Sunday, April 28, 2019

A Sunday after Easter Sermon

Revelation 1:4-8; John 20:19-31


        Did you notice how packed the sanctuary was last Sunday? We had folks hanging from the rafters. There were children, young people, and great grandparents. From birth to death we had it covered. I had emails this week declaring the service was amazing. Folks loved the choir. Folks loved the children’s moment. Folks loved Bob’s benediction, and my mother loved the sermon. It was an unbelievable experience …….. or was it. If everything was so great, why didn’t they all come back?

Every Christmas and Easter the church is partially betrayed by its own message. During Christmas we shout, “Joy to the World, Jesus has come to save you”. On Easter we sing, “The strife is o’er, the battle done, Jesus has saved me.” Then the Sunday after Easter we get around to telling the whole truth. Jesus and world are still wounded.

Leave it to the Gospel of John to give us our most powerful post resurrection stories. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the gospel message is told through parables that bemuse and sometimes confuse the everyday audience. John introduces us to Nicodemus, a scholar blinded by his personal black hole. John shares the story of a Samaritan woman who drinks from the cup of a Jew. In John we are perplexed by Mary and Martha, startled by Lazarus, and left wishing Jesus had given a different answer to Pilate’s request for truth.

John’s post resurrection account centers on two disciples. The first is Thomas. We know very little about this man. He is hardly mentioned in any of the gospels before the crucifixion but manages steps forward in large way after the resurrection. He entered this life known as Thomas the Twin. He left it remembered as the one who doubted.

You know the story. You have heard me and other preachers tell of the one disciple who refused to believe Jesus was alive until he had visual proof. We end the story on a wonderful note, “Blessed are all that did not have to see the wounds and yet believed. Go forth in the knowledge that Jesus has saved you.”

But what if Thomas saw more than the wounds of Jesus? What if Thomas, for the first time, saw the frailty of Thaddeus? What if Thomas witnessed the brokenness of John? Perhaps he saw the insecurity of Andrew or the brashness of James. Maybe he felt the nervousness of Matthew or the fear of Phillip. I wonder if he saw the burden piercing Peter’s heart. Jesus wasn’t the only one with exposed wounds. Thomas was transformed when he realized that events of the past few days marked a new beginning.

The gospel writer of John has more than one book in the New Testament. Scholars also believe he is responsible for the Book of Revelation. The book opens with these words, “Jesus loved us and freed us through his wounds.”

Everyone loves the Book of Revelation.  It has this mystical presence that invites us into a literary world where anyone who knows it is by name becomes an expert. A number of us are beginning a year long ride through the Bible.  We meet the second and fourth Wednesday at 7:00.   You can start at the beginning. You can pick and choose which books you want to read. You can wait until we get to the New Testament. One thing I know for sure. When the class on the Book of Revelations is announced, a lot of new faces will show up. I really don’t know why everyone becomes so excited. The Book of Revelation reveals little of what most folks think they will find.

The Book of Revelation doesn’t tell us when the world will end. It didn’t predict the Crusades, the Russian Revelation, Ayatollah Khomeini, or the Cubs winning the World Series. What the book does is share a goal of residing in a place where all people are made completely whole. Is that heaven? Or is it even more?

When the Old Testament speaks of a new heaven it includes the promise of a new earth. We are not seen as individuals working against each other to get to the top of the mountain but rather as a community living and caring for one another. It may surprise you but the concept of survival of fittest is not a Biblical term. Listen to John’s prophecy, “We are freed by his wounds to become a new kingdom.”

The death of Jesus momentarily destroyed his band of disciples. They ran toward seclusion fearing for their lives. Every wound, every insecurity was exposed. Then Jesus arrived. Ten of the eleven witnessed his presence. They were elated, hardly aware of what any of this meant. Thomas the skeptic, Thomas the doubter, had not been in the room for the original triumphant entry. When Jesus arrived a second time Thomas’ eyes are open in ways he never imagined. Made whole by the presence of Christ, Thomas witnessed not only his wounds, but the wounds of those who surrounded him.

This is the new heaven and earth proclaimed by Isaiah and understood by the writer of John. It is a place where we not only witness the wounds of others, we become part of the healing process. To use a phrase attributed to Henri Nouwen, Thomas became a wounded healer. For the first time he saw beyond himself. For the first time he not only understood the message of Jesus, he understood the intention of God. As God heals us, we in turn are commissioned to heal one another.  It is not just about me. It is about us.

Perhaps I am over-thinking this phenomenon that happens every Christmas and Easter but it makes me wonder about those folks who grace our doorsteps and where they go the rest of the year?  Is it simply an old habit? Did they go to church as a kid so for the sake of memories they drop by on high holidays? If that is the case what is it that they received on their once a year check-up. We proclaimed the resurrection. We assured them God has conquered death. We promised when their time on earth is finished, God will save them. The problem is Easter appears to be all about tomorrow, but what do we offer for today?

We live in an amazing world. We can create in an hour what our grandparents labored for months to produce. We control the temperature so that is always 72 degrees. We don’t work on the farm and still have eggs for breakfast and meat for dinner. We have placed our faith in technology and economic systems and our faith has been rewarded. And yet, with all our creative powers there is still the potential for self-destruction. I look at young couples with two plus children. They hold down two jobs. They try to do everything to make the world perfect for their children. They trust in the latest convenience yet continue to live wounded, exhaustive lives. I look at single folks searching for a community. They have no children and therefore often viewed as incomplete. They come to church on Easter Sunday hoping to hear some good news. We oblige by proclaiming God has conquered death. They sing the songs, drink the grape juice, and leave triumphant, only to wake up on Monday morning…….. empty.

Maybe we would serve our whole community best if on Easter Sunday instead of preaching the resurrection and the rewards in the next world, we talked about the wounds of Jesus, and the wounds of Thomas, and the wounds of Matthew, and Thaddeus, and Andrew, and John, and James, and the rest of us.  Maybe we would serve the world best if on Easter we lifted up the second resurrection story told in the gospel of John.

Jesus meets Peter by the seashore. Peter is overcome with guilt and wounded to the soul. He can’t sleep and he certainly can’t face Jesus. Peter’s denial had left irreparable scar.  Jesus said to him, “Peter, do you love me?”

Peter responded, “Lord, I love you more than life itself.”

Jesus whispered, “Then feed my sheep.”

When we who are wounded become healers, we see beyond our fears, and insecurities, and even sins. When we find the courage to be a wounded healer, we discover salvation is not just about me. The gospel lived is about hearing another’s stories and recognizing their wounds that fester on Monday morning. If all we do is proclaim the resurrection, to the casual listener it may appear we are not interested in today.  But if we expose our wounds, if we open our hearts, if we talk about our doubts, and then we listen …….. we might strike a chord with those are losing hope. Who knows, they might even find a reason to come back the next Sunday morning.

To God be the Glory.    Amen.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Somebody's Calling Your Name

John 20:1-18


        Two or three times a week I receive e-mails suggesting I look at some phenomenal event recorded on the internet.  There is no such thing as a private moment anymore.  Even professional basketball players are texting comments to their “face book” during halftime.  I guess I should comb my hair just in case someone is recording this sermon.

        Imagine if the Easter event had happened in the 21st century.  In this age of mass media, CNN would have camped out in the cemetery and Anderson Cooper would have entered the tomb at first light.  On Monday Jesus would have begun the morning on the “Today Show” and ended the day singing ditties with Jimmy Fallon.  The news of the resurrection would have been no secret whatsoever.  Two months after Easter, CBS would have aired a made for TV movie titled, “Alive”.  The pre-airing commercials would tease us by guaranteeing it was based on a real story.

But that is not the way it happened.  There are eye witness accounts, each contradicting the other.  Mark’s original version was so sparse that someone later went back and added an additional ending.  Luke highlighted events along the road to Emmaus as the center piece of his story.  In Matthew the disciples don’t see the risen Lord until they return to Galilee.

  Then there is the account in John.  It begins with Mary Magdalene going to the tomb by herself.  If this were a made for TV movie you can just imagine the creepy soundtrack being played as alone, Mary walked in the semi-darkness toward the tomb.  There would be shrieking sounds as Mary found the stone rolled away.  We would have all feared for her life as she looked inside the tomb.  When she found it empty, she would have turned, stumbled, then ran back to Jerusalem to tell the disciples what she had discovered.  In the next scene we would witness the detectives Peter and John gathering clues concerning the mysterious disappearance of the body.  Completely confused the disciples would return home, leaving Mary alone, weeping. 

I have no idea why Mary returns to the tomb.    Obviously Jesus wasn’t there.  Maybe she just wanted to be close to the place where she had seen him last.  Maybe in her grief, she also wanted to die.  For whatever reason, she returns to the tomb and goes inside. Imagine her surprise when she discovers two angels sitting where the body had been.  The angels ask a ridiculous question, “Woman, why are you weeping?” 

For many of us, Easter is the most glorious moment in the history of humankind.  Yet imagine being Mary.  She found herself right in the midst of God’s revelation but none of the pieces seem to fit.  The tomb was empty, the grave clothes were left behind, the disciples had run off to who knows where and two angels calmly sat in the tomb telling her not to weep over the death of the most important person in her life.

Marie Berger wrote, “Once in a while one becomes profoundly and spiritually bewildered.  The neat answers crumble in a sea of confusion as we are led astray into a pathless wilderness that has no obvious beginning or end.”    Many of us have sat with spouse at the moment of their loved one’s death.  One minute the person they love more than anyone else is here, and then they are gone.  The survivor looks sorrowfully into our eyes and asks, “Why?”  We whisper the first thing that comes to our mind, “The person you love is not dead; they are living eternally with God.”   

An Affirmation? Yes.

Words of comfort? Not always.

While the disciples stumbled over each other trying to figure out which one of them was the greatest, it was the women who were faithful.  When Jesus was tired, the women washed his feet.  When the Last Supper was prepared, do you really thing the men cooked the meal?  Even at the cross, where Jesus was deserted by the disciples, the woman gathered together and supported each other. When the final breath was taken, they claimed his body.  These women listened to Jesus.  They remembered his stories.  And now Mary Madeline, in the midst of her grief, came to make those final burial preparations.  For all the promises of life, Mary could only see death.   For all the promises of tomorrow, Mary could only see yesterday.  Even the angels served to further confuse her bruised heart.

“Where have you taken him? I need to finish the work I started.  I need to say the final prayers.  I need to shed a tear.  I need to hold his hand and kiss his face one last time.” Mary stared blindly at the angels. She was overwhelmed by grief and  overcome by her personal sea of confusion.  Then she hears that voice she had heard a thousand times before, “Mary”.

There was no one around to record this scene.  The disciples had gone home.  The soldiers had fled.  No cameras, no fancy cell phones, no CNN, no one, except Mary.  She turned and looked into that face she adored and answered, “Teacher.”   

Karl Barth, the great Swiss Reformed pastor wrote, “Faith is a decision to believe in God’s mysterious breaking forth. Faith is the belief that God is not dead, not passive, nor inactive but that God works through history for the redemption of humankind.  Faith is enacted by announcing, ‘I have seen the Lord’.”

There is an African-American spiritual that captures Mary’s moment of recognition.  The song begins, “Hush, hush, somebody’s calling my name.  Hush…… hush, somebody’s calling my name.   Hush……… hush, somebody’s calling my name.  Oh my Lord, O my Lord, what shall I do?” 

The Christian faith began when Mary found Peter, and John, and the rest of the disciples and testified to the resurrection.  She didn’t bring pictures of the body.  She didn’t share a recording of the voice.  She simply declared, “I have seen him.”

At my last congregation we had a children’s program which met every other Wednesday.  On the Wednesday before Easter we turned the church grounds into Jerusalem.   We began with a parade in the fellowship hall.  We went outside and pretended to be Jesus praying on the hill for the sins of Jerusalem.  We climbed the steps to an “Upper Room” where the kids told me all about the significance of the bread and the body.  We headed back outside to the garden.  We talked about the disciples falling asleep.  We traveled to the court of Pilate, and finally made our way into the sanctuary.  On the communion table was a cross wrapped in black.  The kids were filled with questions. “How did Jesus die? Why did he forgive everyone? Why he was thirsty?” 

Then I sent a couple of girls to the choir room and told them to pretend it was the tomb where Jesus was buried. They quickly came back and announced the tomb was empty.  I asked them what had happened and one girl said, “Jesus rose from the dead.”  I asked her how she knew. She said, “Somebody told me.”

Yes, Easter is the day of resurrection, but Easter is not about worrying with the details. I suspect Easter is best understood when we share the story of God calling our name.

Hush…..Hush…… Someone is calling my name.

O my Lord, O my Lord,  what shall I do?      

To God be the Glory.    Amen.                                

Sunday, April 7, 2019

The Poor Will Always be Among Us

John 12:1-8


        Nearly 40 years ago I was invited to a conference on poverty that took place at a Presbyterian Church in Washington. Most of my day was spent visiting various ministries that were doing their best to address issues of poverty, racism, crime and housing. It was a daunting task. 

        When the conference concluded I took an extra day by myself in our capital city. I went to all the usual places and then drove to the National Cathedral. When George Washington envisioned the land across the Potomac as a site for our country’s Capital, he also dreamed of a structure which would become our national church. The construction did not begin until 1907. Five years later the first services were held in the Bethlehem Chapel. When I first visited the Cathedral, construction was still taking place on the west tower. Work was finally completed in 1980.

        When I entered the cathedral, I was overwhelmed by its massive size. Having never been to Europe, our cathedral is my only connection to those beautiful works of architecture. I took the elevator to the east tower which is best known for its amazing view of Washington. I gazed out at the city, located the familiar landmarks, and then my eyes began to focus from afar on the sections of the city that had captivated my last few days.   I began to calculate the amount of money that had been spent over the previous 70 years to make this edifice possible. I compared that to the budgets of those dedicated folks trying to keep poverty from swallowing DC. Looking out at the capital, I wondered how money spent on the cathedral might have served God better on the opposite side of town.

        “The poor will always be with us.” How often have those words from the lips of Jesus served as both a justification and a rallying point to address an explosive yet permanent stain on our national landscape. Poverty in Washington is worse than it was 40 years ago. While I don’t have the numbers to prove it, crime certainly seems to be higher. I do know one in three children in DC go to bed hungry. The cynical side of me observed the cathedral towering over those children. I left with a narrow, certainly biased opinion of any church that sits upon a hill. Perhaps my 40 years my grappling with of this morning’s text has helped to soften my restricted vision.

        Jesus was visiting with Mary, Martha and Lazarus. The smell of death was in the air. Just days before Jesus had reached into the tomb and grasped the hand of his dearly departed friend. Can you imagine what it must be like to sit with someone who had been dead for three days? Certainly the experience of Lazarus had to be the center of the conversation. What does death feel like? Did Lazarus see a bright light? Did he remember anything? Perhaps Martha remembered one moment Lazarus was having a normal day, going about his work, and then instantly he was gone. There was no warning and certainly no time for goodbyes. Hearing the conversation Mary looked at Jesus and remembered his words concerning what might greet him in Jerusalem. Overcome with the emotions of almost losing a brother, Mary grabbed ointment left over from the preparation of the body of her brother and began to rub it gently into the feet of her dear friend. It was a pure act of love. The death of her brother had left her shocked. His resurrection was still beyond her comprehension. Mary could not possibly have understood everything taking place but she knew death was eminent. She wanted a moment to grieve and say good-bye.

        The act of adoration was ruined by Judas.  His words should never be seen as a reflection on my courageous DC friends who work for Sojourners or Church of the Servant. He was a selfish worm who seldom saw beyond his next meal.

        “Why are you wasting these perfumes? Do you have any idea what they are worth on the open market? Imagine the mouths we could feed?”

Jesus replied, “The poor will always be with you. I will only be here a little time longer.”

        Jesus was literally right on both accounts. Poverty is still with us. Jesus was killed within the next two weeks. But to take those words literally gives the Judas’ still among us permission to ignore God’s holy intentions. The words of Jesus were never intended to eliminate the struggle to irradiate the dreadful sin of poverty. Thankfully, the presence of our Lord persists in the ministry of God’s people.

        When I served a church in Va. Beach, I was privileged to work with a group called St. Columba ministries. These folks evolved from a Presbyterian church that had closed into a ministry of compassion with folks in Va. Beach and Norfolk. The people of Va. Beach struggled to find a solution for homeless folks who had no place to sleep during the winter. City regulations eliminated the hope of a permanent shelter. So the St. Columba board approached churches in the area and asked each to transform their fellowship halls into a night shelter for one week. Churches responded and the homeless in Va. Beach had two meals and a place to stay from mid October through March. This program eventually expanded to other towns throughout Virginia. Ironically the program no longer exists in Va. Beach. Members of the same churches came together and decided a shelter, while a short term solution, was not the answer. These churches helped St. Columba to begin a program where folks were given short term housing and job training opportunities. Today, in Va. Beach every six months up to 24 men and woman are given the opportunity to leave the streets and start a path toward employment and permanent residence. The success rate has been remarkably high. 

        The physical presence of a church stands as a reminder that even in a world immersed in pain, God still calls us to be a people of justice and reconciliation.   I realize many churches spend a good part of their budget on staff salaries, the physical plant and other administrative items that might not go to feed the hungry. I also realize many churches struggle with finding the dollars just to keep the doors open causing mission opportunities to be set aside. But as I travel through our fair state, every time I see a building identifying itself as a place of worship I assume it wrestles with its obligations to its neighbors.

        On my second visit to the Washington Cathedral, I got up the nerve to speak to priest in charge of the daily ministries of the Cathedral. After letting off a little steam about how much money had gone to building such a magnificent building, I asked how all this effort was justified. His response was to share their mission statement.  The Cathedral’s purpose for existing is to be a catalyst for spiritual harmony in the nation, renewal in our churches, reconciliation among different faiths, and compassion in the world.  I smiled and said that sounded good but what were they doing to accomplish this. I then bragged how I was spending the week working with the Sojourners group who were trying to establish transitional housing in East DC. The priest nodded and complemented me on my dedication by saying, “Most folks would not spend 7 minutes much less 7 days in East DC. But they will come here. This weekend Jim Wallis, the head of Sojourner, is giving a seminar on poverty. He has also been invited to preach on Sunday.”

        “The poor will always be with us.” The good news is the church also continues to be among us. Sometimes it is a on a hill. Sometimes it is motivated by the vision of one person. Sometimes it is a light in a valley. Sometimes it is a community of folk who yearn to see beyond themselves. God’s spirit moves within us in ways that creates difficult and complicated conversations. But that same spirit, that holy catalyst, motivates us towards spiritual harmony, towards a renewal of fresh ideas, towards reconciliation and towards compassion with all people. We are the church, this confusing, intriguing, difficult body attempting to personify the wishes of our God.

        Sometimes when a text or my faith challenges me beyond my comfort zone I find myself returning to the beatitudes. You remember the beatitudes; it is that group of statements in Matthew that begins, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” To the originals I have added:

        Blessed are those with a different way of approaching my understanding God’s truth.

        Blessed are those who are willing to challenge me.

        Blessed am I when I am willing to listen.

        Blessed is each of us when we are willing to act, in our own way, for the benefit of others.

        Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, regardless if you sit on a hill or reside in a valley.

        Jesus is no longer with us, but the church is. Again I say, “Rejoice and be glad.”                                     Amen.