Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Lord (Not Wal-Mart) Is My Shepherd!

I'm not anti-Capitalism, but am becoming more anti-Consumerism. Here's the sermon, comments not only welcome, but fervently desired.

Revelation 7:9-17

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, "Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!" And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, singing, "Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen."

Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, "Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?" I said to him, "Sir, you are the one that knows." Then he said to me, "These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.

They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes."

John 10:22-30

At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, "How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly." Jesus answered, "I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father's name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father's hand. The Father and I are one."

Psalm 23:1-6

The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.

This is the Word of the Lord.

It happens every time you turn on the television, or listen to the radio, or open a newspaper or magazine, or check your email, or look at something on the internet, drive or walk down the street, or get placed on hold while calling a company. It’s called “advertising.” It may be as complex as a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign, or as simple as a familiar logo on the side of a building. From almost the moment we wake up every morning, to the time we fall asleep at night, we are being sold.

The basis for successful advertising is simply to make you believe that you need a given product or service. When you believe that you need it, you are unsatisfied until that need is fulfilled by purchasing that product or service. That’s why the same old things are suddenly “new and improved,” why this model year car has a nicer sound system than last year’s model, why the “next generation” cell phone has more things you can do on it (besides make phone calls) than the last-generation cell phone.

According to marketing analysts, Americans see some 5,000 advertisements every day. As those numbers have risen, the need for marketing which rises above the noise and catches your attention has grown as well. In an article titled “Jesus is a Pair of Jeans,” Jean Kilbourne writes that, while advertisers have long promised us a better relationship via a product: buy this and you will be loved, they’ve more recently gone beyond that to promise us a relationship with the product itself: buy this and it will love you. The product is not so much the means to an end, as the end itself.

She says, “We are surrounded by hundreds, thousands of messages every day that link our deepest emotions to products, that objectify people and trivialize our most heartfelt moments and relationships. Every emotion is used to sell us something. Our wish to protect our children is leveraged to make us buy an expensive car. A long marriage simply provides the occasion for a diamond necklace. A painful reunion between a father and his estranged daughter is dramatized to sell us a phone system. Everything in the world – nature, animals, people – is just so much stuff to be consumed or to be used to sell us something.”

Kilbourne continues, “The problem with advertising isn’t that it creates artificial needs, but that it exploits our very real and human desires. Advertising promotes a bankrupt concept of relationship. Most of us yearn for committed relationships that will last. We are not stupid: we know that buying a certain brand of cereal won’t bring us one inch closer to that goal.
But we are surrounded by advertising that yokes our needs with products and promises us that things will deliver what in fact they never can. In the world of advertising, lovers are things and things are lovers.”

The Twenty-Third Psalm is a wonderful source of comfort. Its familiar words accompany most funerals, and remind us of God’s love, providence, and protection. And when viewed in the context of our noisy, consumer-driven world, they serve as a radical call to return our hearts to the One who can, and does, truly fill our needs!

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”

To be sure, this first verse isn’t at all about never desiring stuff, but about having our needs – our real needs – met. In this verse, and in the one and a half that follow, our physical needs – food, water, peace and joy and restoration abound. When we walk with God, we walk in right paths. Even when our way leads through danger, uncertainty, loss and hardship, God is with us, taking us through. Even when we are surrounded by enemies – outside as well as inside ourselves – God is with us. When God is our Shepherd, we lack nothing.

Instead of being enslaved by what Alan Greenspan called “infectious greed,” where we have to have the next, the newest, the fastest, the shiniest, the best – In the twenty-Third Psalm, God reminds us that life is not a series of new-and-improved possessions, but a gift.

As I was writing this sermon, I was keeping an eye on the weather: in Mississippi, ten people died as a result of a tornado. Here in Alabama, there were reports of injuries near Huntsville and property damage in Parrish and Cullman County. It was, for me, a stark reminder that, even as I am learning to look in a new way at the Twenty-Third Psalm, to merely say that “our life is a gift, we have everything we need thanks to God,” and close in prayer, is to ignore the questions that must be asked when we see pain and loss from natural disasters – whether they be tornados, or storms like Hurricane Katrina, or earthquakes like the ones who have so recently hit Haiti, Chile, and China, or famines which sweep across Africa with deadly regularity.

What do we who have enough, and more than enough, say to those who are hurting? How are we to respond?

As Clinton McCann of Eden Seminary in St. Louis observes, when we view life as a gift and not as something we earn or deserve, the appropriate response is infectious gratitude – a gratitude that sets us free to share, quite literally, for God's sake – to share our food, our drink, and our sources of security with those who are hurting, those who are dying, those who are forgotten, those who are lost – whether they be across the ocean or right next door. We are set free to share even with the enemies who are with us at the table God prepares!

The objects we own, and the objects we want, are not the source and focus of relationships: people are. Relationships are hard, messy, sometimes painful, usually costly in some way… and they are vital, both to our health as human beings, and to our spiritual health as children of God, as sheep of the Shepherd.

The writer of Revelation declares, “…the Lamb… will be their shepherd.” Jesus declares in our Gospel reading, “My sheep hear my voice.” The challenge for we who are God’s sheep is ongoing – to tune out the noise and the sales pitches, step away from the TV, turn down the radio, close the Web browser, and listen for the Shepherd’s voice.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Fish for Breakfast...

This coming week brings two unhappy anniversaries: the bombing of the Murrow Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, and the Columbine (Colorado) High School massacre on April 20, 1999.

That doesn't have anything to do with the following... or does it? Could a properly recognized life's purpose offer alternatives to the Kleibolds and McVeys of the world?

Acts 9:1-20

Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" He asked, "Who are you, Lord?" The reply came, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do." The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, "Ananias." He answered, "Here I am, Lord." The Lord said to him, "Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight."
But Ananias answered, "Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name." But the Lord said to him, "Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name." So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, "Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit." And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.
For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, "He is the Son of God."

Revelation 5:11-14

Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, singing with full voice, "Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!"
Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing, "To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!" And the four living creatures said, "Amen!" And the elders fell down and worshiped.

John 21:1-19

After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, "I am going fishing." They said to him, "We will go with you." They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.
Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, "Children, you have no fish, have you?" They answered him, "No." He said to them, "Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some." So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, "It is the Lord!" When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea.
But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.
When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, "Bring some of the fish that you have just caught." So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, "Come and have breakfast." Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, "Who are you?" because they knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?" He said to him, "Yes, Lord; you know that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Feed my lambs." A second time he said to him, "Simon son of John, do you love me?" He said to him, "Yes, Lord; you know that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Tend my sheep." He said to him the third time, "Simon son of John, do you love me?" Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, "Do you love me?" And he said to him, "Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Feed my sheep. Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished.
But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go." (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, "Follow me."

This is the Word of the Lord.

Fred Snodgrass was the center fielder for the New York Giants from 1908 through 1915. He played in three consecutive World Series, and after retiring from baseball in 1916, went on to become a beloved husband and father, successful banker, as well as a popular city councilman and mayor in Oxnard, California. He died in 1974, and he’s buried in Ventura, California, where he was born. I tell you all of that to tell you this: throughout Fred’s life, and even in his obituary in the New York Times, Snodgrass was remembered for one thing, and one thing only: failure.

In the 1912 World Series, Fred’s Giants were playing the Boston Red Sox. They were in the eighth and final game of the series, and had gone into extra innings. Clyde Engle, pinch-hitting for Smoky Joe Wood, led off with an easy fly ball to Fred Snodgrass in center field. Snodgrass dropped the ball, and Engle reached second base.
Although Snodgrass made a beautiful fly-ball catch for an out on the very next batter, he was forever marked. He had made what sportscasters at the time called, “The $30,000 Muff,” a reference to the difference in the winner’s share and the loser’s share in the Series.

I think Fred Snodgrass and the Apostle Peter have something in common, don’t you? Throughout the Gospels, we read about Simon Peter again and again – as one of Jesus’ inner circle of friends, present on the Mount of Transfiguration, boldly stepping out of the boat to meet Jesus walking on water, responding to Jesus asking “who do you say that I am” by confirming that He is the Christ, the son of the living God… yet when we think of him, and all too often when he is preached about, we remember not his faith in stepping out of the boat, but the fact that he sank. We remember not his bold affirmation of Jesus as the Messiah, but his denying Christ three times the night Jesus was betrayed.

Our Gospel reading today tells us, “Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, ‘I am going fishing.’ They said to him, ‘We will go with you.’

It seems such an odd thing to do, doesn’t it, especially for someone like Peter, who doesn’t think of fishing as a leisure activity, but as a way to make a living. “Well, Jesus is risen. We’ve all seen him, even Thomas is satisfied with the evidence… OK, well, I’m going to work, y’all!” What’s even weirder is that they all said, “Great idea! We’ll join you!”

It is probably instructive to them that they spent all night doing the thing they were supposedly professionals at… and it took Jesus showing up for them to catch a thing! But at least they got breakfast out of it. And Peter got a lot more than just charcoal-broiled fish, as it turns out.

I wonder how heavily his failure, denying he even knew Jesus, weighed on Peter, even after having seen Jesus, risen from the dead. When I’ve preached about this passage in the past, I’ve focused on a lot of different things, like how Jesus uses a different Greek word for “love” than Peter does, even the significance of the number of fish that they caught, but I confess that it always kind of confused me that Jesus would ask the same question, and give a variation of the same answer, three times.

Hear the Word of the Lord from the 18th chapter of John’s Gospel:

Simon Peter and another disciple were following Jesus. Because this disciple was known to the high priest, he went with Jesus into the high priest's courtyard, but Peter had to wait outside at the door. The other disciple, who was known to the high priest, came back, spoke to the girl on duty there and brought Peter in.
You are not one of his disciples, are you?" the girl at the door asked Peter.
He replied, "I am not."
It was cold, and the servants and officials stood around a fire they had made to keep warm. Peter also was standing with them, warming himself.
… he was asked, "You are not one of his disciples, are you?"
He denied it, saying, "I am not."
One of the high priest's servants, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, challenged him, "Didn't I see you with him in the olive grove?" Again Peter denied it, and at that moment a rooster began to crow.

David Lose of Luther Seminary says that the three questions relate to the three denials. Jesus is offering Peter forgiveness, absolution, if you will, for the three denials. More than that, with each word of forgiveness, Jesus gives Peter a commission, a purpose, a way to grow and go beyond mere forgiveness.

“Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep.”
These aren’t just empty responses to Peter’s answer, and they are certainly not warm, fuzzy “caring for the cute little animals” phrases. Peter will go on from this point to be arguably second to the Apostle Paul in his influence in establishing and expanding the church. He will remain transparently human, still making mistakes and needing correction, but ever faithful, even to the point of dying for his faith.

Jesus didn’t just forgive Peter.

There’s been a lot of research lately on what, exactly, makes people “happy.” Once you get past the “enough money to pay the bills” stuff, two things appear to be absolutely essential to feel happy: a sense of belonging to a community and the belief that what you do matters. The key predictors of fulfillment and productivity are, simply stated, belonging and purpose.

That’s really what Jesus is giving Peter here, isn’t it? He is brought back into community and he is given meaningful work to do. Forgiveness always leads to mission, restoration to purpose, and inclusion to calling.

Now, it’s kind of unfair to talk about forgiveness, restoration, inclusion, mission, purpose, and calling against the backdrop of Saul’s dramatic conversion and Peter’s morning walk on the beach with the risen Christ. Very few of us have experiences to equal the drama and intimacy of these accounts.

Yet while few, if any of us, can point to a true Damascus Road experience, or boast about Jesus cooking us breakfast, each of us enjoys the forgiveness of the risen Christ, and a purpose, a mission, a calling exactly like Peter’s. “Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep.”

How feeding lambs and tending sheep looks in your particular corner of the Body of Christ will very likely be different than it looks for anyone else. According to tradition, the Apostles spread all over the known world, bringing the Good news to different people in different places. Even for Peter and Paul, who were martyred close to the same point in time in the same city, Rome, their paths crossed and diverged many times, touching different people, speaking to different issues and groups and belief systems in different ways, yet with always the same core message – the Good News of God’s love, grace, forgiveness, and reconciliation.

The same is true for each of us. However our paths may diverge from this place and time, whoever we touch, however we minister, we share that same great Good News of God’s love through Jesus Christ!

Sunday, April 11, 2010

"Doubting" Thomas...

If I had another service to preach this week, I'd do it on this astounding statement, "If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained." After all, instead of permission to hold a "holy grudge" against people, it's in effect a reminder that forgiveness is not just a gift to ourselves, but a duty to carry out. Seventy time seven, and all that sort of thing.

But poor old Thomas, and his unfair representation as the eternal doubter, is the subject for this attempt at a sermon. I hope you'll comment, constructively criticize, etc.

Acts 5:27-32
When they had brought them, they had them stand before the council. The high priest questioned them, saying, "We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man's blood on us." But Peter and the apostles answered, "We must obey God rather than any human authority. The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him."

Revelation 1:4-8
John to the seven churches that are in Asia:
Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.
To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.
Look! He is coming with the clouds;
every eye will see him,
even those who pierced him;
and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail.
So it is to be. Amen.
"I am the Alpha and the Omega," says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.

John 20:19-31
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you." When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained."
But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord." But he said to them, "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe."
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe." Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!" Jesus said to him, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

This is the Word of the Lord.

If you held a contest to decide who the Biblical figure most maligned by tradition is, it would likely be a close race between Mary Magdalene and Thomas.
Mary Magdalene has had a hard time because tradition has labeled her a reformed prostitute, a claim which Scripture never makes. On the strength of our Gospel reading today, Thomas has been, for millennia, unfairly labeled “The Doubter.”

What’s more, we don’t really even know Thomas’ name! We’re told that Thomas was called “The Twin,” which in the Greek is “Didymus;” what we often miss is that the Aramaic word for “twin” is, in fact, “Thomas.” Some scholars have supposed that Thomas’ real name was “Judas,” which is possible, since “Judas” was a very common name in that era. They surmise that the Biblical writers wouldn’t have wanted to cause confusion with Judas Iscariot, so they called him by his nickname.

In any case, when you look at what little we know about Thomas, doubt was never his problem, and fear doesn’t seem to have been a big factor, either.

Here’s what I mean: We only hear from Thomas three times in the Gospels, and they’re all in John. When, in the 11th chapter, Jesus sets off toward Bethany, it is apparent to everyone that it’s far too close to Jerusalem and those who want Jesus killed. Everyone listening to Jesus knows that for him to go to Lazarus is to sign his own death warrant. Thomas is the one who stands up, dusts himself off, and says, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” There is no doubt in those words, but resolution, even courage. The worst is yet to come, yes, but we’ve come this far with Him, let’s finish the journey.

In Chapter 14, at the Last Supper, at one point Jesus says to his disciples, “I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.” It is left to Thomas to ask Jesus the one question which had to be pounding in the disciples’ heads: “Lord, we don't know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” Thomas is not rebuked for “doubting,” but is rewarded with one of the clearest Scriptural statements about who Jesus is and why He came to live and die among humankind: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

And now we come to the day of the Resurrection. The disciples are still locked up tight in the Upper Room, still afraid that at any moment the Romans or the temple guards were going to come looking for them to nail them up just like they’d done to their leader. Well, ten of them were, anyway. Where was Thomas?

Could it be that Thomas wasn’t letting fear control him? Maybe not, maybe he’d simply not gotten the memo about the meeting, or perhaps he’d drawn the short straw and had gone out to get food, but I like to think of Thomas getting sick of hiding behind locked doors and leaving. Just walking out in the open for all to see, visiting with family, hanging out in the marketplace, whatever.

Maybe he just needed some space to think, to come to grips with the loss of his beloved Rabbi, maybe to figure out how on earth to atone for having let Jesus down when He had needed Thomas the most.

We have to remember, we Resurrection people, that the only person who had actually seen Jesus at this point was Mary Magdalene, and there’s nothing to suggest that anyone had believed her when she told the disciples what she’d seen that morning. Perhaps they dismissed it as the lunatic ravings of a distraught woman, perhaps they didn’t know what to make of it, but it’s apparent that no one besides her, and possibly the Apostle John, thought anything about the empty tomb beyond the idea that someone, for some nefarious reason, had stolen Jesus’ body. So they were all still dealing with the fear, still processing the grief, still coming to grips with this harsh, cold, hateful new reality.

The next moment, Jesus was there.

I have no idea how the disciples reacted. I’ve tried to imagine what it would be like to have someone that I was absolutely certain was dead and gone suddenly appear in the room with me – physically, really present, not some apparition or impression or whatever it is that scares the Ghost Hunters so much every time the promos come on the TV. Shock, terror, horror, certainly fear. I cannot imagine joy or relief or an ounce of comprehension in their minds.

And the first word Jesus spoke to them was not what they expected, certainly! After all, they had betrayed him, abandoned him, forsaken him, and left him to die. Yet He said, “Peace.” They saw him, perhaps touched him, felt him breathe on them and say “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Not a word of condemnation or disappointment or reproof, only peace, purpose, and the promise that things would never, ever be the same.

Then he was gone.

Sometime later, either Thomas came back, or perhaps the disciples went and found him, and the stories they had for him… well, think about it: would you have believed them? “Dude, Jesus is alive! No, seriously, we saw him! No, really, right there in the upper room!”

He must have thought they had all, to a person, gone stark raving mad!

But when you look at what Thomas actually said to the disciples, what did he asking for?

All he demanded is that he experience the same thing the other ten had: the risen Lord. I have to tell you, that isn’t doubt!

However you and I define our faith, whatever shape or direction our different faith journeys have taken, the common denominator is that they are uniquely contoured and defined by our experiences with the risen Christ.

We may share a common language, may hold the same basic theological definitions of the central tenets of the faith, but in the same way that Thomas could not be satisfied that Jesus had risen simply on the breathless, excited, and perhaps incomprehensible babbling of ten wild-eyed friends, we cannot depend on one another’s faith and experience to take us where we are going!

Yet it could well have been the testimony of the ten that had Thomas in that same room a week later. Without them, Thomas may well have missed seeing Jesus altogether! However certain it is that our faith journey is and must be our own, we most certainly depend upon one another for fellowship and support in the journey.

And Thomas didn’t really need to put his fingers in the nail-holes after all, did he? All he needed to do was see for himself… and when you think about it, that is all any Resurrection person has ever needed – to, in our own way and in our own time, have seen the risen Christ.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Resurrection People!

It's fascinating, isn't it, that in none of the Gospels is a word written about that Saturday between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection...

That really has nothing to do with the following sermon, but it kind of does, too. We tend to forget, or have never realized, just how desolate that day would have been for Jesus' friends and closest followers. What do you do, where do you go, when all is lost? When there is nothing left?

And what does it mean when all of that is flung aside like grave-clothes which are no longer needed?

What does it mean, really mean, to be a Resurrection person?

Isaiah 65:17-25

For I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered
or come to mind.
But be glad and rejoice forever
in what I am creating;
for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy,
and its people as a delight.
I will rejoice in Jerusalem,
and delight in my people;
no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,
or the cry of distress.
No more shall there be in it
an infant that lives but a few days,
or an old person who does not live out a lifetime;
for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth,
and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.
They shall build houses and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
They shall not build and another inhabit;
they shall not plant and another eat;
for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.
They shall not labor in vain,
or bear children for calamity;
for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord —
and their descendants as well.
Before they call I will answer,
while they are yet speaking I will hear.
The wolf and the lamb shall feed together,
the lion shall eat straw like the ox;
but the serpent — its food shall be dust!
They shall not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain,
says the Lord.

1 Corinthians 15:19-26

If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.
But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

John 20:1-18

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, "They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him." Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus' head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping?" She said to them, "They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him." When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?" Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away." Jesus said to her, "Mary!" She turned and said to him in Hebrew, "Rabbouni!" (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, "Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, 'I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'" Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, "I have seen the Lord"; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

This is the Word of the Lord.

I had a wonderful conversation on Saturday with a youngster who has only recently come to believe in Jesus as her Savior. It shocked me, at first, that I was forewarned, but completely unprepared, for talking about her decision with her. I'm knocking on the door of fifty years old, and I'm used to carrying on theological discussions with people twenty-something through eighty-something, but speaking to an eight-year-old about what it means to be a Christian, and what it means to be baptized, was like speaking a different language.

The Book of Order says that those presenting themselves for baptism “profess their faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, renounce evil and affirm their reliance on God’s grace, declare their intention to participate actively and responsibly in the worship and mission of the church,” and so on. Since not very many eight-year-olds know what words like “profess” and “renounce” and “affirm” and “reliance” and “intention” mean, it forced me to simplify the message, to distill the meaning into something that she could digest. I had to take it all down close to the bone. Our talk only lasted ten or fifteen minutes, but it was one of the most meaningful conversations I have ever had.

What does it mean to be a Christian – to be a Resurrection person?

We Christians live not only in the shadow of the cross, but in the shadow of the empty tomb. We are all Resurrection people, we live in the Resurrection, and we've had two thousand years to contemplate, postulate, investigate, argue over, codify, verify, testify, solidify, sanctify, theologize, homogenize, and package for public consumption this idea of a risen Savior. We Resurrection people have developed our own language of multisyllabic words and a thesaurus full of ways to explain how and why and for whom Christ arose. And for far too many of us Resurrection people, this idea of Resurrection is just that – an idea, a concept, a point of doctrine that we must mentally and verbally assent to in order to be allowed to take part in church. And while it has been necessary to take the journey through understanding and verbalizing what it means to say “Christ arose,” and “Jesus is Lord,” to explain the whys and the hows, I wonder if we have in the process added more and more layers of separation between ourselves and this central, astounding act of God's grace.

What does it mean to be a Resurrection person?

It's Sunday. Of course, if you're Jewish, like Mary Magdalene and everyone in the room, it's been Sunday since sunset, and they've all been cooped up in this room since Friday just before sundown. The tables are still set up from the Passover Seder, the couches still in place... Mary tries to keep from looking at that one couch, at the head of the table, but her eyes keep going back to it. That empty couch, the one He had reclined in during the meal. No one sat there, of course. No one dared to. She could see them all look that way from time to time, then glance away quickly, ashamedly, knowing that the Master would never lay there again.

Some of them had been nearby when they laid him in the tomb. Mary and the other women had been very close, of course; it was the womenfolk's job to prepare the body for burial. The stone had been rolled in place, and a wax seal had been placed across it with the Roman governor's seal. Guards were there to prevent anyone from stealing the body – Mary scoffed, thinking about it: steal the body? Who? These men, this band of cowards, jumping every time a dog barked in the distance, certain the Temple guards were coming for them like they came for Jesus? Or perhaps the women of the group, who together couldn't muster the strength or leverage to roll the stone from the tomb's entry, much less lug a corpse any distance? Ridiculous.

And her eyes went back to that empty couch again. There had been hushed, urgent conversations at first, among the disciples. There had been tears and mournful embraces, but as the hours rolled on, everyone had grown more and more silent, more inside themselves, all contemplating, as best they could, what it meant. Jesus was dead. All the promises of God's Messiah lay mouldering in a rich man's donated tomb. There could be no kingdom if the king lay dead. No redemption for Israel if the redeemer was gone. All of that big talk and all of those wild dreams were gone. For a group of people whose whole reason for living was found in this itinerant Jewish miracle-working rabbi, the future was black, hopeless, pointless.

The sun wasn't up yet when Mary had finally had enough of the cramped, airless room, fetid with the smell of fear and failure. She slipped out, and walked without thinking toward the last place she'd seen Jesus. Jesus, who had done so much for her, whose feet she had washed with her tears, whose words she had clung to like a drowning person clings to a lifeline. Whose words would offer her hope now? Where would she ever again find hope for the future, the promise of eternal life? All of that was gone, dead, wrapped in burial linens and sealed in the to...

Where are the guards? Had Pilate come to his senses, realizing none of Jesus' followers had the guts or foresight to steal the... but the tomb, its entrance is open! With the sky becoming lighter, Mary can see the stone rolled away, the seal broken, why would anyone have done this?

She ran back to the house, and found Peter and John just outside the door, their faces creased from fear and grief. The horrible news poured out of her mouth in a confused gasp, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him!” and like an arrow shot from a bow, they were gone at a full run. She ran behind, slower, dreading what they'd find, but knowing what they'd find.

And now she was alone at the tomb, alone in her confusion and grief. Peter and John had left, because what could they do? Finally she bent down and looked in there, no reason, really, but she looked in, and there were... people there... sitting where Jesus had been... odd. They asked her why she was crying, and she told them, but they didn't say anything else. It was too much to process, really, so she turned back and saw the gardener. Suddenly embarrassed to be a woman alone in such a remote section of the city, she turned away, not daring to make eye contact. Even in grief, there were certain things that were simply not done.

Yet if he was the one who tended the gardens, who cared for the land around the tomb, perhaps he knew where Jesus had been taken! Who knows, after all, perhaps the rich man had second thoughts about giving his tomb to a man Pilate had condemned, and had ordered Jesus removed and taken to another sepulcher. “Sir,” she said, “if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Ridiculous, of course, there was no way she could carry a body that size anywhere, but...

Jesus said to her, “Mary!”

What does it mean to be a Resurrection person?

In that instant, Mary Magdalene became a Resurrection person. Not because she understood what had happened, not because it made sense, not because of a solid grounding in theological teaching or because she had studied the Westminster Shorter Catechism or said the Sinner's Prayer or gotten baptized or recited the Apostle's Creed, but because Jesus was alive! He had called her name!

What does it mean to be a Resurrection person?

You and I are Resurrection people, too. If we dare to peel it all away – set aside the particular doctrines we've professed, the churches we were attending when we came to believe, our age or how wet we got when we got baptized, all of the stuff we've heard and learned and taught and thought, if we allow our faith to get down close to the bone, what we find is this:

Just like Mary, we are Resurrection people, we live in the Resurrection not because we know or understand or profess anything, but because Jesus is alive. We are Resurrection people because Jesus has called our name!