Where Have You Seen Him? (on fitting your life into Christ’s, and not the other way around)

This is the message that was preached at the 11:00 Easter service at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights.  I hope that it stimulates your thinking concerning the ways that you and I are called to respond to the great news of the Resurrection.

13 Now that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. 14 They were talking with each other about everything that had happened. 15 As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them; 16 but they were kept from recognizing him.

17 He asked them, “What are you discussing together as you walk along?”

They stood still, their faces downcast. 18 One of them, named Cleopas, asked him, “Are you the only one visiting Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?”

19 “What things?” he asked.

“About Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied. “He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. 20 The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; 21 but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. And what is more, it is the third day since all this took place. 22 In addition, some of our women amazed us. They went to the tomb early this morning 23 but didn’t find his body. They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive. 24 Then some of our companions went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but they did not see Jesus.”

25 He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” 27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.

28 As they approached the village to which they were going, Jesus continued on as if he were going farther. 29 But they urged him strongly, “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them.

30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. 32They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”

33 They got up and returned at once to Jerusalem. There they found the Eleven and those with them, assembled together 34 and saying, “It is true! The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon.” 35 Then the two told what had happened on the way, and how Jesus was recognized by them when he broke the bread.

I wonder what the disciples would think if they were to show up in worship anywhere in North America on Easter Sunday.  It seems to me that today, more than just about any other day in the church year, is marked by a sense of disconnect between the way that we do it now and the way that it was in their day.

Here’s what I mean: in just about any church you would happen into this morning, you’ll see a tightly choreographed, highly scripted service of worship.  Most churches will see more people in their pews today than on any other day of the year.  We’ve been here practicing extra music, arranging special flowers, cleaning places that are not usually cleaned…  When it comes to Easter, really, it’s the “Super Bowl” for most pastors and churches, isn’t it?  We don’t want any surprises, we don’t want to leave anything to chance.  In all honesty, this is the one crack we get at a few of you, and we don’t want to blow it.

Compare that desire for control and order with the experience of the disciples on that first Easter morning.  As we read through any of the accounts of that day, but particularly as we compare them, it becomes pretty plain that by and large, confusion reigned on that day.

In terms of the details, for instance: who went to the tomb on Easter?  Matthew tells us that two women named Mary were there.  Mark says, “You know, there were two Marys, but I think that Salome was there, too.”  Luke refers to two women named Mary, someone named Joanna, and “the other women”.  And John only wants to talk about Mary Magdalene.

How many angels did we encounter?  Matthew, John, and Mark all talk about one young man in white, while Luke insists that there were two of them.

But more than the details about who was standing where and talking to whom, we see in the accounts of the first Easter a sense of disbelief and distrust.  People are telling stories, but they’re not always being believed.  The followers of Jesus are on edge – and who could blame them?  Their leader had just been executed by the State.  Would they be next?  Had the body been stolen?  Just what were they supposed to make out of all these events?

There is a sense of disappointment as we understand that for many of these men and women, their hopes had been dashed.  They thought that they had things all figured out, and then he got killed.  They were just starting to find a way to deal with that grief, and then his body is missing and people are telling wild stories.  How in the world are they supposed to know what’s true?

Have you ever seen one of those “Where’s Waldo” games?  There’s a young man, dressed in a fairly obvious costume, is hidden in a crowd scene.  Your job is to find the “Waldo” character and not be distracted by all of the other details or information.

It seems to me that much of the way that we experience religion in our world today is like Where’s Waldo.  That is, we feel as though it’s up to us to discover the secret code or the hidden knowledge that exists.  There are answers, we’re told; there are hints – but they don’t jump out at us.  We’ve got to carefully piece together the clues, and trust the professionals, and somehow, hope against hope that it all makes sense in the end.  Oftentimes, we’re told that there is one right answer, and if we don’t see it or latch onto it in the exact same way as the person next to us, well, one of us is toast.

How different is that from the first Easter?  In our text for this morning, for instance, two of Jesus’ followers are leaving town, dejected, because they’ve been disappointed. They’ve clearly gotten it wrong.  They thought that they knew what was going to happen; they thought that they knew where Waldo was.  But the events of Holy Week didn’t fit their construct, so they leave town in a slump.

Jesus comes to them, and spends the entire day describing to them exactly how he could be found – not merely in one specific place, but throughout the entire witness of God’s people.  There is no disappointment, said Jesus, but only the creation living into God’s intent.  The image looks a little different than we thought it did but it’s a true image nevertheless.  And Jesus says that he’s not just in one little spot, but that he fills the entire frame.

In fact, a larger view of the first Easter points to confusion, all right – but confusion that is caused by Jesus showing up all over the place.  In this one day, we have reports of him talking in the Garden with Mary, and encountering the Marys as they are on their way home from the tomb, and meeting somewhere with Peter, and showing up in the Upper Room with the Disciples – in addition to the conversation he has on the road to Emmaus.  It’s not that there’s one Jesus, hidden in the midst of the larger world.  Jesus permeates the entire creation that Easter Sunday.

There is a searching, all right, but instead of me trying to find little old Jesus in the vastness of the universe, maybe I need to look for myself in the presence of Jesus.

This is what I mean.  We are modern, rational, thoughtful creatures.  And so when we have a question about the universe or the creation, we typically start with ourselves.  I look at my life and I say, “This is me.  This is my reality.  Now, where does God fit into that reality?  How can I fit Jesus into the things that are important to me, or that I like doing?

But I think that’s backwards.

God is up to something in the world.  The creation has a destiny.  History has a purpose.  God is alive and active…that’s where I start.  The best first question is, “where do I fit into that thing that God is already doing in the world?”

If I begin with “Where in the world will I find God?”, then I’m playing “Where’s Waldo?”  But if I begin with, “Where in God do I find myself in the world, then maybe I’m looking at an image like this – one that I made using photographs of people and places I’ve seen in the last ten years. You see – it’s a picture of Jesus, but it’s made up of more than 5000 separate images of us. If you’ve been on an all-church retreat, or a mission trip, or at a picnic, or another church event in the past ten years, you’re somewhere in this image.

What I’m suggesting is that we make a mistake when we make ourselves and our understanding the grounding point for reality.  What if we start with the assumption that Jesus of Nazareth is the center of the universe, and our lives and the rest of the universe make sense in light of who he is and what he has done?

Now, as a preacher, I could go in a couple of different ways here.  I could read you that wonderfully sentimental old poem called “Footprints in the Sand”, about the person who had a dream that God was carrying him through all the really difficult moments of his life.  Do you know that poem?  Isn’t it lovely?  Wouldn’t it be nice if the preacher used that poem on Easter Sunday to tell you that Jesus is, and always has been present with you?  Wouldn’t it be nice to have a warm Easter glow?

Well, yeah, I’m not going to go there.  I’d like to read you a poem – but a slightly different one.  It’s a message that points to the same truth: the Lord of Life, the author of the universe, the firstborn of all creation has come and lived and died and rose again for you and for me.  And this poem asks the question, “if that is true – if Easter is the statement of God’s amazing love and powerful work on our behalf – then doesn’t that invite some sort of response from me?  Really – If Jesus Christ is the center of the universe, and he gave himself for me, what am I to do next?  Listen:

One night I had a wondrous dream,

One set of footprints there was seen,

The footprints of my precious Lord,

But mine were not along the shore.

But then some strange prints appeared,

And I asked the Lord, “What have we here?”

Those prints are large and round and neat,

“But Lord, they are too big for feet.”

“My child,” He said in somber tones,

“For miles I carried you along.

I challenged you to walk in faith,

But you refused and made me wait.”

“You disobeyed, you would not grow,

The walk of faith, you would not know,

So I got tired, I got fed up,

And there I dropped you on your butt.”

“Because in life, there comes a time,

When one must fight, and one must climb,

When one must rise and take a stand,

Or leave their butt prints in the sand.”[1]

OK, that poem is meant to be funny – but there is a point.  As your pastor, I do want you to know that there is no place that you can go or ever will go that is past the reach of God’s saving love and power.  You are carried, held, loved, and treasured.  But as your pastor, I also want you to know that you have the opportunity to respond to the workings of God in your life and in the world.  More than the opportunity, you have the ability to respond.  And more than the ability, you have the responsibility to respond.

Jesus Christ is risen today…what are you going to do?  The late Keith Green once sang, “Jesus rose from the dead/You can’t even get out of bed”[2]

Beloved, this is the core message of Easter: that it matters.  The universe matters.  The creation matters.  You matter.  You matter enough to God to prompt him to suffer, die, and defeat death once and for all.  God is committed to the universe – including you and me – so much that he did not allow death to have the final say.  I know that these things matter to God.

I wonder if they matter to you.  What will you do in response to that which has been done on our behalf?  That’s the key question, I think, that informs all of our choices – how we spend our money, what we do with our time, how we view our relationships – everything.

Christ the Lord is risen today.  Alleluia.  Can you choose to do something heroic as a way of saying “Thank you” for the gift of that resurrection?  Will you live your life as though his life made a difference?

There are so many ways that you can respond to the gift and presence of life in the world.  Maybe the best thing you can do is to have that real, true, and authentic conversation with the person you’ve been stonewalling for a long time.  Maybe you can offer forgiveness to the one who has wounded you.  Maybe you need to find the strength to stop hiding in an addictive behavior, or get help with the compulsions that could ruin you.  Maybe you could get off the couch a little more and use your time and energy to improve someone else’s life.

None of these things will mean somehow get God to like you a little better.  But each of them is a way of centering yourself in the story that begins and ends with His amazing love and life-changing presence.  Don’t do any of these things for him – do them because as you make these decisions that indicate you value life and love, you grow more fully into the person that he created you to be.

You don’t have to go out looking for Jesus.  Trust me, he’s looking for you.  I guess my question is, what do you want to be doing when he finds you?  Amen.

[1] I am unsure who wrote this – it is listed most often as “anonymous”, while sometimes it is attributed to someone named Sam Glen.

[2] “Asleep in the Light”, from No Compromise (1978).

It Doesn’t Add Up (or why Horatio Caine won’t help on Easter)

This is the message from the early service at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights on Easter Sunday, April 24, 2011.

1 On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. 2 They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3 but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. 4 While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them. 5 In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? 6 He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: 7 ‘The Son of Man must be delivered over to the hands of sinners, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.’ ” 8Then they remembered his words.

9 When they came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others. 10 It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who told this to the apostles. 11 But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense. 12Peter, however, got up and ran to the tomb. Bending over, he saw the strips of linen lying by themselves, and he went away, wondering to himself what had happened.

As we come to worship this morning to consider the drama that unfolds in our reading from Luke, let me ask you this question: What do you suppose is the most-watched TV show on the planet?

According to statistics available in June of last year, the CBS franchise “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation is seen by more people than any other program.[1]

I have to admit, I love watching CSI Miami.  I turn the volume up and I hear “The Who” screaming that “we won’t be fooled again”; I love watching the incredible shots of sunshine and beaches and beautiful people, even when those same shots make me feel all pasty and lumpy by comparison. But mostly, I have to admit, I love watching that show because even though there are a variety of shades of gray that emerge in each week’s episode, by and large, by the time that 11:00 Sunday night rolls around, Horatio Caine will have found the truth.

You know this guy has ice in his veins...

Do you know Horatio Caine?  The head-tilting, sunglass-wearing, crime solving dynamo that always seems to find the truth.  He is portrayed by David Caruso in what may possibly be the worst case of over-acting since William Shatner played Captain Kirk, but I don’t care.  “This girl is alive, and we…”[remove sunglasses here]”…are going to find her.”

Have you heard about the phenomenon called the “CSI effect?”  According to an article in the Yale Law Journal, the fact that Horatio and his colleagues use science to so great an advantage in crime solving is hampering the efforts of many state prosecutors to close cases. “Of the prosecutors we surveyed, 38% believed they had at least one trial that resulted in either an acquittal or hung jury because forensic evidence was not available, even though prosecutors believed the existing testimony was sufficient by itself to sustain a conviction. In about 40% of these prosecutors’ cases, jurors have asked questions about evidence like ‘mitochondrial DNA,’ ‘latent prints,’ ‘trace evidence,’ or ‘ballistics’—even when these terms were not used at trial.”[2]

You see? We are so eager to make life look like television that we begin to filter our experience through the programs we watch.  And the temptation that I face when I read Luke’s account of the resurrection is to say, “WWHD?”  What would Horatio do?

Can you see these guys out there cordoning off the crime scene at the tomb? They go out to interview the witnesses, and those folks aren’t much good at all.  We’re not even sure how many women were there when the so-called resurrection is alleged to have occurred, and the only thing that they can agree on is that they’ve met some sort of extra-terrestrials who told them that the dead man had been raised to life.

There’s a secondary group of character witnesses, called the apostles.  They weren’t at the cemetery but they will tell you that they’re pretty sure that they don’t believe what the women are telling them.  And the scene from this morning’s reading ends with Peter fingering the grave shroud looking thoughtfully past the camera.  And I want Horatio to tell Callie Duquesne or Eric Delko to get that back to the lab right away so that we can prove something.  That’s what I want to see in my head.

But here’s the thing: so far as I can tell, no where in our scripture reading for today, and no where in the entire Bible, do the apostles appear to be interested in “proving” the resurrection.  I can’t see any evidence that they are trying to convince anyone that it actually occurred.

It’s not so much that they don’t have the evidence (clearly, Peter is holding the grave clothes!), but that they don’t seem to be worried about preserving it.  Evidently, talking someone into accepting the intellectual proposition of a bodily resurrection is not a priority for these folks.  Instead of trying to argue people into believing that the resurrection has occurred, they spend the rest of their lives inviting people into the reality of a world shaped by that resurrection.

Here’s what I mean.  Imagine this: you’ve got some friends in from out of town, and you’d really like to show them your city.  It’s a great day, and you all go down to the south side and buy tickets for a sightseeing cruise on the Gateway Clipper.  But somehow, between the ticket booth and the gangplank, you get confused.  Maybe someone breaks ranks to go to the bathroom, maybe you get distracted by those giant fish swimming in the river, maybe you stop to look at a guy who looks just like Pastor Dave zipping down the river in a beautiful new speed boat (hey, it could happen…).

ANYWAY, something happens, and instead of getting onto the Majestic for the 5:00 sightseeing cruise, you wind up on the Duchess with a group of people that turn out to be the party for the Anderson-Finkelstein wedding.  Unfortunately, you don’t discover your mistake until the boat has left the dock, and there you are, with 250 people watching Mary and Harvey cutting the cake.

You know you don’t belong, but you’re not sure what to do.  As you stand at the railing contemplating your dilemma, the father of the bride comes up and introduces himself to you, and thanks you for coming…You sheepishly explain the situation, and start to stammer out an apology, but he begins to laugh and puts his arm around you and says, “How about that!  Please, come in and enjoy this celebration!  The more the merrier! This is the best day of my life!”

When you turn around, you see mounds of shrimp and the band is playing and people are dancing and you notice that actually, there are six or eight people that you recognize from the neighborhood…and when you finally reach the dock four hours later, you’re tired, you’re happy, you’re encouraged – you’re still a little shocked, but you realize that you are blessed to have been included in that wonderful event that you could never have seen coming.

Now, if that happens, do you go home and call the church to make sure that the Andersons and Finkelsteins really had a wedding that afternoon?  Do you run downtown to the Office of the Register of Wills and ask for proof that this marriage was legal?  I don’t think you do.  In the unlikely event that you end up on board the Gateway Clipper celebrating a phenomenal wedding reception, I’m betting you just sit back and enjoy the party.

That’s where I find myself this morning.  With all due respect to Lieutenant Caine and the Miami-Dade PD, I figure I’ve got about eighteen minutes this morning, and if you’re here looking for me to prove to you that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead, well, I’m not going to do that.

But what I will do is to invite you to stick around for the party that has been made possible by that resurrection.  Let’s walk around and I’ll tell you a little bit about the other people who are at that party.

There’s a kid over there – don’t stare – that I first met six or eight years ago.  At that time, her mother was totally strung out on heroin.  I was there when this child’s life was threatened by drug dealers because her mother was such a mess.  In fact, the mother called Child services on herself because she was afraid something terrible would happen to the kid.  I’m here to tell you that that child is doing very well at school; that she is involved with very positive relationships with several trusted mentors, and that her life is filled with joy.

That guy in the corner? He spent years as an angry and bitter man.  He was abusive to his wife and neglectful of his children.  But somehow, he came to see how wrong he was.  He found a measure of grace and forgiveness, and was able to accept those gifts and put them into practice.  In the space of a few years, he was literally transformed from being an ugly and arrogant jerk to being a humble, gentle, encouraging man.

There’s a lady here who grew up surrounded by adults who were dysfunctional in every way.  In her home there was mental illness, chemical addiction, physical abuse – you name it.  By the grace of God, she has come to a place of healing.  She is a loving and faithful wife.  She is a phenomenal mother.  She is a leader in her community.

I can’t convince you of the resurrection today.  But I can invite you to join me, and these friends of mine – each of whose stories, I can assure you, is true – to come to the party that celebrates the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.

You see, I think that each of the early followers of Jesus felt like they had stumbled into someone else’s wedding reception on the Gateway Clipper Fleet.  They were invited to a party that they didn’t expect and didn’t deserve – but somehow, that event transformed them.

The Bible tells us that Peter, when he was confronted with the reality of the empty tomb and the hollow grave clothes, didn’t know what exactly had gone on – that he “went away, wondering to himself what had happened”.  That’s Peter – Jesus’ right-hand man we’re talking about.

As a pastor in the Church of Jesus Christ, I am here to proclaim the reality that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead.  I celebrate the truth that hope is stronger than memory, and that healing is more in line with God’s purposes for your life than is pain.  Joy is the last word in the universe.

This morning, you may not be able to wrap your head around the whole resurrection thing.  I get that.  I’m not going to try to talk you into anything today.  My prayer is that as you sit here, God will give you a glimpse of the fruit of that resurrection in your world.  Welcome to the party.  Stick around.  The food is all right.  The company is fabulous.  And the host?  I really think you’re going to like him.  I happen to know that he’s incredibly fond of you.  He is risen!  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Who Will Do It This Time? Smelly Feet and Bad Attitudes At The Last Supper…and In Our World

When I graduated from seminary, I had a lot of answers.  I felt well-equipped to help you with just about any question you had when it came to issues of spirituality or theology.  In fact, early on, I looked forward to the questions.

“Why should we talk about infant baptism?”  I’m glad you asked.  Let’s take a look at the witness of scriptures and the history of the church.

“What do you think about the so-called ‘just war’ theory?”  Wow, that’s a good one.  Let’s talk through some of the implications.

“How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” Ok, well, now you’re just being silly.  But I’ll try to engage you anyway.

You see what I mean?  I loved those questions.  And then one day in confirmation class, when I ended with my usual, “Well?  Any other questions?” Matt Barnes raised his hand and said, “Yeah, I have a question about the Bible.  Why is it called the Bible?”

Um, pardon me?  Geez, you know, you’d have thought that we’d have covered this in seminary.  Seems pretty basic, you know.  But I didn’t know.

Maybe you are smarter than I was ten years ago, but I had to go look.  Turns out that “book” is “biblia” in Latin and “biblio” in Greek.  The Bible = The book.  Since then, I’ve tried to pay attention to the basics as well as to the more esoteric questions.

Like tonight, for example.  We call today “Maundy Thursday”, but why is that?  Well, in the Latin translation of the Bible, called the Biblia Sacra Vulgata that was used for hundreds of years, the words of Jesus to his followers at supper on this night were “Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos” (“A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you”).  Maundy Thursday is the same as saying “commandment Thursday”, only it rolls off the tongue a little easier.

The Gospel of John is presumed to be the last Gospel to have been written.  By and large, he’s writing to people who already know some of Matthew, Mark, and Luke’s stories about Jesus.  One of the jarring realities of his Gospel is the fact that when John gets around to telling us the events of the Last Supper, John doesn’t really mention much about the Supper.  I mean, when the other fellows are talking about it, they want to make sure that we get the part about “this is my body, given for you.”  They want to make sure we know about the bread and the wine.  But John? There’s nothing in here about what was on the menu that night, or the significance that Jesus attached to it.

Instead, John tells us all about the fact that Jesus washed the disciples feet – a detail that the other writers don’t even mention.  What’s that about?

 1 It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.

2 The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already prompted Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus. 3 Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; 4 so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. 5 After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.

6 He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”

7 Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”

8 “No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.”

Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.”

9 “Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!”

10 Jesus answered, “Those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you.” 11 For he knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said not every one was clean.

12 When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place.“Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. 13 “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. 14 Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. 15 I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. 16 Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17 Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them. [John 13:1-17, NIV]

Well, the footwashing itself was not a big deal, really.  It was an act of hospitality that was simply necessary in that climate.  Having spent a month in the Middle East last year, wearing sandals every day, I am here to tell you that it became pretty easy to tell which of my fellow travelers adhered to a regimen of foot cleanliness and which did not.  Dry, dusty paths and incredibly hot afternoons led to some pretty ripe feet is all I’m saying.  And in Jesus’ day, it would have been common for a host to have a simple basin of water near the door of the home.  Most travelers would arrive and do the job themselves prior to entering the home.  In wealthier places, there would be a slave assigned the task of loosening the sandals of the guests and then washing them.

I noticed something in my reading of John this week – something that’s been there for nearly two thousand years, but I only noticed this week.  Look at verses three and four.  They describe the fact that Jesus and the other disciples were already seated at the supper table when Jesus got up from dinner and began to wash their feet.

Think about that.  Each of the disciples had arrived.  Each of them had passed by the basin of water on his way in. Not only had nobody thought to wash each other’s feet – nobody had stopped to wash his own, either.  For some reason, they all neglected that.  They just sat down and began to chow down…

I wonder what that was like?  I’ve been imagining the inner monologue that must have been going on inside at least some of their heads. “Uh, oh, I didn’t wash my feet.  I probably should.  I mean, they really smell.  Not bad.  I mean, not like Andrew’s or anything – sheesh, that guy’s got some serious problems.  But it’s kind of gross.  But none of the others are doing it.  I kind of thought that there’d be someone here to handle that.  Oh, geez, this is nasty…”  In my mind’s eye, I picture Peter and Bartholemew and James all giving each other the eye, wondering who is going to do something about this…I imagine that everyone’s thinking that someone ought to say something, but nobody wants to screw it up…

So they start this meal, and nobody’s got clean feet.  And then Jesus gets up and starts to take care of the situation.

Uh-oh.  While we all knew that someone should get up and do something, not Him.  Wow, is this wrong.  Peter grasped that, and with an indignation that betrayed a sense of shame with himself as well as frustration with the rest of those knuckleheads, starts to protest.  Peter doesn’t think he should have had to do the footwashing, but he’s sure that it’s not Jesus’ job, either.

And Jesus uses this simple custom, in which he and all his friends would have engaged a couple of times each day, as a means to point to his own death.  He tells Peter and the others, “Look, I’m doing this for you, now.  It is a gift.  You are included in that gift.  Give this gift to each other in the days to come.”

In John chapter 13, Jesus does for water and the towel exactly what Luke 22 does for juice and bread.  He takes a common, everyday experience and transforms it into a way to share love and grace.  In the footwashing exercise, Jesus lifts what we have known as a menial task, or a chore to be endured or even avoided, into a means by which we can give ourselves away.  In passing the loaf and cup, he takes what we have always experienced as a daily requirement for caloric intake and tells us that it is a way to celebrate God’s love and gift of community.  In washing their feet, and in sharing the loaf and the cup, Jesus gives the church an example wherein the commonplace is elevated to the sacramental.

And then, at the end of this event, we have those words you heard earlier: “A new commandment I give you, that you love one another, just as I have loved you.”

Um, how do you command love?  Really?  Can I make you love me or anyone else?

If love is a feeling, an emotion, or a warm, fuzzy, disposition towards someone else, then you can’t command it.  You cannot make me summon tender feelings or make gaga eyes at another human being.

But if love is a decision to treat another person with hospitality and respect; if love is an action that I can take on your behalf, well, then, that can be commanded, can’t it?  You can’t order me to feel anything, but you can command me to do something.

“Love one another as I have loved you…”  How did Jesus love the disciples?  How did he love us? By reaching out in grace and kindness.

In that upper room, while his followers were filled with anger or self-righteousness or arrogance or regret or guilt or simple weariness, Jesus gave himself for us.

I know that you’ve heard that before, but we each need to hear it again.  When we were at the end of our ropes, Jesus gave himself for us. Not when we were at our best, not when we were particularly remarkable or successful or holy, but when we were all sitting around the room with smelly feet and bad attitudes, Jesus gave himself for us.

And he told us to do the same thing.

We’ll never know, of course…but I wonder what would have happened if Simon or John or Thaddeus had gotten to the table and noticed that everyone’s feet were dirty and had gotten up and attended to it?  It’s clear that they had that chance – dinner had begun…and THEN Jesus got up and washed them.  What if someone else had beaten him to the punch?

Most of the rooms that I walk into are filled with some mixture of people who have smelly feet and bad attitudes.  Can I take the initiative in those situations to act with the love of Christ in simple, yet concrete ways?

What would our lives be like if each meal was an opportunity for a sacrament?  If every time we sat down to eat together, we remembered the gift of Christ present in the bread and the cup?

What would our community be like if every conversation we shared took place with an awareness that we are fully present to and with each other?

How might our culture change if the followers of Jesus were willing to engage everyone around us – not merely our friends and the people we already like – with that kind of hospitality, grace, and love?

I can guarantee that at some point in the next 24 hours, each of us will walk into a room that is filled with people whose lives are characterized by some mixture of anger or self-righteousness or arrogance or regret or guilt or simple weariness.  Oh, they might have on some real nice shoes, and they probably won’t need a course in foot hygiene.  But if they are going to get past those negative places in their lives, they will need someone to offer themselves in love.

Jesus has done it.

Who will do it this time?  Who will notice what needs to be done, and seek to do it in self-sacrificial love?


Prisoners of Hope: is the church just whistling “Dixie”?

This message was preached at the Crafton Heights church on Palm Sunday, April 17, 2011.  The texts included  Matthew’s description of the triumphal entry. In that passage, Matthew points us to Zechariah’s teaching:

9:9 Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion!
Shout, Daughter Jerusalem!
See, your king comes to you,
righteous and victorious,
lowly and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
10 I will take away the chariots from Ephraim
and the warhorses from Jerusalem,
and the battle bow will be broken.
He will proclaim peace to the nations.
His rule will extend from sea to sea
and from the River to the ends of the earth.
11 As for you, because of the blood of my covenant with you,
I will free your prisoners from the waterless pit.
12 Return to your fortress, you prisoners of hope;
even now I announce that I will restore twice as much to you.
13 I will bend Judah as I bend my bow
and fill it with Ephraim.
I will rouse your sons, Zion,
against your sons, Greece,
and make you like a warrior’s sword.

Click on this link, and watch the 30 second video.

Now…what was that man doing just there? Well, as he says, he was whistling “Dixie”, right?  But was he “just whistling Dixie”?  Or was there something else going on?

If I were to walk down the street in Malawi whilst pursing my lips to that song, then maybe people would hear me and say, “wow, what a nice, bouncy tune.  It’s catchy.”  But what if I was whistling that on my way into, say, a re-enactment of one of the battles of the Civil War?  What if I was on my way into a convention of the NAACP?  Would I be “just whistling Dixie” then?  No, of course not.  That is a song that has meaning, and carries with it, rightly or wrongly, some baggage, doesn’t it?  When I whistle that tune, certain people hear it with certain images and ideas, right?

Just about two thousand years ago, the people of Israel were preparing to celebrate the Passover festival in Jerusalem. And, like every year, people from all over the world were gathering in the holy city.  There was a great deal of religious expectation.  And more than that, it was a time of great national fervor.  The city was chafing under the occupation of the Roman Empire, and a number of people were hot to throw off the yoke of the oppressors.  It was a time where patriotism and religious expression were merged.  I think it’s fair to say that much of the city was on edge at that time of the year.

That year, an itinerant rabbi from Galilee decided to visit Jerusalem with some of his followers.  Jesus of Nazareth, who for three years had been gaining some measure of popular fame in a ministry of healing and teaching, wanted to celebrate the Passover feast in Jerusalem.  And, like every other tourist, he had to decide how he was going to get into town.

Matthew, one of his followers, tells us that Jesus chose to enter town on a donkey.  Now opting for that mode of transportation doesn’t communicate much to folks like you and me, but to the folks who were there, it had about as much meaning as whistling Dixie at a KKK rally.  The people who were there saw the donkey, and they remembered the old stories from the prophet Zechariah.

Zechariah was a teacher who had been active about 500 years prior to the time of Christ.  He was one of the prophets who spoke to the people of Israel after they were released from the captivity in Babylon.  For 70 years, the nation’s brightest and best had been held hostage.  Their land was stolen.  Their homes were destroyed.  The Temple was gone.  And after two generations in a strange land, they were returned to their home.  We can only imagine the pain and devastation that they encountered when they got back.

The ruins of Susita, on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee

The first eight chapters of the book that bear his name are a beautiful series of visions that promise that God is doing something new and amazing in his people.  These visions declare God’s fundamental goodness, and offer a glimpse of a new Kingdom of God that will come, apparently, with little effort.  Zechariah 1-8 describes a world wherein evil is banished with minimal discomfort.  I bet that you would believe me when I tell you that people liked – no, actually, they loved the beginning of Zechariah.

But the end of that book – beginning with chapter 9 – describes the fact that evil is substantive.  There will be a kingdom, there will be a King; however, the reality is that such a rule will come at a price: someone will have to pay.

Jesus, coming into Jerusalem that day two thousand years ago, sat on a donkey so that people would remember the promises of Zechariah – but he spoke against the notion of an easy transformation.

Today is Palm Sunday.  It is a day of hope – hope that was clearly rampant in Jerusalem on that day, and hope that is certainly needed in our world.  And because Jesus drew people’s attention to Zechariah on that day, I’d like to look there, too.

The beginning of chapter 9 describes a scene wherein God’s king comes into power – not as a result of his own strength, but rather as a result of what God has done in the world.  Because God has acted, the king is free to rule.  But verses 11 and 12 suggest that the struggle is not yet complete – there is a liberation yet to come.  The prophet says, “I will set your prisoners free…”, and in fact he tells at least some of his subjects to return to their “prisons of hope”.

Isn’t that an awkward-sounding phrase?  “Prisoners of hope”?  That sounds like it’s not right.  We think of prison as a bad place, and of hope as a great good.  How can a good thing hold you in a bad place?

But that’s what it says – in our English reading as well as in the Hebrew.

What do you think?  Is hope a good thing or a bad thing?

In the 1994 film The Shawshank Redemption, Andy Dufresne is a banker imprisoned for murder.  He befriends an inmate named Red.  One night, he talks about the fact that he has hope.  Red wags his finger at Andy and says, “Let me tell you something, my friend.  Hope is a dangerous thing.  Hope can drive a man insane.  It’s got no use on the inside.  You better get used to that idea.”[1]

I mulled that over quite a bit, and this is what I came up with.  Prison is a place that, by and large, prevents you from doing what you want to do.  If that’s the case, then I think it’s fair to say that a “prisoner of hope” is someone whose hope prevents him from doing what he wants to do.

Let’s say that I am a young man who works all day at a job I hate.  When I get home, I’m tired, I’m irritable, I’m frustrated.  What I want to do is have a few beers, get a little buzz on, and crash.  But I hope that I can get through college so I can end up with a different job.  In this case, my hope – college – prevents me from doing what I want to do – check out and forget everything.

Another example: we are engaged in a discussion about a difficult issue.  Your friend joins the discussion, and offers a point of view that is totally counter to my own.  I want to dismiss her as an ill-informed idiot.  Yet I have some hope that we are growing in our ability to hear each other as God’s people.  So my hope forbids me from doing what I want.

Today, Palm Sunday, we contemplate hope.  It is a day for deep and real hope – but too often, we settle for cheap hope – for hope that is not hope.

What do I mean by that?  I mean that sometimes we confuse true and real hope with things that are less than that.

Hope, for instance, is not the same thing as optimism.  While I’m not against having a positive outlook, there are times when “always look on the bright side of life” is not a helpful philosophy of life.  When you get the call that your loved one has died in a foreign war, or you hear that the plant is closing for good, or your little sister is in the ICU at Children’s Hospital, “cheer up” is not going to carry much freight.

Similarly, “wishful thinking” or naïveté, or whistling in the dark – none of those things are the same as hope.

On that Palm Sunday two thousand years ago, if you’d have taken a video camera to the streets of Jerusalem and said, “When you see this man coming into town in the manner of a Messiah, what do you hope for?”, my sense is that you’d have heard things like, “I hope the Romans leave soon.” Or “I hope they don’t raise the required tax payment any more,” or “I hope that Israel will be free.”

Jesus points them towards Zechariah because those visions of a Messiah are insufficient.  God did not intervene in human history by sending his only son so that the world might see regime change in a forlorn corner of the Roman Empire.

Almost always when we say that we “hope” for something, we undersell the power of that gift.  I hope I catch some fish today.  I hope the fever breaks.  I hope she gets that job.  I hope he calls me back.

You see? Each of those things is really a wish that is directed at a symptom that is part of a larger, deeper, yearning in our spirit.

I wish I’d catch a fish because I want to share a meal with my friends and by giving you the gift of that meal and the time invested in it, then you will know the meaning and significance that I attach to our friendship.

I wish that fever would break because I long for my child to be whole.

I wish she’d get that job because my friend needs to know that her life has purpose and value, and that she won’t be where she is forever.

I wish he’d call me back because if he doesn’t, that would confirm my fears that I am not worth his time – and if I’m not worth his time, then maybe I am, as I fear, not worthy of love.  And more than anything, I need to know that I am lovable.

Do you see?  Hope requires a surrender to the deepest parts of our lives.  Hope requires an acknowledgement of the reality that we are not in control.  In some profound way, hope necessitates a naming of the dis-ease that I fear.

I hope for the resurrection of the body, for instance, because in spite of my best attempts to deny it, I know that I live in a world that is characterized by death.  And resurrection is the only answer for death that makes sense.

Today, Jesus rides into Jerusalem, and we, like billions of others for thousands of years, come to worship.  What do we want?  A little pick-me up?  A chance to sing my favorite song?  Do we want to be amused, or to escape from boredom (although, I must confess, I’m not aware of too many people who employ listening to sermons as an antidote for boredom…)?  Do we come to church because we want people to think that we’re nice, or that we would make good spouses, or because we feel guilty about what we said or did earlier this week?

Or are we here to lay claim to that hope that in spite of the pain and dis-ease, the dis-unity and despair that seem to characterize too many of our days, we believe that there is a deeper and more powerful story into which we are growing?

The Greeks told the story of a woman named Pandora.  The gods were angry with her, and tricked her by giving her a gift: a container that they said was full of treasures.  When she opened the lid, you know what happened: all manner of evil poured into the world. The Greeks used that myth to explain the presence of suffering and evil in the world.  What I find to be very interesting, especially in light of today’s discussion, is the fact that by the time Pandora was able to slam the lid shut, the container only held one thing: hope.

From this point, there are several versions of the story.  Some of them say that because hope remained in the jar, human existence is nothing but trouble and sorrow.  Some say that hope is, indeed, a curse on humanity – because there are no fundamental answers, and therefore any hope is a false hope, so it was good that Pandora left hope in the jar.  And still others state that later, Pandora re-opened the box because she believed that hope was the one thing in the jar that was good – and it’s the presence of that hope that allows us to tolerate all the evils of the world.  The ancient Greeks appeared to be confused as to the nature of hope.

But I’m here to tell you that there’s no such confusion in Scripture.  Hope can be dangerous, because it does shape and mold us.  But as we set our hope in the right end, we claim the truth that there is no part of our lives that is so broken that they cannot be made whole; that there is nothing so twisted in this universe that it will not be straightened.  As Jesus proclaimed and as you know, that’s a hope that is deep and costly.  But, thanks be to God, it is a hope on which we can rely.  When we join with Jesus in his declaration of hope in a God who knows the deepest places of our hearts and minds, and who loves us anyway, and who calls us to live as those who are destined for wholeness and peace, well, we’re not just whistling “Dixie”.  Amen.

[1] The Shawshank Redemption, written and directed by Frank Darabont, 1994.  Castle Rock Entertainment

Staying Flexible…Being Teachable

I had a week of “Continuing Education” in early April.  That means that my church freed me up to take a week away and learn.

Isn’t that cool?  As a part of my call to the ministry, the Body that ordained me and allows me to pay my bills says that I need to take some regular time – two weeks a year, on average – not for vacation, not for “catching up”, but for reflection, study, and growth.

In the past, when I’ve done this, I’ve traveled somewhere and applied myself under someone else’s tutelage.  The National Pastor’s Convention, for instance, or the “Footsteps of Paul” trip that I took with a group of colleagues in 2008.  Sometimes, I’ve used this time in Malawi, where I’ve tried to learn about the church in the 2/3 world.  But this time, for the first time ever, I took unstructured time.  The goal, as I presented it to the Session, was to devote some time to writing.  For a couple of years, I’ve sensed a call to expand my vocation somewhat, and so I’ve explored some options in this regard.  Recently, I’ve published in a few magazines (HungryHearts, Presbyterians Today, and The Presbyterian Outlook, for instance).  Now, I’m working on a volume of short stories that were originally written for telling at Christmas.

But you can’t write without reading, and I’ve read some doozies lately.  This week, my list included Evolving in Monkeytown by Rachel Held Evans, Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food  by Paul Greenburg, and  The National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America (hey, I was in Southern California.  Did you think I was going to hide in a hotel room all day long?).

As I read, and thought, something occurred to me.  I am in my fifty-first year.  For most of my life, most of the deep and profound reading that I have done has been by the folks who have come before me – older sages who have served as guides to me along the way.  There’s the catalogue of great literature to which I was introduced as a boy and a student at Geneva College.  I cut my teeth on C.S. Lewis, R.C. Sproul, J.I. Packer, and other folks with initials but, not, apparently, names.  Other, older mentors spoke to me through the printed word: Tony Campolo, Eugene Peterson, Stanley Hauerwas, Barbara Brown Taylor, Barbara Kingsolver, and Anne Tyler, just to name a few.  Gradually, of course, I caught up with some of the best writers.  I’m pretty sure that Max Lucado and I are close in age, along with Will Willimon or Brian McClaren.

But now, I am constantly surprised, and blessed, by how much I am learning from those who are younger than I.  I suppose this shouldn’t be a shock, as the median age of the planet’s population, according to one study, is 24.3 years.  Put that many young people together, and I’m sure that some of them will do something good.

But it’s more than a numbers game.  I believe that we are observing a real generational shift, and there are people now who are thinking in new ways, and understanding reality from new perspectives.  Shane Claiborne, Lauren Winner, Rob Bell, and Rachel Evans are all people who could have been in my youth group at one time or another.  They weren’t, of course – but they have asked some deep, difficult, and extremely helpful questions.  I’m glad I’ve read them.

Which leads me to my point: am I listening to the other young people that I know and love – the kids who are and have been in my youth group?  Am I expecting them to challenge and stretch and teach me?

Oh, that I might stay supple and flexible in my mind and spirit, and always be willing to be taught. Philosopher Eric Hoffer (way older than me) once wrote, “In times of change, learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.”  I am pretty sure that Jesus expects me to deal with the world as it is and as it is becoming.  May I always be a learner.

Kiwi on Cumberland Street: Gradual Miracles and Churches that Do What They’re Supposed To

You know, you can’t be at my home very long without hearing me talk about my garden.  If you get there and it’s dark, or rainy, or cold, I’ll find some excuse to serve you some strawberry jam or rhubarb pie, and when you politely tell me that it’s delicious, I’ll make an offhanded comment like “Oh, well, you know, I grew that myself…”

But if I’m lucky, you’ll get there on a warm sunny day, and I’ll start you in the front yard and parade you past the apple tree, the rhubarb, the tomatoes, peppers, and sweet potato.  We’ll come to the back yard, and I’ll point out raspberries, strawberries, blueberries, sweet peas, and my new cherry and paw paw trees.  And then, almost as an afterthought, I’ll say, “And that big cluster over there is the kiwi.”

And almost all of you will fall into my trap, and get a rather surprised look on your face as you reply, “Seriously?  Kiwi?  In Pittsburgh? How did you get that to grow here?”

And I will reply as modestly as I can, and say that this is a strain that grows quite well in USDA zone 6.  But the effect will have been realized.  You will think that this kiwi I have in my backyard is rare, exotic, and special.  The real answer, of course, is simple.  How did I get that kiwi to grow on Cumberland Street?  I planted it.

The church in which Paul and his friends in Ephesus were active was a rare, exotic, and special phenomenon in the first century world.  Most of Paul’s friends had grown up in a world that was strictly defined by race, ethnicity, social status, and religion.  It was them vs. us.  You were a Jew or a Gentile.  Slave or free.  Citizen or non-citizen.  Ins or outs.  Everywhere you turned, you were reminded of the incredible distinction by race, class, or gender.

But the church was different.  Here, in a way unlike almost anywhere else in the Roman Empire, you could find people from every walk of life.  It was really a remarkable situation.  And, as we’ve talked about in the past few weeks, Paul is really enamored of it.

We started reading Ephesians about a month ago, and we noted that it was a letter from Paul to the Christians who met in Ephesus.  I don’t know if anyone else noticed, but today’s reading was the first portion of the letter in which Paul refers to his story at all.

1 For this reason I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles—

2 Surely you have heard about the administration of God’s grace that was given to me for you,3 that is, the mystery made known to me by revelation, as I have already written briefly. 4 In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, 5 which was not made known to people in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets. 6 This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.

7 I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God’s grace given me through the working of his power. 8 Although I am less than the least of all the Lord’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the boundless riches of Christ, 9 and to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things. 10 His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, 11according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord. 12 In him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence. 13 I ask you, therefore, not to be discouraged because of my sufferings for you, which are your glory. (Ephesians 3:1-13, NIV)

Think about that for a moment – for two entire chapters, Paul talks about some of the great mysteries and blessings of the church – while omitting any personal references or news.  If I’m writing, it’s a little different.  I mean, I just spent a week in Southern California, and when I wrote to my friends, I was talking about what I was doing, where I was, what I was seeing.  But Paul started with God’s amazing thing called the church.  Now, we come to chapter three, and he mentions, “Oh, by the way, I’m in prison, but that’s not really important now…what I really want to talk about is this mysterious thing that God is growing in and through you – the church!”

From the confines of his prison cell, Paul looks back on his life and says that he understands better the ways that God has been at work in the lives of His people throughout generations – and as a result, he has come to see that the Church is a wildly interconnected body that, he points out in chapter 2, is free from division and walls.

The Western Wall, where the men pray in the larger area to the left, while the section on the right is reserved for women.

Last year, I was privileged to visit Jerusalem.  One of the stops there was a visit to the Western Wall, also called the “wailing wall”.  It is the most sacred spot on earth to observant Jews.  And as we approached, my daughter and I discovered that  we could not visit it together.  There, as thousands of people gather to pray weekly, Ariel went to one section, and I to another – there is a barrier between the men and the women.


The Dome of the Rock, where Muhammad is said to have ascended to heaven.

couple of days later, we made our way to the Dome of the Rock, the third-holiest site in Islam.  As we approached the temple mount, we learned that while there are nine gates to this edifice, non-Muslims are only permitted to use one.  When we got there, we learned that while we were free to roam around the grounds during specified hours, we were expressly forbidden from entering the Dome itself – a spot that more than a billion people in the world consider to be sacred.

The "Separation Barrier" in Jerusalem

We wanted to go to Bethlehem and see the spot where Jesus was born.  But in order to get there, we had to pass through some rigorous checkpoints and get to the other side of what is, in my mind, euphemistically called a “separation barrier”.  For my money, any 25-foot tall concrete structure topped with razor wire deserves to be called a wall.

In Jerusalem, the Holy City, we experienced religion as a wall.  For much of our time, we saw a culture that treated the practice of faith as a barrier that kept us in and them out.  It was a divisive line that people drew around themselves or their real estate as if to say, “we belong here, and you do not.”

This is the world in which Paul grew up.  To be honest, it is the world in which I grew up.  What did it mean to be a Christian?  Well, for us, that meant that we weren’t supposed to smoke, or drink, or fool around with girls.  Jesus wanted us to study hard, get into college, and act holy.  In many parts of the world, the church exists as a club for saints – a place where the people who think and believe and act like me get together to remember why we think and believe and act this way.

But Paul says that the church is not a static thing, but rather a mysterious body – it is an identity into which we grow, as opposed to a label we apply.  He refers to the “manifest wisdom of God”, which he describes as being that process by which the Lord has opened Paul’s understanding of faithful living.  It is this wisdom, says Paul, which calls us to see ourselves not only as “Jews” or “Gentiles”, but as the body of Christ.  Whereas in our own limitations we might be tempted to see ourselves as defined by a certain set of characteristics, within the context of the church we see that we are each called to become more fully the body of Christ in the world.  In his previous understanding, Paul saw his identity as that which he protected and conserved; now he sees that God calls each of us (and all of us) to grow up and to grow into God’s best for our lives.  We are called to grow, to mature, to show in our own lives the amazing power of the Lord.

April 1, 1995...Ariel and I are getting ready for some spring planting.

But while that kind of growth may be the intention, it’s not necessarily easy or pleasant.  Remember my kiwi?  Ariel and I planted those in about 1995.  That summer, we watered them faithfully, and every time we went to the grocery store we passed the produce section and talked about how great it would be to go out and pick our own kiwi.  The next year – nothing happened.  Our two foot vines grew into three foot vines.  That’s it.  The year after that, nothing happened.  They probably stretched to six feet.  I called the nursery and demanded, “Where’s my kiwi?”  The kind man there explained that kiwi vines take a while to reach maturity.  “A while?  How long?”  “Well,” he said, “In most cases, we’re looking at seven years before they blossom.”  “Seven years?  What the heck?  Who wants to wait seven years?  Why don’t I just buy kiwi?”

But it seems to me that some of the best things about growing up in our identity as the Body of Christ take all sorts of time.  Have you ever been in a service, or seen one on television, where someone gave a testimony of being healed miraculously?  The man, for instance, who was healed of his alcoholism overnight.  He quit cold turkey, and his life was instantly changed.  Aren’t stories like that powerful?  I am amazed by them.

But I am humbled by stories of people who have seen a friend in trouble.  They notice him struggling with his addiction, and they stay his friends.  They challenge him.  They push back on the behaviors that are destructive.  They hold him accountable to goals, even when he fails.  And eventually, after some years, he finds a measure of healing and is living sober.  Isn’t that kind of growing a miracle, too?

What about the time you went to worship and you heard the story of the kid who was saved from a car wreck?  The conditions were treacherous, and the car was totally destroyed, and this young person should have died on the spot – but somehow, she walked away without a scratch.  Wow!  Praise the Lord!

But what about the kid whose life is a wreck?  He’s got no parental figures to speak of; he’s immersed in an atmosphere of abuse and addiction.  When he hangs around with other people’s kids, those parents are all kinds of nervous…in most of his life, this young man is treated either as a problem to be solved or as an inconvenience to be avoided.  But then the church reaches into that train wreck of a life and over the years, God brings out amazing healing – and we see another miracle.

Paul, sitting in his prison cell, looks at his life and says, “Wow, I sure didn’t see this coming!  I’m different – different from who I used to be, and different from who I thought I’d be.  And it’s not just me.  The people of God are different, too.  The promise is unchanged – and it’s so much bigger than I ever could have imagined.”

The church is not a club for holy people to join.  And it’s not a refuge for broken people to hide out in, either.  It is, by the grace of God, a body that allows people to grow into all the promises of Christ.

Growing up is hard work.  You know that every time you hear a child cry, or remember your first broken heart, or think about the fact that you can’t do everything that you used to be able to do.  I got an e-mail lately from a friend wh is trying to wean her daughter from breast-feeding.  Do you know how hard that is – for both the wean-ee and the wean-er?  I’m telling you, growing up is not for sissies.  But it is what we were created to do.

The kiwi on Cumberland Street are not doing anything special.  They may seem exotic because nobody else on Cumberland Street has planted them.  But they’re just vines, and they’re just growing – like they’re supposed to.  This fall, I hope to get a few handfuls of kiwi.  I ought to.  I planted them.

The congregation I serve isn’t anything special – we are doing what the Lord intended us to do.  Miracles happen here. That’s what is supposed to happen where God plants a church.

I know, some people say, “yeah, but this church is different!”  Maybe.  To the extent that it is, though, shame on other churches.  I’m telling you, there should be nothing remarkable about a church where miracles occur.

To be honest, most of the miracles I see here are not “quickies”.  They take place when we love each other over the long haul. When we mentor a child, or call a friend to account for her actions.  Sometimes, they begin just by putting up with each other long enough to love each other and hear each other’s stories.  It’s not always easy.  But it’s right.

May God grant us the grace to make our congregations growing places where miracles happen…enough of the “quick” miracles so that we are encouraged for the long haul, and enough of the “gradual” miracles so that we can be a sign of Christ’s hope and healing to the world that does not yet know the promise.