Sunday, April 26, 2015

Easter 4B -- April 26, 2015

Truth and Action

NOTE: Sermons are aural events; they are meant to be heard, not read. The text below -- which was not delivered exactly as written -- may include errors not limited to spelling, grammar and punctuation of which the listener might be unaware and with which the preacher is unconcerned.  In today's sermon, the preacher also mistakenly referred to Garissa University College as located in Ethiopia.  The school, which suffered such a tragic loss of life in early April,  is located in Kenya.  The text below has been corrected.

1 John 3:16-24
We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?

 Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.

And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.

Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him. And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.

All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.

What do you think of when you hear that command to lay down our lives?  I tell you what I think.  You may think something very different, but here’s how I respond…

My first response is to remember the martyred Christians who died for their faith, from the very earliest Christian martyrs like Peter and Paul, people like Joan of Arc or Sir Thomas More, to the more recent examples like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Archbishop Oscar Romero.  And of course, so many Christians in the Middle East and Africa who are being killed on account of their faith.  Those are the first people I think of when I hear John saying, “we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”

My second response to the command to “lay down my life,” is to get up from my desk and go take a nap.  Because, God knows, I am not a martyr.  No getting around it. Not even close.  In fact, I’m pretty much the closest thing there is to being an anti-martyr.  There’s a line from an old Woody Allen movie, “Annie Hall,” in which Annie wonders out loud how she’d stand up under torture.  And Woody Allen says, “Are you kidding?  If the Gestapo threatened to take away your Bloomingdale’s charge card, you’d tell them everything.”  

A few weeks ago, there was a terrorist attack in Kenya at the Garissa University College in which 147 students, mostly Christian, were shot.  There has been a string of attacks against Christians by Islamic terrorist groups, although most of the people killed by these groups such as ISIS are not Christians, but Muslims who refuse to go along with the ISIS worldview and brutal tactics. 

But if facing death in order to prove faithfulness is what this text is about, I think I’m ready to tell Jesus that I’ve been re-thinking our relationship and I want a trial separation.

Don’t get me wrong – it’s not that I’m afraid to die.  I’m really not.  But, you see, I have this daughter I adore more than anything in the world who seems determined to trot all over the world.  So if she woke up in a foreign country, in the middle of the night with a gun to her head and a voice asking her, “Are you Christian or not?”  I know exactly what I would want her to say  – “Which answer is going to keep me alive?” 

I would say the same thing about David.  And about the rest of my family.  And my friends.  Ok.  Let’s be clear. I don’t want anyone to be a martyr for their faith.  True confession.  I think martyrdom is highly overrated.  In fact, I believe the world would be a much better place if everyone stopped thinking that the best way to prove how much we love our God is to be willing to kill or be killed on God’s behalf. 

If this laying down your life stuff really is about dying for Jesus, then I want no part of it.  I was sitting thinking about Jesus and Rachel and kids dying in dorm rooms and people being beheaded on beaches and I was really ready to give up on this sermon altogether and find an old sermon that wouldn’t make me feel so sad and awful and then I looked again at the first reading from the gospel and I felt about a million times better about life and Jesus and pretty much everything.

We don’t have to die for Jesus.  Jesus is the good shepherd.  Jesus died for us, was raised for us, and lives for us.

Jesus isn’t in the business of creating more martyrs.  Quite the contrary. Jesus died willingly to put death-dealing systems out of business.  And through the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus continues to be in the business of bringing life.  He said it himself, “I have come so that you may have abundant life.”  (John 10:10).    The God who created us isn’t out to destroy you or me.  Or anyone else for that matter.  Even people who seem intent on evil, awful destruction are not outside the concern of God. 

It’s like this according to the gospel of John -- like the good shepherd he is, Jesus keeps searching for the sheep not in his fold, even the really pesky, difficult, hard to love sheep.  Jesus hasn’t given up on ISIS and the KuKluxKlan and members of Congress.  Jesus hasn’t given up on the nasty waitress at Eat n’ Park, and the homeless guys under the interstate.  And Jesus hasn’t given up on you and me, sitting here in this respectable Christian church and still just as needy as anyone else when it comes to grace, love and forgiveness.  We are all sheep, prone to wander, prone to leave the God I love like the feckless sheep I am.

Jesus keeps trying to get everyone together, inviting everyone to take a break from our usual death-dealing activities and come over for dinner, have some wine and bread, and get to know one another better.  God is like the matriarch/patriarch of the whole human family who nevers stops trying to get us all to live peacefully together under one roof of  God’s creation, one flock with one shepherd. 

Jesus isn’t about creating more martyrs willing to die for something, but about creating new and more communities committed to live for one another.

Meanwhile, back here in Emsworth, Pa., the odds of us becoming martyrs for the faith are pretty slim.  What does this text from 1 John have to say to us?  Anything at all?  If laying down our lives doesn’t mean dying for Jesus, what are we to do?

We are to love.  Just as Jesus did.  Not in word and speech, but in truth and action.  We are to love in ways that are palpable, and visible, and real.

And before you say to yourself, “There she goes again, preaching that soft and squishy love stuff…” remember   --  loving the way that 1 John describes is actually a whole lot more difficult than dying. 

Loving in truth and action means sacrificing something about ourselves for the sake of the gospel, but it’s not a one-and-done kind of sacrifice.  It’s a daily struggle to understand and hopefully respond to the needs of people around us by laying down some things that we need to lay down.  Not just our money or our stuff, but even more precious things like our time.  Our need to be right.  Our prejudices and preferences.  Our discomfort.  Our grudges.  Our old hurts.  Our love for what used to be that blocks us from imagining what might yet be.  Laying down our lives means giving up whatever it is that is keeping us distant from a brother or sister who needs us.  And Lord knows, those are the most difficult distances to bridge.

When the writer of the epistle insists that we lay down our lives for each other, he’s getting nebby.  He’s going in close, down from lofty theology and into the daily grind of life together.  He says that it is here, in our community, that we must practice giving ourselves away.  We give away things that are dear to us so that we can learn what is truly dear.  We learn to empty ourselves for others.  It is by doing it that we learn to love.

This lay down your life love is not an emotion.  It is active.   It is a verb.  It moves us into places we never expected to be, but we can be certain Jesus will meet us every single time.

This is the way Jesus moved through his life on earth.  Jesus connected.  He didn’t solve or eliminate large social problems.  He touched and healed and cured and comforted individuals who suffered because of social problems.  Jesus didn’t eliminate leprosy or design a new health insurance plan.  He cured lepers and said it was ok to cure people on the Sabbath.  He dealt in specifics and he told his followers to do the same.   One person at a time.  Close enough to touch.

The writer of 1 John tells us that we will know love  -- real Christian love -- when we lay down our lives for one another.  But sometimes love feels kind of pointless when we see how often it is that our efforts fail.  We give and give and give, and we see no movement toward things getting better.  Sometimes we despair that we will ever solve anything or save anyone.  We pour ourselves into people, and they disappoint us.  After a while, we begin to feel beaten up and sick. If we are honest, we admit that our efforts are very often vain, that we have, like the servant in the Suffering Servant psalm in Isaiah, “spent our strength for vanity and nothing” (Isaiah 49:4). 

We live in a world that likes to be able to measure, analyze and quantify our efforts in everything we do.  We like a sense of control that reassures us -- if we put a certain amount of effort into a task or a job, we can expect a certain output.  When an effort fails, or seems to, we often blame ourselves.  The “if-onlys” creep into our brain.  “If only I were a better person.  If only I had thought of that.  If only I hadn’t done or said that.”  Or we begin to blame the other person, “If only you would take my good advice.  If only you were more like this.  If only you were less like that.”

Most often, it is our own hearts that condemn us, says the epistle writer.  Things done and things undone; things said and unsaid; our hearts latch onto such things, gnaws on them like a bone, and we experience the kind of self-condemnation that, if we are not careful, becomes self-loathing.  

One of the things I often say to many of you when you become discouraged like this is, “You didn’t do it and you can’t fix it.”  All you can do is keep loving.  Even when it seems to have no effect.  Don’t worry about wasting love.  It is an infinitely regenerating power that we do not create ourselves – we receive it as God’s good gift.    Like faith and hope, love never ends.

When we have decisions to make about how we will live together as a community, we can know we are on the right track if we measure our motivations by asking, “Are we doing this out of love?”  Sometimes it is impossible to know where our motivations come from and whether we’re doing what is right.  Especially in the church, where the old metrics of membership and money and perfect Sunday school attendance no longer seem to work as a measure that we are faithfully serving God.

Thankfully, the writer of 1 John reminds us, “God is greater than our hearts and God knows everything.”  God knows where our impulses come from, where our insecurity chokes us and where our guilt resides.  And God loves us, blesses us and forgives us anyway.  And sends us out again, despite our doubts and perfections, asking only that we trust Jesus and keep loving.  Even if we’re not sure we doing it well.

Barbara Brown Taylors says it well:  “When it comes down to being a provider of God's love, there is really only one provider, who sends us out with nothing at all and with everything we need: healing, forgiveness, restoration, resurrection. Those are the only things we really have to share with the world, which is just as well, since they are the only things the world really needs."

Our reassurance, then, is that we still can’t get over the impulse to love despite everything in the world working against love.   Love that is willing to give of itself and, more importantly, get over itself is a gift of the Spirit.  We know that gift when we reach out to the unreachable.  To lovingly offer our treasure to one another, even if we do so imperfectly and even if the result cannot be measured or even seen by human eyes.  If God is good, and God is love, then God will bring out the best in us, even in those moments in which we are terribly uncertain of our own goodness.  God sees strength in us when all we feel is weak.  God sees ability in us when we feel most feeble.  God sees faith in us when we are ready to chuck it all and just go take a nap.  God sees hope for us when all we see is a tangled mess. 

And sometimes, taking a nap is really good idea. 

I don’t know about you, but one thing I have discovered to be reliably true in my life is that every thing seems to get better when I remember that it’s not about me.  When I remember that the church is not about what makes me comfortable or makes me look good or makes me feel good about myself.  It’s about how the goodness of God can show up when I least expect it and push me forward into what seems to give life to someone else. 

Loving one another like Jesus loves takes all of our self-perfecting, self-criticizing, self-doubting energy and funnels it toward the ones who need, the ones who do not have enough, the ones who are hungry, the ones who are lonely and sick and bereaved. 

What are you willing to lay down for the sake of this community? 
How do we deeply care, and risk everything we have, so others may have fullness and quality of life?
How will God’s love be expressed by this congregation?  This year?  Next year? 
How will we be bold before God? 
Will we be a reflection of the truth -- not only that Jesus had the power to lay down his life, but the power to take it up again? 

I leave you today with these questions, because the answers can only come from your own hearts, and the trust that God actually is greater than our hearts.  And even when you think you have the answers, and even if they are good answers, none of them will mean anything at all until you put flesh on the Word that gives you life.

Brothers and sisters, let us love not in word or speech that cost us nothing, but in the costly way of truth and action.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Easter 3B -- April 19, 2015

You Are the Witnesses
NOTE: Sermons are aural events; they are meant to be heard, not read. The text below -- which was not delivered exactly as written -- may include errors not limited to spelling, grammar and punctuation of which the listener might be unaware and with which the preacher is unconcerned.

Today's sermon includes an update on the Unglued Church work being done by the Emsworth U.P. Church.  

Luke 24:36b-49

Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”
37They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost.
38He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?
39Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.”
40And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet.
41While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?”
42They gave him a piece of broiled fish,
43and he took it and ate in their presence.
44Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.”
45Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures,
46and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day,
47and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.
48You are witnesses of these things.
49And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

Let us begin with prayer:  Oh holy God, be with us this day in our hearing and our speaking.  Open our minds to the truth of your mercy and love. Let us be true and faithful witnesses to your resurrection power, here in this place, and in the fullness of each day we are granted.  In Christ, the risen savior, we pray.  Amen.

The one thing nobody warned me about before having children is that they quickly become a relentless reflection of everything that is good about their parents.  That part of raising children delights parents.  We like that part.

Unfortunately, our kids also reflect many of our bad traits.  We may believe we keep our quirks and weaknesses cleverly hidden, but our kids pick them up anyway. That part of raising kids often horrifies us. 

The great cosmic joke in parenting is that the apple hardly ever falls far from the tree.  At least it hasn’t at our house.  Rachel and David have inherited some fine qualities from their parents, but they have also absorbed some annoying and painful ones.  And the same is true for all of us grownups.  Who among us hasn’t had that occasional moment in which it seems all too true that we are turning into our mother?  Or our father?  And not always in a good way. 

I am not sure that means parents do a poor job.  I think it’s how human beings operate – it is a simple thing to talk about the kind of people we want our kids to be.  It is an easy thing to talk about the kind of people WE want to be, or imagine we already are.  But putting flesh on our good intentions is something we often do poorly.  And very often, our kids are on to us.  Sometimes we only recognize our less sterling qualities when we see them in our kids. 

It is the same thing in our lives of faith.  As a young man, the great Indian leader Mahatma Ghadni studied in London.  After learning about Christianity and particularly after reading the Sermon on the Mount, he decided that Christianity was the most beautiful and complete religion in the world.  Later in his life, after living with a Christian family in East India, he changed his mind.  After a few months actually living with Christians, Ghandi discovered that Christian behavior rarely reflected the teachings of Jesus.  Jesus’ words were beautiful, but the words did not become flesh very often.  Ghandi is often quoted as saying, “Jesus is ideal and wonderful, but you Christians - you are not like him.”

Ouch.  Ghandi was on to us. 

I am not sure it’s entirely fair to say Christians are doing a poor job of following Christ.  We want to be Christ-like.  We want our words and actions to line up in a faithful way.  But like the disciples in our text today, I think we are terrified.  Depressed.  Scared sick.  Worried about what the future can possibly hold for us.  So frightened of death, that we cannot see the possibilities of resurrection life, much less live into it.  Even when it’s staring us in the face. 

Even when Jesus is right up in our face, there’s so much negative stuff blocking our vision.   But that doesn’t discourage the risen Christ from seeking us out. 

Jesus comes to the disciples in Jerusalem after appearing to Cleopas and his buddy on the Emmaus Road on Easter Sunday.   As you may recall, that story begins with the two men telling a stranger about their broken dreams. 

“We had such hopes,” they cry and moan as the stranger sidles up beside them.  “We had such hopes that this Jesus of Nazareth would be the one to redeem Israel.” 

But that’s all over now, as far as they can see.  As they walk along the Emmaus Road, all they can see is blood, pain, despair and death. 

We had such hopes.  Nothing turned out the way in which we imagined it.  No overthrow of Rome.  No warrior Messiah on a chariot taking on Caesar’s legions. No miraculous triumph.  Just death.

And then, as the story continues on, the stranger, Jesus, begins to talk with them.  And as Jesus talks, we see him slowly bringing the men out of their despair, inviting them back into the larger story of God’s promises and God’s goodness.  Jesus speaks to them in a way that they can begin to make sense of the pain and see what it all means.  Jesus’ presence with them moves them from death to life, from despair to hope.   The two disciples are so transfixed and transformed by this stranger that when night falls, they ask him not to go.  They want Jesus to stay and continue the conversation about the very things that are troubling their minds and their souls.  They have come down with a serious case of holy heartburn and it feels too good to let go.

As they sit down for supper, they recognize Jesus for who he is.   The One who has taken all their broken hopes, and redeemed them in a way that seemed unthinkable just a few hours before. 

After their encounter with the Living Christ, the two men rush back to Jerusalem to tell the disciples what they have seen, how Jesus became known to them when they sat down to break bread together. 

But the disciples in Jerusalem want no part of this holy heartburn and will do everything they can to resist resurrection possibilities. 

Jesus comes to them and they are startled and afraid.   Resisting resurrection.
Jesus comes to them and they think they see a ghost.  Resisting resurrection.
Jesus comes to them and they doubt.  Resisting resurrection.
Jesus shows them his hands and feet, flesh and bones and they disbelieve.  Resisting resurrection.
Jesus offers them the chance to touch him and still they still wonder.  Resisting resurrection.

Finally, Jesus eats a piece of fish and tells them – you can trust me.  You can trust all that you have read in the law and the prophets and the psalms.   See what I have done?  I have put flesh on the bones of God’s promises so you can trust what is burning in your hearts.  You can trust what your eyes see, even if your mind is telling you it cannot be possible. 

You.  Jesus says.  You are the witnesses to all that is now possible.
You, Jesus says.  You are no longer have to be crippled by fears of death. 
You. Jesus says.  You have been given not only open-minds, but new-mindedness. 
You.  Jesus says.  You will have the Holy Spirit so you may see the world in an entirely new way, and will tell the world what you have seen. 
You.  Jesus says.  You have been given new life to live in a new way so that they world will see my Word in your bodies. 

And ever since, the Holy Spirit has put flesh on the Word.  The Holy Spirit continues to enter into broken hopes and grief over what used to be, or what is, or what will not be, and transform it all into joy. 

Resurrection.  New Life.  Abundant Life.  Eternal Life.  A big case of holy heartburn that has the power to set the world on fire.  In the best possible.

We are the witnesses of these things.  We are the witnesses of these things. We have inherited both the despairing resistance and the crazy joy of Jesus’ disciples.  Where will we go from here?

How shall we witness to the resurrection, brothers and sisters?

That is the question of the “Unglued Church” project.  How will we be witnesses to the resurrection for a new generation?  How do we release the anxiety and fear and frantic technical fixes that only serve to drain us, and move into adaptive change that frees us to serve God with joy in this time?

Over the past year, we have talked about many things, all of us.  About the past of this church.  The good and the bad.  About the present situation in this church.  We have talked about the incredible gifts of this congregation, and the many challenges.  Some of these conversations have been hard.  Some have been filled with laughter.  Some with tears.

It is tempting to stay exactly where we are, as we are, just as the disciples did when they realized that their hopes about who Jesus would be for them had been wiped out on Calvary.  We resist resurrection.  It is easier to stay where we are.

But Jesus won’t leave well enough alone. Jesus won’t let us stay stuck. Jesus continues to speak to us through the power of the Holy Spirit in the voices of this congregation, your pastor, your community, and through the Unglued Church project.  We are challenged to see where Jesus is calling us as a community of faith, and to be open to the Spirit’s urging.

There are many options, many paths we could take as a church.  At our last meeting, a few weeks ago, our Adaptive Change Apprentice, Rev. Sarah Robbins and I put together a range of nine possible directions – not plans, but general directions we could begin to investigate more fully and pray about specifically in order to continue moving forward. 

The nine options are printed on the insert in your bulletin.  As you can see, the possible options range from dissolving the congregation and turning the keys over to the presbytery to completely re-inventing the church.

For each of these options, Sarah and I determined based upon our knowledge of other churches experience the amount of energy, money and spiritual depth that would be required to explore and execute each of the nine paths. 

At the beginning of the last meeting, we reviewed where our congregation is on its life cycle – and determined that the majority of participants agreed that we are where we believed we were a year ago.  On a downward slope, with the majority believing we are on the cusp of becoming unviable, or already there. 

We talked about where we are as a congregation in terms of energy, finances and spiritual depth. 

Most felt our energy is low.  We have an average Sunday attendance of between 30 and 35 people.  We have 59 members “on the books.”  Only a small percentage of our congregation is active in leadership and/or other activities outside of Sunday morning worship.  And a substantial percentage of our members on the books are shut-ins or folks who live out of town.  

Most felt our financial resources are low.  We have a modest memorial account.  Our current offerings are sufficient to sustain a half-time pastor, other part time staff, and maintain the building.  In 2014, we spent around $88,000, with $79,000 going to staff costs, administration and building maintenance. Our mission giving has been sustained at between 7% of our total budget. 
When we have had to make withdrawals from the memorial account from time to time to deal with building repairs or utility bills, we have been fortunate that rising earnings in the stock market have kept our investments fairly steady, at least over the past few years.

Most of the participants in the last meeting felt our spiritual depth/fortitude is between low and medium.  Which means that we have a modest ability to endure significant changes in worship, mission, and the nature of our congregational life.  For many in our congregation, their spiritual life is centered on this place, this building, this congregation.  Some have commented that if this church closed, they wouldn’t go to church at all.  And we heard over and over again that there is a strong desire to stay in this building.

So given that honest and realistic assessment of who we are, the group narrowed the nine general directions down to three.  Only one of the three directions includes the possibility of selling the building:
1.  Age in place.  Continue as we have, finding one outward-focused mission activity that has legs (garden, feeding ministry, homeless ministry).  
2.  Keep the building, but lease/rent out all or part of the building, use space for Sunday worship, and use income from lease to continue as long as possible.  
3.  Sell the building and “nest” with another congregation, and explore merger possibilities. 

We are asking the congregation, together with the leadership, to form three “working groups” to consider the implications of each direction.  Each working group will begin to put “flesh on the bones” of each general direction, assess the positives and negatives of each, the costs, the challenges, and the possibilities.  

I realize that all of you cannot be at our next meeting on Tuesday night at 6:30 p.m. when we will form the working groups to consider these directions.  So today, we’re going to replicate an exercise we did at the last meeting. 

Of these three directions – where do you see possibilities? 
Of these three directions – where do you see yourself giving some time and energy to explore how it may come to pass for us?
Of these three directions – where do you sense the Holy Spirit may be calling this church?

Remember, we are not making a decision today.  Just getting a sense of where the congregation might be right now.  And giving you an opportunity to begin thinking about where each of these three directions might take us.

Let us pray:
God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, we confess to you that we are frequently slow to believe what you have promised through your prophets and in your Son Jesus.  We succumb to fears of death as if it were the end of everything - and all too often we live as if there is nothing to live for beyond death.  Forgive us Lord: forgive us our doubts, our disbelief, and our deafness to the witness of other believers, and our silence when we could give witness to the faith which we have... 

Lord of mercy, God of the living, grant that we might see beyond the ruins that lie about us; that we might take to heart the lessons of Scripture which testify to your willingness and ability to bring new life to dry bones.  Give to those who despair a vision of the resurrection which awaits all those who believe, all those you have chosen.  Help them to order their lives by the principles of your everlasting kingdom—that kingdom in which faith, hope and love transfigure all that they touch... 

Father, help us be a people who are prepared for the journey which lies ahead. Take from us all evil desire; remove from us any refusal we have to forgive others; lift from us any reluctance we have to love our enemies and to bless, in your name, those who curse us.  Send unto us the desire to love one another as Jesus loves us, the yearning to bring your saving word to those who hunger, the longing to reach out and touch another person with your love and to speak to others—and to ourselves—your truth.  Help us to be ones who are prepared; help us to be ones who live Christ-like lives.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Mae's Memorial Service Meditation -- April 12, 2015

What Is Left

Romans 8:31-39
 What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us.* Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,
‘For your sake we are being killed all day long;
   we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Unfortunately, I did not have the privilege of getting to know Mae the way many of the people here remember her.  When I met her four years ago, her illness had already begun to affect her memory.  Even though I am not entirely sure that Mae ever knew exactly who I was when I came to visit her, over the years, I think I got a pretty good sense of the essential “Mae.”  She had lost many things, but what remained was lovely.

The most striking thing about Mae, of course, was her beautiful smile, which could only have emerged from an incredibly gentle and loving spirit.  When Mae smiled, she glowed.  Even toward the end of her life, when conversation became more and more difficult, the glow did not diminish, at least in my eyes.  When everything else had become so hard for Mae, the loving glow remained.

And I see that same glow today in the faces of those Mae loved so dearly.  In Jim, her dear husband of more than 50 years.  In her devoted son and daughter-in-law, Bruce and Aline.  And most particularly, her granddaughters, all of whom seem to have inherited her smile.  Mae has died, but the love she embodied has been beautifully planted in all of you.  Even now in this sad space it blooms.

Which brings to mind the Romans text we just read. “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

It’s hard for us to believe that promise sometimes when we see the people we love being separated from us – especially bit by bit, as it did for Mae.  For many, Mae’s failing memory may have caused some of you to feel you lost Mae long ago. That you had been separated from the Mae you had known for so long – the warm and kind woman playing the piano before Sunday school for 20 years.  The engaging grandma baking endless dozens of cookies in her kitchen. Upon her passing from life into death – that separation that felt so painful and gradual seems now to be complete. 

But Paul reminds us – this is not the case. While many things in this world seek to separate us from God and one another – nothing can separate us from the love of God. Nothing – not even death itself.

We are reminded in this letter to the Romans that God’s love is the only thing we can count upon in life and in death. That the cross is the strong evidence of how much we are loved. It is in this love that we find our identity. It is in God’s love that we find what we thought was lost, what we thought was being taken from us forever.  When everything else is gone, what remains is God’s love.

Mae knew she was embraced by the God who made heaven and earth.  Mae was held in  love that reaches into the depths of human despair, embraces those who live in the shadow of death, that challenges the rulers of the world and shows them up as a sham.  A love that looks at the present with stubborn faith, and at the future with sure and certain hope.  A love that is not dependent on memory or words, but rubs off from one person onto another like wet paint from a bucket that never runs dry.  A love that claims us in our baptism and completes us in our death.  A love that overpowers all powers that might get in the way, and declares to the world that through God’s incarnation in Jesus Christ, love has won the victory – the victory over all powers in the world – including death itself.

Paul points out to us and asks many questions: “Who is to condemn? Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution or famine, or nakedness or peril, or sword?” Paul’s answer is always the same – NOTHING.  NOTHING has more power than God’s love for us. God’s love is perfectly expressed in Jesus Christ who came to take everything that is broken in us or by us, and put it back together.  The healing power of God’s love still happens in every moment of our lives through the creative breath and healing power of the Holy Spirit.

So while it may have felt as though Mae was slowly being taken away, that we were being robbed of her gifts and her presence – Paul assures us of the exact opposite. That while horrible things like Alzheimer’s happen, God is still at work making things new.  None of these things – not even death itself – can separate us from God’s love and from the power of the resurrection.

When everything else has gone from us – youth, memory, beauty, health, even our very lives – one thing endures.  This constant love of God, which is the earth’s heart beat.  The love of God that seeps into our lives and moves from human heart to human heart, not requiring words, but the shared experience of our lives.  And when our lives on earth are over, that pure and gorgeous love takes us, redeems us, and plants us in the very heart of God.

The loving smile of Mae has returned to the heart where love begins.  The heart of God who created her. The heart of God who loved her through each moment of her life, the joyful stuff and the scary stuff.  Nothing will separate her from that heart.  And it is God’s heart, God’s everlasting love, which will keep us connected to Mae.  Forever.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Easter 2B, April 12, 2015

Scarred For Life

NOTE: Sermons are aural events; they are meant to be heard, not read. The text below -- which was not delivered exactly as written -- may include errors not limited to spelling, grammar and punctuation of which the listener might be unaware and with which the preacher is unconcerned.

John 20:19-31
19When 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.” 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” 24But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So 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.”
26A 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.” 27Then 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.” 28Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” 30Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31But 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.

As the sun sets on Easter Sunday, the disciples have gone underground, laying low, waiting for the ruckus to die down.  The disciples are no doubt undone by grief.  Wracked with guilt about what they did and should have done differently.  Maybe their guilt is fed by their sense of relief that they can finally go back to fishing.  You can almost hear them saying to themselves, “Well, we tried, but the establishment won.  The rich and the powerful always win. Why did we think it would be any different this time?  Boy, were we stupid to imagine that Jesus could take on the Romans and actually win.” Or something like that.  In spite of all their earlier bravado, the disciples failed miserably at the end.  They were probably ashamed that everything had gone so very wrong, and a little embarrassed. 

And never underestimate the power of fear to keep even the most faithful disciple stuck in place, even an incredibly uncomfortable place like a darkened room with the door locked tight.

You don’t have to knock very hard on any door to find someone stuck by fear, by shame, by doubt.  Young adults locked in low self-esteem.  Couples locked in miserable relationships.  Older folks locked in by regret or pride. I am convinced though, that fear is the root of what gets us stuck.  Most of us are locked in prisons of fear of one thing or another, at one time or another.  Author Katherine Pershey describes what it’s like to be locked into a prison of fear:

“Fear is a physiological response to tomorrow.  It is almost always about death.  Fear causes us to live in a perpetual state of anxiety.  Fear is exhausting and depressing.  Generally, the calamities I expect do not come to pass.  So I replace them with new ones.  Time and energy that could be used constructively – for prayer, dishwashing, learning to quilt – I sacrifice to cultivate apprehension.” 

Garrison Keillor once said, “We always have a backstage view of ourselves.”  We carefully orchestrate what people know and see about us.  Most of those around us, even our closest friends and family, see only the neatly arranged part of our lives.  We imagine that if we let someone peek behind the curtain, they’ll see all kinds of things lying around.  Old failures, hurts, guilt and shame.  All the stuff we try to hide, just as the disciples were hiding that dark Sunday evening.  They were hiding in the dark to escape the dark truth about themselves -- that they were not what they wanted to be, or even what they pretended to be.  They were not the faithful ones they had hoped to be for Jesus.

According to the Gospel of John, Jesus the word made flesh, the light of the world is sent to a hostile world that is locked in fear in dark room.  In our passage today, darkness is about to be kicked to the curb.  Big time. 

New Testament scholar Richard Hays comments on this passage: “Isn’t it curious that God could raise Jesus from the dead but didn’t heal the nail wounds in his hands? Was this an oversight? Surely not. The power of death is conquered, but the [scars] remain.” When Jesus showed the disciples his scars, he was saying, “Here is my signature.” Here is how you will know me.  In the mess and muck and scars that signify human life.

Scars remind us that we are human.  They remind us of our capacity for healing, as long as we are alive.  And each scar has a story behind, doesn’t it?  About an accident, a surgery, a baby, a moment when that ball hit us in the head, or we fell on our faces.  Sometimes we have a much harder time dealing with our own scars than those belonging to somebody else.  It took my friend Kathy forever to look at the scar on her chest after her mastectomy.  And there’s a story in that scar for her, although it is still a story being written.  We all hope the ending will be something like, “This scar is a reminder of how Kathy kicked the you-know-what out of cancer.

I think that is at least part of the reason that Jesus makes the point of showing the disciples his hands and his side on that Easter evening when he enters the locked room.   The scars are a vivid reminder of how far God was willing to go for us.  And how far God is willing to go with us.  It wasn’t Jesus’ face or hair or clothing or voice that convinces the disciples that they are in the presence of the resurrected Christ.  It is those scars that prompt their recognition of their Lord.  That is the point of recognition for them, even in their fear and grief and terror. 

In the first appearance, Jesus moves into the locked room.  His first word to the disciples breaks into the darkness of the evening – Shalom, peace -- echoing the message Jesus spoke earlier to the disciples as part of his farewell promise at the last supper on Maundy Thursday, “Peace, I leave with you; my peace I give to you.  I do not give to you as the world gives.  Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”  The perfect word of peace lifts the cloud of fear hanging over the disciples.  But Jesus goes on and shows the disciples his scars and invites them move out of their fear and back into relationship with him.  As if to say…it’s me.  It’s ok.

And then, using the same verb for breathe as is used in Genesis when God breathes life into the first human being, John signifies that the old world as the disciples had known it is passing away.  There is a new world, a new reality coming to pass as Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit into them.  The disciples are sent to not only go and preach like Jesus, but also to be Christ in the world. 

But, the disciples’ first real effort at telling of the resurrection does not go very well.  Thomas returns to the group who are just bursting with excitement about what had happened.  They say to Thomas, “We have seen the Lord!” echoing the testimony of Mary Magedeline just a few verses earlier.  We have seen the Lord!  He is Risen! Hallelujah! 

Notice what Thomas says to them.  He does not say, “I do not believe.”  He says, “I won’t believe…” Thomas needs to see for himself.  And who can blame him?  How can Thomas reconcile the violence of Christ’s death and the good news of Christ’s resurrection without seeing and touching the truth?  Like Peter running to the tomb, Thomas wants to see for himself if the good news is truly good or just too good to be true. 

Remember this is the same Thomas that was ready to rush headlong into dangerous territory.  He was ready to go and die with Jesus when he was headed back to heal Lazarus in Bethany.  This is the same Thomas who wanted to know the way to the place Jesus had prepared and believed Jesus’ answer, “I am the way, the truth and the life.”  Thomas is not a skeptic nor unfaithful, and his first name is not “doubting.” 
Why is Thomas missing at the beginning of the story?  Maybe he was out looking for Jesus after hearing the report of the women when they return from the empty tomb.  The truth is, we don’t know why Thomas goes or where he was, but he misses the first appearance of Jesus to the rest of the disciples.  But what this story from the gospel of John teaches us is that Jesus will always come looking for us, like the good shepherd he is.  Even when we are too sad or too busy or too distracted the first time.

Thomas just wants what I think all of us want.  We want to see Jesus.  Because, really, who does not have questions?  Who among us has not spent a long dark night of the soul locked up and tangled in doubt?  Who does not have moments when we wonder what exactly it is that we believe, and why it is such a difficult thing it is to live into those beliefs?

Much has been made in biblical criticism about whether or not Thomas actually touches Jesus’ wounds when Jesus comes back to the disciples again a week later.  The text does not tell us.  But it does tell us that Jesus shares the scars that recall not only Christ’s pain, but also the possibility of healing and new life.   And it is the scars that seem to move Thomas into the resurrection life. He could not find resurrection in the jumping joy of the disciples, but in the peace of Christ and in the sharing of remembered pain made flesh in Jesus’ scars.   

Every kind of scar is a mark of possibility.  If your physical body is sound enough to put itself back together even after the most traumatic event, that means you are still alive. And where life exists, there’s always an opportunity for healing.  Yet, the scar remains as a reminder of the event born of accident or necessity, cruelty or abuse.  And it tells a story both of pain and possibility.  Our scars are the mark of healing and new life. 

Early on in our trip to South Sudan, we noticed that a number of the pastors in the South Sudan Evangelical Presbyterian Church had six horizontal scars across their foreheads.  One of our group finally asked about the scars and one of the pastors told us that they were from the Nuer tribe.  In the Nuer tradition, when a boy is 14 or 15 years old, they undergo a ritual cutting performed by the community’s tribal doctor.  The pastor described the cutting process to us, including how after the cuts in the skin were made, the tribal doctor rubbed dirt into the cuts to ensure that healing wouldn’t be immediate, but would take a long time, resulting larger, more well-defined scars.  After the boy recovers from the cutting, he is no longer considered a boy, but a man, with all the respect and responsibility that comes with it.

After hearing this story, we were all sort of staring at the scars on the pastor’s forehead.  One of us asked, “Didn’t that hurt?”  To the pastor’s credit, he didn’t point out the obvious stupidity of the question.  He just said, “Of course it hurt.  It hurt like hell.  But these scars tell me who I am and where I came from.  My son will not have these scars.  I will carry the legacy for him.  He can be who God has made him to be.”

Jesus, our Lord and our God in the glory of the resurrection, still bears the wounds of his experience of God with us on earth. The resurrection did not remove his human experience. The risen Lord still bears on his body the scars that speak of his solidarity with human suffering in all of its forms. These scars serve as a reminder that God is with us through all things, especially the appalling, destructive and death-dealing times.  Jesus bears the scars for us so we can be who God has created us to be.  No longer afraid of death.  More importantly, no longer afraid of life. 

And that is what Thomas saw in that moment before his confession – “My Lord and my God!”  This is the fulfillment of John’s Gospel – that the divine Word has been made flesh.  We have seen his glory.  We have seen his grace and truth.  And in this moment Thomas receives grace upon grace.

Tradition says that Thomas was the only one of the disciples to proclaim the gospel to people and regions beyond the purview of the Roman Empire.  After the experience in the locked room with Jesus, he emerged like a shot to take the good news out into the world.  In fact, there are ancient documents that attest to Thomas travelling as far as southern India where he is still revered by Christians today. 

This text challenges us to do exactly as Jesus did.  Let down our guard.  Expose our wounds.  Reconcile with our enemies.  Forgive one another again and again.  Have the courage to be vulnerable so that people will know we really do mean it when we say there’s something about this Jesus that has opened up our lives in ways we never expected.  That Jesus is present in our suffering and present in our healing and still present in our witness to God’s presence in the world.

Those disciples had every good reason to stay in that room.  It was a dangerous time.  They had followed a dangerous leader, so dangerous to the authorities that he was put to death.  The Holy Spirit breathed upon the disciples by Jesus freed them from their fear to allow them to move out and search for new possibilities of resurrection life.

Thomas is the twin for all of us who need Jesus to reach into our side, to touch our hearts, to soften its hardness and warm its coldness. We need Jesus to touch our hands, so that our fists are unclenched and we are able to embrace and to share.  We need Jesus to touch the scars we keep hidden so when we encounter other doubters like us, doubters who are as broken and scarred as we are, they will see and believe what we profess to believe:

Oh, Jesus…it’s you.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.