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!

The Green Mile*

(sermon 4/9/17)

John_Coffey
Actor Michael Clark Duncan portraying John Coffey in The Green Mile

 

*This week’s sermon is actually a reprise, with just a few technical and theological updates, of one that I first delivered at the Frankfort (Ohio) Presbyterian Church for Palm Sunday in 2008. To my knowledge, this is the first time in  ten years that I’ve more or less repeated a sermon. After reading it, I hope you feel it was worth the revisiting. 

When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.” – Matthew 21:1-11

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I imagine most of us here have seen the movie “The Green Mile.” Maybe some of you have read the Steven King novel it was based on. If you’re familiar with the story, you know it really isn’t a typical Steven King story, filled with killer puppets, demon-possessed Plymouths, or Jack Nicholson running around scaring people with an axe. This is the story of a man named Paul Edgecomb, telling about some of his experiences while working as a prison guard on Death Row in the 1930s. All the cells on Death Row looked out on a central corridor that led to the death chamber, and the electric chair. It was actually just a short distance, but the prisoners considered it the longest walk that they’d ever take in their lives – they called it “the Green Mile;” green because of the color of the linoleum floor.

The population on Death Row was made up of the usual prison mix – guilty people, innocent people, people who had just been at the wrong place at the wrong time. Good people, evil people, and people somewhere in between. This same mix could be seen in the prison guards watching over the prisoners, too.

One day, a new prisoner arrived on Death Row. John Coffey was a huge, quiet, gentle black man who was the innocent victim of a racist judicial system that had convicted him of a crime he hadn’t committed. For the most part, John Coffey never bothered anyone. Most of the time, he sat in his cell crying, because he said he could feel all the brutality and evil in the world, and it was almost too much for him to bear. The amazing thing about John Coffey was that he had an amazing, miraculous ability to heal people – and if you know the story, not only people – with his touch. When Paul Edgecomb asked him how he did it, he said he just took the illness and evil back onto himself; he just drew  it all out of them and took it upon himself. It was a process that made him physically ill until he could expel it out of himself and back out into the world. Once, he’d even used his healing ability to save Edgecomb’s life, curing him of cancer. The plot of the book and movie goes in various other directions, but if you know the story you know that eventually, John Coffey’s execution date came, and he had to walk his Green Mile.

Back in the present time, Paul Edgecomb explains to a friend that John Coffey’s healing had not only healed him, it also caused him in some mysterious way to age very, very slowly – and based on the rate he was going, he was on course to live several normal human lifetimes before he would eventually die. His friend told him he’d been blessed, but Edgecomb said he wasn’t so sure – that to outlive everyone you’ve ever loved, and to outlive the world you’d been born into, often didn’t seem like much of a blessing at all. Thinking about it all, and of his own ultimate, if long-delayed death, Edgecomb says “We each owe a death; there are no exceptions, I know that – but sometimes, oh God, the Green Mile seems so long.”

This movie always comes to my mind on Palm Sunday, when I read today’s gospel text – the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem the week of his crucifixion. Jesus rode into town from a little village on the Mount of Olives. It was actually a very short trip he was making – about a mile or so, definitely no more than a mile and a half; just about the distance from here to Ballard High School. Even though it was a short trip, the importance of its point of origin wasn’t lost on people, inside or outside of Jerusalem. The Mount of Olives was where the prophets were going to reappear, and the Messiah would first appear, proceeding into Jerusalem and ushering in the age when God would rule on earth, not the Romans or anyone else, for that matter, and that everything was finally going to be set right. With all they’d seen and heard about Jesus, the people had great hopes that he really was the Messiah, and when he arrived in Jerusalem all this was going to unfold.

At about the same time that Jesus was riding into town from the Mount of Olives, over on the other side of town another procession was moving through the streets. During the time of the Passover, Jerusalem grew to a city of over a million people with all the religious pilgrims flowing into town for this major religious festival. It was a time of heightened religious passion, and it was also a time of heightened political unrest directed against the Romans who held the jews under their thumb. During this time each year, and in the midst of all that heightened unrest and potential for violence, the Romans staged a large, impressive procession, a parade through the city. Officially, it was billed as a sign of diplomatic respect for the Jewish people and their religion. In reality, though, with all its pomp and circumstance, with all the flags and banners and soldiers and trumpets and drums and horses and chariots, it was meant to send a not-very-subtle message just who was in charge. The message that they were delivering to the Jews was clear: your quaint little religious observations are all well and good, but if you get out of line and start any trouble, if you give us Romans any grief, we can, and will, squash you like a bug.

Knowing that, we can see Jesus’ own very different parade into the city in a deeper context. Its timing, its simplicity, even Jesus riding into town on a humble donkey instead of a big, impressive Roman war horse, carried an unmistakable, inescapable – and downright dangerous – political message. It was a rejection of the Romans’ claim to be in charge. It was a mockery, it was poking a stick in the eye of the Romans and their parade and all their ideas about power and empire unfolding on the other side of town. It was a protest at city hall, a prayer vigil at the Statehouse, a march on Washington. And behind it all, it was making the alternative, contrary point that there was only one ultimate power in the universe, and it wasn’t Rome; there was only one God, and it wasn’t Caesar.

As Jesus arrived in town, the people of Jerusalem understood this – that’s why Matthew tells us that “the whole city was in a turmoil.” They didn’t know what was going to come out of Jesus rocking the boat in this very public and unmistakable way, but they were pretty sure that nothing good was going to come of it.

Still, the crowd gathered around Jesus as he rode toward the city, ecstatic over what they thought would was the beginning of the end of all their problems. So they shouted and sang out ahead of him, “Hosanna! Hosanna! Save Us!” And as we know, they laid branches out in front of him, giving him their equivalent of the red carpet treatment. Except this carpet, with all the branches in the roadway, wasn’t red; it was . In a very real way, this was Jesus’ Green Mile.

Here was an innocent man. A man of miraculous ability, who had healing power, even the power of life over death, who knew he was soon going to his own death. As the donkey plodded along, Jesus looked at the people thronging around him. He knew they didn’t have a clue what was about to unfold. He also knew that even as enthusiastic as they were now, in just a few short days they’d desert him. Some would even hate him. And yet, he loved them. His heart ached for them. He could feel all the brutality and evil in the world that they had to endure, and it was almost too much for him to bear. He felt all their joys and knew all their sorrows. He’d come to show solidarity with them, to be one with them, to open the ways of the kingdom of God for them. Yes, he loved them, maybe in spite of himself, certainly in spite of themselves. Still, as he made his way closer to Jerusalem, just like Paul Edgecomb he must have been thinking, “Sometimes, oh God, the Green Mile is so long.”

Of course, in a real way, we’re all walking our own Green Mile. Along the way, we’ll all know joys and sorrows, victories and losses. As we get closer to Good Friday and Easter Sunday, and as we continue to consider what it really means to be a follower of Jesus, one of the great joys that we know we can have, one of the great comforts that we know we can have, is that because of the faith and love of Jesus on that first Palm Sunday and beyond, wherever we find ourselves on our own Green Mile, and whatever its own particular twists and turns, we know that we’re never, ever, walking it alone.

Thanks be to God.

Vision

(sermon 3/26/17)

eyes

As Jesus walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see.

The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”

They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided. So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.” The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.” So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.

Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him.

Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”

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There are a lot of different ways to prepare a sermon. The way I generally start out it is to read the scripture several times and try to find, out of any number of different possibilities, the one key point, the one single message that God seems to be drawing me toward, that I want to emphasize in the sermon. I work on that thought until I can come up with a single “Sermon in a Sentence” that captures the real essence of what I want to stay focused on, and then that guides me as I develop the sermon, so I never get too far away from that point. I told a parishioner one time that that was the way I did it, and he said to me, “Well if that’s the case, on Sunday mornings why don’t you just tell us that single sentence and save us all a lot of time?”

That led to a whole different conversation about why that wouldn’t work, but in a way I wish it would this morning – because our gospel text this morning, as wonderful and intriguing as it is, is very long, and it doesn’t lend itself to cutting down without losing a lot of its meaning, so by the time you read through the whole thing, there isn’t a lot of time to preach about it if you want to get out of church on time. And that’s a shame, because this is such a rich story, and there are so many great themes that you could preach about it. There are just so many great theological points; the characters are so interesting; the story has a number of interesting aspects, of this story that plays out after Jesus’ initial healing of the blind man. There’s the disbelief of the townspeople; the division and outrage of the religious leaders; the fear of the healed man’s parents and their trying to cover their own butts; the healed man ridiculing and throwing shade at the religious leaders; and his ultimate profession of faith that Jesus was Lord.

And it all flows from Jesus giving the man his vision – vision that, we see as the story moves on, goes beyond just the physical, but was much deeper – he could see through the hypocrisy and all the rabbit holes that the religious leaders were trying to get him to go down. Just as a side note, notice that Jesus didn’t ask the man a bunch of qualifying questions before healing him. It doesn’t even appear that the man was even looking to be healed; he just happened to have been at the right place at the right time. Jesus just healed him.

It seems to me that at the core of this story is the idea that just as with the blind man, God loves us and works to heal us, and continually working to give us that same kind of vision that he gave the blind man – wherever we might be in our lives, even without our expecting it, or frankly, maybe not even wanting it.

I suspect that all of us have experienced sometime in our lives when we didn’t feel whole. Something was missing. We were out of sync with the universe, or with the people around us. Maybe you’re lonely. Or you’ve lost a relationship, or you’re broken a relationship – with a spouse, a partner, a parent or child, whatever. Maybe you’re been in the middle of a health crisis – you just got a discouraging diagnosis, or you’re facing a risky surgery. Maybe it’s a financial situation – you’re constantly living paycheck to paycheck, knowing that you’re always just one emergency expense away from financial disaster. Whatever the details, in the midst of the situation you feel almost suffocated, almost drowning in dread and depression. Everything is dark; everything is just grey. There’s no joy. There’s no hope. And you just can’t see any way out.

And then, in some inexplicable, unexpected way, something happened. Some little thing, or a series of things, fell into place, and led to a way, some way, out of it. It was like your eyes were opened, and you saw the situation in a new and hopeful way. And you found wholeness again. The truth for us is that out of love for us, God is continually working this way, restoring us, bringing us more and more into wholeness.

If that’s happened to you, maybe tight in the middle of all that you clearly sensed the divine. Maybe you immediately recognized it as a “God Moment.” Or maybe it was only over time, after you looked back on the situation with perfect 20/20 hindsight, and you recognized God in the situation.

Or then again, maybe you didn’t. Sometimes we can’t, or we don’t, allow ourselves to admit that when things like that happen, that it’s evidence of God’s presence, and God’s working within us. Comparing it back to the story, it would be as if Jesus healed the blind man by putting mud over his eyes and told him to go wash it off, but he never washed it off to realize he’d already been healed.

This Lenten season, we’re all called to refocus and reflect on our faith. As part of that, this week, I invite you to think about these things. Ask yourself if there are things in your life that you want to ask God to heal; things that you would want God to restore within you. Think back over your past, and ask yourself if in hindsight, you can see that God was at work within some situation and had healed or restored something in your life. And consider, too, whether maybe there’s something in your life right now that God actually is working to restore, to heal, but you’ve just got to recognize it and accept it – that you’ve got wash in the pool of Siloam, as it were, and regain your vision, and see how God has already been working within you.

I said I always start to develop a sermon by first coming up with a “Sermon in a Sentence.” But I never share that sentence with anyone, because honestly, a lot of times the point that other people draw out of a sermon isn’t anything at all like what I think I’m preaching about. In reality, everyone has to come up with their own “Sermon in a Sentence.” This morning, out of all the possible things that could be drawn out of today’s long gospel text, I chose to focus in on the one small thought of God’s ongoing healing work in our lives, and inviting us all to examine where God may be working in our lives, healing something within us, too.  But it’s OK if the story takes you in other directions. As you hear this story, try to ask yourself what part of this story speaks to you. What do you hear God calling your attention to, when you read how Jesus reached out in love and compassion, and told the blind man – and by extension, tells you – “Here’s mud in your eye.”

Thanks be to God.

Nevertheless, She Persisted

(sermon 3/19/17)

Jesus and Samaritan woman with pussyhat

[Jesus] came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.” – John 4:5-26 (NRSV)

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It was a bit of an odd meeting, really, this encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman, since the Jews and Samaritans had been at odds for hundreds of years. Ethnically, the Samaritans were a mix of Israelites and the people of surrounding kingdoms, and they worshiped the God of Israel as well as at least four other pagan gods; while the Jews, centered in the region to the south of Samaria, saw themselves as the truly ethnically pure Hebrews, whether that was factually correct or not, and as the keeper of the true faith and worship of the God of Israel. They were really racial and religious cousins, if not sisters, but the Samaritans saw their Jewish siblings as a bunch of stuffy, exclusive, elitist prigs who were allowing religious rigidity to obstruct true worship of God. The Jews saw the Samaritans as Gentiles every bit as unclean as any Roman or other pagan, if not worse, since based on their history, they supposedly should have known better than to live and believe the way they did. The differences weren’t just left at talk, either; there was sporadic violence between the two groups, with the Jews often seeing the Samaritans as dangerous, uncivilized thugs.  

In order to avoid being made ritually unclean by associating with Gentiles, not to mention watching out for the security threat they saw in the Samaritans, the Jews engaged in a first-century version of Jim Crow segregation. They kept separate from the Samaritans; Jews wouldn’t be under the same roof as Samaritans – they wouldn’t eat under the same roof; they wouldn’t sleep under the same roof; they wouldn’t travel in the same settings. In fact, if the Jews had to travel to the north, somewhere beyond Samaria, they’d go miles out of their way, completely around the region in order to avoid mixing with the supposedly inferior and dangerous Samaritans.

And that’s what makes today’s gospel story so striking even before a word of dialogue is spoken. Here’s Jesus, traveling right through the heart of Samaria instead of going around it like he would have been expected to, and mixing with the people there, sitting at a well and speaking with a Samaritan woman. I was as unexpected scene that was as out of place as a white man in 1960 standing in line to drink out of a “Coloreds Only” fountain in Selma. It was shocking.

It shocked the woman he spoke with, too. By the way, you’ve probably noticed how very often, the names of women in the Bible aren’t documented, compared with the men who show up in the stories. Whether intentional or not, that sent, and continues to send, the message that the women just aren’t as important as the men, in the kingdom of God or otherwise. The Eastern Orthodox church has a tradition that this woman’s name was Photina. Who knows what her actual name was, but out of respect for her, and the idea that women’s lives and names matter in the kingdom of God, that’s what I’m going to call her too.

Once Photina got used to the idea that Jesus was really engaging with her, she ran with it, and they had a deep and important and what likely for her was a life-changing conversation.

Last week, Jesus told Nicodemus that God’s love was for the entire world, not just one group of people; and that God’s Spirit moved where God willed it, across all national or racial or religious or any other human categories – stoking embers and kindling fire in the hearts and souls of all manner of people. This week, just a few verses later in John’s gospel, we see Jesus putting those words into practice with Photina, and we can see the Spirit working within her as she’s intrigued by his words. She understands right away that there’s something special about Jesus, even if she doesn’t get the whole picture right away. But she persisted in their conversation, asking him about particular details about worshiping God, and leading into a conversation about the messiah that she’s waiting for to arrive, and with Jesus ultimately telling her that he is the messiah, God’s chosen one.

But this story, Photina’s moment of fame, doesn’t end here, just with her knowledge and belief that Jesus is the messiah. The story continues beyond where we read today. Emboldened by the Spirit of God working within her, Photina persisted, telling the people of the city about her encounter with Jesus, that she’d found the messiah. And because of her persistence, a lot of them went out to meet him, and many of them believed in Jesus, too.

The same Spirit that moved in Photina, and led her to persist in her encounters with Jesus and with the townspeople, is moving in the lives of people today, too. God’s Spirit is present with us today, and moving in our midst, moving in our lives. Some of those times, God is drawing people, leading people, calling people, to particular forms of service in God’s kingdom. We’re recognizing that this morning, as we ordain and install elders to serve and lead the church. Yes, we voted for them, but it really isn’t us who has ordained them, but God, and our voting is really just recognition of what God has already done, calling them to this particular ministry.

Today, we recognize that God is stoking the embers of their faith, and kindling a fire within them just as real as the one that was kindled in Photina.

New elders, you’ve been called to serve and lead this congregation, in all the many ways that we love and serve God and others. In everything that you do as an elder, remember that you haven’t just been voted into something, like joining the Rotary or the athletic boosters club. God has called you to this service. God has placed a hand on your shoulder, and not just called you but equipped you with all the skills, gifts, imagination, and yes, persistence, that you’ll need to do what you’ve been called to. And that isn’t just true with our new elders, but it’s exactly the same with all of us. God has called and equipped each of us here today to some particular form of ministry, too, whatever that ministry might be.

Whether elders or not, I predict that as you carry out your particular ministry, even though you’ve probably known God’s presence in your lives for some time, you’re still going to experience God’s moving within you, guiding you, inspiring and challenging you, in totally new and unexpected ways. I believe that as you follow and serve God, you’ll occasionally feel as surprised by the hand of God in your life, just as Photina was. When that happens, be amazed. Be inspired. And be persistent in being, and doing, what God has called you to. And when you do feel that surprise, and that undeniable knowledge of God’s presence, always be sure to take a moment to recognize it, and to say

Thanks be to God.