Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Scoffers Welcome


Pentecost

I get the same disturbing thought every year.  Maybe it’s a crisis you can relate to, maybe not.  It gets to be close to Pentecost and I have this thought: how am I going to preach about Pentecost in a way that’s different from what I said last year… and the year before that, and the year before that.  It’s a similar existential crisis to the ones I get before Christmas and Easter, but worse.  At Christmas and Easter, there are at least other versions of those stories to choose from.  We have four gospels to choose from when we want to retell the Easter story; when it comes to Pentecost, Acts chapter two is all we’ve got. 

Within certain boundaries, sermon-writing is a creative process.  When you’re involved in creating something—especially if it’s for someone else—you want it to be new, you want it to be continually creative.  You might make a great potato salad, but you’ll want to change it up from time to time, know what I mean?  I want to create something from this story that’s new, but this is the Pentecost story.  We know this story.  What could I possibly tell you about this story that I haven’t already told you over the past nine years?  We know about the sound of wind.  We know about sight of flame.  We know about the voices raised in unknown languages, giving praise to the power of God.  And we know about the scoffers who thought they were just drunk.  What could I possibly find in this story that we don’t already know? 

And then I remember: this is a story about the Holy Spirit.  Surprises is what the Holy Spirit is all about!  This story is all about God’s Spirit breaking out into our world in surprising ways!  Do you think I’m going to find something surprising in this well-worn story?  Of course I am!  Buckle up, folks; we’re talking about the Holy Spirit today!  There is never a dull moment when it comes to the Spirit. 

The thing that surprises me most about this story (at least this time through, anyways), is the scoffers; those who sneered and said, “They’re drunk with new wine.”  First, I’m surprised by how they see all this and still don’t believe.  That in itself is surprising, but what surprises me more is that it’s never surprised me before.  Over the decades of reading and studying and preaching this story, how is it that I’ve never noticed how weird it is that they just assume that this is just drunken behavior? 

I will say, in all fairness, that this is Pentecost.  Before it was the celebration of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, Pentecost was a Jewish celebration.  And as Jewish celebrations go, it was a party.  It was scheduled to follow fifty days after (hence the name) the more-somber celebration of Passover.  Whereas Passover celebrated the mighty and violent deliverance of the people out of the land of Egypt, Pentecost celebrated the providence of God through the fruit of the land.  So although it was clearly frowned upon to be drunk at nine in the morning (or maybe it’s “still drunk at nine in the morning”), it may not have been terribly unusual. 

Still, how do you witness all of the things that Luke describes—with the wind and the flames—and not see God’s hand in it?  Well, what I surprisingly realized was that they probably didn’t.  What probably happened was that they came in late to this party.  They didn’t hear the sudden sound like the rush of a violent wind.  They didn’t see divided tongues, as of fire, come and rest on the gathered disciples.  All they witnessed was talk; and as we know, talk is cheap.
There are layers of irony that follow: they scoff because, to them, these are just strange words spoken by strange Galileans; but then Peter, one of those strange Galileans, gets up to convince them otherwise by speaking to them.  Even more ironic: his proof is that these babbling Galileans are actually the embodiment of something the prophet Joel… said.  So what they witnessed wasn’t just words, but they never would have known that unless someone spoke that Truth to them.  Speaking words, as it turns out, is sometimes the action that is necessary. 

I got into an argument with a guy the other day over a quote; and yes, it did get a little heated.  He was attributing the saying “Preach Jesus, and if necessary, use words” to Francis of Assisi.  I pointed out that the saying is not found in anything that Francis wrote and he did not appreciate being interrupted.  The truth is, Francis did say a couple of things like it and I probably should have just minded my own business; but the truth also is that I like what he did say better.  What Francis did say was: "Yes, the true servant unceasingly rebukes the wicked, but he does it most of all by his conduct."  Yes, the Spirit empowers us to speak the Word of God, but that Word has weight because the Spirit also empowers us to live out the Word of God.  We proclaim the Promises of God, while at the same time, by the power of the Spirit, we are the fulfillment of the Promises of God. 

I was visiting with a saint of God that I hadn’t seen for a while the other day.  She’s been a bit homebound recently, so we needed to catch up for a while.  I really enjoyed our time together and it was good to see that she’s doing better.  She remains the gracious and brilliant woman I know her to be. 

We talked a bit about getting older and about all of the things she has survived (her word) over the past few years.  She said, “Well I guess God is keeping me around for something.”  And the thing is, when you talk to her, it’s obvious.  She was telling me about the relationships she has with the people there and the care she shows them intentionally and in Jesus’ name.  I told her, “You find a ministry everywhere you go.”  She may not be as active as she used to be, but she is aware of God’s working through her—in word and in deed—in every circumstance she finds herself.  And although I find her to be inspirational, I also know that this is how God works in all of us. 

In the Pentecost story, as the Spirit of God is poured out into the followers of Jesus, notice what happens: they speak the one message of God’s power, but they say it in different voices.  Notice that, like light through a stained glass window, the same light comes through differently through different panes of glass.  Of course the Spirit is going to inspire different ministries in each of us, we’re different people; but we recognize that it is the same Spirit. 

I’m starting a new tradition today.  I’ve put new Time and Talent Surveys in the boxes.  Historically, we’ve put them out toward the fall, at the same time we ask for financial pledges; but we decided to ask those questions separately and I decided that the question about time and talent really ought to be asked on Pentecost.  My thinking is: we’re not asking you to take a job and fill a need, we’re asking you to hear a calling.  The surveys are simply our list of needs as they apply to the operation of the church.  Because that’s how life in the Spirit works: you see a need, you know your ability to meet that need, and then the Spirit calls you to meet that need.  Peter sees a need: he sees confusion in the crowd; he probably knows better than anyone that he has never been shy to speak right up, and he knows the answer to their confusion; and so he meets that need as he stands up, by the power of the Spirit to speak.  The Spirit works something different in each one of us, but that’s how the Spirit works; both in us individually and through all of us as a church.  We see the needs around us in this world, we assess our abilities to meet those needs, and then we find our calling to speak and to do. 

I saw a need just out in front of this church the other day that just broke my heart.  I was running the bouncy house at the block party on Thursday.  By the way, that is another talent I didn’t know I had.  I’m really good at it.  If you need someone to run the bouncy house at your birthday or whatever, give me a call.  What broke my heart came toward the end of the event when we were starting to clean up.  One of the kids, about nine or ten, that I had been talking to at the bouncy house was standing about ten feet away from me with his mother and another woman.  The other woman discreetly slipped something into the hand of my new friend’s mom and I heard him say, “Mom, that’s illegal!” 

I don’t know exactly what transpired there, but I know it shouldn’t have.  She should not have been given whatever she was given and it certainly shouldn’t have happened in front of a son who somehow knew better than his mother.  My heart broke for this boy and I’ve been praying for him and his family ever since.  I pray for whatever demons plague that poor woman and I pray for wholeness and healing for them all.  But I do have hope: you see, I know that kid got invited to vacation Bible school.  Carolyn on Thursday was proclaiming the love of Jesus in a language that children can understand: she was handing out free toys.  I know that kid got one of those toys and I know he got the flier that went with it. 

I pray I see that boy here every day of VBS and then on after.  I pray he hears words about the unfailing love of God through the stories we tell him and the songs we sing.  But more than that, I pray he sees it when we’re out back playing tag.  I pray he sees those words proven true through a church that doesn’t just talk.  The world around us is right to doubt the words we speak; but the love we show will prove those words true.  Let us speak the Truth, but then let us act.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Justus League

Seventh Sunday of Easter

I have a lot of mothers in my life; and that’s a positive thing.  I have many women in my life who function in a mothering way to me and I’m grateful for them.  Some of those moms go to church with me every week.  Now, I would never say that I had favorite moms, but there are only two who actually get a card from me on Mother’s Day.  One of them is the mom I met when I was born; she’s the mom I’ve known the longest.  The other is more the mother of my children, but funny story: she almost wasn’t. 

Here’s a scandal if you like scandals: Sherry had a boyfriend when I met her.  I would never be so bold as to say I was so charming, attractive, and funny that I stole another guy’s girl, but you know me so you can do the math yourself.  The truth is, as the story has been told to me, the guy she was dating was a perfectly good guy.  It isn’t like, after meeting me, she suddenly realized what a mistake she’d made.  But, when Sherry and I met, we had a genuine chemistry and we knew there was something there; so Sherry had a decision to make.  And because the other guy was a good guy, it wasn’t an easy decision to make. 

It was a little like the decision we see played out in our Scripture reading today: she had to choose between two good choices; only Sherry didn’t flip a coin over it like we read today.  She anguished over it.  She prayed over it.  She made lists of qualities and character traits.  She sought the council of her parents; well, her mother; her father was of no help.  The way the story was told to me goes: his only input to the conversation was, “What a great problem to have!”  Not exactly the clear answer she was looking for. 

As Sherry and I were talking about this story the other day, she said, “Well, it seems I made the right choice… so far.”  Because only time will tell if she made the right choice, right?  Even when it’s a choice between two good choices, only time will tell if you’ve made the right one.  And as we look at the choice the early church made here, I can honestly say, I have no idea if they made the right choice or not; but that’s okay. 

I have to admit that I’m not entirely sure what the point of this story is supposed to be.  Obviously, it isn’t supposed to be a model for how we make decisions in the church.  I would not be okay with picking elders this way.  I’d better not find out that the Nominating Committee just narrows it down and flips a coin; that is not a reasonable discernment process. 

We read how the early church at least prayed about it, so that’s good; but flipping a coin (or whatever) is too big a gamble.  I mean, it doesn’t even seem like they’ve fully discussed the credentials of these two men, only that they were present throughout Jesus’ ministry, like any of the twelve were (although I’m not sure why that’s the criteria).  But, someone should have at least asked, “Why does Justus have so many names.” Joseph, called Barsabbas, aka Justus.  Do we really want, as an Apostle, someone who had so many aliases?  That seems suspicious.  I would have voted for Matthias just over that. 

But the bigger point of confusion for me over this story is that I’m not sure Luke’s point is in telling it.  What are we supposed to take from this story?  Is this just a historical footnote?  Are we supposed to see this as a good thing?  Are we supposed to see it as a bad thing?  Uncharacteristically, Luke doesn’t really give us any indication as to what place this story even has in the emerging story of the church. 

I need my history lessons to have a clear point.  I need to know how those historic moments shape the future.  I look back on the choice Sherry made when we met and I can clearly see the implications of that moment in history.  It should interest you too: I don’t know where I’d be today if she’d chosen differently, but I doubt my journey would have brought me here.  I look at the children I help her raise and see the importance of that moment in our history and the importance of that one choice. 

The choice of Matthias to replace Judas doesn’t seem to make any difference to anything at all.  This is the first and last time we hear anything about him.  That in itself isn’t terribly significant; there are plenty of Apostles we don’t hear much about in Acts.  More importantly, we don’t hear anything about Justus either.  Can you imagine being Justus?  His only claim to fame is being Apostle runner-up. 

I have reason to suspect that what we read about this morning is actually a mistake.  Like I said, I’m not sure that’s the point Luke is making, but this may not have been the right decision for the church.  To be fair, this happened before Pentecost; the Spirit had not yet been poured out on the followers of Jesus.  Peter had not yet begun to realize the implications of the ascended Jesus.  He had not yet begun to realize the commission of Jesus to bear witness to him in Jerusalem, in Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. 

Peter seems to be looking at things through his old, pre-Spirit point of view.  Perhaps he was remembering Jesus saying things to them like, “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel [Matthew 19:28].”  So he does what he thinks is the sensible thing: he fills the vacant throne with someone like one of those that Jesus might have chosen; like someone like the rest of the twelve.  He does what a responsible leader would: he fills a seat so the organizational structure can continue. 

The problem is, as they would soon find out, that’s not often how the Spirit works.  The Spirit of God does not care about organizational structures; the Spirit cares about calling.  I think we forget that far too often.  I appreciate that people have looked on the list of Lou Ray’s roles that I put together and I appreciate that some have heard God’s call to fill in where they feel called.  That was part of the point I was making in putting the list together; but remember, that wasn’t what I asked you to do.  I asked you to pray. 

I feel we need to reimagine how we work as a church.  For too long we have all had jobs: my job is to preach; someone else’s job is to sing in the choir; someone else’s job is to make visitors feel welcome; someone else’s job is to call members when we haven’t seen them for a while.  Those are fine things to do, but the work of the church is not a job.  When these things are jobs, we wind up feeling like we can just do a thing when the Spirit nudges us to do a thing because that is someone else’s thing.

The Department of Homeland Security has a program to combat terrorism called, “If You See Something, Say Something.”  The beauty of the program, I feel, is that the title of the program is the program.  I’m instituting a similar program around here.  It goes like this: If You Feel Something, Do Something.  We should never avoid doing a thing the Spirit directs us to do because it’s someone else’s job in our organizational structure.  Now, we may need to coordinate our efforts, but no one will get upset if you feel called to join them in their calling; healthy followers of Jesus will actually embrace it. 

One wonders how this story might have gone differently, had they waited to make this decision until after Pentecost.  For all I know, maybe that’s the point Luke is making with this story.  Maybe we’re meant to add our holy imaginations to this story and envision all of the other possibilities the Spirit might have led them to.  Maybe it would go exactly like it did.  Maybe the Spirit would tell them, “You don’t need to replace Judas; embrace eleven Apostles instead of twelve, perhaps as a scar to warn against that kind of thing happening again.”  Who knows, maybe the Spirit would have led them to calling a gentile replacement and really blow their minds.  But no, they took matters into their own hands, they took care of the organizational structure of the church, but they may not have paid enough attention to the mission of the church.  So we’ll never know might have been. 

Or maybe Luke’s point in telling this story is that not every follower of Jesus gets to be famous.  I like that point.  Just because we never hear about these two men ever again doesn’t mean that they didn’t go on to live Spirit-filled lives that served Jesus.  For all we know, they went on to teach the Sunday school classes that inspired the next generation of disciples.  For all we know they were the ushers, and greeters, and choir members, and bulletin-folders that make their worship all the more inspiring.  For all we know, these two men were exactly like us.  Well, not Matthias: he got the fancy title of “Apostle.”  No, for all we know, we’re just like Justus. 

I haven’t been so excited about a sermon-title in a long time.  For all we know, we are in the Justus League: we are those followers of Jesus who, without fame, without glory, or maybe even recognition, we do what our Savior calls us to do.  May we continue to be faithful to our Master’s calling and may we celebrate our place in the Justus League in all we do and say.  May we know our Savior’s glory wherever he calls us to go.

Monday, May 7, 2018

A Dream Come True

Acts 10:44-48
Sixth Sunday of Easter

The first line of our short Scripture lesson today is delightful; there is no other word for it.  Luke says, “While Peter was still speaking.” How wonderful is that!  Peter, in the midst of yet another sermon, is interrupted by the movement of the Holy Spirit.  I would love to be interrupted like that.  

I once guest-preached for a Pentecostal friend of mine.  Those people interrupted me right and left.  And it wasn’t just the occasional “mmm” of agreement or “yes sir!” or “amen!”  No, they’d just talk to me like this is supposed to be a conversation; “Tell me more about that,” kind of comments.  What?  That’s not how this works.

I would love to be interrupted, but by the movement of the Holy Spirit.  I want to be interrupted like Peter is interrupted; like the way the Spirit has been interrupting Peter throughout this larger story.  The interruption here is only an exclamation point on the bigger interruption Peter has been experiencing lately.  All along, the Spirit has been interrupting what Peter thinks God is like with what God is actually like.  And it all concludes with Peter, trying to preach yet another sermon, only to hear God say, “Shush Peter, I’ve got this.”  

I want to be interrupted like that.  We should all want to be interrupted like that.  We should all want our limited, closed-minded vision of what God is like and what God is doing to be interrupted so that we might see what is True; we all, like Peter, should want to say, “Now I truly understand.”  

There is a relationship between the story we heard from the Book of Acts last week and the story we hear today.  In a roundabout way, last week’s story leads to this week’s.  Last week we heard about a man named Philip, who was a doer.  God nudged Philip to go and walk with an Ethiopian eunuch, and Philip did it.  And my point last week was that we need people like that in the church: people who are spiritually nimble enough to hear the Spirit’s “nudge” and do what the Spirit says to do.  

Peter used to be like that, remember?  Remember when Jesus met Peter (he was Simon back then) by the lake where he was a professional fisherman?  Peter was literally at work.  Jesus walks by, and what does he say?  “Follow me.”  And what does Peter do?  He follows him.  Luke specifically says, “They left everything and followed him.”  That is a spiritually nimble person; maybe even too nimble; Luke doesn’t say what “everything” was.  But that was when he was Simon the fisherman; he’s Peter “The Rock” now.  A Rock can’t just flitter about, doing whatever the Spirit nudges him to do.  Good thing we still have Philip.  

But here’s the thing: maybe they’re both right.  The Church needs the Philips (and Simons), but the Church also needs its Peters too.  Philip is nimble, he can hear the Spirit’s nudge to walk with and share the gospel with the most unlikely of people.  Did I mention last week, what Philip was doing before he shared Jesus with the Ethiopian eunuch?  He was in Samaria, sharing Jesus with the Samarians!  Samarians, I tell ya!  Those people!  The people the Israelites had been hostile toward for generations!  And Philip goes and shares Jesus with those people; and what’s more, they receive it!  

Remember, this was early in the post-Resurrection Church; they didn’t even yet realize that they were supposed to share Jesus with outsiders people.  But there’s Philip, doing it anyway, not only outsiders, but with people who they were hostile toward.  Then off he goes to do the same with an Ethiopian eunuch: a person who was every bit as much an “outsider” as a Samaritan.  He didn’t ask permission first, he was just following “the nudge.”  Although I admire his free-wheeling attitude, what if he was wrong?  What if it was just Philip’s idea, he just thought it was God’s?  What then?  As it turns out, he wasn’t wrong; but that’s what Peter is for.  If Philip is the doer, then Peter is the Elder.  

Once again, Sharon has drawn a winner as far as Scripture readings go: no weird, foreign words, and best of all, it was short.  This is a delightfully short Scripture reading if you’re the liturgist, but it’s only the end to a much longer story.  As I said, when the Spirit interrupts Peter, it’s the culmination of what God has already been doing in Peter.  Peter has watched what Philip was doing: he knows about the Samaritans; in fact Peter was in on it a little.  But those were Samaritans: they are outsiders, but they’re not outsiders-outsiders.  Jesus talked with Samaritans.  But what about real outsiders?  What about Gentiles?  

And then one day, apparently after skipping breakfast (the most important meal of the day), Peter passed out from hunger.  While they were making him brunch, he had a vision.  You might remember the vision: a picnic is laid out before him, made of nothing but yucky food.  A picnic full of “all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. Then he heard a voice saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.”  That may not sound that weird to you, but Moses forbid eating those sorts of things, so Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” Then the voice said to him three times, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

And here is where the story gets interesting.  Hunger dreams are one thing, but suddenly there’s a knock on the door.  Last week, someone’s phone rang as I was starting to pray; which doesn’t bother me, I think it’s kind of funny.  What rattled me the most was the thought, “Should I make a joke about this during the prayer.”  “Lord, can we put you on speakerphone?”  I didn’t make a joke, but it’s funny because God so rarely calls us on our cell phones.  We don’t expect God to knock on the door when we’ve had a weird dream either.  But knock God does.  Well, not God exactly.  It is a delegation of Gentiles, sent from the most outsider person we’ve met yet in this story: a Roman centurion (no less) named Cornelius has sent people in search of this Simon Peter, because Cornelius has also had a vision that he should do just that.  

I think you probably see where this is going: Peter, of course, goes and Peter, of course, sees that God has a plan for this Good News that extends well beyond his own people; but it takes him time to figure that out.  Somewhere along the line, Peter has become an Elder; Peter has lost his impulsiveness, but he’s gained discernment.  Ironically and fortunately, what Philip just jumped in and did, turned out to be what God had been doing all along.  

There’s a thing I often say as we prepare to celebrate Communion.  I wonder if we always hear the implications.  Often I will remind us that this is the Table of the Lord.  In my mind, I usually think about it in terms of visitors; you know, so they know that all who put their trust in him are welcomed by him to this feast that he has prepared.  But you know, there’s more to it than that.  These words are also a reminder to those of us who already know we belong here.  It’s a reminder that we don’t get to choose who is in and who is out; this is not our Table.  This is the Table of our Lord.  He gets to choose who will be gathered around it.  And I’m going to go out on a limb and say that those he would gather here might just surprise us.  

What is so remarkable about the Spirit of God interrupting Peter and pouring out into this Gentile crowd, isn’t even so much that these are unlikely people.  What is remarkable is that this is nothing new!  We should have seen this coming.  We should have remembered the words of the Prophet Joel: “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh.” [Joel 2:28] This story doesn’t describe the changing mind of God.  This story describes the moment Peter finally sees what God had been doing all along!  And sure, it took him a while; just like it takes us a while.  But may we be surprised by the interrupting Spirit.  May the Spirit show us we’re wrong about who needs to hear about Jesus.  May we have eyes to see what God has been doing all along and we welcome them here as our Savior welcomes them here.  And may we all celebrate what the Spirit of our Risen Savior is doing even in us.

Monday, April 30, 2018

We Deliver

5th Sunday of Easter

     The first step in unpacking this unusual story is deciding who it’s about.  There are only two people and our sermon can easily be about either one of them.  Our Scripture lesson can preach about the unnamed Ethiopian or about this follower of Jesus named Philip.  It can be about how the Gospel came to Ethiopia through an unlikely person or it can be about how God led Philip to share the Gospel with that unlikely person. 
     This story is really about both of these men, but this morning I feel led to make this story about Philip.  Which is not to say that next time it won’t be about the eunuch.  This Ethiopian eunuch is certainly interesting, to put it mildly; but interesting does not interest us.  Where God is leading is what interests us.  We’re interested in is listening, listening for the often still, small voice of God; listening for God to show us where to go.  And that seems to be what Philip’s story is all about. 
     I call it “the nudge.”  I’ve heard it called other things, but it’s the same Spirit.  In spite of what some other places in the Bible might lead us to believe, God’s voice is not loud and booming very often.  It can actually be a little hard to hear if you’re not listening.  And it’s subtle: often, it’s just the thought that you haven’t seen someone in a while, so you pick up the phone.  Sometimes it’s finding out that something you felt called to share, was the very thing that someone else needed.  It can even feel like God saying, “Hey, go see what that guy in the chariot is reading.” 
     What Luke tells us about this Ethiopian is fascinating; what he leaves out is even more so.  But the Ethiopian is not the one we need to keep our eyes on.  What we read about God doing in and through Philip is something we need to pay attention; it’s something we need to and learn from. 
     The more I study this story, the more central I think Philip is.  I mean, not just central to what this particular story is about, but central to the story of Acts.  The irony there is that this is really the last time we hear about Philip (except a brief mention in Acts 21, where Paul runs into him).  He baptizes the Eunuch, then in a flash, he’s off proclaiming the Gospel along the coast.  That is essentially the last we hear of him.  He’s not a major player in the history of the Church; he’s no Peter or Paul, he’s not even a Stephen or Barnabas; but he is central.
     Philip was one of the seven, early in Acts, who were appointed by the Apostles to do the real work of ministry.  While the Apostles were busy studying Scripture and praying (and probably gazing at their navels), they needed someone to actually get stuff done.  Philip was a doer. 
     I’m kind of kidding, of course.  The church needs folks whose job it is to study Scripture and pray; it had better or I’d be out of a job.  But in a way, I’m not kidding: the church always needs folks to get stuff done too.  Sometimes the folks who study and pray are more important for the moment, but sometimes the doers are more important for the moment.  It’s up to all of us to discern which moment we are in. 
     The moment Philip was in was a tricky one.  Jesus has ascended, leaving his followers with his Spirit.  Right before he left, he told them, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth,” but then they didn’t go anywhere.  Jesus said they’d be witnesses in Jerusalem, but then they never left Jerusalem.  They seem to have forgotten, as we still tend to forget today, that the Good News is meant to be delivered; Jesus intended the Gospel to start here, but then to go to people and places that are not here.  They forgot, it seems, that they were supposed to leave Jerusalem.  That is, until Saul came along. 
     There is a Holy Irony here: Paul, the guy who would be central in taking the Gospel to the Gentiles, was also the guy who, in a way, persecuted the followers of Jesus out of Jerusalem to do it.  I believe God works in this way, sometimes: what we see as tragic or terrifying, in the moment, is actually “the nudge” of God.  The persecution of the followers of Jesus in Jerusalem, led them to take the Gospel beyond it. 
     We should expect this sort of thing from God.  After all, we know how God worked in Jesus.  We know how he was persecuted, tortured, and executed—a thing that, in the moment, looked tragic and terrifying—but that wasn’t the end of what God was doing.  The followers of Jesus need to expect and teach ourselves to look beyond the tragic and terrifying; to see Salvation on the way. 
     That is the moment Philip is in: appointed to do the hard work of serving Jesus, he is chased out of Jerusalem by people like Saul and starts actually doing the work Jesus commissioned the Apostles to do. 
     He is chased out of Jerusalem, but he’s not running, is he?  Luke tells us that, “An angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.’”  Now, first of all, I love how Luke crams so much into so few words, while at the same time leaving so much out.  We know that Philip is headed south when he meets this Ethiopian follower of Judaism (who is probably not allowed to worship fully because of, you know) and we know that said Ethiopian is probably headed back to work for Candice the queen.  Yet at the same time, Luke just slides right past the part about the angel.  Is it me, or does Luke assume a level of familiarity with angels that the rest of us do not actually have? 
     I sense a “nudge,” I don’t hear angels.  I see the handiwork of God in what some might consider “coincidences”; I don’t see angels.  I sense the movement of God’s Spirit in me and in others; I don’t know that I’ve ever met an angel.  I believe in angels—I’m not “that” pastor—I’m just saying: God is vastly more subtle with me.  I don’t personally know what Luke is talking about when he talks about angels.  Fortunately, we don’t have to.  We don’t have to because there is a vastly more important point to be made here: angel or “nudge,” the more-important point is that Philip got up and went.  God does amazing things with our get up and go, but what comes first is being aware that God has been trying to “nudge” us in the first place. 
     I made a list.  I make a lot of lists: Google Calendar and little slips of paper with to-do things on them are the centerpieces of my organizational structure.  But the list I made isn’t my list and it’s not exactly a to-do list either.  I made a list of all the things that Lou Ray used to do for the church, both here and for the larger Church.  It took me a while, but it was worth the effort.  I think I’ve stumbled onto a different kind of spiritual practice; it was surprisingly enriching; I’ve found myself keeping a similar list for myself; mentally, I’m making similar lists for you. 
     We are called “the Body of Christ,” but there are implications there that we don’t like to think about.  Like any body, there are parts that don’t just grow back.  As Paul would remind us, that doesn’t make any one of us more or less important the Body; we all have our part.  That’s why I recommend making lists for ourselves and one another; I mean, don’t literally.  In your head, think through the things you bring to Christ’s Body; think through the things that others bring.  I think you’ll find that there is not a person here that we can do without; and yet, somehow, we someday will; and somehow, by the power of God’s Spirit, the Body of Christ will continue anyway. 
     When our Body loses a member, there are two ways we might respond; I want us to learn to choose the second.  We can merely mourn; mourning is important.  Grieve well.  To a point, push at it like a sliver in your hand to remind yourself it’s still there, but don’t just mourn.  Listen for what God’s Spirit is telling you to do about it.  Listen, because grieving is never the end of what God is up to.  Listen, that you might hear, and get up, and go. 
     This list I made, I put it up on the information board in Berry Hall, but it isn’t a sign up list.  Some have already stepped up to take on some of the more urgent roles that Lou Ray had around here, that’s not the point of this list.  By the way, when you look at this list, I think you’ll agree that no one person should be responsible for all of these things.  At some point, we need to not let each other take on everything.  I’ll give you an example: one of Lou Ray’s roles in my life was to remind me to take the dirty dishes that get piled up in my office and bring them to the kitchen to be cleaned.  As I was doing that for myself this week, I reflected on how that’s not a job I should have needed anyone to do for me.  I love her for doing it, but really, I should have stepped up a long time ago. 
     I invite you to reflect on the list I’ve made, to listen for God to show you a place in the Body you didn’t know you were called to.  But there is a deeper message here: as we long for a growing, vibrant church—as we seek to be faithful to deliver the Good News to our world—the first thing we do is listen.  We have been listening and I believe we have heard the “nudge” of God, but we never stop listening.  Let us continue to listen—through Scripture, through the movement of God’s Spirit in ourselves and one another, and maybe even to angels—but then let us be prepared to go.  And in our going, may we find the blessings that God has in store for us.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Same Old Thing

4th Sunday of Easter

     I have a confession to make: sometimes I get tempted to rerun old sermons; just to see if anyone would notice.  I never would because I think the proclamation of God’s Word is too important to make fun of like that, but I’ve felt the temptation.  I get the feeling that, if I did rerun a sermon, even if someone did notice, they may not say anything because they’d think, “Maybe it just seems like I’ve heard this one before.”  I imagine, if you listen to enough sermons, especially by the same preacher, they do start to sound alike.   
     If you were here last Sunday, you may be thinking, “Haven’t we heard this before?  Didn’t we hear a Scripture lesson just last week about Peter talking to a group of religious people and reminding them that they killed Jesus?”  The short answer is, “kinda.”  Peter’s two “sermons,” if you will, are a part of a larger story, but this is not the same sermon.  He preaches the same thing and for the same reason, but one very important thing has changed: the audience. 
     You see, the people who gather to hear the Truth proclaimed far more important than the one who proclaims it.  Do they laugh at the right times?  Do they fold their arms in disbelief?  Do they lean in and nod because they understand?  Most importantly: do they take that Truth and then go and proclaim it themselves?  A sermon is only the “same old thing” if we don’t take anything from it. 
     So, our Scripture lesson begins with, “The next day.”  If you were with us last Sunday (or read the sermon on-line), what we read today is the day after that.  If you weren’t, I can easily catch you up: shortly after Pentecost, Peter and John were heading to the temple to pray.  As they entered the temple, they came across a beggar who had been unable to walk since birth; and in the name of Jesus, they healed him.  The man was understandably excited about suddenly being able to walk and started jumping around and shouting praises in the temple.  Also understandably, it attracted a crowd. 
     What we read last Sunday was Peter’s sermon, if you will, explaining the miracle: he told the gathered crowd that the source of this miracle was Jesus.  He went on to say something similar to what we hear again today: that you killed him and that he rose again your salvation.  In our story, all of that happened yesterday.  What happened between then and now, is also worth noting: Peter and John spent the night in jail.  Luke tells us that, after they preached about Jesus yesterday, the religious leaders got annoyed that they were proclaiming resurrection in Jesus; and they had them locked up. 
     Now, let’s set a little perspective here: in our story, the Resurrection happened, maybe, a couple of months ago.  John, only weeks ago, watched Jesus get arrested by these same religious leaders and crucified by the Romans.  Only weeks ago, Peter, out of fear of these same individuals, denied that he even knew Jesus.  And now they just got arrested too.  What do you suppose was going through their minds?  This is, by the way, would be the first time they’d get arrested for speaking about Jesus.  Do you suppose they thought it might be the last?  What would be going through your mind in this moment? 
     Starbucks is a company in the business of selling coffee made from overly-roasted beans.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s drinkable coffee; I drink it once in a while; but it’s just coffee.  It surprises me that a company, that is almost exclusively about something as simple as coffee, would be in the news as often as it is.  Recently, it was about the two black men who were arrested in Philadelphia on charges that were dropped the next day.  They went to a Starbucks for a meeting, but didn’t order anything.  Now, I would point out, that is a little rude.  I find that my week goes a lot better if I spend a couple of hours every Tuesday, working down the street at the Tuning Fork; I always, at least, buy a coffee.  It would be rude not to, but not exactly illegal.  So these two men went into a Starbucks and then, two minutes later, the manager called the police.  Starbucks, of course apologized, and now they’ll be training their people to be nicer, I guess.  One of the black men, when interviewed this week, was asked if he feared for his life during the arrest.  He said, “Anytime I’m encountered by [the police], I can honestly say it’s a thought that runs through my mind. You never know," he said, "what’s going to happen.” 
     Now, if I ever get into trouble with the police, and I say something like that, you have every right to accuse me of being overly-dramatic.  That thought would never cross my mind because I don’t have that kind of relationship with the police.  Never have the police shown up and I thought, “Oh no, it’s the police;” it’s always, “Oh good, it’s the police, I love the police.”  But these were black men in Philadelphia; I have no doubt that thought runs through their minds every time.  They have seen that same scenario go badly before. 
     John and Peter have seen this before; and not just this kind of thing before.  They watched Jesus questioned by these same people when he did good things like heal people.  They watched Jesus finally get arrested by these same people in this same place where they asked him these same kinds of questions.  “By what power,” they ask, “did you do this?”  Do you think John and Peter wondered where this might go?  Of course they did. 
     This is the same scenario, but this is not the same Peter.  This is not the same Peter who, not long ago, denied Jesus perhaps only steps from where he was in that moment.  This is a different Peter: this Peter has seen the Risen Jesus; this Peter knows a power that conquers death, he’s seen that too.  Filled with the Spirit, he says, “Let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead. This Jesus is ‘the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.’” 
     Now, that’s some gutsy preaching!  I get nervous that I’m going to preach something that will rub you the wrong way and get me fired.  We get bashful about talking about our faith because we don’t want to off-putting to our friends.  Luke names some of the people judging Peter and John—Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander—he names them because they are the same people who judged Jesus.  Peter speaks the Resurrection Truth to people he probably assumed would have him crucified too and we get nervous about being liked. 
     Now, I’m not saying you’ll lose friends if to talk about the Risen Jesus from time to time; but I’m not saying you won’t either.  More than likely, it will make more work for you: you might have to explain what resurrection power actually means to you; you might have to lead a life that puts that power into action; you might have to decide for yourself if the power that fear and discomfort has over you really is more powerful than the Resurrection. 
     In the final verse of today's text, Peter says, "There is salvation in no one else [but Jesus]."  This verse has often been used to divide people into two camps: those who are for Jesus and those who are not.  While Luke clearly believes that God has done something decisive and unique in Jesus, the point is actually the opposite of division.  The purpose of this passage, instead, is to proclaim that no human being or human authority can build that kind of wall; although we try.  Just like those who stood in judgement of Jesus, and now John and Peter, we still try to tell the world, "Unless you come into my tent, you cannot have God."  But that’s not our job.  Our job is to fearlessly and by the power of the Resurrection to tell the world what God has done: how God has acted on behalf of the world.  How there is "no other name," no human channel, no denomination, no one theology, no sect, no other franchise, but the power of the Risen Jesus.
     May we set our hearts and minds upon that power.  May the Spirit of our Risen Savior lead to the same places he went.  May we care for those he cared for, may we speak the words he spoke, and may his salvation be revealed in us as well.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Dumb Founded

Third Sunday of Easter

      Have you ever seen the movie “Inception”?  Like a lot of movies I seem to be drawn to, it’s weird.  It’s science-fiction, but I don’t know how much “science” there is.  It’s about a group of people who figure out a way to dream their dreams into other peoples’ dreams, so they can make people dream that they are dreaming about someone else’s dream who are dreaming about a dream.  I told you it was weird. 
      I bring it up because the next couple of sermons are an “Inception” kind of thing.  I’ll be preaching sermons about a couple of sermons that Peter preached that are about things that Jesus said and did.  It’s layered like that. 
      And like most sermons, they are not going to be all-that deep.  They won’t be about anything you probably don’t already know; that’s not why we listen to sermons; that’s certainly not why we preach them.  Good sermons—the ones we hear and the ones we preach—are meant to point the children of God back to what’s important.  No matter how far we’ve wandered, no matter how wrong we’ve been, good sermons aim to bring us back to what is True.  There are different kinds of preachers and there are different ways to proclaiming it, but all good sermons point us back to the Truth that Jesus our Savior is the one who makes us whole forever. 
      Again, not terribly deep: we know this.  What we may not always remember is that this Truth calls us to something.  God’s Truth calls us to more than just awe and wonder.  As Easter people—as people who have received life eternal—we receive this Truth by our repentance.  This Truth calls us to turn around, to repent, to change our citizenship in this world, and to become a faithful part of God’s Kingdom.  The power of God calls us to be different.
      Our Scripture lesson today begins with, “When Peter saw it, he addressed the people, ‘You Israelites, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us.’”  Obviously, there is something bigger than just his sermon going on here.  That “something” he refers to is a miracle.  Shortly after Pentecost, when they received the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, Peter and John find themselves (as I’m sure they often did) on their way to the temple to pray.  At one of the gates leading into the temple, they met a man who had been unable to walk since birth.  Since he couldn’t work, he sat outside the temple every day where the people of God could provide him with charity. 
      This is where the story gets interesting.  Peter and John show up and tell the man, “We have no money, but in the name of Jesus get up and walk.”  Of course, the man born unable to walk then gets up and walks.  Not only does he walk, he leaps.  He starts jumping around for joy, following them into the temple praising God for what’s been done for him. 
      I imagine, when you hear that part of the story, it sounds a bit familiar to you.  I don’t think we’ve ever seen anything that spectacular happen at an entryway to our church, but we’ve heard stories like this before.  Jesus did this kind of thing all the time, right?  That’s why great throngs of people followed him around; but it’s old news to us.  It’s funny: we may not be so used to the miraculous, but stories about the miraculous are nothing new.  We forget that, if we were there—if we were witness to something incredible like this—it would be a big deal!  If suddenly, that poor guy we gave money to outside the church, came dancing and shouting into it, we would want to know more; we would go check it out.  And check it out, they do.  The people Peter addresses—the people who are wondering and staring—have seen something amazing and they come flocking to find out more about it. 
      In her book The Temple Bombing, Melissa Fay Greene describes the events surrounding the 1958 hate-crime bombing of the oldest synagogue in Atlanta. The very next Friday evening, at the first Sabbath service after—the synagogue’s windows still shattered and boarded up and its doors hanging off their hinges—worship was filled to overflowing; almost as if it were the high holy days. Their rabbi’s name was Jacob Rothschild—a powerful preacher and civic leader—stood up for the sermon. He stood silently for a moment, looking out at the full congregation with a penetrating gaze.  Finally he said, "So, this is what it takes to get you to temple!"
      People get interested in church for a lot of reasons.  Sometimes it’s a high holy day.  Sometimes it’s fear and grief.  Sometimes it’s because God is doing something powerful and people want to check it out.  People don’t flock to church very often these days, but they certainly should.  Miracles happen here; maybe not the ex-beggars leaping for joy kind of miracles, but there is healing here.  Do you know how miraculous it is to be in a church that welcomes strangers?  There is no well-organized program like some churches take on, we’ll just say hi to you and try to convince you to stick around for coffee.  We are that rare church of wandering pilgrims, on the lookout for other wandering pilgrims.  If this town could get a glimpse of that miracle, this place would be standing room only. 
      God leads John and Peter into a miracle, and like a miracle should, it draws a crowd.  And just like any time that God does something outstanding through us, Peter takes a minute to explain where it comes from to the wondering crowd.  He explains that this is simply a God-thing.  That this miracle was done in the name and by the power of Jesus.  “Oh, and by the way, that is the same Jesus you all crucified not long ago.” 
      You have to remember that Peter hasn’t been a preacher very long.  What he has to say is True and God-breathed, but I think he needs to work on his delivery a little bit.  Telling your gathered congregation that they “rejected the Holy and Righteous One” and they “killed the Author of Life” may not always have the desired effect (and we’ll find out more about that next week.)  For today, what he has to say is important to us all: the same Jesus that caused this miracle to happen was raised to forgive our sins.  Yes, in a manner of speaking, we put Jesus to death; and yes, fortunately that’s not the end of the story.  But it is worth remembering sometimes: if Jesus died to save us from our sins and that is good news, we can’t exactly pretend we never had any. 
      But Peter then goes on to proclaim something amazing.  He doesn’t say our sin was okay.  He doesn’t make light of the damage we have done to our relationships with God and one another, but he does point out that we didn’t know better.  He says, “And now, friends, I know that you acted in ignorance.”  We were just dumb.  It doesn’t make sin okay, we still need to be forgiven, but Peter knows that we acte out of ignorance. 
      How does Peter know we acted out of ignorance?  Because Peter acted out of ignorance!  This is beautiful, because we know Peter’s story.  We know how he was always the boisterous, impulsive disciple.  Even better, we know about that time he swore he would follow Jesus into battle and then pretended he didn’t even know him when things got rough. 
      I’m glad people don’t know my story that well.  I’m glad, but then again: it shows us where Peter’s compassion comes from.  Peter can point out our sin, while at the same time understanding our ignorance, because he was once ignorant too.  I was out to dinner with my family not long ago and there was a child a couple of tables over, just screaming; not constantly, but noticeably.  There was a time that would have bothered me.  That time of course, was before I had children of my own.  I’ve been to a restaurant with a colicky infant.  I’ve felt the glare of people who are just trying to have a nice evening out.  I know it’s annoying, but I now also understand what the parents are going through too.  There is a level of compassion that we find when we remember that we’ve been there; a compassion that can, perhaps, help others move past it too. 
       In the light of Easter morning—under the profound witness of the Empty Tomb—we are called to remember where we’ve come from.  We are called to remember that we too were ignorant once, lost in our own sin.  We are called to proclaim our salvation—in deed and word—to those who need to hear it, not with judgment, but with compassion and understanding; because we’ve been there too.  When those around us see this marvelous thing at work in us, may they also hear God’s call to turn back to that same grace and mercy.  By the power of God, may we who were once ignorant, bring the truth and life of our Risen Savior to this darkened world.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Better Daze

Second Sunday of Easter

     Easter makes me a little crazy; I’m hoping you didn’t notice.  It is a thing that comes upon me in the days and hours leading up to Easter, and it happens every year.  I don’t really notice my mental state until Easter is over, but like I said, it’s the same thing every year.  Once Easter worship is done, I realize that such a weight has been lifted, that it finally makes me realize that there was a weight there in the first place.  I’m hard to get ahold of on the Monday after because I know I won’t be good for anything anyway. 
     It’s not just me; a lot of pastors go through the same thing.  I’m actually kind of proud of myself for how quickly I can recover from it: I know some pastors who have to leave town for a couple of weeks because they need more time to recover.  And you can understand why Easter might mess with pastors, right?  Because Easter is important.  The proclamation of our Risen Savior is a big deal and it’s not just pastors who feel the weight of it.  Sure, it’s the same proclamation we make every other day of the year, but on Easter Sunday more people come to church to hear it.  It puts a lot of pressure on a person.  It makes a pastor a little preoccupied about making everything go smoothly; I get a little obsessive about the sermon; about saying the right thing; about not saying the wrong thing.  I go a little crazy, and I need a little rest by the time it’s all over. 
     Of course, it isn’t until the clear-headedness of post-Easter that I realize how silly all of that actually is.  The pressure I put on myself is just that: something I’ve made up for myself.  The people who come to church every week are not going to hear anything they didn’t already know on Easter Sunday.  The people who only come to church on Easter, are not going to be convinced to come back the next week because they’ve heard a well-crafted sermon.  All of that pressure is just in my head. 
     And besides—and here’s the big reason why I don’t go on vacation right after Easter: for the follower of Jesus, Easter is not even our most important day.  I know that sounds shocking when you say it out loud, but hear me out: Easter is not our most important day, every day after Easter is our most important day.  Every day we are faced with the surprising reality that Jesus the Messiah has been raised up from the grave is our most important day.  Every new day we get to learn the implications of that truth is our most important day.  Every day that we can proclaim the truth of our Risen Savior is our most important day. 
     I was reminded this week that I need to not let Easter get to me like it does; I need to not remember that the Easter Sermon shouldn’t make me as crazy as it does.  I need to remember that, by definition, this sermon is vastly more important. 
     As we think about who we are as Easter people—as people who live in the reality of the Risen Jesus—we’re going to consider how the early church got their heads around this truth.  For the next few weeks, we’ll be looking at the Book of Acts (especially the early chapters) to see how they processed through this profoundly different way of looking at life. 
     The revelation that Jesus has conquered death for us is life changing; in that it ought to change your life.  In light of the Empty Tomb, we ought to be different and our lives ought to look differently than those who don’t know this truth.  Unfortunately, the followers of Jesus don’t always seem very different, do they?  One of the major criticisms people level at the church is that we are hypocrites; a criticism that, of course, is absolutely true.  Obviously, we’re not only hypocrites, but our actions don’t always match what we say.  Our behaviors don’t always proclaim what it is we say we believe.  If nothing else, our lives don’t always reflect the profound truth that Jesus has conquered death for us.  We are hypocrites because we are not often even measurably different than the world around us.  Why would a person feel the need to go to church, when the people in it are (at best) exactly like the people outside of it? 
     Now at this point, having already read this brief Scripture lesson, you may be getting nervous; and perhaps you should be.  My logic so far is pretty easy to track: we’re looking at the early church to see how they responded to the good news of the Risen Jesus.  I then pointed out the obvious: that the followers of Jesus don’t always seem substantially different than those who don’t follow him.  And here we have a Scripture lesson where they seemed astonishingly different than most people.  You can see where we’re going with this, right?  So today we’re going to pool all of our resources.  We’re going to open a new bank account, we’re going to put all our money in it, and everybody gets to be a signer for the checkbook. 
     Obviously, we’re not doing that.  What this morning’s Scripture lesson leaves out of the story is that it didn’t work.  Between the rest of what Luke tells us in Acts and from what other early church writers have said about things like this, this idea failed almost immediately; and for all the reasons you would expect.  Those with a lot of money didn’t like giving it away.  There were divisions over who got to be in charge of it.  And eventually people started taking advantage of each other.  We’re not going to form a commune, so you can relax.  That is not the point I’m making today.  In fact, I’m not sure that’s the point Luke is making in telling us this story. 
     Sing along if you know it: “Boy, the way Glenn Miller played.  Songs that made the Hit Parade.  Guys like us, we had it made.  Those were the days!” I was just a kid when All in the Family was on, but I remember the power of it.  It made deeply serious social issues funny to talk about.  People could laugh along as Archie and Edith struggled to cope with the turbulent ‘60s and ‘70s.  Their pining for bygone days—days when things were clearer, simpler, and easier to understand—reflected a feeling that a lot of people had; and maybe a lot of people still do.  As the opening song reflected, when the world gets troubling and confusing, it’s nice to look back to better days. 
     But nostalgia can be tricky.  Looking at the church that’s described in our reading today as the “good-old-days” can be every bit as misleading as wistfully looking back at the way our church used to be: “Remember when the church was full on Sunday mornings; when Sunday school was crammed with adults and kids; remember when everyone you knew just went to church?”  Of course, we also selectively forget the imperfections and strife; we forget that the cultural issues that our world is dealing with today we also there too, just hiding; we forget that our past is never as rosy as we remember it. 
     At first, our Scripture reading today sounds like nothing more than a "Those were the days" kind of nostalgia.  Luke tells us, "The whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions…. There was not a needy person among them."  Not only does this not sound like our church, that doesn’t sound like anybody’s church.  And I’m not just talking about commune part of it.  That’s the part we get distracted by: the part where we get nervous that our pastor is about to suggest socialism.  No, the really striking part is the, “of one heart and soul” part.  That seems too rosy a picture.  That makes me start to question Luke’s memory.  “One heart and soul,” really Luke?  Even knowing that their unity was short-lived, it’s still hard to believe.  What outlandish thing is he going to tell us next; maybe that Jesus rose from the dead?  Oh, wait.  What if this story is more than just rosy nostalgia?  What if this remarkable unity actually described the church, if only for a while?  Well then, we’d have to take it seriously, wouldn’t we?  We might just have to rethink what the resurrection of Jesus really means to us. 
     Not only does Luke describe their outlandish behavior, Luke tells us what led them to it.  In verse 33, Luke makes it clear that it is because of the resurrection of Jesus: "With great power,” Luke says, “the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all."  The resurrection is the ultimate display of God’s power.  A power that is greater than all other powers: powers like sin, and death, and even eternity are transformed by the power of the resurrection.  And apparently, it even has the power to transform us.
     This brief story from Acts—an interlude, really—calls us to ask a rather weighty question of ourselves: does the resurrection of Jesus still have that power?  Can it still transform us?  I believe it can.  That’s why I’m back here on the Sunday after Easter.  I suspect it’s why you’re here too.  Our challenge, as we look for that transforming power, is not to look back.  Our challenge is not to reminisce about the better days as we remember them, but to look for the days God has in store for us.  Our challenge is to remain obedient to our Risen Savior (probably not in starting a commune), but in whatever surprising ways he calls us to go.  And as Easter people, sent to tell that story to the world, may that power be evident in us; may the world around us see our Savior’s transforming resurrection power at work in us.  

Thursday, April 5, 2018

No Foolin'!

Easter Sunday

      Here’s something you may not know: most pastors don’t experience a deep sense of worship very often.  That’s the irony of being a pastor: although we go to church every week, although we always try to create a meaningful worship experience for others, but when it comes to the pastor, this is not the place that we’re going to get fed.  The wise pastor will seek out other ways to get fed, because it is not likely to happen in this setting. 
      I bring it up because there is the occasional exception.  Every once in a while, we find ourselves surprised by the Spirit, as we are brought into a deeper spiritual place.  This happened to me the other day during our Holy Week service. 
      If you’ve not been, our Holy Week service covers a lot of ground: we try to reenact the major events and messages of the days and hours leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion.  We start with a meal because—as Scripture teaches—Jesus shared a meal with his disciples before his arrest.  We include the Lord’s Supper after that meal because—as Scripture teaches and as we remember here—it was after that meal Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper.  Often, we will also read the story about Jesus washing his disciples feet because—as Scripture teaches—it was in that same setting that Jesus showed his followers how they ought to love one another.  And then, to finish our Holy Week service, we slowly read through chapters eighteen and nineteen of the Gospel of John (right up to, by the way, where this morning’s Scripture lesson begins).  And it is in that part of the service that my spirit was transported. 
      Now, I don’t do all of those readings.  I often take one, but there are six other people taking turns with the rest of it; giving me a chance to actually listen to the story.  As I listened to that story of Jesus being betrayed, arrested, tried, and crucified, I found myself surprisingly engrossed by it; I wasn’t distracted by what I had to say next or worrying if my mic was working; so I could just listen to what God’s Word was saying. 
      And in that moment, I was struck by how terribly tragic the story was.  Not so much for Jesus; I didn’t forget that his story was leading to the Resurrection; I’ve read this morning’s Scripture lesson before.  No, I realized how tragic it also was for everyone else involved.  It was as if I was watching some tragic play, like from Shakespeare or something, where the characters make unfortunate decision after unfortunate decision and can’t seem to see the consequences. 
      We see it, of course.  As the audience, we have to fight the urge to yell at the stage, “Don’t do it!” but of course, the characters can’t hear us.  They just keep making mistake after mistake. 
      At one point, as I was listening to this tragedy unfold, Pilate strangely seems to be trying to do the right thing: he seems to be trying to get Jesus released.  But the religious leaders respond by saying, “We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has claimed to be the Son of God.”  [19:7]
      “We have a law,” they say, and my heart just sank for them.  I realized in that moment that they cared more about the law than they did about the possibility that this might actually be the Son of God; that this might actually be the Savior of the world; but no, they have a law. 
      I heard from God in that moment, in the way that you are supposed to hear a tragedy: as a cautionary tale; don’t make those mistakes; don’t let your version of obedient legalism cut you off from what the Savior of the World is up to.  Whether you are watching Hamlet act so crazy that he actually drives his girlfriend crazy; or it is Peter, so fearful that he denies the Master he just swore to stand by no matter what, the lesson is always the same.  Don’t be like them; don’t make their mistakes.  As the audience, we hear the lesson, but tragically the story still continues to its sad end.  Hamlet’s mistakes kill him too.  Peter is left with the empty regret of a rooster’s crowing.  Jesus dies and the curtain falls. 
      If the eighteenth and nineteenth chapters of the Gospel of John are written in the genre of “tragedy,” chapter twenty takes an unexpected turn.  If you see what comes immediately before as tragedy, then what we read today can only be described as “comedy.” 
      A Sunday school teacher was asking her six-year-olds about the meaning of Easter. “Children,” she said, “Does anyone know why we celebrate Easter?”
      Jenny raised her hand.  “Yes Jenny,” said the teacher.”
      “Is Easter when we put on costumes and go trick-or-treating?”
      “Um no, Jenny. That’s Halloween. Anyone else?”
      Jimmy took a stab at it: “Is that when we set off fireworks?”
      “No Jimmy, that’s Independence Day. Anybody else?”
      A shy little girl in the back said, “Easter is when Jesus died.”
      The teacher gave up a relieved sigh.  “Yes, that’s right!  Then what happened?” she prodded. 
      “Well, he got buried, and every Easter, we remember that, when he comes out, if he sees his shadow there’s 6 more weeks of winter.”
      There’s a danger in letting Easter fall on April Fool’s Day.  For people like me, who can too easily make everything into a joke (just ask my wife), it’s tempting to see the Resurrection as merely some cosmic prank; like Jesus is jumping out from the rolled-away stone yelling, “Gotcha!”  But Jesus is not fooling around.  His victory over death, although joyous, is no laughing matter; what his followers on that morning must have felt was not at all funny. 
      Which is not to say that the telling of this story isn’t comical.  The Gospel of John is telling a different kind of story here; so much so, that his story-telling method has to abruptly change.  At the end of chapter nineteen, the curtain falls on a tragedy.  But then it rises back up in chapter twenty to a comedy!  In a classic sense, this story is suddenly told in classic comedic form: there is confusion and misunderstanding, there is even running on and off stage, there are even jokes that only the audience seem to get. 
      “Three disciples come to mourn over an empty tomb.”  What an oddly unsatisfying joke that is.  It gets worse because it feels like an eternity before they get to the punchline.  As jokes go, it’s very unsatisfying.  It’s a little like planning a children’s sermon for Easter morning: I’ve read a hundred of them and none of them are satisfying.  How do you talk to children about an empty tomb in a satisfying way?  What object lesson is there where not finding something is the fun part?  I’ve tried it.  It goes like this: you show the kids a plastic Easter egg, open it up, and it’s empty like the tomb; or worse, it contains a piece of paper with the words “Alleluia” or “He has risen” on it. 
      You should see their poor little faces.  They know what is supposed to be in those eggs: they are supposed to get candy!  Sure, an empty tomb is better than candy, but you tell that to a five-year old. 
      Besides, the empty tomb is not enough.  These disciples don’t need anyone, in this moment, making light of their loss; they don’t need joking angels or a vacant tomb; what they need is a living Jesus.  Let’s face it, that’s what we all need; that’s what the world needs, today and every day.  We need to know, more than anything, that there is proof that Jesus has been raised from the dead; that he has conquered death for us as well. 
      I can tell you it’s true, but that’s my job; you can’t just blindly trust anyone to tell you something they get paid to tell you.  Better yet, we prove it; and by “we,” I mean “you.”  What I do is to remind us of what Jesus taught at this Table: that in the giving of his body, we become his body to this world.  What this world needs is not the absence of Jesus; a Jesus who has gone back to some lofty, far away place, does them no good.  What they need is his presence; a presence we bring with us everywhere we go. 
      By the end of this story, the only disciple to have actually seen Jesus is Mary Magdalene.  She is the first follower ever to proclaim the Truth of Jesus.  Notice how she does it, because this part is important.  Notice what she doesn’t say: she doesn’t explain it; her proclamation isn’t even “Jesus is risen!”  No, it is vastly more personal than that.  She says (as our anthem so beautifully also puts it), “I have seen the Risen Lord.” 
            Today we once more celebrate the glorious news that Jesus has conquered death for us.  Today we imagine the grief and confusion that those first followers must have felt.  Like them, the world today needs more than just an empty tomb; our world needs to see Jesus.  This is no laughing matter.  May his Spirit abide with us as we strive to meet that need.  As we go into this world, may we boldly proclaim through our actions and even our words, that we have indeed seen the Risen Jesus.  And may this world see him too in us.