Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Good Shepherd

Special thanks to Laura Viau, Derrick Weston, and Candi Vernon for sermon ideas (21st Chapter of John, specifically). Additional insight courtesy of Kathryn Matthews Huey, the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton, and Peter Bush.

Audio from the sermon:

Check this out on Chirbit

Here's the song I reference in the sermon:

Acts 4:5-12
The next day their rulers, elders, and scribes assembled in Jerusalem, with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family. When they had made the prisoners stand in their midst, they inquired, “By what power or by what name did you do this?” Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers of the people and elders, if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, 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.’
There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.”

1 John 3:16-24
We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us — and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?
Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.
And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.

John 10:11-18
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away — and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”

This is the Word of the Lord.

Such a wonderful passage. The imagery is beautiful, isn’t it? “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.” Over the centuries, paintings and in stained-glass windows the world over have characterized this idea of Jesus; he carries a shepherd’s crook or cradles a lamb – in fact, the earliest known artistic representations of Jesus did not include a cross; rather, they depicted a young man, a shepherd, carrying a lamb across his shoulders.

Though it is, and it should be, a comforting thought, Jesus as the Good Shepherd, we far too often over-sentimentalize this image of Christ.

Being a shepherd in first-century Judea wasn’t about cuddling lambs. According to theologian and scholar Joachim Jeremias, describing a shepherd’s life, writes, “The dryness of the ground made it necessary for the flocks of sheep and cattle to move about during the rainless summer and to stay for months at a time in isolated areas, far from the owner's home. Hence, herding sheep was an independent and responsible job; indeed, in view of the threat of wild beasts and robbers, it could even be dangerous. Sometimes the owner himself or his sons did the job. But usually it was done by hired shepherds, who only too often did not justify the confidence reposed in them.”

Now, while some of Israel’s great heroes were shepherds – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and David – and while the 23rd Psalm compared God’s care to that of a Good Shepherd, shepherds – and specifically, hired-hand shepherds – had a bad reputation. Joachim Jeremias draws on Rabbinic sources to say that “most of the time they were dishonest and thieving; they led their herds onto other people's land and pilfered the produce of the land.” Moreover, because they were often months at a time without supervision, they were often accused of stealing some of the increase of the flock. So of course pious Jews were warned not to buy wool, milk, or kids from shepherds on the assumption that it was stolen property. Shepherds were not allowed to fulfill a judicial office or be admitted in court as witnesses. A Jewish commentary on the 23rd Psalm reads, “There is no more disreputable occupation than that of a shepherd.” Philo, a Hellenistic Jewish philosopher of Alexandria, Egypt, who lived between 25 BC and 45 AD, said this about looking after sheep and goats: “Such pursuits are held mean and inglorious.”

In contrast to this general contempt for shepherds, Jesus consistently sees them in a postitive light. Not only does he identify himself, personally, as a shepherd, In Luke’s Gospel, the fifteenth chapter, he tells a parable of the shepherd leaving ninety-nine sheep in the fold while searching the hills to find the missing one.

And, of course, Jesus would have known shepherds personally, as people. He fellowshipped all the time with the outcasts of society, after all, the despised and the sinners, folks the Pharisees called “people of the dirt.”

He would have known that, in that day and age, these outcasts, these shepherds worked hard, living most of the year outside, away from towns and other people. Flocks were kept outside in this way from April to November, and, sometimes during the winter in suitable locations. Shepherds never, ever left their sheep, since the sheep were vulnerable to all kinds of trouble – wolves, robbers, or the danger of just wandering off somewhere. The concept of a shepherd risking – perhaps losing – his life to protect his sheep was not at all a foreign concept to Jesus’ first-century listeners.

I don’t have to spend any time at all explaining that, if Jesus is the Good Shepherd, then the sheep are, well, us. We who belong to Jesus, who know him and are known by him. It’s a unique kind of allegory, because the Good Shepherd is also the Lamb of God. He is a shepherd who knows exactly what it is like to be a lamb – just as, in Christ, God knows exactly what it is like to be us.

Now, admittedly, for those of us brought up on a steady diet of the virtues of individualism, it’s perhaps a little uncomfortable when we get to the theology of the “fold,” the inescapable context of community. George Jones may have sing, “Me and Jesus Got Our own Thing Going,” but Karl Barth, one of the authors of the Theological Declaration of Barmen, in our Book of Confessions, said that “there is no such thing as an individual Christian.”

Within the context of Jesus’ symbolism, when he speaks of listening to his voice, it is an observable fact that sheep respond to the specific voice of the shepherd who cares for them: sheep respond individually to the one who cares for them individually. Yet a shepherd is not doing his job if he tends only one sheep. And, just like a sheep who wanders off will eventually get itself eaten, or fall off a cliff, we find guidance and growth and direction through the Holy Spirit most readily and reliably in the context of community. We are one.

But the “fold,” the circle of “us,” does not (of course) simply encircle Fairfield Highlands Presbyterian. Jesus says in our reading, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold…”

And we can easily see that the “fold” is larger than one church, one denomination, one theological nuance. After all, every church, ever denomination, every theological nuance within Christianity is influenced by every other church, denomination, and theological nuance within Christianity – either consciously or unconsciously. In the South, there are very few Christians, even mainline Christians, who don’t have some degree of imprint from the Evangelicals. Liturgical traditions, like our own, are a gift from Catholicism. Even wildly different styles of worship hold to common elements – music, sermon, offering, prayer, the reading of a text… though we may find the worship in a seeker-friendly church or a Church of Christ very different and perhaps uncomfortable, we’ll always pretty much be able to tell what’s going on.

John Calvin put it like this: “Now, although the flock seems to be divided into different folds, yet believers who are scattered throughout the world are encircled in common bonds, in that the same Word is preached to everyone and the same sacraments are used, and they have the same order of prayer and everything necessary for the profession of faith.”

In other words, these churches, denominations, and theological nuances within Christianity aren’t “different folds.” We are in unity, not because we believe all the same things, but because we are loved by God. We are one.

And if that is true, what does that mean? If we are one fold, what is Jesus saying when he says, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice...?” Is this a statement of Universalism, where God will, in the end, “save” everyone whether they like it or not? Is it referring to locations – “folds” outside of Judea, to the boundaries of the known world? Could this be Biblical confirmation of life on other planets?

Well, I don’t think we all need to learn Klingon, but it is a fact that each generation interprets Scripture according to its own unique place in history. For those first-century Christians, knowing that they were the hands and feet of this Jesus who said, “I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice,” “other folds” certainly didn’t mean Universalism, it meant other locations. The same could be said at each point of history where new lands and new peoples were discovered. The Gospel was one of the chief imports to all new nations.

And that’s all well and good, but aside from the occasional rain forest tribe here and there, until new life forms are found in far-flung corners of the universe, by now we’ve kind of found all the lands and peoples we are going to find. So what’s all this “other folds” talk mean for us? You and I, in the communities and circles of influence we inhabit?

We live in a pluralistic society, meaning that many cultures, religions, races, and orientations coexist, sometimes uncomfortably. Additionally, we tend to think one’s belief system is arrived at in the same way someone discovers their favorite flavor of Pop-Tart.

And, let’s be honest, if reaching “sheep in other folds” involved talking, everyone on the planet would be a Christian. We have plenty of preachers in plenty of venues, on plenty of forms of mass media, writing plenty of books, preaching plenty of sermons, buying plenty of billboards, waving plenty of signs and shouting into plenty of megaphones. I said it last week: talk is cheap, and in our society, talk is as common as grains of sand on the beach. Everybody knows what we say.

The story is told of a man driving down a crowded freeway one day, tooling along at the speed limit, when another care pulled behind him, flashing his lights, blowing his horn, waving for him to get over. He couldn’t get over fast enough, and the other driver began making what can carefully be called “rude gestures,” and shouting obscenities so loudly that the man could actually hear them. Just as the man was afraid he was going to get run off the road, a sheriff’s deputy whipped in behind the tailgater, put on his lights, and pulled the angry driver over.

The deputy got out of the car, gun drawn, and ordered the driver out of his vehicle. He was searched, handcuffed, and taken to the county jail, fingerprinted and put in a cell. A couple of hours later, that same deputy came in, unlocked the cell, and began the process of releasing the prisoner. “I’m sorry for the mistake,” the deputy said, “but I pulled up behind your car while you were making all those gestures and screaming and cussing, and when I saw your “What Would Jesus Do” license plate holder, your “God Is My Co-Pilot” bumper sticker, the fish logo on your trunk lid, and your “Meet Me At Sunday School” window decal, I immediately assumed the car was stolen.”

Way more than I am comfortable admitting, I’m a whole lot like that tailgater. My words clash with my actions, my walk and my talk do not agree, and I am sorry to say that I’m not alone. Christians say they believe in love, but too often speak words of hate. Christians say God loves everyone, but too often work to exclude others. Christians say feeding the hungry is important, but too often walk past the hungry panhandler, worried that he’ll spend the eighty-seven cents in spare change they’d give him on booze.

We’ve spoken enough, and too frequently we’ve spoken poorly. The time for words has passed. It is Jesus’ voice which must be heard, because his sheep – even those in other folds, will listen to his voice – Scripture guarantees it!

In the twenty-first chapter of the Gospel of John, Jesus and Peter were walking along the lakeshore. Jesus asked, “Simon, son of John, do you really love me more than these others do?”

“Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”

 A moment later, Jesus asked, “Simon, son of John, do you really love me?”

“Yes, Lord. You know that I love you!”

Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”

 Jesus spoke to him a third time. He asked, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”

Peter got upset because Jesus kept asking him that question. He answered “Lord, you know everything! You know that I love you!”

Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.”

Feed my sheep, Jesus said. All my sheep.

Care for my sheep, Jesus said. All my sheep.

We act. Jesus speaks. And his sheep hear his voice.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Talk Is Cheap

Audio from the sermon:

Check this out on Chirbit

Special thanks to Dr. Greg Brown (Twitter) (blog) for his insight. Also to Natasha Yar-Routh (Twitter) (blog) for opinion and insight mid-sermon. All of my sermons are group efforts, it seems.

I mention a church giving away cars and TVs in the sermon. Here's the link to that story. And yes, all of Christianity face-palms with you while you watch it.

Comeback Kid has a song called "Talk is Cheap." It has nothing to do with the sermon, but I like Comeback Kid, so...

1 John 3:1-7
See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.
Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. You know that he was revealed to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him. Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous.

Luke 24:36b-48
Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.
Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you — that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.”

Acts 3:12-19
When Peter saw it, he addressed the people, “You Israelites, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we had made him walk? The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors has glorified his servant Jesus, whom you handed over and rejected in the presence of Pilate, though he had decided to release him. But you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses. And by faith in his name, his name itself has made this man strong, whom you see and know; and the faith that is through Jesus has given him this perfect health in the presence of all of you.
“And now, friends, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. In this way God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer. Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out.”

This is the Word of the Lord.

Wow, Peter. You certainly aren’t the same guy you were a few weeks back, huddled in terror in the Upper Room, choking on self-loathing for having denied Jesus three times. Clearly, something has happened.

Well, between the time of our Gospel reading, where they all get scared out of their socks, and Jesus has to prove he isn’t a ghost by eating a fish stick, and Peter’s sermon at the Temple in our reading from Acts, pretty much everything has changed.

The risen Christ has spent time with the disciples, commissioned them, has ascended to Heaven, and as they were all praying back in the Upper Room (no doubt with the doors open this time), the Holy Spirit descended on them all, empowering them to fulfill that commission to go and preach the Gospel to the whole world.

As you’re likely aware, Peter wasted no time getting busy – he preached a message that brought something like three thousand people to faith in Christ. Not bad for a guy’s first preaching gig.

Things are happening fast for the young church. It’s growing by leaps and bounds, in fact. And on this day, Peter and John are going to the Temple when they pass a beggar, a man who has been unable to walk since the day he was born.

I wonder what the man expected when he called out to Peter and John? After all, he’d been begging his whole life, over forty years. It’s all he could do, after all; not being able to walk meant he couldn’t do manual labor, and without a family member who was an artisan, no one would have been able to teach him to work with his hands. There were no social safety nets in first-century Judea, no subsidies or Medicaid or Social Security. All he could do was rely on the kindness of a couple of his friends to carry him to the Temple gate every day, plop him down, and let him sit for hours without food or water, asking for spare change from passersby.

I bet he’d become a pretty good judge of people by that time. He knew when to hold out his hand and expect a coin, and when holding his hand out would get it slapped. Beggars were, after all, a despised class of people. Jewish law stipulated that he couldn’t be run off without first being given money, but he was prohibited from receiving alms from non-Jewish people. So catching people in a good mood going into the Temple by way of the prettiest entrance was a good way to kill two birds with one stone.

So he saw Peter and John walking up, and might have thought, “An older man and a younger one. The older one might be a mentor, and out to impress his young charge. I might make enough with these two to buy bread!”

So he poked out his hand and asked for a gift. He kept his head down; no one asking for alms could be bold enough to make eye contact. The men stopped, and for a long moment said nothing. Then the older one said, “Look at me.” The beggar dared to look up into the kind eyes of Peter. Then Peter said words the beggar had heard a million times before – “I don’t have any money.”

I wonder if there was a moment for disappointment to set in, for the beggar to mentally shrug it off and begin to look for the next person to ask before Peter spoke again? No matter, because what Peter said and did then meant that, for this beggar, there wouldn’t be a “next person” to ask for alms.

“But I'll give you what I have,” Peter said, “In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, get up and walk.”

The beggar gasped as Peter grabbed the hand he’d been holding out for coins and pulled him to a standing position.

To a standing position!

The beggar stood. The beggar walked. The beggar jumped. The beggar danced. Stood, walked, jumped, and danced all the way into the Temple courtyards!

Needless, to say, this caused quite the commotion. The man may have been a beggar, but everyone knew him – he’d been right there, sitting with his atrophied legs and outstretched hand in the same patch of dirt outside the Beautiful Gate, for decades! The sight of him dancing, jumping, walking, the sound of his shouts of joy and praise, set the whole place running to see what had happened.

And that is where we pick up today’s reading from the book of Acts – Peter preaching to the awestricken crowd.

So why all this background? Why spend so much time on the stuff leading up to the reading? Why not simply talk about the important things that Peter says here?

To be sure, what Peter says here is powerful: he gives testimony to the power of God and the resurrected Lord Jesus Christ, points out the injustice of His death at the hands of the Temple elite and calls the people to repentance – calls them to faith in the risen Christ.

But take away that beggar, and all you have is another guy shouting in the corner of the Temple courtyard. Remove the context, and as powerful as his words may be, they are only words.

And can I be honest? In today’s culture, where talk radio stations clog the airways, and every network has a plurality of celebrity talk shows, where everyone has a FaceBook or Twitter account, and where anyone with a computer can post anything they want to on a Tumblr blog or on YouTube, and saying this as someone who runs his mouth for a living, it has never been more true that talk is cheap. And the cheaper – and more venomous – the language, the wider the audience.

Now, please understand that I am not saying that Peter’s talk was cheap. Like the over 200 million Christians who endure persecution today in over sixty countries, Peter’s words are dangerous. In fact, in the next chapter of Acts, Peter and John are arrested by the Temple authorities, jailed overnight, and brought before the same group of men – the Great Sanhedrin – that had demanded the death of Jesus.

But I wonder if Peter’s dangerous words – words that brought five thousand people to faith in Christ that day – would have even been heard amid the din of the bleating sacrificial animals, the calls of the moneychangers and the conversations of thousands of people echoing off the courtyard walls, without that beggar?

Of course it all began with an encounter with the risen Lord. Of course it was all brought to life by the indwelling Holy Spirit. But without that action – the healing of the beggar – the words, as powerful and transformative as they were, would very likely have fallen largely on deaf ears.

Talk is cheap.

How do we, individually and as the Body of Christ, make the Good News of the Kingdom of God heard today? Is it enough to simply talk louder – write a book, issue press releases, get ourselves invited on talk shows, put all the right keywords on our blog so it shows up first in a Google search, offer free cars and flat-screen TVs to lure in new visitors (yes, a church in Corpus Christi did that for Easter last year)? Or should we get louder and angrier, waving protest signs and signing petitions and calling our Congresspeople and Representatives pushing legislation through to make the country look and act the way we want it to?

Funny, all Peter did was reach out and grab someone’s hand, and help them up. And he didn’t go looking for someone to help – he wasn’t at the Temple that day with John to do anything else than what every other good Jewish person was there to do that day. But in the midst of Peter and John’s everyday life, a need presented itself, in the form of a poor, crippled beggar.

And because Peter reached out, not only was that beggar’s life changed – not simply “restored,” but utterly transformed forever and for the better – but thousands more saw the results of that act of compassion, and as a result, heard Peter’s words and came to faith in Christ.

You and I have had our own encounter with the risen Christ. You and I have been commissioned by Christ. You and I have been empowered by the indwelling Holy Spirit.

You and I have that same opportunity to reach out.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Doubt Is Not The Opposite Of Faith...

Thanks to my friend Kevin Daugherty for helping me hammer out clarity concerning the following.

Extra points if you know Major Major's middle name...

Here's the audio from the sermon.

Check this out on Chirbit

Acts 4:32-35
Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold.  They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.

1 John 1:1-2:2
We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life — this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us — we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.
This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.
My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

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.

Doubt is not the opposite of faith.

That Sunday afternoon of the Resurrection, the apostles’ problem wasn’t doubt. Terror, grief, self-loathing, despair, confusion, all of these were a problem, but doubt? There was nothing to doubt. There was only the fact that Jesus was dead. What’s more, sometime the night before someone had taken his body. Never mind what that crazy Mary Magdalene said. Peter and John had confirmed that Jesus was missing, and though John was inclined to agree with Mary, the rest of them only knew that if they hated Jesus so much they’d steal his body, there was no hope that any of the rest of them would survive.

So they huddled in that dark, airless room.

But someone was missing that afternoon. Thomas has gotten a bad rap over the millennia, what with the nickname “Doubting Thomas” and all. We don’t know a lot about him, of course: the three times he’s mentioned in Scripture, he’s called “Thomas Didymus” – “Thomas” means “Twin” in Aramaic, and “Didymus” means, well, the same thing in Greek. Poor guy’s name is “Twin Twin,” kind of like the character in “Catch-22” whose name was Major Major.

But those three appearances in Scripture, all in the Gospel of John, paint a picture of a man who was anything but a doubter. 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. Some of them have got to be wondering why Jesus would bother, what with his friend being dead and all. But 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 all of the disciples’ heads: “Lord, we don't know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” Thomas is not rebuked for daring to question, not ridiculed 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.”

We have no idea why Thomas wasn’t in that upper room on that Sunday afternoon. I like to think that he just got tired of sitting around, waiting for the door to get kicked in by soldiers. “Y’all can hide up here if you want to, but I’m taking a walk.”

As Thomas’ footsteps faded down the stairs, the rush of fresh air from the once again closed-and-locked doors was swallowed up by the smell of sweat, hopelessness, and fear.

Then a voice said, “Peace be with you.”

Scripture does not record the disciples’ reaction, so you can fill in the blanks yourself. But what is telling, to me, is that our reading specifically states that Jesus showed the disciples his hands and side, and only then do we read that “the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.”

 Put yourself in Thomas’ shoes. You’ve just endured the worst three days of your life. A man you had staked your reputation on, a man you’d given your life to, a man you thought was the Messiah, is dead and gone, and now your friends are swarming around you babbling about him being alive.

He probably thought he was the only sane person left in the city.

But rather than run screaming from this pack of lunatics, rather than laughing them to scorn, Thomas demanded the same thing that the others had gotten, because the others had doubted just as much as Thomas was in that moment.

And just like the others, Thomas got his proof eight days later.

Doubt is not the opposite of faith. It is, rather, the portal through which faith becomes real. Doubt breeds questions, after all. Because Thomas dared to ask the questions, dared to seek the evidence, he was able to proclaim of Jesus, “My Lord and my God!”

It seems to me that we Christians seem to operate within one of two extremes when it comes to what we call “faith.” On the one end of the spectrum are people for whom what they believe about God, about salvation, and about how they are to live and interact with the world around them in light of those beliefs are in the same realm as what their favorite band is, what their favorite ice cream is: completely subjective, the result of personal taste. Doubt is irrelevant to this group, because if one asks questions, one may reach definite conclusions… and dare I say, definite conclusions are the enemy of personal preference.

On the other end of the spectrum are those who think that what they believe about God, about salvation, and about how they are to live and interact with the world around them in light of those beliefs is defined by a rigid set of rules and specific mental assertions. If you’re a Christian, you think this way, talk that way, believe these things, and do not believe those things. Doubt is dangerous to these people, because questions may bring conclusions different than the accepted status quo, and to disagree with the traditional standards, beliefs, and power structures is to disagree with God.

The ancient Greek philosopher Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” I would argue that people in both of these extremes are suffering from an unexamined faith.

Thomas and the rest of the disciples believed because they saw Jesus. Their faith was galvanized by that evidence, and empowered by the Holy Spirit. And yes, Jesus said “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe,” and in the two thousand years since He ascended to heaven, countless men, women and children have been the benefactors of that blessing.

But Thomas and the rest of the disciples came to faith through doubt. They had obvious questions, and though the process of researching the answers to those questions was brief and incontrovertible (I mean, Jesus was right there, showing his wounds, after all), it was nonetheless a process.

Their faith was an examined faith. And that faith brought action. For Thomas’ part, he is believed to have been the missionary to India, spreading the Gospel and establishing churches and Christian communities until his martyrdom in perhaps AD 72.

Because of the active faith of all of those disciples, the door was opened for billions of people to be reconciled to God, to become citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven.

How do people in this day and age come to faith in Christ? Is it because they pick Jesus, like picking their favorite TV show? Or is it because they are taught the creeds and the prayers, and receive careful instruction on what to think and how to dress?

I want to suggest to you that people come to faith today in the same way that Thomas and the other disciples came to faith.

Think of it: can you look at the world today without having serious doubts that this is the way things are supposed to be? Wars, famines, poverty, starvation, the powerful oppress the poor, the rich get richer, teenagers are regularly bullied to death, tornadoes here and earthquakes there…

Doesn’t it make sense to ask “why?” Doesn’t it make sense to look for a different way?

Thjomas and the other disciples found their answers when they saw Jesus for who he was. And I contend that this is how people today find answers to their doubts. They see Jesus.

Not physically, perhaps. No nail-scars or spear wounds to provide evidence. Where people see Jesus today is through his official messengers, his ambassadors, to use a term from 2 Corinthians 5:20. You and me.

Honestly, isn’t that a scary thought? I don’t know about you, but I know that I am far from perfect. I don’t have the most even temper, or the prettiest language, or the sharpest wit. I stumble. I fall. I have doubts.

But I have cast my lot with the risen Christ, as have you. And because of that, we all have a calling.

We may not have nail-scars, but we are the hands and feet of Christ. We may not show spear wounds, but our hearts are pierced for the hungry, broken for the naked, bleeding for the stranger, crushed for the sick and imprisoned. And because we are the hands and feet of Christ, because our hearts are broken, we act. That is how it is supposed to work. Our faith, acting in big and small ways, globally and locally, corporately and personally, sharing the Good News in word and deed, using our talents and treasure in an active expression of our faith.

Thomas and the other disciples knew Jesus was real because they saw the evidence.

When people have doubts, when people ask questions, when people look to us… what do they see?

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Easter Sermon: What If?

Audio of this sermon:

Check this out on Chirbit

Romans 6:3-11
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.
For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

Mark 16:1-8
When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

This is the Word of the Lord.

What if all we had to go on – what if all the information we had about the Resurrection of Jesus Christ – was this passage from the Gospel of Mark? What if, as many scholars and historians believe, this Gospel ended right here… and what if no other Gospel had ever been written?

We may, then, begin to understand the reaction of the women that morning.

After all, they had been there. They had sat at the foot of the cross, weeping, as Jesus breathed his agonized last breath. They’d watched as Joseph of Arimethea and Nicodemus had Jesus’ body taken down, and fairly whisked him away to a garden tomb before night fell.

There had been no time to treat Jesus’ body properly. No washing, anointing, nothing. The stone was rolled in place with moments to spare before the Sabbath began.

They went back to the Upper Room, of course. Where else was there to go? There were the men, wide-eyed in fear, numb with grief, jumping with every sound, sure the Roman legionnaires or the temple guards were going to burst in at any moment and drag them away to nail them to crosses of their own.

As Resurrection People, living on this side of the resurrection, whenever we bother to think of that Saturday, “Holy Saturday” it’s called, I guess for lack of a better name, we often think of it as a day of waiting. Waiting for Sunday, waiting for everything to be OK again because Jesus was back, waiting for Easter sunrise.

But there was none of that. Death was death, after all. The stone was in place, as permanent a symbol of the end of life, of hope, of the future as the moment we see the casket sealed, lowered into the ground, and the dirt thrown in on top of the vault. Tomorrow is irrelevant. It’s over.

For those disciples, for the women, aside from the occasional whispered conversation, isolated sobs and sniffles, the bodies crowded into that dark, stuffy Upper Room are alone in the silence, remembering what had been, trying to comprehend how it could all be over.

Perhaps there, in the darkness imposed first by the night, then the tightly closed windows, and then the night yet again, they’d remembered the things Jesus had said. Perhaps they recounted how he’d nearly been killed that first time he’d preached in a synagogue, and how he’d cast the demon out in Capernaum. Peter might have talked about Jesus healing his mother-in-law, while over in another corner, John talked about Jesus turning water into wine.

As the night wore on, Peter would have gotten some gentle ribbing over how he started to sink when he walked on the water toward Jesus, and they would all laugh a little sadly at themselves over how terrified they were when they saw Jesus walking on the water in the first place. Peter would have ended up getting a pat on the back, I bet, for being the one brave enough to try it himself. It wouldn’t help ease the knot he felt in his gut, though, the terrible knowledge that Jesus had been right about him all along… he’d betrayed Jesus, right there where Jesus could hear him do it!

Still, the stories would thread along for hours: healing the lepers, bringing sight to the blind (remember Bartimaeus? Yelling and screaming, he wasn’t gonna take ‘no’ for an answer!), and that time Jesus had healed the Temple ruler’s favorite servant without even going to his house.

After awhile, the stories tapered off. It sunk in that this was all they had, memories. Jesus was dead, gone, and the adventures, the discoveries, the preaching and the miracles were over.

So horribly, bloodily, painfully, permanently over.

I wonder if it was Mary Magdalene who first thought about going and completing the preparation of the body?

We don’t know a lot about Mary Magdalene, except that at some point in the past, Jesus had cast seven demons out of her. Lots of legends and suppositions and wild fabrications fly around about her, and I will not go into them here. All we know is that she traveled with the disciples, and was there at the end, and she figures heavily in the Resurrection accounts.

I can imagine her sitting in the corner of that room, listening to the stories, getting tired of it all, knowing that none of them understood what Jesus had done for her. For s many years she had been tormented, tortured, listening constantly to all those voices in her head, running about madly doing all the vile things the voices had made her do, and Jesus had made them go away, forever!

She had followed Jesus everywhere not because she thought he was going to be King of Israel, not because she wanted to overthrow Rome, not because she thought she’d get a sweet gig in the coming Kingdom of God. She followed Jesus because Jesus had set her free!

Through the shuttered windows, she could see the twilight before dawn. She gathered Salome and the other Mary, James’ mom, and they left, waking up some merchants to buy spices on the way to that garden tomb. Preparing the body was the right thing to do for Jesus, after all, an act of honor for a man who had meant so much to them all.

As they neared the last hill before the garden, Salome stopped short. “The stone! How are we gonna move that big ol’ thing?” The other Mary slowed, concern creasing her brow, but Mary Magdalene never broke stride. “We’ll figure it out,” she said over her shoulder.

What they saw as they walked into the garden made them all stop short. They didn’t have to worry about moving the stone – it had been rolled away.

Rushing into the tomb, they were more or less successful stifling screams of shock: in the place they expected to see the hastily-draped body of their Lord… there was some guy. It made no sense.

“Don’t be scared,” he said, and no one pointed out how silly a statement that was. “You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.” Well, yeah…

Then he said something astounding. Breathtaking. Impossible. “He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him.”

A long moment, the women staring at the man, then at the cold, stone slab where the graveclothes lay empty. Then he spoke again: “Go, tell his disciples – and especially Peter – that he is going ahead of you to Galilee. That’s where you’ll see him, just like he told you.”

I’ll ask again: What if that was all the information you had to go on? What if you leave the Resurrection narrative there, with the women running in terror – arguably holy terror – from the tomb, and that’s all you’ve got?

Is it enough? Can we, on this alone, be Resurrection People?


The women walked toward a tomb they thought was sealed. They needed the stone rolled away. Mind you, the resurrected Christ, in other places in the Gospel accounts, appears to disciples behind locked doors. He didn’t need the stone rolled away, apparently he could walk right through that kind of stuff.

The women needed the stone rolled away.

They needed the obstacle removed so that they could see.

They needed to see the empty slab with the tangled and bloody graveclothes.

They needed to see so that they could hear the message, the glorious, impossible, wonderful message that Jesus Christ had risen from the dead!

They may have run away in terror, yes, but they ran to tell that Good News! Good News that would bring those fearful, confused, forlorn disciples into the joy of the Resurrection!

You and I have the benefit of other Gospel accounts, of course. We know that others, Peter and John, specifically, saw the empty tomb. We know that Jesus physically appeared to the women, to the disciples, to the travelers on their way to Emmaus, to five hundred people at once, and on and on. We know that there were witnesses as Jesus ascended to heaven.

Most of all, because the stone was rolled away, we Resurrection People know that the tomb wasn’t the end. It was the beginning.

Richard Rohr observed that “most of human life is Holy Saturday,” and it makes sense – for us, the caskets still lower into the ground, and the dirt still gets piled on, and that is that. Whatever the plans for tomorrow, whatever the hopes for the future, all of that gets sealed in when the casket’s lid is closed.

And so much of the world lives like that’s all there is. Greed, hatred, oppression, bullying, class warfare, racism, sexism, all the endless consumerism and power grabs – men and women struggling to get all they can in the here and now, because there is nothing else.

So much of the world struggles for enough to eat, for clean water to drink, for a safe place for their children to sleep, without fear of being kidnapped and forced to fight in a rebel army, or sold as slaves, every one of them the victim of someone else’s greed or hatred or lust for power, someone else living like that’s all there is.

But we know, you and I, we know differently, don’t we? We know that the stone has been rolled away. We have heard the message. We are Resurrection People.

And because of this, we have a mission.

The first message to the women and the disciples following the Resurrection was “go.” But with that command is a promise, did you hear it? “But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee…”

Jesus’ last word to his disciples, and by extension to us, was “Go.”


Go and carry the message of the cross, go and carry the glorious Good News of the Resurrection, with the knowledge that, wherever we go, whoever we meet with that Good News: when we clothe the naked, feed the hungry, give shelter to the homeless, visit the sick and imprisoned; whenever we speak the truth to power about oppression and marginalization; whenever we confront the evils of racism and class warfare and the status quo which crush the spirits and lives of the poor; whenever we do these things, Jesus has gone ahead of us.

The stone has been rolled away.

He is not here, for he has risen.


Sunday, April 1, 2012

Palm Sunday: The Alabaster Jar

Thanks to Kathryn Matthews Huey, whose work informed this sermon, and to Jace Foster, whose advice helped this sermon stay reasonably on-target. This sermon also (once again) benefited from Jimmy Spencer Jr,'s incredible book, "Love Without Agenda." Seriously, go buy the book. Now. I'll wait.

The audio from the sermon:

Check this out on Chirbit

This song was playing in my head while I wrote the first part of this sermon...

Philippians 2:5-11
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

John 12:12-16
The next day the great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting, "Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord — the King of Israel!”
Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it; as it is written: “Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!”
His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him.

This is the Word of the Lord.

They shouted for a savior. They shouted for a king. They shouted because they hoped to see a miracle. They shouted because everyone else was shouting.

But, of course, none of them understood. None of them grasped that, by the end of the week, this man they had lauded as the King of Israel would be writhing in agony, gasping for breath, dying the excruciatingly gruesome, horribly slow, loathsomely humiliating slave’s death of the Roman cross.

I take that back. I think one person besides Jesus understood.

In the crowd that day, listening as Jesus spoke to the Greek visitors we met last week, was a woman. As is so often the case, we do not know her name. Perhaps she was one of the women who had joined with the group early on, perhaps she had seen Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead, or perhaps she herself had received healing from his hands. In any case, when she heard Jesus say, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself,” and felt the shock and irritation of the crowd around her, she reacted differently.

Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan call this woman “the first Christian,” because she was the first person to take Jesus seriously when he talked about his suffering and death.

While everyone around her was arguing that, if Jesus was the Messiah they had just acclaimed him as, he couldn’t ever die, she somehow understood that this death, this being “lifted up,” was the whole point.

And as the storm clouds gathered, she was the first person to take action. I’m picking up the narrative in the Gospel of Mark, the 14th chapter, first verse through the 15th chapter, 47th verse.

“It was two days before the Passover and the festival of Unleavened Bread. The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him; for they said, ‘Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people.’

“While he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head. But some were there who said to one another in anger, ‘Why was the ointment wasted in this way? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.’ And they scolded her. But Jesus said, ‘Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.’

“Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them. When they heard it, they were greatly pleased, and promised to give him money. So he began to look for an opportunity to betray him.”

We often focus on the argument that takes place surrounding this woman’s actions, and – like the disciples who were there with Jesus – miss the profound beauty, and deep truth, of what this woman is doing.

On the one hand, the Temple elite were brainstorming ways to have Jesus arrested and killed, while on the other, the disciples were still consumed with questions and power plays. Into this steps this unknown woman, offering Jesus love and attention, and lavishing him with generosity. While the criticism over her gift swirls, (“the money could have been given to the poor!”) writer Megan McKenna points out that Jesus was the poor! She writes, “He is the poorest man in that house.”

He is an innocent man facing a brutal execution, and before too much longer, most of his friends will abandon him. He will be left alone, naked, and bleeding, on display for the ridicule and mockery of all. This woman brings a gift equal in value to a year’s wages, an offering of breathtaking splendor, a luxurious indulgence… a gift of preparation for his coming burial.

Jesus was the poorest man in that house. He had given up so much, for so great a need…

“…though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross.”

“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

Imagine the extravagance of going out, seemingly on the spur of the moment, and spending an entire year’s income on perfume. Imagine the reckless abandon of bursting into someone’s home, breaking open the precious vessel that holds the perfume, and emptying every ounce of it on the head of another person. Imagine caring that much. Imagine loving that much.

Now, think of this: Jesus Christ emptied himself. Every ounce.

Please understand: nothing, at any point in the life of Jesus, was forced on him. Jesus poured himself out on purpose. Jesus became a servant on purpose. Jesus became a human being on purpose.

Oh, and those priests and scribes, running around with their plans and their plots and their bags of silver? The Roman governor, Pilate? They may think they have the skills and the authority to force this travelling street preacher from the middle of nowhere into an early grave, but even that – even death – is something that Jesus will do on purpose.

What is more, all of this – God taking the form of man, living the life of a mortal, sacrificing himself for the sake of God’s creation, all of this was settled before anything was, in fact, created at all!

And despite this fact, the pain, the abandonment, the horror that Jesus Christ will feel, the cold and all-too-permanent reality of death, none of this is contrived. It is all very real. Imagine caring that much. Imagine loving that much.

All of our theological studies, all of our creedal affirmations, all of our doctrinal discussions and apologetic arguments boil down to one word, a central, burning truth which has forever changed the course of history, the trajectory of the universe itself: love.

One of the easiest phrases in all of Christianity is the phrase, “Jesus did this for us.” It’s easy, and it’s true… but it doesn’t go far enough.

It would be easy for Jesus to love the woman with the alabaster jar. It would be easy for Jesus to love the Apostle John, who stayed at the foot of the cross with Jesus’ mother all through that horrible afternoon.

But what about Judas? What about Peter, who denied him three times? What about the priests and scribes who dragged him before Pilate? And what about Pilate, who was too cowardly, in the end, to do what he knew was right? What about the Roman soldiers, who gambled away his clothing? Or that one particular soldier, who shoved a spear through Jesus’ heart after he died?

It’s easy to imagine God loving the people like us, dying for our friends and our family. But what about “them:” people who are not like us? People who look different than us, think differently, act differently, believe differently?

Imagine that year’s salary, spent on perfume, is your year’s salary. And imagine yourself  being able to choose anyone on earth to empty that incredibly precious perfume on… and choosing the vilest, most frightening and despicable human being on earth to receive that gift. A sworn enemy. A bloodthirsty rival. And imagine doing it with no assurance that this monster of a human being will in any way change?

That is exactly – exactly – what Jesus did. Romans 5:8 confirms this: “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.”

And who is “us?” Every human being.

That’s right. There is no “them.” Jesus poured his life out for every person: the Trayvon Martins and the George Zimmermans, the death row inmates and their victims, the Mother Theresas and the Joseph Konys, the Fred Phelpses and the Billy Grahams…

As followers of the risen Christ, as people who know about this all-encompassing love, as the beneficiaries of that love, as the recipients of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit into our hearts, will we stand around like the disciples did when that alabaster jar was broken, shaking our heads at the waste, or will we instead shout “Hosannah!” in celebration of the gift?