Friday, May 1, 2015

Spirit and Structure - May 3, 2015

Texts: Acts 1:15-26, Ezekiel 37:1-14


Before I begin this sermon I want to ask you to please look at the back page of your bulletin.  You will find a number there.  OK, we are going to have our drawing, and the winning number is  ___.   Congratulations, you are our winner!  As hopefully most of you know, Susan and I will be on a 10-week sabbatical that begins after worship next Sunday.  You may have been wondering who will be preaching during the sabbatical.  As our grand prize winner, ___________ will be bringing our messages this summer. 

OK, we actually do have a plan already in place.  Just a little fun here on a Sunday morning.  Now many of you might think that drawing a preacher out of a hat is a terrible idea, or an example of the evils of gambling.  Or you might just be glad it’s not you.  Or you might be thinking, why don’t we do this throughout the service, hand out door prizes, maybe it will keep people awake?  But some perceptive souls may say, “Finally we are beginning to recover the faith of the early church.  Matthias, the disciple chosen to replace Judas, was chosen by lot.  If it’s good enough for the early church, it’s good enough for us.”

The Book of Acts open with Jesus telling his disciples to wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit, and that then they will be witnesses to Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria and the uttermost parts of the world - and then he ascends into heaven. 

So the disciples are waiting for the coming of the Spirit.  Jesus has ascended but the Spirit has not yet come.  What happens in between the Ascension and Pentecost?  What happens as the disciples wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit?  They have a business meeting.  Seriously.  A business meeting, of all things.  Why do we find such a mundane event in the middle of such important, dramatic happenings?

It’s a good question.  The simple answer is that twelve was an important number.  Jesus had called twelve disciples, and this matched the twelve tribes of Israel.  Eleven just wouldn’t cut it; Judas was no longer with them and they needed another apostle.  There was tradition and there was symbolism; twelve was important. 

But that still begs the question of “why now?” Why have a business meeting when the Holy Spirit is scheduled to show up any minute?

Our reading from Ezekiel may help us.  This is the familiar reading of Ezekiel and the dry bones.  The bones were put together, but they needed the breath, the Spirit, of God to be breathed into them in order to live.  Likewise the Spirit needed the bodies, the bones, for there to be life.  In order to live, there had to be Spirit, but there also had to be structure.

That is exactly the case with the Church.  The Church needs both Spirit and structure.  It may seem like a crazy time to have a business meeting, but maybe it was exactly the right time.  There needed to be structure so that when the Spirit came, they would be ready.

There are a lot of people who complain about the “institutional church.”  I have a book on my shelf titled They Love Jesus But Not the Church, which is written about millennials but describes a lot of people.  There are people out there who have perhaps been hurt by those who seem more committed to the institution of the church than they are to loving God and loving their neighbor.

On the other hand, Spirit with no structure can be chaotic.  Faith can turn into emotionalism.  I have known people who have inspiring ideas, who seem like spiritual powerhouses, but who never get around to putting ideas into action because there is no structure.  They may be sincere; they may have a kind of spiritual fire about them, but nothing ever seems to come of it.

For the church to truly be the church, we have to have both structure and spirit.

In high school, I played in the jazz band.  What was great was when we improvised.  There was a basic tune we played, a basic melody, and then we would take turns improvising.  But we had to have both order and creativity for it to work.  There had to be structure beneath all the improvisation.  We played in a particular key and counted out a particular beat.  If it were all improvisation – if there were no structure at all – if everybody just played whatever they wanted, whenever they felt like it - it wouldn’t work. But if it were all structured, with no improvisation, no opportunities for originality, no creativity, no freedom, then it would have been lifeless.  It wouldn’t have been jazz.

I think it’s that way with most of life.  We all need a starting place – we need structure.  The structure is to help us and guide us – it’s not there to weigh us down.  If the goal is to fly, then structure and tradition can be our wings.

The apostles would go on to do all kinds of things that had not been done.  God would lead them in new directions.  God would give them power and courage and strength to face all kinds of adversity.  This was all the work of the Spirit.  But they were able to do what they did only as they were tied to the community and as they worked together.  That was the structure.

God often speaks to us as we gather together for worship.  We may find wisdom, or comfort, or inspiration through prayer or Bible study or music or as we serve in the community.  Worship services and Sunday School and choir rehearsal and committee meetings and volunteering your time - these are all part of the structure that allows the Spirit to work in our church and in our lives. 

An increasing number of churches are offering sabbaticals to pastors – a time away from the responsibilities of church ministry to focus on attending to one’s spirit and on renewal for continuing ministry.  A time of sabbatical can be beneficial for both the pastor and the congregation.  I am very thankful for the opportunity Susan and I have for a sabbatical this summer.  Since next Sunday is Music Sunday, this is the last sermon I’ll preach here until July.  (I thought I would get at least a few Amens on that.)  A sabbatical might be thought of as a structured way for the Spirit to be at work in renewing both clergy and congregations.  When we approved a policy for sabbatical leaves at our church, we made room for the spirit, but also built in some needed structure.

Seven years ago, as part of my sabbatical, I visited some emergent churches.  That was the name given to a new kind of church – the idea being that we’re not sure what the church will look like in the future, but it will be different, and a new movement of God is emerging - so emergent churches.  They were made up mostly of people in their 20’s, and they rejected the megachurch model of doing church.  While definitely a new and different thing, they were also open to traditional and ancient liturgy, and many had a strong focus on the arts.  In a sense what they did - and do - is very new and at the same time very old.  The whole movement is hard to describe, partly because there is so much difference from church to church, but I decided to visit some of these emergent churches.

There was one church in particular that was very interesting to me.  They had started out several years before as a church of 20-somethings, mostly single or at least without kids.  They were doing something new and exciting – it was a movement of the spirit.  By the time I attended this church, they had been around a few years and were now in a new location – they had grown a bit, and they met in a theater in a hip urban neighborhood.  Dogs were welcome – a couple of worshipers arrived with their dogs, which I really liked.

But here was the thing: they had been very focused on spirit as they started out, on this new thing that God was doing, but in time they realized they needed structure.  They were getting married and having kids now.  They had to think about a nursery, and do we have children’s church or just have the kids in worship with everybody else, and what kind of programs and activities do we have for our children?  There has to be a structure for the Spirit to be able to work. 

I hope to visit that church again this summer, 7 years later, to see how it is all working out.

There is so much that goes into our being the church that seems mundane, that may not seem all that spiritual.  Paying the bills.  Picking up beer cans in the parking lot.  Operating the sound system.  Changing diapers.  Watering plants.  Fixing leaks.  Trimming hedges.  Making coffee.  Counting the offering.  Tuning the piano. 

But all of this is necessary, because it takes both structure and spirit for us to be the church.  Without spirit, our structure can be meaningless.  But without structure, the spirit has no place to work.

Maybe it is exactly right that in between two big, dramatic, spiritual events, the Ascension and Pentecost, we find a business meeting.

The Church needs leadership.  Another apostle was needed to replace Judas.  It was decided that the new apostle, as a witness to the resurrection, needed to be someone who had been with Jesus from the beginning.  Two were put forward as being qualified and worthy: Justus and Matthias.

Then we come to a very interesting part: they cast lots to determine who would serve.  This is where our little exercise at the beginning of the service comes in.  Actually, this seems to be a fairly common approach in the scriptures, and this was not seen as mere chance; this was seen as God’s choice.

Some have continued this practice.  In some Amish traditions, several qualified men will each take a Bible from a table; one of the Bibles is marked to indicate that the one who chose that Bible is to be the pastor.

And it’s not just the Amish.  An Episcopal priest in Grand Rapids, Michigan shared that her congregation chooses its vestry – its governing board - in a similar way.  A group of people is nominated, and at the annual meeting, all hear the responsibilities explained and agree to serve if selected.  The names are placed in the offering plate, the church prays, and then names are drawn to fill vacancies on the board.   The church has been doing this for over fifteen years, and has found that more people than before are willing to serve.  It has helped to encourage the mindset that all church members have gifts to share.  The decision to go to this form of “election” was based on this scripture from Acts.

This summer we will have a kind of experiment in leadership.  Our boards and committees will take on more responsibility as Susan and I are away.  Our deacons will be responsible for pastoral care.  Our co-moderators and our committee chairs will have a little extra responsibility.  There has been a lot of planning for the summer, especially in the area of worship, and we have attended to some of the structure of the time of sabbatical so that we might be better open to the work of the Spirit among us.

Both Justus and Matthias had been faithful in following Jesus and were willing to step in and serve.  In the Bible, we don’t hear of either of them again.  But they are an example for all of us: willing to serve and open to the Spirit.

I grew up in a church culture that had certain structures.  One rule was that there was a limit on how women could serve in the church.  They could do a lot of things, but they couldn’t be pastors.  So when Susan and I became American Baptists and went to our first regional denominational gathering and saw women praying and preaching and leading in worship and elected to leadership positions, it was every refreshing, very freeing.  It felt like home, and it felt like there was a real openness to the Spirit.

A couple of years later I remember attending that same gathering.  I was looking forward to hearing the Bible Study leader, who was a friend and an outstanding scholar.  There was music and there were reports and presentations, all of which probably went a little longer than they were supposed to, and then before the Bible Study segment, new congregations were recognized.  The pastor of one of these churches was asked if he wanted to say a few words about this new congregation.  As often happens, he said more than a few words, and so the program was running late.  

I was proud to be part of a denomination that would invite a woman to be the Bible Study leader for this gathering, but the person in charge of things, who was extraordinarily time conscious and had everything planned down to the minute, was in a near panic and decided that we didn’t have time for the Bible Study and we would just skip it in that session.  Never mind that this invited guest had been preparing her presentation for weeks.  It felt like a complete triumph of structure over spirit.

We need a balance of structure and spirit.  But to paraphrase Jesus, the structure is always in service of the Spirit, not the other way around.  As we work and serve together, we need to remember that the purpose of it all is that we might better follow the Spirit of God.  Amen.  

“The Good Shepherd” - April 26, 2015

Texts: Psalm 23, John 10:11-18


The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.  He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; he leadeth me beside the still waters…

Good, old, familiar Psalm 23.  It’s like an old friend.  People who don’t know a thing about the Bible have at least a passing familiarity with the 23rd Psalm.  I generally read from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, the translation we have as our pew Bible, but the 23rd Psalm is the one scripture that I read from the King James because it is so familiar and the poetry is so beautiful.

But as familiar as the words are, they were written in a different world.  It was a culture that knew something about sheep and shepherding.  We can very easily recite the words: “The Lord is my shepherd...”  The words are beautiful and very comforting, but who wants to be a sheep?

You will find a lot of Psalm 23 re-writes using different metaphors, getting away from the shepherd and sheep image.  “The Lord is my coach…, or “the Lord is my agent…”, or “the Lord is my major professor” or “the Lord is Internet Service Provider...  He giveth me wide bandwidth and protecteth me from spam and viruses."  The psalm is rewritten in a way that people can better identify with it.  But part of the popularity if these paraphrases is the fact that we would rather think of ourselves as an athlete, or a student, or a vacationer, or a computer user, than a sheep.  

The Good Shepherd leads the sheep to green pastures, but we generally don’t want to lie down because, well, we don’t want to stop.  We are on the go; we have things to do and people to see.  Stopping is risky because if we stop, something might catch up with us – whether it is a competitor or our past or all the work we have yet to do.  We don’t want to slow down; we don’t want to rest.  But the thing is, we will eventually slow down and come to a stop, whether we want to or not, and it may not be in a place as pleasant as the green pastures the shepherd has led us to. 

The shepherd cares for us and knows our needs.  Whether we know it or not, we need a Good Shepherd.  

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want …He restoreth my soul.  He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake…

Sheep are often characterized as stupid and foolish.  That characterization may not be entirely accurate; some have argued that cattle ranchers are responsible for that ugly rumor, all because sheep do not behave like cows.  Cows are herded from behind, with cowboys hooting and cracking whips, but that will not work at all with sheep.  Stand behind sheep making loud noises and they will just run around behind you, because sheep want to be led.  You can push cows, but you lead sheep. (this info from Barbara Brown Taylor)

Sheep will not go anywhere that someone does not go first – and that someone would be the shepherd, who goes ahead to show them that everything is all right.

As it turns out, sheep grow fond of their shepherds.  One sheep herder said that it never amazed him that he could walk right through a sleeping flock without disturbing even one of them, but if a stranger set foot among the flock it would cause pandemonium. 

To throw another animal into the mix: when Susan and I were first married, we had a cat named Mary Ralph.  She was named after a no-nonsense nun, and the name fit perfectly.  She was quirky, even for a cat, and while she was just a little black cat, she scared people.

When we lived in a small town in Illinois, Mary Ralph started following us when we would go for a walk.  We would have to go back and put here in the house, but finally we decided “what the hack,” and we let her follow us.  SO we went for a family walk around the block: Susan and I walking, Zoe in a stroller, our dog Conway on a leash, and Mary Ralph bringing up the rear.  We walked to the end of the street and turned at the Methodist Church, and she was still with us.  We got to the next corner, at the bed and breakfast, and she was lagging behind.  She would always have a hard time making it to the next corner.  She would see a leaf blowing in the wind, or a sound would startle her, or there would be a rabbit, or she would have a stare-off with a cat looking out somebody’s window.

I would have to go back and get her to re-focus on the walk, and sometimes I would just have to carry her home.   I was about the only one who could do that – if a stranger picked her up she might, we might have to pay their medical bills.
The experiment did not last very long; before long she was banned from family walks again.

We can be a little like Mary Ralph in that we have a hard time following the shepherd.  And at times it probably appears that Jesus is trying to her cats more than lead sheep. 
We don’t necessarily like being led – we might like the idea of setting off on our own, charting our own course.  We can feel like the grass is greener in other pastures.  But we are at our best when we follow the Good Shepherd.  Jesus came to show us how to live, that we might follow.  And Jesus does not ask to go anywhere that he has not already gone.  The Good Shepherd restores our souls and leads us in the right paths.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…yea, tho I walk in the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for thou art with me; thy road and thy staff, they comfort me…

Sheep can scare pretty easily.  And they have a real knack for getting lost.  We might think that we are nothing at all like sheep, that the image of sheep is a terrible picture of what we are like.  But here’s the thing: we may be more lost than we think, and I’m not talking about that quirky GPS you have in your car.


We can be lost in a relationship that’s offered more hurt than love, in a job that leaves us depleted and spent, or in the guilt of not being good enough, good-looking enough, or smart enough for someone whose judgment cuts deep.


Some of us have gotten lost in battles against declining health.  We can be lost searching for meaning and direction.  We can get so lost that we lose sight of who we are and who we were created to be.


And we can surely get lost in grief.  Many of us have passed through the valley of the shadow of death.  We have experienced hurt and sadness and disillusionment.  We have lost loved ones.  We have glimpsed our own mortality.  We have been in that deep valley; some of you may be there right now.  How much do we need a Good Shepherd?

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want …Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.  Thou anointest my head with oil; my cup overflows.
It is pretty obvious what it is for sheep to have a table prepared in the presence of enemies.  The enemies may be wolves, coyotes, mountain lions.  Assorted predators.  For us, it may not be so obvious, but we surely face enemies.  The enemy might be illness or poverty or addictions or anxiety for the future.  And sometimes, we can be our own worst enemy.  

The shepherd provides food, water, care and protection for the sheep.  And let’s face it: we need God’s care and protection.

Tony Campolo is an American Baptist minister and a sociology professor.  In one of his books, he tells about flying to Honolulu for a conference.  Because of the time change, his sleep was all messed up, and at 3:30 a.m., he was wandering the streets looking for a place to eat.

He finally found a hole-in-the-wall, greasy spoon that was still open.  He sat on a stool and ordered coffee and a donut from guy named Harry.  As he sat drinking coffee and munching on his donut, about 8 or 9 prostitutes walked in—they were provocative, loud, crude.  Campolo felt completely out of place.  He was about to head out the door when he heard the woman sitting nearest him saying, “Tomorrow’s my birthday.  I’m going to be 39.”  Her companion responded in a nasty tone, “So what do you want me to do?  Throw a birthday party?  You want me to get you a cake and sing ‘Happy Birthday?’”

“Come on,” said the birthday woman, “why do you have to be so mean?  I don’t want anything from you.  I’ve never had a birthday party in my life.  Why should I have one now?”

Campolo said that when he heard that, he made a decision.  He talked to Harry, the man behind the counter.  Harry told him the woman’s name was Agnes and that she came in every night at the same time.  Campolo proposed a surprise party for Agnes the next night, in the restaurant.  Harry thought it was a great idea.  Harry’s wife, who worked in the kitchen, agreed to make the birthday cake.  She said, “This is wonderful.  Agnes is one of those people who is really nice and kind, and nobody ever does anything nice and kind for her.”

The next morning, Campolo arrived at the diner at 2 a.m. with some crepe paper and a big sign reading “Happy Birthday Agnes.”  Harry’s wife must have got word out about the party, because by 3:15 the place was packed with wall-to-wall prostitutes and one Baptist professor.  At 3:30, the door swung open and in came Agnes and her friend.  Everybody screamed, “Happy Birthday.”

Campolo wrote, “I have never seen anyone so utterly flabbergasted, so stunned, so shaken.  Her mouth fell open.  Her legs buckled a bit.  Her friend grabbed her arm to steady her.  Her eyes moistened.  Then, when the cake came out, complete with candles, she completely lost control and started to cry.  Agnes looked down at the cake.  Then, without taking her eyes off it, she slowly and softly said to Harry, “If it's all right with you, well, what I want to ask is, if it’s OK, can I keep the cake a while?  I live just down the street.  I want to take the cake home, OK?  I’ll be right back, honest.”

Campolo says she picked up the cake and, carrying it like it was the Holy Grail, walked slowly toward the door.  As everyone just stood there motionless, she left.  When the door closed there was a stunned silence in the place.  Campolo finally broke the silence, by saying, “Let’s pray.”  He said that he realized it was more than a little unusual for a sociology professor to be holding a prayer meeting with a bunch of prostitutes in a diner at 3:30 in the morning.  He recalls that before he left, Harry asked him what kind of church he belonged to.  He answered, “The kind of church Jesus came to create.”

The Good Shepherd loves all of the sheep.  And especially, it seems, the lost sheep.  The Good Shepherd will leave the ninety and nine to search for the one lost lamb.  Jesus loved to be with all kinds of left-out people.  Lepers, tax-collectors, people on the margins, sinners.  The Good Shepherd prepares a table for the lost sheep and provides so extravagantly that the Psalmist responds by exclaiming, “My cup overflows.”

We talked about the 23rd Psalm in Sunday School last week.  One person said that this was the most meaningful part for her: “my cup overflows.”  When we take the time to reflect and realize how wonderfully we have been blessed, we can all say, “My cup overflows.” 

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
There is a story told about the actor Charles Laughton, who was a big name in the middle of the 20th century.  One night he attended a dinner party.  After dinner everyone gathered in the living room.  Laughton was a famous stage and screen actor but was also known as a great dramatic reader.  The host called upon him to recite the 23rd Psalm.  He said he would.  His timing and intonation were perfect.  And of course Americans love anything said with a British accent.  Everyone loved his recitation.

After he recited the 23rd Psalm, others were invited to offer something.  There was an older woman sitting in the corner.  She happened to be the aunt of the host.  She was asked if she would recite something.

She was nearly deaf so she hadn’t heard what had gone before.  She stood up and started to recite the 23rd Psalm. People at first were embarrassed.  It was an awkward situation to have her recite the same psalm as this great actor.  But before she finished, people were caught up in her recitation.  Some even began to weep.  It was a tour de force.

Later somebody asked Mr. Laughton why her reading was so moving when she didn’t have any of the skills that he had as an actor.  He said, “I know the psalm.  She knows the shepherd.”

We have a Good Shepherd.  Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice.  I know them, and they follow me.  I give them eternal life, and they will never perish.”

In Palestine today, it is yet possible to witness a scene that Jesus almost certainly witnessed.  At the end of the day, Bedouin shepherds will bring their flock to a watering place, and it is not uncommon for several small flocks to show up at the same time and get all mixed up - a convention of thirsty sheep.  The shepherds do not worry, though.  Each issues his or her own special call – a whistle, a trill, a particular note or tune on a reed pipe – and that shepherd’s sheep will follow the shepherd home.  They know the shepherd’s voice.

“The Lord is my shepherd…and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”  We have a Good Shepherd.  Amen.

Friday, April 10, 2015

“Faith for a Hipster City” - April 12, 2015

Text: John 20:19-29

A few weeks ago, a national study reported on the “Most Hipster Cities” in the United States.  While we often think of hipsters as an urban, big city demographic, many of the top 20 cities in this survey were smaller communities.  Does anybody know where Ames, Iowa landed?  Yeah, we are #2.  The second most hipster city in the country.

Well, I am sure this raises a few questions for you, and at the top of the list, maybe you are asking the question, “What is a hipster?”  Glad you asked.

The meaning has changed over the years.  There was a time when the term hipster had something to do with jazz afficianados who had a certain style and dressed in a certain way and called people “cats.”  I remember seeing a picture of Bob McCarley, probably from the late 60’s, with a goatee, thick black plastic frame glasses and an awesome hat.  He gave off a kind of hipster vibe.  There may be folks here who fit that style back then.  But then you went and got a leisure suit, and the era of hipsters was over.

But the term came back in more recent years.  One source defined hipsters as a subculture of men and women typically in their 20’s and 30’s who value counter-culture, an appreciation of art and indie-rock, creativity and intelligence.  Basically, hipsters reject the choices of the cultural mainstream.  They ride single-speed bikes and they are in to good coffee, farmers markets, locally sourced food, and the like.     

The analysis by Find The Best.com, as reported by CBS News, looked for classic signs of hipster populations, including young people, education, cafes, and yoga studios.  With 45% of the population from ages 20-34, 62% of the population with a bachelor’s degree, and 7 cafes per 10,000 residents, Ames came in #2 in the country based on the hipster criteria.  Those things can be quantified, but I’m not sure that hipster attitude can be quantified, and this is where the analysis falls short.  If Ames is #2, then you know the study is flawed.

Here is one of the important things the study could not quantify: hipsters place a very high value on independent thinking and on a nonchalant, “don’t really care” vibe.

Now, turning to our scripture for today – and how is that for a nice segue? – if you were asked which of the disciples had the most hipster-like characteristics, it would be Thomas, hands-down.  I don’t know about his fashion sense or artistic leanings, but he was very much a non-conformist.  He was uninterested in following the crowd.  He was skeptical.  He was an independent thinker.  I’m not calling Thomas a hipster, and I understand there are plenty of negatives we could say about hipster culture; I’m just saying Thomas was the most hipster-like among the disciples. 

Thomas had shown these qualities all along.  Jesus had said, “I go and prepare a place for you… And you know the way to the place where I am going.”  Thomas was the one who spoke up and said, “Lord, we do not know where you are going.  How can we know the way?”  He was unafraid to ask questions.

When Jesus was going to see Lazarus, who had died – on what was seen as a dangerous journey – Thomas was the one who spoke up and said, “Let’s all go, that we may die with him.”  He was unafraid, he was unconventional, he was independent-minded – one-of-a-kind.

After Jesus’ resurrection, the disciples were still unbelieving, even after Mary’s report that she had seen the Lord.  They were together behind locked doors.  Where was Thomas?  We don’t know.  He was elsewhere.  He was his own person.  Maybe he hid elsewhere or maybe he brushed off the fear and danger and went about doing what he did.  Maybe he went to a local cafĂ© and reminisced with friends about Jesus.

The point here is Thomas was never one to simply, unquestioningly follow the crowd.  He questioned things, he investigated things.  He didn’t necessarily take what he heard at face value; he wanted to find out for himself.  He didn’t let the opinions and sensibilities of others determine what he was going to believe or what he was going to do.

From time to time, we have a class for older children and youth considering baptism.  I read about another church having that kind of class, and the way they described it is that the class explored the question, “How do I be a Christian on purpose?” 

I really like that question.  How do we be Christians “on purpose?”  How do we make it real?

That is what Thomas was trying to do.  To be a Christian on purpose, you have to mean to follow Jesus.  You have to want to follow Jesus.  You have to consciously choose to follow Jesus.  It means that you have to be honest – honest about your doubts, your fears, your questions.  It means that rather than doing the easy thing, rather than just going along for the ride, you make a personal investment and do what you feel is the right thing.  Maybe the easy thing for Thomas would have been to not make waves, to keep his mouth shut, to go along with all the “Jesus is alive” business.  The others may have not wanted to hear about his doubts.  But that wasn’t Thomas. 

Fred Craddock tells this story:
I was out visiting in a home a few years ago where they'd adopted one of those dogs that had been a racer.  It was a big old greyhound lying there in the den.  One of the kids in the family - just a toddler - was pulling on its tail, and a little older kid had his head on the dog's stomach, sort of using it like a pillow.  The dog seemed to have a smile on his face, and looked real happy.  So I said to the dog, “Are you still racing at all?”

“No, no I don't race anymore,” he replied in a voice a lot lower than I thought would come from a greyhound.  I said, “Well, do you miss it - all the glitter and excitement of the track?”   He said, “No.  No, I don't miss it at all.”

“Well, what's the matter? Did you get too old to race?”  “No, I still had some race left in me.”  “Well, did you not win?” I asked.

He sort of snickered and said, “I won over a million dollars for my owner.”  “Then what was it? Bad treatment?”  “Oh no,” the greyhound answered, “They treated us royally when we were racing.”

“Well, what WAS it then?  Did you get crippled?”  He said, “No. No. No.”  “Then WHAT?”  I asked.

“I quit,” he said. “I just plain quit.”  I said, “Well why did you quit?”  

And he said, “I discovered that what I was chasing was not really a rabbit.  So I quit.”  He looked at me with such sad eyes and said, “All that running, running, running, and what I was chasing wasn’t even real!”

Thomas had had suspicions that what the other disciples were chasing was perhaps not real.  He had to know for himself.  If he were going to follow Jesus, it had to be real.

Now Thomas gets a bad rap.  He has gone down in history as “Doubting Thomas.”  But look at what happened.  Mary came running to the disciples and said, “I have seen the Lord.”  Nobody believed her.  They flat-out rejected her testimony.  But that night, they were gathered together when Jesus appeared to them.  They see for themselves, and then they believe.

So they say to Thomas, “We have seen the Lord.”  Guess what?  Thomas has his doubts about their “Jesus is alive” story.”  How was Thomas any different from any of the other disciples?  Like them, he had to see.  The only difference, I suppose, is that he was alone in his unbelief.  It was easy to raise doubts when everyone had doubts.  It is harder when you are the only one.

One thing that has always struck me is that despite the fact Jesus had already appeared to them, it doesn’t seem like things had changed for the disciples.  The next Sunday evening, a week after they had seen Jesus, the disciples are still in the same place, still huddled behind closed doors.  They were saying that Jesus was alive, but they weren’t exactly acting like it.  The experience of Christ did not turn them into unstoppable world changers, at least not right away.  You can’t blame Thomas for having questions.

But look at what Thomas does.  Despite his doubt, despite his unbelief, he remains a part of the community.  Thomas did not believe in the resurrection of Jesus, but he keeps faithful to the community.  And it was in that community that Jesus appeared to Thomas.

To me, this is incredible hopeful.  In times of doubt or unbelief, the community can “carry us along,” so to speak.  There are those times when maybe others can believe for us until we are able to recognize the Lord again.

This speaks powerfully about the role and purpose of the church.  The Church is not a gathering of people who have it all figured out.  The Church is not a community for people who have their act together before entering.  And the Church does not have all the answers.  But the Church is a place to ask the questions, is a community of love and support, a place to stand while we learn and explore and discover and become.  The Church does not have all the answers, but helps us to connect with the One who ultimately is The Answer.

Even in his doubt, Thomas stayed connected to the community – which not only says something about Thomas, but it says something about the other disciples.  Those with doubts, those with questions, those who do not have the orthodox party-line view are to be welcomed into the community of faith.

George Hunter wrote a book several years back called The Celtic Way of Evangelism.  His thesis is this: In the Western church, we have by and large followed a Roman way of evangelism: propositional truths are put forward, one believes these truths, becomes a Christian, and then becomes a part of the church, the community of believers.  One is converted and then one becomes a part of the community of faith.

But this is in contrast to the Celtic way of evangelism.  Dating back to the time of St. Patrick, the Celtic way focuses on relationships.  One first becomes a part of the community, and then gradually, through fellowship and friendship one comes to know Christ.  This is the way the church grew and developed in Ireland, through small, caring communities, and Hunter offers it as a model for the modern church.

Bill Easum told a story of inviting a non-Christian drummer to take part in his church’s praise band.  After a year or so of playing in the band, he came to Easum and said, “I’m not sure what’s happened, but God had really become real, and Christ is real to me.  I can’t point to a single moment or anything, but my life is not the same.  I guess I’m a Christian.”   And indeed, he had become one.  The congregation, Easum said, had loved him into Christ.

Thomas did not believe, but he stayed with the fellowship of those who did.  Thomas did not believe, but he was nevertheless very much a part of the community.

What I like is that Jesus gives Thomas the answers he needs.  Thomas does not simply question for the sake of questioning.  This is not a refusal to follow Christ’s ways masking as doubt.  These are honest questions.  Thomas says up front what it would take to convince him: he must see Jesus’ hands and touch his side.  What would convince him were Jesus’ wounds, his scars.

For his part, Jesus does not shame Thomas or belittle him for having questions.  Nowhere does Jesus say that it is a sin to doubt.  Jesus comes to Thomas and gives him what he needs to believe.

I have to admit that I like Thomas.  I like the fact that he is honest with himself and honest with God.  I like the fact that he stays with the community, even when he isn’t sure.  I like the fact that he is his own person.  I like the fact that once he believes, he really believes, for him it is real, and it changes his life.  Of all people, it is Thomas who makes the highest confession of faith in Christ in the gospel of John – and in all of scripture: “My Lord and my God.”

Thomas, the disciple for hipsters, is a disciple for all of us.  He doesn’t blindly follow, but he honestly, courageously, faithfully follows.  In the way that he comes to know and believe for himself, he might even make a good patron saint for Baptists!  Thomas turns out to be a good model of one who authentically, genuinely, faithfully followed Christ.

Living involves doubts.  Living involves questions.  God is big enough for our doubts and questions, and God loves us enough to reach out to us in the midst of our doubts and questions.

Jesus said, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”  That would be us.  And in some ways, it may be easier for us than it was for Thomas.  Thomas knew Jesus in the flesh.  He understands Jesus’ humanity.  It was hard for him to make the leap to Jesus’ new condition, to know him as a resurrected savior.

We come at it in the other direction.  For us, the real wonder is God having hands and feet in the first place.  The real wonder is God allowing human beings to nail those hands and feet to the cross.  For us, it may be Jesus’ humanity that is more problematic.   

Some of us get faith in our minds, others feel it in their hearts.  For Thomas, it has to do with his senses.  He wants to see and touch, to know in the way that works best for him.  And Jesus honored the way that Thomas came at faith, showing him his wounds. 

Jesus came to Thomas – and Christ comes to us – in the midst of our doubts, honoring the way that each of us comes to faith and calling us to believe and follow.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Friday, April 3, 2015

"Give Up Death" - Easter Sunday, April 5, 2015


Texts: Isaiah 25:6-9, John 20:1-18

This past week, our dog Rudy and I went for a walk.  It was pretty brisk out but perfect for an early morning walk.  We turned a corner and I saw a small tree just starting to bloom – I think it was some kind of magnolia.  It was the first flowering tree that I had seen, and it made our walk even better.

Our crocuses bloomed the week before.  The lilies and daylilies at the back of the church are green and growing.  The grass is greening up.  There are signs of spring around.

In spring, we celebrate the renewal of life, and we often relate that to the new life we celebrate at Easter.  And that is fine, that’s great.  But there is a big difference.

You put a bulb in the ground, dead as it looks, and you expect a tulip to come up in the spring.  In the fall, leaves will turn brown and fall off a tree, and the tree may look lifeless, but nobody is surprised when spring rolls around and the tree starts to bud.  This is natural.  This is expected.  This is ordinary.

But there is nothing ordinary about Easter.  Jesus is crucified and buried and in the tomb for three days, and then is raised from the dead.  When you bury a person, you do not expect to see them again.  This is about as far from ordinary as you can get.

What is ordinary, what is typical, what is expected, is death.  Life is transitory.  We are finite beings and have our limits.  As far as our own personal experience, Good Friday is much more familiar to us than Easter Sunday.

St. Augustine said that our lives are like when a man is sick and near death, and friends look at him in his deathbed and say, “He is dying, he won’t get over this.”  Augustine says that the same could be said of us on the first day of our lives, as we lie in the crib, “She is dying, she won’t get over this.”

I know that this is not polite conversation on Easter morning, or any morning, really.  We want to ignore death, and if we do talk about it, we talk as though we can defeat it.  Flip on the TV and you will find advertisements for “age-defying” makeup.  Cosmetic surgery, botox, hair implants and the like are popular because they make us appear younger, as though we are winning the battle.

But you know, we can only do so much, and our efforts don’t really make us any younger.  We can try and hide aging, but it doesn’t stave off death.  When you are ill and go to the hospital, they don’t treat you with Grecian formula.

You might remember last fall daredevil Nik Wallenda walking on a high-wire between two skyscrapers on either side of the Chicago River.  There was much to-do and it was televised live.  (I didn’t watch - I don’t enjoy watching that sort of thing.)  It was billed as a “death-defying” feat.

There is this image of defying death, taking on death and winning that we find appealing.  In a sense, every time we wake up in the morning, every time we get in our car and drive to school or work or church, we are defying death.  And we can get away with it for awhile, but not indefinitely.  Evel Knievel used to perform death-defying feats on his motorcycle, but he could not defy death forever.  We all know how this story is going to end.

The disciples knew.  Jesus had been arrested and taken away, just after their Passover meal together on Thursday night.  He had been beaten, he had been mocked, he had been tried in a rush trial.  He had been sentenced to death as an enemy of the state, a traitor, an insurrectionist.  He had been crucified on a cross, dying an agonizing death.

Dan Brown's novel, The DaVinci Code, was a New York Times bestseller made into a blockbuster movie.  At the center of the story is the contention that for 2000 years, the Church has prevented the world from finding out that Jesus had been married to, and had children with, Mary Magdalene.

Well, this certainly would be a startling thing to discover.  What would it be like to do genealogy, get on ancestry.com and discover that you are a direct descendant of Jesus and Mary Magdalene?  But here is the thing about The DaVinci Code: it is based on the notion that if Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married and had children, it would destroy the faith because it would prove that Jesus was human.

But isn’t that what we believe?  Isn’t that the claim of Christian faith?  That Jesus really was born, really lived on this earth, really and truly experienced what it is to be human: pain and joy and hurt and loss and laughter and temptation and uncertainty and anticipation and happiness and fear and foreboding.  And death.  He really did experience human life and he really did suffer and die.  If Jesus did not really live and really die as one of us, then Easter Sunday would have no real meaning.  Without a real death, there is no resurrection.  Without really living as a human being, there is no connection to us and no reason for Mary’s tears early that Sunday morning.

Filled with grief, Mary went to the place where Jesus was buried.  Like many of us, she went to the grave of her loved one to remember and to grieve.  The tomb was a small cave in the rock.  A great stone was rolled in front of the tomb to seal it.

Mary was not prepared for what she saw.  The stone had been moved.  It was almost more than she could bear.  Jesus had been beaten, humiliated, and finally crucified.  Mary could only watch helplessly.  And now, one last humiliation.  She was filled with fear and terror.

She ran to tell Peter and John.  Peter had not shown his face in public since Thursday.  He had denied Jesus and stayed far away from the cross.  But Mary did not know where else to go.  On hearing her report, Peter and John hurried back to the tomb.  John ran ahead.  He arrived and saw the stone moved away.  Then Peter caught up.  He went on inside.  He saw the linen burial wrappings rolled up.  Peter and John saw for themselves what Mary had reported, and then they went back home.

By now Mary was back at the tomb, but she stayed.  She wept.  Finally, she looked into the tomb and saw two angels.  They asked why she was weeping, and Mary told them.  Someone had taken away her Lord, she said.  Someone had stolen the body.  She turned around and saw a man she supposed to be the gardener.  She said, “If you have taken the body, tell me where you have laid him.”  But then Jesus spoke her name.  “Mary.”  And she knew.  She knew.  He was alive!  It was Jesus!

We have heard this so many times that it is hard to catch the joy of that moment.  It is not such a surprise anymore.  We know what is going to happen.  Year after year, like that tree beginning to flower in spring, Jesus comes out of that grave.  The story is so familiar that it loses its shock value.  We can’t feel the raw emotion, the incredible surge of amazement and joy and euphoria that Mary felt that morning.

On Thursday, a man who had been lost at sea for 66 days was found 200 miles off the coast of North Carolina.  Louis Jordan was sitting on the hull of his overturned boat.  He had somehow survived on rainwater, fish, and prayer.  He was spotted by a German container ship.  Search efforts had ended back on February 18.  You can imagine the great relief this man felt upon being rescued, and maybe even more, the incredible shock and joy of his family who found that he was alive.

It was an amazing story, but at least it seems in the realm of being possible.  If you have actually died and been buried for three days, nobody expects to see you again.

Tom Long (in Whispering the Lyrics) tells the story of Clint Tidwell, the pastor of a small-town church.    One of his blessings – and curses – is that the 80-year old owner and still active editor of the local newspaper is a member of his congregation.  The blessing part is that this veteran journalist considers Tidwell to be one of the finest preachers around, and wishing the whole town to benefit from his wisdom, he frequently publishes a summary of the Sunday sermon in the Monday newspaper.  The curse part is that this well-meaning editor is a bit on the eccentric side, and Tidwell is sometimes astonished to read the synopses of his sermons.  There is often an ocean of difference between what he said and what the editor heard.  This man owns the paper and nobody dares edit his columns, and so what shows up in the paper is often a source of embarrassment to Tidwell.

The pastor’s deepest amazement, however, came not when the editor misunderstood the Sunday sermon; it came when he understood it all too clearly.  Early on the Monday morning after Easter, Tidwell went out in his bathrobe and slippers to get the paper at the end of the driveway.  As he approached it, he could see the headline in “second coming” sized type.  What had happened?  Had war broken out?  As he got close enough to read the headline, he was startled to read the words, ‘Tidwell Claims Jesus Christ Rose From The Dead.’

Long wrote, “A red flush crept up Tidwell’s neck.  Yes, of course, he had claimed in yesterday’s sermon that Christ rose from the dead, but golly, was that headline news? … I mean, you’re supposed to say that on Easter, aren’t you, that Jesus rose from the dead, but that’s not like saying some person who died last week had risen from the grave, is it?”

I guess that’s the question for all of us.  Does Jesus’ resurrection mean anything to us, here, today?  Does it affect our lives, right here, right now?

The Good News of the gospel is that by raising Jesus from the dead, God showed that the power of God is greater than the power of death.  Death does not have the final word.  The prophet Isaiah wrote, “The Lord God will wipe away the tears from every face, and God will swallow up death forever.”  That is Good News, because we are surrounded by death.  Death doesn’t just come at the end of our lives, it comes little by little.  We die all kinds of deaths along the way.

We all know folks who are in the midst of hurt and pain and grief – and maybe right now, that person is you.  Heartbreak and disappointment, disillusionment and uncertainty, rejection and losses of all kinds is pretty much par for the course.  Without knowing it, we can begin to live under the cloud of death.  Rather than pursuing joy, we just try to avoid pain.  Rather than succeeding, we just try not to fail.   Instead of living, our focus, maybe even subconsciously, can be on simply not dying.

In Easter, we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection and the promise of the resurrection of the dead by the power of God.  We celebrate life on the other side of death.  But we celebrate more than that.  We celebrate resurrection and new life that we experience right here and now – in this life.

A couple lost their adult son in an automobile accident.  They were a very close-knit family. The man’s parents and sister were overwhelmed with grief.  They lived in a Good Friday world for months: confused and angry, loving a person who no longer met them for Sunday worship and dinner once a week, and called every day between.  Shortly after the early December accident, the family was driving home from church in silence.

They all noticed it at the same time.  Someone had sawed off the cap of a lone pine tree that stood in a field near their house.  Clearly, someone had wanted a perfect Christmas tree without paying the local nursery, so they stole the top six feet of their neighbor’s tree.  The ruined tree hit a nerve with this family.  They were “tree people” to begin with, the kind of people who plant seedlings on Arbor Day and write polite notes to their congressmen to protest the destruction of rainforests.  But seeing that tree cut off just knocked the wind out of them.  It was a perfect symbol of their unbearable loss, and though they never talked about it, each of them took to taking the long way home in order to avoid facing this pine tree.

A couple seasons later, the three were on their way home from church again.  The mother missed the turnoff for their detour, and so as they turned the corner that would take them past the tree, an invisible shroud covered them, stirring up their grief.  But what they saw took their breath away.  The tree had healed.

When the father told this story, weeping, he made this motion with his hands, to illustrate: open hands, reaching to one another, until his fingertips touched.  The tree once again had a perfect, tapered crown.  And once again, it was a perfect symbol for the family.  For the first time since the accident, they felt hope in their hearts.  The mended tree held so much promise: the slow but sure restoration to life had begun.  They believed what they saw: every suffering, every life cut off short, would be healed.  Their grief wasn’t erased, but they were released to open their hearts to the hope and promise of resurrection.

Through the season of Lent, we have organized our worship around the theme of “Give It Up.”  And today, on Easter Sunday, our theme is “Give Up Death.”

I have to admit: to first hear it, “Give Up Death” doesn’t even make sense.  You can give up chocolate or red meat.  It may be difficult, but you can theoretically give up worrying or gossip or criticism.  But how do you give up death?  You can’t.  It is beyond our control.

We can’t stop death from happening.  But what we can give up is the hold that death so often has on us.  We can choose to live joyfully and abundantly.  We can choose to live boldly, generously, hopefully, in the light of God’s grace and goodness and with the promise of eternal life.  Or we can choose to live as people just going through the motions of life.  We can live small, cautious, miserly lives, living under the specter of death.

Maybe another way to put it is that we can spend our lives truly living, or we can spend our lives trying not to die.  And when you think of it in that way, “giving up death” – giving up the hold that death can have on us - makes perfect sense.

Jesus’ resurrection is an invitation to go all-in on life.   We can choose to live small, but the resurrection gives us the promise that God’s power and love is greater than anything this world can throw at us.  We can live in hope and in confidence that in the end, God will swallow up even death. 
Thanks be to God.  Alleluia!  Amen.