Sermon: Holy annoyance (April 22, 2018)

Easter 4 (NL4)
April 22, 2018
Acts 16:16-34

INTRODUCTION

A lot has happened since the story we heard last week, about Paul’s conversion. It’s been several years, and Paul is getting his bearings as an apostle and church planter. He has been affirmed by the Council at Jerusalem, as a legit apostle of Jesus Christ, and a witness, especially to the Gentiles. So now he’s off doing his thing. He had been traveling with Peter and Barnabas, but at some point along the way, they got in a fight and decided it would be best to go their separate ways (see, even apostles sometimes don’t get along!). The rest of Acts follows the path of Paul and Silas.

They had planned to go a couple places on their travels, but the Holy Spirit had advised them not to do that. So now, Paul and Silas find themselves without anywhere to go, and so they wander around until they get a vision about a man from Macedonia… so they take this as a message and head there, and find themselves in Philippi, which is where our story is set. And as they are wandering around, they are followed by this girl shouting fortunes at them. And that’s what kicks off our story. It’s a story with dramatic turns – a possessed girl, an angry mob, two men unjustly imprisoned, a dramatic breakout opportunity, and a whole family conversion. Let’s hear it.

[READ]

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

“And Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to her, ‘I order you, in the name of Jesus Christ, come out of her!”

It might be the only exorcism that came not out of a desire to heal someone in need, but out of sheer annoyance.

There is so much to love about this text, so many preaching possibilities. And yet every time I sat down with this text this week, I couldn’t get past this opening scene with the slave girl who has a spirit of divination, and the “very much annoyed” apostle, Paul.

When I can’t shake something like that in a biblical text, it usually means the Spirit is trying to tell me something, so I leaned into it, into this slave girl and Paul’s response to her, and this question arose: is there such a thing as “holy annoyance”? What might holy annoyance look like, and where might it lead us?

Maybe we start by describing annoyance in general. Is it something you’re familiar with? Yeah? How many of you have been annoyed? Who is annoyed by bad drivers? Who is annoyed by people not pulling their weight? Who here is annoyed by dishes or laundry being left around the house? Tell me – what are some other things that annoy you? [wait for answers]

There’s a real variety! And those things, those little annoyances – they eat away at us, right? They fester, they tear us (and possibly others) down, they frustrate us and maybe even paralyze us, keep us from wanting to do the good work we were made to do, at least do to it joyfully. Annoyances can really bog you down!

A friend of mine just wrote a piece about what she called “Two marriage hacks” – two tricks to have a happy and successful marriage. The first was to keep a running list of all the reasons you married that person in the first place, and all the moments that affirm that decision – and refer to it often. That one is fun, or can be. The second is much harder. It is to let go of the story you’re telling yourself. So when you come home from work and your spouse has once again left all their dirty dishes for you to wash, or won’t stop jabbering on about all the details about something you really don’t care about, or whatever your annoyance de jour is, you start telling yourself, “He doesn’t care about me. She doesn’t value my time as much as her own. He doesn’t keep my needs in mind. She is selfish” …That’s the story you need to let go of. And this goes beyond marriage, of course; it applies to any significant relationship. Those stories we tell ourselves about why people do annoying things are serving no one. They only tear away at your heart, at your relationship with that person, and maybe even your relationship with God.

That’s what annoyance can do. It can cause resentment, self-pity, self-righteousness, judgment. Annoyance can be mundane, or it can be very destructive, to our interactions with strangers as well as in our most important relationships.

So, if that’s annoyance… what on earth is “holy annoyance”?

Holy annoyance is the sort of annoyance that can serve as a catalyst for transformation. It snaps you out of whatever was keeping you focused on yourself, and moves you toward God’s will, toward life. It moves you out of your self-pity party, and ultimately leads to a conversion experience.

Just look at today’s story. Paul and Silas have been wandering around Philippi. The text tells us that this girl with the spirit of divination has been following them for many days – many days! – before Paul finally casts out that spirit. Can you think of any other story in which Jesus or an apostle goes days before attending to the needs of the people they encounter? I can’t! So Paul clearly had something else on his mind that he let this go so long. His attention was elsewhere, not where it needed to be. And it was that annoyance that finally snapped his attention back to the mission had been sent to do.

A colleague was just telling me his call to ministry was that way. His mind was elsewhere for many years, while God pestered him about his call to ministry. He kept shaking it off, doing his own thing, until finally he said, “Okay, fine! You win! I’ll go to seminary!” Had he not been so annoyed, he would have kept his eyes on his own will instead of God’s, and perhaps never answered that call. Holy annoyance.

Now we don’t all receive a call to ordained ministry. But for all of us, annoyance, whether mundane or severe, always has the power either to keep us distracted, or to set us on a godly course, if we’ll let it. Whether it sets you down the path of distraction, or the path of God’s will, is a matter of how you view it.

We’re pretty good at letting it nip at us and be destructive. To be continually distracted by it, you can keep telling yourself that same story of self-pity, self-righteousness, and judgment. (“Hang up and drive!” “Wash your dishes, would you??” “Stop tapping your fingernails like that, it’s driving me nuts!!”) But what is necessary for mere annoyance to become holy annoyance?

In my life, I have found that when I’m annoyed by something, or angered, or frustrated, it ultimately has very little to do with the thing annoying me, and more to do with the way that thing rubs up against something going on with me. Whatever is the irritant triggers something in my heart, or my past, or my belief system, and I react – I get annoyed. So there is the key by which to turn destructive annoyance into holy annoyance: figure out what is going on in you that’s causing your reaction, what value is being threatened, what belief is being challenged, what negative memory is being brought up. Dwell there for a little while, considering how that irritation might be pointing you toward a change, a conversion, in your heart.

And, like Paul, call upon the name of Jesus Christ to drive out the annoyance, and turn it into new life. I don’t mean, pray that the annoying thing would go away. I mean, ask Jesus to show to you how this revelation can be used to point you toward God’s work.

And then, trust God, even if you don’t see results right away. This event with the girl and the spirit really isn’t the point of this story. The real meat of the story is later – Paul and Silas get arrested for “disturbing the peace,” they are flogged and beaten, and they are imprisoned. This is not going well for them! But there they encounter other prisoners and bring the hope of Christ to them through song. Ah, now we are getting somewhere. That holy annoyance had sent them to prison to witness to those prisoners!

But wait, there’s more! An earthquake releases the captives, but devastates the jailer, who is about to kill himself for the shame of his failure. This prompts Paul to reach out to him, saying, “No, don’t do it! We are still here!” And through this encounter, the jailer comes to faith in Christ. He reaches out in love to these criminals, washes their wounds, feeds them a meal, and he and his whole family are baptized.

You see what happened? God needed Paul and Silas to be in jail at that particular time, so that they could witness to the jailer, so that they could be loved and cared for by their enemy, so that a whole family could come to faith through their witness. There is conversion in this story – of the jailer, his family, and I’d argue also for Paul and Silas – and that conversion started with an annoyance. A holy annoyance.

Who could have known that the annoying slave girl with the spirit of divination was exactly the tool God was using to bring the jailor to Christ?

I have been wondering all week whatever happened to that girl who had the spirit. What was her life like after Paul, in a fit of annoyance, cast out the spirit? We will never know, of course. And those who observed this might never have known the path that this event set these men upon, the way that the girl’s exorcism led to new life for a Roman jailor and his family, the way it brought hope to some prisoners, and the way it deepened the faith of a couple of apostles. We often don’t see the whole story of how God works.

And, sometimes we don’t see how an annoyance, if we take it seriously, and discern how that annoyance might be moving our hearts, ends up guiding us or placing us exactly where we need to be. Annoyance can certainly be a holy experience. Indeed, when we call upon the name of Jesus, it can bring about a conversion that leads to new life – for us and for the world.

Let us pray… Annoying God, you are always nagging us, urging us, prodding us to examine our hearts, and showing us how we might turn them toward you. Help us to see all those things that annoy us as entry points to discern your will for our lives. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Sermon: When faith is like a moonwalking bear (April 15, 2018)

Easter 3 (NL4)
April 15, 2018
Acts 9:1-19a
Luke 24:13-35

INTRODUCTION

For the past four months, we have been reading John – today we jump over to the Gospel of Luke. The writer known as Luke also wrote the book of Acts, so sometimes they are together considered a two-volume book, with Luke focusing on the life of Jesus and Acts focusing on the Early Church and the work of the Apostle Paul to spread the Good News of Jesus to the world. Just as John’s Gospel has some distinct themes, so does Luke’s. I won’t get into all of them now, but two that we will see today are the power and importance of sharing a meal, and the action of the Holy Spirit, which empowers people for ministries they never thought possible.

We’re going to hear two stories today, one from Luke and one from Acts, and we’ll hear them in reverse chronological order, but I want to introduce them to you in the order they happened. So first, Luke: we go back to the evening of Easter. The women have announced what they learned at the tomb, but the disciples didn’t believe them. So now these guys are on their way to a town called Emmaus, still not really sure what just happened, and they are grieving and heartbroken. They are so heartbroken, in fact, that they don’t even notice Jesus walking right along with them! But notice what moment it is that they DO recognize him, and what implications that has for our own worship and life of faith.

The other story, the one we’ll hear first, happens a year or two later. Christianity is spreading, and comes to be known as “The Way.” The early Christians were a people who were filled with the Holy Spirit, cared for one another, were peaceful and law-abiding people, and spoke boldly about their faith – but they were harshly persecuted for their beliefs. A man named Saul, later known as Paul, was among the most famous persecutors of Christians. Yet it is this harsh critic of Christianity that Jesus calls to spread his name and gospel to all the nations. A good portion of the New Testament was written by this man, Paul, who once was the most unlikely to serve in Jesus’ name. Let’s hear the stories.

[READ]

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

I saw a cute video a while back called “This is an Awareness Test.” [Watch it here before you read on!]

It starts off with two groups of four basketball players, one team in white, the other in black. The narrator says, “How many passes does the team in white make?” The eight players jump and swerve in and out amongst each other, passing the ball, and I carefully counted, thinking, “I’ve totally got this.” It stopped, and the narrator said, “The correct answer is 13.” Yes! Got it! I patted myself on the back. But he goes on, “But did you see the moonwalking bear?” Huh? The video rewinds and replays, and sure enough, now that I was watching for the bear, I saw him, moonwalking right through the middle of this game! How had I missed it?? It was so obvious now!

The answer is: I missed it because I wasn’t looking for him. I was too focused on counting passes. And why would I look for a moonwalking bear anyway? Who would expect that?

Both stories that we heard a moment ago are stories about blindness, about not seeing things that you simply aren’t expecting to see. The disciples on their way to Emmaus, and Saul of Tarsus, and even Ananias – none of them can see right away how God is working right before their very eyes, because their vision is blocked by their expectations, rather than being open to God’s surprising work.

First, let’s look at Saul (later, Paul). It is easy to see him as a pretty bad guy at the beginning of this text. Earlier in Acts, he was a part of the killing of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. But even if you didn’t know that, the first line, “Saul, still breathing threats and murder against disciples of the Lord,” makes him sound so sinister, and gives you the sense that this is not a guy you want to cross.

Yet I want to be clear that Saul was actually a very devout Jew, from a fine family, with an excellent liberal arts education. He really felt he was doing the right thing, putting a stop to this Christian movement. He saw these Christians as going against the faith he knew and loved. Was killing Christians the best way to respond to this? Well, no, I don’t think so! But that’s what he thought was right.

And yet God uses this broken vessel as one of the most important instruments to spread the good news. Saul had seen his role as one thing, and God saw his role as something else entirely – in fact, as the exact opposite of what he was doing! When Ananias comes and prays over Saul, Luke tells us that “something like scales fell from his eyes.” He says his sight is restored – but really, it is more than restored, isn’t it? His sight is something new, for it is at this point that he is baptized and commissioned for this new task that Christ has set before him. His expectations give way for God’s expectations.

Isn’t that a wonderful image – “something like scales fell from his eyes”? Like, all the hatred and murderous threats that had blocked his vision and kept him from seeing the God of love manifest in Jesus Christ – it all just fell away. Suddenly he could see the moonwalking bear who was in front of him all along.

I’ve been thinking about that scales image this week – about the various times in my life when whatever was blocking my vision fell away, and I was able to see. Perhaps my assumptions fell away, or my self-doubt, or my preconceived notions or previously held beliefs… and when those scales fell away, I was able to see God’s love shining through, and showing me the path God had set before me.

Not to say it was always a path I wanted to walk down. In that way, I resonate with Ananias! Poor Ananias – what a job to be given! “Hey, Ananias, I need you to go talk to this guy who is a known murderer, this guy who is persecuting people like you. Oh, you’ve heard of him? Great, yes, that’s the guy. I need you to go to him. Tell him I sent you, and pray with him. Thanks!” Ananias is understandably hesitant! “Uh, you sure, God? That guy?”

I’ve been there! “You sure this is what you want me to do, God? Are you sure this is the right place? The right time? The right people? Really?” Oh yes, I’m sometimes full of suspicion about God’s plans for me, and I’ve got a host of excuses lined up! Especially when I’m pretty sure I know more about the situation and the people involved than God does.

A friend told me a story this week about a mission trip her church went on to build a house in Appalachia. There were some guys helping at the site who were volunteering in order to get out of their prison sentence. One guy in particular was extremely disrespectful to my friend. She had a horrible experience. The next year, she voted that they should not return there – those guys were awful, she said. But everyone else wanted to return, and so she went with them. When they arrived, that same, disrespectful man came out to greet her… with tears in his eyes. He went right up to her and said, “I didn’t think you’d ever come back.” People can surprise us, you see! You never know when a moonwalking bear might make its way into your assumptions! Even when we think we’ve got people all figured out, never underestimate the power of the Holy Spirit to change someone and use them for God’s work – or to change you! Never doubt that God might show up, even where you didn’t expect it.

That’s what happened with those guys on the road to Emmaus, too, right? They are heartbroken, grieving, confused – they’re so wrapped up in their own stuff that they don’t even see that it is Jesus walking right there along with them. It’s a recurring theme in these texts – our expectations or preoccupations block us from seeing how God comes to us, even when we least expect it. As the disciples walk with this “stranger” to Emmaus, he interprets the scriptures to them, and yet they still don’t know that it is their teacher and friend.

But one thing does finally opened their eyes and help them see the moonwalking bear – what is it? What makes them recognize Jesus? … It was in the breaking of bread. It was sharing the fellowship of a meal together. It was seeing Jesus once again give himself for them.

Yesterday I had the joy of spending the afternoon with some of our young people, learning about communion. Today they will receive communion for the first time, partake of this special meal that recalls Christ’s sacrifice for us, be a part of this place where Christ is made profoundly known to us. As a part of our class yesterday we looked at this story, the story of two disciples who were joined by Jesus as they walked to Emmaus, and how Jesus was made known to them in the breaking of bread. We talked about how even though when we come up here to communion, we don’t actually see the man Jesus, we still know that he is here, that he is with us. He is in, with and under this bread and cup. We know because he told us so! We know because we see his face in the people of this congregation. We know because we have heard his promises in scripture. Even when we are blinded by our expectations, our assumptions, and our preconceived notions, we know that Jesus comes to us, walks with us, lives with us, and moves in us, and that, when we open our hearts to receive him, we will come to see him more clearly in the world.

At the end of our class yesterday, I asked the parents to share with the kids if they pray during communion, and what they pray for. Today, I will tell you my prayer, and I hope you will join me in it: I will pray that, by this bread and cup, God would make the scales fall from my eyes, and that Christ would be made known to me, both here at the table, and as I leave this place and go out into the world. I will pray that my eyes would be opened to see Christ even when I didn’t expect to. In fact, let’s pray that prayer right now…

Ever-present God, open our eyes. Let the scales of our assumptions and expectations fall from our eyes, so that we might see your marvelous work before us. Help us to notice you at work, not only at your gracious meal, but also where we least expect to find you. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon: Sent out to seek peace (April 8, 2018)

Easter 2 (NL4)
April 8, 2018
John 20:19-31

INTRODUCTION:

We last left off on Easter morning: a weeping Mary Magdalene had just encountered Jesus in the garden tomb. Jesus told her to go tell the disciples that he was ascending to his Father and our Father, to his God and our God. Mary does so, telling them, “I have seen the Lord!” Mary becomes the first apostle – the first one sent to tell the Good News of the living God.

John doesn’t tell us how the disciples react to the news in the moment, but whatever the case, now they are scared. The disciples have gathered in a locked room, afraid. Did they not believe Mary? Or are they scared because they did believe her?

Whatever the case, we will see that Jesus comes to them with some pretty important statements. Our reading today is actually two different resurrection appearances, both to the disciples, but one without Thomas there and one with. The first is known as John’s version of Pentecost, the day the Spirit infuses the Christian community, because Jesus will breathe his Holy Spirit into them. The second features the guy who has come to be known as “doubting Thomas.”

Let’s see what happens. Please rise for the Gospel!

[READ]

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Risen Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

This past week, several of my colleagues, including our synod and presiding bishops, John and Elizabeth, attended a rally in Washington DC called, “ACT Now to End Racism.” It was held in honor of the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, April 4th. Speakers at the event recognized the continuing reality of racism in our country, though it looks different now than it did in the 60s. They addressed how racism is tied up with other issues such as poverty, mass incarceration, gun violence, etc.,and what needs to be done to continue King’s legacy of working toward peace and justice for all.

Thinking of another giant in faith from a quarter century before that, today, April 8th, marks the 73rd anniversary of the last worship service Dietrich Bonhoeffer led while in prison, before being executed on April 9th. Bonhoeffer was a pastor, ethicist and theologian during World War II, and was a part of a plot to assassinate Hitler. Though the attempt was unsuccessful, he was arrested for his part in this. The life and work of this German Christian activist is often compared to that of Martin Luther King’s: both were compelled by their faith in God to resist a racist regime, both found their gospel commitments led them to work outside of the conventional church, and both ultimately gave their lives for their respective resistance movements.

These two anniversaries have made me hear some of Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel reading a bit differently than I have before. First, his initial greeting. Three times in this reading, Jesus says, “Peace be with you.” I have usually heard this as a word of comfort to the fearful disciples. But thinking this week about the work of King and Bonhoeffer, I’ve thought about those words differently, because while the end goal of peace might in fact be something resembling calm and reassurance, getting there can be anything but calm. Just ask King and Bonhoeffer, who were both martyred at age 39 because of their working for peace! Ask those trying to raise their voices and make people aware of their various plights, whether that is as a victim of a racist system, or one that keeps people living in poverty, or someone speaking up about being harassed or abused or bullied, only to be told they are imagining it or lying. Ask anyone who spends every day working toward a more fair and just system how peaceful that work is (or isn’t!) while you’re doing it!

The irony of this exchange is that I suspect peace is exactly what the disciples were trying to find by locking themselves behind that door in the first place. We do that, don’t we – lock ourselves away from reality in an effort to get away from it all? If there is something out there that we don’t want to deal with, that we want to get away from, we just lock ourselves away behind the door where no one can reach us, and where we can pretend that everything out there is not really happening. Maybe it is an actual locked room that we turn to, or maybe to some other coping mechanism like shopping or alcohol or our technology of choice. Maybe it is adamant denial that a reality could exist that doesn’t fit with how we perceive the world to be, or how we wish it was. However it looks, we try to find peace by locking ourselves away from a reality that does not bring us peace.

And so I wonder if, when Jesus offers those words, “Peace be with you,” he might be saying, “You’re not going to find true peace locked in here. True peace comes from faith in me.” And I also wonder if in those words might be a charge to seek that peace themselves, to be agents of seeking peace for the world. Because look at the very next thing Jesus says: “As the Father sent me, so I send you.” If Jesus truly meant to offer calming words, that seems like a tough line to chase it with, no? “Hey guys, calm down, everything is going to be fine. Because I’m sending you out into the world that just had me killed. Good luck!” Yikes! That makes me feel the opposite of peaceful! But you see, the mission is not to feel peace now, but rather, to seek peace in the broken world – not the peace that comes from avoidance, but the peace that comes from confronting the brokenness of the world with the good news of the abundant life given to us by a God who so loves the world and loves each of us who are in it.

That brings to mind a question I’ve been thinking about lately. If you’re here today, I assume you are like me, in that you love to come to church on Sunday and hear about God’s love and be nourished and encouraged for the week. Yes? But when we leave here, do we leave that good news locked up safely where we can find it when we need it? Or do we take that news and put it up against the broken realities of the world and ask, “What does the Good New of Jesus Christ have to say to this?” In other words, what does the Gospel of Jesus Christ have to say to the economic, political and civic realities that occupy people’s minds most of their waking hours, to those struggles that we and other real people face every day?

What does the Gospel say to a woman being abused by her husband, but who feels she and her children are in even more danger if she leaves him?

What does the Gospel say to those protesting in Sacramento following Stephon Clark’s death?

What does the Gospel say to a young man who got caught up in a gang for his survival, and now wants out, but is being threatened if he leaves?

What does the Gospel say to people in Flint, MI who still don’t have clean water, or people in Puerto Rico who still don’t have electricity?

What does the Gospel say to young believers who identify as gay or transgender, who are considering suicide rather than coming out?

What does the Gospel say to undocumented families being torn apart? Or to refugees who flee for their lives, only to be sent back home?

What does the Gospel say to a planet whose temperatures and water levels are rising and whose oceans are full of plastic?

What doe the Gospel say to someone so deep in depression, they can conceive of no way out but to take their own life – and what does it say to that person’s loved ones?

Because if the Gospel doesn’t speak to those things, those life-or-death struggles millions of people face, then what really is the point of coming here week after week?

You see, that’s the mission Jesus is sending the disciples on. “As the Father sent me, so I send you,” he says, to speak this word of life into a hurting world. Not to keep it for yourself (though that, too), but to bring Christ’s life to those in need.

And that is not a charge that brings peace to the heart right away, because it is really hard. Martin Luther King lived every day in fear for his life, as he spoke the hope he found in the gospel to the oppressive reality of racism that plagued his community and the country he loved.

But it is a charge that ultimately brings peace to the world God loves. And that is the role Jesus is giving to these disciples, now apostles, being sent out: to speak a word of life, and work for peace in this broken world.

Finally, Jesus breathes into them and says, “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.” The word translated here as “retain” does not mean “withhold” forgiveness, but rather, like, “hold fast.” It’s like, holding to account. It is like Christ refusing to turn a blind eye to human suffering and wrong-doing, refusing to “just let it go,” and thus enable bad behavior. “Holding fast” to sin is Dietrich Bonhoeffer saying, “What Hitler is doing is wrong, and it needs to stop.” It is Martin Luther King proclaiming that God did not intend that human beings should be anything but free, that indeed all men and woman are created equal and must be treated as such.

In other words, “retaining” or “holding fast” to sin is not refusing to forgive it. It is refusing to tolerate sin that would keep the world from living in the peace Christ died to bring to this world. And so as a follow-up to, “Peace be with you,” Christ charges the disciples to hold to account and confront wrong-doing whenever they see it, to keep sin and abuse from having their way.

That’s a tall order, too, a very difficult call for Christ to extend to his followers. No wonder they were back in that same room the next week, with the doors still shut! In fact, I think many of Christ’s followers today are still in that same room with the door shut. Because being a disciple is hard, and it is even harder being an apostle, who goes out into the world and finds the places most in need of healing and speaks to those places a word of peace and life.

Of course, Jesus knows that. That’s why he also offers to his apostles that night – and to all believers since then – the gift of the Holy Spirit. Back before he died, he called this Spirit “another Advocate,” someone to go along with them and work with them and for them, helping them to do God’s work in the world. It’s that same Spirit that we celebrate coming on Pentecost at the end of the Easter season. It’s that same Spirit that we pray to come upon every child of God who is baptized (in fact, included in the baptismal promises are these words: “to work for justice and peace”). It’s that same Spirit that we pray to come into the bread and wine before we take communion. We are continually infused with this Spirit of peace, love and life, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, counsel and might, knowledge and joy.

We are not alone in this call. God has given us all that we need to make those words, “Peace be with you,” truly come to be in this world. And even when we do lock ourselves away from the realities of the world that so desperately need a word of hope and life, Jesus comes to us – repeatedly! – to once again give us the strength to pursue his work. The question is, will we open the door, like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Dietrich Bonhoeffer and so many others, and go do it?

Let us pray… Risen Christ, you come into our locked rooms when we are scared and would rather avoid the pain of the world, and you breathe your Holy Spirit into us. Empower us by this Spirit, that we might bring your words, “Peace be with you,” into the parts of God’s beloved world that need to hear it the most. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon: Mary Magdalene’s Story (Easter, 2018)

Easter Sunday
April 1, 2018
John 20:1-18

INTRODUCTION:

If you are with us today for the first time, or the first in a while, I wanted to offer a little bit of catch-up to give today’s story some context. We have been working our way through the Gospel of John over the past three months. As we’ve done that, we have seen some recurring themes, and we will see some of those today. A big one is the way John uses light as a metaphor for Jesus’s presence and for understanding, and darkness for lack of understanding or lack of Jesus’ presence. Remember on Christmas, how we lit candles in a darkened sanctuary, and read, “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it”? That was the beginning of knowing Jesus as light shining into the darkness of the world. So today, notice that when Mary gets to the tomb, it is still dark, but presumably gets progressively lighter as the sun comes up and more and more of what happened becomes clear.

Another important theme is that throughout John, people don’t just talk about Jesus – they encounter him. They experience him, and are changed by that experience. There is a reason Mary Magdalene tells the disciples not that Jesus is risen, but rather, “I have seen the Lord!” She tells her story, testifies about her encounter with Jesus, instead of recounting some facts. John’s hope is that in reading his Gospel, you will not have “learned about” Jesus, but rather, that you, too, will have experienced an encounter with him.

Some things to watch for in this timeless story. Now please rise for the Gospel of our Lord!

[READ]

Alleluia! Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia! Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

by He Qi

This morning, I invited a special guest to share her story. Please welcome, Mary Magdalene…

To here this performed, listen here: Easter Sunday Sermon 2018

You know, people are always talking about how emotional I am. “That Mary, she’s always weeping,” they say. Well… that weekend certainly gave me something to weep about. Seeing my friend, my teacher, my love, my lord… suffer and die like that… it was a grief unlike I had ever experienced. And yet somehow, this time, I didn’t cry. It was as if the grief was too deep to deal with. It was in a place I couldn’t reach.

Have you ever felt grief like that? Or maybe, grief that you just didn’t let yourself deal with, so you kept a stiff upper lip and went about your life, plastering a fake smile on your face and acting as if everything was just fine, when actually inside your heart is in a million pieces? You just power through, and hope no one notices that you are walking around in a dark cloud of grief?

That’s how I felt that morning as I walked to the tomb. It was still dark, and I liked that. The darkness was a silent companion to my grief. The darkness seemed to understand that I didn’t want to talk about it, that I couldn’t, and it simply gathered around me as I walked to the only place where I might feel whole again.

Then I saw it – the stone, rolled away. That dark, dense cloud of grief around me didn’t allow me to think too clearly, and I jumped to the only reasonable explanation: body snatchers. Someone had stolen the body.

Well, I already had my guard up. I still didn’t cry. If I could bear his death, I could bear this. So I ran to where I knew the disciples were, and told them what I found. I calmly said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb. I don’t know where he is.” They looked at me like I was playing some sort of cruel practical joke on them. When they saw that I was serious, they took off running.

As they started toward the tomb, that’s when I could feel my façade was beginning to crack. Reality was sinking in. The Lord was gone, missing. It was loss upon loss, grief upon grief. I wasn’t sure how much longer I could keep it together.

I followed them back to the tomb and watched as they went in, bit by bit, and saw what was inside – or rather, what wasn’t inside – before looking at each other and wordlessly leaving that place, in a mix of belief and baffled disbelief.

They went home. They left.

And that – that – is when I lost it.

Whoever knows why one thing or another will be the final straw, that one thing you can no longer bear. For me, it was those guys just leaving like that. No word to me, no attempt at explanation, no willingness even to stick around and just be together in this strange time. They just left. And I was so alone. I felt unknown, unseen, unloved. The loss of my friend, teacher, and Lord was enough. But this feeling was unbearable.

I wept.

I wept so hard, from the very depths of my soul, as I stood outside the tomb.

I wept for the suffering I had witnessed.

I wept for the questions left unanswered.

I wept for the injustice of it all, for the unfair trial, for the Jewish leaders’ insistence that an innocent man should die. It was so unfair!

I wept for the generations of Jewish people who had waited for a savior, for all those who had put their hope in Jesus, and now found themselves once again floating in an abyss of waiting and uncertainty.

I wept for myself, for the tough life I had led, for the ways Jesus had saved me, only then to leave me behind in this cruel, dark world.

I wept that even now, when I went to confront my grief, he wasn’t even there.

I wept because I was alone.

I wept.

It felt good, even healing. Those tears felt cleansing, as if all of my disappointments and fears and failures were contained in those drops of water that fell to the earth. With those tears, I suddenly felt the strength to enter the tomb. It felt like, like a need, to enter into that place of sadness and loss, to get close to it, get to the very core of it, to experience more concretely and deeply the emptiness Jesus had left behind.

Through my tear-soaked eyes, I saw two figures. They seemed almost angelic in nature, and as I remember it now, it doesn’t seem quite rational that they would be sitting there, but at the time their presence seemed expected enough. They said to me, “Woman, why are you weeping?”

Why?… The question stung my heart, because I knew what had to come next: I would have to recount my pain, name it aloud. Until now I had only harbored it deep in my heart, where no one could touch it, but to name it would make that pain, the generations of pain I held – it would make it real.

The cleansing tears I had shed gave me the strength to speak it aloud: “They have taken my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”

There. It was out there. My loss. My emptiness. My pain. It was all out there for these strange men to see and do with it whatever they wanted. And it felt oddly good just to have said it aloud. The empty tomb had, in fact, given me some strength.

Having gotten what I thought I needed, I turned to leave and there before my swollen eyes was the gardener. At least I thought it was the gardener – it was hard to see because it was still a bit dark, and my eyes still bleary with tears. He, too, asked me, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?”

I heard compassion in his voice. This tiller of new life, this man who makes life grow, this gardener, seemed truly to care for me. Having gained some strength from voicing my pain a moment ago, I now felt I was in a place to ask for help, and I believed this man could give it. “Sir,” I said, “if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”

The next moment was… I, I think it was just a couple seconds, but it felt like those few seconds held all of eternity. The sun crested over the hill, surrounding the man’s head, giving the sense of a light-filled countenance around him. It made me squint, it was so bright!

And at that moment, just as the sun crested, the sweet voice of my Good Shepherd spoke my name: “Mary.”

It was the sound of angels singing, the sound of love and joy and all things good. With one word, the pieces of my heart came together, the breath of life entered my lungs, warmth infused my whole body, and suddenly I was aware of the lushness and new growth of the garden around me.

I was known. I was seen. And oh, I was loved, by my Lord and my God.

Everything was different. Everything was possible. Without even taking

time to think or consider, I uttered, “Rabbouni!” Teacher! He was my teacher, and I was, I am, and I always will be his disciple. This was my identity. In that moment, as the morning light grew more and more intense, I dedicated all that I am and all that I have to living into the love that was before me, in me, and around me.

Jesus gave me some instructions, and I listened intently, then I went to live his command. I found Peter and John and all the others and fairly exploded: “I have seen the Lord! I have seen him! I know that he is real, and he is alive, and he is love, oh he is love, and he is light. I believe it is true because I have seen it with my own eyes and being. I have seen the Lord!”

I know that there is work still to be done. There is a mission to carry out. He commanded us last week to wash one another’s feet, to love one another with the same selfless love that he showed us. And we will. And I shall be strengthened every step of the way by the knowledge that resurrection is possible – not only from the physical tomb as Jesus was that day, but also in our daily lives. We experience resurrection when hatred is met with love, when kindness responds to vitriol, when everyday people step up to defend the poor and vulnerable among. We experience resurrection every time even a little bit of light can overcome the darkness. Yes, resurrection is possible, and it happens when we make the effort truly to see one another, hear one another, and know one another, and when we ourselves are seen, heard, known and loved. It happens when we speak to one another in love, calling each other by name. Healing is possible. New life, new beginnings are possible. New perspective is possible. Resurrection is possible.

We witness these things all the time, all around us! And when we do, when we witness such a resurrection, we see the Lord himself – I saw him in that morning light, and I have seen him many times since. I hope you’ll join me in testifying to these encounters, saying, “I have seen the Lord!” Say it with me: I have seen the Lord! Again: I have seen the Lord! Thanks be to God! Amen!

Sermon: God’s glorious love story (Maundy Thursday 2018)

Maundy Thursday Sermon
March 29, 2018
John 19:23-30

INTRODUCTION: God’s love STORY

             In case you haven’t picked up on this yet, John’s Gospel is one long love story. We’ve been working our way through John’s Gospel since Christmas Eve, and through the Passion story since Lent began, and each reading has revealed to us in more depth and color what God’s love looks like, even as people’s encounter with that love compels them to tell others about it. First, back on Christmas, we heard about God coming to earth in the first place, in the story of the Incarnation:

…In the story of the Incarnation:

  • The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it…. The Word became flesh and lived among us.

Then, in John the Baptist’s testimony we heard:

  • “I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”

At Jesus’ first sign, we experienced God’s extravagant abundance:

  • “The steward called the bridegroom and said to him, ‘Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.’ Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.”

To Nicodemus, who came to Jesus in the dead of night, Jesus offered the very heart of the gospel:

  • “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

After a shocking encounter at high noon with a Samaritan woman at the well, the woman was transformed:

  • Then the woman left her water-jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”

Sometimes, Jesus’ show of love was upsetting to people, like that Sabbath day when he healed the man born blind:

  • The man said to the Jewish leaders, “One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?

Through it all, Jesus kept assuring people that his work was not only for love, but in order that people would find abundant life:

  • I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”

And in assuring us of that life, Jesus also assured us freedom – freedom from all that would bind us and hold us in our tombs, hold us back from the fullness of life.

  • Jesus cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’

As he turned his eyes toward his final act of life-giving love on the cross, Jesus engaged in one more act of humble, selfless love and devotion: he knelt down, on the night he was to be betrayed, and washed the feet of his disciples:

  • Jesus said, “If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet…. I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’

That last story, the foot-washing, is the story we normally hear on Maundy Thursday. It is following this foot-washing encounter that Jesus gives to his disciples the new commandment, to love one another. Seems like Jesus shouldn’t have to command something so simple, and yet, as we know, it is not always simple to love one another. And so he does command it. The foot-washing was certainly an act of love, in which Jesus humbled himself and the teacher became the servant… and his command to us to do the same is a tall order. Of course, Jesus would go on to show truly what it means to humble himself for the sake of the other. And that is the story we have been hearing throughout Lent, and of which we are about to hear the climax: the moment in which Jesus gives himself completely for us, in the ultimate act of self-giving love. Let us rise to hear this part of God’s love story.

[READ]

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Back when I was planning what Lent would look like, I thought it would be nice to have a healing service for Maundy Thursday. On a day on which we focus on Jesus’ command to love one another, it seemed like a healing service would work nicely on this day, as a way to wrap up our healing and wholeness series. Oh, I had all kinds of plans for what that would look like – in my mind there were lots of candles, prayer around the cross, anointing, the whole shebang – but as I sat down to plan it I realized: so much of what is already in place for Maundy Thursday is all about healing: the confession and personal forgiveness of sins, holy communion, and even the stripping of the altar. And so I decided to just preserve the liturgy, pretty much exactly as it has been done for generations, and let it do its inherent healing work.

Of course none of those things would bring healing if it weren’t for what we heard in our Gospel reading. Tonight we hear the end of the story of Jesus’ passion, as he utters his last words, and gives up his spirit. The way that John tells about this moment is different from all the other Gospels, and each of Jesus’ final words can tell us something important about our God of love.

All three words warrant their own sermon, really, but I really want to address each one tonight. So I’m going to try, focusing on how each word can bring healing to us.

First, the word he offers to his mother and the beloved disciple. As his mother stands at the foot of the cross, and Jesus beckons his “beloved disciple” to care for his mother, he says, “Woman, here is your son.” And to the disciple, “Here your mother.” Jesus isn’t just watching out for his mama, though that would be very sweet on its own. What Jesus does here is to establish the first Christian community. He entrusts these people, so dear to him, to each other’s care and love, and he instructs them to rely upon each other.

But that alone is not what makes their new little household a Christian one. Lots of people care for each other and rely upon each other without having any interest in Christ. What makes this remarkable is that this community finds its identity at the foot of the cross. Here is the core of Christian community: not only selfless giving and love of one another, but the abiding knowledge that we are all broken and in need, that we are sinners in need of grace – and, that the only way we will find healing is to bare our hearts to this bruised and wounded, yet still glorious, God of grace and love.

Being a Christian community also means that they will continually remind each other to return here, to the foot of the cross, to admit that, as Martin Luther said in his last words, “We are beggars, this is true.” That’s why we started worship with confession, to acknowledge before God and one another our need for grace – and to hear that God relentlessly gives us the grace we need. Our trust in that promise is healing indeed.

Jesus’ next word is, “I thirst,” and in response, he is given sour wine. This exchange brings to mind two important events – first, the wedding at Cana, at which there was plenty of the very best wine for everyone. You remember? It is a story about abundance, about how God can take even our emptiness, our longing, and turn it into grace and plenty. What a word to hear when we are in need of healing! When we need healing, we are experiencing a lack – we thirst – and here Jesus says, “I thirst with you,” and we are moved to recall that God fills our thirst with the best of the best, even when all we have to offer in return is sour wine.

The second story this exchange recalls is Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well, to whom Jesus said, “I am the living water. Whoever drinks this water will never be thirsty!” Again, we were, with the woman at the well, the thirsty ones, craving to be filled, and Jesus provided. Now the one who is the living water thirsts, having given everything for us. He indeed gave us his very life. This is worth remembering later this evening, as we drink of the life-giving blood of Christ – how he gave everything for the healing of the thirsty nations.

Then his last word, “It is finished.” This may be heard as a sort of giving up or giving in, but really it is more of a 1st century, divine mic drop: Jesus is saying, “Everything that I came to do here has been done. It has come to its completion, its goal. Everything is accomplished. It is finished.” Bam. In John’s Gospel, the resurrection is certainly important, but it is here, on the cross, where God is truly glorified. It is because of this word, “It is finished,” that tomorrow is called, “Good Friday”: because here in this moment, in these final words, we see the goodness of God, that God gave his only son so that we would not perish but have eternal life. Jesus told Nicodemus that was true, in the dead of night, at the beginning of his ministry. And now we see the extent to which that is true. Jesus loves us to the end.

At the end of our service tonight, we will witness the stripping of the altar. Even as a child, I loved this part of Holy Week, because it felt so mysterious, even as it felt so raw and real. Here was a visual representation of Jesus giving up everything for us. There is a vulnerability to it – for Jesus, but also for us: letting the hidden be seen, letting down the guard of all that we put up to look like we have it all together, to look like we are not broken and in pain. The sanctuary is left bare, and so also are our hearts: bared, vulnerable, and ready to invite in the Great Healer of our Every Ill. Tonight, after you have received the life-giving body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, let the stark visual of the altar being stripped help to prepare your heart to recognize all that God has done for you, given for you, and accomplished for you, all for the sake of showing the depth of divine love.

“It is finished,” Jesus said.
The spirit left, he hung his head.
In this moment, glorified
Was our God, the crucified.
Yes, Jesus loves me! Yes, Jesus loves me! Yes, Jesus loves me!
The Bible tells me so.

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon: Suffering with (March 18, 2018)

Lent 5 (NL4)
John 19:1-22
March 18, 2018

INTRODUCTION:

The part of the passion narrative that we hear today is probably the hardest, because here is where the real pain and betrayal happen. Pilate continues to try to release Jesus, and “the Jews” continue to convince him otherwise. Jesus is flogged, mocked, handed over to be crucified, and hung on the cross between two others. It is all very painful to watch.

Before we get into this part of the story, I want to clarify something about John’s Gospel that I have been remiss in avoiding until now. Throughout this narrative, we hear about “the Jews,” about how they rallied against Jesus and convinced Pilate to kill him. Our 21st century ears may hear this message as anti-Semitic – it blames the Jews, even demonizes them. It has been damaging to this beautiful religion and its faithful followers. But it is important to know that the author of John’s Gospel was not anti-Jew. Jesus himself was a Jew, and would not be implicating himself or his people. Who John refers to when he says “the Jews” is really the Jewish leaders, in essence, Jesus’ colleagues – the same guys with whom he’s been in theological dialogue throughout the Gospel. And – this is important – watching their hurtful actions and shortcomings is not a reason to despise and blame them, but rather, it is an invitation to recognize our own shortcomings and sinfulness.

Perhaps that is what makes today’s reading so difficult. In a moment we will sing, “Were You There?” as we have done every week in Lent. Take the question to heart: what would you have done if you had been there? How would you have felt? What would you have said if you’d been there? How easy or difficult would it have been to resist the crowd – whoever they are – who is asking for Jesus’ death, and claiming to have no king but Caesar? How would it feel to see Jesus hanging on the cross? Consider these things as we hear this heart-breaking part of the story. Please rise.

[READ]

The Crucifixion by Marco Palmezzaro

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

The year was 1373, and an Englishwoman lay sick in bed. If she had a husband or children before, the plague that was sweeping Europe and now caused her illness had already taken them. We don’t know much of anything about this woman’s past, but we do know about her future. She would recover, and change her name to Julian – Julian of Norwich, one of the greatest English mystics of all time, and the first woman to publish a book in English.

The book she wrote was called Sixteen Revelations of Divine Love. In the 8th revelation, she reflects on Christ’s pain and suffering on the cross. She writes, “Is any pain like this? … Of all pains that lead to salvation this is the most pain, to see thy Love suffer. How might any pain be more to me than to see Him that is all my life, all my bliss, all my joy, suffer?” She goes on to reflect on the pain felt by all those who loved Jesus who also viewed this suffering – his mother, his followers, even us today – and goes on to make her most profound observation: “Here saw I a great ONEING betwixt Christ and us, for when He was in pain, we were in pain.” In other words, Julian observed that in this moment of pain and suffering, God through Christ truly became one with all creation – all of us who suffer. “A great ONEING betwixt Christ and us.”

Let that sink in for a moment. In his suffering, God, the creator of the universe, became one with us in our suffering. We often talk about how Jesus suffered for us, died for us, and that’s very nice and important, too. Those words we hear as we receive the bread and wine, “given for you” are very powerful indeed – that God would care enough to do this for us, mere human beings!

But the word “with,” as in “one with us,” is something entirely different. Historian and religious author, Diana Butler Bass comments on this distinction.[1] She observes that “for” is a preposition of distance. It’s contractual. It separates the actor from the recipient. Jesus, the subject, died for us, the objects. It doesn’t require a relationship, just good intention.

With, on the other hand, is a preposition of relationship. With implies accompaniment, moving in the same direction – it makes both parties participants in the action. Butler Bass writes, “With is the preposition of empathy… of being on the same side, of close association. ‘No, you needn’t go for me; I’ll go with you.’ With is about joining in, being together.”

That is a really different way to view Jesus’ action on the cross. It utterly changes how we understand God’s relationship with us, and ours with God. It is the natural ending to the story of a God who, as John said in the opening of his Gospel, “became flesh and dwelt among us.” Or as Eugene Peterson translates it, a God who “moved into the neighborhood.” God didn’t get an upscale apartment in a nicer suburb across town, God moved right into the dirt and grime, right next door, even, down the hall, and experienced what it is like to live like we live, to feel like we feel, and yes, to suffer like we suffer. This is a God who dearly wants to know us, because God dearly wants to love us, exactly where we are.

But viewing God as one who is with us doesn’t just change our understanding of our relationship with God. It also calls for a radical shift in our relationships with others, and how we see our role as people of faith. For if God is willing to walk with us, and suffer with us, then we see that part of our call as Christ-followers is to do the same with those around us.

Oh, but “with” is so very difficult! Sure, being “with” those we love isn’t too hard, but what about those people we fear, or who are unknown, or who just rub us the wrong way, or with whom we fundamentally disagree? How do we be with them? Wouldn’t we rather keep our distance, perhaps occasionally reaching out with “for” love by donating goods or doing something nice? But suffering with is not something that is comfortable for us. Butler Bass comments on the difficulty, saying, “We hide parts of ourselves from our neighbors, withhold the sorts of secrets that weave regular relationships for fear someone will use something against us. We judge others on what they can do for us. … We are skeptical of with – indeed, much of what we do in the world makes us ridicule, doubt, and even fear with. … It is safer to remain at a distance, to stay away from with.”

One of the most devastating lines in the passion story is what the Jewish leaders say to Pilate when he asks, “Shall I crucify your king?” Did you catch their answer? They say, “We have no king but the emperor.” Utter rejection of Jesus the Christ. Complete aversion to being with this man who has given them everything, even their very lives, and his own. They won’t even be for him. They only reject, dismiss, toss aside, instead vowing loyalty to a ruler who offers false promises, who would never walk with them, and suffer with them, in any way, shape or form. Devastating.

Oh, this line makes me so uncomfortable, because I have to wonder: have I done this, too? Have I rejected Jesus’ offer to be with and suffer with me? Or have I, when tempted by some quick fix, turned to false promises, to Caesar?

Or, have I rejected Christ’s offer to suffer with me by letting the offer stop with me – by receiving the gift, but then not offering the same to another in need? Or, have I rejected Christ’s offer by not allowing others to suffer with me?

For the past several months, I have been holding office hours at Panera. Every Wednesday, I sit in a booth in the back with my tea, wearing my clerical collar, and hoping someone will come talk to me. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. This week I tried an experiment: I added a sign on the table that said simply, “Free Prayer.” I admit I wasn’t much in the mood to be there, or to pray for anyone else – I was feeling very stressed, and was mentally and emotionally bogged down with preparing for Holy Week. I was praying for safety for students and school staff who were at that moment preparing to participate in a national walk-out (and my husband was among the administrators charged with keeping students safe). And I was praying for my seminary, which is going through some really tough stuff right now, and the board was meeting as I sat there.

Suddenly a woman walked right up, sat down across from me and said, “I’d like to pray for you!” Uh…. Okay! She took my hands and offered a lovely and sincere prayer for the pastor – here I was trying to offer something to others, and this woman, this disciple of Christ, sat down with me, and prayed with me, as if she could see that I needed someone to pray with me at that moment. It buoyed my spirits. It lifted me up. Knowing that this woman, this stranger, would be willing to get right down and suffer with me for a moment – it was the “life abundant” that Jesus talks about coming to give us.

Who would have thought that such abundant life could come through the act of suffering with someone? Who would have imagined that the Creator of the universe would choose to show the depth of divine love by a willingness to “move into the neighborhood,” live like we live, and suffer like we suffer? Who would suspect that death on a cross would bring us the hope of new life?

Reading today’s part of the passion, as Jesus is flogged, mocked, suffers, and is crucified, is painful. It should be – that is what it can feel like to love, and to be with people in their pain. But in that, we also find hope to endure, and strength to love, because we know: we are with God, and God is with us. We are in this together, walking beside the God of love.

Let us pray… Suffering God, that you would choose to move into the neighborhood, live like us and feel our pain causes us to tremble, tremble tremble… even as it gives us hope to endure. Give us confidence that, with you walking and suffering with us, all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] References to Julian of Norwich and Diana Butler Bass’s thoughts on her work are outlined in this sermon: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/dianabutlerbass/2012/04/good-friday-being-with-jesus-at-the-cross/ (Accessed March 15, 2018)

Sermon: Meeting violence with love (Mar. 11, 2018)

Lent 4 (NL4)
March 11, 2018
John 18:28-40

INTRODUCTION:

“He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried.” We all know his name: Pontius Pilate. He lives in infamy in our creeds. All four Gospels include in the passion narrative an account of Jesus’ trial before Pilate. But John’s account is the longest. We’ll hear part of it today, and more of it next week. So before we get into it, I wanted to give you a little info on this famous character in the story of Jesus’ passion.

Pilate was a Roman prefect, and a notoriously brutal one. He even had to be removed from one post in Samaria because he had been so harsh in stopping an uprising. In the first century, Philo, the Jewish philosopher, described Pilate as having “vindictiveness and furious temper.” In governance, Philo describes Pilate’s “corruption, his acts of insolence…, his habit of insulting people, and his cruelty, and his continued murders of people untried and uncondemned, and his never-ending, and gratuitous, and most grievous inhumanity.” Yeesh! All this makes it especially curious that Pilate seems to be trying to set Jesus free! Certainly an interesting character.

Now, about Jesus’ and Pilate’s conversation: Remember back when we started John’s Gospel, I talked about how in John, Jesus pulls a kingdom of God canopy over the world, and Jesus talks from “up here” in the land of spirit and light, while people of “the world” (and Pilate certainly represents “the world”!) talk “down here” from the land of flesh and darkness. This is abundantly clear in this exchange between Jesus and Pilate. Jesus talks about how his kingdom is not of this world, and Pilate has no clue what he’s talking about. So, let’s see if we can figure it out. Please rise. [READ]

Ecce Homo (“Behold the Man”) by Antonio Ciseri

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

In an exercise with our confirmation class this past week, I asked the students to describe the world 20 years ago, the world today and what they predict the world will be like in 20 years. It was hilarious to hear them try to describe the world as it was when I was their age. But it was disheartening to hear some of their descriptions of the world today. “Scary,” they said. “Violent. High crime.” I agree with them. The world today is a scary place, for a lot of reasons. In many ways, it does not feel physically or emotionally safe, and it is difficult for people or societies to thrive in that environment.

“My kingdom is not of this world,” Jesus tells Pilate. Well, I should hope not! I hope that God’s kingdom is something utterly different than this world so often full of tears, loss, pain, and sadness. Yet, I don’t think Jesus is talking here about an afterlife, or heaven. Throughout John, Jesus has been the light of the world, dwelling in and overcoming this darkness. He has brought God’s kingdom to earth. And so, I think when he refers to “his kingdom,” he is referring not to some different place, but to a way of life – right now – that is of God. A way of life that is “belonging to the truth,” as he says. Isn’t that what we pray for, after all, when we say, “Thy kingdom come”? We’re not praying that we would go to God’s kingdom, somewhere else, but that God’s kingdom would come here, on earth as it is in heaven. Whatever it is that makes God’s kingdom, God’s kingdom, we pray that it would come here, to earth, and soon!

So… what does that mean? What is it that we are praying to come here? Well, looking back over John, Jesus has made pretty clear that to “belong to the truth,” to have abundant life, to live as a part of God’s kingdom… means to be in an abiding relationship with God. In other words, God’s kingdom is about relationship. And while yes, the primary relationship we’re talking about here is the one we have with God, we could also say that our relationship with God is played out in our relationships with one another. After all, what commandment did Jesus give after he washed the disciples’ feet? … That we love one another as God has loved us.

Love one another. That’s what it looks like for God’s kingdom to be here and now. Love one another. Sounds simple enough, yeah? Of course depending on the situation and the people involved, loving one another can be pretty difficult. I wanted to talk about one such difficult situation for loving today because Jesus brings it up, and that is: violence. “If my kingdom were from this world,” Jesus says, “my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jewish authorities. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” In other words, in the kingdom of this world, “down here,” the one of flesh and darkness, people fight one another when they feel threatened – just like we saw last week, when Peter pulled his sword in the garden. Peter, Jesus’ follower, was willing to fight for him to keep him from being handed over! But Jesus says no. Jesus told him to put that sword away, because that is not the way of his kingdom. Jesus’ kingdom is something different. In Jesus’ kingdom, his followers don’t resort to violence.

Now, I think a word about the meaning of violence is necessary here. Usually when we hear that word, “violence,” we think of physical violence – weapons, or hand-to-hand fighting, the sort Peter demonstrated. But I think words can be just as violent, maybe even more so. The childhood chant about sticks and stones is simply not true – words can and do hurt us. Bones heal in a few weeks, but the damage done over the years to our hearts and spirits – and yes, to our relationships – by people’s words can be incredibly difficult to overcome. And so if we are talking about a kingdom of God that is based on loving relationships, we need to address how we talk to one another.

This past Wednesday, as a part of our Lenten series on healing and wholeness, a group of us gathered with Kit Miller from the Gandhi Institute for Non-Violence. We talked about whether it was possible to have “conflict without contempt.” What would be required, she asked, for us not just to agree to disagree, which is sort of passive, but to actively work toward peace and restoration, even if we don’t end up agreeing with each other? We talked about how usually when we feel angry, it is a sign that there is some other emotion going on that is presenting itself as anger. If a child runs in front of a car and narrowly escapes injury, the parent will grab the child by the arm and say, “Don’t you ever do that again, do you hear me??” The parent seems angry. What do you think is the real emotion there? … Fear. So Kit challenged us, next time we are acting angry, to consider what the real emotion is behind that anger. We talked about how, when a conflict is present, whether big or small, it is because some emotional need is not being met, and she provided some tools for determining what our needs are. Once you can name the need, you can start working toward seeing that the need is filled in a healthy way, and conflict without contempt becomes possible.

I can’t speak for others who were present, but for me, as we worked through various scenarios, it felt as if my heart was weeping and healing, all at once. I felt like the struggles, needs and hopes of my heart were being acknowledged, named, spoken aloud. I felt hope – hope that we as a society can, actually, love each other, even in the midst of division and conflict, and that there is indeed such a thing as “conflict without contempt.” I felt hope that Jesus’ “out-of-this-world” kingdom can exist even in this broken world.

Martin Luther King, Jr., as you know, was a champion of non-violence. He drew a lot from the teachings of Gandhi, but his primary strength and guidance came from Jesus, especially his words in the Sermon on the Mount. This week I came across this wonderful quote from Dr. King, that could have come straight out of John’s Gospel: “The ultimate weakness of violence,” he says, “is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder the hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. So it goes. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

Jesus’ kingdom, Jesus’ truth, invites us to something different from violence – something a whole lot harder, but absolutely worth the effort. Is it risky? Sure. Who ever thought love wasn’t risky? Love is what got Jesus hung on a cross, after all. Love makes us vulnerable. It softens our hard hearts, and removes our guard.

But it also offers a lot more hope than the alternative. Love does diminish the evil. Love does establish the truth. Love does decrease the hate. And love does bring the Truth and the Light – indeed Christ himself – into the darkness of this world.

So… which followers do we want to be? The followers of this worldly kingdom, who try to overcome violence with violence, who fight to keep Jesus from being handed over? Or do we want to do the hard work of the followers of Jesus’ kingdom, who strive toward love and non-violence, who strive to mend and heal and build relationships, even when conflict threatens to destroy?

“For God so loved the world that He gave his only Son so that we would not perish but have eternal life.” What a gift of love. If God loves us that much, then I, for one, would like to find it in myself to seek the more difficult, but also more loving path in my encounters with God’s other beloved children. It is hard work. But I believe this work can bring healing to this dark and broken world.

Let us pray… Loving God, you are the Light that dispels the darkness. You are the Love that establishes truth. You are the Truth, and the Way, and the Life. Help us to be citizens of your kingdom, who seek to overcome contempt and darkness with your love and light. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon: Peter’s Denial, and Ours (Mar. 4, 2018)

Lent 3 (NL4)
March 4, 2018)
Peter’s Denial (John 18:12-27)

INTRODUCTION:

A lot has happened since the last story we hear. Where we left off last week, Jesus had washed the disciples’ feet, describing this as an act of deep and devoted love, and imploring the disciples to follow his example by washing one another’s feet. Directly following that is what is known as the “farewell discourse.” For four chapters, Jesus explains to the eleven remaining disciples (Judas has already left to go betray him) that Jesus is going to the Father, and that the Holy Spirit will be coming to guide the disciples in faith. He tells them to love one another as he has loved them. He warns them of the challenges and persecutions they will face, but assures them that the world cannot overcome them, because Jesus has overcome the world. He finishes the discourse by praying for them, praying, “that they would all be one, as the Father and I are one.”

Then they all head out to the garden, and there they meet Judas and the soldiers and police, who are wielding swords and torches. They say they are looking for Jesus, and Jesus willingly hands himself over. Ever impulsive and eager to please, Peter leaps into action, pulling out his sword and cutting off the ear of the slave of the high priest. He must have missed the previous four chapters in which Jesus told them to resort not to violence, but to love one another! Jesus tells him to put his sword away, adding, “Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?” And that brings us to today’s story.

Today we really get into the passion narrative. One thing to notice about John’s telling of this story, today and in the coming weeks, is that Jesus is absolutely willing, from start to finish. He will not pray that the Father let this cup pass from him, he will not cry out in anguish from the cross. He is fulfilling God’s will, at just the right time and place. Of course Jesus’ calm is in sharp contrast so the immense anxiety felt by the other characters in the story, so watch today how that plays out. Please rise.

[READ]

Ethiopian, 17th century

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

A couple weeks ago, I spent two days at an event learning about family systems theory, especially how it can be applied to leadership in a congregation. What is family systems theory? In short, it sees any group of people who spend a lot of time together as a system, in which each member is affected by another’s actions. We are, each of us, formed by our family of origin, and then what we learned there plays itself out in whatever other systems we find ourselves in.

In particular, training yourself to see things through a systems lens helps you see how anxiety plays out. Now, anxiety is something we all feel, at various levels, and it can be triggered by all kinds of things. If you had a parent who left you as a child, you may find yourself getting anxious whenever you sense in life you are being abandoned by something you care about. If, as a child, your parents used food as a bargaining chip, you may find you have an anxious relationship with food as an adult. If you were a middle child always seeking to be noticed, you may spend the rest of your life trying to please people. And if you don’t get what your child’s heart determined you need, then your anxiety is triggered. That anxiety can play out in all kinds of different ways – as anger, sadness, fear, overcompensating, as making jokes at inappropriate times, perhaps as trying to make others feel as anxious as you do to diffuse your own anxiety, by offloading some of your anxiety onto someone else… or usually, some combination.

Now, not all anxiety is bad – indeed it is necessary for survival! If you don’t feel anxious when you meet a bear, then you become that bear’s lunch! But when the role of anxiety is not recognized and named, it can wreck all kinds of havoc in our relationships, in our families, in our workplaces, and yes, even in our churches.

Today, in our journey through John’s Gospel, we truly enter into the Passion narrative. And with my mind on family systems, I am also noticing the anxiety in that story – an anxiety that is so perfectly carried out in Peter’s story. Let’s recall again what happened directly before this scene, in the garden. When the police come to take Jesus away, Peter’s instinct is to unsheathe his sword and go for a man’s head. In other words, his first, anxious instinct is to meet the threat with violence – even though Jesus specifically told them in many and various ways that as disciples they are called to love one another, even when the loving gets tough. (After all, let us know forget that just before this, Jesus knowingly washed the feet of his own betrayer, Peter who would deny him, and the rest who would desert him at their first opportunity! For Jesus, “love one another” does not depend upon someone deserving love or not. Love means love, for everyone.)

But in a moment of such intense anxiety, it should be no surprise that Peter’s instinct would be not to love, but to fight… because isn’t that true for all of us? Most people, when they feel threatened or are in a high anxiety situation, resort not to love, but either to attack, or to protect. Fight or flight. We’ve seen these reactions following the Parkland shooting, in the call for more guns, in the form of arming teachers, or putting resource officers in schools, or by tightening school security. Defend and prepare to attack. We see it also in our personal relationships – if someone says something hurtful to me, my first instinct, whether or not I act on it, is either to defend myself, to attack back, or at the very least to go complain to someone else, “Do you know what so-and-so said to me? What a terrible person!” …which is its own sort of violence. Am I alone in this? I didn’t think so! And so to see Peter draw his sword seems to us, fellow anxiety-prone humans, like a completely reasonable reaction – it is a normal first instinct.

But Jesus calls for more than an instinctual reaction. He calls for a response – in fact, to a loving response. “Put your sword away,” Jesus tells him, and then willingly goes with the police to his certain death. And so now here we are where our text begins. Back in that upper room where Jesus had washed their feet, Peter had vowed he would never leave Jesus’ side, even if it meant dying right along with him, and so, Peter follows Jesus into the city. I suspect Peter’s anxiety at that point had never been so high. His friend was in danger, and when he tried to defend him, he got rebuked. He feels helpless, and afraid, maybe even a little ashamed – all anxiety triggers. Yes, Peter is anxious. And, we all know from experience, that when we are anxious, we rarely behave at our best.

And so when comes the ultimate test of his loyalty – when the first person asks him, “Aren’t you one his disciples?” – Peter’s anxiety gets the best of him. He knows better now than to attack; this time he chooses defense. He responds, “No, I am not.” Remember, throughout John’s Gospel, Jesus has identified himself as, “I am.” I am the Good Shepherd. I am the Door. I am the Light of the World. I am the Resurrection and the Life. I AM. And so here, in utter contrast to and denial of all that Jesus is, Peter offers his anxious, if somewhat pathetic, “I am not.” He not only denies Jesus, he denies himself, dismissing his own story, his own identity as a disciple, in favor of keeping himself safe.

One commentator on this passage observes, “Violence is easier than testimony.” From the beginning of John’s Gospel, we have seen the importance of testimony in the life of faith. John the Baptist came to testify to the light. Philip invites Nathanial to “come and see.” The Samaritan women at the well runs into town to tell everyone about the man who told her everything she has ever done. The man born blind testifies, “One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” And now, Peter himself has the opportunity to testify, “Yes, I am his disciple!” … and he balks. He misses his big chance. When he felt threatened in the garden, he quickly sprang for the sword… but testifying is so much harder. Testifying takes some serious guts – vulnerability, courage, conviction, assurance of self. And it also takes a whole lot of love, of God, self and neighbor. In his anxiety, Peter can tap into none of this. And so he denies his Lord, and he denies his own identity as a disciple of Christ.

It makes me wonder – have we, as individuals or as the church, ever allowed our own anxiety to lead us to deny our identity as disciples of Christ? Have we fallen short of testifying our commitment to the demanding, self-giving, high-risk love that Jesus demonstrated as he washed the feet of his own betrayer? When we feel anxious – about the world, about our relationships, about our future, about our safety – when we feel anxious, is there some part of our Christian identity we would be willing to deny, in order to make ourselves feel a little safer?

I’ll answer for myself, but not with pride: absolutely. Jesus’ command to “love one another” would have me put my safety and interests secondary to the love and care of outcasts, even people who I see as dangerous, sketchy, or who make me nervous. I don’t want to do that. I want to feel safe and prepared for anything.

To “love one another” by Jesus’ definition would have me find it in my heart to let go of resentments toward people who have hurt me deeply, to forgive them, even to serve them. I’m not comfortable with that.

Jesus’ “love one another” command would even have me find a way to love a mass shooter (not condone his actions, but to love him with the love of Christ, by seeing him as the broken human being in need of love that he is). I definitely do not want to do that.

All of those things make me very anxious. A lot of things in the world right now make me very anxious. And sometimes, our anxiety does get the better of us, just like Peter’s. Sometimes we find we, like Peter, would sooner deny being disciples, or at least just pick and choose what parts of discipleship work for us, if it means we can feel safer and less anxious. But the question that I am trying to let guide me, as I navigate this demanding life of faith, is, “What does the love of Jesus look like in this instance? What would Jesus have me do?” …and then, striving for that.

And even as we fail (and we know we will – this is hard!), we can also find consolation in the fact that, even though Peter chose violence over love, and safety over testimony, God still had an important use for him. This darkest moment of his life of faith will not, finally, define Peter. After the resurrection, Jesus will come to Peter and ask him – three times – “Do you love me?” and then tell him to feed his sheep. And Peter does! Peter will have plenty more chances to testify to the love of Christ, in thought, word and deed, and because of Peter’s testimony, many – even thousands! – will come to faith in Christ. That is grace. That is the promise that God can use even us bunch of sinners and Christ-deniers for good. That is the story of the resurrection – that God’s power and love can overcome even our anxiety, just as Jesus overcame the world.

Let us pray… Gracious God, calm our anxieties and bring us your peace, as we navigate this broken world and seek to live into our identity as disciples, and help us to testify in all cases to your self-giving, life-changing love. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.