his two sons. And now, all these years later, Samuel’s own two sons were ruling over two different regions that Samuel had put them in charge of, but they’d become corrupt, taking bribes and abusing their position in other ways, and the people were demanding an end to it. The irony couldn’t have been lost on Samuel.

Give us a king, they said. We want to be like all the other powerful kingdoms surrounding us. But Samuel understood the problem with what they were asking. Samuel understood that what was really underlying their demand was that they were actually turning away from trusting in God, and toward the conventional earthly understandings of power and the way to be a people. All the God-talk was OK when they went to the temple and offered sacrifices, but the rest of the time, they needed some kind of leadership that worked in the real world. After all, you have to be pragmatic about these kinds of things.

It boggled Samuel’s mind. So, you think there’s corruption now? he asked. Oh, just wait, if you want a king. A king will take your money, your property, your freedom, your rights, and even your children, and trample on them all, in the name of national security, national interest, national dignity, preserving the honor of the king, but really, for the most part, just to bolster the ego and provide luxurious perks for the king himself, at the expense of the people. Samuel knew this, and the history of the kings that followed showed him to be right. Even the two kings who have been held up as the best of them, David and Solomon, were deeply flawed and abusive and corrupt rulers, and the worst of the bunch were truly appalling.

And Samuel knew that the only way a king can get away with that kind of abuse of so many for any length of time without getting overthrown was to keep the people divided. Justifiably or otherwise, keep them afraid of the other kingdoms around them and see that they’re seen as a threat. And get them into nasty internal squabbles – this was a time when Jerusalem was still a Canaanite city, not an Israelite one, and there wouldn’t be a centralized temple there for many years. So where should they properly worship God – at the temple in Shiloh, or in Bethel, or Gilgal, or Mizpah, or Ramah? God could truly physically dwell in only one, so which one was it? Which one was the place for true followers of God to worship and sacrifice? And for that matter, there were countless prophets roaming around the countryside; who were the true prophets of God, and who were the false prophets? And on and on. Keeping the people arguing and fighting amongst themselves, creating artificial divisions and countless “us versus them” battles that would keep people from seeing the truth of the unity that God wanted for them, would keep them from focusing on the king’s abuses. There’s no doubt, and Samuel knew it well, that the easiest, most expedient, most self-serving way to keep ruling over the house, at least for the short term, is to keep the house divided.

But Jesus had something to say about this in today’s gospel text, when people accused him of being able to cast out demons because he was possessed by a demon himself. It was stupid, he said. What sense would that make? He asked. A kingdom divided against itself cannot stand. A house divided against itself cannot stand.

This as true today as it was then, and it’s just as true whether you’re talking about a literal household, a family, or a church congregation, or a community, or a country. And yet, everywhere we look, we see people working to create divisions, fractures, separations; to set one group of “us” against some supposedly dangerous, or immoral, or otherwise undesirable “them.” And it’s become such a natural part of our lives to constantly be at each other’s throat that we almost don’t even recognize it; we’ve been trained as well as Pavlov’s dog, as soon as a bell rings, we come out of our corners ready to fight tooth and nail over something, anything, as if our lives depended on it, and everything is reduced to black and white, no middle ground. I recently saw such a heated argument between two reasonably intelligent people online that I swear, if they’d really been in the same room together it really would have come to blows, just over whether they heard “Laurel” or “Yanny.” And of course, the divisions and brokenness that we allow ourselves to get sucked into, the things that divide our house, are often far more dangerous and harmful than that silly argument.

It’s an especially Reformed/Presbyterian thing to place a high level of belief in the idea that there is no aspect of our lives, no aspect of creation, that is outside of God’s scope or authority – that God is Ruler over all. It’s what we know as the doctrine of “the sovereignty of God.” It’s because of the sovereignty of God that Jesus always clearly, unambiguously taught his followers to work toward unity, not division, all areas of life. To mend, not to tear apart. To repair brokenness, not to create it, in our own lives, in our families, in our cities, in our world.

It’s because of the sovereignty of God, we can’t say “Oh, that all sounds good on Sunday, but that really doesn’t work come Monday morning. That just isn’t realistic. It’s naïve. You don’t understand the way things really work. You don’t understand how bad the situation is, how dangerous those people are, how immoral those people are, how different, how liberal, how conservative, blah, blah, blah. You just don’t understand how bad those other people are.

But they’re all God’s people. And everything is God’s kingdom. It’s all God’s house. And Christ calls us to be repairers, unifiers, of that house. To actively work to increase understanding, and unity, and to be peacemakers – and to just as actively work to oppose any thing, any one, any action, any policy, law, or regulation, any conventional wisdom, any stupid Facebook meme, that serves to divide and cause friction among us. Christ has taught us that we need to reach across these lines of separation, and even to work to eliminate the line to begin with, because they’re mostly artificial and meaningless anyway. And when we reach over those lines, we’ll discover the humanity in each other. And when we discover their humanity, we’ll also be able to see the  light of God dwelling within, and radiating from them. When we recognize their humanity, we’ll be able to see that they’ve been created in the divine image, the very image of God, every bit as much as we are, and are deserving of every bit as much dignity and respect, no matter how different we may seem. And we’ll be able to work together to erase those meaningless lines of separation and work for a house united.

What does that look like in practice, to be that kind of a voice of peace and unity in the world? Well, here are just a few very simple examples:

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Here are some faith leaders forming  a line against neo-nazis and other white supremacists in Charlottesville.

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Here’s a picture of some Christians forming a protective barrier around a group of Muslims at prayer.

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Here’s another example of the same thing.

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And here the roles are reversed, because it isn’t only Christians who understand that God wants us to be a house united. Here is a group of Muslims forming a human chain around a Christian church to protect it from attacks.

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And another example of the same thing.

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And another one, this time a group of Muslims standing in support of a synagogue in Norway.

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And the reverse, too, Jews standing in support of Muslims.

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And finally this last one. This is a fairly well-known picture; maybe you’ve seen it before. This is a photo of a young African-American woman named Keisha Thomas, taken in 1996.  That year, the Ku Klux Klan staged a rally in Keisha’s hometown, and as usually happens when the Klan stages a protest, there was a counterprotest to oppose them. Keisha was at that counterprotest, when someone noticed a Klan member there in the middle of the crowd. When people saw him, they started punching him, kicking him, knocking him to the ground and just beating on him. But Keisha saw what was happening, she used her own body as a barrier to protect him from any more beating as he lay on the ground, as she yelled at the people around her that this wasn’t right – you can’t beat badness out of someone; you can’t beat goodness into them. This wasn’t the way.

Those were examples of people working for unity in a larger group setting. Maybe most of us wouldn’t find ourselves in a situation like those. But maybe we’ll find ourselves somewhere when an immigrant, or a person of color, or an LGBTQ person, or whoever, is being harassed and bullied. Is there some way that you could intervene and let that person know that you’re there to be helpful and supportive to them? Is there someone in your neighborhood – someone who’s really different than you are; maybe not someone you’d usually invite to the backyard barbecue – but you find out that they’re suffering some family tragedy. Can you do some kindness for them? Christians are called People of the Book; I think it’s just as true that we’re the People of the Casserole. Stopping in for a brief visit, dropping off some food, maybe opening up a conversation – letting the person know that you care about them, and that you aren’t so different after all. That’s working to establish a house united.

Whether it’s in ways large or small, out of gratitude for the love that God has first shown us, Christ calls us to say Yes, we will follow Christ’s call to love. Yes, we will follow his call to be peacemakers. Yes, we will follow his call to unite.  And we will say No, we will not agree with those why try to separate and divide us. No, we will not accept any artificial, and meaningless, and harmful divisions among us, any more. No – not in our name. Because we know a better name, and a better way than that.

Christ called us to be a house united, because he knew, just as Samuel did before him, that a house united is what God had in mind all along.

Thanks be to God.

 

And So It Begins

Sermon 5/20/18
Pentecost Sunday
MB McCandless’ Last Sunday

pentecost-painting2

Acts 2:1-21

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

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

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

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Up until this point in the Book of Acts, the author has been setting the stage for the main direction of his story – the beginning of the church, with the message of the gospel spreading out from just Jesus’ first followers, out from Jerusalem, out to the regions and nations beyond, near and far. First in this book, we get the story of Jesus ascending into heaven, leaving the disciples behind but telling the to wait there in the city until what he calls “the Paraclete,” what we call the Holy Spirit, comes to them. So as this story begins, they’re still there in the city some fifty days after the Passover, fifty days after the crucifixion, now observing the Jewish festival of Pentecost, or Shavuot, celebrating God’s giving of the Law to Moses on Mt. Sinai. And by this time, the disciples must have been wondering just when, and how, this “Paraclete” was going to show up.

Then, all of a sudden, they find out. They have this amazing experience – wind blowing, and tongues of flame dancing in the air over them, and suddenly they’re speaking languages they hadn’t known before. The Paraclete had arrived. The church is now established, and the disciples have been empowered to do the work Christ had called them to. And so it begins.

Wherever Jesus uses this word, “paraclete,” to describe the Holy Spirit, we usually translate it as “Advocate” or “Comforter.” We often think of the Holy Spirit comforting us in times of anxiety, loss, or grief. That’s certainly part of the work of the Holy Spirit. But at least as often – and certainly, in the instances where the Holy Spirit appears in New Testament stories – the appearance and work of the Holy Spirit is, at least at the beginning, something unsettling – something more discomforting than comforting. Whenever the Holy Spirit begins to move, we can be sure there’s going to be some disturbance; the pot’s going to be stirred; there’s going to be some kind of change to the status quo.

This word that Jesus uses, “paraclete,” literally means to come up alongside, in the sense of helping to lift up, and supporting, and helping to move someone forward in some way that you couldn’t do otherwise. This past week, I read about Franklin Roosevelt, who we all know now, but few people did at the time, was paralyzed. He wore heavy steel braces on his legs that with difficulty and some support, enabled him at least to stand upright, but didn’t really allow him to walk on his own. So his son learned how to walk alongside his father, locking their arms together, actually bearing most of his father’s weight and learning to do it without showing any strain on his own face, and helping to move him forward giving the illusion that his father was walking under his own energy. It was an amazing, loving deception, and as I read about it, I thought that this was actually a pretty good analogy of how the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, works in our own lives.

I’m firmly convinced that at this moment, we’re experiencing the movement of the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, the “discomforting comforter,” just as surely as those disciples did in Jerusalem. The holy winds are blowing within our midst, catching up MB within it, who is here with us for our last Sunday morning together. Soon, she’ll find herself in a completely different pastoral and congregational setting, with all of the excitement, and fear, and possibility, and uncertainty that will bring with it. That same wind is bring change to us, too, as we try to discern how and where we’re being led in terms of our Spiritual Nurture and educational ministries. Whenever that wind blows, whenever the Spirit moves, there’s sure to be some time of discomfort and adjustment. That’s a normal part of the way God moves, and the way we grow in our faith and mission. In the end, though, God will lead us all into paths that are good, and healthy, and which proclaim the gospel of God’s love for all, in ways even greater than before.

God has called MB, and us, into new, and different, and better things; all for the proclamation of the gospel, for the continuation of Christ’s work in the world, and for the glory of God. The winds of Pentecost have blown. And so it begins.

Thanks be to God.

Belonging

(sermon 5/13/18)

baptism water

Acts 1:15-17, 21-26

In those days Peter stood up among the believers (together the crowd numbered about one hundred twenty persons) and said, “Friends, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit through David foretold concerning Judas, who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus— for he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.” So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection.” So they proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias. Then they prayed and said, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.

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John 17:6-19

[Jesus prayed,] ”I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them.

And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled. But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves. I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.

Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.

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Last Sunday evening, the church staff and their spouses gathered at my place for a little farewell get-together for MB. It was a nice evening, filled with friends, and food, and stories, and laughs and sharing our thoughts about MB, her time here, and her new call. And then, just as we’d had enough to eat and were relaxing a bit, Warren got out of his chair, walked over to the piano, and said, “It’s time.” He sat down and started playing song after song, some requests from us and others that just popped into his head, and we all scrambled to google the lyrics on our phones and sang along.

At one point during that, I sat there looking at the smiling faces, all of us coming from different places, with different backgrounds, different stories, all brought together in this moment, smiling, laughing, singing – and I realized that I was in the middle of one of those very special, almost other-worldly moments that on very rare occasion, we’re blessed to be part of. Surrounded by good friends, and love, and laughter, and music. And it went deeper than it being just an ordinary gathering of friends; this was a group who had been knit together by God, brought together through our common love for God and our desire to serve God, and we were all a part of this truly magical moment. I felt so blessed, and grateful, that I was a part of it, and connected to these people. It was a deep feeling of belonging.

Both of today’s scripture texts deal in different ways with the sense of belonging. In the Acts text, we hear the story of the Apostles naming a new member of the twelve, to replace Judas. They had two equally qualified candidates and basically rolled dice to choose between the two. That sounds pretty arbitrary to our ears today, but even now, every once in a while you’ll hear about an election that results in a tie, and the winner is determined by flipping a coin. Of course, over the years, different parts of the church have come up with different polities, different ways of trying to discern God’s will when faced with making a decision. Some trust the authority of a bishop. Some rely on a congregational vote by the congregation to decide everything. We Presbyterians trust our representative, connectional polity to be the most reliable way of hearing God’s will. The truth of the matter, though, is that whatever the method that we humans come up with to try to hear God’s intentions, God is present in the process, and God will find a way to work within it.

This Acts text deals with finding who God wants to belong to the group of Apostles, and to me that point is important today – whatever the methodology used to hear it, God does call us into being a part of Christ’s Church, and a part of God’s realm. God calls us into this special kind of belonging.

We bear witness to that today, in two ways. Earlier in the service, we recognized the teachers and other volunteers who God has called to a special way of belonging in the life of the church. And in just a little while, we’ll baptize _______, in a sign and seal of God having called him into this special kind of belonging. In his baptism, _______ will begin a lifelong journey of faith, a lifetime of being a part of the covenant, the promise that God has made with us, that we will always belong to the family of God.

But this goes beyond just belonging. Along with that belonging comes the assurance of what Jesus was praying about in the text from John’s gospel that we heard this morning – that _______’s belonging is forever, and that God’s holding and protection of _______ is forever, too.

_______ will grow to know and experience all the joys and sorrows, all the awe and wonder, all the love and loss that this life brings us all. We can, and we do, pray that the laughter will outlast the tears; and that the good will outweigh the bad.  Mostly, we pray that he will always know love – love of family and friends, and church, and most of all of God. However all the chapters of his life will unfold, we all know that through the reconciliation that has been achieved through Christ in his life, death, and resurrection, God has forever claimed him; and that he has been called God’s own and that he will forever be kept in the palm of God’s loving hand – in short, that he belongs. And for that, we can all rejoice, and say

Thanks be to God.

On the Road Again… Again

(sermon 4/29/18)

ehiopian

Acts 8:26-40

Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) So he got up and went.

Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him.

Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.” 

The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. 

As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.

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He woke up that morning like any other morning, with a list of things to do that he ran through his mind as he had his breakfast cereal and coffee. But then, God spoke to him. Maybe it was a big, bold vision, with the glory of God, and blinding light, and angels singing and cherubim flapping their wings and knocking all the magnets off the refrigerator. Or maybe it was just a gentle, quiet voice seemingly from out of nowhere that popped into his head that irresistibly convinced him that today, he’d set that list aside, just for a day, and what he really needed was a little road trip to clear his mind.

That was how he found himself on the road leading out to Gaza, looking up ahead and seeing a caravan, obvious even from the distance made up of dark-skinned foreigners, and just as obviously, a caravan of someone important. Any other day, it would have been just something to notice for a moment and then move on, maybe like seeing a vintage plane flying over, or a funny youTube video, or a big, wild Derby hat. But this time, that same voice that told him to forget about the honey-do list told him to catch up to them. See who it is. Maybe strike up a conversation.

He sat there in his chariot, proud of the important government position he held – a Cabinet position; Secretary of the Treasury for the Queen of Ethiopia; traveling with al the pomp and ceremony and security that entailed. He was a powerful man. But he was also all too aware that that power had come at a high price. Only a castrated male – a eunuch – was trusted to work so closely and intimately around the queen. As powerful as he was, it was power with an asterisk – in the Ethiopian culture, eunuchs were considered defective, scarred, unnatural – and in some inexplicable irony, they were considered sexually immoral deviates. So even while the eunuch know power, he also knew judgment, hostility, and rejection.

It wasn’t only his own Ethiopian culture that thought this way. In the Hebrew scriptures, both Leviticus and Deuteronomy call out eunuchs as unnatural, deformed, second-guessing God’s design; as such, they were specifically identified in the scriptures as being ineligible to be part of the assembly of God.

But as he was riding along, it wasn’t Leviticus or Deuteronomy that he was reading, but Isaiah, when he noticed the stranger approaching his chariot. The words he was reading were so intriguing, but so confusing, that he actually waved his security people off and waved the stranger over.

He’d read the words over and over, being drawn to this unknown person being described, feeling a sense of empathy and brotherhood and even some solidarity with this one who, similar to himself, had been led like a lamb to be shorn, and who had endured humiliation for it.

Read this. Do you understand it? Who is this prophet writing about? he asked the stranger. And in that moment, Philip realized why he was there, and he began to explain the fullness of God’s good news for all people. Maybe he even rolled the scroll out even further, showing him Isaiah 56, where it’s written that eunuchs like him will not only be welcome in the house and family of God, but will be given a name even better than sons and daughters. And he explained that in fact, this time had already begun to unfold, through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus was the one whose life Isaiah, whether he’d realized it or not, had foretold.

So what might this story mean to us today – in a time when the kind of caravan we’re likely to hear about isn’t one of an Ethiopian eunuch, but rather, one of Honduran refugees fleeing for their lives, or Syrians, or South Sudanese?

Well, there’s no question that this passage is a crucial teaching for us that God’s love and welcome and kingdom is for sexual minorities in a society, too. Several stories in the Book of Acts, and maybe this one most of all, speak powerfully to the truth that LGBTQ people are part of God’s plan, too, and have been from the beginning. They’re included in God’s realm, and since they are, they’re to be a welcome and important part of the church. It might have taken us 2,000 years to actually hear and understand that part of this story, but it is there, and it’s quite clear.

But there’s more to this story too. This isn’t just good news for LGBTQ folk. What resonated in the heart and mind of the Ethiopian eunuch was that he could identify with the suffering and injustice that was experienced by the one Isaiah was describing, regardless of its particular origins. Philip explained to the eunuch that God understands what it’s like to be humiliated, to be ostracized, to be pushed aside. To be shamed, condemned, or punished by all sources of intolerance, especially by sinful religious intolerance that uses bits of scripture to justify it.

So this isn’t just good news for the Ethiopian eunuch, and all the sexual minorities who followed after him. It’s good news for *anyone* who has endured shame, injustice, humiliation, rejection, and honestly, who of us hasn’t, in some way or another. Because we know that God understands our suffering, has experienced the same suffering, and walks with us through all of our suffering. So this is good news for you if you’ve ever been told that you aren’t “normal” enough.

Or smart enough.

Or good looking enough.

Or young enough.

Or thin enough.

Or funny or witty enough.

Or rich enough.

Or male enough.

Or straight enough.

Or white enough.

Or American enough.

Or Christian enough.

The good news for all of us who have been rejected for these or any other things is that though Christ, God understands us; and through Christ, God has shown us that all of those distinctions and ways that we humans have come up with to separate and reject and humiliate are *meaningless* in God’s eyes. That Jesus, the cornerstone that the builders rejected, is now the risen Christ who is over all; and in a similar way, those of us who have been rejected in all those ways in this life will be welcomed into God’s kingdom by that same Christ.

Never forget that the eternal God of the universe understands you, has felt the same kind of rejection that you’ve felt, and that you may be feeling even now. Know that God stands with arms open wide in love and acceptance. Guilt left behind. Shame left behind. Injustice, humiliation, discrimination, rejection, all left behind.

And knowing that we have that kind of love and acceptance and welcome from God, we’re called to offer the same to others.  We’re called to welcome them into the church, to have places and voices and seats that God has reserved for them long ago.

But before we can welcome them into our churches, we need to welcome them into our communities. We have to offer the same kind of love, welcome, and acceptance that God has given us, to all those we encounter on the road. To Ethiopian eunuchs. And to Honduran and Syrian refugees. And to homeless LGBTQ youth whose parents have thrown them out of the house. And to families torn apart because a parent, or a spouse, has been deported. And people of color who just by virtue of living west of Ninth Street are told their lives are worth less than others’.

We offer that same love and welcome and acceptance – in both church and society, because wherever it’s church or society, it’s all God’s world, and all God’s people. The truth is, once we’ve received that love and acceptance from God, we become Philip.

“So look!” the eunuch said. “Over there; there’s some water. What’s to prevent me from being baptized? What’s to keep me from being a part of the family of God?”

Philip looked at the man, and he carefully took stock of the situation. Here was someone who was from the wrong religion, the wrong country, the wrong sexuality, and whom the scriptures specifically excluded from the kingdom of God.  And it was only because he was being led by the same voice, the same Spirit, that had gotten him out on the road to begin with, that Philip was able to answer him, “Nothing – absolutely nothing.”

Thanks be to God.

On the Road Again

(sermon 4/15/18)

road-to-emmaus

Luke 24:13-49

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.”Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

While they were talking about this, 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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This is one of my favorite stories in the entire New Testament. And because it’s a favorite of mine, I talk about it often, so I hope it’s one of your favorites too, and you don’t get bored when I tell it again. This wonderful story about Jesus and his appearance to those disciples on their way to Emmaus, and the story that we heard following it, the story of Jesus appearing to the disciples later that same day. Every one of these post-resurrection stories that we have of Jesus, these accounts of Jesus appearing to people, and doing things with his followers, all really stitch together to tell one overarching story. Each one is maybe a chapter in one larger story that tells us different things. Each one teases out some particular theological point that the writer of the particular gospel wants to tell us. Think about some of the things that happened in these appearances. You just heard these two, and certainly last week, you heard about a very similar situation with Thomas; touch my body, put your finger in my wound; and then certainly, the week before that, the resurrection itself. Each one of these things is telling us something specific, theologically, about Jesus. A number of these stories are intended to make certain points to us, to answer questions about Jesus that people had in the early days of the church, and that we still ask today. Several of these stories go to the issue of people saying, “You know, I have trouble with this whole ‘Jesus rising from the dead’ thing. So maybe Jesus wasn’t anything supernatural or special; maybe he was just a great man, a human being like the rest of us – and maybe when he was on the cross, he didn’t really die. Maybe he just ‘swooned,’ he was unconscious, they thought he was dead, they took him down from the cross and put him in the tomb, and then at some later time in the coolness of the tomb, he revived and reappeared to people.” So some of these post-resurrection stories go to the issue of saying no, that is not what happened at all. There is indeed something supernatural going on with Jesus and resurrection. That Jesus isn’t only a human being, but he is also something divine, something supernatural. So we get these stories of Jesus sort of popping into and out of scenes; Jesus appearing and disappearing and reappearing, and somehow manipulating space and time to get from one place to another. The stories show that there is something unique going on here. Jesus isn’t just a human being. But then, by the same token, you get these other stories that go to the other side, where people think “Well, Jesus was never really a human being, it was just God appearing to look like a human being; Jesus was just this spiritual being, so there was never any real human suffering or anything like that in Jesus’ life, and certainly in his seeming death.” So some of these post-resurrection stories go in that direction, addressing that concern, making the point that no, Jesus was just as human as you or me, so you hear that coming through in these other stories; touch my hands, touch my feet. Is there anything to eat here? In several of these stories, Jesus eats food in the presence of others. And I have to be a little irreverent, because as I think about the point that these stories are making, about the real physicality of Jesus, it reminds me of an old, silly joke that’s stuck with me – a skeleton walks into a bar and says “Bartender, give me a beer and a mop!” Some of those stories about Jesus are meant to show that this isn’t the case with Jesus – we aren’t talking about a ghost, or some ethereal spirit; we’re talking about a person with real substance and material presence. Jesus has a risen body; the fish isn’t going to just drop on the floor. Jesus is truly a risen person, but these other stories are showing us that he’s more than just a person. Jesu has a body but somehow, it can change. Somehow, now someone who knew Jesus intimately for several years may not always recognize him when he’s standing right in front of them. Mary at the tomb; these disciples on the road to Emmaus. So there are a lot of important theological things going on in these post-resurrection accounts, and they’re important. And we hear these things reflected in the traditional creeds and confessions of the church, and in our Prayer of Great Thanksgiving, that Jesus is fully divine and yet fully human. This unique melding of divinity and humanity that we find in Jesus.

There is a lot of important theological points in these stories. But I think what is at least as important in this particular story that we hear today, of Jesus walking with those disciples, is the power of the story itself. I don’t mean this in a denigrating or dismissive way, that this is “only” a story. What I mean is that good stories have the power to tell great truths. And the gospels are full of amazing, wonderful stories that teach us eternal truth. What’s the sign of a good story? There are a number of things, I suppose, but one of those signs is that it makes you imagine yourself within the story. You’re right in the middle of it. You’re walking on that road right along with those disciples. You can feel the dew of the morning, the coolness of the morning air. You have lived, at some point or another, that despair of having lost someone; someone who meant so much to you in your life. Your grief is almost more than you can bear. You don’t know how you’re going to get along without this person that you love so deeply. That’s the despair that you hear in this story, and it comes alive again to us as we hear it. How many times have you been in that state of grief, and mourning, and you say “I just have to go out for a walk and clear my head.” And you go out, and you’re around nature. You hear the birds chirping. Leaves rustling in the trees. You hear your feet crunching the crushed stone along the path that you’re walking along. Somehow, you encounter God at some point, or at least a little bit of balm for what it is that you’re feeling, and you get that just by talking that walk. So now we have this story that we hear this morning, of those disciples walking on that path, and Jesus appears to them. Imagine this – imagine that you yourself are one of these disciples. You’re walking, and you’re grieving, and you’re mourning, and Jesus appears. And even though you’ve lived and loved this man for years, you’ve experienced life through thick and thin with this man, and somehow you don’t recognize this person. How is that? How can this be? And then this person speaks to your heart. Then this person opens up things within you that you didn’t even know were there. This person opens faith up to you; this person opens hope and assurance to you, that yes, there is grief, there is mourning, but a new day will come, indeed has come. The hope that we have in Christ Jesus. And he opens this truth up to them on this walk. He changes their lives. He stirs their hearts. It’s truly miraculous.

We live within this story. And that’s why I do that sort of pretend walk to Emmaus when we have Communion, and retell this story, because it is so important to us. Why? Certainly because of all the theological points that we can think about. But, I think, more than even that, more important to us on a day-to-day basis, is this reality that as you and I walk through our lives, we will be walking in the presence of the Lord. We will do so, time and time and time again, without even being aware of it. Elsewhere in the scriptures, it talks about entertaining angels unaware; we entertain not only angels, but the risen Christ; we entertain God’s very self. Think about your lives – how many times have you experienced something that was so unique, something that was so different, that just as with those disciples, your hearts were warmed, your lives were stirred, and it was only looking back on it, that you knew it was a “God moment.” “I didn’t recognize God in the moment then, all I recognized is that there was something special about this, but now that I think back on it, I recognize that I was in the very presence of God.”

God is present with us. God does walk with us, through good days, and through days of grief. Maybe that’s the most important part of this story – the reassurance that everywhere we go, we will be in the presence of our risen Lord; we will be in the presence of God.

Hold that in your hearts. Hold that within you, every time you hear, and you think about this particular story in the gospels. And again, I don’t use the term “story” in a negative sense; Jesus taught in parables, in stories. Stories are what have the power to change our hearts, and mold our lives. Not only is this an amazing story because it means that we have been in the presence of God, initially unawares, but there’s also the “so now what?” aspect of that truth. This is the part of the call that Jesus gave to the disciples when he appeared to them in the second part of the story that we heard today. You’ve heard my words, he tells them. You are now to proclaim this repentance, this forgiveness from God; you are to proclaim this to all the nations, beginning here in Jerusalem and going out beyond. You be the face of Christ. You be God that a person doesn’t recognize in the moment, but only recognizes after the fact. In this story, we have both the proclamation of the gospel, that God has forgiven us, and walks with us every single day; as well as the call. Recognize God’s presence in your lives; now get out there and share it with someone else. Those two things are what the entire Church of Jesus Christ is all about. And it’s all summed up in this one story.

Thanks be to God.

Living on This Side of the Stone

(sermon 4/1/18 – Easter Sunday)

empty-tomb

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.

Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. It read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” 

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.

After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one, 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. – (excerpts from John 19, 20)

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Imagine that scene – that first Easter morning. Walking out to the tomb in the still and the calm and the cool of the morning, your heart and your mind and your feet so heavy with grief and disbelief over the events of the last few days that it’s hard to even keep putting one foot in front of the other and moving forward. Then, finally, arriving at the tomb only to find what appeared to be one more shock, piling grief on top of grief, discovering that apparently, crucifixion wasn’t humiliation enough, now someone had even taken his body away.

Imagine the emotions of learning the reality of things. Imagine the confusion of finding these two strangers in white inside the tomb, where no one had been just moments before. And then, the joy of encountering the one you’d seen with your own eyes to be stone-cold dead, but now standing in front of you, face-to-face, every bit as alive as you were yourself.

This is the defining moment of the Christian faith. Resurrection. To be honest, the ethical teachings of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, most all of the major religions of the world, only differ to a very slight degree, But the most significant difference between Christianity and all the others is the issue of Jesus’ resurrection, and if it happened what it meant, and if that’s what it meant, what implications that has for humanity. The resurrection is truly a miracle.

This is where we, as people of faith, can get into trouble. We understand that faith in God, trust in God, is based on hope, on things that are unseen, and not based on physical evidence. At the same time, we honor and value education, facts, evidence, the scientific method; and we know that the universe operates on a set of established scientific and physical rules, a system where miracles really have no place.

So how do we square this contradiction? How do we live, as people of faith, in the tension of these two things?

I started off by asking you to imagine what it was like to be at the tomb on that first Easter morning. But in the truest sense, we really can’t imagine it. We’re people who are living entirely on this side of the resurrection; on this side of the stone at the entry of Jesus’ tomb. We can’t fully understand it; even the people who were really there couldn’t understand or explain what was really happening on that morning. They did their best to explain it, to put words to something that there really aren’t words for. And ever since, we and literally billions of other people have wrestled with the question of what these words were really describing, every bit as much as the people who were there struggled to find words to describe it.

Despite that struggling to understand, though, make no mistake – Jesus’ resurrection is absolutely, unquestionably real. It is as real as the earth and the sky, the sun, the moon, and the stars. It’s as real as the immutable scientific facts that water is two atoms of hydrogen and one of oxygen, or that paper cuts hurt way out of proportion to the actual  injury, or that all church pews get really uncomfortable after about twenty minutes. More to the point, the resurrection is as real as the fact that love is real.

How do I explain what physical, scientific, biological processes took place in Jesus’ resurrection? I can’t. More importantly, I don’t really care to; I don’t even think it’s an important question to ask. I know that I’ve said this before, but if tomorrow, archaeologist found a tomb marked with Jesus’ name, and that held his bones, his high school yearbook, his library card and a W-2 Form that proved beyond any doubt that these were Jesus’ physical remains, would it do anything to shake my faith in resurrection? I don’t really think it would. It wouldn’t, because despite that hypothetical box of bones, it’s absolutely, incontrovertibly a fact that resurrection happened that resurrection is real. Without having any idea what happened at the molecular level on that first Easter Sunday morning, we know that something unexplainable – something miraculous – happened that day. Something so powerful and convincing that couldn’t be doubted or denied; something that proved that death and the tomb weren’t powerful enough to contain or defeat Jesus. These people who knew Jesus in the flesh best, and who saw him die with their own eyes, encountered a living, loving, very real Jesus. And at some point not long after all this happened, whatever the details of what God did at that tomb on that Sunday morning, it was so real, so miraculous, that people who had never seen Jesus, or met him, or even heard of him, also came to believe what would otherwise have been unbelievable, and became followers of Jesus. And that evidence, that miracle, is repeated every time God works within the life of any person and gives them the faith to profess that Jesus is Lord, and to see the change within their lives that it causes.

Yes, despite all the nay-sayers and all conventional wisdom that would say otherwise, the resurrection is real. It’s a sign that points to God’s good news for us all – that God loves us, and has reached out to us, and in that love, calls each one of us worthy of being united with God, and called God’s own.

For all of us living on this side of the resurrection – all of us living on this side of the stone – the reality of the resurrection means that the God who created us loves us, and through Jesus, has experienced life like us, even injustice like us, and even death like us. The resurrection means that at every step of the long journey of our lives – every joyful, exciting, hopeful, uplifting step; every fearful, stressful, grieving, soul-crushing step – *every* step along the way, we are *never* without hope. We are *never* without love. We are *never* alone, because the God who somehow made the impossible possible, and the unbelievable believable, walks every one of those steps with us.

*That* is the great reality; *that* is the great truth; *that* is the great miracle that we celebrate today, as we say

Christ is risen; he is risen indeed!

Amen.