Sunday, April 28, 2013

Easter 5C, April 28, 2013

“Birds of a Feather”

Acts 11:1-18
Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. 2So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, 3saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” 4Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, 5“I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. 6As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. 7I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ 8But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ 9But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ 10This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. 11At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. 12The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. 13He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; 14he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ 15And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. 16And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” 18When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”

I grew up near Pittsburgh, but not in Pittsburgh.  So when we moved here, I was quite surprised to discover the natives’ distaste for ever, ever, ever crossing a river.  And since we have not one but three rivers to deal with in da burg, this stubborn reluctance creates an atmosphere of not very well hidden parochialism that is evident on an almost daily basis.  I don’t know if people are afraid that they’ll never find their way back home from yonder shore, or whether they’re simply afraid of falling into the Monongahela.

It didn’t take long for us to realize that there are seemingly impenetrable boundaries pretty much everywhere you turn here.  Many of these barriers are, indeed, created by Pittsburgh’s charming, yet challenging topography of hills, rivers, and bridges.  Worst of all, perhaps, is the seasonal annoyance of road construction and those charming little orange traffic cones that pop up as insistently as dandelions every spring. 

But some boundaries are not geographical, yet are as tenacious and toxic as weeds.  Some boundaries are deeply rooted in our brains and express themselves in ways that usually escape our notice.  We are only vaguely aware of many persistent and sometimes poisonous boundaries in how we organize ourselves in our neighborhoods, our workplaces, our families and even our churches. 

This isn’t only a burg thing.  There is a compelling human drive to sort out and separate ourselves by nation, tribe, age, language, race, religion, political affiliation, class, you name it.  And you know it’s true.  Everywhere, you will birds of a feather flocking together because we feel more comfortable and secure when we are hanging out with birds who reflect who we are or who we imagine ourselves to be. 

All kinds of laws have been enacted throughout history to overcome our most damaging and unjust urges toward keeping other people out – desegregation of schools, busing of school students, affirmative action, equal housing laws, elimination of red lining certain communities in lending, etc.  These laws help overcome some of our most powerful prejudices.  But the urge to stay within a carefully drawn boundary is a powerful one, particularly when we feel threatened, fearful or anxious.  When the chips are down, and our stranger danger radar goes into full red alert mode, we shut down bridges, seal the borders and dust off the blueprints for our favorite kind of neighbor – a non-offensive fence to protect us from “those” people, whoever they are.

Robert Frost famously wrote: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”   Frost never does reveal what or who it is who doesn’t love a wall, but we can be pretty certain it isn’t a human being.  Because there is nothing humans love more than walls.  There is very little we hate more than crossing boundaries.  Because crossing a boundary makes us vulnerable.  Crossing a boundary means we may have to give up something that makes us feel good.  Crossing a boundary entails a grave risk to our own self-understanding and our own comfort.  Something doesn’t love a wall, but it sure ain’t us.  We are crazy about them.

After reading from the book of Acts today, I suspect the “something” that loves to tear down walls may be none other than the Holy Spirit. Because that unbounded and unafraid spirit of God is certainly up to some serious boundry-breaking in this story about Peter and his foray into Gentile territory. 

The winds of swift and certain change are blowing through this text, indeed through the entire book of Acts.  God seems to be randomly pouring out the spirit of God upon people who live way outside the margins of acceptable society.  Last week we saw this crazy outpouring of God’s healing in Peter’s raising up of Tabitha, a poor widow barely scraping by as a seamstress in a small church of poor widows in Joppa.  Tabitha is lifted up from the pages of Acts as somebody important to God – a woman described as a disciple of Jesus simply because she takes care of the other poor nobodies in her little nowhere church in Joppa.

But today, Peter has crossed another kind of boundary and that crossing threatens to disrupt the very core of the early church.  Peter is called before the church leaders in Jerusalem and called on the carpet for breaking the dietary and purity laws that have shaped the lives of God’s people since the time of Moses.  Peter was not only eating with the uncircumcised, but also presumably eating the kind of food that would be considered unacceptable by the leaders in Jerusalem.  You may recall that this was exactly the kind of rule-breaking that was constantly landing Jesus in a heap of trouble among the hierarchy in the synagogue.  In fact, Jesus had a habit of crossing well-established boundaries of purity --- touching and being touched by unclean people, healing on the Sabbath, and eating and drinking with the wrong kind of crowd. 

So Peter wasn’t blazing new territory in hanging out with Cornelius and his friends, but the shift in the unfolding story of the early Christian church is perceptible and Peter is the pivotal figure in this drama. 

Peter is beginning to see with the eyes of the prophets like Isaiah and John the Baptist and with the eyes of Jesus.  Which is to say, Peter is seeing through the eyes of God.  These are wide open eyes that see the non –Jews and Gentiles not as unclean and impure, but as beloved children of God.  And this expanding and inclusive vision for the church is brought into being by the Holy Spirit – the power Jesus promised to Peter and all of the apostles when he ascends to heaven in chapter 1.  Jesus says to them:   “ 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” (Acts 1:8).

This vision from God declares that it only God who decides what is clean and unclean and it is that vision which frees Peter to minister in a new way.  Peter is released from his fears about what is pure and what is profane so he can cross over a seemingly uncrossable boundary.  Peter can move outside the church of circumcised believers in Judea to the uncircumcised Gentiles in Cornelius’ house in Caesarea.  And Peter makes the insiders in Jerusalem very, very uncomfortable.  As far as they are concerned, the ends of the earth doesn’t necessarily include unclean, uncircumcised people like Cornelius.  So they call in Peter to explain himself. 

One of the things I have found to be reliably true is what changes people’s minds is not church doctrine or theological arguments or even carefully constructed logical rationales.  Stories, not arguments, open minds.  You cannot argue someone into faith. What moves people to a new way of being and thinking isn’t tirades, but honest and open testimony.  Over time, bit by bit, testimony about God’s love and grace and mercy have always had an incredible power to open up minds and hearts.  The process of “show and tell” is powerful beyond the kindergarten classroom.  It is in our deep and honest conversations with one another that we learn to see and trust the transformation God has already done in us. 

Peter is called in to the council in Jerusalem.  But he doesn’t attack his accusers. Instead Peter tells them a story about this vision that came to him while he was staying with another outsider – Simon the tanner -- whose very profession would render him unclean and unacceptable company for any observant Jew. Peter carefully tells the story of  how God spoke to him in a vision and told Peter that God’s love extends beyond all the boundaries that Peter has spent a lifetime observing.   The identity of God’s people is created by God’s love for them.  It is God’s love that connects us to one another and makes us clean.  It is God’s love that shapes who we are as God’s people, not our adherence to a set of purity laws.     

Peter tells the story to his brothers in Jerusalem and in doing so he opens up for them the same forgiving, loving, accepting space revealed to Peter by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Peter says, “If God gave these outsiders the same gift he has given to us, who are we to reject them?  Who are we to say no to their gifts?  Who are we to keep them out?”

I do not know why it is that we are constantly flummoxed by the idea that the same God who gives so much to us is just as generous with everyone else.  I don’t know why we have such a hard time believing that the same God who works among us is also working in places that we do not recognize as holy.   I do not understand why it is we think we have cornered the market on all the goodness of God when that well of goodness is an everlasting stream of mercy.  The Holy Spirit moves like melting snow flowing exactly where and when and how it wants to go.  That flowing river of grace breaches ancient barriers that have existed for so long that nobody can remember why we built them in the first place.  The Spirit’s fire flares up, melting the hardness of human hearts, setting the waters of God’s justice lose upon a world dried up and gasping for breath. 

Peter says, who are we to hinder God? 

I met a man named Joe this week who is a deeply faithful, rock solid Christian man with a beautiful voice and a powerful testimony.  To hear him pray and speak about how God has worked in his life, and to listen to his reading of scripture is a genuine joy.  When I met him the other night, I noticed that Joe was wearing surgical scrubs and after the meeting, I asked him if he worked in a local hospital.  Turns out that he is a nursing assistant at AGH, working on the orthopedic floor.  Joe has worked for AGH for more than a decade, so he is well known by the staff and doctors on the orthopedic floor. 

In fact, Joe said, “They love me at AGH.  They love me so much that the doctors invited me to go out to dinner with them at Jerome Bettis’ restaurant on the North Shore a couple of months ago.” 

My husband and I know a few orthopedic surgeons at AGH, so I asked Joe if the doctors we knew were the same ones who invited him to dinner.  Turns out, one of our very good friends was the doctor who invited Joe to have dinner with him and some other folks from the orthopedic floor.  I asked Joe how the dinner went.  And he said, “Oh no.  I didn’t go.  I wouldn’t go to a dinner like that.”  I was surprised by this and asked Joe why he didn’t go?  He said, “All those doctors.  I wouldn’t fit in.  They were eating steak.  Drinking wine.  I wouldn’t fit in there.  Not with all those fancy doctors.  I don’t belong there.” 

A couple of people who were talking with us started giving Joe a hard time – what?  You skipped a free steak dinner at Jerome Bettis’?  Man, you are crazy.

After everyone left, I told Joe that the doctor who invited him to dinner was, in fact, one of the nicest people I know.  He doesn’t drink at all.  In fact, he is an extremely modest, humble person, very close to his family, very faithful to their church.  Although he certainly earns more money as a surgeon than Joe does as a nursing assistant, he’s an extremely hardworking and frugal guy.  In others words, he is probably not all that different from Joe.  In fact, I’m pretty sure this doctor invited Joe because Joe is someone he values and admires as a co-worker and he probably thought Joe might enjoy a nice dinner.

I didn’t have time to dig more deeply into Joe’s rejection of the dinner invitation, but I’ve been thinking about the many boundaries that he imagines might exist between him and the surgeon.  Class.  Race.  Neighborhoods.  Life experiences.  Fear.  All of the above?  Maybe more.  And I can understand his reluctance to go somewhere where he may feel awkward.  Out of control.  Not in charge.  Not in the “know.”  Yet if Joe had opened himself up to an encounter with this “other,” who knows what he may have experienced? 

How often do we reject God’s invitation to cross a boundary? I think we do it a lot. True for me.  True for you.  The Holy Spirit must be black and blue from all the times I have pushed back against its holy urging.  All you have to do is look at how divided our church, our city, our nation, our world has become to know that we spend too much of our time burning bridges instead of building them.  We are birds of a feather who would rather clip our own wings instead of stretching them out to catch the breeze of God’s spirit just waiting to lift us up.

In our baptism, we are reborn not to stay anchored where we are.  We are born to fly.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

What's Happening? -- Late April/May

            Special thank you to Dawn Bowman for spending last Wednesday evening with us showing her slides of her mission trip to Cuba earlier this year.  Midweeks are scheduled to return to our standard format April 17 through the end of May.  We gather at 6 p.m. for dinner, followed at 6:30 by lectionary-based bible study led by Pastor Susan.  

We have signed a 5-year agreement to lease a new copier (at a lower rate) from Precision Copy Products, which is a local women-owned small business.  Come and check it out!

Session will meet on May 4 from 9:00am -12:00pm in the Fellowship Hall.  

We are pleased to formally welcome Heather Fisher to our congregation upon affirmation of faith on Easter Sunday.  Take time to stop by and welcome Heather and her sons, Alex and Max. 

We are planning a church clean-up day on May 18 from 9:00 -11:00 am. Come enjoy donuts while we “pitch-in to pitch-it-out.”  This recent article from Christian Century explores the link between a church's spiritual health and its building condition.  Check it out and be inspired to come out and clean up on May 18th!

The Deacons are collecting toiletries for the Men’s Shelter during the spring and summer.  Place your items in the bin in the Narthex.

The Church and World team is exploring new ways of participating in God’s work in local and global missions in ways that express our congregation’s true mission heart.  We would like your suggestions for ways we can offer and support programs and organizations that are close to our hearts.  Please put any suggestions you may have in the offering plate in the upcoming weeks or speak directly to any of the team’s members –Greg, Rebecca, or Bez.  You may also email thoughts to –

The prayer chain has had a slight revision.  To start the prayer chain, you may call Pat Chasey or Tom Smart.   

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Easter 4C, April 21, 2013

"The Wrong Question"

Acts 9:36-43
Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, “Please come to us without delay.” So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up.” Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.

Resurrection is the theme of the fifty days of Eastertide.  But historically the month of April has been filled with particularly horrific events.  Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. were both assassinated in April.  Waco, Oklahoma City, Columbine, Virginia Tech, and the Immigration Center murders in New York – all of these tragic events happened in April.

The poet T.S. Elliott famously stated that “April is the cruelest month” in his poem, The Waste Land,” written in 1922.  The first stanza continues:
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.

And this year, April continues its cruel trend, as we think of the bombs that exploded in Boston on Monday, killing three people and wounding more than 100.  Like may of you, I spent Friday distracted by the footage of police attempting to find the second suspect in the bombing, his brother having been killed in a horrifying shootout.  More death.  More terror.  More brutality. 

In April, the temptation is strong to shut down and shut out such horrifying images.  The scenes of mayhem do not fit our spring mood.  Such images are entirely incongruent with the blooming beauty of the season.  April contains the season of Easter and resurrection, but for too many April will be forever marked by death.

What then shall we say as people of the resurrection in the face of violent death that so often marks the season of Easter? 

First, I think, we need to resist the temptation to be glib. I am more than willing to admit that pretty much all the horrible things that happen in the world are beyond my understanding.  And it is beyond yours as well.  I cannot give a reasonable explanation for why people lost their lives and limbs at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, or why small children were gunned down in a first grade classroom or why a fertilizer factory in Texas blew up and killed dozens of people .  Any person of faith who rushes to tell you why bad things happen to good people, or bad people, or any people is simply being dishonest.  We can argue until we are blue in the face about gun laws and immigration policy and safety inspections.  These are important conversations to have and public policies really do matter.  Yet we also know that terrible things happen in the world that we cannot control or understand.   Cain is still killing Abel.  Human beings are a dangerous species, destructive, and so vulnerable. The psalmist says humans are made both wonderfully and, truth be told, fearfully.

Yet we are people of faith who are called to be salt and light and Christ in the world.  We are called to speak God’s healing word to a hurting world.  What then shall we say about these things?

Well, maybe this morning, after a week like the one we’ve had, maybe we can only talk about Tabitha.

Let’s talk about Tabitha and her little church in Joppa near the Mediterranean Sea.  Tabitha -- the first and only named female disciple in the Bible.  Yes, we know that other women walked with Jesus and ministered with Jesus.  We know that other women played an important role in the early church.  But only Tabitha is depicted in scripture as a female disciple with a capital D.  So today, let us talk about Tabitha and her story in the Book of Acts.

When we talk about Tabitha, we need to remember that she was born into and lived in a Roman-occupied world that can only be described as very grim.  Tabitha’s world was one in which wealth was concentrated into the hands of a very, very small percentage of people.  Only a few people – and all of them were male, by the way --  held all the power and privilege in the 1st century.  Most of the population was grindingly poor beyond our imagining.  

And widows were among the most vulnerable citizens of all.  Because women could neither own nor inherit property, a woman was entirely dependent upon her father and then, after she was married, on her husband.  If her husband died, the widow’s only hope was that there would be a male relative such as her husband’s brother to support her.  And if there was no man willing or able to help her, a widow was truly on her own, dependent upon the charity and pity of her community.

Such social and nutritional insecurity takes its toll.  In fact, Tabitha was born into an age when life expectancy for women like her was around 40 years old.  The widow’s life was marked by poverty, malnutrition and illness.  In fact, it is fair to say that death as described here in Acts was not a natural one, not really.   Her death was likely caused by political and religious systems that relegated widows to a life of scrapping and scraping to get by the best they could.   Widows as much as any victim of Roman execution, were victims of a corrupt and brutal system.  As quoted famously in Hobbes’ Leviathan, their lives were, “…solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."  Power belonged to men, to the wealthy, to the emperor and to death. 

But this little church in Joppa, an early Christian community, existed as a different sort of system standing against the prevailing structures. And I’m not sure we truly appreciate how utterly strange these Christians must have appeared in the 1st century. In this little church in Joppa, the community made it their priority to make sure widows and other vulnerable people like children would be cared for and not starve if they could possibly help it.  This little church stood as a shimmering light of hope in an otherwise dark world.

And remarkably, this little church in Joppa had a woman named Tabitha among its leaders.  Acts tells us that Tabitha, despite her own precarious social position, was entirely devoted to good works and acts of charity.  Far from being a victim, Tabitha was something like an entrepreneur, earning a living as a seamstress and sharing the fruits of her labors with the community of widows in Joppa.  She was, as one commentator notes, a one-woman faith-based initiative. She made garments not only to sell, but also to keep the widows in the community clothed. 

And that is a very big deal in Tabitha’s society.  Making clothing was an incredibly labor-intensive project in the first century.  A single tunic could take many days to produce, and most people had a modest wardrobe of only one or two.  But somehow, Tabitha kept the widows warm, clothed and protected in a hostile world.  Tabitha’s existence was as bare bones as the others, but she devoted her life to taking care of the marginal people who made up this tiny church in Joppa.

No wonder they were devastated when she died.  No wonder the women were weeping when Peter comes to Joppa. 

It is remarkable that Peter shows up, isn’t it?  It is.  This is a bunch of non-entities living an impoverished community.  Yet Peter comes in the name of Jesus Christ and that changes everything. 

Peter heals Tabitha, all alone, evoking the image and language Jesus himself used when he cared about and cured another nobody – Jairus’ daughter, remember her?  Another woman, a young woman, with no name.  By the time Jesus got to her, she was dead just like Tabitha.   Jesus dismisses most of the crowd and heals her privately and quietly, just as Peter does in our text.  And Jesus speaks Jairus’ daughter back into life – “Child, get up.”  And Jesus takes her by the hand and her life is restored.  And Peter has that same power to heal Tabitha.  The power of the Holy Spirit that blows like crazy throughout the book of Acts. 

What struck me most this week about the events in Boston and in Texas, for that matter, were the images and stories of people who risked everything and rushed into horrific situations to assist those who had been injured.  The people who acted quickly to help were not only firefighters, police or EMS staff, but also ordinary people

At the memorial service on Thursday, President Obama said:  “Scripture teaches us, ‘God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline.’”  That’s from the first chapter of 2 Timothy.  The president went on to say:

“And that’s the spirit you’ve displayed in recent days. When doctors and nurses, police and firefighters and EMTs and Guardsmen run towards explosions to treat the wounded -- that’s discipline. When exhausted runners, including our troops and veterans -- who never expected to see such carnage on the streets back home -- become first responders themselves, tending to the injured -- that’s real power.
When Bostonians carry victims in their arms, deliver water and blankets, line up to give blood, open their homes to total strangers, give them rides back to reunite with their families -- that’s love.”

I am convinced the same Holy Spirit who sent Peter rushing to this group of destitute widows who had lost their one slender thread of hope of surviving in a world in which the odds were hideously stacked against them – it is the same reckless Holy Spirit that sent people into the mayhem at the finish line in Boston on Monday afternoon and into the fiery furnace in Texas this week.  The first responders in Boston and Texas didn’t stop to ask if those in need were worthy of their assistance.  They simply rushed in to bring life out of death, many of them at great risk to their own lives.  And on Friday, I thought of the doctors at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston who, after a long week of caring for those injured in Monday’s blast, gave their same best efforts to care for the 19 year old man who had planted the bomb and nearly bled to death in a boat while the entire city was shut down.

In this season of resurrection, God’s church is called to say no to the power of death that permeates this sin sick world, and say yes to the life that is ours in Jesus Christ.  And we do this by being like Tabitha – open and generous and willing to share what we have even when it’s hard…harder than we ever imagined.  To stand in the space of grief and lift up our voices in weeping.  And to do those things that bring about peace.  One tunic at a time.  In doing small, generous acts for one another we break death’s ability to sever our connections with one another.  Which is really what resurrection is about.

We may not have the same worries and concerns of the widows in that little church in Joppa.  Most of us do not have to struggle to survive, but we do struggle to hear that word of life that Peter brought to Tabitha, and need to experience that extraordinary surge of the Holy Spirit’s power.  Not every church can summon an apostle with the power to raise the dead, but what we can do is follow the example of that little church in Joppa and refuse to be silent in the face of suffering.  We can be like Peter, filled with the power of the Spirit and rushing in to lift up the marginalized, the lost, the lonely --  reminding them that their gifts and their lives matter deeply.  To tell them that they are loved.  And bear witness to the resurrection so it is a real and present power in the life of this church and in our lives.

The story of Tabitha suggests that maybe we are asking the wrong question this week in particular, or any week.  Maybe the serious question that must be central to our lives is not why bad things happen or why evil persists in the world.  Maybe the question we need to be asking is this – why does goodness persist even in the face of enormous forces against it?  Maybe the question we should ask is where is love and mercy persisting in the world and how can we -- you and me, the church -- rush in like Peter to get in on that action?  Where is resurrection life threatening to burst out and take over at any moment?

I don’t know about you, but that’s where I want to be.  And I am convinced that is where the Holy Spirit is calling us to be.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Easter 3C April 14, 2013

“Do You Love Me?”

John 21:1-19

After these things…it is still all about Peter, isn’t it? 

I don’t know whether you’ve noticed it or not, but throughout the gospels, it becomes almost glaringly obvious that Peter is very, very fond of the first person singular.   At nearly every pivotal moment, Peter finds a way to make it somehow always all about Peter.  Let’s review some of Peter’s more memorable gaffes.

Matthew 14…now here’s a classic Peter scene.
The disciples go out in a boat, a storm blows up, and Jesus comes walking on water out to the disciples.  And what’s Peter’s response to this miraculous action?  Let me do it too!
“Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 
Followed, inevitably, in typical Peter style when he loses his nerve:
“Lord, save me from drowning in the water.”
It happens again and again in the gospels.  Peter slows down the action because it’s always all about him. And Jesus always has to stop what he's doing and step in to save him. 

At the transfiguration.  That glorious scene on the mountain top.  The shining white clothes of Jesus.  The holy presence of the Moses and Elijah.  Peter sees this incredibly powerful scene and in a heartbeat he turns it all around.  Suddenly, the transfiguration is all about him, about what Peter wants to do, Peter’s vision, Peter’s plans…

“Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings for you and Moses and Elijah.”
Thank goodness for God’s voice from heaven which finally shuts him up and redirects his attention:
Uhhhh…Peter…it’s not about you.  It’s about my beloved Son.  Remember?  Stop talking, Peter.  Listen to him!

At the last supper in the gospel of John.  All the disciples are having their feet washed by Jesus and everything is going swimmingly until Jesus comes to the feet of a certain disciple named…you guessed it…

“Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” “You will never wash my feet.” “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!”  And Jesus has to explain everything to Peter.  Again.  Yes, your feet, Peter.  You don’t get a pass if you want to be my disciple.

Later, Peter takes his sword and Peter, acting alone again, cuts off Malchus’ right ear.  And everything comes to a screeching halt.  Jesus has to stop again to save Peter.  Peter…Peter…Put your sword back in its sheath. 

And it gets worse.
I…don’t know him….I don’t know him.”  Three times he says it.  Even when Jesus predicted that this moment would come and Peter knew it was coming.  But, when push came to shove, it was all about Peter.  Peter chose to save his own skin and deny his Lord.

Even after all these things. 

When we arrive at the scene depicted in our text today, we really do not know how much time has passed since the disciples last saw the resurrected Christ.  We don’t know how long it’s been since Jesus blew the wind of the Holy Spirit into them and showed them the scars on his hands and his sides.  Could have been a couple days.  A couple weeks.  A couple months.  But it’s clear that the magic of Easter has worn off.  The lilies are beginning to droop.  The crowds have disappeared.  After all of those Easter things, the disciples are in seeming disarray. 

There’s only seven of them left…did you notice that?  Only seven.  We don’t know where the others have gone.  Maybe they’ve gone home.  Maybe they’ve gone back to doing whatever it was they were doing before.  But in the last chapter of John, all we have are these seven guys.  Which suggests that things are already coming apart at the seams for this group. 

And Peter, the lone wolf disciple says, “I am going fishing.”  
That’s not really much of an invitation, but the rest of the disciples say, “We will go with you.”
It’s as if they don’t know what else to do.   Fishing sounds as good a plan as any.  Do something they know how to do.  Go back to a comfortable routine. 

The night passes.  They catch nothing. And then when dawn comes and the sky begins to brighten, Jesus shows up and sees the seven of them floundering out on the sea.  Jesus tells them to cast their net on the right side of the boat and before you know it, they have so many fish that they are absolutely overwhelmed. 

But that’s not the curious part.  We know that part.  We expect that to happen.  It’s Jesus.  It’s loaves and fishes.  Here’s the curious part.

When Peter hears it is the Lord , he puts on his clothes, for he was naked. 
It’s such a Peter thing to do, isn’t it?  Because it doesn’t make any sense.

I mean, if you want to swim fast to the shore would you put on a bunch of clothes and then jump into the water?  Have you watched Olympic swimmers?  Do they wear a lot of stuff if they want to swim fast?  Peter puts on clothes when he hears it is the Lord.  He puts on clothes, jumps into the lake and leaves everyone else behind to deal with the net full of fish.

And what is waiting for Peter on the shore is Jesus and a charcoal fire.  Because after you’ve been swimming in a lake, early in the morning while wearing heavy clothes, it is very likely that you will feel COLD when you get out of the water.   And what better way to warm yourself, if you are Peter, than a charcoal fire? 

Where have we seen this scene before?  Oh, I know.  John 18.
The woman said to Peter, ‘You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ 18Now the slaves and the police had made a charcoal fire because it was cold, and they were standing round it and warming themselves. Peter also was standing with them and warming himself.

Jesus is giving Peter a do-over.  Peter gets to play this familiar scene again.  Right here at this charcoal fire.  Shivering in sopping wet clothing.  Jesus is giving Peter an opportunity to understand, once and for all, that it isn’t all about Peter.  It never has been all about Peter. It’s all about Jesus and the incredible, dangerous, extraordinary ministry that Peter is going to be able to do when he gets it through his thick, Peter skull that Jesus is the center of the action. 

And it seems to me that Jesus has been trying to get the church to do the same exact thing for the past 2000 years.  Realize that this is not about us.  It’s about Jesus.  And every time we wander into first person territory about what we want, we need, we think – we slow down the work that Jesus needs us – needs US – to do.

I have no doubt that Peter loved Jesus.  In every single moment of self-centered Peter-ness that we see all over the gospels, it is clear that Peter loved Jesus.  I’m sure Jesus knew it too.  But Jesus knew that just loving is never enough.  And we know that, too.  Love is never enough if it is not accompanied by action.  Jesus has been saying it all along to the disciples, to Peter, to anyone who would have ears to hear him. 

Jesus had to make it plain for Peter and  continues to make it plain for us.  It is high time for you and me and the church to get beyond our neediness, our self-absorption, our comfort and, let’s face it, our fear of being naked before the Lord.   We have to love Jesus more than we love these things we know.  The things that keep us safe.  The things that weigh us down when the time comes for swimming.  We have to love Jesus more than we love ourselves.  This is not cheap grace.  This is not an undemanding love. 

“Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”
“Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.”
“Feed my lambs.”
“Simon son of John, do you love me?”
“Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.”
“Tend my sheep.”
“Simon son of John, do you love me?” “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.”
 “Feed my sheep.

But, that’s just the outward conversation. Because what Jesus is really saying is: If you love me, do something about it. Show me that you mean it. And, Peter, it cannot be like the last time.  Not like the last time when you were warming yourself at a charcoal fire. This time, feed. Tend. Do it. This time.  Follow me.

This isn’t the first time Jesus told Peter to “follow me.” But this time it’s different. This time there’s no room for Peter’s denial. For his sinking doubts. This time Peter is to follow Jesus all the way. In love. In ministering to others. In spreading the Good News. In life. In death.

I started working on this sermon on Thursday afternoon.  And I was still thinking about this goofy breakfast on the beach scene when I left the church to head down to Hazelwood on Thursday evening. 

True pastoral confession here.  I really, really didn’t want to go to Hazelwood on Thursday night.  I had already had a full day -- meetings at Presbytery all morning, visiting BJ at Passavant, sermon prep, a conversation with Keith about ministries here at the church.  I wanted to go HOME.  I wanted to be HOME.  I felt like I had done enough for Jesus for one day.  I did not want to go to some lady’s house for a two hour bible study with a group of people who are forming the new church in Hazelwood led by my friend Rev. Karen Battle.  I don’t know these people.  That is not my responsibility.  That is not my church. 

I didn’t want to go to Hazelwood on Thursday night.  I was hungry.  I was tired.  I was done. 

Talk about first person singular.  A lot of I-I-I in those sentences.  It was all about me on Thursday evening.  So what happened next shouldn’t really be a surprise.

Susan, do you love me? 

Oh man.  That’s the kind of thing that happens when you read the Bible, you know.  Jesus shows up and gives you a hard time.  

Susan Anderson Maxwell Rothenberg.  Yeah, you. Daughter of Robert and Janet…do you love me?

I was about as weighed down as a person can get when I dragged my self-absorbed, sorry self down to Hazelwood for bible study on a Thursday night.  I had a million reasons not to show up.  And all of them were about me.

Do you love me?

Have you ever heard that voice?  It can be so clear on some days.  That voice was the text message I got earlier in the day from Karen reminding me that I needed to be in Hazelwood at 7 p.m. sharp.  That voice was the email on my phone giving me very specific directions to the house in Hazelwood.  That voice was lifted up from this scripture reading that had been rolling around in my brain and my heart.

Do you love me? 

So it didn’t really surprise me when I arrived in Hazelwood at Miss Vanessa’s house and discovered that she had cooked dinner.  It didn’t surprise me when Miss Vanessa gave me a giant bear hug and led me to her dining room table.  It didn’t surprise me to look at the table and see a giant platter of beautifully prepared broiled fish.  

Jesus set it all up and I walked right into it.  Just like Peter.  On the beach in those wet clothes, warming himself at a charcoal fire, eating the meal prepared by his Lord who had sought Peter out, one more time.  Peter was invited back into a life of service in a community fed, led and centered on Jesus.

Where are you in this story? How have you been called to care for the people and world God loves so much?

It can be enormously difficult to move into a future that is uncertain.  But our situation as the church today is no different from that which faced the disciples.  Like them we are tempted to stay with what is familiar.  Like them, we prefer the comfort of what we know as opposed to the unknown.  Like them, we get tired, discouraged, wondering if Jesus will ever show up.

But, I am convinced…until we let go of what we want, what we need, what we think and allow Jesus to be the center of all we do, our nets will be empty.   When we cast our nets into new places, all of those places where Jesus is just waiting for us to show up, we will be blessed by more fish than we can count.   That’s seems to be the promise here.  Do you trust it? 

Sometimes finding what we’re looking for requires just the slightest adjustment in our way of seeing.  

Sometimes pulling up the net, moving it a few feet over, throwing it back in the same waters, can make all the difference.

Jesus is crazy enough to not give up on Peter.  In fact, Jesus is crazy enough to hand over the keys to God’s kingdom to us.  All he asks is, “Do you love me?  Okay then.  Tend my sheep.”

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Easter Sermon, Year C

“Beautiful Brokenness”

Luke 24:1-12

In 1944, Lt. Hiroo Onoda was sent by the Japanese army to the remote Philippine island of Lubang. His mission was to conduct guerrilla warfare during World War II. Unfortunately, Onoda was never officially told the war had ended; so Onoda continued to live in the jungle, always preparing for that moment when his country would again need his services. Eating coconuts and bananas and deftly evading search parties that he believed were enemy scouts, Onoda kept himself well hidden.  For almost 30 years, people dropped leaflets telling him the war was over, but no one could convince him that he was no longer in a world in which killing on a national scale was still the order of the day.    When Onoda emerged from the dark recesses of the island, finally convinced the war was over, he said:

“Suddenly everything went black. A storm raged inside me. I felt like a fool for having been so tense and cautious. Worse than that, what had I been doing for all these years? Gradually the storm subsided, and for the first time I really understood: This was the end.  I pulled back the bolt on my rifle and unloaded the bullets. . . .”

I do not think it is an overstatement to say that for the past 2000 years, human beings have lived with the same kind of dark illusion that kept Onoda hidden in the jungle.  For whatever reason, we still move through our days as if we live in a Good Friday world – the world in which fear, hate and violence hold sway. 

The illusion that we live in a Good Friday world isn’t really so far-fetched.  In fact, it’s entirely understandable. Like Pilate, most political bureaucrats still seek to pass the buck.  Most of Christ’s disciples still act an awful lot like Peter, hardly daring to confess that they know a Savior of peace before a hostile world.  Like the temple leadership -- the Sadducees and Pharisees -- many leaders in the modern church still deify their own personal prejudices, morality and creeds instead of a God who loves the whole world without exception.

And the majority of ordinary people do not gather together in a mob to cheer gross miscarriages of justice. But we are not often moved to protest injustice either.   After all, it is what it is.  And what can we possibly do about it? 

Yes, it is easy to believe that we live in a Good Friday world.  It is easy to believe that nothing much has changed. 

Yet, we come together on Easter morning to celebrate the resurrection of Christ.  We affirm that belief quite visibly today.  In our greetings to one another.  In our music, our flowers, our very presence in the building.  Believing in resurrection is one thing we organized Christians do really, really well.  We practically fist bump as we proclaim to one another that He is Risen!  But behind every fist bump, I still sense the force that was at work on Good Friday.  Fear.  Raw, barely hidden, and powerful.  

None of us deny that we know Jesus as blatantly as Peter did on Good Friday, or treat the story of Christ’s resurrection as dismissively as the disciples treat the women.  But do we actually believe that love has won won?  Do we dare trust that all that goodness we saw utterly destroyed on the cross is not only alive again but also as alive as any of us sitting here today?   We anxiously and even belligerently affirm the truth of bodily resurrection, as if that solves everything, when in fact we’re hard pressed to describe how resurrection actually changes anything in how we live our lives.   

Easter demands something more of us.  Easter demands that we must live as if the wondrous love of Jesus is not only alive, not only true, but the only truth that matters in a world of illusions. 

2,000 years later, we still – still – are at war with our fears.  We still do not believe that death has been defeated.  We have not pulled back the bolt on the rifle and emptied the bullets.  We still huddle in the dark shadows of Good Friday, as if death were the order of the day.

So we should take delight in the fact that the first witnesses in our story today in Luke found the empty tomb to be a complete surprise.  Even though Jesus talked about it, predicted it, spoke openly of his death and resurrection throughout his ministry, no one in this story -- or any of the gospel stories -- greets the news of the resurrection by saying, “Praise God!”  No one shouts “Hallelujah!” when they hear the news.  And absolutely no one says, “I knew it.  It all happened just like Jesus said!”

No one expects resurrection – certainly not the women who come to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ dead body.  They expect to find death.  In fact, it is only when they are reminded by the two men in dazzling clothes that they recall Jesus’ promise.

Then they run back to tell the rest of the disciples, only to be greeted by utter skepticism.  In fact, Luke tells us that the disciples regarded the women’s testimony to be “leros,” which the NRSV politely translates as an “idle tale.”  But if we look at the original Greek, the more accurate way to describe the disciples’ response is – “Sorry, ladies.  That’s crap.”    

Who can blame the disciples?  Resurrection isn’t simply a claim that Jesus’ body was somehow magically and mysteriously resuscitated.  It is so much bigger than that.   Resurrection means that everything we see and experience as reality – violence, jealousy, anger, greed, power, prejudice, sickness, even death – is an illusion. Resurrection means that God entered into human history not to fix what is bad, but to create an entirely new reality. 

Which is scary.  If even the dead won’t stay dead, what can you count on?  Resurrection upsets everything.  It breaks every rule.  Even the awful rules which, while awful, are at least rules we know.  Resurrection throws us off balance.  It turns neat and orderly and predictable into messy, surprising, and none-too-comfortable chaos. 

But amidst the cries of “crap,” Peter hears something else.  Peter, who has been utterly broken by false bravado and fear.  Peter, who cut off ears and then pretends he had never heard of Jesus.  Peter, who ends up sobbing bitter, shameful, regretful tears.  Peter listens and hears something in the frankly unbelievable testimony of the women.

With bitter brokenness still clutching at his throat, tears of regret and loss still running down his face, Peter gets up and opens the door, stepping out into the newness of a Sunday morning.  Peter hears the muffled voices of the others through the door.  The sun is just beginning to warm the ground. 

The winding garden path leads him to an open space where he finds the tomb.  And he stops abruptly at the entrance.  His mind is racing with so many thoughts.
Is it true?   Is it true?  Is it true?

Peter is broken and tired.  Peter is tired of himself.  Peter is tired of being who he’s been.  Peter is ashamed of what he’s done.  And most of all, Peter is afraid.  Of what he might see.  What he may not see.  Is there really hope?  Or is it…finished?

Is it true?  Is it true?  Is it true?  A teacher once told me that “Is it true?” is really the only question we have to answer as Christians, and it is the question that never really goes away.  We drag that question with us into this place every time we gather to worship.  When we sit again in these well-worn pews, worn down with the week’s little disappointments and tiny tragedies.  Is it true?  Is it true? Is it true?

All Peter can hear is his own heart beating as he breathes in fresh, sweet morning air. Finally, he summons up the courage to look.  He sees the abandoned linen.  He smells the oils and spices that the women left behind. 

As I imagine Peter staring into the truth of that empty tomb, I see a group of broken, battered, cynical, tired people -- people like us - standing there with him.  And their response to that truth is not a song of triumph, but a cold and a broken hallelujah.  A whispered hallelujah.  Without trumpets.  Without the brass section.  Without the fist bump or an arm raised in triumph. 

No.  This “hallelujah” moment as depicted by Luke, can best be heard as a barely audible croak of gratitude and amazement.  Low in the throat, choked with tears, that unique and beautiful sound that every human being makes when we realize that are loved – we are LOVED -- beyond our capacity to understand.  By someone -- a Savior --  who knows who we are because he has suffered the very worst we can do to him, and suffered the very worse we do to one another. And he loves us anyway.

Our brokenness is not the final word.  Not for Peter.  Not for us.  The abyss of love is deeper than the abyss of death. Peter comes to the tomb and receives the forgiveness he needs to forgive himself. 

This week, I read about a kind of Japanese pottery called, “Kintsukuroi,” which means literally to repair with gold.  Artists use the technique to repair broken pottery with gold or silver lacquer with the understanding that the goal is not restoration of the original piece, but the creation of something entirely new.  The application of the lacquer exposes and outlines every broken place so that the obviously broken bowl becomes something much more beautiful that the original – simply for having been broken. 

That’s what God sees when God looks at you and me and the whole church.  The God of resurrection transforms and releases us into the world to shine like the sun, dappled with golden light, all the more beautiful thanks to our scars and bruises and even our doubts. 

If we are to affirm Easter in a Good Friday world, we are going to live what is the only truth in a world of illusions.  We must live every day as believers in the truth that there is no limit to what love can do.

Is it true?  Is it true?  Is it true?  Let us, in this moment, stand together and whisper so the world can hear.  Yes. Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Welcome to the new blog for Emsworth U.P. Church in Pittsburgh, Pa.

Here you will find information about our church and how we seek to serve Christ in our community and around the world.