Creaky Rafters (sermon Easter Sunday, April 5, 2015)

snowy roof

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

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.  – John 20:1-18

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This past winter, I’m sure I wasn’t the only person here who occasionally looked at all the snow piled up on their roof and wondered just how strong the roof framing was. Sitting alone in the house in the evening and hearing an occasional pop or a creaking rafter, and wondering if this was it, that in the next moment the roof was going to collapse under the pressure, and they’d end up finding your body underneath it all during the Spring thaw, your frozen fingers still clutching that last slice of Wegman’s pizza.

I have to admit that over this winter, I’d started to feel something like my roof. My own mental rafters, my emotional rafters, were starting to creak under the stress of a winter that seemed like it would never end, just a great big cosmic piece of hate mail; but it was more than the weather, too. It was also the whole idea of picking up and moving away from 30 years’ worth of familiarity and support systems and connectedness – family, friends, church, everything. Don’t misunderstand, I love the excitement and challenge of new things, new experiences, and making new friends, and new connections. But even at that, some of these winter days were pretty lonely. Sometimes, I felt like I was going it all alone. It made for some pretty creaky rafters.

I guess I hadn’t quite realized just how much that had affected me until this past week. Some of you know that about a week ago, my pastoral mentor and friend, Phil Hazelton, passed away suddenly and unexpectedly; and that I quickly rearranged my Holy Week schedule to run back to Columbus for his memorial service. It was a gut-wrenchingly sad time for me. I spent most of the service trying hard not to cry, and sometimes even succeeding.

But then something incredible happened. At the full-to-capacity reception that followed the service, as we were coming together to mourn and honor this very inspiring man, I was caught off guard by the overwhelming number of people who made a point to gather around and greet me – old friends I’d known for decades, as well as people whose faces I barely recognized, all offering hugs and handshakes, and smiles, and love, saying how good it was to see me again, and wishing me well. I have to admit, I was kind of embarrassed at first; I mean, we were there to honor Phil, not me. But gradually, bit by bit, with every smile, every hug, every hand on the shoulder, the snow started melting off my rafters, and I realized I’d been mistaken. I recognized something that I guess I knew in my head but I’d forgotten in my heart, and these kinds of things you have to know in your heart. No matter how I’d felt in those moments over the winter, I’d never been alone at all. God’s love, the face of Christ, seen in the faces of all these wonderful old friends, and also all my wonderful new ones, had really been there all along. I was, and am, so blessed because of God’s presence. Over the years, God had used my friend Phil to teach me, or at least to remind me, of so many important things. And now, God had used Phil indirectly to do that again, one last time.

So what does all that have to do with Easter? Well, all through Lent I’ve been thinking about just what Jesus’ death and resurrection really means. I’m not talking about the official party line or the right answer according to the Heidelberg Catechism. And I’m not talking about any doctrines of substitutionary atonement or any other mind-numbing theological arguments, I mean: what does it really mean, to me? And after thinking about it a lot, I think it comes down to something very simple, something very basic, something very much like my experience this past week, and that’s this:

There will certainly be times when things will be difficult – very difficult. You’ll go through times of upheaval and uncertainty that will sometimes seem unbearable. Maybe it will come from not knowing what to do about a decision about work, or school. Maybe it will come when you get a frightening diagnosis from the doctor. Or maybe it will come in the wake of a broken or lost relationship, or the death of a loved one. It could be any of these things, or any of a hundred others. There will be times when you’ll go through hell. And whenever that happens, whatever it is that causes the weight, that causes your own emotional rafters to creak under the pressure, it can make you feel very afraid, and very alone.

But the resurrection means that whatever it is that you’re going through, you are never alone. God raised Jesus from the dead, and however you personally understand that to have occurred, it was real enough and powerful enough for hundreds of his closest friends and first followers to experience it, and for all of them, all devout monotheistic Jews who prayed every single day “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One”, to suddenly start worshiping Jesus as divine. Jesus went through hell, and was given new life, a life that he shares with us – invisibly, directly into our hearts, but also visibly, concretely, through the love and fellowship and support of all those around us who make up the whole community of faith – old friends, new friends, each one of them being the face of Christ to us in times of trouble and uncertainty and loneliness and fear.

In the very last sermon he ever preached, Phil Hazelton said that whatever it is that you’re going through, have no fear. Don’t be afraid. Trust in Christ; he’s got your back. Trust in Christ, keep moving forward; he’s got you covered. Whatever else Jesus’ resurrection means, whatever else the message of Easter is, it’s most definitely this: that through Christ, God is with you – you are not alone. In Christ, every end brings a new beginning, every death brings new living, every uncertainty brings new growing. And we can say that with all confidence and boldness and joy this morning, because on this day, Christ is risen – Thanks be to God!

You Think You Know (sermon 1/18/15)

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(This sermon is a tribute to the life and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his prophetic proclamation of the equality and justice of the Kingdom of God. In a secondary way, it’s also a tribute to Dr. Phil Hazelton, a mentor of mine who once delivered a different sermon by the same name, and who somewhat loosely, and until now, anonymously, makes an appearance near the end of the sermon.)

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The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” – John 1:43-51

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 It had been a rough day of selling his fish in the marketplace. Nathaniel worked long, hard hours catching the fish, then hauling them to his stall in the market in Bethsaida, then having to smell all that unchilled fish all day long while he tried to schmooze and smooth-talk the customers to buy his fish that day instead of someone else’s. It could get frustrating. People just didn’t realize, or care, how much it actually cost him to get these fish to market. What he had to pay his workers, and the maintenance and upkeep on the boat and his nets, and the slip fees at the lake, and the health department inspections and the monthly rent for the stall in the market itself, and then all the taxes and fees on top of that, and the fact that he had so much competition in this little town where almost everybody was a fisherman; he was barely making a living. And even at the rock-bottom prices he was able to charge, people would still try to haggle him down further. There was one customer in particular who showed up every few days, a very shrewd and hard-bargaining man who’d moved to Bethsaida from further inland in Galilee, from Nazareth near the big city of Sepphoris. Nathaniel swore that if he’d set the price of the biggest, freshest tilapia he had at just two cents, this guy would try to get him to drop the price to a penny.

All the haggling, all the bruised shins Nathaniel had gotten through years of conducting his business, and from life in general, had made him jaded and suspicious of people. He was sitting there on that hot, late afternoon in the shade of a fig tree trying to enjoy his dinner of lamb, or chicken, or anything but fish, when his friend Philip came running up and started going off about something he was excited about. Ah, Philip. So naïve. Always the dreamer, always ready to believe whatever anyone said. Last week, it was some health food craze; the week before that it was the Ginsu steak knives. Now today, it was… what? The messiah? Really? Again? This was the third would-be messiah Philip had gotten worked up over in just the past year. And when Philip said this latest one was from Nazareth, Nathaniel could only think about his annoying customer and almost snorted as he spit out his scornful answer to Philip about people from Nazareth. Really, Philip, they’re all alike.

But Philip was persistent, and mostly just to get him to shut up, Nathaniel followed him to meet this man. As they got near, Jesus called out to him, “Ah, here’s truly a good and honorable man, a man in whom there is no deceit!” And immediately, Nathaniel’s BS meter spikes. It just sounded like the same kind of smarmy, insincere flattery he doled out to the people in the market all day long, and this particular day, Nathaniel wasn’t having any of it. “How do you know that? You’ve never met me before this very minute. You don’t even know my name!” And then Jesus smiled and very calmly answered, “Actually, I know all about you, Nathaniel, whose very name means gift from God; and in my mind’s eye I even saw you sitting under that fig tree having your diner.”

Jesus’ words hit Nathaniel like a lightning bolt. He realized that his preconceived notions about this man were wrong. He thought he knew; he just didn’t know.

We all do the same thing, of course. You, me, each of us, almost every day, in one way or another. With next to no real evidence, we’ll make snap judgments about a person based on the flimsiest of reasons. Skin color, ethnic heritage, religious beliefs, net worth, education level. My list won’t look exactly like yours, or yours, but still, we’ll pre-judge others based on meaningless things – often on things that are simply inherent aspects of their creation; no more the person’s doing, and holding no more moral content, than the color of their eyes.

You confide in your long-time friend that you just don’t like people who get piercings or tattoos; that you just don’t get it, and that you think anyone who goes in for those things is ignorant, low-class, trashy; and she gets a funny look on her face and doesn’t say much after that, but when she says goodbye and turns to walk away, fir the first time ever you notice through the thin white fabric of her top a beautifully colored butterfly tattooed between her shoulder blades. You think you know; you just don’t know.

You’re the president of the high school athletic boosters club, and one day you’re having a nice conversation with one of the kids – a big, strapping guy, first-string quarterback, captain of the wrestling team, maybe the best all-around athlete the school’s ever produced. An academic all-American to; a really great guy, and a real “man’s man,” you figure. And in the course of the camaraderie and joking around, you let your guard down, and you put on a swishy, effeminate voice and tell a “fag joke,” and then you go on to say to him that you think the gays are all a bunch of immoral, ungodly perverts, and they ought to all be thrown out of the locker room. And he laughs because he thinks he’s supposed to laugh, but what he’s really wondering in his mind is if he finds the courage to come out, will his intensely homophobic parents throw him out of the house? You think you know; you just don’t know.

Conservative guy who likes to go hunting? Must be one of those gun nuts; little education, hateful, racist, bigoted, probably from the south, too, if I had to guess. High school student? Must be shallow, self-centered; dumbed-down academically and spiritually; probably wastes the whole day texting, tweeting, and video gaming. You think you know.

This is the three-day weekend that we honor the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – I’d argue the most significant prophetic voice speaking God’s truth to the world and our culture over the past century. A man who ended up giving his life to spread God’s truth that you can never know what’s in another person’s heart by judging the externals. God’s truth, God’s good news – the gospel – that in God’s eyes those distinctions are meaningless. Because of the reconciliation that God has shown us, all of us, and made possible for us, all of us, through Christ, there is no longer east or west, north or south. There’s neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male and female. The gospel, God’s good news, is that we’re all created and loved as the very image of God. I can’t just point to myself and say that I’m created in God’s image. You, alone, aren’t created in God’s image. But you and you and you, and me, all of us, together, in all of our diversity and difference, are created to show the fullness of the very image and nature of God. So if we dismiss or discriminate against *any* of God’s creatures on the basis of those meaningless distinctions, those externals and incidentals, just as Nathaniel did with Jesus, then we not only harm the person we’re pre-judging, and we’re not only harming our own souls in the process, but we’re also harming and frustrating God’s intention of revealing more about God’s own self by having created us with all that diversity to begin with.

You’re church shopping. You’re looking for something different from the stuffy, boring church you grew up in; something current, something relevant, something that speaks to our time and place. But this Sunday you blew it, because there in the pulpit is the most old-fashioned minister you could imagine. He looks like a Hollywood caricature of a boring, ineffective minister. Just a few wisps of hair left on his head, hopelessly out-of-style wire-rimmed glasses sitting in front of steely eyes that have that extra-sharp intense look that some near-sighted people have. Not in jeans and rolled up shirtsleeves like Rob Bell or Landon Whitsitt or some other hip young preacher, but a drab, black robe; he was even wearing those goofy little white “preaching tabs” like Henry Fowler or one of the Puritans used to wear. Probably the most un-hip, un-relevant, whitebread, hypocritical, part-of-the-problem-not-the-solution minister you could ever imagine. This Sunday is going to be a disaster; this sermon is going to be a waste of time, you think.

What you don’t know is that the very un-hip looking minister was actually a star athlete in his day. Went to college on a football scholarship, then decided to go on to seminary. And one day when he was in seminary, he turned on his little black=and=white portable TV to watch the evening news. And as he watched, he saw a large number of unarmed, non-violent African-American protesters in some godawful place called Selma, Alabama, trying to march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. He didn’t know who Edmund Pettus was or why anyone would want to name a bridge after him, but he did know that the violence, the beatings, the sheer brutality that the police unleashed on the protesters that day was gut-wrenching, disgusting, a crime against God and country and humanity. Outraged, and inspired to make a statement and to further the real, radical, inclusive nature of the gospel, he decided that day to head south, where he was a Freedom Rider, and worked in several states in the civil rights movement. He became, to borrow a phrase from Dr. King, one of those “men of God and good will” who felt called by God to work for equality and justice, and for an end to prejudice and bigotry, for all of God’s people. Afterward, he’d go back to seminary, and out into the church, where he continued to proclaim that gospel of God’s love, and justice for all of God’s people, for many years. That was the man who stared out at the congregation that morning through the hopelessly out-of-style wire-rimmed glasses.

You think you know; you just don’t know.

Thanks be to God.