Sunday, April 27, 2014

Living in Hope

John 20:19-29

        At my last church, when the Christmas Eve Service was over, the first questions I routinely was asked, “When can we put the tree away?”  Being Presbyterians, we don’t really celebrate Epiphany.  Once New Year’s Day arrives, we like to have the decorations gone, the Christmas tunes behind us and get on with our lives.  We put up with a reference to the Wise Men, but if we had our druthers, we would just as soon the wise men and shepherds arrive at the same time and not mess with all the theological implications suggested by Luke and Matthew.
        I have no problem with that.  By the 25th of December I have said all I care to say about the birth of Christ.  I am ready to move forward to the baptism in the Jordan and the Temptations in the Wilderness.  Christmas celebrates the beginning of the story.  It is just the start of life of Jesus.
        But Easter is different.  There are a lot of loose ends connected with the death and resurrection of Christ.  Last Sunday we once again heard that incredible story that defines our faith. But the miracle of Easter doesn’t end at the Empty tomb.  What do we do with Peter, who we last saw wandering around the courtyard denying Jesus?  Why did only women go to the cemetery?  What did they really see at the grave? What about Judas?  Did he hang himself as suggested by Matthew or did he trip over a rock clearing the land he bought and bleed to death as recorded in the Book of Acts?  What happened that turned those faithless, cowardly disciples who flinched at their own shadows, into a unified group that changed the course of the entire world?  The answer seems so simple.  They saw Jesus and believed.  They saw Jesus and everything made sense.  They saw Jesus and they were no longer afraid of death.  They saw Jesus and declared Easter as the greatest of God’s mighty acts.  Well, the truth is, 10 of them saw Jesus.  It seems Thomas was out on an errand the first time Jesus dropped by.  10 of them believed, 10 of them were ready for the next step in history, 10 of them were primed to declare the good news of God’s saving grace, but Thomas wasn’t so sure.  He needed proof. He needed to see with his own eyes.  Hearing wasn’t good enough for old doubting Thomas.  Because of his doubt, because of his unwillingness to go along with the other disciples, poor old Thomas has taken a beating over the past years.  But I have to tell you I am grateful for Thomas.  His story makes us stay with Easter a little longer.  His story causes us to hold on to the miracle of God for another week.  The lilies might be gone, the music isn’t quite as rousing, and the pews aren’t quite as full, but because of Thomas, Easter doesn’t get dismissed as quickly as Christmas.  The plight of Thomas continues the Easter message for another week as we the faithful have come back to hear the entire story.
 We need to hear the story of Thomas because is not just an isolated moment in time.  The story of Thomas is the story of the Church.  It is the story for anyone who didn’t see the empty tomb, didn’t touch the risen Lord, but still claim this ancient miracle which fully revealed the power and grace of God.
        I suspect there is a little bit of skeptic in each one of us.  When I stand in line at the grocery store, I am prone to glance at the reading material that adorns the aisle.  Did you know that we have found proof there is life on Mars?  Well I have to assume there must be life on Mars because National Enquirer has reported that a Martian is having Brad Pitt’s love child.  I know somebody had to make that up because if Angelina had wanted to add a Martian to her family she would have adopted one. Truth is, we are too smart to be fooled by ridiculous rumors that make the headlines of the National Inquirer.  Do you really think that Big Foot runs around naked in Northern Idaho?  We all know there are laws against indecent exposure.  Do you really believe UFO’s landed near Roswell, New Mexico?  I have been there.  No intelligent being would ever spend a night in Roswell. 
We are daily bombarded with incredible stories that make us laugh.  We are way too smart to be tricked into believing the ridiculous.  Odd things might happen but if we search long enough there is always a logical explanation.  We are not children who are mystified by strange occurrences that go bump in the night.  We turn the lights on and expose all the shadows.
At yet, there is that one story which defies logic, that one story which has existed for years, that one story that is bigger than Big Foot and the Loch Ness monster rolled all together.  It is the unbelievable story of a man being publicly executed, declared dead by the local physician, placed in a grave, and then three days later appearing among his best friends.  The only reason we are here this morning is because we believe this story to be true.  The folks who are sleeping in, or sipping their coffee while reading the newspaper, must laugh at how na├»ve we are.  Where is our proof?  Has anyone here actually seen Jesus?  Have any of you put your hands in the nail prints? Has anyone here seen the scar in his side?  How could we intelligent people get caught up in such a fabrication?  How silly we must appear to those folks playing golf this morning.  And yet here we sit, with no real proof, no reliable witnesses, just a handful of stories, and the faith of the folks who came before us.
I realize more and more we are becoming a visual people, tied to our 52 inch high definition TV’s as our primary source entertainment, but in my mind there is still nothing more fulfilling than a good book.  I read it, and understand it at my own pace.  I come back to it time and time again.  Even if I know the story by heart, I continue to wrestle with the nuances of each sentence, marveling at why a particular word or phrase was chosen.  In one of my favorite short stories Isak Dinesen writes, “We tremble before making our choice in life, and after having made it we again tremble in fear of having chosen wrong.  But the moment comes when our eyes are opened, and we see and realize that grace is infinite.  Grace demands nothing from us but that we shall await it with confidence and acknowledge it in gratitude. Grace makes no conditions and singles none of us out in particular.  Grace takes us all in its bosom and proclaims general amnesty.  That which we have chosen is given us and that which we have refused is also granted us. That which we rejected is poured upon us abundantly. For grace and mercy have met together, and righteousness and bliss have kissed one another.” 
I have been reading that paragraph from Babette’s Feast  for almost 30 years.  Each time I read it I am touched in a different way.  As I grow older and grapple with life decisions, those words bring great comfort.  They are more than just words expressed by an aging General at the dinner table of an old friend.  They are words of faith which find their genesis in the stories which evolved from that holy event in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago. It is an event not seen but heard over and over again.  It is an event no longer witnessed by eyes but revealed through the words and stories of countless millions.  For me, “He is risen” evolves into “grace and mercy have met together.  “Feel the nail prints” emerges into “righteousness and bliss have kissed one another.”  The story is told and retold in a thousand different and yet similar ways.  And we hear it, and believe it, and come here, the Sunday after Easter, void of proof but filled with faith.
Have any of us placed our fingers in his side?  Have any of us seen the Lord in the flesh? It hardly matters.  The story of Thomas reminds us that those who have not seen and but have believed are blessed.  We may not put our fingers in the nail prints, but the mark of God’s covenant is eternally imprinted upon our lives. The story of God’s love is forever.  Each day that story touches the hearts and souls of both the living and the dead.  It raises us up to new life, new hope, and new joy.  Because Christ is alive, God’s grace abounds.   Because Christ is alive, God’s mercy is forever.  Because Christ is alive, we are blessed by God’s everlasting love. 
Tell the Easter story.  Share it with your children, your friends and those who have been captured by a world void of miracles. Tell the Easter story.  Resurrect someone you know from the hopelessness of their own disbelief.  Tell the Easter Story.    You never know when you might be talking to Thomas.        

Sunday, April 20, 2014


Colossians 3:1-10

Last week my grandson and I walked up Humpback. I first made that trip with my cousin over 50 years ago. I love to go out on the rocks and find that perfect spot where I can look out on both the Shenandoah and Rockfish Valleys. I was a little nervous about taking a six year old with me. I knew he had the stamina to make the trip but I was not sure what his reaction would be once we got to the top. I was not certain he would join me out on the rocks. Much to my surprise and dismay he exhibited no fear whatsoever. In fact I became the one who got rather cautious as Andy showed absolutely no fear.  He wanted to run around and climb on the rocks, as if there were no consequences to a slip or faulty step.  Imagine, living life without the fear of death. Actually, isn’t that what Easter is all about? Isn’t Easter the celebration of the elimination of the fear of death?
I suspect this morning, all through Rockfish Valley, folks have put on their Sunday best to go to church to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. Depending on which doors you enter, the story will be told with varying degrees of detail. Some ministers will tell the story as if they were right there with Mary and Martha. Others will weave a tapestry of emotions that invite you to rise and fall with the timbre of the preacher’s voice. No matter the method, every preacher wants you to embrace the fearlessness of my grandson who ignored death while dancing on Humpback.
What actually happened on that Sunday Morning so many years ago? If you want the definitive answer based on eye-witnessed accounts, you came to the wrong church. I find the Gospels to be less than helpful. Each has a different version of the same event.  The writers of John and Matthew claim Jesus appeared in the garden. Mark and Luke report an angel stating Jesus had risen and was not to be found. In Matthew’s version the disciples are instructed to travel to Galilee to meet with Jesus. In Luke and John, Jesus first appears in or around Jerusalem. In Luke the ascension occurs just outside Jerusalem. In Matthew, Jesus ascends in a mountain in Galilee.   And what about Mark? A second ending was written to keep the gospel more in line with the other gospels. So what actually happened?
Some folks find these inconsistencies troubling. Other folks go to great lengths to homogenize the gospels into one definitive version. A few suggest the confusion of the gospel writers only hides what we dare not admit; maybe no one really witnessed the resurrection at all.
From my perspective, the inconsistencies do not detract from the power of Easter.  Each gospel writer concludes their story with a celebration of the risen Christ. The differences in their reporting are inconsequential. I would suggest the proof of the resurrection is not in the sightings of Jesus, but in the reaction of the disciples.
None of the writers of the Gospels are particularly complimentary toward the pre-resurrection disciples. On more than one occasion Jesus questioned their ability to fully understand what was happening. Peter came up short numerous times.  Jesus often seemed exasperated with the whole bunch. And then there was Holy Week. One by one the disciples sneaked away. Only John was reported to have been at the crucifixion and that is only recorded in the Gospel of John. Where did they go? I have no idea. Why did they go? We all know the reason. They were afraid.
        Who could blame them? They were not six year olds. The possibility of their being arrested, tried, and executed was very real to them. Once Jesus was arrested, their lives were in great peril. Any person representing the authority of the Temple or the Roman Empire could have them arrested.  The disciples were afraid because they valued their lives.
        The disciples became ten times the people they had been before the death of Jesus. It was in response to their enthusiasm that the opposition organized. It was the lack of fear being displayed by the disciples which literally made the Sanhedrin afraid of the disciples.
Some have historians have argued the disciples were inspired by the martyrdom of Jesus. That is certainly possible. We all know movements often reach greater heights following the loss of their leader.  But the inspiration of a martyr seldom inspires the faithful for more than a generation. Yet here we sit, over 2,000 years later singing, Christ has Risen, Christ has Risen Indeed”.
Some biblical scholars have argued that the physical presence of Jesus may not have been observed by the disciples. I really don’t care. In whatever form and in whatever way the disciples believed in the resurrection because Christ was within them completely. They didn’t gather in the Upper Room and sing, “Thanks for the Memory”. They sang, “Every time I feel the spirit, moving in my heart, I will pray”.
And pray they did. They prayed for guidance. They prayed for courage. They prayed to remember everything Jesus had taught them. They prayed for each other. And then they began to pray for those who would do them harm. To paraphrase Paul, the disciples came to the conclusion, “Whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s, so let us live accordingly.” For the first time ever, the disciples lived without the fear of death.
Please don’t confuse what I said. The disciples knew at some point in time their physical lives would come to an end. But they began to live without a obsession with death.  William Sloan Coffin preached, “Life is eternal, love is immortal, and death is only a horizon. And a horizon is nothing save the limit of our sight.”
My friends, I have no idea what lies beyond the grave but I do know who is beyond the grave. Christ’s resurrection links both worlds. Therefore physical death need not be a lifelong terror. Because of the resurrection, fear of the unknown and fear of eternal condemnation are fears of the past, not the present and certainly not the future.
Paul wrote, “Since you have been raised with Christ, therefore set your mind of heavenly things. Put to death all your anger, wrath, malice and evil thoughts. Clothe yourself in the image of the Christ who is all and in all.”
Live your life as a disciple. Live your life as my grandson, who fearlessly dances on the rocks. You and I both know why he had no fear. His mother and father were beside him. He was never more than a step from their loving grasp. Are we any different? In life and in death, we are never far from the loving grasp of God. Therefore live your life to God’s glory. Be about the all important task of doing those things which are worth dying for. Be a disciple, transformed by the resurrection of our Lord and Savior. Be a disciple and dance on the solid rock of God’s grace.    Amen.


Sunday, April 13, 2014

Send in the Clowns

Matthew 21:1-11

For three years the disciples had been following Jesus. Miracles were no longer a big deal. They had heard some of the stories so many times the disciples had started to write different endings. They were even getting a little bit cocky. Early on they wanted nothing to do with Jerusalem. It was a dangerous place too close to the center of the Jesus controversy. But now they were headed to the Holy City, not just for a visit, but the Passover. The disciples imagined things had calmed down. The truth is, the disciples never really understood what Jesus was all about. All that contact, all those sermons, all of the casual and not so casual hints and they still didn’t understand how the journey was going to end. Perhaps we should give ourselves a break when we read the gospels and scratch our heads in confusion and sometimes disbelief.
I am sure the disciples wanted to just slip in and out of Jerusalem, but that was not the plan. Jesus desired a parade. He wanted to enter Jerusalem on a donkey with children and admirers screaming at the top of their lungs. He wanted the religious elite to know he was coming. What better way to announce your intentions than to parade right down Main Street. What better way to kick off Holy Week than with floats, marching bands, celebrities and clowns.
Ok, so there were no marching bands, or floats, or any other celebrities but there sure were plenty of clowns. 
Remember when the circus used to come to town. I’m talking way back when Greatest Show on Earth would set up tents outside of town. Exotic animals in cages would be on display. The carnival hands would set up the Midway with games of chance and healthy delights such as cotton candy and funnel cake. Remember going inside the Big Tent and witnessing the fearless acrobats fly through the air. And should there be a lull in the show or worse, should something go wrong, the clowns would rush out and entertain us until things got back on track.
With all their bumbling and stumbling the clowns were basically comic relief. Those performers hardly do justice to great clowns we have witnessed through the years. Think of Caruso performing the title role of Pagliacci, the lover who paints his face to cover his shame. Think of Emmit Kelley, the clown who represented the plight of the impoverished in America. Think of Red Skeleton, who made us cry as often as he made us laugh. The classic clown is a tragic figure, playing the fool while exposing our deepest insecurities. John Prine sings, “A clown puts his makeup on upside down, so he wears a smile even when he wears a frown.”
What could be a better event than Palm Sunday to look for clowns?  We want to shout Hosanna with the children yet we know the tragedy of the cross is a few only days away. We want to elevate Jesus above everyone else. And yet too soon that elevation will represent something ghastly.  Jesus smiled as he entered the city, but I imagine it was little more than make-up. Peter, Andrew and John ran ahead of Jesus, lifting the hearts of children like any clown would do, knowing all along the foolishness of the situation. I suspect somewhere in the middle of this farce, they all got it. Eventually the reality of this morality play had to `set in.
Every Good Friday I imagine Peter standing at the foot of the cross looking up to Jesus and singing,   (Jane Sings)
Isn’t it rich? Aren’t we a pair? Me here at last on the ground, you in midair, send in the clowns.

Isn’t it bliss? Don’t you approve? One who keeps tearing around and one who can’t move. But where are the clowns? Send in the clowns.

Just when I stopped, opening doors; finally finding the one I wanted was yours, making my entrance again with my usual flair; Sure of my lines, Nobody’s there.

Don’t you love farce? My fault I fear. I thought you’d want what I want, sorry my dear. But where are the clowns? Send in the clowns? Don’t bother they’re here.

A few years ago Stephen Sondheim remarked if he could rewrite the song he would have titled it, “Send in the fools”.  He called it a song of regret verging on anger. In the play Desiree is singing to an old flame and asking, “How did we end up here?”
I can imagine Peter wondering the same thing. How did     he go from the exhilaration of a parade on Sunday, to total embarrassment when he denied Jesus, in the garden?  Deep inside he had to be saying, “I am such a fool.”
Or what about Judas? He joined the merry band, became disillusioned, betrayed Jesus and then realized he has been used by the very people he hated.
Take any of the disciples. What a bunch of clowns. One day they were entertainers, the next they were outlaws. Their association with Jesus had put their lives in jeopardy.
But perhaps the biggest clown was Jesus.  What was he thinking? He had done everything “by the book”. He had loved God with all his heart.  He had loved his neighbor and even his enemies. He had lived a sinless life and in the end what good did it do? I can imagine Pilate looking out toward Golgotha and thinking, “What a fool.”            (stop)
The Apostle Paul, reflecting on this moment, wrote, “Jesus humbled himself and became obedient to death.” We don’t commemorate the death of Jesus, because he was a hero, nor because he was divine. We commemorate this death because when everything else was falling apart, like any good clown, Jesus stepped forward to save the day. He put on the paint, and played the role of a clown.
I don’t pretend to fully understand Holy Week. My rational side tells me what we celebrate seems foolish. My spiritual side reminds me that we are called to be fools for Christ. Is it all just a farce? Or is it something even more outrageous. Is it an act of grace?
Isn’t it rich? Isn’t it queer?
Losing my timing this late in my career.
Where are the Clowns? Send in the Clowns!
Don’t bother, we’re here.