Compassion in Community

(sermon 7/2/17)

meal

2 Kings 6:8-23

Once when the king of Aram was at war with Israel, he took counsel with his officers. He said, “At such and such a place shall be my camp.” But the man of God sent word to the king of Israel, “Take care not to pass this place, because the Arameans are going down there.” The king of Israel sent word to the place of which the man of God spoke. More than once or twice he warned such a place so that it was on the alert. The mind of the king of Aram was greatly perturbed because of this; he called his officers and said to them, “Now tell me who among us sides with the king of Israel?” Then one of his officers said, “No one, my lord king. It is Elisha, the prophet in Israel, who tells the king of Israel the words that you speak in your bedchamber.”

He said, “Go and find where he is; I will send and seize him.” He was told, “He is in Dothan.” So he sent horses and chariots there and a great army; they came by night, and surrounded the city. When an attendant of the man of God rose early in the morning and went out, an army with horses and chariots was all around the city. His servant said, “Alas, master! What shall we do?” He replied, “Do not be afraid, for there are more with us than there are with them.” Then Elisha prayed: “O Lord, please open his eyes that he may see.” So the Lord opened the eyes of the servant, and he saw; the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha. When the Arameans came down against him, Elisha prayed to the Lord, and said, “Strike this people, please, with blindness.” So he struck them with blindness as Elisha had asked. Elisha said to them, “This is not the way, and this is not the city; follow me, and I will bring you to the man whom you seek.” And he led them to Samaria. As soon as they entered Samaria, Elisha said, “O Lord, open the eyes of these men so that they may see.” The Lord opened their eyes, and they saw that they were inside Samaria. When the king of Israel saw them he said to Elisha, “Father, shall I kill them? Shall I kill them?” He answered, “No! Did you capture with your sword and your bow those whom you want to kill? Set food and water before them so that they may eat and drink; and let them go to their master.” So he prepared for them a great feast; after they ate and drank, he sent them on their way, and they went to their master. And the Arameans no longer came raiding into the land of Israel.

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Back in my days as an architect, I had a business associate, a commercial real estate leasing agent named Don. For twenty years, Don and I shared business leads back and forth. We also shared a lot of our business and personal ups and downs. We were there to congratulate each other on the birth of our kids, and shared in the joys and challenges as they grew up. Don was a valued business associate, but he was more than that – he was also a dear and valued friend.

Don was an extreme go-getter, Type-A personality. He was passionate about his work and everything else in life. He was constantly smiling; an eternal optimist; you almost never saw him down. And he could talk to anyone, about anything, any time. He could find some connection with you and draw on that, and encourage you, and build you up. That kind of personality is almost literally gold in the business world. It was a gift that I could only dream of having.

Of all of his really amazing qualities, though, his driving wasn’t always one of them. Consistent with his supercharged personality, Don never met a speed limit he couldn’t beat by twenty or thirty miles per hour. Multiple lanes of busy traffic were seen as a challenge – a personal slalom course for him to navigate as he tried to get to wherever the first and the fastest. One morning, Don was driving on the highway between his home and the office, on his way to work. He was undoubtedly in the hottest, newest BMW of the time. Those seemed to be a weakness of his; I always envied him for the great cars that he drove. But on this day, Don encountered another driver like himself – and before you knew it, the two were engaged in what I’ll just politely call “competitive highway driving.” At some point in all of this, Don was even nudging the other guy’s car with his own, trying to get him to do what he wanted. Eventually, the two of them pulled off to the side of the road. The other driver got out of his car, loaded for bear, spitting mad, yelling and screaming at Don, just itching for a fight. Don, for his part, just stayed calm as he listened to the man. He took it all in stride, and then, with a calm and friendly demeanor, he said “Yes, you’re right, I was being a jerk – in fact, we both were; we both got carried away, we let our egos get the better of us. What we were doing was wrong, and dangerous. We’re both better than that. Of course, I’ll pay for whatever damage I did to the side of your car.”

As the man had started to calm down, Dan started to chat with him. Asked him what he did for a living, who he worked for. As they were exchanging information, Don said “Oh, your last name is _____? I know someone with that same name, ________; do you know them?” “Yes, he’s a relative.” “Oh, well if you know him, you probably know _______, too.” “Yes, in fact we went to school together; I was just talking to them a few days ago.” And on and on. By the time they were done talking, the man was at ease, and smiling, and the two of them even laughed at the situation. When they were done, the two of them shook hands and parted ways. Now if this were a perfect story, Don would have ended up leasing the man some office space. That didn’t happen, but I’m sure that he at least had tried to line up a showing.

That incident came to mind again when I read today’s sermon text. This story deals with the prophet Elisha – who is not to be confused with his mentor, the prophet Elijah. In this story, the king of Aram – the king of the Aramean people – is having constant setbacks on the battlefield in his war against the Israelites, and he’s enraged when he’s told that it’s been Elisha, with his direct line to God, who has been advising the king of Israel regarding where the Arameans would be and what their plans were. So he sends troops to capture, or maybe kill, Elisha; they surround the city he’s living in. But as you heard, Elisha asks God to temporarily, partially blind the soldiers. Then, in a classic bit of scriptural orneriness, Elisha tells the soldiers “Oh no, the man you’re looking for isn’t here; this is the wrong town. But I know where he is; here, let me take you to him!” And he leads the Arameans to Samaria – a city that’s stongly fortified by Israelite troops. And then, once they’re there, the Arameans’ sight is restored, they see that they’re completely surrounded and hemmed in.

At this point, the king of Israel, as excited as a kid who wants to tear into his presents on Christmas morning, asks Elisha “Can I kill them?!! Can I kill them?!!!” It made sense. God had brought the enemies of Israel right into the palm of their hand. Surely, God would want them to finish them off. But contrary to what anyone would think, Elisha says no, don’t kill them. In fact, don’t just refrain from killing them – throw them a party. Prepare a big banquet, lay out a feast for them. So that’s what they did. I can only imagine the conversations among the soldiers from the two armies had at that meal. Telling one another where they were from; what they did for a living when the king wasn’t sending them off to war. Showing one another pictures on their phones of their wives, their kids, their pets. Complaining about their king, and taxes, and the lack of rain for the crops. And after it was over, the Arameans were granted safe passage home, and the passage says that they ended their hostilities against the Israelites.

Elisha had instructed the king to do, by way of a common meal, and being compassionate in community with the Arameans, the same basic thing that Don had done out along the roadside – to not just defuse a tense, dangerous situation, but to actually turn it into something positive and constructive.

There’s something universal, something that cuts across all cultures and all times, about the sharing of a common meal. There’s something almost magical in the way that a meal can bring about healing and reconciliation, and create a sense of community. And since the gospel – God’s good news of compassion for all people – is primarily enacted in the world through forgiveness and community, it seems only natural that one of the most sacred expressions of our faith is the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper – a remembrance of God’s faithfulness and compassion, seen through the reenactment and continuation of an eternal, communal meal.

Since we’re continuing to examine God’s compassion this Sunday, we should recognize that reality – that God’s compassion is primarily enacted in the world through radical forgiveness and being in community; in contrast to the opposing attitude of trying to earn God’s compassion through personal acts of would-be holiness and self-righteousness, and concentrating on individualism instead of community.

That’s important for us to remember, because our society has almost always had a strong emphasis on individualism. We’ve sung the praises of the rugged individualist; the one who settled the frontier, the captain of industry, the self-made man who pulled himself up by his own bootstraps, who got everything he had by his own hands, who didn’t get any help from anyone and who didn’t owe anything to anyone else. We need to recognize that these attitudes are completely contrary to the kind of community accountability and responsibility that Christ himself has called us to. As our society has evolved, we’ve placed an unhealthy – and I’ll suggest, an immoral, and even sinful – emphasis on individualism over the importance of community, and communal accountability to and responsibility for, one another. And you don’t need to go any further than the evening news, and the ongoing debates over how, or even whether, we have any responsibility for providing healthcare for people in this country, or affirming equal rights and equal protection under the law, to see examples of this ongoing battle to balance individualism and community responsibility in our society.

Our excessive focus on individualism has shaped a lot of American Christianity, too, and usually not for the better. It’s partly why there are so many different denominations – individualists set their own rules and feel no accountability to the rest of a community when there’s any disagreement; they can just go off and start their own church. It’s also why there’s so much emphasis in parts of the church about Jesus being someone’s personal Lord and Savior, minimizing the essential community aspect of the faith. It’s why you hear so many people say they can be a Christian but not be part of a church family.  It’s why there are so many Christian songs full of references to “I” and “Me,” versus “Us” and “We.”

As we look at how we’re supposed to live as God’s people, in both church and society, we have to recognize the high importance that God places on being in community – and that that community has to be as broad as possible. It has to include people who are different from us. People who look different. Who think different. Who vote different. Who live different, who love different, who worship different. And as Elisha showed us, it even has to include people we consider our enemies. Being in *that* kind of community is how God’s compassion breaks into the world, and into people’s lives. That’s how God shows a better alternative to a world where otherwise, Don and the other driver would have ended up in a fistfight, and the Arameans would have been slaughtered.

Being in that kind of community with others isn’t always easy. In fact, most of the time, it’s downright hard. But part of the good news for us in all of this is that we know that God does actually empower us and enable us to be able to model that kind of community, and to extend it beyond ourselves and out into the world – whether that ends up being somewhere  literally at a meal around a table; or in the workplace; or at school; or in the neighborhood – or even along the side of the road.

Thanks be to God.

Compassion on Account

(sermon 6/25/17)

using atm

David asked, “Is there still anyone left of the house of Saul to whom I may show kindness for Jonathan’s sake?” Now there was a servant of the house of Saul whose name was Ziba, and he was summoned to David. The king said to him, “Are you Ziba?” And he said, “At your service!” The king said, “Is there anyone remaining of the house of Saul to whom I may show the kindness of God?” Ziba said to the king, “There remains a son of Jonathan; he is crippled in his feet.” The king said to him, “Where is he?” Ziba said to the king, “He is in the house of Machir son of Ammiel, at Lo-debar.” Then King David sent and brought him from the house of Machir son of Ammiel, at Lo-debar. Mephibosheth son of Jonathan son of Saul came to David, and fell on his face and did obeisance. David said, “Mephibosheth!” He answered, “I am your servant.” David said to him, “Do not be afraid, for I will show you kindness for the sake of your father Jonathan; I will restore to you all the land of your grandfather Saul, and you yourself shall eat at my table always.” He did obeisance and said, “What is your servant, that you should look upon a dead dog such as I?”

Then the king summoned Saul’s servant Ziba, and said to him, “All that belonged to Saul and to all his house I have given to your master’s grandson. You and your sons and your servants shall till the land for him, and shall bring in the produce, so that your master’s grandson may have food to eat; but your master’s grandson Mephibosheth shall always eat at my table.” Now Ziba had fifteen sons and twenty servants. Then Ziba said to the king, “According to all that my lord the king commands his servant, so your servant will do.” Mephibosheth ate at David’s table, like one of the king’s sons. Mephibosheth had a young son whose name was Mica. And all who lived in Ziba’s house became Mephibosheth’s servants. Mephibosheth lived in Jerusalem, for he always ate at the king’s table. Now he was lame in both his feet. – 2 Samuel 9:1-13

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Being together with our high school students at Montreat got me thinking about when I was around their age. And reading this week’s sermon text made me remember a particular incident that happened when I was just a little older than them. It was right after I graduated from high school and headed off to college, and I was doing all the things that a college freshman moving into a new town had to do to get settled in. One of those things was opening a checking account at a local bank. This was the Fall of 1978, a time when banks were just starting to dabble in having ATMs. Not all the banks in town even had them, and I picked my bank in part because they did – and I liked the flexibility that it offered, being able to do my banking any time of day or night. And I did. I used my new ATM card a lot. One of the times that I used it in the middle of the night, I was pulling an all-nighter in the architecture design studio. It was around 2:00 or 2:30, and I needed a break, and I was hungry. I wanted to go across the street to the Penn State Diner for a Sloppy Joe and a coffee, but I didn’t have a dime to my name at the moment, either in cash or in my bank account. I had actually deposited a check that my parents had sent me in the mail, but the problem was that the bank took three days for an out-of-town check to clear, and here I was, at two o’clock in the morning just before the dawn of the third day. I knew the money really wasn’t in my account yet, but I figured I could walk down to the bank and withdraw twenty dollars, and by the time anyone came in the following morning to see that I’ve overdrawn my account, the deposit would have posted and it would be a moot point. I felt a little guilty about it, but, did I mention I was really hungry? So I walked to the ATM to withdraw the money that I knew wasn’t technically there. I inserted my card and punched in my PIN number and my withdrawal request – but when I did, the machine swallowed my card, and the screen said “Unable to process transaction at this time. Please see a teller during banking hours for more information.” Crap. I was busted. I was mortified, knowing I was going to have to go into the bank in the morning and admit what I’d tried to do, and that I knew it was wrong, and apologize and throw myself on their mercy, and hope I wasn’t going to have to pay some hefty penalty for having tried it. I walked back to the studio, still broke, and still hungry, and now worried about what the morning would bring.

diner state college

The Diner, pretty much as it looked back then on the night of the attempted crime. Oh man, how I wanted one of their Sloppy Joes, a coffee, and an order of their famous Grilled Stickies – sadly, on this particular night, it wasn’t to be.

So the next morning, I went into the bank and stood in line waiting for a free teller. When one was open, I started to spill my guts to him, explaining that I knew what did was wrong, and I won’t do it again, and I’m sorry, blah, blah, blah, until he finally broke in and said, “No, no, no, wait a minute, hold on! The machine didn’t hold your card because of that. We just instructed the machine to do that the next time you used your card so you’d come into the bank to retrieve it. You see, you use our new ATM more than anyone else in town, and we just wanted a chance to thank you in person for making use of the new service. In fact, we’re actually giving you twenty-five dollars, just as a small token of our thanks for embracing the new technology!”

Well, I was shocked and pleasantly surprised that this didn’t go at all the way I’d expected. But to this day, I still remember the dread and worry and fear that I felt about being summoned to the bank.

That memory came to mind when I read today’s sermon text, the story of David and Mephiboseth. I like this story – and not just because it’s fun to say the name “Mephibosheth.” I can’t help but think that Mephibosheth had to have a similar kind of dread that I had waiting to talk to the bank teller, only much more so, when he was summoned to meet with King David. He knew that not only had his grandfather, King Saul, been killed, but all of Saul’s children were hunted down and killed too, including his own father, Jonathan – partly out of revenge, and partly to eliminate anyone who could claim to be the legitimate heir to Saul’s throne, and posing a challenge to David’s reign. For his own part, he’d suffered permanent injury when he was just a five-year old, when Saul and Jonathan were killed, and his nurse, knowing the great danger that the boy faced, was hurrying so quickly to run away and hide him that she dropped him, crippling him.

I imagine that for the rest of his life, Mephibosheth did everything he could to keep a low profile, and to keep away from David. But now, all these years later, when Mephibosheth was a grown man with a child of his own, David finds him and summons him to the palace. By all normal expectations, Mephibosheth probably thought that this was the end for him, and his son, too.

David undoubtedly recognized the potential political threat that Mephibosheth posed to him. And maybe a part of the way David’s decision to have him live in the king’s palace was a page torn out of Don Corleone’s playbook, to keep your friends close but your enemies closer.

But he was also concerned with something much more important than just that. David and Jonathan, Mephibosheth’s father, had had an intensely close, loving relationship, one that far surpassed any normal friendship. In reality, in the midst of the division between David and Jonathan’s own father, Jonathan’s heart and support were actually with David, even though he stayed on his father’s side out of a sense of obligation owed to his father. Because of the deep, steadfast love that the two had for each other, they had sworn a covenant of commitment, loyalty, and care, for one another and for each other’s families as well. Now, David was making good on his covenant with Jonathan, bringing Mephibosheth into his own household, restoring his grandfather’s property to him, and considering him one of his own sons in the royal household. In a sense, he was adopting Jonathan’s son as his own.

This was an amazing expression of grace that David was extending to Mephibosheth. But it was also an expression of hospitality and compassion – and undoubtedly one that David’s recommended against, in the name of personal and national security. Some people have said that this relationship between David and Mephibosheth is a representation of the relationship between us and God, and the unexpected grace that we receive from God. I guess in some sense that could be true, but I think it’s more an illustration of how we’re supposed to treat one another. David treated Mephibosheth with compassion in spite of the potential threat he posed, keeping his covenant and honoring the deep love that he’d had for Jonathan.

How many times have we withheld grace, or compassion, or hospitality to someone because we see them as a potential threat to our own safety, security, or well-being? How many times have we done that to people we’ve seen as a threat on a national scale? How many times have we done it on a personal level? The story of David and Mephibosheth point us toward a different way, a better way – the way of the kingdom of God.

Whatever else it might be, this story of David treating Jonathan’s child with grace and compassion should be a reminder that just as David and Jonathan were in a covenant of love, so are we in a loving covenant with God, too; one that requires us to extend grace and compassion to all of God’s children. When it’s easy, and especially when it’s hard. When it might even come at personal risk. When others would say we need to think of ourselves first.

It isn’t any secret that showing people this kind of grace and compassion can be very risky business. But we need to do it, and we can do it, because of the grace and compassion that God has already given us – that God has already deposited into our account, expecting us to give it to others, and to do it now, not later. We don’t even need to wait three days for the deposit to clear.

Thanks be to God.

Pentecost

(sermon 6/4/17 – Pentecost Sunday)

springdale pentecost in the park-communion

Participating in the Lord’s Supper as we celebrate Pentecost in outdoor worship at Beckley Creek Park this Sunday.

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.’   – Acts 2:1-21

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Take a minute, if you will, to imagine what Jesus’ disciples have gone through in just a month and a half, leading up to this story that we just heard. Within that short time, Jesus has been arrested and executed; they’ve been demoralized, scattered, terrified; they’ve seen Jesus raised from the dead and ascending into heaven. After that, they gathered together – we’re told that there were about 120 of them – and they started to figure out what they’re going to do next. One of the first things that they did after Jesus’ ascension was to fill the leadership vacancy left by Judas Iscariot, selecting a man named Matthias to replace him. Then they started getting down to the business of what they do now.

And so it was on this one particular day – it happened to be the Jewish festival of Shavuot, or Pentecost, which was a festival celebrating the wheat harvest that came fifty days after the second day of Passover – Jesus’ followers were all gathered together, maybe meeting to develop a mission statement, when it happened. Suddenly, throughout the whole city, there was a loud, chest-shaking sound like a powerful wind that confusion, and undoubtedly some fear, in the hearts of everyone who experienced it. It caused people to run out into the streets to see what was happening. Inside the house, Jesus’ disciples heard it and felt it too, and added to the noise were the flame-like appearance over all of their heads, and their suddenly speaking in languages that weren’t their own.

pentecost painting

An ancient wall painting of the Holy Spirit coming to the disciples on Pentecost

As they went out into the street, they encountered the other people of the city – all of the Passover pilgrims and visitors had long since gone home; these were the actual residents of the city now. As we heard in the reading, these residents included people originating all the nations surrounding Judah, and speaking all of those different languages. Jerusalem had a very diverse, pluralistic population, and now here they all were, encountering these Galileans with flames dancing on their heads and all speaking their own native languages. I’d imagine this just made people even more confused and knocked off balance, wondering what all this really meant.

In the midst of all the confusion, Peter gets out in front of everyone, and just weeks after he and all the others were cowering behind locked doors for fear of their lives, he boldly tells them what this is all about.

Our observation of Pentecost is a celebration of this event – this coming of the Holy Spirit and filling and energizing God’s people, certainly not for the first time, but definitely in a bold, unmistakable way, and in a way that gave those disciples the courage and the tools to quit hiding behind locked doors, to come out into the open and proclaim God’s truth and good news for all people, from any nation, any language, any background; in a way that enabled them to get on with the work that God had called them to. So for that reason, we observe Pentecost.

But we don’t celebrate it as just a remembrance of a single historical event; a single, finite point on a timeline. We see it as an important milestone, but just one milestone, in the overall history of the work of the Holy Spirit in human history, which continues to this day. On that day, the Holy Spirit filled those disciples with a combination of courage, and comfort, and challenge, and uncertainty, all at the same time. And the Spirit does the same thing within our lives, in our time, too. God certainly works within us to equip us and embolden us do whatever it is that God is calling us to, drawing us to, in our own individual mission and ministry in God’s kingdom. But as clearly as we can see that, we also know that we also have some uncertainties, maybe about where it will all lead. It has always been that way.

That day in Jerusalem, we see the Holy Spirit enlightening and empowering people and maturing their faith and sending them out beyond just their own small body of the faithful, even in spite of what had to be some misgivings. And we see the same thing happening over and over again in the lives of God’s people. In just one example, we saw the Spirit at work in this country in the 1960s, in the Civil Rights movement, in the life of Eugene Carson Blake, who was the Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church at the time. Blake was asked to be part of the famous March on Washington organized by Dr. King in 1963. There are historical photos of Blake taking part in the day’s activities and that we can point proudly to. But looking through Blake’s papers, it turns out that he really was torn about participating; he didn’t originally want to do it. He was worried that his participation would cause further dissention and division within a denomination that already was not of one mind on the issue of civil rights. And he also worried somewhat about his own personal safety, too – to be that close to Dr. King place one’s self in potential harm’s way, to be sure. In the end, though, Blake knew that the Holy Spirit is leading him, drawing him to do it, because it was the right thing – the God thing – to do. To stand up for justice and equality wherever it’s being denied is always the right thing to do. And so he did it. He put on his clerical collar, and his iconic straw hat, and he marched, literally arm in arm with Dr. King at the head of that march, and he delivered a speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial just a few minutes before Dr. King delivered his now-famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

march on washington 1963 montage

Eugene Carson Blake, in his iconic straw hat, marching with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the March for Jobs and Freedom in Washington DC in the summer of 1963.

And today, as we observe Pentecost Sunday, we see this same work of the Holy Spirit in our midst just as clearly as it was in today’s reading, too. We see the Holy Spirit leading us into new things, new ventures, new ways to worship, just by virtue of being out here in the park. And most importantly, we see and we acknowledge God’s Spirit present and working in the lives of these young people who are being confirmed this morning. And we see it in the lives of the high school students who we’re commissioning to represent our congregation at the youth gathering at Montreat this coming week. Both of these groups of young people, and the adults who are traveling with the high schoolers, are evidence that God continues to work in our lives, challenging us to understand God, our faith, and ourselves more deeply; and challenging us to move out beyond our own small church family and out into the broader church, the broader world, in service to God.

springdale pentecost in the park

Confirmands being received into full membership of the church on this day

commissioning of high school youth 2017

Commissioning some of the high school youth and adults about to participate in the national High school gathering at Montreat

So today we celebrate the work of the Holy Spirit who has always been sending the church out to new and different places by worshiping in a new and different place, and by seeing God at work in the lives of each one of the people we’ll confirm or commission today. For each of them, and for the love of the God who dwells within them, we say

Thanks be to God.

 

He’ll Take Care of the Rest

(sermon 5/28/17 – Ascension Sunday)

ascension-scofield-green

Acts 1:6-14

So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.

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Cyrus was a veteran of the Civil War. Even though he was born in Michigan, as a young man he was living in Tennessee when the war broke out, and he served as a member of a Tennessee infantry regiment. After the war, he studied law; he moved west and became a Kansas state senator; a few years after that, when he was still just 29 years old, he became a U.S. District Attorney. But Cyrus had to resign that position soon when he got caught up in a scandal, being caught taking bribes and kickbacks from railroad companies. After his resignation he became a heavy drinker, which among other things led to him abandoning his wife and two daughters. He later remarried and had a son, but throughout his life his relationships with his children was rocky at best. By most standards of his time, young Cyrus was hardly a paragon of moral virtue.

But then one day, Cyrus saw the light – he got religion, and a particularly fundamentalist strand of it at that. And maybe trying to make amends for his life’s shortcomings up to that point, and applying all of his lawyerly gift for detail and laying out the evidence in a court case, Cyrus threw himself into the task of publishing a new, detailed study Bible. It featured “chain references” in the margins, where a reader would be directed to other passages of scripture that dealt with the same topic. His study Bible also made a very carefully laid out argument, based on a very literal reading of the Bible, for the theology of an English minister named John Darby. Darby’s theology held that throughout history, God dealt with humans in a series of different ways, each with particular rules, in seven different eras he called “dispensations;” each one following the other until the final dispensation, Christ’s return to earth when he would rule for a thousand years. If you’ve ever heard someone in Christian circles talk about “Dispensationalism,” this is what they’re referring to. Before Jesus would establish his thousand year reign, according to Darby and Schofield, there would be a period of terrible chaos and tribulation on earth, but Jesus would return and take all the true believers out of the world – in what Darby called the “rapture” – where they would apparently cool their heels in eternity for a while and not have to endure the tribulation, until Jesus would return once and for all and end the tribulation and start his thousand-year rule. If you’ve ever heard someone talk about “Premillenialism,” this is the theological belief they were talking about.

If any of that sounds familiar to you – and I’m sure that it probably does – you can likely thank Cyrus Scofield, and his famous Scofield Reference Bible, which was published in its final form in 1917, just a hundred years ago this year. It came out at an unusual time in history. For years, people had a feeling of hope and optimism, that human beings and civilization were on an unbreakable upward arc, moving toward greater and greater enlightenment. But by 1917, these thoughts were destroyed, and people were demoralized by the chaos, the destruction, human carnage of death tolls previously unknown, caused by World War I, and people thought that the world may very well be coming to an end. It was also a time when Christian Fundamentalism was probably at its peak in the U.S. Fundamentalists and Evangelicals latched onto the Scofield Reference Bible with gusto, and its theology, which laid out a series of signs that a person could look for in world events in order to know when Jesus’ return was imminent, ended up having a massive influence on American Christianity and our culture.

It still does. When I was in my teens, and the modern nation of Israel was only 30 years old, all the Evangelical Christians were holding their collective breath because, according to Scofield, Jesus would return to earth within one generation after Israel was restored, and at most a generation would be about 40 years, so… start packing your bags. And I remember shortly after graduating from college in the early 80s, having a conversation with some good friends who were in the process of buying a house, and they were torn – should they get a 20-year mortgage and build up equity sooner; or should they just go for the lower monthly payments of a 30-year mortgage, since Jesus was going to return before it would be paid off anyway, so home equity would be a moot point? I kid you not, this was a serious conversation.

Those were the days when a man named Hal Lindsey wrote a best-selling book called “The Late Great Planet Earth,” which was basically just a fictionalized, dramatic telling of the end-times predictions of Schofield’s study notes. the book was intended to literally scare the hell out of you so you’d get right with God and get raptured and not have to endure the tribulation. More recently, Tim LaHaye did the same thing with his “Left Behind” series of books.

Whether it’s Scofield or Lindsey or LaHaye, or John Hagee or any number of other people, they all end up being preoccupied with this question, this obsession, of trying to figure out precisely when, and precisely how, Jesus was going to return to earth. It still goes on, when we look at all the chaos in the world today – when we see, as Jesus put it, wars and rumors of wars, which we especially think of on this Memorial Day weekend; and violence, and terrorism, and shootings, and world leaders behaving badly and social and cultural unrest and fracturing; and we wonder how much worse can things get? Surely, these are signs of the end times, surely it must mean that Jesus is going to return soon and put an end to all this madness. But when??!

It’s the exact same thing that Jesus’ disciples ask him in this passage from the Book of Acts. This is the account of Jesus’ ascension, his physically leaving the earthly realm, is the sign that God has not only validated Jesus’ earthly ministry, but now he’s been made the Lord of all. This is Jesus’ farewell conversation with them before he goes. And as you heard, they ask him, is this the time you’re going to establish your kingdom and set things right? Is it now? And if not, when will it be?

When they ask this, Jesus essentially tells them – and I suggest, by extension, Darby and Scofield and Lindsey and by extension, us – to just chill out. Don’t waste energy getting all worked up about that question. Instead, he told them, be my witnesses in this world. Proclaim God’s good news of love and peace and forgiveness and reconciliation to all people, in your words and deeds. Live lives of peace and gratitude for this good news. And don’t worry. Jesus tells them, you’ll be able to do this, you’ll be empowered by the Holy Spirit that God is about to give to you. Jesus tells them to just stay focused on what I’m really calling you to do. All that other stuff, all the worrying about when he’s going to return, is just going down a counterproductive rabbit-hole and keeping you from the really important stuff.

At about the same time that Hal Lindsey was cranking out his book, there was another person writing, only he was writing songs. He was a popular contemporary Christian musician named Keith Green. I really liked Keith Green’s music; I had all his albums. He was a Christian hippy, basically, what back then people called a Jesus Freak. He had a big bushy beard and moustache, and great big head of wild, curly, hair – straight-laced Hal Lindsey probably hated him. In any case, he wrote a song about this same idea, telling people to just have faith in God, and in that faith, to stay focused on what Christ told us to concern ourselves with, and not to worry about things that were basically above our pay grade, things that were up to God – that, as the title and lyrics of the song put it, “He’ll Take Care of the Rest.”

In this story of Jesus’ ascension, Jesus tells his disciples that he’ll take care of the rest. He makes it clear that we don’t have to know every detail about God’s plans for the universe. We shouldn’t stress over all the details that Cyrus Scofield was trying to nail down and prove beyond a reasonable doubt. For that matter, given that this is the account of Jesus’ ascension, we don’t have to know precisely all the literal workings of that, either – Jesus’ ascension “up” into heaven, when we know that God and heaven aren’t literally somewhere “up there,” maybe hiding just behind the third cloud from the left. What we do have to know is that God has promised to always be faithful to us, and to strengthen us and equip us for what we’re actually called to do – to be the embodiment of Christ in the world, sharing God’s love with all those around us. As for the rest of it, maybe it turns out that at least in this case, the hippy was a better theologian than the lawyer.

Thanks be to God.

 

“I Am the Gate”

(sermon 5/7/17)

*Mar 24 - 00:05*

[Jesus said,] “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly”

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Back in the day in Presbyterian history, churches didn’t always serve Communion very often. In some cases, they only did it once a year, sometimes in big gatherings like this:

presbyterian communion outdoors

 And many times, before you could take part in Communion, you had to be examined by the Pastor and Session, and questioned about your beliefs and actions, and judged to be sufficiently theologically sound and morally pure to be worthy of participating in the sacrament. If you passed muster with them, they gave you one of these:

scottish communion token

This is a Communion token. These were little coins; sometimes they were round, other times they were rectangular, or oval, made out of lead or pewter or sometimes copper. As for size, the oval ones were about the same size as an elongated penny. Presbyterian churches used these, mostly in Scotland and Ireland, but also in England, Canada, some in the U.S., and even some in Australia and New Zealand, in the early- to mid- 1800s, although some churches continued to use them into the early 1900s. On Communion Sunday, you’d show up with your Communion token and present it to a person at the door; if you didn’t have a token, well, no Communion for you.

Could you imagine if we still did that? Could you picture Eddie R______ standing at the door taking tokens, and chasing away people without them? Or maybe now, in the 21st century, everything would be electronic. Maybe we’d all have cards like a TARC pass with a bar code, or a Metro Card for the New York subway system with a magnetic strip, or maybe something like an EZ-Pass transponder or an app for your phone. And on Communion Sunday, you just swiped your card or scanned your phone to get through a turnstile at the sanctuary door. And when your worthiness credits were running low, you could recharge it – maybe go to the church website and take an online quiz about your faith and practices, and get a few more credits added to your account. Making sure you’ve got enough in your account before Holy Week, when you’ll be doing Communion a lot.

Well, all kidding aside, the whole idea of restricting Communion to that degree, having some kind of wall around any aspect of participating in the full life of the church and having some kind of checkpoint, some kind of gate imposed upon it, and requiring Communion tokens and all that, was a quaint bit of Presbyterian history; in my opinion, not one that we should be particularly proud of. But I think there’s something about that weird little part of our history that relates to the gospel reading that we heard today.

This reading is actually a part of a story that had started in the chapter before this. Just before this passage, Jesus had healed a man who had been born blind. That sounds like a good thing, even a wonderful thing. But there was a problem with this particular healing, because Jesus happened to heal the man on the Sabbath. No one was supposed to do any work on the Sabbath, and according to the religious leaders, healing someone met the definition of work. So they criticized Jesus, even hinting pretty strongly that he’d been sent by Satan, and not God, because surely no one from God would violate the Sabbath.

For his part, Jesus fired back at them, telling them that they were sinning by using their authority as religious leaders by setting up all these restrictions and rulings and limitations, like the one that would prevent doing good deeds on the Sabbath, that aren’t God’s intention at all, and imposing those burdens on others. They’d set up their own gate, with themselves as the gatekeeper, judging who was righteous, who was worthy of getting through the wall they’d built around God. Based on their beliefs, even the blind man that Jesus had healed was a sinner because he’d been born that way. According to them, if a person was blind, or had some other illness or infirmity, it was because God was punishing them for some sin in their lives; they weren’t living good lives, and their illness was evidence of that. It was an erroneous, mistaken belief in Jesus’ time, and unbelievably, some people still make that kind of claim today, when it’s even more erroneous and disappointing because now we know better, or at least we should.

In this part of Jesus’ answer to those religious leaders that we heard today, he rejects all those other ways of defining who’s worthy of being considered God’s own. He rejects all those restrictions and limitations and additional requirements that people would use to set themselves up as the judge of who’s worthy of God’s love and acceptance. He compares people who do that to thieves and bandits trying to climb over the wall and steal the sheep, the people, that rightly belong to God, the shepherd. Jesus says that he himself is the gate, not them. He is the one who provides access between the shepherd and the sheep; God, and the people of God. It’s through him, the gate, that God comes to us, and that we come to see and recognize God. It’s through him, the gate, that we and God can move outward, together.

What does that mean, though, that Jesus is the gate – the access point, the conduit, to seeing, and knowing, and following God? How does that work? How do we get through that gate – or more appropriately, how does God get through that gate to us?

Based on Jesus’ teachings throughout the gospels, I think that it boils down to a pretty simple set of things:

When you look at Jesus’ life and teaching, do you see what God must be like? When you look at Jesus’ actions, do you see what God’s will is? Do you understand more clearly how God wants us to treat one another? When you look at Jesus, does the good news that God loves us and is with us become clearer to you?

I believe that that’s what Jesus means when he says he’s the gate. Through him, we come to know God, and be able to follow God, better. Nothing less, and nothing more. I believe that when we try to add more than that to Jesus’ claim of being the gate, when we try to limit or restrict access to that gate, when we try to add things that a person has to believe or do in order to have access to that gate and the God who is accessed through it, then we fall into the same trap as the religious leaders of Jesus’ time, and so many other religious leaders right up until the present.

We human beings are very good at devising complex theologies, ways of understanding God, and we have a lot of different theologies regarding how Jesus acts as this gate that creates access between us and God. Some of those theories are good; others not so good. Some of those theories, in my opinion, are downright harmful. We have Confession after Confession after Catechism after Catechism, many of which were the source of the questions that had to be answered by those poor, sweating Presbyterians who just wanted a Communion token. Now there’s nothing wrong with theology and theological discourse; I love it, and it’s important for us to consider our faith in depth. Still, the great theologian Karl Barth, who himself wrote volume after volume after volume of brilliant, but incredibly dense and complicated theology – including a lot that dealt with this issue of Jesus being the gate – was asked near the end of his life if he could sum up the single most important theological conclusion he’d come to understand, and he answered simply, “Jesus love me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” I think the way Jesus is the gate between us and God is something equally simple – in looking at Jesus, can we see God more easily? In looking at Jesus, can God be present with us more deeply? Despite all of our efforts to make it more complicated, it really is that simple. I think it’s really remarkably easy – even easier than EZ-Pass.

Thanks be to God.

 

Inherit the Wind

(sermon 4/23/17)

inherit the wind
Spencer Tracy, Frederic March, and Harry Morgan in the 1960 film “Inherit the Wind”

 

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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In 1955, two playwrights wrote a play called “Inherit the Wind.” It would become a hit on Broadway, and in 1960 it was also turned into a movie. The story is a memorable one, and apparently a timeless one, too – it was remade as a movie made for TV in 1988, and again for theaters in 1997. It’s become a favorite of regional and community theater, and even returned to Broadway as recently as 2007, more than 50 years after its first run. If you know the story, you know that it’s a dramatized version of the famous Scopes “Monkey Trial” that took place in Dayton Tennessee in 1925, when local high school science teacher John Scopes taught his students the theory of evolution, which was against a recently passed state law. It was a landmark case that was really the high-water mark in society’s debate between modern science and education, and specifically evolution; and Christian Fundamentalism and biblical literalism, including the belief that God created the earth and the entire cosmos in six literal days some 6,000 years ago. We’re living too close to the Creation Museum and the recreated Noah’s Ark to think that there aren’t still people who hold onto that Fundamentalist belief, but after the Scopes trial, our society and most of our churches turned more and more toward accepting this scientific reality and more modern ways of understanding scripture.

As good as the story of the play and movie is on that surface level, though, the playwrights made clear from the beginning that their real point wasn’t really the Scopes trial at all. Rather, it was intended to be a parable, a criticism of the nightmare of McCarthyism that the country had been enduring for the previous handful of years, which had been destroying people’s lives simply on the basis that their thoughts and beliefs weren’t consistent with the mainstream, majority viewpoint. The story line was meant to be a statement that we should all have the right to freedom of conscience, the right to our own beliefs and living them out even if they’re unpopular. The story makes the point that to do so can unfortunately come at personal cost, as it did with John Scopes, or Bert Cates, his fictional counterpart in the movie. In fact, the story’s title, “Inherit the Wind,” is actually part of a quote from the Book of Proverbs that’s mentioned in the story – that those who trouble their own households will “inherit the wind.” In other words, people who stir things up or go against the grain within their own group are likely to receive nothing for it – or may even receive personal chaos, opposition, even destruction.

I think there’s a connection between that and today’s gospel text. Surely, this is the “Doubting Thomas” passage, but there are several other important things going on in here too. One of those things is Jesus’ breathing on the disciples and telling them to receive the Holy Spirit, having it dwell within them. We’re all probably familiar with the story in the Book of Acts, where the disciples receive the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, but in John’s gospel, we get this earlier and less earth-shaking version of it. In the Greek language, there’s a word “pneuma” – it’s part of our language too, in the word “pneumatic” and similar words, having something to do with air or wind. This Greek word has several meanings, including air, wind, breath, and spirit. This is what Jesus was telling the disciples to receive. So yes, it may be a little corny to say so, but in a real way, in this event the disciples were “inheriting the wind.”

I think there’s a deeper connection between the play’s story line and this gospel story than just that play on words, though. We believe that the Holy Spirit dwells within us. It’s that divine presence, that divine spark, that we sense when we’re aware of God’s real presence in our lives. It’s that presence of God within us that in other parts of the gospels, Jesus calls the Advocate – who gives us comfort when we need it the most, and challenge when we get too comfortable.

It’s that breath, that wind, that Spirit that Jesus gave those disciples, and by extension to us as well, that causes us to step up and take bold, courageous stands for the kingdom of God. To stand for equality in our world, whether over race, gender, religion, economic status, or anything else. It’s that Spirit that causes us to work or justice for all as a matter of the kingdom of God, as a matter of our faith, which Jesus said boils down to love of God and love of others as we love ourselves, and because as Dr. King said, justice is really nothing more than love in action. It’s that Spirit that leads us to work against bigotry and ignorance and fear of any kind in this world because our faith is one of peace, and these things always inevitably lead to violence.

And sometimes, when the Spirit leads us in those directions, they’re going to go against the grain of some people around us – whether in society in general, or even within the church itself. Sometimes, just as happened to the evolution-teaching John Scopes, when we have to stand up for what’s right, we’ll be “troubling our own house,” and as a result, we’ll “inherit the wind” in that negative way, in the form of pushback and opposition.

Sometimes, that wind of opposition can make us want to give in, give up, go with the flow. Don’t take the tough stands; don’t make the tough choices. It really can be tempting. But friends, we can’t give in to that temptation. We have to step up, to stand up, to speak truth to power and truth to lies, because if we don’t do it, who will?

All of us can feel like it would be easier to not follow where that Spirit is leading, that it would be easier to not make waves. Are there situations in your own life that are like that? It’s true, *sometimes* having received that Spirit can cause us difficulty, challenge, tough choices. But despite the fact that it will *sometimes* cause that, remember that it will *always* mean that no matter where we go, no matter what we do, no matter what approval or opposition we encounter, God will *always* be traveling the journey with us, always comforting, always encouraging, always challenging, and always strengthening us to do the right thing – we’ll never be facing the wind alone.

Thanks be to God.

The *Something* of Resurrection

(sermon 4/16/17 – Easter Sunday)

Mary Mag2 by bruce wolfe - old mission santa barbaraMary Magdalene, bronze, Bruce Wolfe, sculptor

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

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

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Mary Magdalene’s world had spun out of control. Everything she’d come to believe, everything she’d put her faith in, had come crashing down. Jesus was dead. Since Friday, she’d been nearly crushed with grief, and now, early Sunday morning, when she must have thought things couldn’t get any worse, they did. Now, not only was Jesus dead, something had happened to his body. She couldn’t even give him a decent burial.

She was almost paralyzed in her grief; she couldn’t even pull herself together enough to walk back into town with the others. She just slumped down on the ground, seeming to weigh a ton under the sadness, the dread, the fear.

And then, everything changed. There, at the tomb, Mary encountered the resurrected Jesus. There, in that moment, Mary experienced the power of resurrection – the resurrection of Jesus, and because of that, the resurrection of hope. In an instant, everything was new again – and not just as good as things were before Jesus was killed, but even better, exponentially better. You can just picture Mary making her way back into the city, laughing, giggling at the impossibility of it all, part walking, part running, part dancing, part flying, hurrying back to tell the others what she’d seen; what had happened.

That’s what this day is all about. That’s what we celebrate today – the great truth that we see in the resurrection that no matter how dark things may seem, no matter how much it seems like the wheels are falling off of everything, no matter how bad things might appear, God will never let Jesus’ message of love be defeated. God will not allow darkness, or fear, or evil, or even death, to triumph over love, not in this world and certainly not in the next.  And so today, we proclaim “Christ is risen!” and “He is risen indeed!” and we hold fast to the hope and joy that comes with the resurrection, in good times, and especially in bad.

Resurrection is what our faith is all about. Resurrection is what our faith hinges on. In his first letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul wrote, if Christ hasn’t risen, then our faith is just a fairy tale, a pipe dream, and we Christians are the most pitiful people on the planet.

And still… still… we really are basing our faith, our hope, on what appears to be a pretty incredible story. People in Jesus’ time certainly knew that people didn’t just come back from the dead, and we’re far more sophisticated than them. We aren’t stupid; we know that things like this just don’t happen. Just this past week, someone said to me that the one real thing they had problem with in the Christian scriptures was the “miracle stuff.” It would all be so much more reasonable, more logical, more believable, without all the miracle stuff. And yet, here we are today, celebrating the granddaddy of all miracles – rising from the dead, and not just in spirit, but in body, and not just the old, normal body, but a new improved one, a transformed one; one that can apparently change appearance so even your closest of friends might not recognize you if you don’t want them to;  one that can seemingly appear out of nowhere or move through walls or locked doors. I mean, really, this is quite a story that we’re being asked to believe. And somewhere, in the middle of singing all the great Easter hymns, and cheering “He is risen!” a voice within us – I suspect within all of us, at some point, or in some way, asks, “Really? Is this really true? Or did someone just make all this stuff up, to feel better after Jesus was killed? Is all this just a house of cards, built on the foundation of this impossible thing?”

I know I’ve asked myself those questions. As I’ve thought about them, I’ve come to a few conclusions.

First, even though I know it’s illogical, and to put it mildly, highly improbable, to believe that a person could physically rise from the dead, I believe Jesus did. I suppose I believe it in part because the scriptures say it happened, but I believe it at least as much because based on my understanding of God, I believe that God is capable of, and maybe even enjoys, pulling off the impossible every now and then.

But even though I believe it, as odd as it might sound, it really isn’t the bedrock, ultimate deal-breaker of my faith. In other words, if tomorrow, some archaeologist in Israel stumbled across a first-century tomb, and inside it they discovered an ancient ossuary, a bone-box, and the box said, “Here are the bones of Jesus of Nazareth, son of Mary and Joseph, who claimed to be the Messiah, and the Son of God;” and if inside the box, in addition to his bones, there were Jesus’ original, long-form birth certificate, his high school yearbook, and his Social Security card – if it proved beyond all doubt that Jesus’ physical, earthly body wasn’t resurrected, I asked myself, would it destroy my faith? Would it significantly change my faith? I have to admit, it really wouldn’t. It wouldn’t substantially change my faith, because I know that, whatever it was, *something* amazing happened on that first Easter Sunday. Something that could only be described as miraculous happened that instantly turned Mary Magdalene’s soul-crushing grief into absolute joy. Something turned her life completely around and made her dance all the way from the tomb into the city. Something otherworldly happened to a bunch of demoralized, terrified disciples to make them believe they saw and touched the one they saw dead as a mackerel just days before, and to turn them into an emboldened, supercharged bunch ready to tell the world about the risen Jesus they’d encountered.  Something very real, and transforming, something life-changing and life-giving. That something – whatever its details – was resurrection.

I believe in the resurrection because of what happened to Mary Magdalene and the other disciples, and because of what I’ve experienced of God within myself. I believe in the resurrection because in the kingdom of God, sometimes what sounds like a fairy tale is actually the truest thing, the thing to really believe. I know that just as happened with Mary and the other disciples, the hope, the truth, of the resurrection has the power to change lives. To turn the deepest sorrow into the greatest joy. To turn the most hopeless of situations into the most hope-filled moments of our lives.

So this morning, if a piece of you – whether a small piece, or a large one – brings doubts and cries for logic on this, the most illogical of Sundays, that’s OK.  You don’t need me to tell you that there’s plenty of doubt within the Church, in pews and pulpits alike. But remember that even where there is  doubt, there’s still  faith. The two are absolutely inseparable. And even if our faith is imperfect, that’s OK, because Jesus’ faith is perfect, and it’s Jesus’ faith, not our own, that reconciles us with God. Remember that something that changed Mary Magdalene and the disciples. Remember that something that ended up changing the world – and that eventually has changed, and will continue to change, and give hope, and joy, and life, to you, and to me. Remember the something of resurrection – that indeed, Christ has risen! – and for that, we can all say

Thanks be to God!