Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Power of Forgiveness

John 20:19-29


        When Thomas the twin was born, I refuse to believe his mother called him “doubting Thomas”. I even hesitate to believe that immediately after the exchange with Jesus in the Upper Room, this became his nickname. But as the story was told, over and over and over again, the epitaph stuck and we never refer to Thomas as “the twin” anymore. And that is a shame. With our eyes and hearts so focused on the missteps of the twin, I fear we have overlooked a powerful verse in the story. “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven. If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

        I was listening to NPR the other day and an astounding story was shared. As you are aware, when South Africa elected Nelson Mandela to be their president, the world held its breath. Violence against blacks was rapidly shifting to violence against whites as decades of revenge were being enacted against a suddenly helpless oppressor. Understanding such violence would destroy his country Mandela sought the wisdom of Anglican Bishop Desmond TuTu. After much prayer Bishop TuTu approached Mandela with the idea of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The concept was fairly simple but no sane person could imagine it had any chance of success. Afrikaners who had brutalized the black population were put on trial. The process demanded the guilty to describe their crime and then ask the victims for forgiveness. Once the victims heard the apology, they were given the opportunity to ask the court for leniency when the accused was sentenced.  

        I have heard Bishop Tu Tu speak many times on the success of the Commission but I was unaware of the story shared on NPR. More than twenty years ago a woman faced a man who had both beaten and burned her husband and only son. She stood and listened as the man spoke of his inability to conceive that a black man could be human. He said his actions were not those of rage but preservation of his misguided beliefs. The court was horrified by the story and condemned the man to death. But the woman asked the man’s punishment be changed to life imprisonment. Her plea to the court was this. “Because of this man I have no husband or son.  But if you let him live, I promise to visit him every week. My hope is one day we will eat together and eventually I can help him rediscover his humanity.” The sentence was reversed and the man is now serving a life sentence with no parole.  The widow has kept her promise. She visits him each week. They talk, pray together, and then share a meal.

        What on earth does this have to do with the story of “Doubting Thomas?” Look no further than verse 29. “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen yet have come to believe.”

        The purpose of each gospel is to do more than share the story of Jesus. The gospel of Matthew was written to inspire a particular community to be about building the kingdom of God on earth. Luke wrote to a community of slaves and women who felt invisible. This gospel declared that they were precious children of God. John’s gospel begins with the Baptizer declaring that Jesus was, “The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Every move that Jesus makes in John’s gospel leads toward forgiveness. Nicodemus must be born again. The Samaritan women must begin a new life. The blind man must be recognized by others as a human being. In order for this happen, forgiveness is required.  Then the forgiven must be willing to emulate the forgiving Lamb of God.

        Jesus appears in the Upper Room and the disciples are astounded. The women had told them he was alive but they didn’t believe. Now rumor materializes into truth. The disciples are astounded and wanted to know what would happen next. Jesus responded, “You will receive the Holy Spirit and everything will be made clear. But first, you must be willing to forgive as I have forgiven you. Who will believe your words of truth if you cannot forgive?”

        Have you ever had a serious talk with anyone about the power of forgiveness? It’s kind of a one-way street. It is easy to talk about forgiveness if you are not the person who has been hurt. But if you are the victim, Katy bar the door!

I love the 10:00 Sunday School class. They have followed me down some interesting paths and come out the other side bruised but wiser for the journey. But I can guarantee you any conversation on forgiveness goes in circles until someone will bravely conclude with the time worn phrase, “OK, maybe I can forgive, but I WILL NOT FORGET.” Note the choice of words. “Maybe” means, “perhaps”, “not likely”, “if hell freezes over”. But regardless what I decide, I will not forget.

Everyone knows the guilty party is going to repeat the wrongdoing. Forgiveness gives the guilty permission to go astray again. Since the guilty can never to be trusted, our only choice is not be fooled again. This is very smart and practical. But I am not really sure it is what Jesus had in mind. I can promise you one thing. Those disciples, burning with the desire to follow Jesus, stopped dead in their tracks when his first request was a new attitude toward forgiveness.  Thankfully Thomas missed the meeting, setting the scene for one last object lesson.

We can hear the poor guy ranting. “I will not believe until I see the holes in his hands.” No sooner than the words were out of his mouth, Jesus appeared. Thomas was flabbergasted and begged to be forgiven for his foolish words. Jesus, as always, was ready to forgive. Of course as we all know, with forgiveness comes, “the talk”. You know what I mean.  We know the guilty party is only asking for forgiveness because they were caught. Furthermore we know the guilty party doesn’t feel all that guilty. The only satisfaction we have is “the talk”, the lecture, the pithy words based on the guilt we administer before forgiveness is given.  Only Jesus doesn’t do that.

Thomas said, “Forgive me that I didn’t believe.”

Jesus responded, “Blessed are those who do not see but believe.”

The disciples shouted, “How is that possible?”

Jesus just smiled, “They will know me through you.”

All of the disciples jumped to their feet and proclaimed, “Yes Lord, we will faithfully tell your story.”

Jesus, knowing they misunderstood replied, “Telling the story is not enough. You have to live it. You can start by practicing forgiveness.”


That unnamed woman who visits the prison to eat with the man who killed her husband and son is probably still trying to forgive him. In her heart it may never happen. But each week she goes. Each week he waits for her. Each week he sees something in her that makes no sense. But because she comes, he knows there is a forgiving God.

So who do you need to forgive? Could their crime be any worse than those done to this faithful widow? No one doubts God’s desire is to forgive. But will you?                Amen.          

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Hallelujah! Now What?

Micah 6:8


        Each gospel has its own version of what happened on this day we are celebrating. In Matthew, Mary witnesses the stone being rolled away. In Mark, the women encounter a messenger from the most high. In Luke, Jesus appears on the road to Emmaus just in time to share a meal. And then there is John.  Word had gotten out that the body of Jesus had been stolen. Peter and John rushed to the grave and found it empty. The text reads, “They believed and ran away.”  We quickly rush to the conclusion that they believed Jesus had been resurrected. I would like to suggest what they believed were the rumors flying around that the body had been stolen. Out of fear they ran back to Jerusalem and made plans to disperse. They knew it would not be long before the authorities would round up the disciples and be done with them.

Peter’s belief stemmed from fear, not faith. But Mary Magdalene stayed behind.  In the cemetery she encounters a man she assumes to be the gardener. Listen to her words.

“They have taken my Lord. Can you tell me where they have laid him?”

Is that the question Mary would have asked if she believed Jesus was alive? Looking at Easter from our perspective we want to scream at Mary, “Can’t you recognize the living among the dead? How can you not know you are talking to Jesus?” We’ve had 2,000 years of celebrations which always begin by singing, “Jesus Christ is Risen Today. Hallelujah!” We have no reason to doubt. We’ve read the book. We know how it ends. In the gospel of John, Jesus will appear in the Upper Room and later by the seashore. Peter and Paul will begin a new movement centered on faith inspired by the resurrection. 

So from our perspective this morning we will make three definitive proclamations. The first is “Hallelujah”! The second is, “We have heard the story and we believe”! The third and most important is, “Now let’s hurry home for that wonderful lunch which awaits us.”

But what if the whole point of the resurrection is Jesus doesn’t want us to go home? Peter made plans to return to Galilee when he believed the body of Jesus had been moved. But later, after that talk on the seashore, Peter gave up fishing altogether.

What do we believe about Easter that sends us beyond the safety of home? That is far more complicated than simply stating, “I believe Jesus died for my sins and was resurrected so I might go to heaven.” Perhaps, this Easter Morning, we should briefly return to Christmas and ask the critical question, “Why was Jesus born?”

Zechariah, the uncle of Jesus, believed the boy would reflect the tender mercies of God. Mary believed the boy would lift up the lowly and scatter the proud.

Why do we believe Jesus came? And more importantly, are our hallelujahs empty if they only take us home?

Seven hundred years before the birth of Jesus there was a man named Micah the Moreshite. We know nothing about the personal history of the man. All we have is that thin yet very thick volume that sits between the books of Jonah and Nahum. The book of Micah begins with a warning. “The Lord is coming down to be among you because of the great sins of the house of Judah and Israel.”

For the next five chapters Micah describes what has greatly displeased God. The people have neglected the poor. The king has put too much trust in weapons. The Temple is empty even on high holidays. When Micah finally took a breath the horrified people responded, “We had no idea God was so upset. What can we do to make everything right? What offerings can we burn? Does God want our first born? What must we do to show God we truly believe?”

Micah replied, “Do justice. Show mercy. Practice humility.” Doesn’t that sounds like what Mary and Zechariah were saying. Did the warning of Micah that God was coming down to walk among us actually manifest itself in the personhood of Jesus? Look at his words. How many times did Jesus say, “Do justice; Show Mercy; Practice humility.”

Last week we talked about humility. This week, just for a moment because we don’t want the ham to overcook, let’s imagine mercy as our faithful response to Easter.

I can’t think of many things more difficult than being merciful. We live in a world of winners and losers and usually this means one winner and 25 losers. Those of us who love baseball, and live outside of St. Louis, got caught up in the Chicago Cubs last year. They had not won a World Series in over 100 years. Then, on a cold night in Cleveland, they beat all the odds. In an extra inning seventh game they claimed the World Series crown. What about the Indians? They now hold the title of most consecutive years without a World Series. Sure they won the American League title. Sure they took the Cubs to seven games. But in our world of winners and losers, nobody outside Cleveland cares.

Mercy is hard. Being merciful sets us up for pain and ridicule. And worse, there are no “brownie points” for being merciful. Look at Jesus. How often in the gospels do we read the complaint, “Who is this guy? He eats with thieves and liars, and prostitutes and sinners. He must be a loser. Look where he hangs out.”

Yet Jesus continued to show mercy. Count the number of times Jesus exhibited compassion. Count the parables that speak of forgiveness. Even those who ridiculed Jesus were taken back by his concern. This should remind us that everyone, even the powerful, need some mercy.

I have a favorite song written a decade ago by Mary Gauthier. Rolling Stone magazine rates it as the 38th saddest country song of all time. While that is quite a compliment in a genre where every single song is sad, Rolling Stone got this one wrong. Beyond the sadness is a longing for forgiveness, and hope. Listen to the words.

My father could use a little mercy now.

The fruits of his labor fall and slowly rot on the ground.

It won’t be long and he won’t be around.

I love my father and he could use some mercy now.


My brother could use a little mercy now.

He’s shackled to his fears and doubts.

The pain he lives in is almost more than living will allow.

I love my brother. He could use some mercy now.


My country and church could use a little mercy now.

Sunk in a poisonous pit it’s gonna take forever to climb out.

They carry the weight of the faithful who follow them down.

I love them both. They could use a little mercy now.


We all could use a little mercy now.

I know we don’t deserve it, but we need it anyhow.

We hang in the balance between hell and hallowed ground.

Every single one of us could use a little mercy now.


        God doesn’t see us as winners or losers. God just sees folks who need a little mercy. The good news is we who dare to shout “Hallelujah” on this fine Easter morning know we have been granted mercy. But what we too often forget is that Jesus invites us to be become merciful. It is so much easier to run home to the ham and biscuits. But is that what God really desires? Is that what we really need?

        On this Easter Morning we sang, “Hallelujah! Christ has risen.” But now what do we do?

Might I suggest the request of Micah and Jesus? Do Justice, Show Mercy, Practice Humility.          Amen.      

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

April Madness

Philippians 2:5-11


        I bet most of you hadn’t given it even a second thought that today is Palm Sunday until you opened your bulletin or heard the opening hymn. Stuffed between Lent and Passion Week, Palm Sunday kind of gets lost in the shuffle particularly when it falls on the Sunday of the Masters, that magical day when yearly an incredible drama plays out somewhere between Amen Corner and the awarding of a Green Jacket. But Palm Sunday? It’s the same year end and year out. While the music might be a wonderful break from Lent, the story is always the same. Jesus borrows a donkey, the disciples line the streets with palms, the children holler “Hosanna”, and the folks in charge git a bit agitated. On the practical side, Palm Sunday alerts us that Easter is just around the corner.  I mean how embarrassing would it be to show up next week without a fancy tie or new hat.

        But other than that, why should we get all that excited about Palm Sunday? I can’t think of one good reason, unless you are willing to look beyond the disciples, beyond the crowds, even beyond the children and take a closer look at Jesus. What exactly was he announcing? Do you think he was thrilled to bring so much attention upon himself? Jesus was not stupid. He knew parading into Jerusalem crossed a line and there was no going back. People in places of authority, such as Caiaphas and Pilate, did not tolerate public displays of unbridled emotion. To make it worse, Jesus entered Jerusalem as the people were coming to commemorate Passover, that yearly celebration of escape from oppression and slavery. Tempers were flaring. Tension was at a seasonal high. If Jesus wanted to go unnoticed this had to be the worst time to triumphantly enter a city occupied by an Empire that celebrated its power through parades. I’ve seen Ben Hur. Rome knew how to celebrate its majesty. So why did Jesus ride into town on a donkey?

        Could you imagine George Washington crossing the Delaware and then hopping on a horse so petite the General’s feet dragged on the ground?  That would be out of the question. So why couldn’t Jesus, a man who had the ability to heal the sick and turn water into wine, locate a descent ride to the party?

        300 years before folks gathered at Nicaea to officially turn Jesus into Christ, thirty years before the gospels were written, and more than three years before Paul attempted to explain the whole Jesus phenomena in his book to the Romans, a song was sung in many of the worshipping communities.  Paul recorded this song in his letter to the Philippians. People sang it as faithfully as we sing Amazing Grace. It describes the man who got up one morning and decided to ride a donkey into Jerusalem.    

        Let the same mind be in you that was in Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited. Jesus emptied himself, took the form of a slave and humbled himself to the point of death. Therefore God exalted him.

        Jesus humbled himself.” How is that even possible? If we were to make a list of words to describe God, how long might our list be before we added “humble”? Perhaps the better question is would the word humble even make the list.  During the time of Jesus the god of the day was the Emperor of Rome. With the possible exception of Marcus Aurelius, I struggle to think of any Roman Caesar that would have considered humility in a positive light. GOD’S DON’T CHAMPION HUMILITY. THEY HUMBLE ANYONE WHO CROSSES THEIR PATH, or so we have been told. So what do we make of this Jesus and his donkey? What do we make of this man who allegedly said, “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth?” What do we make of this idea that Jesus humbled himself, becoming vulnerable, and weak, and exposed to the very wickedness he came to eliminate. 

        Of course that is just the warm-up question. I just threw it out there to tease you a bit. When Jesus left, the responsibility to continue what started fell on ordinary folk. If you don’t think the disciples were ordinary, read the gospels. If you don’t think the early church was made up of ordinary folk, read Acts and the letters of Paul. The leaders of the worshipping communities were not the powerful, not the rich, not the elite, not the leaders, not the Who’s Who of Greek and Roman society. They were ordinary people, with ordinary lives, armed only with the story of a man who had the unmitigated gall to ride a donkey into Jerusalem.

        You and I both know the first time an evangelism committee was formed in one of those early churches the question asked was, “How do we go out and convince our neighbors Jesus is real? Why would folks even desire what we believe? They have power; they have authority; they have wealth; they have everything. Why would they want to hear our story? What do we have that they don’t?”

        The response given was this, “Let the same humbleness that was in Jesus, be in you.”    (stop)

        History records that everyone was not all that keen to this particular idea. Challenged with the hard road of humility, many took the easier of path converting emperors, raising armies, fighting over dogma, and lining their pockets. Opportunities for reconciliation were turned into openings for crusades as the church became a well-oiled institution. But thankfully each generation spawned a voice or two that took the road less traveled.  Quietly, humbly, they continued to live the story of the man called Jesus.

        Then the most wonderful thing happened.  The church became irrelevant. Folks realized you didn’t have to be an elder of the First Presbyterian Church to qualify to be the president of the local bank. People began looking around and noticed the folks who went to church weren’t that much different from the folks who stayed home. Children complained church bored them and they would rather play soccer. Even adults began to notice the folks who stayed home seemed happier because they could get the earlier tee times. Attendance dwindled. Allegiance to particular denominations disappeared. Time Magazine declared the church to be in crisis and we Christians believed what we read. First we tried to guilt people into the pews with more sermons on hell and damnation. Then we tried guitars. Next we introduced used car salesmen promising prosperity.  Finally we declared ourselves God’s spokesperson on every hot-button issues creating a vicious paradigm of winners and losers making every one mad. Meanwhile Jesus, still riding that silly looking animal, began to ask, “My God, My God, why has the church forsaken me?”     

        Let me ask you, what could Rockfish Presbyterian possibly lose if we decided to swallow our pride, humble ourselves, and become imitators of Jesus? What is the worst that could happen? We might empower someone else? Word might get around? Time Magazine might come to Nellysford and ask us where we came up with such a crazy idea?

Well that’s when we and point to the guy on the donkey riding into our hearts.                    Amen.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

If You Had Been Here!

John 11:1-6; 17-27

        I think most of us are familiar with the story of Lazarus. Ironically it receives no mention in Matthew, Mark or Luke, but it is a critical turning point in John’s Gospel. In John there is little mystery surrounding the identity of Jesus or why Jesus came to be among us. He is the Son of God. The death and resurrection of Lazarus are a precursor to the death and resurrection of Jesus.  Each lifts up the rallying cry, “Fear Not”, which dominates John’s gospel.

        I want us to look at two statements that are highlighted in the telling of this story. The first is spoken by Jesus. Word arrives that Lazarus is deathly ill and Jesus is encouraged to hurry to Bethany. His response is, “This illness does not lead to death”.  Jesus then waits two days before making the trip to Bethany. He not only does it on purpose, he informs the messenger he will be delinquent in his arrival.

Such a caviler attitude today is impossible thanks to popularity of cell phones. I can be instantly connected with my family by simply pushing a button. If someone is on the way to the hospital I get a call and often get to the Emergency Room as quickly as the ambulance. But for all their beauty, cell phones will be the death of me. If I am visiting with someone or in a meeting, I turn it off. That is usually when Deb calls. If I am out of town I always leave the phone on because its ring can often mean a change in plan. Not often, but on more than one occasion, Deb and I have been on vacation and a phone call informs me that someone is not expected to live through the day. This creates quite a bit of turmoil in my moral universe. Everyone deserves to get away for some rest and relaxation, yet in my business, when someone dies I am expected to drop everything and rush to the family’s side. Death interrupts life. Confusion and grief often are suddenly thrust upon the family. In the midst of this confusion the family tries to reorient their lives plus plan a service for their love one.  I fully understand the expectation that I drop everything and hurry home. So imagine if my response is, “Oh don’t worry, the illness will not lead to death.” Then after making this kind of response, I extend my vacation by a couple of days just to make sure the point is made. Theologically, this is a tremendous affirmation confirming we believe that death is not the end of life. We as Christians consistently celebrate the resurrection of Jesus paved the way for our eternal existence. But if a member of your family was dying and I responded, “Don’t worry about it, God has a plan”, and then went back to the golf course, I am not so sure you would be in the pew the Sunday I returned.

Four days after the death of Lazarus, Jesus arrived in Bethany. He was well rested and now ready for that last push toward Jerusalem. The burial of his friend had already taken place and it appears Jesus was dropping by to make a sympathy call. Martha was not in the receiving mood. She lashed out a Jesus, “If you had been here my brother would still be alive.”

Ever get mad at God? If you haven’t, you should give it a try. It is a lot safer than yelling at a family member. You might think our holy insubordination would get us turned into a pillar of salt, but that is not the case. Hollering at God produces a silent rage that comes from a deep void that is about to be filled with an overwhelming sadness. How strange and yet how refreshing that God allows us to weep. God transcends anger with pathos. Then, in sorrow, we discover we are not weeping alone. God seldom offers answers to our turmoil. Instead God surrounds us with a holy presence that will not leave us alone. 

But Martha was still boiling mad. She heard about the miracles. She had seen Jesus cure the blind and heal the sick. If Jesus had dropped everything and come straight to Bethany all of this could have been avoided.

Ever wish God would step in and make your life better? Ever wish God was Superman. Whenever a problem is too big, Superman steps in to save the day. Are you familiar with the origins of Superman? Two artists, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster got together and created the story of an alien, Kal-el who arrives as a baby from the planet of Krypton. He grows up to save the world from a tyrant. Both writers were Jewish, the year was 1938, and the name Kal-el in Hebrew means Voice of God. Coincidence? Hardly. How often do we call on God to set our crooked path straight?

Martha believed Jesus could have saved her brother. Jesus tells Martha she is missing the big picture. Certainly this is a story about a pending resurrection but it is also a story about coming to terms with more than just death. Martha was holding on to the past. Jesus wants us to live in the now. I am not dismissing the power death has over us. All of us have experienced death. Our faith does not suggest we are beyond the grief it brings. But our faith does proclaims God will not be jerked around by death. When Jesus said to Martha, “There are worse things than dying”, I am sure she gave him the look. I suspect everyone here has been the recipient of a stare that communicates everything you never wanted to hear. But Jesus wasn’t finished. He promised resurrection for both Lazarus ……. and Martha.

What on earth does that mean? How difficult it has come to speak about resurrection in the 21st century. For some, particularly those who visit us only on Christmas and Easter, resurrection is all about punching that last ticket on the heaven bound train. For them resurrection leaps across eons of human wretchedness and then without tears triumphantly declares, ‘the strife is oe’r the battle won, this is a triumphant day.” And this is understandable, but is it also not a betrayal of the crucified and risen one?

To limit resurrection only to death limits the power of the love of God. Jesus saves us from becoming the dead being that fails to notice the wretchedness of life. Jesus saves us to see life and death differently. Jesus saves us to be compassionate, caring and responsive. Jesus saves us for a commitment of giving ourselves over to life’s joys and sorrows, life’s predictable and unpredictable moments, life’s routines and surprises. Jesus even saves us from the awful habit of saving ourselves.

Jesus saves us in order that we might become part of God’s eternal drama of caring, loving, and being reconciled to each other. Within this vocation we discover what life was truly meant to be and what life was truly meant to offer. God created us to care and love, and heal each. Martha said to Jesus, “If only you had been here.” Jesus could have responded, “Martha, I never left you.”

My friends, right here, as we prepare to enter Holy Week, right here, in the midst of our own death, chaos and confusion, God promises a new creation. The story of both the Old and New Testament is that God has always promised that salvation more than freedom from death. It is liberation into life, a promise that living continues, today, tomorrow, and even beyond our imagination. But not God’s!    Come to the table and remember. Come to the table and be revived.  For God’s sake, come to the table and live.