Practicing Hallelujah

 

 The saints at the Crafton Heights Church celebrated Easter on April 16 as we concluded our Lenten study of the Bible passages used to frame Handel’s Messiah.  Our readings for the morning came from John 20:19-23 and Revelation 19:4-8.  An audio link to the sermon is immediately below this text.

I was raised in a home that, while wonderful in many, many respects, did not have a great deal of disposable income. There were times when our family struggled financially. That might explain why I have such vivid memories of the “gifts” that my dad would sometimes bring home from work. He’d show up with a paperboard drum from the plant and say that now we had a brand new container for our baseball bats. I remember how happy I was to get a pile of stickers from his work – sure, they all said things like “fragile” or “load this end” or “packing list enclosed” – but you know what? They were stickers, and they were mine, and it was awesome.

But there was one thing he brought that gave me, the middle child, a queasy feeling. It was a motivational poster that warned, “If you a not part of the solution, you are part of the problem!” I know his intentions were good, but why would you give that sort of thing to a nine year old?

My nine-year-old self read that and was terrified. I mean, money was tight, which led to parents arguing, which led to fear and uncertainty that only a middle child who desperately wants everything to work out and nothing to be his fault can understand. I didn’t want problems. And I most certainly did not want to BE a problem. No sir. Not me.

There is, believe it or not, a theological application to this. Hear me out.

In certain circles of American Christianity, there is a school of thought that might be summed up by saying, “You! You are a sinner. You are dirty, evil, and destined for ruin. On your own, you are nothing and nobody. YOU ARE THE PROBLEM. But, thanks be to God, Jesus is a problem-fixer. He can clean you up, and make you acceptable, and is even willing to save your soul so that you can make it to heaven when you die.” To be honest, some of our best-loved hymns carry this line of thought.

Look, I don’t want to deny the reality of sin and brokenness. And yes, there are some really terrible things that you’ve done (me too.). But a theology that has as its deepest affirmation something along the lines of, “Wow, I was horrible and then Jesus said, ‘Hey, man, relax. I’ve got this’, so now I’m just chilling over here waiting for heaven…” is a horrible, insufficient theology. For one thing, it’s a gospel of shame; and for another thing, you can’t simply say that Jesus’ main goal was to keep your sorry butt out of Hell.

And when I put it like that, you, being the kind, sophisticated and genteel people that you are, would say, “Oh, heavens, no! Of course, Dave! That’s not the kind of theology we’re interested in.”

Um, well, not so much.

A kinder, gentler version of this line of thinking is that you are not necessarily the problem, but let’s be honest, you do have a problem. A big, ugly problem. I’m fundamentally a good person, but I just need a little help taking care of this one thing over here… there is some sin in my life – an addiction, or greed, or lust, or whatever – but when Jesus comes and stands next to me it’s all good. Everybody knows that nobody really wants to be a jerk, but sometimes it happens. We accept the forgiveness that we have in Christ and it’s all good.

The difficulty I have with those variations of theology is that neither one of them is really adequately supported in scripture.

Jesus Appears to the Disciples After the Resurrection (Imre Morocz, 2009)

I mean, let’s take a look at how Jesus behaved in what John said was the first face to face meeting that took place between the resurrected Jesus and his disciples. You heard that in the Gospel lesson a few moments ago. The disciples are all hiding out, afraid that they’re going to get what Jesus got from the religious leaders and the Romans. They’re sure that they’ve let Jesus down, they’re not sure what they can do, and are pretty much paralyzed. And then, into that room walks their resurrected Rabbi.

If the most important message of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus was that you are a horrible person who needs to be filled with shame about what you’ve done and where you’ve been, and the only way to make anything better would be for you to come groveling back and then go over there and stand in that line of people waiting to get into heaven, well, this would be the ideal time for Jesus to lay that one on them.

Clearly, the disciples had disappointed Jesus. The past few days had been filled with betrayal, abandonment, denial, and cowardice.

But what does Jesus say to this group of losers?

“Peace. As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.”

What? No dressing down? No 37 Choruses of “O! Precious is the flow that makes me white as snow; no other fount I know: nothing but the blood of Jesus”?

Nope. Not here. He settles them down (because they think they’ve seen a ghost) and then he tells them that he’s sending them out.

And how is he sending them out? In the power of the Holy Spirit, as he himself was sent. As practitioners of forgiveness. In this, the first concrete example of what life in the kingdom of the resurrected Son of God will look like, we discover that the hallmark of the early Christian community is forgiveness – forgiveness that is modeled and shared and lived.

Jesus looks at the disciples – and, by implication, at you and me – and says, “You – you are not the problem. And, while you may have problems, it’s not really all about you and your problems. The reality is that the entire cosmos has a problem. It’s why I came. And it’s why I’m sending you out in the way that I was sent, so that you can continue the work of resurrection in the places you go.”

The first thing that the resurrected Jesus told his followers was that they were agents of and ambassadors for reconciliation.

This is my point: that the resurrection is not a little agreement between you and God wherein the Lord looked at you and said, “Wow! That’s ugly! That’s a problem. Look, here’s a way out of that mess.”

No, the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth was the next step in the expression of God’s intentions to reconcile not just those disciples, or you, or me to himself, but rather to reconcile all of creation to itself and its Creator.

And there in that dimly lit upper room, the disciples are given the task of modeling, sharing, and living forgiveness and reconciliation to the world.

Of course, there is a profound brokenness in my life and in yours. We are in need of forgiveness and reconciliation. But it’s bigger than us!

Paul writes in his letter to the Romans that all of creation cries out for restoration. John writes in Revelation that he can see a “new heaven” and a “new earth”. In the commission of Christ to his disciples, we participate in that restoration as we take seriously our call to be stewards of the planet. The Church of Jesus Christ does not need “Earth Day” to motivate us. We proclaim reconciliation and we live resurrection whenever we act as though we care about the devastation of strip mining, or overfishing, or toxins leaching into our water table. God created humanity to live as caretakers of the garden, and that task is still ours! The way we treat the earth is a statement about what we think God is like and expects from us.

The Golden Rule (Norman Rockwell, 1961)

The early Christians embarked on a pattern of behavior and relationships that meant that the church was never intended to be a haven for one particular kind of people. Instead, the book of Acts describes how wall after wall of exclusion and intimidation was destroyed leading to a vision of a church that was truly reflective of the vast diversity of humanity. John writes in Revelation of people from every tribe and language singing around the throne… that’s what the restored Kingdom looks like.

We participate in that reality as we are willing to risk leaving the safety of our own desires or cultures or homes in order to learn how to be fully present to someone else. We find a way to greet them in a language that makes sense to them; we open our homes to those who are unlike us, and we work to ease the suffering of refugees or victims of war and famine. Why? Because conflict and hunger are not a part of God’s intentions. We have been sent to announce that reconciliation is the goal – and to do what we can to effect that.

The resurrection can and should have great meaning for you and for me personally – but not simply because it means that we’ve got a great fire insurance policy that kicks in when we die.

The resurrection gives us our marching orders as we prepare for and practice living in such a way that the great Hallelujah of which John writes in Revelation makes sense. We are called to walk in, to live in, and to share freely the reconciling work of God in Christ to the end that all creation will echo with the joy for which God intends.

Listen: in a few moments, a dozen or so of us are going to come up here and do our level best to sing the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah. We’ve been practicing it for a month. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone, and I don’t want to disrespect my fellow singers, but I can pretty much guarantee that it won’t be the best version of this piece that you’ve ever heard.

On the other hand, I’m almost certain that it will be the best version that any of you have ever heard in this room. I bet that you’ll be singing along and tapping your toes. Great.

But here’s the deal: when we finish that song, it’s up to you to go out and be the best version of the Hallelujah Chorus that the folks in your house, on your bus, in your home room, and at your office have heard on that day. We are called to go out and practice Hallelujah so that the world might know that Christ is risen – he is risen indeed. Hallelujah! Amen.

Well, we did sing the Hallelujah Chorus, but unfortunately we didn’t video it.  You’ll have to be satisfied with this version from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and trust that the 14 singers from Crafton Heights sounded about like this…

It’s the Story of Us

During Lent 2016, the people of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights looked at some of the giant questions raised in the ancient book of Job. When Easter Sunday rolled around, we finished our consideration in a two-part sermon series.  Both of these messages are rooted in the fact that our community has a number of people for whom this Lent was filled with significant loss and grief.  That drove me, as a preacher, to explore aspects of our Holy Day that were congruent with themes of suffering, loss, and pain that ring forth from Job.  Our texts for the later service, shared below, were Job 42 (the final chapter of that work) as well as I Corinthians 15:20-28.

 

Ever since Valentine’s Day, we’ve walked with Job and his friends. That’s not nearly long enough to do anything like an exhaustive study, but we have gotten acquainted with this man, his world, his struggle, and his faith.

As stories go, frankly, there isn’t much action. We’ve met a few characters, most of whom are not developed all that well. By and large, this is a book filled with talking. Like a lot of things at church, Job seems to be populated by a bunch of folks who love to hear the sound of their own voices. We’ve heard Job, of course, and his wife; God and Satan, and more than we needed to from Bildad, Elihu, Zophar, and and Eliphaz.

Yep. Lots and lots of talking.  At church.  Who saw that coming?

And this morning, in the last chapter?

More talking.

But let me tell you something, because I bet you didn’t pick up on this. I know that I didn’t the first eight or ten times I read through Job. There is something profoundly different about the talking in chapter 42 – we have not seen this kind of speech anywhere in the book.

For the last 41 chapters, we have heard a lot of conversations. God and Satan get into a bit of an argument about why Job acts the way that he acts; Job curses the day of his birth, Job’s wife tells Job that he’s crazy, and he replies by saying that she’s not herself and doesn’t know what she’s talking about. Then the friends show up and do their level best to point out how Job and the other friends are mistaken, and Job consistently replies by indicating how wrong they all are. Finally, God shows up and says, “You know what? You’re all wrong. None of you know what you’re talking about – you just don’t get it.”

And here, in chapter 42, Job says, “You’re right, God. I don’t get it. You’re right.”

Chapter 42 contains the only non-combative speech in the entire book of Job. Job does not try to refute, rebut, correct, or criticize God. He just agrees, and confesses, and accepts.

I was unable to find any citation for this widely-shared image.  If you can help me find the artist, I'd be delighted to credit.

I was unable to find any citation for this widely-shared image. If you can help me find the artist, I’d be delighted to credit.

And because the tone switches from confrontational to confessional, and because it’s the only place in the book that this language shows up, well, it’s worth noticing.

For 41 chapters, we’ve heard all kinds of people talk about whether or not Job is a great guy, and how Job should or should not worship and serve God. In chapter 42, Job actually worships. It’s not language that talks about worship, it’s language that records worship.

Allow me to suggest that in a very deep sense, Job’s story parallels the entirety of scripture. In that way, the story of Job really is the story of us.

There is a beginning – in both Job and in Genesis – and it’s a spectacularly good beginning. Everything seems to be going along pretty smoothly for a while, and then that goodness is interrupted and threatened by something that is incredibly horrible. At first, the power of evil and the work of the Accuser seems to be to be overwhelming. Eventually, God promises to sustain those who struggle, and at the end of the story, in fact, God shows up and brings about renewal and restoration. We see that in the pages of Job, and we see that laid out across scripture from Genesis to Revelation, right? It’s the same story. There’s a great beginning, an incredibly hard and really long middle, and we are promised a fine end. Yay!

Having said that, I feel obligated to point out that as 21st – century enlightened American believers, we are at least uncomfortable with the basic outline of Job, and maybe downright offended by it.

In case you’ve not been here in the past few weeks, here’s a quick synopsis of Job. We meet him and find out that he’s a great guy – super religious, really faithful, and fantastically wealthy. He starts out with 7,000 sheep, 3,000 camels, 500 yoke of oxen, 500 donkeys, many servants, 7 sons, and 3 daughters. Job is sitting pretty, to be sure.

And then all of that goes away – all 11,500 animals, all the servants, and most heart-breakingly, all ten children are killed. Job and his wife are totally bereft.

And it gets worse, when Job is afflicted with a horrible illness and becomes a pariah in his own community. His friends show up and try to convince him that it’s somehow all his fault.

Finally, though, in the reading that we’ve heard this morning, God shows up and seems to say, “You know what, Job? We’re good. It’s all good. So look at what I’m going to do for you: here, at the end of your story, you’ll have 14,000 sheep, 6,000 camels, 1000 yoke of oxen, 1000 donkeys, lots of hired men and women, and, of course, ten brand-new children!”

And for 3,000 years people have read Job and said, “Awwww, I love a happy ending…”

But we say, “Hold on just one minute! That’s a terrible story! How do we just pretend that none of that stuff in chapter one matters? Are we saying that the children that Job and his wife loved so deeply in the beginning of the book are so easily forgotten and replaced? Do they have no significance whatsoever? ‘Cause that’s just wrong!”

I don’t think that anyone is suggesting that the pain and grief and suffering incurred by Job, his wife, and their family is insignificant. No one is pretending that these losses did not occur, or were not egregious.

The story of Job, and the story of the Gospel, and the story of us is that no one ever needs to pretend that suffering is not real and is not important. The point is not that we can ignore it, but that we will get through it. We are transformed by it. And it matters.

How do I know that it matters, according to the scripture?

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, Caravaggio (1603)

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, Caravaggio (1603)

Well, think about the body with which Jesus was raised from the dead. What did he have in his hands? Holes. What did he have in his feet? Holes. What did he have in his side? A wound.

Note that, beloved. When our Lord was raised from the dead into a body that Paul says is “imperishable”, it was a body that had scars.

Which means, I think, that something of what happens during our experience of time and space has some eternal importance.

The idea of resurrection is not that what was once is now no more, and all has been erased and re-written. It would appear as though a more satisfactory understanding of resurrection is that we move through pain into something better; we are healed from that which is dead and restored to our intended status and purpose and function and form.

You see, much of the theology in both Job and in our current day seems to be centered around the mistaken notion that bad things happen to bad people and that good things happen to good people. Job’s friends were echoing time-honored thoughts when they said, “Hey, you know what? If you get sick, or if you find yourself experiencing an abnormal amount of loss or grief or devastation, you better look in the mirror. You’ve sinned somewhere. You’ve made some horrible decisions.” They also held to the opposite theory, which states that “if you get rich or experience profound levels of health and joy, well then, shucks, you must be doing something right for God to bless you like that! Congratulations, you clean-living, God-fearing, upstanding, morally-appropriate my-kind-of-guy!”

That brand of theology, not surprisingly, seems to be favored by rich, healthy, employed or endowed people.

It’s also not a biblical philosophy. If so, Jesus, as the sinless Son of God could not have experienced the things that he did. If you follow that line of thinking very far, you wind up thinking that all pain is punishment, that all suffering is not only deserved, but to be avoided, and that love only winds up hurting you.

A healthy understanding of the notion of resurrection, however, brings a different result. The Gospel story is that, yes, pain does occur – but there are times when pain produces fruit. Suffering is not always the result of bad choices or a sign of divine displeasure – there are some times when suffering is the means by which we become transformed.

When Paul was trying to talk about it with his friends in Rome, he used the analogy of childbirth. Having a baby, he says, hurts like nobody’s business. Frankly, from a male perspective, it just seems impossible and against the laws of geometry. It shouldn’t work, and it’s incredibly painful. And yet, at the end, there is a blessing to be found – and one that can only be brought as a result of the path of suffering.

Brene Brown is an author, researcher, and educator who left the church as a young adult, feeling as though it was irrelevant and didn’t meet her needs. Twenty years later, she suffered some incredible pain and she went back to the church, hoping that it would remove that pain. She expected that faith would act like an epidural anesthetic – that it would simply block all the pain she’d experienced. She says, “I thought Faith would say, ‘I’ll take away the pain and discomfort’, but what it ended up saying was, ‘I’ll sit with you in it.’ Church wasn’t an epidural, it was a midwife. It just stood next to me and said ‘Push, it’s supposed to hurt a bit.’” (Click here to watch Brown’s brief video developing this theme)

That’s resurrection thinking. Do not for one second pretend that the losses that Job incurred or those through which you have suffered are inconsequential. Of course your losses, your pain, your grief matter! Yes! But do not resign yourself to the thinking that says that those things are all that exist, either, or that somehow your grief and your losses will wind up as that which ultimately defines you.

This morning, if you showed up to worship on Easter feeling happy, wealthy, and wise, surrounded by good-looking men, strong women, and above average children, then I apologize, because the resurrection probably seems unnecessary to you and I’ve just wasted 18 minutes of your precious time.

But if you’re here trying to make sense of some deep pain in your life and you are longing for hope and healing… If you are wondering how in the world you can get through the challenge that looms in front of you, and what difference any of it makes anyhow… Well, then you ought to know that God’s word is a good word.

Do you think that Job and his wife could ever forget their first, or second, or third-born child? Do you think that when they got to number twelve or thirteen they said, “See, there, that’s not so bad! We’re ok. These kids are just about as good as the other ones…”?

You know that’s not what happened. Do you think that their relationship with the second set of children was shaped by the lives and deaths of the first? Of course it was.

The fundamental truth of Job’s experience of having, losing, and being restored is not “see, good guys come out all right in the end”, but rather that what we can see and what we are experiencing is not ultimate. We are all in the in-between. Where you have been matters – it matters a lot. And everything that is good and right and holy about where you have been – is eternal. Where you are shapes where you are heading – and where you are heading is into God’s ultimate good.

So to the three or four of you who are sitting pretty without a care in the world, have a great day. Enjoy the rest of the service. The last hymn is a real toe-tapper. And good luck with whatever is going so great for you.

And to the rest of us, the message of Easter is simple. You can hold on. You can trust. You can hope. Not because of who you are, but because of the One to whom you hold, on whom you trust, and in whom you hope. He is risen. Alleluia!

Out of the Whirlwind

During Lent 2016, the people of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights looked at some of the giant questions raised in the ancient book of Job. When Easter Sunday rolled around, we finished our consideration in a two-part sermon series.  Both of these messages are rooted in the fact that our community has a number of people for whom this Lent was filled with significant loss and grief.  That drove me, as a preacher, to explore aspects of our Holy Day that were congruent with themes of suffering, loss, and pain that ring forth from Job.  Our texts for the early service, shared below, were Job 40:6-14 (with a reference to our Maundy Thursday reading of Job 38) and Mark 16:1-8.

 

I like to think of myself as a peaceful person. I’m a lover, not a fighter, as they say.

And yet, as I prepared for this morning’s message, I found myself thinking about the last time that I got punched in the mouth. I mean, really socked in the kisser. Not a “dope slap”, not a pretend smack – an honest to goodness haymaker that landed square on this jaw.

It happened during a Bible study of which I was the leader. I made a comment, and my friend Frank took a different approach. Next to Frank was Jason, who thought that he needed to come to my defense, and so he told Frank that he was wrong. Frank took exception to that and called Jason a heretic, which got Jason’s blood boiling. They got louder and louder and the next thing I knew they had squared off and were ready to go at it. I rose, seeking to bring order to the situation, just as Jason was rearing back to plant one on Frank’s nose. Frank ducked, and I wound up with a bloody lip. At a Bible study.

You see, I hadn’t said anything for about five minutes – this was a conflict that was intensified because these guys were arguing about what I said, what I would say, how I might say it, and so on.

We’ve spent the past six weeks immersed in the ancient book of Job. If you’ve missed it, most of that work is really people speaking about God. In fact, the person who speaks most directly to God in much of the book is, well, Satan. Ha-Satan, the Accuser. After he and God have a bit of a dialogue at the beginning of the book, it’s mostly a group of men lining up to say what they think God might say if God could get a word in edgewise, which apparently he can’t because the rest of you knuckleheads keep yammering on and on and on.

The longer that Job and Bildad and Eliphaz and Zophar and Elihu talk, the more you get the sense that somebody’s going to blow a gasket sooner or later. And finally, it happens.

The Lord Answering Job Out of the Whirlwind, William Blake, 1805

The Lord Answering Job Out of the Whirlwind, William Blake, 1805

And, as it turns out, it’s God’s gasket that gets blown. In four brief chapters at the end of Job, God speaks. We heard the beginning of that speech in Job 38 on Thursday night, and I’ll remind you of it now.

Job’s friend Elihu has been rambling for a couple of chapters, telling Job and anyone else who will listen the kinds of things that God would say if he was the kind of God who liked to talk, and then we come to this:

“Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind…Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?”

Uh-oh. He’s talking to Job, not to Elihu or anyone else. And he doesn’t seem happy. And although the text reads, “the Lord answered Job…”, how does he do it? By asking a question! Where were you?

Do you remember that I’ve been asking you to pay attention to the ways that the language of Job echoes that of the creation?   Think back to Genesis. What is the first question that God asks the humans? God has created the garden, created the animals and birds and so on, and has created male and female…and those people disregard God, and they hide from God…

And in Genesis chapter three we have a description of God wandering through the Garden of Eden at the dawn of creation, and God is asking a question… Where are you?

It seems unmistakable to me that God is demonstrating to Job, his friends, and the rest of us that when it comes to righteousness and power and authority and integrity, the high ground belongs to God. It is we who have left him, not the other way around.

This question is followed by a stunning series of images in which God points out in amazing detail God’s ongoing care for, power over, and investment in the creation. He says quite plainly that God moves in ways that Job and his dimwit friends cannot begin to appreciate or understand.

Turning ahead to our New Testament reading, we find it to be a more familiar and frankly a more Easter-y reading from the book of Mark. My sense is that some of you were surprised to come in here on Easter morning and hear the book of Job. But empty tombs and angels? Well, that’s what you signed up for, right?

Let me invite you to consider with me the story of Mark in light of the message of Job, because as I have done so this week, I’ve been struck by a couple of things.

I noticed this morning that the first Easter starts off with a question. In Genesis and in Job, the question is “Where are you”, and it’s directed at the humans. In Mark, really, there are nothing but questions: How will we move the stone? Where did his body go? What’s up with this angel? What are we going to tell Peter and the rest of them because they’ll never believe this!?

These followers come, simply wanting to find their dead Jesus where they had left him, and they cannot… because he is on the move ahead of them. He will meet them, the angel says, in Galilee. Whereas in the stories from Creation and in Job, humanity is not where the Lord expects us to be, here in Mark God is not where the disciples expect him to be.

Which leads to another interesting image: in Job we read twice that God spoke “from the whirlwind”. The Hebrew word there is ca’ar, and it refers to a powerful storm – very much like a tornado – an event with the power to uproot, tear down, and re-arrange.

Note, beloved, that the ca’ar is the context in which God chooses to speak to Job. For more than 35 chapters people have been trying to get God to open up, and finally he does… from the whirlwind.

And while the word “whirlwind” does not appear in the New Testament, surely the events of Holy Week qualify as that kind of a tempest. From the Triumphant Entry to the cleansing of the Temple to the Last Supper and the arrest, betrayal, denials, and finally death of the Lord… we have seen a horrible, horrible storm.

And this morning, the women approach the tomb in darkness and fear and in anxiety – they are worried about all kinds of things, and then the one thing that they think they can count on – the fact that Jesus’s body is where they left it – is no longer true. That’s how the Gospel of Mark ends – there is no bodily appearance, there is no great answer… just a lot of questions, pain, and confusion.  They are confronted by the story of the resurrection and they leave the tomb full of fear and anxiety – yet they have heard the word of God.

The only thing that I can figure, the only line that I can draw here, is that in Job and in Mark, God speaks, and acts, and moves in the midst of a whirlwind. God is accessible, in these instances at any rate, in times of pain, fear, grief, and depression. God is in the storm.

And yet when I say that I need to find time to communicate with God, what do I do? I head out “into nature”. I go fishing or boating. I see right there how God shows up in Job and in Mark, but I prefer my meetings with God to be calm and serene, thank you very much…
“Hey, Dave, how are you?”
“Oh, Hey God.”
“You good?”
“I’m good. You?”
“Totally.”
“Look, God, can I get you something? A sandwich? Some incense? Maybe a hymn or something?…”

Listen, I’m not saying that God doesn’t come in times of peace and serenity. Heck, I know that sometimes I come to the garden alone, while the dew is still on the roses… and he walks with me and he talks with me and he tells me I am his own…

I get it. That can happen.

But I am saying that we are foolish if we expect that to be the only time or the only place where God would show up. God’s not waiting for us to get our crap together before he comes into our lives.

More to the point, in a world that seems to be going to hell in a handbasket more often than not, what with shootings in Wilkinsburg and even closer to home, bombings in Belgium and Ivory Coast and half a dozen other places; in a season in which we seem to be perpetually surrounded by death and grief and loss, well…

Friends, it seems like awfully Good News to me that we don’t have to wait around for things to quiet down before we look for God or listen for God or are found by God.

I know that a few of you are in that sweet, sweet, spot of serenity and peace, where everything is light and grace. Praise the Lord. Say “hey” for the rest of us. Because I think that most of us, most of the time, can relate far better to the whirlwind.

You don’t have to leave your questions at home when you come looking for God. You don’t have to overcome your fear or get past your anxiety or get over your grief. Come to God in the midst of your questions and your fears. Expect God to show up in the tempests of your life. In fact, if you find yourself living in the middle of a whirlwind right now, keep your eyes open – because that’s where God lives, lots of times.

God knows where you are.

God is moving ahead of you.

God promises to meet you with new life and resurrection power.

Is your life a red-hot mess right now? Bring it to God in the midst of this storm. He is here. The message of Job and the message of Easter is the same: it is in God’s very nature to speak in the midst of frightening and horrible situations. Let us be attentive, beloved, and let us listen.

What Will You Do When You Do Your Worst?

During Lent 2015 the folks at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights spent some time looking at people who turned – and re-turned – to Jesus during the course of his ministry.  Our second service on Easter Sunday included a reading from John 21:1-19, and we contrasted the ways that two of Jesus’ closest friends – Simon Peter and Judas Iscariot – returned to Jesus in the last week of his life.

As we begin this morning, I’d like to ask you to think about this: who has been the absolute worst person in the entire scope of human history?

Hitler? Pol Pot? Osama Bin Laden? Charles Manson? Joseph Stalin? Ted Bundy? Nero?

How would you go about measuring something like “absolute worstness”? There has to be a certain subjectivism involved, doesn’t there?

I did a little research this week, and have come to the conclusion that Adolph Hitler appears to be the current standard for absolute worstness. If you are really appalled by someone and want to really denigrate his character, you say, “Oh, that one? He’s another Hitler…” I mean, I don’t really want to say anything nice about any of these other folks, but how often do you hear someone referred to as “another Vlad the Impaler”?

Let’s focus it down a little bit. Who is the worst person in the entire Bible?

Judas Iscariot

Judas Iscariot

Jezebel? Cain? Herod? Abimilech? Maybe. But my hunch is that most of us pretty much use Judas Iscariot as our go-to in this department, don’t we? I mean, not only did he coldly betray the Son of God, the Prince of Peace, the Lord of Life…but he did so after having shared supper with him and after having had his feet washed by Jesus. Judas? That’s messed up.

Was Peter on anyone’s list for “worst person in the Bible”? The immediate reaction, I’d think, would be, “Hey, no, Pastor Dave! Not Peter! He plays for our team. I mean, sure, he was a little sensitive. Kind of a blowhard, really. But He was an Apostle with a capital ‘A’! He practically started the church!”

So. What did Judas do? He sold out Jesus of Nazareth for reasons best known to himself.

And what did Peter do? He sold out Jesus of Nazareth for reasons best known to himself.

I mean, we can spin it any way we want to but the fact is that on the very same night nearly 2000 years ago, for all intents and purposes, these two men did the same thing.

And if you’ll give me that, then how is it that on the one hand, Judas is often reviled as the greatest scoundrel in history and his mere name is synonymous with treachery, while on the other hand, Peter is the Rock Star of the early Christian movement and even today the most important church in the world is named for him?

Let’s talk about what they did – and I’ll repeat my thesis that I believe they did pretty much the same thing. In fact, you could say that Judas was a little smarter than Peter. First of all, Judas at least got paid for his trouble. 30 pieces of silver was about half a year’s salary – not too bad for one little kiss. Beyond that, of course, it’s possible to make a case that there was some mistaken nobility in Judas’ gesture. Let’s say he really believed that Jesus was the coming Messiah who would destroy Rome and liberate Israel. If Judas had him arrested, that would back Jesus into a corner and then he’d have to unleash the masses and the heavenly host and bring about the kingdom, right? Because if he really is the Messiah, he won’t die, right? I’m not saying I buy that logic, but you have to admit that at least on one level, it holds together.

Simon Peter

Simon Peter

Peter, on the other hand, is just pathetic. And it’s not just one little kiss – it’s three times, yelling and cursing and crying and huddling pathetically there by the fire.

And yet…

Come Friday morning, both Peter and Judas were aware that they had been tragically wrong. At some point in that long, cold weekend, it must have dawned on each of them that they had just done the worst thing they’d ever done in their entire lives.

So if you can accept my thesis that each of these men hit the absolute bottom sometime on Thursday night, why do we remember them so differently?

I would suggest we remember them because of the choices that they made on Friday and Saturday.

The Kiss of Judas Giotto, c. 1305

The Kiss of Judas
Giotto, c. 1305

Judas, when he realized what he had done and what the implications were; when he saw that Jesus refused to call in the big muscle in order to save himself; when he saw his friend being led like a lamb to the slaughter…well, something snapped. He was filled with shame and remorse and he allowed that to drive him into isolation. He reacted with anger and desperation. Lonely and embittered, he took his own life, believe the worst about himself – believing that he was unredeemable, unforgivable.

Peter’s Denial Robert Leinweber (1845-1915)

Peter, when he realized what he had done and what the implications were; when he saw how Jesus was unwilling to save himself; when he got a glimpse of Jesus looking right at him through the crowds…when that rooster crowed, he was filled with shame and remorse. The pain was so great that he…that he was driven back to the rest of his friends. He returned to the other ten, and sought consolation not in self-destruction, but in the company of the community. And because he allowed his failure to drive him more deeply into the web of the community, he was in a position to encounter Jesus on that first Easter.

Don’t you think that Jesus would have greeted Judas, had Judas have been there? Or do you suppose that that’s the time Jesus would have chosen to get out the lightning bolts and mete out a little cosmic justice? I can’t see that happening. The only reason Jesus didn’t greet Judas is because Judas wasn’t there…he was hanging by the neck in his own personal hell somewhere.

But Peter was there, wasn’t he? And in the passage from John that you’ve just heard, we see the resurrected Jesus leading Peter gently through to the gift of forgiveness.

The Meal of Our Lord and the Apostles James Tissot, c. 1890

The Meal of Our Lord and the Apostles
James Tissot, c. 1890

You know the essence of the story, I think: Jesus goes out looking for Peter. He stands on the shore of Lake Galilee and he calls to him, exactly as he did on the day that they’d met. He welcomes Peter, and then he invites Peter to share what he has brought. He calls Peter by name – not once, but three times. And in the process, Jesus gives Peter the chance to embrace the forgiveness that Jesus has offered. He asks him three questions, and allows Peter to reaffirm the depth of his love three times.

Do you see? Christ wants Peter – Peter, who only days earlier had done his worst – to share in the power of resurrection. Jesus gives Peter a job – the same task he’d assigned Peter earlier in his ministry – to lead the church. For Peter, resurrection life began that day. Peter was brought back from the dead a long time before he was ever hung on a Roman Cross because he wouldn’t stop talking about the grace, love, and power of Jesus.

Judas could not accept the worst thing about himself and that drove him to hopelessness, despair, and death.

Peter could not accept the worst thing about himself and that drove him into the depths of the Christian community, who helped him to experience grace, forgiveness, and resurrection.

And what about you? What will you do when you do your worst?

Please note, I’m not asking what is the worst thing you’re liable to do. I mean, that would be a fascinating conversation and probably very interesting, but it’s not really germane to our worship this morning. What I want to know is, whenever you do whatever it is that is the worst thing you’ll do, what will you do next?

Oh, come on, Dave, you don’t mean to suggest that I am like Judas? I mean, seriously, I have my moments, but…

No. And I am serious. You will fail. Some of us have already failed. More than once. All of us will fail again.

I don’t know, and don’t particularly care right now, what will be your worst. I am simply here to guarantee your upcoming failure. And I’m not going to try to rank them as to which is worst – is it the affair or the addiction or the theft or the lying or the inability to treat other people well or selfishness or violence ? Is it interpersonal or academic, work-related or hidden on the internet? For crying out loud, it doesn’t matter. You are going to screw up. You will fail. You will hurt someone else, and you will be hurt.

The question I have for you is not how will you do your worst. The question I have is, in which direction will you turn when you find that you have, in fact, done your worst?

The Good News of Easter is this: Death is turned to life. Sin is forgiven. Your worst is no match for his best. There is therefore no reason to continue to live in that worst, and less reason to wander into isolation, pain, and death.

JesusonBeachYou know, don’t you, that the reason we’ve had this book for 2000 years is that Jesus was not simply having a conversation on the beach with an old friend. He was not only talking with Peter. He was talking with me. He was talking with you.

Take a look around the room right now (and I can tell you, this works in church and in bars and in the stadium and anywhere else…). Look at these people. Some of them would say that beyond a shadow of a doubt they are at the best place of their lives right now. And others are a red hot mess this morning. Most of us are somewhere in the middle.

Thanks be to God, we can all know the gifts of hope and new life because of the fact that Jesus is alive, walking the beaches of our own lives, calling out our names, and inviting us to bring ourselves to him.

He is risen! He has risen indeed! Hallelujah. Amen.

Who’s Up?

During Lent 2015 the folks at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights spent some time looking at people who turned – and re-turned – to Jesus during the course of his ministry.  One of the people who did that time and time again was Mary of Magdala.  Our first service on Easter Sunday included a reading from Matthew 28:1-10.

If everything goes as planned, sometime after four p.m. tomorrow afternoon, Francisco Liriano will throw the first pitch of the 2015 Pirate season. It would seem as though thoughts of resurrection and hope are not limited to theological themes this week.
LineupCardAs I think about tomorrow’s game, I am struck by the notion that there are two kinds of ball players in the world. Some of you come in from the field and know exactly where we are in the batting order. Many of these folks not only remember the order, but are happy to issue a report as to how previous batters have fared against the current pitcher. And others of us, perhaps more focused on defense, strategy, or how good a burrito would taste right now, come to the bench and say, “Who’s up?” We have forgotten where we stand in the order.

Ever since my grandfather took me to a game in Connie Mack stadium nearly fifty years ago, baseball has been magical for me. I love it because it’s good to listen to on the radio, and it’s better in person. I appreciate how it is a wonderful blend of individual and team competition, and I love to see how choreographed it can be, such as when there are two men on base and the batter lays down a bunt. It is poetry.

And beyond the mechanics, there is a cerebral element. How will the manager construct his batting order? Speed up top and power in the middle, usually. Ask people down below to be smart, and don’t embarrass themselves or the team.

One by one, the procession of teammates goes out to stand at the plate and share in the common goal of advancing the runners and achieving victory. And I have noticed that there are two types of batters in a lineup. Some folks are chomping at the bit, and saying “whoo-hoo! I get to hit! Come on now, let me at ‘em.” And others are sitting in the on-deck circle silently pleading, “please, God, not me, not now, no with two outs and a man on third…”

Who’s up?

Believe it or not, that’s the question that came to mind as I pondered this morning’s scripture.

I know – believe you me, I know – that it’s dangerous to compare the arc of history and the message of salvation to a game. But bear with me on this, because I think that Matthew 28 reveals a significant shift in God’s dealings with humanity – and that has implications for us.

Think about it: for thousands of years, God’s promise was an idea. Every now and then, one of the prophets would pipe up and say, “Hey, don’t forget – God is moving. Things are going to happen. I’m not sure exactly how or when or where, but stay tuned. This will be big. Really big.”

Prophets

The Prophets

 

angelsicon

…and Angels

The prophets – God’s leadoff men, if you will, set the table, and then the heavy hitters come up. When the time is right, the angels appear. Angel, from the Greek word angelos, means messenger, and these messengers show up in droves. Zechariah, Mary, Joseph, the shepherds all receive visitations with some real specificity. You will have a son. You will give him this name. You will find him here, wearing this. Who’s up? Well, mostly it’s Gabriel, it would seem. God had a message, and he sent messengers.

holy-apostles-icon

…then the Apostles

And then, about thirty years later, Jesus begins his ministry and we quickly discover that he not only has a message, he is the message. For three years, Jesus works to transform human history and experience by raising up a small group of followers. The most prominent of these, of course, are the twelve apostles. Apostolos, meaning “one who is sent”. It is fairly obvious to even a casual reader of the Gospels that Jesus is preparing the twelve for something. To follow my baseball analogy, for much of the Gospels, Jesus is “up” now, and they are “on deck”.

And then the unthinkable happens. He is betrayed by one of the twelve. There is an unjust trial, a cruel execution, and a hasty burial. In a twist, the Apostles are not sent anywhere. Instead, they scatter and hide.

But God is not through. Jesus is not through. We heard this morning about the ways that God has turned this unthinkable tragedy into an even more unthinkable victory. The next phase is set to begin.

How will it begin? Are we going to see Gabriel, Michael, or one of the other angels again? Not really.

When God started the whole Jesus thing, there were angels everywhere: in the Temple, in Joseph’s dreams, in Mary’s home, in the fields around Bethlehem. That’s the way that God chose to get the news out then.

Now, when the best news ever is unleashed, it comes in the quiet corner of a graveyard at dawn. And not only that, but the news comes to a woman who, if ever there was a person to say this, is saying, “Please God, not me. Not me. Not me…”

Penitent Magdalene Donatello c. 1454

Penitent Magdalene
Donatello c. 1454

The best news in the history of news is entrusted to a woman named Mary from the town of Magdala. We don’t know a great deal about her, although Luke tells us that at one point Jesus drove not one or two, but seven demons out of her. It is difficult for any of us to imagine what that life would be like – a life filled with uncertainty and shame. Mary evidently connected with Jesus fairly early in his ministry and after having experienced the transformation of his presence, she became totally devoted to him.

He treated her with love and respect and encouragement, while most of her peers no doubt continued to remember her as she had been.  You’ve been in high school – you know how long people remember (“you know, Mary, the woman who used to be… the chick who always had… You know, Mary?”).

Penitent Magdalene Donatello c. 1454

Penitent Magdalene
Donatello c. 1454

When the Apostles all scattered, Mary was unable to leave his side. Even as he hung on the cross, she could not see herself anywhere else. After all he had done for her she only wanted to show a little respect. She was, as Frederick Buechner says, “one of the women who was there in the background when he was being crucified – she had more guts than most – and she was also one of the ones who was there when they put what was left of him into the tomb.”[1] The least she could do was to make sure he got a decent burial, and so she arrives at the tomb at first light that Sunday morning.

When she arrives, however, she runs into an angel. Unlike the previous angels in the gospels, though, this one is not telling her something that God is going to do. He simply instructs her to get back to the disciples and tell them to make their way to Galilee, where they will meet the Lord. Not long after that, she runs into Jesus himself, who demonstrates the truth of the angel’s message of resurrection and reminds her to send the apostles to meet up with him.

This is far and away the most incredible bit of news that anyone, anywhere, has ever heard, and to whom is it entrusted? Her. That one. Mary of Magdala receives the promises of Jesus: I can be found. I will be seen.

Penitent Magdalene Donatello c. 1454

Penitent Magdalene
Donatello c. 1454

The only way this makes sense for me is for Mary to be crying out, saying, “No, Lord! Not me. Send Peter. Send John. Don’t make me carry this news. What if I blow it?”

“Don’t worry, Mary. I will give them their job. Right now, it’s your turn. You are up, Mary.”

Listen, if the resurrection is a fairy tale, then we’re just wasting our time.

If the resurrection is an allegory or a myth, then maybe it’s a harmless enough way to spend a few moments before breakfast.

If the resurrection is merely history – an event that happened once upon a time, a specific occasion in a particular place, then maybe someone ought to put up a plaque or historical marker.

But I believe that the resurrection is better and truer than any of that. I believe that the message still holds. I believe that the Message is still operative in our world.

God, in Christ, is moving in and through the world to bring sight where vision fails, to build up what has been torn down, and to heal what is wounded.

Jesus With Mary Magdalene Bruce Wolfe Contemporary Used by Permission http://www.brucewolfe.com/sculpture/liturgical/

Jesus With Mary Magdalene
Bruce Wolfe – Contemporary
Used by Permission
http://www.brucewolfe.com/sculpture/liturgical/

Jesus Christ, God’s own messenger and Message, said, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brethren to go to Galilee, and there they will see me.”

That is not yesterday’s news. Jesus is, in all of the most important ways, still visible. Apostles, like Mary and the twelve are still, in every significant way, being sent. Do you know this?

Are you aware of someone who needs to have vision restored, hope re-planted, sin forgiven, oppression lifted, enslavement ended?

Go and look for them. And show them Jesus.

The angels are not going to do it. Nor can Mary, Peter, John, Paul, Priscilla, or Aquila.

It’s you and me. Come on, church. You’re up. The world needs to see Jesus. Can we show him here and now? Can we be his body in this time and this place?

The Lord IS risen. He is risen indeed!

[1] Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who (Harper & Row, 1979), p. 102.

Hold Fast

Last week, we celebrated the resurrection of Christ.  On this, the first Sunday of Eastertide, we began an exploration of the ways that the first believers lived their way into the Good News.  In doing so, we considered I Thessalonians 1:1-10.

If you were to order the books of the New Testament according to the date on which they were written, you wouldn’t start with Matthew, Mark, Luke or John.  You wouldn’t start with one of those big impressive epistles that lay out so neatly what it means to believe in Christ and how we come to saving faith in his name.

Nope, if you wanted to lay out the books of the New Testament in order, you’d start with a little note from the Apostle Paul to the Christians in the town of Thessalonica.  Last week, we celebrated the resurrection.  This is the first written record we have of the ways that people in the first century responded to the news that Jesus had risen from the dead, and it dates from about 51 AD.  For the next few weeks, we’re going to be spending some time reading other people’s mail – looking at this letter in the hopes that we can grow in our understanding of the faith by considering the example of our earliest brothers and sisters.

Did you ever have one of those days when nobody notices anything that you do right, and when things start to go poorly for you, it seems like nobody cares?  The Apostle Paul was having one of those years.

Paul, as you might remember, was not one of the original followers of Jesus.  In fact, he was out to kill Christians in the days just following Jesus’ resurrection.  He had a vision of the risen Christ, however, that changed his life and he began preaching like nobody’s business.  Everyone he met, from peasants to kings, heard about the amazing power and grace of Jesus.  And if you read the New Testament, you’ll see that he got pretty good at it…but it started rough.  Here’s what happened to Paul right before he wrote this little booklet of I Thessalonians.

Paul's journey from Troas (in Turkey) across the Aegean to Macedonia and Greece.

Paul’s journey from Troas (in Turkey) across the Aegean to Macedonia and Greece.

First, he was over in Asia – a part of what we call Turkey now.  He had a vision to go over to preach in Macedonia and Greece in Europe.  So he made the journey across the Aegean Sea and wound up in Philippi.  He was beaten and arrested and eventually escorted out of town.  So he headed south a few miles and found himself in Thessalonica, the capital and largest city of the region of Macedonia.  It sat squarely on the highway called the Via Egnatia, a road that connected Rome to the important seaports that lined the Aegean.  Thessalonica was a thriving town that had a population of close to a hundred thousand, including a sizable number of Jews.

I took this photo of the Via Egnatia in 2008.  The road is used by pedestrians to this day.

I took this photo of the Via Egnatia in 2008. The road is used by pedestrians to this day.

Paul was received well by the community, but after a few weeks, he had managed to alienate some significant leaders in the Jewish community, and when he tried to preach they incited a mob to turn against him.  He was hustled out of town and went a little further south to Berea.  He picked up where he left off, until some of the Thessalonians heard where he was and they sent a mob off to rough him up a bit.  His friends Silas and Timothy figured that he needed to get out of town, and so they shipped him down to Athens and told him to stay out of trouble.

Right.

He started preaching in Athens, but became “deeply distressed” by the lack of belief and the number of people who simply scoffed at his appeal.  He left Athens and made his way to Corinth, where he was so disheartened that he was only able to preach with what he called “weakness and fear and much trembling”.  That is hardly a description of the bombastic sort that he is often made out to be!  But when you stop to think about it, for a period of some months, he had been beaten down, figuratively and literally, in every place.  He was sure that God had called him to come over to Europe, but he had seen nothing but difficulty.

A mural in Berea depicting Paul's preaching.  Note the diverse nature of his audience: a Jew, a Greek scholar, a woman, a slave, a sick man.

A mural in Berea depicting Paul’s preaching. Note the diverse nature of his audience: a Jew, a Greek scholar, a woman, a slave, a sick man.

After a few weeks in Corinth, he had a visit from Timothy, who brought news from the Christians in Thessalonica.  Now, remember, the last time Paul saw Thessalonica, he was being dragged out of town by the police.  The last people he saw from Thessalonica were the tough guys who came down to Berea to make sure that he forgot where Thessalonica was.  So what is Timothy’s report going to say?

Maybe the word from Thessalonica is, “You know, Paul, this is great!  Since we began to follow in the Way of Christ, all our problems are gone!  The Romans – turns out they’re not such bad guys.  Those religious people that tried to kill you? They came to the pot luck last night.  Things down at the salt mine are better, we have more money than ever before, our children are better behaved – the Lord is really just blessing our socks off.  Thanks for telling us about Jesus, Paul….”

Nope.  That’s most definitely NOT what Timothy said.

Here’s what he did say – that the believers in Thessalonica can see God at work.  It’s tough going, they say, but they knew that going into it – they’d seen as much in Paul, as a matter of fact.  There is some persecution, there are some significant challenges – but they are carrying on.  The bottom line, they say, is that they are a changed people – NOT because they hit the cosmic lottery or because God has sent them amazing prosperity as a reward for believing the right things about him – they are a changed people because Christ has become real to and among them.

What has happened in the lives of these men and women from Thessalonica is that there has been a complete turnaround.  The God of the Bible – in fact, the Bible itself – was unknown to them.  Verse 9 tells us that the Thessalonians “turned to God from idols” – in other words, it’s not as if they were Jews who knew and accepted the truth of the Old Testament and then saw Jesus as its fulfillment.  No, they had been totally outsiders to the faith, and now have come to know Jesus as Lord and Savior.

How significant was the change in their lives?  Well, consider this.  In verse 4, Paul uses a little word to describe the believers in Thessalonica: he calls them “brothers.”  In fact, if someone with a lot of time on his hands, say, some preacher in the midst of the “slow week” after Easter…if someone like that was to go through the first and second letters to the Thessalonians, he would discover that Paul uses that word – “brothers” – twenty four times­ in these five pages. That’s more often than Paul uses the word “brothers” anywhere else, with the exception of 1 Corinthians, which is nearly three times as long.

Paul Preaching to the Gentiles, Mural in St. Paul’s Church, Tranquillity, CA (20th c.)

Paul Preaching to the Gentiles , Mural in St. Paul’s Church, Tranquillity, CA (20th c.)

Do you see? Paul is simply overwhelmed.  Paul, this proud old Pharisee with an stellar education and an outstanding lineage, is writing to a group of former pagans and slaves and intellectuals and merchants – those whom he used to see as adversaries or contemptible and unclean…and he can’t stop calling them “brother” or “sister”.  What happened here?  What would change a relationship like that?

The power of Christ revealed in suffering. They were not changed from Paul’s tormentors or adversaries to Paul’s brothers because they hit the lottery.  They were transformed by sharing in the hard times.

How do you act when things get tough?  What does struggling reveal about your character?  In some way, isn’t it the difficult times that make us who we are?

Just think for a moment about a time in your life when you felt as if you grew somehow.  A time when you knew that somehow, you had become a better person.  I would imagine that more often than not, that has been a time rooted in challenge or difficulty – you faced something frightening or daunting, you worked through it, and you came out on the other side better equipped to live the life that God has for you.

When I say that the Bible talks about “faith, hope, and love,” what do you think of?  “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three. And the greatest of these is love.” (I Cor. 13:13)  That’s from the “Wedding Hall of Fame,” right?  We know faith, hope, and love!  We get a little teary just thinking about them.

But look at how Paul speaks to those three in this letter – the letter that was, need I remind you, written prior to I Corinthians.  He remembers their “work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope.”  These three qualities are not little presents that we find under the tree at Christmas or even in the box of cards at a wedding…in fact, they are not, in this sense, things that we possess at all.  Instead, they are disciplines that we seek to practice.  They are qualities in which we seek to be active.

The Thessalonians were transformed, not because God came and sprinkled a little Jesus Joy on top of them and made everything all better, but because they had learned, from Paul, that it’s possible to stick things out and to see the power of resurrection in the every day trials of life.  And they were able to see this power, says Paul, because they practiced it.  They sought to become better at being people of faith; they sought to grow in their ability to be people who loved; they sought to improve the quality and quantity of their hope.

C.S. Lewis, who wrote The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, in addition to dozens of other stories and works of theology, got it right when he said this:

Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone you will presently come to love him.[1]

We are now in the season of Eastertide – the six weeks following the resurrection where the church not only rejoices in the truth of Christ’s rising from the grave, but actually decide to live as if that resurrection mattered in our own lives.  It is important for us to remember that faith is not a waiting game wherein we watch the blessings pile up because God is just so crazy about us.  The life of faith, the life of resurrection is shown in how we deal with each challenge, each day, and each other.

If we get this right – if we acquire this work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope – then we, too get to be “brothers and sisters”.  We, too, experience a change that comes from becoming the people that God intended us to be. And when we become “brothers and sisters”, then, just as it happened in that little town in Macedonia, God’s name is praised.  And when that happens, then the world really changes.

It started with an empty tomb, and we celebrated that last week.  Today, I need to know, where are the struggles that you face, and whether you think that the God who raised Jesus from the dead is able to deal with the challenges in your life…and whether you will choose to grow in the practices of faith, love, and hope to the end that the resurrection power of God is not confined to a Palestinian cemetery 2000 years ago, but is unleashed in our neighborhood today.

May God bless us as we move into this joyous season of Eastertide, and may he be with us in our challenges and in the ways in which we respond.  Amen.


[1] From Mere Christianity.

Something Fishy

Easter Worship 2013 continued at Crafton Heights as we kept on reading through Luke 24 – the story of Jesus’ appearances on the first Easter.  Check out The God Who Pursues Us for the beginning of this worship.

Ok, I am not making this up.  Because, really, if I was making it up, it would be a better story.  But it’s useful for my purposes now.

Five or eight years ago, I was by myself at a restaurant in some western city – one of those indiscriminate Applebees/TGI Friday’s places that is sort of half-bar, half-restaurant.  There were a lot of TV’s, I remember that.  As I’m sitting there contemplating my next day’s travel, I notice a couple of guys across the room who are looking at me and clearly talking about me.

Fouts1This kind of wierds me out, and so I am feeling to make sure my hair isn’t standing up, or that I don’t have some huge stain on my shirt or something.  Nope, I’m clean.  After a few moments, these fellows come over to my table, carrying a camera, a menu, and a pen.  One of them asks for my autograph.  I stammered a bit, totally caught off guard, and the other one says, “Look, Mr. Fouts, we don’t want to interrupt your dinner, but we’re huge Chargers fans.  Would a picture be out of line?”

Fouts2And then I get it.  Five or six times in my life, someone has confused me with Dan Fouts, the 6’3”, ruggedly handsome Hall of Fame quarterback for the San Diego Chargers from 1973 – 1987.  While the first time I understood how easy it would be for them to confuse my own stunning physique with that of a professional athlete, mostly I wonder, “Do all white guys with beards look alike to you, or what?”

When I explained to the gents at the bar that I was only a pastor from Pittsburgh, and their need for my autograph and a snapshot evaporated rather quickly.  It was a simple case of mistaken identity.

Jesus Appears to the Disciples After the Resurrection (Imre Morocz, 2009)

Jesus Appears to the Disciples After the Resurrection (Imre Morocz, 2009)

As I read through the texts that describe the first Easter, I wonder if that’s a part of what was going on.  Our reading for today, which carries on from the one we considered at the earlier service, begins with a gathering of Jesus’ followers.  Cleopas and his friend have just raced back from Emmaus with the news that they shared the road with Jesus.  Peter has declared that he’s seen Jesus.  The women have told their story – the Lord is risen!

But others, it would appear, are not so sure.  They look at their friends and they say, “Look, Pete, it’s been a long weekend.  You need some rest.  Maybe you saw some other bearded guy wearing a long white robe…”

As this conversation is going on, “Jesus himself stood among them.”  And note, beloved, what happens in the room.  The people in this room, many of whom have just claimed to have seen Jesus earlier in the day, are simply terrified.

Why? Because they thought that they were seeing a ghost.  Everything about their reaction indicates that they believed that they were encountering the dead.  They believe that they have been brought into the presence of someone, or something, from another time.  They do not understand what they are seeing – it can only be a spirit from another world.

Jesus, however, does everything he can to insist that they are seeing a living, resurrected body.  They are not in the presence of a reanimated corpse – a body, like their friend Lazarus, that once was dead but then had been resuscitated, only to await the grave a second time.  Jesus goes to great pains to explain to them that they are in the presence of a bodily expression of the Divine being.  The One who stands before them is a living being – a being composed of body, mind, and spirit.  An integrated representation of God the Son, in their living room.

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, by Caravaggio (1601)

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, by Caravaggio (1601)

And while they stand there, looking at him with their jaws on the floor, he says, “Look, it’s me!  Prove it to yourselves.  Handle me.  For crying out loud, give me a sandwich!”

Let me point out, particularly for those who were here for the earlier service, how different this is from his conversation on the road to Emmaus.  When he was walking along with Cleopas and the other earlier on that Easter morning, wasn’t he talking with them about the possibility, and perhaps the necessity of the resurrection as essentially an idea?  Didn’t he use the scriptures and the story of his own life to get them to see that part of what God had in mind was the concept that the Messiah would suffer and die and be raised?

But here in that locked room, it’s not an idea, a concept, or a theory…It’s HIM!  Jesus!  The real deal!  The one who has walked with them and eaten with them and taught them and served them…  Jesus pulls off a “show and tell” lesson to convince his friends that it is really he who has been resurrected.

Allow me to point out two reasons why this is so significant.[1] First, everybody in Jesus’ day – and many, many people in our own, have this notion that at the core of human existence is something called a “soul” that is immortal.  This line of thought is essentially that there is some sort of indestructible form of human existence that is installed in a body when a baby is born and lives on in a place called “heaven” when that person dies – unless the soul is recycled, or reincarnated, into another shell.  When we think about that very long, we see that fundamentally such a view devalues the physical creation.

But how often have you – or have I – fallen into that?  How many times have you walked by a body in a casket and said, “Oh, that’s not old Jim.  Jim is up in heaven now, doing whatever Jim liked to do best on earth.”  As if that body in front of you didn’t contain some Jim-ness.  We sometimes act as if the “soul”, whatever that is, is all that God’s really interested in, and the body is just an unfortunate piece of baggage that the soul has to lug around for six or eight decades.

Friends, there is something fishy about a gospel that proclaims that the body doesn’t matter; there is something that is not right about a gospel that says, “Well, you may not like it now, but it’ll get better.  Bye and bye, there will be pie in the sky…”

Jesus’ insistence that it was HIM who had been raised – a bodily resurrection – smacks that kind of theology in the face.  It shows us that God values creation, and that physicality and matter are important to Him.  God’s future for creation, as shown in Jesus, is not a bunch of spirits hovering around in some undefinable netherworld filled with harp music.  Jesus was the first, but you are included. We will be next.  His invitation for his followers to feel his wounds and to watch him eat lunch is a plea for them to realize that He is who he is – a whole person with a body (although a body that has been transformed by resurrection), a mind, and a spirit.

The second reason that Jesus is so intent on ensuring that his friends know that it is really him is to ensure that they make a vivid connection between the dead Jesus and the risen Christ.  “Look at my wounds!  Do you remember that scar? It’s me!”  The Jesus who died is in fact the Lord who was risen.

So?  Why is that so important?

So if the Jesus who died is in the past, and the Christ who has risen belongs to the present, then we are free to leave buried with Jesus all the things he taught us about honoring the poor, caring for the sick, or suffering for others. If the Jesus we knew and followed is dead and therefore belongs to the past, then there is no imperative for us to engage life in this world.

There is something really fishy about a gospel that is only concerned with the so-called “spiritual life”.  When a person wants to know whether I believe that their soul will make it to heaven, I want to scream that they’re missing half the story.

christ-sending-his-apostles-02The resurrection is God’s declaration that THIS matters.  The three years that Jesus spent healing people, feeding people, caring for the lost, the last, the least, the little, and the dead – they were not some sort of “opening act” for the “real” spiritual message that he was getting ready to give us.  In many ways, they were the message – the message that God, in Jesus the Christ, opens up a whole new way of living in which the blind see, the lame walk, the poor have good news preached to them, and God’s favor is poured out on all nations.  The resurrection is the indication that this way of living is so powerful that nothing – not even death – can quench it!

That way of living began in Jesus, but now, according to Jesus, “You are witnesses of these things.”  We are not spectators.  We have a voice.

Listen: your life is not some sort of preparation period for eternal harp lessons.  You are not here wasting a lot of time doing things that don’t matter (like working, having kids, cutting the grass, baking bread) until that day when your number gets called and you get to die and then your soul can finally get in on the good stuff.

No, you and I are called now – today – to participate in the eternal.  To share in the life that Jesus lived and that he gave to his followers.  Are we limited in this?  Of course we are!  There is sin in the world.  There are fractures.  There is brokenness.

But none of those things are eternal.  None of those things can pass the resurrection test.

But Jesus did.  Love will.  Justice will.  Peace will.  You will.

Let us live that way – as if we are participating in the eternal life of God in Christ, right now – body, mind, and spirit!  Thanks be to God.  Amen.


[1]   I am indebted to Fred Craddock in his Interpretation commentary on Luke for much of this insight.