There You Go Again…

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights have spent many Sundays since late 2017 immersed in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. At the later service on Easter Sunday (April 21, 2019), we concluded that study by looking at Mark 16:9-20, a passage missing from the earliest versions of this Gospel.  The first reading came from Isaiah 65:17-25,

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I hope that not all of you have been in this situation before, but I’m sure that everyone can imagine it. Let’s say that you’re driving along, minding your own business, and another car suddenly swerves into your lane, cutting you off, and you wind up hitting the telephone pole.  The ambulance comes, you’re taken to the hospital where they set your broken leg, and then your family comes in to see you just as the doctor arrives to tell you how things look.

You tell your family what’s happened up to this point, but you don’t need to tell them what the doctor says, because, well, they’re here.  They see and know the doctor at this point. You’ve told them what they don’t know, and that’s good enough.

Now, two weeks later you’re at your uncle’s house for a holiday party. Someone asks you about the cast on your leg, and so you start to tell the story about the other driver and the telephone pole and the ambulance.  And when you’re finished, your brother-in-law – who wasn’t even there, by the way – adds details to your story: “The other car was an SUV, driven by some kid who was texting, I think.  And the city has now changed the traffic pattern on that stretch of the highway, which is a good thing.  That’s always been a dangerous road…”

And when that happens, you might be tempted to look at your brother-in-law and say, “Oh, for Pete’s sake, there you go again…”  It’s irritating, sometimes, to have people add to or interpret your story.  But as you reflect on what he’s said, you also think that maybe his comments could be helpful for those who are a little more removed from the story.  They add some useful context to what happened.

Les Saintes Femmes au Tombeau, William-Adolphe Bouguereau, (1890)

So it is with Mark chapter 16.  The Gospel writer pretty clearly ends his telling of the Jesus story in verse 8. In the face of the angelic announcement that Jesus has risen from the dead, the first community of Christ-followers were confused and afraid.  That first Easter morning, they didn’t know whatto do, and they didn’t know whoto believe.  The original ending of the Gospel shows us people running out of the cemetery, scared out of their minds.

And that ending, frankly, worked well enough for Mark’s original audience. Most of the community to whom Mark was written was living there in Rome and knew, or at least knew of, the Apostle Peter.  They had access to other witnesses to those early days of the church – and they were familiar with the things that happenedafterthe crucifixion.

But before long, there began to be more and more people who didn’t know all of the same people, and who were not familiar with the events that took place on that first Easter and the days that followed.

At that point, someone else in the community plays the role of Mark’s chatty brother-in-law and picks up the pen to add a few details to the story.

What I’m saying is this: that Mark 16:9-20 is almost certainly not the work of the author of the rest of the Gospel.  There are differences in style, vocabulary, and phrasing.  Most of the content in these verses is, in fact, simply reflective of other material that we’ve come to know in Matthew, Luke, John, and the book of Acts.  Most scholars see this part of the Gospel as an appendix that has been written by another hand, and therefore not so much a part of the second Gospel but rather a reflection on it, or an attestation of the truth to which the Gospel points. It’s as if a new generation of the church found a dog-eared copy of the Gospel and said, “Yes! This!  There you go again!  This is the truth!”

With that in mind, then, let me invite you to look with me at what this passage has to say.  How does this next generation reflect on the Gospel that it’s received?

I’m struck by the church’s characterization of the people to whom the risen Christ appeared.  There are no starry-eyed dreamers here, no wistful backward glances at the first followers of Jesus. When the author of these verses remembers those who gathered with the risen Lord, he or she does so with an acknowledgment that Jesus didn’t wait around for a perfect church to appear or be formed. Rather, this is a blunt description of the fact that the group that met with Jesus was comprised of people who struggled with their faith and who were above all else, stubborn. That is to say that while the three days in the tomb and the resurrection may have totally transformed Jesus, his followers were still the same people.  This is what they had to say about themselves: we’re not sure what to think, but we can be really obnoxious.

You can’t make this stuff up…

Can you imagine a church with a motto like that today?  Some years ago, my wife and I visited a little town in Texas with an unusual name.  We were surprised, however, when the congregation in that place took on the town’s name and became known as “The Church of Uncertain.”

I love that sign, and I love this affirmation at the end of Mark’s Gospel: it goes to show me that Jesus is willing to work with what he had – with who I am.  The Risen Lord is not hanging around beating the doubt out of his followers, waiting for them to become perfect; there’s no call for you or me to somehow get our acts together beforewe start living like Jesus asks us to. We are called to move forward with who we are and what we have, trusting that Jesus will continue to work on, in, and through us.

The early church remembers that, as recalcitrant and doubtful as they were, they were given two primary charges by the Risen Lord.

First, they are called to preach.  That is, to point to God’s intentions for the world and those who live in it.  Preach the Gospel to all creation!  Celebrate the purposes of God as you live in the world and with others.  That community, like you, would be familiar with the descriptions of God’s intentions as described in places like Isaiah 65.

Les malades attendant le passage de Jésus, James Tissot (between 1886-1894).

And secondly, in addition to preaching, or proclaiming, the reign and rule of God, this group of stubborn doubters is called to participate in those intentions by becoming agents of healing in the creation.  It’s as if the Savior is saying, “Look, the longer we hang out together, the more you’re going to find that reality can, in fact, change. Be a part of that!  Engage your world on God’s terms, and invite your world to be more intentionally and fully aligned with God’s design for that world.

This “appendix” to the Gospel of Mark then ends with a surprising affirmation: “the Lord worked with them and confirmed his word by the signs that accompanied it.” That’s another way of saying, “Hey! Everybody! It worked! Seriously – we did this – and we found that when we lived like Jesus told us to that some amazing things didhappen!”

Back toward the end of 2017, this congregation embarked on a study of the Gospel of Mark.  When we did so, we remarked that this second Gospel begins with a different quote from the book of Isaiah.  We watched a ragged prophet called John the Baptizer announce the coming of and presence of a new way of life and living, a new understanding of God’s purposes. John pointed us to Jesus of Nazareth, who called this new way of living “The Kingdom of God”, and who went on to say that this Kingdom is at hand – it is present, it is palpable today.

Calling Disciples, He Qi (contemporary)

For the past eighteen months or so we have affirmed that Mark’s Gospel is not centered on a system of belief.  Nowhere in this document is a series of intellectual suppositions that we must affirm in order to gain entry into some heavenly club. There is no list of right answers on which followers of Jesus must insist before extending grace, forgiveness, and kindness.  No, this little pamphlet is a call to a life of boldness centered on an acknowledgement that this reality that Jesus called the Kingdom of God is present and accessible right now to people like us.  It is an encouragement for the people of God to live in a way that points to the reign and rule of God, that demonstrates God’s intentions, and fleshes out God’s hopes for creation.

To be sure, the Gospel is full of stories, including the events of Holy week, that demonstrate that this manner of life is not always easy and that there may be a cost.  The original hearers of Mark’s Gospel surely knew and appreciated that.

And yet, when the dust had settled, someone picked up Mark’s pen long after he himself had died.  That community recalled with joy that Christ had come, and suffered, and risen to rule the world.  Those folk celebrated that this Kingdom of God, this reign and rule of the Holy that echoes the landscape painted by Isaiah and demonstrated in the life of Jesus of Nazareth is in fact ours to live.

There was a certain roller coaster ride at the Kennywood Amusement Park that began with the announcement, “Hold onto your hats, please.  No repeat riders.”  I’m pretty sure that the mechanized voice that issued that warning hundreds of times a day didn’t think that it was making a theological affirmation, but I’m convinced that is the essence of the Gospel as received and transmitted by Mark’s community.  Brace yourselves for adventure – this is a good, good life that we’ve been given. Yes, we will encounter great pain and even death along the way – but pain and death are not the end of the story. The presence of the Risen Lord infuses our lives and all creation.

The Good News of the Gospel is that you don’t have to have it all figured out. We participate in this Gospel as we engage in grateful and hopeful lives and share that gratitude and hope with those we meet.  Along the way, we are given the opportunity – or the responsibility – of looking for, asking for, or waiting for the presence of the One who preached the Kingdom’s truth and then rose from the dead to affirm it’s nearness to the heart of God. So beloved, the call of the Gospel today is this: seek that presence today, and be a sign of it in the world. He has Risen.  He has risen indeed.  So show someone what that looks like!  Thanks be to God!  Amen. 

And Then What?

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights have spent many Sundays since late 2017 immersed in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. At the first service on Easter Sunday (April 21, 2019), we read through what most scholars consider to be the ending of this Gospel.  Like them, we were confused by the abrupt nature of the conclusion, and wondered how that form might impact the content.  The Gospel text was Mark 16:1-8; we also heard from the Apostle Peter in Acts 10:34-43?  

To hear the sermon as preached in worship, please use the media player below:

When is an ending not an ending?

The Gospel of Mark is puzzling, to say the least.  It’s confusing, at best.  Here we are, just a few hours away from the end of our multi-year study of what so far as we know is the first attempt at a written record of the life of Jesus, and it ends in the middle of a sentence.  Mark’s account of the life of Jesus ends with the word “for” – in Greek, it’s gar.  “They didn’t say anything to anyone, they were afraid for…”  Who ends a story with the word “for”?  It’s crazy talk, that’s what that is.  It can’t be right.

And for centuries, people agreed with that assessment.  Obviously, there’s a problem.  So if you look in your pew Bibles, you’ll see that the gospel of Mark goes all the way to verse 20.  But there’s a footnote saying that “most ancient authorities conclude the Gospel at the end of verse 8.”  People have argued for centuries – what happened here?  Did the original ending get lost?  You have all had old books laying around the house and pages just sort of fall out after a while…Is that the story?  Or did Mark somehow mean to walk out on the story so abruptly?  If you really want a nice, tidy, ending, you’ll have to come back for the 11:00 service, because at that time we’ll take up the “alternate ending” of the Gospel of Mark.

In the meantime, though, I’ll tell you that most recent scholars, and your pastor, believe that Mark knew exactly what he was doing – and he cut the story short.  After all, if you remember the beginning of the Gospel, you’ll recall that Jesus’ entry was pretty abrupt – there’s no infancy, no childhood – he just shows up. Well, here, he just leaves.  And then what?  It’s a mystery.

What do we know?  Well, on Thursday, we read a pretty conclusive passage indicating that Jesus was crucified, died, and was buried.  We can know for sure that he was dead – the executioner, the women, Joseph of Arimathea, and even Pilate’s personal intelligence officer all agree that Jesus had died.  There was a corpse.  And we know that he was buried. A leader of the council put him in his own tomb.  The women followed and saw him buried.  There are witnesses to these things.

artist unknown

And then, a few days later, the women go back to do things right – they had been too rushed, and perhaps too afraid, on Friday.  So Sunday they stop by to visit the grave and take care of things.  All of a sudden, things look a little different.  The tomb is open.  And there’s a young man inside.  Matthew tells us that he’s an angel.  Luke and John say that he had a friend with him.  It doesn’t seem to matter to Mark.  The young man gives a message to the women.

Now I want you to pay attention here, because you’re seeing something in the Gospel of Mark that you haven’t seen before.  All through the Gospel, the people who follow Jesus seem to bounce around in their ability to be faithful.  Mostly, they’re consistent.  Sometimes they are able to hold onto the faith, other times they leave it. Even Peter denies Jesus.  In the garden, everyone, including the young man we think was Mark, flees.  But so far, there has been one group of people who have managed to do, more or less, what is asked of them: the women. No matter how much the other disciples screw things up, the faithful women seem to be there for Jesus.  They don’t always ask the right questions, as when the mother of James and John asked if they could sit next to Jesus in the kingdom – but they are consistently present, and invested, and willing.

But what does this young man say to them? “Go, and tell the disciples…” And what do they do? “They fled…they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”  Finally, it comes to this.  Even the women – the ones who were willing to go to Hell and back for Jesus – bail out.  They can’t get their heads around the idea of resurrection.  It’s just too improbable, even for them.  Even for God.  And so they run away, silent and scared.

In Mark’s telling, the first Easter was characterized by confusion.  By people running around in the half-light of dawn, sure that something has happened, but not sure what.  Someone is lying – is it the Roman Guards, who are accusing the disciples of having stolen the body?  Or is it the disciples themselves?  What’s going on here?

Remember when we began this study, I mentioned that we think that Mark is the first Gospel to have been written.  Think about that, and then think about the ways that the other Gospels end.  Matthew has the angel I’ve already mentioned, and then Jesus himself is there.  There’s an incredible ending where the risen Christ is worshipped by his disciples, and then he gives them their final orders, and then he is taken into heaven as they watch.  And Luke, probably written about the same time as Matthew, ends with the risen Christ showing up on the road to Emmaus, spending quality time with his disciples, engaged in contemplative conversation and even having devotions over dinner with them, for crying out loud.  John, writing even later, can’t say enough about the resurrection.  We see the empty grave clothes; we walk around inside the empty tomb. John shows us Jesus and Mary in the garden, Thomas and Jesus meeting in the upper room; Jesus is having lunch with Peter and the fellas on the beach…

But Mark?  In Mark, we’ve got “a young man” – was he an angel?  Maybe? – who says, “Yes, I know, you’re looking for Jesus.  Well, good news.  He’s not dead anymore.  He’s been raised.”

That’s it, Mark? That’s the best you’ve got? An unidentified male of indeterminate ethnicity telling us that Jesus has been raised? Where’s Jesus?  Where’s the Lord?

Mark doesn’t show us the risen Christ – he shows us a witness telling us that Jesus is risen…and then he says, “And what do you think?  Can you believe this?”

And Mark doesn’t seem particularly eager to convince us himself…because as we’ve said, the women were afraid.  Our last hope for faithful witness has apparently failed.  They are told to go and tell people, and Mark says that they didn’t say anything.

But of course, eventually, they did, right?  I mean, if the only witnesses never said anything, then we’d never know anything about the resurrection, right?  Obviously, eventually, they said something to someone. Mark just stops telling his story before the women start telling theirs.  Because Mark knewthe story of the resurrection. Mark’s community in Rome knew the story of the resurrection.  They probably heard it from the same source as you did a few moments ago: Peter himself vouched for the fact that the story got through.

So that means – follow me here – that somehow, sometime, somewhere, after the women failed to tell, they eventually came around and said something. They testified.  In spite of their fear, in spite of their confusion, the first witnesses to the resurrection were able to find it in themselves to regain their courage and composure and to point to the best thing that has ever happened. This morning we can praise God for, and learn from, women whose faith overcame their fear

And that best thing was great news for Mark’s community. Because they were in fear.  They were unsure what was going to happen to them.  They were afraid of what their faith might cost them…and they, no less than the women, were able to hear the voice of a witness who said, “He has been raised from the dead.  Go and tell people about it.  And better yet, he is going before you.  You will see him – just like he promised.”

Mark’s readers didn’t have the luxury of walking around inside the empty tomb, or having dinner with Jesus, or getting all poetic about the good news of resurrection.  They were being eaten alive by wild animals or being burnt by the government as they tried to hold onto their faith.  All they had was the promise that Jesus will be ahead of them.  That they would see him.  That he would be waiting for them.  Isn’t that good news?

And if they fail to witness – if their fear gets the best of them, or anxiety shuts their mouths – there’s hope for them, just like there’s hope for every single follower of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark.  This ending is great news for Mark’s friends.

Les Saintes Femmes au Tombeau, William-Adolphe Bouguereau, (1890)

And to be honest, it’s my favorite Easter story, too. The other Gospels all end with the disciples having figured it out, at least a little bit.  Look at Matthew, John, or Luke, and you’ll see that the disciples have found the resurrected Jesus, they have begun to understand something of what resurrection is about.  They’ve gotten it together, at least a bit.

My life is not usually like that.  I can’t usually identify with Jesus’ disciple, Thomas, who touches Jesus’ hands and side and falls down crying, “My Lord and my God!”  I mean, it looks swell in the painting and everything, but I’ve never touched him.

But Mark’s ending?  Grief? Fear?  Amazement?  I mean, I spend half my life asking, “And then what?  What am I going to do NOW?”  Disciples that are running around scared and confused and uncertain?  These are guys that I can relate to!

I don’t know everything about your life, and you sure don’t want to know all about mine.  But I know that there have been plenty of days in even the past few months where I’ve found myself scared and confused and uncertain.  There have been times when I wasn’t sure who I could trust, with what, and everything I looked at seemed to be blanketed with a thick gray fog. I am certain beyond a doubt that some of you know what that looks like.

And if, for some reason, you find yourself staring at the pastor this morning thinking, “what is that man going on about?  Fear? Uncertainty? Anxiety?  Here? In Church?  Why, never have I ever experienced anything close to that…” – well, all I have to say to you is what Penguins announcer Mike Lange says: “Get in the fast lane, grandma! The Bingo game is ready to roll!”  There’s a lot in this world I can’t be sure of, but of this I am completely and utterly convinced: you will be confused and afraid.  You will know doubt and anxiety.

The Good News from Mark is that we don’t have to have all the answers. We move forward in the sure and certain knowledge that we don’t have much sure and certain knowledge…only that he is going ahead of us.  In the confused and scary places.  In the celebratory places.  And we will see him.  And that will be enough.  You can count on that.

Thanks be to God!

Amen.

Stay With Us

On Easter Sunday, 2018, the saints at Crafton Heights spent the second worship of the morning retracing the steps of a long journey on a horrible day – the walk to Emma’s (and back!).  Thoughts on the ways that we fear isolation and loneliness, and the impact those things can have on our hearts… and wondering why the Gospels are so soft on explanations but so big on presence. This message is based on Luke 24:13-35 as well as Isaiah 25:6-9. 

 

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the media player below

 

In January of 1987 I was invited to take part in a two week course in Southern California.  I was so excited to be able to participate!  We were given a day off, and while many of my colleagues went to see Hollywood or the Pacific Ocean, I went to Disneyland.  I don’t know whether it says more about my colleagues or me that I couldn’t convince anyone else to go, but the short story is that I went to Disneyland by myself.  And it was miserable.  Every single time I stepped foot anywhere, I kept thinking, “You know who would really like this?”  I found people looking at me as the creepy guy who had to fill in the extra seat on the rides.  It was so bad that on three different occasions that day I found a pay phone and called a friend just to tell them that I wished that they were there – and that I thought that they’d be having fun.

(For those of you who are under 40 years old, I should say that once upon a time, we didn’t all have phones in our pockets. If we were away from home and needed to make a call, we had to find a machine, put money in it, remember the phone number, and dial our friends, hoping that they were home to answer their phones – that’s what life was like back in the dark ages).

What about the rest of you? Can you think of a time when you definitely did notwant to be alone?  What about when you were in the ICU waiting room? Or maybe it’s a big holiday, and you don’t have anywhere to go… Have you ever longed for the company of family or friends on Thanksgiving or a birthday or an anniversary?

When we find ourselves in a situation where we are sure that we shouldn’t be alone, what do we do?

Well, if we’re smart, and honest with ourselves, we own that fact and we do something about it.  We reach out to friends or neighbors and explain, saying, “Wow, you know, this is really hard right now.  I’d prefer not to be alone.  I’m really anxious, or depressed, or frightened.  I wonder if you’d be willing to come and wait with me…”

Of course, how often are we smart and honest with ourselves? Not as often as we should be, are we? And so oftentimes on those days when we know we should not be alone, we act as if it’s no big deal, or we’re simply afraid to bother anyone else.  So we pretend that we’re notanxious or depressed or afraid.  We sit at home and eat half a gallon of ice cream by ourselves, or we pretend that we’re just going to sit at the computer for a while and check Facebook for a moment and wind up getting sucked into the muck of internet porn, or we think that we unwind with a beer but wind up having 12 of them and that leads to going to bed with a stranger… in short, there are times when we are so pained by being alone that we do whatever we can to numb that pain, that isolation, that fear, that anxiety.

The power of isolation is real, and loneliness can lead to incredibly destructive behaviors and attitudes.  We all experience pain and fear – but how we respond to them can make all the difference.

The disciples who we met in our reading from Luke, for instance, were two individuals who may have been traveling together, but in many ways, they were alone.  They had lost everything that had mattered to them, the most important of which was the hope that up until three days ago had carried their spirits. And now, this Sunday morning, they are trudging back to their homes.  They walk together, but they are fundamentally alone.

On the Road to Emmaus (used by permission of the artist) ©Paul Oman, 2018. All Rights Reserved.
http://www.paulomanfineart.com

A stranger approaches, and engages them in conversation.  Before they know it, the day is gone and they stand in front of the home that is their destination.  Now, they’ve got some deciding to do.  Clearly, this conversation has had some sort of an impact on them.  Neither one of these folks has processed it yet, but each is aware that the presence of the stranger has mattered.

As they stand at the gate of the home in Emmaus, it would have been perfectly acceptable for them to shake hands with this stranger and wish him well as he continued his travel.  After all, there is nothing about their situation that has changed in the least.  From their perspective, reality is unchanged: they’d left everything to follow Jesus; they’d given up their jobs, their homes, their dreams in order to follow the one whom they’d imagined could make such a difference, only to see him give himself so willingly to the humiliation of execution on a Roman cross.

I’d imagine that it would have been easy for these disciples to have felt as though they’d been schnookered – that they’d fallen for something that proved not to be true, as if they’d become the victims of a terrible April Fool.

Do you see what I mean? Even after traveling all day with this stranger, nothing about their lives was substantively different than it had been that morning. Spending the day in conversation with this man hasn’t fixed anything.

And yet, somehow, it’s better.  Nothing about their external situation has changed, but each of them senses that somehow, there is something that has happened in on the inside.

So they have to decide.  What will they do with this stranger?

They turn to him, and they plead: “Stay with us.”

That’s all they say.  “Look, it’s getting dark.  Stay here.  Please.” And he enters the home.

And the briefest of pleas (“stay!”) leads to a shared meal.  I might have skipped that part, had I been them…  The meal leads to an occasion for recognition as to who this stranger really is. That recognition leads to an incredible moment of honesty with themselves and each other.  Again, I’m not sure I’d have been courageous enough to risk being that open with my friend.

At that point, I think that I look at my friend, and he’s looking at me, and he starts to say, “Did you…I mean, while he was talking on the road, was there…”  And in my head, I’m thinking, “I think that guy was Jesus!” but there’s no way I’m going to go THERE.  I saw Jesus die.  He’s not coming back.

And so if I’m the one on the road to Emmaus, I give my buddy the look that says, “Don’t go talking crazy around me, fella.” And that shuts him up. And if I’m one of the people on the road to Emmaus, maybe the other disciples never, ever hear about the conversation on the road or the breaking of the bread.

But because these people are able to be honest with each other, they are able to engage on an even greater risk – and they return to Jerusalem to speak with the other disciples.  Remember, these folks had probably been there when the women came in talking about the empty tomb, and they probably knew that everyone thought that these women had lost their minds.  Now, they are willing to go back and risk that same treatment because of the experience that they themselves had had.

Here’s the point I’m trying to make with this – that throughout this day, the realities these disciples faced did not change substantially.  There was no part of their circumstances that had been radically altered, so far as they had been able to know in that moment.

And yet, in the experience of simply trying to stay close to Jesus, everything was different.  And in that trying to stick close to Jesus, they find that they are able to make decisions that are, somehow, incrementally better.

When I think about this idea of just trying to stick close to Jesus, I’m reminded of a story that Garrison Keillor told about the time that 24 Lutheran Pastors visited Lake Wobegon, MN as a part of a study tour to understand the problems of life in rural America.  Pastor Ingqvist agrees that they guys could use a night out, and so he accepts Wally’s invitation to host the 24 pastors on his 26 foot pontoon boat. What could go wrong, right?

Well, the folks quickly discover that putting so many middle aged, portly, bearded Lutheran pastors on a boat that size is not wise.  As Keillor tells it,

…They had reached the edge of the laws of physics.  They lurched to the starboard side and there – in full view of the town – the boat pitched forward and dumped some ballast: [a batch of] Lutheran ministers in full informal garb took their step for total immersion.

As the boat sank, they slipped over the edge to give their lives for Christ, but in only five feet of water. It’s been a hot dry summer…

The ministers stood perfectly still in the water and didn’t say much at all.  Five feet of water, and some of them not six feet tall, so their faces were upraised to the bright blue sky.  They didn’t dare walk for fear of drop-offs, and their clothes were too heavy to swim in…

Keillor describes how these men were unsuited to this problem; they were not used to asking anyone for help, and so they had to practice crying out in their rich baritone voices… “um, help… help… help…”  He tells us of “…twenty-four ministers standing up to their smiles in water, chins up, trying to understand this experience and its deeper meaning.”

But then there is a new voice: “Clint [Bunsen’s] little nephew Brian waded out to them.  ‘It’s not deep this way’, he said.  He stood about fifteen feet away, a little boy up to his waist.”[1]  The pastors gingerly edged toward the sound of the boy’s voice and gradually found their way to a place where they could first stand, and then walk, out of the lake – twenty-four pastors dripping wet, covered by clothes that would have sunk them, but ready to participate in the rest of the conference.

Maybe I’m reading into that little story too much, but it seems to me that it’s a fitting parable for the Christian experience.  I do not know of anyone who has lived a life of faith and been spared trouble or difficulty.  I am unacquainted with anyone who has accepted Jesus and thereby avoided suffering.

In my experience, the life of faith is not about accepting all of the right doctrines or finding a way to agree intellectually with all of the appropriate “isms”.  Instead, it’s more like finding myself up to my neck in pain or doubt or confusion and hearing a voice that I believe I can trust telling me that the ground might be a little firmer over this direction… It’s about sticking as close as I can to Jesus and holding onto him when I can.

Supper at Yummaus
Barry Motes (used by permission of the artist). More at https://www.jbmotesart.com

And because I know what it feels like to be swamped and gasping for air, every now and then I feel as though I have the opportunity to lift my voice and call out, “You know, I think it’s a little shallower over here.  It’s not quite as overwhelming in this direction.”

[4]The prophet Isaiah foresaw a day when justice would be shared, death defeated, and alienation and anxiety swallowed up.  The key component of that day, we’ve heard, is that people will say “we have waited for God.”  They do notsay, “Aha! We were right all along, and those suckers were wrong.”  There is no cry of exultation because all of their doctrine was correct.  Instead, there is a confession that all of this has happened because they were able to keep close, somehow, to the Lord.

Jesus’ friends looked back on Isaiah’s prophecy and said, “You know, we are closer now than we were then.  We can see more evidence of death being swallowed and hope being brought to light.  In Jesus, we have a glimpse of what God is like and we have an inkling of what God is doing. So we’re going to keep waiting, keep hoping, and keep doing our best to stick close to him.”

Look – this is Easter Sunday.  I’m not sure why you’re in church today, but I can tell you this: if you are here expecting answers, hoping that you’ve come to a place where you can have everything explained to you… or, worse, if you’ve come because you havea lot of answers that you can’t wait to lay down on all of the rest of us… well, give it a break.

I’m not interested in talking with anyone who thinks that they can explain things – especially things like suffering and violence and injustice and death.

But if you’ve come because you’re willing to watch, to wait, and to stay close to Jesus – well maybe together we can learn a little more about the power and implications of hope and resurrection in our lives and in our world. And if we do that, then maybe we’ll be better equipped to help each other find a place to stand that isn’t quite so treacherous or frightening.  And maybe God might even use us to remind someone else that it might just be possible to get through this thing together.  Thanks be to God for the Christ who is willing to stay with us as we wait on the promises of God.  Amen.

[1]Quotes from “Pontoon Boat” in Leaving Home(Penguin Press, 1990).

You’ve Gotta Be Kidding Me!

On Easter Sunday, 2018, the saints at Crafton Heights began the day by recalling the first time anyone ever showed up in a room and tried to convince their friends that there was something really, fundamentally, exceptional about the circumstances surrounding Jesus death and burial.  The women who discover the empty grave are dismissed as being out of their minds; a generation later, Paul meets the same fate when he testifies before Agrippa and Festus.  What’s the difference between the best April Fool prank ever and the best Good News ever?  Thoughts that are based on Luke 24:1-12 and Acts 26:22-31.

 

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the audio player below:

 

Think about your best April Fool joke ever. Who was involved? Who did you get? Or who got you?

The last time April Fool’s fell on a Sunday, elder Simcox replaced the water in my glass with vodka.  Being filled with the Spirit, I’m sure, I forgot to drink that day, and so I dodged that prank.

On this date in 1957, the good people at the British Broadcasting Corporation pulled off what is often regarded as the best April Fool joke of all time.  Watch this three minute clip, and see if you agree. [if the player below does not work, please use https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tVo_wkxH9dU]

I should point out that in post-war Britain, spaghetti was uncommon, and so the fact that many people actually believed this “news story” isn’t quite as ridiculous as it would be if this was aired today.  Perhaps what I love most about this story, though, is the fact that when people flooded the network with calls asking for instructions on how to grow their own spaghetti, they were told, “put a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce and hope for the best.”[1]

It seems to me that the essence of a good April Fool joke is when you say something that you know to be untrue, and you laugh at the poor suckers who fall for it.  When you’ve gotten someone, you feel a little proud of yourself; it’s empowering, and in the best circumstances, everyone has a good laugh.

But what about when things are directly opposite of that? Have you ever had an experience where you were telling the truth, and no one believed you?  You may have heard me speak of the day in college when my roommate died; I remember trying to tell some classmates that he’d had a heart attack and they thought I was kidding them.  I’m sure you know of victims of assault or bullying who are unable to get a hearing because nobody can believe it.

Today’s scriptures each contain instances where someone’s experience or testimony was disbelieved by the people who simply could not accept it as fact.

The Empty Tomb, He Qi (2001) from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.

In the reading from Luke, some of the women from Jesus’ inner circle go to complete the burial rites.  When they get to the tomb, they are surprised by two angelic beings…who also appear to be caught off-guard.  “You?” they say, “What are you doing here? Don’t you remember what he told you?”

And, as you’ve heard, the women doremember and are able to accept the emptiness of the tomb as a validation of what Jesus had told them earlier: that he would rise from the dead.  Armed with the memory of what he had said along with the knowledge of the empty tomb, these women hurry back to tell the Apostles.

Except, as you know, that when they get there and tell the eleven of the wonders they’ve heard and seen, well, the men think that the women are simply out of their minds.

If you were following along in your bibles as the scripture was read, you may have noticed a footnote after verse 12 – the sentence that reads “Peter, 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.”  The footnote in many bibles informs us that the earliest manuscripts of Luke’s gospel do not contain verse 12.  It would appear as though some of the ancient scribes added this detail that comes from John’s account of the empty tomb.  No matter where it came from, it doesn’t fundamentally alter the reality of the fact that according to Luke’s gospel, the essential truth of the first Easter morning is that some people got it, and were able to grasp what had happened, while others did not.

Trial of the Apostle Paul
Nikolai Bodarevsky, 1875

In the second volume of his account of Jesus’ life, ministry, and impact, Luke records another incident that happened several decades later.  The Apostle Paul is on trial before Herod Agrippa, the man Rome appointed to be king of Judea, and Festus, the Roman Procurator who was a successor to Pontius Pilate.  Paul tells the story of his rather surprising and deeply personal encounter with the risen Christ.  Herod and Festus hear him tell the story, and they look at each other and burst out laughing. Clearly, they think that this grizzled old missionary is insane.

So, if you’re keeping score: thus far in our bible studies, we have discerned that the eleven men who were, arguably, the closest friends that Jesus had on earth heard tell of his resurrection from the dead and they just could not believe it. A generation later, the two pre-eminent powerful men in the region heard that story, and they, too, found it to be incredulous.

Which means that if you arrived at this 8:30 service of worship and heard the claim that Jesus has risen and were not quite able to wrap your head around that… well, you’re surely not alone.  It would seem as though it’s not uncommon for those who hear about Jesus’ resurrection to find it difficult to swallow.

Of course, you may know that the eleven came to believe so deeply in the good news of Jesus’ resurrection that they all died confessing that as the central truth of their lives. On the other hand, there is no evidence that Festus or Agrippa ever changed his mind.  What’s the difference in these scenarios?

Well, it would appear as though the Apostles were willing to place themselves in positions where, like the women, they could have a confirming experience.  That is to say that they’d heard the claimto resurrection, and perhaps they even remembered Jesus’ conversation about the possibility some years earlier.  Each of them, however, needed to have his own transforming moment when the theoretical became the actual.  Later this morning, we’ll consider the remainder of Luke 24, and the ways that the resurrection came to have meaning in the lives of these men.

Paul, for instance, had heard the claims of Jesus and his followers, but it wasn’t until he experienced the nearness of the risen Christ that he was able to make the move from being persecutor of the church to instigator within the church.

On the other hand, from everything we can tell, Felix and Herod Agrippa wiped the tears of laughter from their eyes and went back to business as usual.  They could not conceive of a way in which resurrection might be true.  I have always been captivated by the language of the old King James translation at this point, wherein Agrippa quips to Paul, “Almost thou persuadest me to become a Christian…”

Paul’s response is quick: “I would to God, that not only thou, but also all that hear me this day, were both almost, and altogether such as I am, except these bonds.”

In other words, Paul looks at the king of his region and says, “You’re not seeing things clearly, your majesty.  I wish that you could see things as well as I can – and I wish that you had the kind of joy that is available to me…”  At this the king has no choice but to leave, because in his mind, Paul is clearly simply making no sense.

Too much of today’s Christianity has a narrative that goes something like this: for years, my life was simply horrible. Then, I found Jesus, and now my life is great.  I’ve gotten over that horrible thing that happened to me, or I was forgiven for those violent or disgusting things that I once did, and now it’s just smooth sailing.

That just does not make sense with the Biblical narrative.  Imagine someone going up to Peter or Paul and saying, “Wow! You knew Jesus! Tell us all about the amazingly great things that have happened in your life since you accepted Jesus into your heart…” The answer would have to be, “Well, first I got struck blind, but then I survived the first assassination attempt. I got the tar beaten out of me fairly regularly, and I was stoned a few times and left for dead, and, well, one thing led to another, and now here I am on death row in Rome…”

That’s the truth, and that’s what happened… but you’re not likely to see that in Christian media much today.  The reality of the Biblical story is that more often than not, people don’t “find” Jesus; they are “found out” by the love and grace and mercy of the Lord.

My own story, and I know some of yours, is that faith does not come as a result of choosing to embrace a series of theological propositions or religious theories… but rather when our hearts and minds are somehow quickened to discern that God has reached out to us and is longing for us to reach out to the world.

A friend of mine had a medical condition that very nearly ended in her death.  As a result of some quick diagnostic work, an alert medical team, and amazing technology, she is alive today.  When she was reflecting on this with me, she said, “For a long time, I was unsure about who or what God was.  But when I came through this experience, I saw that while science saved my life, it hasn’t given me anything to live for.  God is the only one who can do that.”

When Paul looks at old Agrippa and says, “I wish that not only you, but everyone in earshot, were both almost, and altogether such as I am…”, he’s saying that he hopes his audience will find themselves acquainted with the power and presence of the risen Christ, not for Paul’s sake, but for their own.

Similarly, this is my 24thEaster behind this podium.  For many of you, for most of your lives I’ve stood here and said, “Christ is Risen! He is risen indeed!”.  I hope that over the decades, you’ve become aware of the fact that I’m not hoping to talk you into anything, and I’m not trying to sell you on anything.

That’s what makes a sermon different than an April Fool’s joke.  The power of an April Fool’s prank is that I want to make you look silly, or gullible, or foolish so that I look better.  The main way that happens is if I am able to somehow persuade you into believe that which is untrue.  April Fool’s involves me trying to convince you of something.

Listen: I’m not trying to sell you anything.  I’m only trying to do what those women did on the first Easter – to stand up here and tell you that my experience confirms the things that I heard Jesus say.  I have become convinced that hope is stronger than memory, that forgiveness is stronger than bitterness, that reconciliation is stronger than hatred.  I know that the empty tomb has more power than the bloody cross, and that the dead Jesus has risen to rule the world.

Has becoming convinced of this solved all my problems, kept me from screwing up, made me an incredibly productive fisherman, or brought me wealth and fame? Hardly.  Yet I would not and could not trade it for anything.  And this Easter morning my wish for each of you is that you might find yourselves in places where, if you haven’t seen the power of resurrection yet, you will.  I’m not kidding you or anyone else: my hope is that we are each altogether bound up in the foolishness of Christ as we engage the joy and sorrow of our days. Thanks be to God, he has risen. Amen.

[1]https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/spaghetti-tree-hoax-april-fools_us_56fe89e7e4b083f5c6077279

 

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.