Friday, April 26, 2013

“On Not Hindering God” - April 28, 2013

Text: Acts 11:1-18

Does anybody read the National Enquirer?  Don’t worry, you’re among friends; it’s OK to confess if you do.  Well, if there were a National Enquirer in the first century Church, Peter would have been on the cover more often than not.  Peter had a history, a track record, and a personality that filled the room.

Peter made this huge, sweeping confession, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God,” but it wasn’t five minutes before Jesus was saying to him, “Get behind me, Satan.”  Peter swore he would never abandon Jesus, never fall away, and that same night he denied Jesus three times.  Peter could be impulsive, he could be dense, but he threw himself in to following Jesus.  Jesus had called Peter “Rock,” and said “on this Rock I will build my church.”  Whether the Rock Jesus would build the church on was Peter himself or the kind of faith that Peter had confessed, Peter was the leader of the disciples.

In our scripture a couple of weeks ago, after the resurrection, Jesus asks Peter three times, “Do you love me?” and then each time says to Peter, “Feed my sheep.”  In a way, Jesus was renewing Peters’ call and standing as a leader among the disciples, after Peter’s denial. 

Peter was someone who always spoke his mind.  I appreciate people like that – you don’t have to wonder where they stand – but Peter could no doubt wear on people after awhile.  He could rub some the wrong way.  And now, his latest stunt had clearly crossed the line.

Gentiles were becoming followers of Christ—being accepted as Christians on an equal basis with Jewish Christians, and without following the Law of Moses.  This was just too much for many in the church – remember, at this point the Christians were thought of as a movement within Judaism.

The possibility that Gentiles might be included in the church was startling.  The Jews had tried to protect their identity and purity for hundreds of years against all kinds of threats.  Like generations before them, this was why they did not associate with Gentiles.  To just welcome Gentiles as followers of Christ without requiring them to follow Jewish law went against everything they had known.  The fact that Peter accepted this and was even promoting the idea, did not sit well.  There was an uproar.  Like angry sports fans who want the coach to be fired, people were saying that Peter had to go.

Peter was called in to explain his actions.  “Why do you eat with these Gentiles?” he was asked.  Of course, there could be no good answer for this.  It is hard for us to understand what a cultural taboo this was, but to eat with Gentiles was deeply offensive.  Such people were ritually unclean, and if you ate with them, you were unclean.  This literally affected your standing before God.

But Peter explained that he had seen a vision.  A sheet came down from heaven with all kinds of animals – unclean animals.  A voice said to Peter, “Kill and eat,” but Peter said no, he did not eat anything profane or unclean.  And then the voice said, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”  This happened three times.  (I don’t know if you have noticed but there is a lot of this “three times for emphasis” thing going on in scripture – when you see something repeated three times, it’s pretty important.)

Right at that exact moment, three Gentiles from Caesarea showed up at the door.  It was more than mere coincidence.  You may remember that last week we were with Peter and Dorcas in Joppa.  Well, a man in Joppa, a Gentile, had been visited by an angel telling him to send for Peter, who would bring a message of salvation.  Peter was convinced that this was the work of the Spirit, and along with 6 friends he went with the three Gentiles back to Joppa.

Peter’s conclusion was that the salvation of Jesus was available even to Gentiles.  “Who was I to hinder God?” he said to the leaders in Jerusalem.

This was a tremendous change for those leaders of the early church.  It went completely against their upbringing.  Peter shows a tremendous ability to learn and grow and change.    And let’s face it; change is never easy or popular.

As I have gotten older, I am more aware of how resistant I am to change.  This is true of all kinds of things.  In the small town we lived in in Illinois, I was one of the very first people to have email – it was a new technology and I was on top of it.  But in the 20-some-odd years since, I have fallen way behind the pack.  I’m not up on Twitter or Instagram or whoseit or whatnot.  I barely had the VCR figured out when people started watching movies on their cell phones. 

It’s nice to be able to depend on things.  Change is hard.  As someone said, “the only people who like change are wet babies.”  And if change is hard in small ways, if change is hard in areas like technology, it is that much harder when it comes to the things that matter the most to us.  The last place we want change is church.  What happens at church not only has the mark of familiarity and tradition, it feels sacred - whether it is or not.

Welcoming Gentiles into the church – this was a massive change, a completely new thing.  This took courage on the part of Peter and everyone else, but by God’s Spirit, they were able to embrace the new thing God was doing. 

This is a story about breaking boundaries, a story of carrying the gospel to those on the outside.  Indeed, it is about making outsiders insiders.  This is a story about building bridges and tearing down walls and welcoming all into God’s family, welcoming all into the church.

Commenting on this passage, William Willimon said, “The church is meant to be the instrument of God’s great reach into all the world.” (Pulpit Digest, Vol. 32, No. 2, 29)

I want to think about that statement this morning.  “The church is to be the instrument of God’s great reach into all the world.”  At a conceptual level, we can agree with this statement.  It’s a nice description of what the church ought to be doing.  But at a deeper level, we have misgivings about this.  “The church is to be the instrument of God’s great reach into the world.”  Upon reflection, I think there are 3 problems we have with this statement.

First, we have misgivings about the church.  Maybe in an ideal universe, the church would be God’s instrument to reach out to the world, but we don’t live in an ideal universe. 

Just as Peter nearly got himself fired at that meeting in Jerusalem, we know far too many churches whose conduct and approach is, shall we say, less than exemplary.  We know of churches that care more about their own survival than they do about ministering to others, churches that seem to have forgotten their purpose.  Churches that function more like social clubs and churches that function more like political committees.  Churches that just plain treat people poorly.  We all know people who have been hurt by the church, and maybe some of us here have been hurt by the church.

There is plenty of negative publicity about the church out there, and the church no doubt deserves a good deal of it.  It’s not surprising that there are those who feel that the church is just plain irrelevant in today’s world.  As far as religious affiliation, the fastest growing group in the U.S. is “Nones,” meaning not Catholic sisters but people with no religious affiliation at all.

The church is far from perfect.  But if you think about it, we shouldn’t expect anything else: it is a human institution.  But the church is more than a collection of imperfect people, the church is also the Body of Christ.  And God has chosen to use the church to accomplish God’s purposes in the world.

For all its faults, we perhaps need to focus on what’s right with the church.  For a lot of people, church is the only place they go during the week where:
  • They are asked to ponder matters that are deep, important, and demanding.
  • They are encouraged to take responsibility for someone beyond the bounds of their immediate family.
  • They are known by their first name and they are missed when they are absent.
  • They participate in beautiful music in a beautiful setting.  The church is one of the only places where people sing together.
  • They hear talk of a subject that is avoided in most everyday conversation and daily relationships: God.
  • There is talk about individual and social failures, our culture’s weaknesses, and sin.
  • They are treated as valuable human beings, regardless of who they are.  (adapted from Willimon)
We all have our doubts about the church.  But imperfect as it is, the Church was created to be a life-giving institution where people connect to God and one another.  And I see that happening all the time. 

In this place, I see people who genuinely care for one another and who take responsibility for others who are not in their immediate family.  This doesn’t happen just anywhere.  In this church we gather together each week and our gathering is not based on age or gender or race or social class or education or politics.  Where else does that happen?  In the church everyone matters, everyone is important, everyone is valued.  In times of need, friends are there.  We don’t give the church enough credit.  We have a great gift here that needs to be shared.

“The church is to be the instrument of God’s great reach into all the world.”  We have some trouble with this statement not only because we have doubts about the church, we also because we have doubts about the world.

This is really the problem that the church leaders in Jerusalem had.  They weren’t sure that this was for just anybody.  There was a sinful world out there that they were trying hard to steer clear of.  They believed in Jesus and they believed in sharing the Good News -- as long as it was with people like them. 

Rita Snowden tells a story from World War II.  In France, some soldiers brought the body of a dead comrade to a cemetery to have him buried.  The priest gently asked whether their friend had been a baptized Catholic.  The soldiers did not know.  The priest sadly informed them that in that case, he could not permit burial in the church yard.

So the soldiers dug a grave just outside the cemetery fence and buried their comrade.  The next day the soldiers came back to add some flowers only to discover that the grave was nowhere to be found.

Bewildered, they were about to leave when the priest came up to speak to them.  It seems that he was so troubled by his refusal to bury the soldier in the parish cemetery that he could not sleep the night before.  Early in the morning he got up and moved the fence in order to include the body of this soldier.

Whom do we try to exclude?  If we were to see a vision of a sheet coming down from heaven, with people who are different from us, people we may think of as “unclean,” whom might they be?  Poor people?  Or maybe rich people?  Those from certain ethnic groups?  Fundamentalists?  Gay and lesbian folks?  Liberal arts types?  Engineers?  Those of different political persuasions?  What about those whose names are in the police report in the paper?  What about people who dress differently or have lots of tattoos and body piercings?

God has created all of the world, all of the people of the world, and God’s creation is good.

Our world is in dire need.  We have gifts to share with our world.  We have a story to share with our world.  We have Good News.  “The church is to be the instrument of God’s great reach into all the world.” 

Which brings us to the third problem.  We have doubts about the church and we have doubts about the world.  But maybe even more than that, we’re not sure about this business of reaching out.  We’re not sure we want to be the instrument of “God’s great reach.”

For some of us, evangelism is a dirty word.  We’ve seen it done poorly.  We’ve seen it done manipulatively.  Evangelism may bring to mind a shouting, sweating, judgmental preacher, or a narrow-minded, condescending, holier-than-thou acquaintance, and you’d just as soon not have anything to do with that.

Well, I’m with you.  I don’t want to have anything to do with that either.  But evangelism is not about putting others down.  It is not about one-upping somebody else.  It’s not about trying to prove our position, as if we could “prove” God anyway.  It is not about trying to change someone else or trying to talk somebody into something they don’t want to do.  Evangelism is simply about being ourselves, sharing our story, sharing our hope, sharing what we have to offer, and leaving the rest up to the Spirit.

Peter had to overcome deeply ingrained attitudes in order to go to a Gentile home in Joppa.  But he did.  And when he arrived, he didn’t put anyone down, wasn’t condescending, didn’t try to change anybody.  He simply shared his story and left it up to the Holy Spirit, which was at work in the Gentiles in Joppa just as it had been at work in him.

That same Spirit is alive and at work here, now, in this place, among us, breaking down walls, calling us to be instruments of God’s reach into the world.  And as Peter put it, “who are we to hinder God?”  Amen.

Friday, April 19, 2013

“A Disciple Named Dorcas” - April 21, 2013

Text: Acts 9:36-43, Psalm 23

It has really been a rough week.  A dark and dreary week.  It has been overcast and rainy most of the week, but that is just the beginning.  The darkness and dreariness goes far beyond the weather.

The news has been just abysmal.  On Monday, two young men set off bombs in a horrific attack at the Boston Marathon, killing an 8 year old boy and two young women and causing many horrible injuries, some requiring amputation.  Some of the stories are just heartbreaking.
Then came news from Texas of a massive explosion at a fertilizer plant.  In a normal week, this would be big news, but this week it was almost buried by the news out of Boston.  But the death and destruction was just massive.  A good part of the town of West, Texas was leveled, many were injured, and the current count is 14 killed, mostly fire fighters and first responders.

There is more.  An unexploded pipe bomb was found in Cedar Falls, where Zoe goes to school.  That same day, the baseball game was canceled at the University of Evansville, where I went to school, because of a threatened shooting.  Letters to President Obama and Sen. Wicker of Mississippi containing deadly poison were intercepted.  Several inches of rain caused flash flooding.  Then there was the violent manhunt in Boston for the suspects in the terrorist attack.  It has almost been apocalyptic.

It’s been that kind of week.  Pain and hurt are in the air.  Death is in the air.

It is with all of this on our minds that we come to today’s scripture reading from Acts, and what we find there is that - pain and hurt and death are in the air.

The Book of Acts is the second volume of Luke’ work – he writes the Gospel of Luke, telling the story of Jesus, and then the Acts of the Apostles, telling the story of the amazing growth of the early church.  As part of this story, Luke reports on the life of an otherwise unknown widow, Tabitha.

I don’t know whether you know anyone named Tabitha, but I think right away of Tabitha Stevens, the daughter of Samantha and Darrin on the old sitcom Bewitched.

Luke translates the Aramaic Tabitha for us as Dorcas in Greek.  I have known a few Dorcases in my life, but very few.  The fact that this name is given in both Aramaic, which is closely related to Hebrew, and Greek is a sign that this was someone who moved between both cultures.  In English, the word means Gazelle.

Whether Tabitha, Dorcas, or Gazelle, the wonder is that we know of this woman at all.  Thankfully, scripture includes not just the stories of the Moseses and Davids and Marys and Pauls, but also of people like Dorcas.

As our scripture begins, Dorcas has died.  Because Peter happened to be in the nearby town of Lydda, messengers were sent asking Peter to come without delay to Joppa, where the community was grieving.

There does not seem to be any expectation that Peter will come in and perform some kind of miracle – it seems as though they simply want this leader of the church to be with a grieving community as a pastor – and perhaps to do the funeral.  Peter arrives, and the widows in the church especially are just devastated.   

Women today are much more likely to be in poverty than men.  But this is by no means a recent phenomenon; it has been that way for centuries. 

In Biblical times, women without men topped the list of vulnerable populations.  There is a reason the Bible mentions caring for widows again and again.  James, for example, says that true religion is to help widows and orphans in their distress.  The reason the Bible says so much about caring for widows is that this was a real problem.  There were a lot of widows who needed care.  They were vulnerable, they were of low status, most had no way to earn a living, there was no social safety net, they could be taken advantage of and had little recourse to the legal system, and they were often treated very poorly.

Earlier in the Book of Acts, an argument broke out in the church over the treatment of widows, with the Greek widows arguing that the Hebrew widows were receiving more in the way of assistance.  The concern was such that the office of deacon was created to resolve it.  Deacons came about in order to care for widows. 

Well, there did not seem to be an active deacon board in Joppa.  The widows of Joppa only had Dorcas.  It is noteworthy perhaps that she is the only woman in all of scripture to be called a disciple.  She certainly wasn’t the only woman who was a disciple but the only one identified by that title.  She cared for the widows, apparently out of her own resources and in the most practical of ways -- she sewed their clothing.  She may have well been a widow herself who had some financial means.  Her death was such a crisis that they sent for Peter.

So Peter arrives, and the widows are gathered around the body, weeping.  They have with them clothing that Dorcas had made for them.  Most of the poor had only one set of clothing.  These poor widows had been clothed by Dorcas and rather than threadbare clothing, they had beautiful tunics.  They held these items of apparel and remember the love she had put into them – and not just the love that went into the clothing, the love she invested in them, the love she poured into their fledgling Christian community.

When a loved one dies, pictures of that person may become a cherished possession.  At funeral visitations or at memorial services, we may see photographs of the person that we loved.  They didn’t have that.  What these widows had was the clothing that Dorcas had lovingly made for them.   

Peter asks the widows to leave the room.  Alone with the body, Peter prayed and then said, “Tabitha, get up.”  She opened her eyes and, with help, got up.  Peter had been on the move, teaching and healing by the power of the Holy Spirit.  By that same Spirit he was able to show Dorcas to be alive and well, restored body and soul to the widows who depended on her acts of charity for their survival.

Many who heard about Dorcas’s venture to and return from the other side believed, perhaps because it was a miraculous event.  Or perhaps because of what the event revealed about God.  The widows would not be abandoned.  God would not allow it.  Amazingly, God cared for them.

What was it about Dorcas that meant so much to these people?  And of all the people whom Peter ministered to, only one was raised from the dead – Dorcas.  Why her?

Dorcas did not erect a church building or head a national committee.  She did not preach a sermon anyone remembers.  She did not write a gospel.  She did not hold high office.  She was not a theologian.  She made clothes for the weak and poor, the sick and the widows, out of love, not out of desire to be praised for her craftsmanship.

In Matthew 25, Jesus says that what you have done for the least of these, you have done for me.  That was Dorcas.  That is what she did.  And two thousand years later, she is remembered.

It’s not just because she made clothes.  Dorcas made custom clothing for poor widows.  She took each widow seriously, as an individual.  She took careful measurements, chose the fabric, selected the color, cut the cloth, stitched it, and dignified and honored this widow with a tunic to be proud of.  She provided beautiful clothes, but more than that, she provided care and love for poor widows.

Our Old Testament reading is the most familiar of scriptures, the 23rd Psalm.  “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”  In the New Testament, Jesus is described as the Good Shepherd.  Matthew 9:36 says that Jesus saw the crowds and had compassion on them because “they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”

Dorcas was simply following in the way of Jesus.  Poor widows were harassed and helpless, and Dorcas was a shepherd to them.  No wonder they wept.  No wonder they despaired.

I think that this episode was a turning point for Peter.  I think that it had a huge impact on him.  For one, it is the only time he raised someone from the dead – or more correctly, the only time God raised someone form the dead through him.  But I think it was more than that.  I think the ministry of Dorcas among the most vulnerable, the least, the lowly, set Peter toward the understanding of the value of every single person.  Because at the end of this passage, we are told that Peter stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.

Did you catch that?  Simon, a tanner.  He worked with animal hides.  His occupation involved working with dead animals, which made him ritually unclean.

A good Jew would most certainly not stay the home of someone who was a tanner by profession, someone who was almost always ritually unclean.  But Peter does.  Peter was expanding his boundaries, gaining a wider vision of who was acceptable before God and who mattered before God.

Well, it’s a nice story.  I learned a couple of things about Dorcas and about Simon the tanner and about widows in the ancient world.  But what does all of this have to do with us today?

Well, as Jesus said, “the poor you will always have with you,” and he was right.  But that doesn’t mean we don’t minister to people in need.  There is always a need for people like Dorcas, people who pour out themselves in care for those who are “the least of these.”

In years past, and still today in many places, there are Dorcas Societies or Dorcas Guilds – groups of women in churches who sew and knit and quilt and crochet and make things for others, not unlike our Prayer Shawl ministry.  You might say that Dorcas is an example of a “religion of the hands.”  We so often want to make it a religion of our mouths, talking incessantly, or our brains, pondering deep and beautiful thoughts, but Dorcas blesses others through her handiwork. 

Susan and I have visited several of our members who are ill or in nursing homes or who have suffered loss or who have moved away from friends and family, who have been given a prayer shawl or blanket.  And without exception, people have talked about how meaningful this is and how much they appreciate it.

Now, this religion of the hands is by no means limited to sewing or needlework.  Anything made in love for others and any act of kindness done on behalf of others is an offering to God.  Creating for others, building things for others, using our skills to provide for others and bless others – these are ministries to which we all are called.

This story offers us an encouragement to look at our own lives and recognize the power of God at work in and among us.  We can be tempted to judge others – and ourselves – by worldly standards of success.  Dorcas’ story is an invitation to go beyond the patterns of who is in and who is out and who gets honored and who is really important and what gets valued.  Look at your own life and see the signs of God in acts of generosity and love, and be encouraged.  Look around and see folks who are involved in so many ways in ministries of compassion and care, and know that this is what the kingdom is about.

I think of folks here this morning who volunteer their time and help people in need in so many ways – through Habitat and YSS and CCJ, through Good Neighbor, through MICA, through local housing ministries, by supporting ACCESS and getting involved with AMOS.  I know of folks who send cards to those who are hurting, or help their neighbors who are in need, or give rides to the doctor’s office, or visit folks in the hospital, or take students out for lunch.  In these and many other ways, we carry on the legacy of Dorcas, who provided loving, caring, very practical ministry, and who was loved for it and is yet remembered for it.

Now, this story can in a way be read as somewhat of a cautionary tale.  The death of Dorcas produced a crisis for a lot of people.  They grieved her loss, for sure, but they also may be grieving the loss of her ministry to the needy – as though without her, it couldn’t be done.  What would they do without her?  This is a real theological issue.

No matter how gifted or caring or talented a person might be, none of us are irreplaceable.  God gives gifts to all of us and calls all of us to service, to ministry.  We can be tempted to stand back and watch in awe as Dorcas cares and loves and nurtures and provides.  Maybe the others in Lydda had deferred to Dorcas.  One writer said that it is possible that the grief of the community got in the way of their imagination.  Maybe they had let Dorcas be the “Mission” person, the “Caring” person in the church.  But that is not the way it is supposed to work.  We are all called to share what we have.  We are called to join in. 

There is a phrase that I heard a number of years ago, something written by Wesley Frensdorf, who was the Episcopal bishop of Nevada.  There are not that many Episcopalians in Nevada.  They mostly have very small churches.  Frensdorf saw the need for and the value of each person’s gifts, and he said he dreamed of a church in which “all sheep share in the shepherding.”  We can’t do everything, but like Dorcas, we can contribute what we have.  We can use our gifts to share in the shepherding.  May it be so.  Amen.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

“Feed My Sheep” - April 14, 2013

Text: John 21:1-19

Our text today addresses a question that was a real live issue for Jesus followers – both then and, in a way, even now.  The question was, what do you do after Easter?

Jesus was raised from the dead, and the disciples eventually saw him up close and personal, even Thomas.  And it seems that this was supposed to be the close of John’s gospel.  Chapter 20 ends with,

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.  
But then, the book doesn’t end, and there is another chapter.  Sometimes it’s hard to stop writing.  Sometimes it’s hard to know when to quit.  You’ll be on the phone and the conversation is about to wrap up, and you’ll say, “Oh, I forgot,” or “Oh, let me tell you one more thing” … and you launch into another story.  Or you write a letter, an art form that is quickly going by the wayside, and after the Yours Truly, you find it necessary to add a PS and maybe a PPS. 

Let’s face it, endings are a lot harder than beginnings.  Most people like to hold babies more than they do visit nursing homes.  We like daybreak better than midnight, most of us.  Hellos are easier than goodbyes, but we generally get one of each, a beginning and an ending, for the really important things in our lives.   So, it’s hard to fault John for ending his gospel and then tacking on another chapter that he felt really needed to be said as a kind of epilogue.  This story, he felt, was important.  It was important because we all face that question of what to do after Easter.

After the resurrection, Jesus had appeared to his followers, to his closest friends, but then he was gone.  And it was really hard to know what to do.  It’s not like any of them had been in this situation before.

We don’t know exactly when this episode takes place, but it has been long enough that people are heading home.  Folks are starting to go their separate ways.  Seven of the disciples are together, back in Galilee.  And Peter says, “I’m going fishing.”

What else would he do?  He was a fisherman.  This is what he did before leaving it behind to follow Jesus.  So he and his friends get in the boat and head out on the lake.  It was like old times – old times being the time before they knew Jesus.

I am not much of a fisherman, I have to tell you.  Last summer at Green Lake I nearly capsized the boat just trying to get in.  But for a lot of people, fishing is relaxing.  It’s an enjoyable way to spend the day.  It’s quiet, it’s peaceful, it is a stress reliever.

Well, if you are picturing Pater and John and Andrew and the others casting their line and just sitting back and swapping stories and having a few cold ones, think again.  They used nets.  Heavy, smelly, prone to tearing, retied and repaired over and over.  It was hard work.  They did not fish for fun; this had been their livelihood.  They were commercial fishermen. 

They had been out all night and had nothing to show for it.  They had not caught a thing, not even that first fish.

Then they hear a voice form the shore.  “You don’t have any fish, do you?”  Well, why don’t you just tell the whole world?  Go out to Ada Hayden where somebody has been fishing for hours, and then yell at them out on the water, “Hey, you haven’t caught anything, have you?”

Well, it was early in the morning.  Maybe there wasn’t anybody else around.  They respond that no, they hadn’t caught anything, and the guy on shore says, “Try the other side of the boat.”  Having nothing to lose, they try it, and there is a phenomenal catch of fish, unlike anything they had ever seen.  John yells, “It is the Lord!”  In one of the weirder verse you’ll find in the Bible – and there are a lot of really weird verses – Peter, upon realizing it is Jesus, put on his clothes, because he had been naked, and then jumps in the water and heads for the shore.  I have no idea what that is about.  He leaves the rest of them to struggle with the phenomenal catch of fish, and they finally manage to get it to shore.

It is a miracle that the nets don’t break.  We are told that there are 153 fish, and not little bitty blue gill either, these were large fish.  I don’t know that the 153 fish mean very much either, although there have been a few symbolic interpretations put forward.  One early commentator claimed that there were 153 known species of fish in the sea, and this represented the notion that people from every nation are to be gathered together in the church. 

Well, that’s nice, but I don’t know that too many people would read this story and get that from it.  Maybe it just means it was a huge, massive catch of fish.

So, they struggle to get to shore with this incredible catch of fish, and Jesus is there.  He already has fish cooking on the fire.  He has breakfast waiting for them.

When we get together with friends, so often we share a meal.  Meals are so prominent in the gospels - the Passover meal, the Feeding of the 5000, a meal at Mary and Martha’s house, the big wedding banquet at Cana, the meals with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, and the disciples had shared daily meals with Jesus.

Jesus had appeared to the disciples on Sunday evening after the resurrection, and again the next week, when Thomas was with them.  This was the third time he had appeared to them.

And after they had finished the meal, Jesus had some business to take care of with Peter.

Three times, Jesus asks, “Do you love me?”  Three times.

I wonder, why did Jesus ask Peter this question?  Peter could have been asked about faith, or constancy, or fear, or boldness, or commitment, or leadership, or wisdom - there were any number of things that Jesus might have asked.  But Jesus focuses in on one thing: Peter’s motivation, what is in his heart.  Do you love me?

“Faith, hope and love, abide, these three, but the greatest of these is love.” 

Jesus looks into Peter’s eyes and asks, “Do you love me?” 

The first time, Peter was perhaps surprised by the question.  The second time, he may have been irritated that Jesus would ask again, and by the third time, it’s not hard to imagine Peter feeling hurt.  Why did Jesus keep asking?  It was embarrassing, humiliating.  Three times, he asked Peter if he loved him.  Three times, Peter says yes, and three times, Jesus comes back with, “Feed my lambs.  Tend my sheep.  Feed my sheep.”  What is up with that?

Let’s go back to another detail in the story.  Peter putting on clothes so he can jump in the sea – I don’t know about that.  Exactly 153 large fish – I’m not sure about that.  But there is another detail that at first sounds odd but is really helpful. 

Jesus has a charcoal fire going, with fish and bread.  A charcoal fire.  Now, some of you kids may not know what a charcoal fire is.  A couple of years ago, we had the students over to our house for a cookout.  I had decided to give up on gas grills, and I was grilling burgers and brats on a charcoal grill.  There was a student there who, honest to God, had never seen a charcoal grill.  He thought it was awesome, very cool and very retro that you could cook like that.  A charcoal fire!  How cool!  Who knew?

In the olden days, they didn’t have propane grills.  Jesus was cooking over charcoal.  Now, you could just cook over a wood fire, and if you had camels around, you could use camel dung for fuel, as people still do in parts of the world, but we are told specifically that this is a charcoal fire.  What is significant about that?

There is only one other place in the New Testament where a charcoal fire is mentioned.  In John chapter 18, after Jesus’ arrest, Peter follows Jesus into the high priest’s courtyard.  It is cold, and people are standing around a fire to keep warm.  We are told that it is a charcoal fire.  Peter is there, near the fire.  And a woman, actually a woman who was guarding the gate, which is interesting, asks Peter if he is one of Jesus’ disciples.  And he denies it.  Peter denies even knowing Jesus.  He does this not once, not twice, but three times.

Now, Peter is at another charcoal fire.  The charcoal fire is a kind of hyperlink between these two stories.  And he is asked not once, not twice, but three times if he loves Jesus. 

Peter is forgiven.  Here he is undoing the three denials.  He is given another chance.  The slate is symbolically wiped clean.  And in fact, all of the disciples are given another chance.  They had worked all night with nothing to show for it, and Jesus says, “Try again.”  They do, and with his help, they are wildly successful.

And you may notice that when they come to the shore, Jesus already has fish and bread on the fire, but he invites them to share some of the fish they had just caught.  Jesus not only provides for them, but invites them – and us – to contribute what they have and who they are. 

Jesus doesn’t simply forgive Peter, he commissions, or maybe re-commissions Peter for ministry by telling him to “feed my sheep.”  Peter isn’t merely forgiven; he’s drawn back into the community and he is given meaningful work to do. 

There is a connection between this scene and our life of faith.  We are called, all of us, to share in the work and ministry of Jesus.  Our baptism is a kind of commissioning to share in that work.  But like the disciples, we so often fail.  We so often fall short.  We so often have a hard time living up to our best intentions. 

But Jesus doesn’t just commission us, Jesus also forgives us when we fall short. And Jesus doesn’t just forgive us, but calls us to try again. And Jesus doesn’t just call us to try again, Jesus also invites us to share what we have and gives us meaningful work to do.  Jesus asks all of us to contribute what we have so that together we might feed his sheep. 

Who we are and what we do really matter.  The gifts we have and the opportunities that present themselves to us are really important.

As parents, as friends, as employees, as volunteers, as citizens, as neighbors, as caregivers, Jesus says to all of us, “Feed my sheep.  Look for opportunities to care for the people and the world that God loves so much.”  Feed my sheep.

In 1981, in the midst of a distinguished career that included an Academy Award nomination for The Godfather, actor James Caan decided to take some time off.  He took a six-year sabbatical from acting and the best part of it, he says, was coaching.  Little League, T-ball, soccer.  He began with his sons, but his passion soon became all-consuming, and he really cared about these kids he worked with.

“Don't you miss the creative process of making movies?” he was often asked.  Coaching kids was one of the most creative things he had ever done, he says.

One boy in particular still sticks in Caan's memory many years later: a nine-year-old named Josh, the son of a single mom.  “He was a big kid,” Caan said, “and he just couldn’t hit the ball.”  You could see the kid’s head was down and he was ashamed.”  Caan spent hours with the boy, working with him one-on-one on hitting.

Caan tells the story:

The next to last game of the year, Josh comes up to bat. The week before he had popped up to the pitcher with the bases loaded.  He felt terrible.  Anyway, he gets up, and he just creams the ball.  I mean, he creams it.  And the kid starts running toward first and down toward second.  I’m on third, coaching third base, and he looks up at me – I’ll never forget it as long as I live - and there were tears in his eyes.  He ran home, stopped just before the base, then jumped up in the air and landed with both feet on the plate.  He put both fists in the air, and he looked up at God.  The whole dugout cleared out to hug him.
Caan continued, “Nothing replaces that.  Nothing in the world.  I mean, to literally change a kid.  That was the best time of my life.”

“Feed my sheep.”  You might think that this command of Jesus was just for Peter.  Or just for preachers.

I don’t think so.  I mean, we are talking here about a guy who put his clothes on so he could jump in the lake.  This is not an exclusive commissioning; it is for all of us.

We are all called to serve.  We are all called to share the Good News.  Jesus says to us all, “Feed My Sheep.” 

And here is the deal: we don’t always do that very well.  We can fail spectacularly.  But Jesus does not give up on us. Ever!  Rather, he invites us to try again, providing encouragement and nourishment (that is part of the reason we gather here each Sunday).  And then Jesus calls us to contribute what we have and go out from here to serve the people that God loves so much.

Do you love me?  Feed my sheep.  Amen.

Friday, April 5, 2013

“Amen” - April 7, 2013

Text: 1 Chronicles 16:23-36; 2 Corinthians 1:16-20
(week 7 of Lord’s Prayer series)

From the beginning of Lent through Easter Sunday, we looked at the Lord’s Prayer.  It is a prayer Jesus taught his disciples, it is a prayer we pray most every Sunday in worship, and as we have examined this prayer more closely, it is clear that more than asking God for stuff, the Lord’s Prayer teaches us what it means to live as a follower of Jesus.  Praying it regularly reminds us again and again of what it is to live as a Christian.

The last two phrases of the prayer fit well with what was happening in the church year.  On Palm Sunday, the text was “deliver us from evil,” and we journeyed from there to the cross.  And then last week, on Easter Sunday, as we celebrated resurrection, we proclaimed “Thine is the kingdom and the glory and the power forever.”

Well, after going through the Lord’s Prayer phrase by phrase, verse by verse, over six Sundays, all the way from “Our Father” to “Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever,” we are finally ready to move on.

Or so you might think.  But, as Lee Corso would say, “Not so fast, my friend.”

Not so fast, my friend.  There is something we have left out.  A portion of the prayer yet to cover.  Actually, it is one word.  “Amen.”

“Amen” would not seem to be much of a text, and I’m not sure you can actually preach a decent sermon on just the word “Amen.”  It’s just one word, and a short one at that.  On the other hand, “Amen” is one of those religious words that we hear all the time.  It is almost ubiquitous.  Two people with completely different views of life and faith and God both say “Amen” at the end of a prayer.  “Amen” is an ending to all kinds of prayers said by all kinds of people.  It is used as a response in worship.  And it also finds its way into everyday conversation.  A person will say something that we agree with, something like “It’s about time we had some decent weather,” or, “I could sure go for a big juicy steak,” and somebody responds with “Amen, brother.”  It is a word that actually gets quite a bit of use, but we don’t give it a lot of thought.  If we weren’t going through the Lord’s Prayer word by word, we surely wouldn’t be thinking about it today and I don’t know when we would.  I had never even thought about preaching on “Amen” before, but given how common the “Amen” is, maybe we ought to devote a few minutes to thinking about it.

The first usage of the word “Amen” comes in the Torah, the Hebrew law, as a sign of solemn agreement.  A good example is in Deuteronomy 27, where Moses is giving instructions to the people about crossing the Jordan River into the Promised Land.  Once they arrive in the Promised Land, the Levites, the priestly tribe, are to pronounce a series of curses to all the Israelites:

 ‘Cursed be anyone who makes an idol or casts an image… All the people shall respond, saying, ‘Amen!’

 ‘Cursed be anyone who dishonors father or mother.’ All the people shall say, ‘Amen!’

 ‘Cursed be anyone who moves a neighbor’s boundary marker.’ All the people shall say, ‘Amen!’

 ‘Cursed be anyone who misleads a blind person on the road.’ All the people shall say, ‘Amen!’

 ‘Cursed be anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice.’ All the people shall say, ‘Amen!’
It continues.  Cursed be anyone who lies with his mother-in-law or strikes down a neighbor in secret or takes a bribe to shed innocent blood.  After each curse, all the people are to respond by saying, “Amen!”

This response means “so be it” or “may it be so.”  It was a response on the part of the people as a whole, an expression of corporate unity and agreement.

“Amen” came to be used as more than just a corporate response to curses.  (If that was all it meant, it would be a pretty creepy word.)  “Amen” came to be an affirmation, a corporate response of agreement in worship, used not just for curses (when was the last time you heard a curse pronounced at church?), but as an expression of praise and commitment and joy and encouragement.

When King David decided to place his son Solomon on the thrones of Israel and Judah, he called in Zadok the priest, Nathan the prophet, and Benaiah the son of Jehoiada, and told them what he planned to do.  Benaiah responded by saying, “Amen! May the Lord, the God of my Lord the king, say so!”  Benaiah was expressing agreement with this plan and calling on God to accomplish it.

Our Old Testament reading is a great psalm of praise found in 1 Chronicles.  After this long and soaring hymn of praise to God, the writer concludes:

Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, from everlasting to everlasting!  Then all the people said “Amen” and praised the Lord.
Then the Psalmist wrote, in Psalm 72:
Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, who alone does wondrous things.  Blessed be his glorious name forever; may his glory fill the whole earth!  Amen and Amen!
In these kinds of passages, you can hear a foreshadowing of the end of the Lord’s Prayer: “For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever.  Amen.”

The Amen is an exclamation point at the end of a phrase.  It is acceptance and commitment and joy all rolled into one.  And that being the case, it is one of the most expressive words you will find anywhere.

“Amen” is the one word in the Lord’s Prayer recognizable anywhere you go, wherever you hear the prayer.  It’s essentially the same in most every language.  You can attend worship in Paris or Moscow or Bangkok or Nairobi or Mexico City or Ames, Iowa, and at the end of the prayer, the word is Amen.  And in fact, the Amen is used at the end of Jewish and Muslim prayer.

Now, it’s not always said quite the same way, even here in the US.  Churches with a more classical style and a more formal liturgy tend to say Ah-men while those that tend toward gospel music and a less formal style tend to go with Ay-men. 

Now, we are kind of right smack in the middle on the formal/informal continuum.  At the end of prayers, you might more likely hear “ah-men,” but when there is a strong expression of agreement or praise, like at the end of a choir anthem or – once in a blue moon – during a sermon, it’s more likely Ay-men.  I don’t know why that is, it just is.

Now there is another use of the Amen in scripture which we need to acknowledge.  After the death and resurrection of Jesus – after Easter – Christians began to say the Amen, the so-be-it, through Jesus.  Jesus became the guarantor of the prayer, as it were, and Christians began to pray in the name of Jesus.

Our New Testament reading from 2 Corinthians speaks to this.  The apostle Paul was apparently responding to some of the folks in the church at Corinth who thought he had not dealt forthrightly with them as he shared his travel plans.  He had intended to come to Corinth again but events along the way during his journey necessitated a change of plans.  His response is not so much about his travels but about the constancy and dependability of God.

“Was I vacillating?” Paul asks.  “Do I say both Yes and No at once?”

As surely as God is faithful, our words to you have not been Yes and No.  For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we preached among you, Silvanus and Timothy and I, was not a Yes and No; but in him it is always Yes.  All the promises of God find their Yes in him.  That is why we utter the Amen through him, to the glory of God.
And in fact, the early Christians went a step further, even identifying Jesus as the Amen.  In the book of Revelation, John reports words of Jesus, writing “the words of the Amen, the true and faithful witness, the beginning of God’s creation.” 

When we offer a prayer and end with, “In Jesus’ name, Amen,” this is why we do it.  Now, you don’t have to say those words for a prayer to be offered in the Spirit of Jesus.  “In Jesus’ name” is not a magical phrase.  But we pray with this sense that the power of God that shone through Jesus and was seen in Jesus’ resurrection is alive and at work and available to us even as we pray.

Some of you have attended African-American churches – some of you grew up in an African-American church.  Some of you grew up in rural churches with a revivalistic kind of worship style. In many African-American traditions and in some conservative evangelical-type traditions, you will hear Amens throughout the worship service.  Here, we do get an Amen or an Alleluia once in awhile.  I thank Wayne Shireman for that, and before him our go-to Amen person was John Anderson.

I have been in services where the sermon was more of a dialogue.  The preacher makes a strong point, and people shout Amen.  Or the preacher is having trouble with the sermon, it’s kind of a bumpy ride, and someone, in my experience it’s usually a woman, will say, “Help him, Jesus.”  Generally, there is this feeling that the whole congregation is in it together, and there is feedback and affirmation in the form of Amens throughout the sermon, and indeed the whole service.

I am not arguing for or asking for a steady dose of Amens when I preach, although if you feel led that would be OK.  I have also heard preachers ask, “Can I get an Amen?”  Sometimes, the point they have made is really not something I want to encourage.  And to me, it feels weird to hear somebody ask for affirmation.  But then again, in some other traditions, this is a way of keeping the congregation alert and awake.

There is no right or wrong about worship styles, but I have to tell you, receiving the encouragement of an Amen can really help a person.  Sometimes, looking out and seeing an engaged and interested and attentive face does the same thing.  But the value of an Amen extends beyond preaching and beyond worship.

When the congregation says “Amen” together, we are communicating agreement and affirmation and unity.  We are communicating encouragement.  This is directed to one another, it is directed to the worship leader, and ultimately it is directed to God.  But we all need to hear a word of affirmation and encouragement, wherever we are.

Telling a musician that you really enjoyed their music is a kind of Amen.  Thanking your mom for a good meal or telling your neighbor how good their yard looks is a kind of Amen.  When a teacher puts a smiley face along with the A when grading a paper, it’s an Amen.  When we thank the people who keep our boiler running or provide food at fellowship time or keep our library up to date or teach our Sunday School classes, it is an Amen.  When you buy Girl Scout cookies from the neighbor kid even though you have already bought more than you can eat, when you visit someone in the nursing home and tell them they are remembered and appreciated, when you offer a friendly smile and a welcome to a newcomer who is a bit unsure of things, it is an Amen.

We end the Lord’s Prayer, and most prayers, with “Amen.”  May it be so.  It’s a little word that communicates a lot.  And we could do a lot worse than to have “Amen” as our basic attitude toward life.

Amen and Amen!