Sermons

We got a couple of passages that are, well, doozies.  They speak about God’s mercy which is way beyond what we could ask or think.  This sermon is a continuation of sorts from my sermon for 9/11 on forgiving.

Here it is.

Jonah 3:10-4:11 & Matt 20:1-16

We heard the tail end of a story many of us may remember from our childhood if we went to Sunday School: the story of Jonah and the Whale.  We know the part about Jonah being on the boat and getting tossed overboard and being eaten by that great fish, but the other details are fuzzy.

So I’ll give you the recap: Jonah, an Israelite prophet, was called by God to cry out against the Ninevites because of their great wickedness.  Jonah didn’t want to do this, so instead of heading east to Ninevah, he went west.  He gets to a sea town, pays his fare and hops on a ship.  In the middle of the Mediterranean, a wild storm kicks up, each crew member prays to their particular god.  Still stormy.  They throw everything overboard.  Still raging.  They draw straws, and Jonah gets the short stick so they want to know what he’s done.

 

He tells them that God is angry with him, and the only way to calm the sea is to throw him overboard.  They’re reluctant, but finally do it.

 

Whale enters stage right, swallows Jonah.  He prays there in the belly of that fish (and yes, I know whales aren’t fish; Scripture says great fish, but the size we’re talking has to be what we know today as a whale).  Indigestion sets in after a few days, the fish burps up Jonah on dry land.  And he high tails it to Nineveh.

 

He preaches, they repent and, as we heard today, God forgives them all of their great wickedness and decides not to destroy the city and all its inhabitants, both human and animal.

 

And Jonah is ticked.  He knew God was going to do this, which was why he fled west in the first place.  He wanted to see those blasted Ninevites suffer for all the wrongs they had done; Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire and had, many years earlier, destroyed the Northern Kingdom of Israel.  He wanted them to pay for their transgressions.

 

But they repented.  And God was merciful.

 

So instead of being thrilled as a preacher for bringing all those Ninevites to repentance, Jonah is angry at God.   He goes off to sulk on a hill overlooking the city to see if God might be fickle enough to flip-flop again and rain down fire and brimstone, because the relatives of these very Ninevites had destroyed the Kingdom of Israel, who were among God’s chosen people.

 

Last Sunday I spoke about Jesus’ call on us to forgive and how difficult that can be, and yet how it is the only real Christian response.  Some of you have followed up with me and said things like, “I can maybe forgive, but I can never forget” or “That’s fine, but I’ll still remember what happened on 9/11.”  We say things like this because we’ve heard that we are supposed to “forgive and forget,” as if forgetting traumatic experiences is something that can be done with the snap of a finger.  And we don’t want to forget.  And I would agree that forgetting isn’t really possible and that we should remember.  But I want to push a little and say that it’s important how we remember.  If all we are remembering is the hurt inflicted on us, if what we don’t forget is the anger or hurt, then we aren’t really forgiving.

 

One of my seminary professors, theologian Miroslav Volf, has written extensively on this topic of forgiveness and remembering rightly.  Prof. Volf knows what he’s speaking about.  He’s a Croat Christian from the former Yugoslavia, and tells of his experiences of being treated as a CIA spy when he returned from his studies in the US leaving his American bride behind in order to perform his compulsory military duty in the early 1980s for the then communist Yugoslavia.  He speaks at length about watching the horrors inflicted on his countrymen by the Serbs in the 1990s.  And he speaks about wrestling with the call of Christ to embrace the Serbian fighters, called cetniks, who were ravaging his homeland.

 

Ultimately what Prof Volf says is this: “the Passion of Christ requires us to recognize that the grace of God… extends to every human being”  Even more so, the cross “honors victims even while extending grace to perpetrators.”  And ultimately, the work of Jesus Christ “helps the wronged and the wrong doer reconcile.”[1]  We are to remember that through Jesus Christ those harmed and those doing the harm are each offered grace by Jesus, and while those harmed find solace in Christ’s being harmed as well, we are reminded as well that Christ died to forgive the wrongdoers.

 

And the catching point comes precisely at the next line often repeated in the Epistles, which is this: and we are, all of us, wrongdoers.  This is not to say that we should dismiss any evil lightly, or that we shouldn’t even remember.  But our remembering, as Prof Volf explains it, should be done in light of the work of God done in Christ’s Passion.  When we are harmed, we should through God’s grace take the long view, the one that recognizes in Christ that we are all to be reconciled.  We are not to overlook wrongdoing, we are indeed called to denounce injustice.  But that must never lead us to retributive violence.  He writes, “The Passion memory is a hopeful memory since it anticipates deliverance from the wrong suffered, freedom from the power of evil, and reconciliation between the wronged and the wrongdoers — for the most part, a reconciliation between people who have both suffered wrong and inflicted it.”[2]  Let me say that last line again, “a reconciliation between people who have both suffered wrong and inflicted it.”

 

In other words, none of us is as innocent as we might like to think.  It’s so easy to look over at the “other” —whoever that is, the person or group that we have vilified—and see the wrongs done.  But to see the wrongs we’ve done, well they’re not quite so bad in comparison.

 

But God shows mercy on us all, without regard of whether we think someone deserves God’s mercy or not.

 

Which is quite unnerving if we think about it from our perspective.  We are like Jonah wanting the Ninevites of our day to get their just desserts.  We’re not sure we want to share the message of God with them for fear that they too repent and come to experience God’s mercy.  We want, instead, to hoard God all to ourselves, letting the evildoers in our lives to enjoy the consequences coming their way.

 

We want, like Jonah, to go sit on a hilltop to watch the impending fireworks rain down on their lives.

 

So when Jesus compares the kingdom of God on this day to this unbelievable generosity, it makes us squirm, or I’ll speak for myself, it makes me squirm.  It is so much easier to place labels on people and say they are outside of the love of God.  It requires little work to determine who is part of God’s “in” group and who’s out.  But God keeps on showing that when we do this, we get it wrong.

 

One commentator this week repeated a lesson he learned from his first seminary professor: “I remember [her] saying that universal salvation may or may not be true, but it is certainly unchristian not to hope it is true.”[3]  That’s uncomfortable to us who want God to be fair, that is, we want God to be merciful to us and judgmental to those who’ve harmed us.  But what we see as fair, God sees as completely unfair.  God want to extend the arms of love that God offers to each and every one of us.  To the conservative one and the progressive one.  To the American and the Libyan.  To the border patrol officer and the illegal immigrant.  To the white woman on Wall St. and the Hispanic woman cleaning her home.  To the child on the streets of Bangledash and the pimp who claims ownership of him.  From the American soldier to the member of the Taliban.  The cross of Jesus is for us all so that we all can find God’s mercy and forgiveness, and, ultimately be reconciled one to the other.  That is the hope of God for us all.  Shouldn’t we join God in that hope as well?


[1] See Miroslav Volf, The End of Memory, 2006, Pg 118.

[2] Volf, 119.

[3] Todd M. Hobbie, “Jonah 3:10-4:11 Pastoral Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol 4, pg. 74.

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We are inundated with words today, and I suspect mine won’t add much to the mix.  These are the words I spoke this morning to my congregation as I reflected on the Gospel assigned this week—Matthew 18:21-35.  Once again providence shows in the readings assigned for the day.

Proper 19 Year A—Matthew 18:21-35 

            On that glorious Tuesday morning 10 years, I walked from my apartment to the Divinity School.  It was my second full week of studies as a new seminarian—I had left the corporate hi-tech world and was eager to be on my way toward my training to become a priest.  After saying Morning Prayer with classmates and sharing a cup of coffee with them, I headed off to an 8:30 am preaching class.  While I soaked up pearls of wisdom on how to bring the good news of Christ to a hurting world, four planes were hijacked, and three of them had been intentionally crashed.  I heard the news from some other students while checking email in the library, and I quickly scanned headlines on a news site to see if it was true.

I rushed back to my apartment, and I turned on NBC just as the South Tower fell.  I called family members not quite knowing what to say other than, “Are you watching TV?”  I watched in dismay as New Yorkers covered in that white dust ran from the horrific epicenter.  I waited as best I could for Melissa to return from her day of teaching, and when she came home I listened to her tell of the many students there in Southern Connecticut who called parents and others to learn the fate of loved ones.  I remember climbing into bed that night, holding tight to Melissa and praying that we would be safe, safe in this newly shattered world for us.

It impacted my preaching class significantly.  Fellow students in the weeks that followed preached at length about how our world had changed forever.  Innocence was lost.  Some weighed the demands for justice with a call for peace.  A few mentioned the homemade signs that had popped up around New Haven:  Nuke ‘Em, read one of the placards that I remember.  We heard about the ways we as Americans had let go of the divisiveness that appeared during the 2000 presidential election and how neighbors truly became neighbors.  Most of all, we wrestled with how to think theologically about September 11th.

You know what followed, of course.  The loss of nearly 3000 people on that day, stories of bravery and heroism, images of people rejoicing in Afghanistan, the Afghan War, the hunt for Osama bin Laden, the war in Iraq, the hunt for Weapons of Mass Destruction, the forming of Homeland Security, the capture of Sadaam Hussein, water boarding, airport screening, the infamous photos of Abu Ghraib, the Patriot Act, terror threat level Orange, the death of bin Laden, images of Americans rejoicing, and the loss of even more life: over 6000 American troops, hundreds of international troops from coalition forces, and over 100,000 Iraqi and Afghani civilians, never mind those maimed bodily or emotionally.

What we have learned most of all, I suspect, is that violence begets violence, which continues on and on like a never-ending game of ping pong.  We cite Just War and Self Protection, as do those labeled as America’s enemies, and the cycle never really ends.

We are justified, to be sure.  When we have been wronged, we long for retribution, for justice to be handed down.  You may remember that Presidential debate in the fall of 1988, when former Governor Dukakis was asked if his wife were brutally harmed would he want to enforce the death penalty.  He gave some lame answer, dodging the question entirely, when he should have answered honestly: “Absolutely!”  If he had, he could have gone on to say, “And I am glad that I don’t have that power, trusting in the courts and the rule of the commonwealth, recognizing that I wouldn’t be in the right frame of mind to make that decision.  I believe that death is not the answer.”  But he didn’t, and he sounded so shallow and hollow because of it.

But we desire justice; many of us instinctively want to throttle the one who harmed us.  Whether through the attacks of September 11th and its aftermath for which some here today may still be impacted, or maybe some other personal tragedy—a personal 9/11—that has turned your world upside down.  The infidelity of a spouse or abuse experienced in your life or the life of someone you love.  The constant belittling by a boss or co-worker.  The bullying experienced on a playground so long ago.  The betrayal of a close friend.  Whatever the tragedy, our initial response is that we want for things to be made right.

So when Jesus tells us that we need to be forgiving, we are right there with Peter.  How many times, Lord?  If we are wronged by someone, what’s the upper limit?  Two times?  Three?  Seven?  Surely not more than seven times.  “Seventy-seven times,” he says, “Or seventy times seven” in the ambiguous Greek.  In other words, “Too many to keep track of.”  Just forgive.  Vengeance belongs to God, we are reminded.  It is not up to us.  Forgive.

Before Peter or we can even respond with a “But, but…” Jesus tells a story.  A servant owed his lord an insane amount of money, all of his yearly wages for the next 150,000 years.  He would never, ever be able to pay it back.  Ever.  And the lord demands restitution.  Now.  And seeing that the slave can’t repay, the lord demands that he be sold, and his wife and kids as well.  The slave falls down on his knees pleading for time, if he just had enough time, he could make it all up.

He can’t, of course.  If it were today’s money, and assuming this person made only $25,000 a year, we’re talking 3 billion 750 thousand dollars.  The lord looks down on him and has compassion.  “Okay,” he says, “you’re forgiven.  All of it.  You don’t owe me a penny.”

The slave can’t believe his lucky stars and goes out on his way with that huge load removed from his back.  And the first person he runs into is a friend of his who borrowed some money from him.  A little under 10 grand, about the wages he’d make working for 4 and half months.  The debt-free slave grabs him by the neck and demands his money. The slave falls down on his knees pleading for time, if he just had enough time, he could make it all up.

Nothing doing.  There’s no mercy this time.  Even though this debt might be in reach in a few years time with some good budgeting, the slave is merciless to his friend.  He throws him into prison so he can squeeze every last cent out of him.

When the lord hears what has happened, he is stunned and furious and calls the first slave to him.  “You owed me nearly $4 billion and I forgave you, and this other slave owed you $10 grand and you couldn’t show mercy?” So he reneges on his debt forgiveness and tosses that slave in jail.  “So it is with my father if you don’t forgive a brother or sister,” Jesus tells us.

In other words, Jesus says to Peter and us, you may think that when someone wrongs you that there is a substantial debt owed to you.  You may want to harm that person, or torture them, or make them pay for what they did.  But you owe me even more.   You owe me for the ways in which you have been unfaithful to me.  It’s more than you could imagine.  It would take hundreds of years to repay.  And I forgive you.  No strings attached; I forgive all the ways that you have wronged me.

And then that line at the end, if we don’t forgive those who have wronged us, then God shackles us.  Actually, I think, God doesn’t even need to do it to us, we shackle ourselves.  I’ve seen it first hand.  Those who cannot forgive the one who wronged them.  They live with bitterness and cynicism.  They carry around this desire for revenge, for restitution and the life is being sucked right out of them.  The anger and hurt and depression pushes others away, and creates a living hell for them.  When we don’t forgive, we slowly die to the life we once had and never find peace again.

“But Jesus,” we say, “you don’t understand.  Innocence was lost.  Lives taken.  My childhood destroyed.  My marriage made a mockery.  You just don’t get it.”  And he looks down at us from that bloodied cross in silence.  Then looking toward heaven he says, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.”

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I think those of us who participate in the life of the Church often promote an unhealthy attitude about what God can accomplish.  We underestimate God’s ability to work in our lives, in the work of the kingdom, in transformation.  And so we set the bar accordingly.  In other words, low.

We have a tendency, I believe, to think that we know how all this works.  That people don’t change, or that our lives—collectively and individually—will not get better.

And that anemic view of God’s kingdom holds us back.  It limits what we hope for.  It makes us hamstrung.

That’s not to say that I am promoting a “health and wealth” understanding of the faith.  I don’t think that God’s desire for Jesus’ disciples is to be wealthy.  Jesus himself was homeless, so I just can’t buy into that belief that some Christians hold on to dearly (and more often than not they are getting that idea from charismatic leaders who have created a lifestyle that others desire—yes, I’m looking at you, Joel Osteen).

This past Sunday those of us reading from the Revised Common Lectionary heard two parables about the kingdom of heaven starting small—with a mustard seed or some yeast—and getting to be huge.  Jesus was saying that the kingdom is like the energizer bunny, it just keeps growing.  It may look like it’s insignificant or too small, but it doesn’t stop.  And then it becomes a place where the birds can come and nest.

If he were living in the US today, Jesus might say the kingdom is like kudzu—that ivy like plant that has grown over tress, signs, even houses, in the southeast.  It doesn’t stop once it grows.  In fact, even though it lies dormant in the winter, in the spring it picks up where it left off.  The kingdom is like that.

People in my denomination sometimes dole out statistics about the church’s impending doom.  That somehow we can see the end of the church.  Nope, Jesus says.  While we like to sometimes latch on to scarcity and the frailty of God’s work, God pays no attention to what we think and keeps on working.  God wants to use us in that work to be sure, but even if we don’t God’s work continues.  The kingdom just keeps on growing.

So what view do you take of the kingdom of God?  Do you think of it as a dying vine or a flourishing tree?  Is your view of how God can work in our world—in your life—limited or is it hopeful that God will bring life?

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I haven’t been posting my sermons online this summer not because I haven’t been preaching, but because I’ve been going it without a net.  No text.  Extemporaneously.

And that means no texts to post.

Which isn’t really fair, I know.  Especially since summertime is upon us and some might not be making it to church and may want to hear snippets from the previous Sunday.  So that’s what I’m doing today.  Giving you the highlights, not the full sermon.  Kinda like the Red Sox in 2.  Except shorter.

This past Sunday the gospel text was from Matthew 13.  Read it here.

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Once upon a time there was a farmer, and one day he awoke to find his only horse had gotten out of the stable and run off.  When the townspeople heard about they came to consul him, telling him how awful this was and that his horses fleeing must be so devastating.

“Maybe,” the farmer replied.

A few days later as he was out in his field, the farmer saw his horse racing back to the farm.  With him were three other wild horses.  When the townspeople heard, they came to him saying, “You must be so thrilled!  How amazing that your horse came back and brought these three other horses with him!  What a wonderful turn of events!”

“Maybe,” the farmer replied.

That weekend the man’s only son attempted to tame one of those new horses, and he fell and broke his leg.  Upon hearing the news, the townspeople rushed to him, “How dreadful!” they said.  “You must be so horrified to have your son injured this way.  Truly this is downright awful.”

“Maybe,” he said.

Later that week, civil authorities came into town looking to take all the young men of the town off to war.  The farmer’s son was left behind due to his broken leg.  When the townspeople hear, they came to him.  “You must be overjoyed that your son is not going off to war!  This is unbelievable news!”

“Maybe.”

 

Jesus tells us a parable this morning about a farmer and some wheat.  The farmer has done everything right, he’s planted the seeds, and is giving them lots of water and nutrients.  However, sometime during the planting season, an enemy has come in and sown the seeds of some weeds, and done so without anyone knowing about it.

Did you catch it in our reading? It wasn’t until the grain began to appear that the workers of the field noticed the weeds.  The Greek word is zizanion, and this type of weed looks exactly like wheat, that is until the grain head appears.  And by that time, the weeds would have had their roots all tangled with the weeds.  “Should we go and pull up all the weeds,” the servants ask.  “No,” said the farmer. “Let’s wait.”

We like to make determinations about people and their status as wheat or weeds almost upon meeting them.  We even use the same kind of language; “That girl over there, she’s a bad seed,” we’ll say.  We make distinctions and tend to root people out right away from the field.

But Jesus says that that isn’t our job.  We’re not called to judge.

A parishioner was telling me recently about a young man he met whose life had been turned around by Straight Ahead ministries.  He was a former gang member, and had been shot at and stabbed.  Through the ministry, he found Christ and his life was turned around.  And now he was hoping to begin something new.

And he was terrified.

The parishioner looked at him and asked why, since he had been in a gang, and injured and all that.  And he replied, “Because no one has ever believed in me.  I’m terrified of this not working out and letting people down.”

We aren’t called to judge, that’s God’s work that will happen at the end of the age, by the angels no less.  We “slaves” aren’t even inovlved in the process.

Instead, we’re called to tend the filed, to make conditions right for growing, and to go out and be wheat to the world.  Wheat brings nourishment, and we’re called to be the body of Christ to a hurting world, to bring nourishment to them.

God wants to wait it out.  God sees what we may think are weeds, and says, “Nope! That’s wheat.  Watch what happens!”  God is so patient with us.  And when we say surely this person is wheat and that other is a weed, God looks down and says, “Maybe.”

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I grew up in a pentecostal church, which meant that Pentecost was one of the few days on the liturgical calendar that we celebrated, although it often came out of nowhere and I wasn’t sure why we it was a big deal.  My church experience has changed a lot since then, and that change began while attending a UCC church during my time in college.  It was the minister there—Harold Bussell—who first preached about the idea of the Spirit controlling our tongues; that when the Spirit descended on Pentecost, the Spirit came in to our lives and began changing the way we speak.

That idea grabbed hold of me then and has never let go.

So this idea is not mine.  But it is a very intriguing way to think about Pentecost and the idea of proclamation.  With no further adieus….

Pentecost—Acts 2:1-21

I’ve heard of a marriage counselor that can predict in one session if a marriage will last or not.  When he sits down to chat with the couple—whether they are already married or if they are engaged—he pays relatively little attention to what issues they are talking about–be it finances, in-laws, the kids, work, intimacy, whatever—and homes in on the way they are talking to one another.  If there is any contempt in the exchange, he predicts that it will be an uphill battle at best for the relationship to last.  Whether or not you agree with him, he’s on to something given his track record of prediction.  How we talk to one another—how we make use of our tongues to communicate—is of vital importance to our relationships.

Tongues are funny things.  They are, we’ve been told, one of the strongest muscles in the body.  They control our speech, what we say, how we form our words.  With the words our tongues form, we can do amazing things.  And with other words formed by that same tongue we can destroy one another.

In his epistle, James writes about the tongue.  He says, “A bit in the mouth of a horse controls the whole horse. A small rudder on a huge ship in the hands of a skilled captain sets a course in the face of the strongest winds. A word out of your mouth may seem of no account, but it can accomplish nearly anything—or destroy it!  It only takes a spark, remember, to set off a forest fire. A careless or wrongly placed word out of your mouth can do that. By our speech we can ruin the world, turn harmony to chaos, throw mud on a reputation, send the whole world up in smoke and go up in smoke with it, smoke right from the pit of hell. This is scary: You can tame a tiger, but you can’t tame a tongue—it’s never been done. The tongue runs wild, a wanton killer. With our tongues we bless God our Father; with the same tongues we curse the very men and women he made in his image. Curses and blessings out of the same mouth!  My friends, this can’t go on.” (From James 3, The Message Bible)

In the movie “How to Train Your Own Dragon,” the protagonist, a teen aged Viking named Hiccup, tries desperately hard to fit in with the other Vikings of his village.  But he’s scrawny and weak, and while he tries his best to be a dragon hating person like them, he just can’t.  Instead, he befriends a dragon that has been hurt and takes care of him like a pet.  When his father, the chief of their village, learns that Hiccup’s been taking care of a dragon, he is overcome with rage.  At the end of an angry diatribe, he looks at Hiccup before storming out and says, “You are not my son.”

He is crushed, of course, this teen-aged boy who longs for the acceptance of his father.  As are any of us when someone spews angry words at us.  No matter how many times we may repeat that rhyme from childhood, words hurt a lot, and often more than sticks or stones, because the damage can last a lifetime.  I’m sure some of you can either recall words spoken to you, or words that you gave voice to, that you now wish you could remove from existence.

When the Spirit comes on Pentecost, isn’t it remarkable that after the rush of wind and the flames of fire alighting on the heads of all those there, the very next sign is that the disciples begin to speak in other languages as the Spirit prompted them.  The Spirit controls their tongues.  Immediately they begin to speak in other tongues, not unintelligible words, but they speak in the languages of each group gathered there, as the Spirit guided their tongues.  They proclaim the message of God and God’s work of salvation in the world.

Proclamation.  That’s what this day—this last day of the Great 50 Days of Easter —is about.  Proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ.  And that good news can be summed up in one word: transformation.

But we cannot make these proclamations about how Jesus Christ transforms us if our tongues aren’t under control.  We cannot be a messenger of Jesus’ good news if we are constantly spouting off at our mouths, saying why this person or group of people upsets us, or how ridiculous they are, or how that person is really just an idiot.

If we want to truly be a part of the kingdom, then we must allow the Spirit to control our tongues.  And that means major transformation on the inside as well.

A friend of mine a couple of years ago underwent significant change in his life.  He changed old habits and took on new ones.  When I spoke with him about this, he wondered why it had taken him so long.  “If I had known what a difference this would make in my life, I would have started so much earlier,” he said to me.

“Yes,” I replied.  “But thank God that you began now.”  What I was trying to say to him was this: Don’t shame and guilt yourself in the ways you have failed in the past.  Deal with them, yes.  Recognize why you did certain things.  Learn from the past.  But don’t beat yourself up because you didn’t have the courage to tackle them earlier, and didn’t ultimately trust then that God could bring about the change you so desperately needed.  Rather, relish in the fact that God is working now.  Take joy in the transformation that is going on now.  Be joyful for the years ahead, now that you are changed and continue to be changed.

Transformation.  That is the work of the Triune God.  To break down the barriers of sin, to offer forgiveness, to shower us with mercy and grace.  To help us become the people we are called to be, and to bring our tongues into alignment with that call as well.  People that share the love of Jesus Christ with a broken world.   People who are about the work of the kingdom of God.

And the question is this: Do you want the Spirit to bring transformation to every part of your being—to your tongue, your heart and your mind? Do you want to be about the work of the kingdom of God?  Don’t worry about what you haven’t done up to this point, or how you might have been able to do more, or whatnot.  What can you do now?  How can you allow God to move in you?  How can you more faithfully become a disciple of Jesus Christ?

We cannot become those who have visions or prophesy or dream dreams if we are always spouting off at the mouth.  We cannot be the church unless we allow the Spirit to move in us and through us and to bring about change in us.  And I would argue that our tongues—the very first thing the Spirit takes over in those disciples on that Pentecost Day so long ago—are where many of us need the Spirit’s leading, transformation and healing.

Perhaps you need to make amends with a family member or a friend over something you said to them that you now regret.  Maybe you have hurt your spouse or children with words said out of spite.  Perhaps you need Jesus to bring healing to a wound inflicted long ago when someone hurt you with their words.  Possibly you’ve been feeling prompted by the Spirit to say something to a hurting co-worker or neighbor, but haven’t spoken to them because you are nervous about how they will respond.  Or maybe you need to seek forgiveness from God because your words have been filled with contempt, especially toward those you live with and love.

If we are to be a vital part of Jesus’ kingdom work, then we must invite the Spirit to work in us and through us.  To be counted among those of the kingdom, then we need to open ourselves up to the Spirit’s transformative power.  When we do so, when we become willing to the Spirit’s leading, then we too can be like Peter, James and Mary and all the rest on that day who shared the message of Jesus with all those gather there, so that these others might also call on the name of the Lord, and be saved.  That is the true gift of the Spirit.  May we be empowered to proclaim the good news.  Amen.

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I’m really in awe of the Apostle Paul in the story from Acts 17.  He’s in Athens waiting for some friends, but then he sees all the idols and altars the Athenians have made.  What he does is look at their culture finding the good qualities.  He engages with the culture he sees and uses it as a jumping point to talk about Christ.  Rather than saying, “Hey, you need to worship like me, you heathens!” he commends them for their deep spirituality.

So, I’ve been pondering what he might say to us.  This sermon is something of an outgrowth of that.

Easter 6A—Acts 17:22-31

            Paul does something pretty amazing in the story we heard from Acts this morning.  While he’s in Athens waiting for his friends Silas and Timothy to arrive, he goes wandering around the city.  We’re told he’s distressed that there are so many idols.  But notice he doesn’t unleash rhetoric on why they are so bad about this or how they are disobeying God’s commands.  Rather, he looks for their good qualities—their longings—and seeks to tell them about Christ through what they are already longing for.

 

He tells them he’s seen this altar with the inscription “To an Unknown God.”  He knows that there are deeply spiritual people, that there is a longing deep within them to connect with the spiritual realm.  And so he tells them, I want to introduce you to the Unknown God, who is, in fact, the Creator of the Universe. Paul shares with them the message of creation, how God made us, not how we fashion gods of our own devices.  He tells them that the Creator doesn’t live in temples or shrines or other buildings, that God doesn’t need us to wait hand and foot on him, as if God somehow needed us to do that.

 

But what God does, Paul tells them, is gives us plenty of time and space in order to truly seek after God; more than just groping around blindly in the dark trying to find God.  God longs to be known by us in order to bring about a better life for us and in this created world.   God desires repentance, true life-change, and God will one day have us give an account of our lives, with Jesus the resurrected one as our judge.

 

We in this day and age live our lives with great passions as well.  While we don’t erect shrines for idols as such—although on the week when the latest American Idol was crowned, it’s a little hard to make this statement—we do build massive stadiums to follow our sports teams—and what a great week it has been for that as well as the Bruins get back to Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time in over 20 years and the Red Sox have moved into first place after their ghastly start.  We also honor education, and the arts, great food and spending time outdoors doing recreational activities.  We do these things because of the longing for joy that we have.  We think that if the home town team wins, or we hear a wonderful performance or hike a gorgeous trail or get the elusive degree, if any of those things happen then we will find what we have been searching for.  Inner peace.  Joy.  Wholeness.  When that inevitably doesn’t happen—when we didn’t find completeness after the Sox won not just one but two World Series—we go searching for something else.  Maybe the answer would be found in weight loss or a new love interest or other pursuits.

 

But if Paul were here, I’d think he’d tell us that while our longings for some many things is noble—and in fact God-given—that what we don’t recognize is that we are truly longing for God.  For God’s unconditional love for us.  God’s deep desire to be known by us.  God’s longing for us to not just grope around blindly but to truly seek after and find God and the life God always intended for us.

 

Whenever we talk about God, however, our defenses go up.  We say things like, “Well, I’m spiritual but not religious.”  Which is a code way of saying that we don’t like organized religion (or disorganized religion, for that matter).  We don’t care for institutions, or the people who run them, because often such places are full of hypocrites or demand us to give them our money or make us live our lives in a certain way.

 

Yet, the reality is, that sentiment doesn’t actually make sense.  You cannot be spiritual without being religious as well.  You might try to have spirituality feed a longing in you, but soon you’ll tire of whatever you are trying and move on to something else.  If you are truly spiritual, you’ll recognize that you cannot do that work alone, neither can you do it haphazardly.  Being religious—that is, being dutiful in your commitments to the faith you desire—is best done (and I would argue, only done) in community.  By connecting with others we can explore the deep longings we all have—seeing them as gifts from God, an innate curiosity to discover the goodness of God and to have fullness of life—and in doing so together, deepen our devotion to God.

 

In order to satiate our desires, we often pursue things that we think will make us feel fulfilled—we entertain ourselves, seek comforts, look for joy wherever we can find it—but in the end, many of us feel unfulfilled.  And so we ask ourselves is this all there is?  When we reach something we’ve been longing for and see that it doesn’t bring the serenity, we have deep questions.

 

I was a big fan of the TV series Lost, a drama that told the stories of the survivors of a plane crash who ended up on a mysterious island in the Pacific Ocean.  We learn along the way that the characters—like Jack, the gifted surgeon with significant issues around his father, and Kate, a fugitive on the run—cannot get away from their pasts even on this island where no one seems to know them.  Many of the survivors had achieved something they were longing for in life—a big pay off, the end to problems, marriage, success—yet even when they had, they still longed for something more. They were left searching for something else.

 

And so they were both literally and figuratively lost.  They were searching for meaning, for something else that was more elusive in their life.

 

So are we.  All of the pursuits we have and enjoy, all the hobbies, and the work and the things that delight us and entertain us, and those things that distract us, the addictions, the vices, all of it grows out of deep yearning from within.  A profound ache in our souls.

 

That for which we long is wholeness.  To be fully known.  To experience true joy.

 

And that is found in following Christ.  The God of Creation—the One who made us—knows our longings and wants to bring us wholeness, reconciliation and healing.  God does this when we seek for him, when we turn our full attention to God and God’s work of establishing his kingdom.

 

It’s important for me to say this, because this is the work that I feel called to do as your priest.  In a few days, I will officially be installed as your rector, and I want the focus of my ministry to be on inviting all of us into a more meaningful relationship with Christ, in sharing the good news with our neighbors, and working together in service to the world.  I personally know that it is when I do these things that I find myself experiencing great joy in my life.  While things I may pursue for myself in the world are fleeting, the things of God are lasting.

 

So that is why I desire to focus on faith formation for all ages, in outreach, providing opportunities to connect with one another, and above all else to live authentically as disciples of Jesus.  I want to point all of us to the one we’ve been longing for, whether we know it or not.  The God of the Universe is for many in our society the Unknown God, but that doesn’t stop God from reaching out to us.  God is so full of love for us—we heard it again this morning in John’s gospel—and God wants us to become the people God created us to be.  Our longings can indeed be satisfied when we actively pursue God through Jesus Christ.

 

Will we?  Will we seek and find the God of Creation?  Or will continue to push God aside as we follow after all that is short-lived in our world hoping to find contentment and joy?  God longs for us, and whether we know it or not, we long for God too.  May we, as we continue our journey forward both find God and be found by God.  Amen.

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It was a great day yesterday at St. Mark’s.  I was given the great blessing to baptize 8 young ones and welcome them on behalf of the church into the Christian faith.  And whenever I baptize someone I am reminded to think seriously about my own baptismal promises, and the desire I have to follow Christ on the way.  Our gospel was from John 14 when Jesus tells his disciples that he is the way.  As I mention in the sermon, since I’m reading Eugene Peterson’s book The Jesus Way with the vestry right now, I couldn’t help but to draw form it and make connections.

So, here it is.  A baptismal sermon on the importance of following Jesus on the way.

Our text was: John 14:1-14

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            I’ve been thinking a great deal about Jesus’ words that we heard this morning, especially when he says that his disciples know the way to the place where he is going.  Thomas—always seeming to speak aloud what many of us are thinking—says, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going.  How can we know the way?”  To which Jesus responds, “I am the way, and the truth and the life.”  Jesus is the way.

And the way of Jesus is always a way of humility, of peace, of love.  A way of sacrifice and of giving, a way of reaching out to those on the margins.  It is a way of life.  Your vestry has been reading Eugene Peterson’s book The Jesus Way together this year, and in our reading so far we have looked at how the way of American culture—and even the way many churches operate in the US—is extremely different, if not downright destructive of, the way of Jesus.  Peterson focuses on how our society and our churches have become places where consumerism is king.  Our wants and desires need to be met and fulfilled, so we believe all that Madison Ave. has to tell us and go looking for salvation in a plethora of ways.

Peterson writes, “We Americans have developed a culture of acquisition, an economy that is dependent on wanting more, requiring more. We have a huge advertising industry designed to stir up appetites we didn’t even know we had.  We are insatiable….  If we have a nation of consumers, obviously the quickest and most effective way to get them into our congregations is to identify what they want and offer it to them, satisfy their fantasies, promise them the moon, recast the gospel in consumer terms: entertainment, satisfaction, excitement, adventure, problem solving, whatever.  This is the language we Americans grew up on, the language we understand.”[1]

The problem is that the American way for church is downright more exciting to our tastes than the Jesus way.  Especially when you have a story like the one we heard this morning about Stephen being martyred for his faith in Jesus.  If the Jesus way leads to death, are we sure we want to follow this way?

And let’s make no bones about it: Jesus’ way does lead to death.  Death to self, to our desires, to that which says “me first” in our lives.  Jesus’ way is the way of the cross.  And talking about self-sacrifice is not easy nor always appreciated.  But it is the way of Jesus.

We’ll hear language about death as we go to the baptismal font today.  Whey we gather there, we’ll pray, “We thank you, Father, for the water of Baptism. In it we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.”  We die to sin and are led to eternal life.

And the life we’ll invite these eight children into this morning here at St. Mark’s is one that is challenging.  We’ll welcome these young ones into a life of building relationships, of serving others.  When we give our lives to the way of Jesus, while we aren’t promised riches or having all of our needs met, or even happiness at every turn, we are promised a deep and meaningful life.  The way of the cross is, as our prayer book puts it, the way of life and truth.

To be fully alive means above all else that we live relational lives, that we live incarnationally.  We can invest in the people who live with us and near us—our neighbors—and recognize that we can make a difference in this world right now.  Just before Jesus told his disciples he was the way, he showed them what his way meant as he washed their feet at the last supper.  Taking time to serve, to take someone else’s feet and gently wash them, to see that we all need support and care and that we can truly change each other’s lives.

That’s where the American way has fallen down.  We have lost our connection with one another.  We have grown further and further apart from one another, thinking instead that people are merely objects, they are the way to meet our desires.  We tend to think that we are islands, as those who can live walled off from one another.  We need to be reminded from time to time by the John Donne’s and the John bon Jovi’s of the world that none of us is an island.

So when these children take these vows, and when we all renew our baptismal covenant this morning, what we say is that we will follow the way of Jesus, no matter where it takes it, as best we can with God’s help.  We will not put ourselves first.  We will seek to share the good news of Christ.  The news that the Christian life isn’t spent to be worrying about when judgment day is coming, nor how to get to heaven, but how to bring Jesus’ message of hope, love, and peace to a broken world, to our broken worlds.

And that is ultimately what the Jesus way is about.  Life.  Healing.  Restoration.  Renewal.  When we die to ourselves, we find life in Christ.  We find a life that is based in the here and now and not just some time in the future.   May we find Jesus to be the way we follow.  May we see that the way to God entails self-sacrifice and extravagant love.  May we become aware of Jesus’ desire to bring reconciliation, and may we bring his reconciliation to others.  And may we, on this day, remember that we have been marked as his followers, and may we have the courage to follow wherever he leads.  Amen.


[1] Eugene Peterson, The Jesus Way, pg 6.

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We’re on Day 22 of our Great 50 Days of Easter, and our lessons turn from Resurrection Appearances to how we are to follow Jesus.  We got the great lesson from Acts 2 where we hear that tons of people began to follow the Way of Jesus and devoted themselves to this endeavor.

It’s enough to make any clergy person giddy.

So that’s what I talk about in my sermon.  Here you go.

Easter 4A—Acts 2:42-47 

            If you talk to clergy about the reading we heard from the Acts of the Apostles this morning, you will probably encounter some good old- fashioned envy.  What we clergy know as well is that in the previous verse we hear the results of Peter’s first sermon on the Day of Pentecost.  Luke, the author of Acts, writes, “So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added.  They devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”  It’s a pastor’s utopia, with the people spending much time at the temple, with their generous hearts sharing their possessions with one another and the Lord adding to their number each day.  A priest could sit and daydream about such a place for hours.

But then something in our heads pops up and says, “Wake up and smell the coffee.  Such a place doesn’t exist, at least not today.”  It’s easy to give in to this “nostalgia for those biblical days,” as one pastor put it.[1]  But, he warns, “from there it is a short step to nostalgia for our own church’s better days, when pews were full, programs were exciting and we had an impact on the large community.”  We don’t live in those times anymore, for better or for worse.  We live in the here and now, and longing for the past will leave us blind to the present.  It will so shade our understanding of things that we will lose our focus and mission in the present day.

So I want to assure you that this is not a sermon in which I ask why you all can’t be more like those first converts a couple of millennia ago, which would lead to me pointing a stern finger and having you all feel guilty and also questioning your desire to ever come back here again.  I want to live in the present day, and see it for the blessing and challenge that it is.  “Holding all things in common,” and pooling all of our money won’t work today, and in fact, it wasn’t even something that happened in other churches throughout Acts.

Yet I don’t want to go on as if there is nothing to learn from this text either.  This is a challenging piece of scripture if we allow ourselves to hear it.  Rather than imagining clergy nirvana, what might these verses be saying to us in 2011—this post-modern, fragmented, overly-busy world that we live in?

Personally I am not really struck by the sharing of money here, but by the deep building of community that happened.  We’re told that these new converts “devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”  Those words may sound familiar, since it is the first of five questions asked of us when we renew our baptismal covenant or baptize someone for the first time.  “Will you continue in the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread and in the prayers?” we are asked.  “I will with God’s help,” we respond whole heartedly.

They did this, these first followers of Christ.  They devoted themselves to this.  They spent much time, day by day, together.  In worship, in sharing meals.  In living their lives in community.

If I had to speculate about what keeps many of us from this kind of life—that is a life centered on our faith, building community, saying the prayers—I would say quite certainly that for many it is one thing.  Time.  We are so mind-numbingly busy in our day and age that we hardly have time to rest, let alone fully putting our faith into practice.  We are overly scheduled.  Both us and our kids.  Even those who are retired will often say that they have never been busier in their lives.  Often in social settings this topic comes up, and we talk about our over-loaded schedules almost with a sense of pride, each trying to outdo the other.  We think it makes us important.  Or we don’t know how to say no.  Or we are scared to face the demons of our inner life so we keep ourselves busy so that we never have to.

I promised not to head down the road of nostalgia to a time when 24 hours was magically longer than it is today, nor would I stand up here and point a finger saying that you must add more things to your overly-extended calendars.  So how do we do this?  How do we devote ourselves to the life Jesus wants for us as his followers?

If there were easy answers, I could write the book and make a bundle.  Many have tried, of course, and the results are all somewhat unsatisfying.  There aren’t magic bullets in the spiritual life, no pill we can take that will somehow make everything better.  It is, I think, as Eugene Peterson puts it, a long obedience in the same direction.  I think it takes intentionality and perseverance.  Without either of those two, our faith life will take a back seat to the other distractions in our lives.  And for many of us—a great deal in fact—it’s because we don’t know how to live into this life.  We haven’t been taught how, or given a reason to see its importance.  And that, if I am honest, is because we who are clergy have failed you.  We have for too long felt as if we needed to hold the information to ourselves and give it out in palatable doses, or we think that you aren’t mature enough or intelligent enough to handle such a life, or we think that you won’t listen to us anyway so why should we bother.  Or, if I am even more honest, it’s because many of us haven’t been really taught how to live this type of life ourselves.  And for that, on behalf of all the clergy you have known and let you down, I am truly sorry.

You see, I think Jesus invites us into a better life.  The way life is meant to be.  Peace in our homes, deep and lasting friendships, time set aside for prayer, caring for one another, enjoyment of God’s many blessings, compassion for those who face injustice, having generous hearts, finding fulfillment in the work we do in this world.  But this life often gets lost in the busyness of our days.

I’ve recently discovered a blog written by Michael Hyatt, the chairman of the board for Thomas Nelson Publishing.  He writes a great deal about productivity and the things that steal our time, and about intentionality.  He says that many of us spend more time planning our vacations than we spend on planning our lives.  We live from moment to moment, crisis to crisis, experience to experience.  And so we may, like I have been doing this weekend, give hours of our time to watching the Red Sox and Yankees, while also feeling as if we have no time to devote to the life we desire.  If you desire a certain type of life—and I hope you’re like me and desire the life that Jesus wants for us—you have to make a plan.

That sounds so much like a First World problem, but in my understanding of things, I cannot think of any other way to put it.  If we start with the reality of our overly-busy lives (also a First World problem), then most of us cannot address our desire for a new life without intentionality.  If we desire authenticity in faith and devotion to Jesus, we must begin somewhere.  And we begin best of all by making a covenant to look at our lives honestly to see where we spend our time, and then finding a way—even if it’s small—to begin living the life Christ calls us to.

Imagine if each person at St. Mark’s covenanted to spend 10 minutes each morning and each evening in prayer and reading of scripture.  20 minutes a day.  The average adult watches somewhere between 3.5 to 5 hours of television a day.[2]  You may not be the average adult, but I suspect you could find that pocket of time for prayer if you wanted to.

And I want to covenant with you that I will be a priest that provides you with the tools you need to live this life.  I will spend my days by giving you ideas and tips for living this way, in deepening relationships with you, in providing opportunities for you to devote yourselves to the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.  And I will invite you to walk alongside me, and share in this leadership.  I cannot do this work alone–that is a damaging fallacy that has run its course much too long in our churches.  All of the disciples, and apostles were lay people.  They were folks like you who had families and day jobs and had to pay their taxes and all the rest.  The Way Jesus invites us into is not only for those who are seminary trained.  We are all called to walk in this way, to grow and deepen in our faith and to share that faith with others.

If as a community St. Mark’s lived in this fashion, I bet we would see the same sorts of things happening here that they saw in the Early Church.  That we would worship together, sharing meals with one another with a spirit of generous hospitality, praising God for our many blessings and caring deeply about the goodwill of all people.  This is the life Jesus holds out before us.  I pray that we intentionally desire this life for us and for others in this community, and that we devote ourselves to authentically following Christ.  Amen.


[1] Gary Neal Hansen, “Acts 2:42-47 Theological Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Year A Vol. 2, eds David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor. Pg 424.

[2] http://www.emarketer.com/blog/index.php/time-spent-watching-tv-tops-internet/ Accessed 5/12/11

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Book CoverI’m behind a bit in posting my sermons.  This was the one from last week.  And this week I preached without a net, as a friend puts it, more extemporaneously and not using a written text.  I thought about recording it, but left my iPhone at home.

So, here’s a sermon to reflect on about Thomas.  Check out the passage here: John 20:19-31.

Easter 2A—John 20:19-31

            I think Thomas gets a bad rap.  I mean our reading starts out with Jesus showing up, saying “Shalom” and the other disciples not knowing it was Jesus until he showed them his hands and his side.  Once he does this, John tells us, then the rejoiced.  It took the whole “hands and side” business to get them to believe it was really Jesus.

But Thomas wasn’t there, for whatever reason, so he missed out.  When the others tell him that they’ve seen the Lord, he declares that he won’t believe unless he sees Jesus’ hands and side, too.  In other words, if he sees what they have already seen, then he’ll believe.  Thomas does have a flair for the dramatic with his desire to place his finger in the actual wounds, but in the end, he wants what they already got.

Rather than focusing on the doubting aspect of this, I can’t help but notice once again John using the words “see” and “seeing” in this context.   “Seeing” is all over John’s narrative; he made a point of it right from his prologue about the incarnation “We have seen his glory” he writes at the beginning of the gospel.  When he meets some of the disciples, he tells them to “Come and see.”  And of course, we had the story about the man born blind and how the Pharisees couldn’t really see even though they thought they could.

Now, at the tail end of this gospel, we get Thomas.  When Jesus does show up again on the next Sunday evening, Thomas is in the room.  Jesus greets them all the same way, “Shalom” and then immediately addresses Thomas.  “Put your fingers here in my hand.  Reach out your hand and place it in my side.  Don’t doubt but believe.”  Thomas replies with the most direct statement of faith in John’s gospel, “My Lord and my God!”  To which Jesus replies, “Do you believe because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet come to believe.”

If we are honest, we can admit that there are many times in our lives when we are like Thomas.  There are times when our faith in Jesus wanes because we do not see him as one who lives and works in our lives.  Instead we hear the accounts of others, how Jesus has appeared in their lives, and we stand off in the distance alone.  We have seen the cross, we know that Jesus died, and we think that resurrection and transformation might be a cruel joke.  We don’t see.  And unless we experience Jesus ourselves, unless we see real proof and not just hear the words of others, we won’t ever believe.

The children’s book The Polar Express tells the story of a young boy who is lying awake on Christmas night hoping to hear the sound of bells from Santa’s sleigh.  As he lies awake waiting, he finally hears something, but it isn’t the ringing of bells, it is the hissing of steam and the squeaking of metal.  He jumps out of bed to see a train waiting in front of his house.  He sees a conductor get off the train, look at his pocket watch and wait.  The boy tiptoes downstairs and runs to the train, as the conductor shouts, “All aboard.”  “Where are you going?” the boy asks.  “The North Pole,” he replies, “This is the Polar Express, are you coming?”  Excitedly, the boy gets on the train.

It is filled with other children all still in their pajamas and robes, and they are served the best hot chocolate the boy has ever tasted.  They join together singing Christmas carols as the train continues to travel.  They look outside to see the trees of forests, and the lights of towns in the distance.  After coming over high mountains, they began to travel across the Polar ice cap, and the boy can see the North Pole in the distance, the lights glimmering in the night.  The children learn that the elves are gathering in the center of the city to see Santa give the first gift of Christmas.  “Who gets the first gift?” the boy asks.  “Santa will choose one of you,” the conductor replies.

Upon arriving at the stop, all the children climb out to see the most wonderful spectacle before them.  Hundreds and hundreds of elves are gathered together, with Santa’s sleigh in the middle of a circle.  The reindeer are impatiently moving around and their bells make a magical sound.  Santa walks over to the group of children, and says, “Let’s have this one here,” pointing to the boy.  The boy comes to Santa, they walk to his sleigh, and then Santa asks him, “What would you like for Christmas?”  The boy knew he could ask for anything in the world, but what he really wanted was one of the bells from the sleigh.  Santa smiled at him and asked one of the elves to cut off a bell.  He then held it up, and exclaimed, “The first gift of Christmas!” and gave the silver bell to the boy, who put it into his pocket.

Almost immediately, the boy was helped down from the sleigh and Santa took off, as the children were led back to the train.  When they had gotten back on, the other children clamored around the boy, asking to see the bell, and when he reached into his pocket he felt nothing but a hole.  The bell had slipped out.  Just as they were going to go out and look for it, the train lurched, and began to move.  They were going home.

The boy was devastated.  When he the train finally reached his house, he said good-bye, and walked sadly to his house.  “Merry Christmas!” the conductor shouted, and the Polar Express let out a whistle blast, and the boy waved from his open door.

The next morning, the boy and his sister, Sarah, opened their gifts.  When they had opened all that were there, Sarah found a small package by the back of the tree.  It was addressed to the boy.  “Found this on the seat of my sleigh.  Get that hole fixed!  Mr. C.” Inside was the silver bell.  The boy was ecstatic, and he rang that bell so he could hear the magical sound again.  “That’s a pity,” said his mother.  “It seems to be broken.  It’s not ringing at all.”  The boy learned that when he shook the bell he could hear it, and so could Sarah, but his parents didn’t hear a thing.

He writes at the end of the book, “At one time most of my friends could hear the bell, but as years passed, it fell silent for all of them.  Even Sarah found one Christmas that she could no longer hear its sweet sound.  Though I’ve grown old, the bell still rings for me as it does for all those who truly believe.”

And in the end that is what it comes down to for us.  Jesus can offer us wholeness and peace, but only if we believe.  Jesus can transform us into being Easter people, into people who live in and help bring about resurrection in our lives and in the lives of others through his power, but only if we believe.  Jesus is here each week, and when we come we are given the chance to see him, we are given the chance to reach our hands out and touch him.  We have the opportunity to see him standing here before us for what he is, our Lord and our God.  But to see him, we must truly believe.

As we come to this table to receive his body and blood, we are able to hold him in our hands, and to receive him again.  “Peace be unto you,” he says to us.  “Shalom, completeness, wholeness be yours.”  If we believe he can do his work in our lives, we can become the people he has called us to be.  People of the resurrection.  People who live transformed lives.  And in this way, he can send us out to continue to do his work in the world through the power of the Holy Spirit.

We are told at the very end of our Gospel lesson that Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples which aren’t written down.  And in the next chapter, John says the same sort of thing, claiming that if they were written down that the world itself wouldn’t be able to contain the books that could be written.  I think one of those reasons is because Jesus is still working signs in the presence of his disciples.  Jesus is still working in us and there continue to be signs of his work.  We see it in our lives and in the lives of others. With Easter comes true peace and wholeness for those who believe and declare Jesus to be both Lord and God.  May we always be blessed as those who truly believe because we have seen the very presence of Christ working among us, and may we always go from this place sharing the message of Christ’s peace with others.  Amen.

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Alleluia!  Christ is risen!

We celebrate the resurrection of Christ anew this day, and it was wonderful to share this first Easter with the good people of St. Mark’s.  Great day with wonderful weather this morning, an amazing egg hunt outside, and great joy!  He is risen, indeed!

Easter Day 2011 — John 20:1-18

It’s early on Sunday when Mary goes to the tomb where they buried Jesus only a couple of days before.  They had already wrapped his body with linen cloths and spices, so there was no reason for her to come to the site, except of course because she was mourning the loss of this one she loved so much.  She did what many of us have done after a death, she went to the grave, to touch the place where his body lies, thinking about all the things that had filled her life before, wishing she could have it all back.

When she gets there, things aren’t as they were.  The large stone has been pushed back, and immediately she thinks the worst, that grave robbers have done their evil work.  In a rush of fear and uncertainty, she turns around and runs to the place where the disciples are staying, and tells them that someone has taken Jesus’ body.

Immediately, Peter and John—that disciple whom Jesus loved—spring up and run to the garden where Jesus was buried.  They sprint, probably hoping to catch the perpetrators of this crime, or because they don’t believe Mary’s words.  Maybe she got it wrong, went to the wrong place, or just imagined this due to her grief.  They get to the garden, and find the stone rolled back.  John hesitates a moment or two outside the cave, but Peter runs right into the tomb.  He sees the linen cloths lying there, but nothing else.  John then comes in to, and sees the head cloth rolled up, the wrappings just lying there, empty.  Our gospel writer says he believed, but we don’t know what he believes.  Is it Mary’s story?  Is it something else?  We don’t know.  We just know that after they saw this, the two disciples turn around and leave the tomb and go home.

But Mary stays behind, standing near the tomb, weeping.  The rush of emotion she is feeling would have been incomprehensible. She watched as this teacher she followed was put to an excruciating death, and she probably took part in preparing his body for burial.  There is denial and anguish in just losing him, but then to come and find that his body has been stolen, that was just too much to bear.  She is overcome by it all and breaks down.

In the midst of all this, she bends down to see for herself.  She looks into the empty tomb, and surprisingly sees these two men in white.  “Why are you weeping?” they ask.  “They’ve taken away my Lord,” she stammers, “and I don’t know where they have taken him.”  Then turning around she notices this man, probably the gardener coming to do his morning work.  He asks her the same question, “Why are you weeping?”  She thinks he may be the one who did something, and says, “Sir, if you’ve carried him off, tell me where you have laid him and I will take him away.”

He looks down with compassion on her and utters a single word: her name.  Immediately the recognition of this word washes over her.  He knows her name; she can’t believe but it’s true, the one she’s been looking for is standing before her.  He is very much alive.  He is risen.  “Teacher!” she exclaims, and she rushes to give him a huge hug, so glad to have him back.

But Jesus won’t let her touch him, “Do not hold on to me,” he tells her.  He has yet to ascend to his Father. Surely she’s confused about this since she just wants to grab his hand and run back with him to the disciples to show them that he is alive.

Instead, Jesus instructs Mary to deliver a message to the disciples, and say that he is on his way to the Father.  We aren’t told if anything else is said, or if Jesus just disappears or walks away.  We only know that Mary makes her way back to disciples and ecstatically proclaims that she has seen the Lord.

It is at that moment that Jesus’ resurrection truly happens.  The mysterious event that took place in the tomb happened without any earthly witnesses.  Peter and John and Mary all came to the tomb after the fact.  If all they had seen was the emptiness, they cloths just lying there and nothing else, they would have assumed that Mary was right, that someone had come and stolen the body.  The shell of what was left behind didn’t explain anything.  It only left unanswered questions.

Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “What happened in the tomb was entirely between Jesus and God. For the rest of us, Easter began the moment the gardener said, ‘Mary!’ and she knew who he was. That is where the miracle happened and goes on happening — not in the tomb but in the encounter with the living Lord.”[1]  If we came here this morning looking for the resurrection by peering into an empty tomb, we will miss it all together.

The resurrection plays out in ten thousand places, when we encounter the risen Lord.[2]  It’s in the daily living, in sharing a cup of coffee with a friend, or biking a trail, or reading a book that impacts your life, or writing a letter to a child you sponsor in Africa.  It’s in the time of quiet reflection and prayer, in helping out at the homeless shelter, or putting an extra box of Cheerios in your cart for the food bank.  The resurrection happens when you help an elderly neighbor with her yard work, or you seek to be reconciled with someone you love.  Resurrection takes place in all the big and small ways we share the love of Jesus Christ with a broken and hurting world.  It happens when we come to this place and listen to God’s word, and break the bread and drink from the cup.  It happens when we live as his disciples and are about the work of his kingdom, living lives of repentance and joy.

Some come to Easter morning expecting just the opposite of Mary.  Some come expecting the empty tomb and the stone rolled back and the body gone. But that isn’t where the resurrection is.   Sometimes we hold on to the notions in our minds about the way things are to be with Jesus and us, the way our interactions with Christ have been before, primarily on our terms, and think that that is the resurrection in our lives.  We may like the way things have been and want to keep everything the same.  But when we encounter the risen Christ—when we encounter the resurrection—things change.  “Don’t hold on to me,” he says to Mary and to us.  “You can’t keep me the way I was before.  Things are changed, and you are changed as well.”

You see when one story ends, another story always begins.  We cannot hold onto the earthly Jesus anymore than Mary could.  Nor can we hold on to the earthly memories about the way things were before in our lives, whatever we use to mark that time before.  Before my wedding, or the start of my new job.  Before the accident or the day I graduated, or before my world fell apart, or before my children were born.  No matter what happened before, we cannot hold on to it, nor onto the way we encountered Christ at that time.  Rather we must look ahead.   We need to see that the resurrection is not a return to the past, but a movement to the future.

What will resurrection look like in your life now?  Will this season of Easter be the time when you recognize the risen Lord in a new way?  He comes to us today offering us life—forgiveness and joy and hope and love.

The miracle of Easter that began in the garden continues on.  It happens to us when we hear the gardener say our name—Mark! Laura! Rebecca!  Tom!   We experience the mystery of this day when we turn to Jesus, recognizing him as our Lord, and joyfully exclaim, “Teacher!”  We experience the resurrection when we let go of the way things should be and run to those who share our lives with us, and ecstatically proclaim that we have seen the Lord.  That is the beauty of this day.  That is why we gather on this morning to celebrate.  That is why we are here at this table, so that we too might experience the risen Christ.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!


[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Escape from the Tomb” Christian Century. April 1, 1998, Pg 339.  Online at http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=640

[2] Eugene Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places.

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