Saturday, May 19, 2018

“The Church and the Spirit” - May 20, 2017

Text: Acts 2:1-21

As you probably know, we have been waiting for literally months to have our parking lot repaired.  We have learned a lot about city regulations and requirements along the way.  Well actually, we haven’t learned that much except that it is all pretty murky.  But we did learn late this past week that contrary to what we had been told before, we will not need to plant about 150 shrubs and grasses as part of parking lot striping plan, that our existing landscaping meets the new city standards, and the plan will be approved - hopefully this week.

Thinking about repaving our parking lot reminded me of my favorite church parking lot repair story.  I mean, we all have a favorite church parking lot repair story, right?

You may be familiar with Robert Fulghum, the author of All I Ever Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten.  Besides being an author, Fulghum is a minister.  In one of his books he told about one of his parishioners, a man named Dave Dugan.

While he had a degree in civil engineering, Dugan was a successful business owner and liked to be known as a simple, hard-working guy.  Dugan played defensive tackle in college and he was a heavy equipment operator.  He lived the way he played football - straight ahead, right up the middle, nothing fancy.

Dave Dugan met Fulghum and was intrigued by this guy who wasn’t your typical pastor, so he went to his church one Sunday.  He kept coming back and became an active member.  Behind his tough exterior, he was a kind and generous man and was eager to use his resources to help the church.  If there was trash to haul, he brought a 4-¬ton dump truck.  He believed there were very few problems in life that could not be overcome with heavy equipment and a go-get-em attitude.

Fulghum visited Dave Dugan at his work site.  He sat in the office trailer, drinking a cup of coffee, and was shocked when Dugan opened his briefcase. There were bundles of $100 bills and a .38 revolver.  Dugan said not to worry, many of his projects were far from town and he hired lots of temporary labor and made his payroll in cash.  He was bonded to carry $500,000 and licensed to carry the gun.

Since he was out of town for long stretches at a time, Dugan turned down an invitation to serve on the church board, but he came to the meetings anyway when he was in town.  But he was surprised by the board meetings.  He thought it would be an honor, but the meetings were taken up with issues like leaking roofs and where could they buy paper towels wholesale.

One night they spent hours talking about potholes in the driveway.  Patching had not helped and the drive needed to be repaved, which would be a big expense.  On the other side of the church, by the Sunday School, the cars drove too fast, and speed bumps were needed, which would be another expense.  The board had examined this problem from every possible angle, and there was still no end in sight.  Finally, Dugan, who wasn’t actually a board member, spoke up.  “Leave the potholes on the entrance side and dig potholes on the exit side.  Spray a little tar in them and call them speedholes.”  He would do it with a shovel and a couple cans of tar in a couple of hours.  For free.

The board chewed on that for an hour.  What would the neighbors think? Could they be sued?  On and on it went.

And so finally, in exasperation, Dugan stood up, set his briefcase on the table, and asked forcefully, “What’s this church worth - the whole blankety-blank thing, buildings, land, everything?”  The startled church treasurer said, “Oh, maybe $400,000.”

“Great,” said Dugan, “I’m gonna buy it.  He opened his briefcase, set aside the pistol and began throwing bundles of $100 bills on the table until he reached the amount.

There was stunned silence.  “Gimme the deed, and it’s done,” said Dugan.  “What are you gonna do with it?” someone asked.  “I’m gonna get my crew in here and we’ll level the whole thing and haul it to the dump before sundown.  And I’ll use the land for the cemetery you guys are headed towards in these meetings of the living dead.”

He went on to chew out the board for not spending their time on important things, and how he came to this church for religion and what he got was worthless construction workers he wouldn’t hire for a day and if they were ever serious about doing the things a church ought to be doing in the world to bygod let him know.

Have you ever felt like Dave Dugan?  There is no doubt that the church can be a frustrating institution.  Ralph Beatty, who was a regional minister and denominational leader, said that there were days he’d give the church a million dollars and there were days he wouldn’t give it a dime.

Most of us can relate to that.  And we shouldn’t be surprised.  The church is made of people--flawed, imperfect, very human people.  Imperfect people make up an imperfect church.

But that being the case, what makes the church any different from any other institution or organization? What makes the church any different from Rotary or the PTA or the Historical Society?

What is different is that while the church is a human institution made of imperfect people, the church is more than that.  We speak of the church as the Body of Christ.  And the church is brought into being by the Holy Spirit.  It is the Spirit that makes the church more than just another human institution.

Today is Pentecost, and we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit.  The coming of the Spirit was dramatic and powerful.  Luke says it was like a mighty rushing wind.  It was like descending tongues of fire.  The Spirit turned timid and uncertain disciples into bold and fearless witnesses.  

I have mentioned before that when I was in high school, I worked at a place called Burger Farm (home of the Big Silo!).  Across the alley behind Burger Farm was a little Pentecostal church.  They had meetings all the time, especially in the summer.  I would take out the trash or empty bread racks or milk crates or something at night and hear their service.  They didn’t have air conditioning, so the windows were always open, but it really wouldn’t have mattered; I would have heard them anyway.

The place just rocked.  Tambourines, guitars, drums, loud singing, clapping, and not just that, but all kinds of hollering and carrying on emanated from the little concrete block building.  It’s not that I was used to an especially formal worship service, but this somehow seemed to cross the line.   Often, folks from that church would stop at Burger Farm after their Sunday night services.  Many of them ordered chicken gizzards, which in my mind just confirmed everything I suspected about this church.

For a long time, I let those kinds of churches define what the Holy Spirit was all about – as though the Holy Spirit belonged to little Pentecostal churches that met in concrete block buildings.  We can be afraid of talking about the Holy Spirit too much.  But the Spirit is not the property of any one group.  In fact, it is when we start to think that we have a handle on God and how God works that we can get in real trouble.

Those times when we are frustrated by the church, those times when the church looks like just another human institution, that is when we need a fresh outpouring of God’s spirit.  As we read this account from Acts chapter 2, we are reminded of the incredible power of God made available through the Spirit – a power that we need today.

At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit made it possible for people to do things they could not do on their own.  Disciples speak in languages they have not learned.  And not only that, they have the boldness to speak publicly.  (From reading the gospels, we gather that boldness had not been their strong suit.) 

In Romans, the Spirit gives believers power to pray when they cannot pray on their own.  Jesus said, “The Spirit will guide you in all truth,” revealing to us more than we might discern on our own. 

When was the last time you attempted something you knew to be utterly beyond your reach?  When was the last time that we as a church attempted something that we all knew good and well was beyond us?  When was the last time we really depended upon the Spirit of God and through God’s spirit were able to do what we could not do on our own?

In the end, success in the church, however that is defined, does not depend on the brilliance of the leaders or adherence to the latest “best practices” or following ingenious strategies or finding our market niche.  Rather, it depends on God.  It depends on the power of the Holy Spirit.

Look at the people we meet in scripture.  So many are inconsequential or marginalized or powerless or just plain failures.  They are too old or too young, they are foreigners and outsiders, they are women who are ignored and Samaritans who are avoided and lepers who are unclean and troubled people with a past and tax collectors who are despised and fisherman who are without social standing.  But God uses them all, not because of their intelligence or strength or power, but through the power of the Holy Spirit.

On the day of Pentecost, God gave the gift of understanding.  The work of the Holy Spirit brought people together.  Those who were separated by language were able to understand one another.

My brother-in-law Brett, who is married to my youngest sister Amy, is a pastor in the Church of the Nazarene.  Brett is on sabbatical right now.  Part of his goal for spiritual renewal is to experience different cultural settings.  And so he just got home this weekend after spending a couple of weeks in Europe.

First he went to Taizé, in France.  Taizé is an ecumenical Christian community where a few thousand people, mostly young people, visit every week during the summer to experience their unique worship style and community.  We sing some Taizé music here from time to time.

Then Brett spent a week in Rome.  He did a lot of walking, checked out a lot of religious and cultural sites.  On Wednesday he was visiting a church and realized that a mass was about to begin.  Even though he didn’t understand the language, he decided to stay for the service.  He was impressed with the number of people there – people talk like Christianity is dying in Europe, but this church was pretty well packed.

So Brett stood through this service, even though he didn’t really know what was being said.  And then – they carried a casket down the aisle.  He realized that he had crashed a funeral!

Sometimes it really does help to know the language.  It is important to actually understand what is being said. 

Modern travel and communications have made the world much smaller.  And people from all over the world come here to Ames to study.  But even if we are able to speak the same language, that does not guarantee understanding.

One of the big news stories of this past week had to do, amazingly, with listening to a recording.  You have probably heard it.  One group of people hears the word that is spoken and it is clearly “Laurel.”  Others just as clearly hear “Yanny.”  How can this be possible? 

It’s not just that recording.  It can feel sometimes like people hear the same thing but come away with entirely different meanings.

There is a long list of nationalities present on the Day of Pentecost.  They did not all understand each other; they probably didn’t even all like each other.  There were stereotypes and prejudices and bigotry then, as now.  But the Spirit brought them together.  Everyone heard the gospel, everyone understood in their own language, and these diverse people were made one in the Church.

Face it: we may all be English speakers, but we do not speak the same language.  Engineers and artists speak different languages.  Senior citizens and youth speak different langauges.  Parents and children speak different languages.  Faculty and students, Democrats and Republicans, those who are wealthy and those who are barely getting by speak different languages.  Men and women speak different languages.  Not to mention all of the various ethnic and racial and social groups we may be a part of.  It’s a wonder that we communicate at all.

The Spirit opens our hearts so that we may listen and understand one another, and so that we may become one people.  We sometimes think of the miracle of Pentecost as speaking in various languages.  But the real miracle here is hearing.  The miracle is understanding.

The coming of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost marked the beginning of the Church.  The Church exists through the power of the Spirit.  And that is as true today as it was at Pentecost.  The Spirit brings life and energy and power and hope and understanding.  The Spirit knits us together as a family.  And the Spirit brings reconciliation with one another and with God.

When the church depends on our own human efforts, the results are not always pretty.  But when the church lives in the power of the Spirit – then, there is no telling what might happen.  Amen. 

Saturday, May 5, 2018

“I Thank God Every Time I Remember You” - May 6, 2018

Text: Philippians 1:1-18a

I have been spending time lately reading other people’s mail.  Don’t worry; I am not a hacker.  Far from it; I have a hard enough time logging onto my own online accounts, much less somebody else’s.

No, I haven’t been hacking and I haven’t been snooping.  I have been doing some historical research, specifically about our church.  With our 150th anniversary coming up, I have been looking back into historical records.  I have not just been reading histories that were written before but trying to look at primary source materials - annual reports and business meeting minutes and photographs and old church bulletins.  Did you know that we have kept a bulletin for every Sunday since 1947?  Except that back in the 40’s, they really shut things down for the summer – they apparently did not even print a worship bulletin in the summer months.

I also saw a church directory from 1916.  It had advertising.  The local Buick dealer had an ad saying that the new Buicks were here, ranging from $650 to $950 dollars. 

Such things are helpful and can give you a feel for the times, but you often have to read between the lines a little.  Minutes of business meetings generally just stick to the facts – what action was taken, this person transferred their church membership, and so forth.  Financial reports can tell a story, but it’s just numbers that you see on the page.  Some of the annual reports give more details and context for what is going on – but not always.

But if you can find a letter, a personal letter, you often get a more nuanced and detailed view of what is really going on.  You get emotions and convictions and hopes and dreams.  In the last few weeks I have reading about our church in the years after World War I and basically up to just after the end of World War II.  Statistical information was helpful, but as far as getting a real feel for things, reading letters helped in a way that numbers on a page could not.  It is hard to capture things like love and compassion and disappointment and hope on a spreadsheet. 

In our New Testament, we have a variety of information about some of the earliest Christian churches – in places like Corinth and Thessalonica and Ephesus and Philippi and Rome.  I am thankful that the information we have does not come in the form of annual statistical reports or financial statements.  Instead, we have a number of letters, many of which were written by the Apostle Paul.  They were written to actual people, to actual churches, in specific contexts.  There is a certain amount of reading between the lines that we have to do – I mean, it has been 2000 years, after all, and because both Paul and the church he was writing knew the situation, everything is not necessarily spelled out.  But despite that, we can read these letters and get a real feel for what Paul and what the church were going through.

Now, letter writing has become a lost art.  Has anybody written a personal letter recently?  Maybe a note with a Christmas card, maybe a thank you note, but we don’t send letters like we once did.  For one thing, we can make phone calls.  When I was a kid, you limited the number of long distance calls and you didn’t talk very long, because it was expensive.  Some of you can remember not even having a phone.  But today, we can not only call anybody anywhere, anytime, but we can text and email and send facebook messages, or Instagram or Snapchat. 

Which makes me wonder: if Paul were around today, how would he communicate with these churches?  With a blog post?  Would he skype with them?  Or have a YouTube channel?  Or maybe just use Twitter? 

All of this raises the question of the purpose of Paul’s letters.  Of course, there is a different focus given the different contexts and issues that various churches faced, but in general, Paul was communicating with churches he knew well, often churches he had established or at least had visited and worked with.  He was writing people with whom he had relationships.  He was building the bonds of fellowship and encouraging and teaching the churches.  He also wrote to answer questions and respond to conflict and problems in the churches.  In the First Century, if you couldn’t be there, a letter was the next best thing. 

Sending a letter allowed for the congregation to hear Paul’s words as it was read in a worship service of gathered believers.  It might even be read by a messenger that Paul sent the letter with.  This means of communicating also allowed the letter to be re-read and to be passed on to others, even to other churches.  And eventually, down through the centuries, to us.

In these opening verses of Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi, we learn a lot about why he is writing.  But what really grabs our attention is the joy and thankfulness that is just exuding from his letter.  “I thank my God every time I think of you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for you, because of your sharing in the gospel…”

There are some people that when we think of them, it just brings a smile to our face.  There are some people that when we think of them, we instantly feel gratitude and thankfulness.  We do not always share this.  We have a certain level of Midwestern reserve.  We want to be nice, of course, but we don’t want to go overboard.  Actually, a letter sometimes allows us to express things that might be a little harder in person.  Paul writes, “I thank my God every time I think of you.”  Wow.  It is nice to be on the receiving end of something like that.  Paul is expressing gratitude, but he is also modeling gratitude. 

Diana Butler Bass has written a book that came out this spring titled Grateful.  She notes that gratitude is always social.  We are thankful for something or to someone and often, with others.  Even if we are alone, we might be thankful for the sunset or grateful for an old friend that we have remembered – or grateful to God.  Gratitude makes us aware of connections and helps to build connections.

Well, here’s the thing: Paul is in prison.  We’re not 100% sure where he is.  He was imprisoned at least 3 times.  This could have been in Ephesus early in his ministry, or Caesarea, or in Rome, late in his ministry.  We’re not 100% certain on where he is writing from.  But Paul is familiar with prison.  As far as the Empire was concerned, Paul was a repeat offender.  But when you think of prison, don’t think of our modern American-style prisons.

When it was time to eat, you did not head down to the prison cafeteria.  There was no prison cafeteria.  If you wanted to eat, if you wanted to live, you were going to need some help.  You were going to need some friends.  People on the outside had to provide your food.  If you wanted to survive, you needed help.

There were other believers who were there for Paul.  The church in Philippi had sent a gift for Paul.  This was not simply a “thinking of you gift;” this was a way of keeping him alive.  But it wasn’t just the money or whatever material things that they had sent – it was the love, the relationship, the connection behind it that meant so much to Paul.  Paul says, “I give thanks for your sharing in the gospel.”  It really was a team effort.  Paul could only get by with a little help from his friends.

Now the thing about gratitude, the kind of amazing thing about it, is that it can become such a part of who you are that is isn’t really dependent on the circumstances that you find yourself in.

I have seen this time and again.  A person is in the hospital, facing a difficult diagnosis.  And they are thankful for the great care they are receiving.  They are thankful for the good food.  They are thankful for their doctor.  They are grateful that we have a good hospital here and that they didn’t have to travel far to get care.  They appreciate friends who come to see them.  They have this amazing joy and thankfulness, even when they aren’t really feeling very well and the outlook for their health is uncertain.

What does Paul say later on in Philippians, in chapter 4?  “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice.”  Paul has come to a point where he embodies thankfulness.  Whether this is his first go-round in prison or it is later in his ministry, he has suffered enough and been through enough that he has learned the key to living in a difficult time.  And in fact, he writes later in the letter to the Philippians, “I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty.  In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need.”  The secret is gratitude.

And so as he begins this letter, he alludes to his present situation – to his incarceration.  He says, “I want you to know that being in jail has actually been a wonderful opportunity to share the gospel – with the guards and everybody else here, and it has made an impression.  And not only that, when others see me enduring my imprisonment  - and not just enduring it but taking it as a great opportunity and living joyfully and faithfully through it – it has made them bolder in their witness for Christ.

This is not simply taking lemons and making lemonade.  It is being grateful and finding reasons for giving thanks in every situation.  Paul really could see the plus side of being in prison. 

Now, while there is this joyful tone throughout the letter, Paul does acknowledge and deal with problems in the church.  There was some division in the church that he addresses in later chapters.  But here at the outset, he speaks of those who proclaim Christ out of false motives.  Not false teachers, but leaders who seem to be in it for themselves.  They were apparently down Paul because he had been arrested and were taking the opportunity to try and fill a leadership vacuum.  Their motivation was selfish ambition.  And Paul says, “So what?  Whether there are ulterior motives or not, Christ is being proclaimed, and that’s a good thing, so I can give thanks.”

Giving thanks is always social, it is always relational, as we have said, and it can also be very communal.  This weekend, families came together to celebrate at graduation as students received their degrees.  They celebrated years of growth and education and a significant achievement.  It was a time of joy and gratitude for a wider community.

In 2016, the Chicago Cubs had a magical season.  And even a Cardinal fan like me could appreciate breaking 108 years of futility, 108 years of losing, and winning the World Series.  The final game was played in Cleveland, but outside of Wrigley Field, people were dancing and hugging and singing and celebrating.  Fireworks lit up the sky both in the city and in the suburbs and car horns were heard late into the night.  Speaking for many, one young fan said, “It was the greatest night of my life.”

Two days later, the team joined the fans in the streets with a huge parade and celebration, with as many as 5 million people lining the streets.  One local television station reported that it was the 7th largest gathering in human history.  The Chicago Tribune was a little more restrained, saying that the numbers may have been exaggerated a bit by runaway enthusiasm.

What was interesting is that over time, the emotions that people felt really did not subside.  But they did change.  The euphoria and mass ecstasy gave way to a deep gratitude.  The Washington Post reported:

The Cubs’ players and staff have grown accustomed to a strange phenomenon.  Everywhere they go people come up to them with stories – of a late father, a grandfather, a mother, a grandmother, a brother or sister who was the biggest Cubs’ fan of them all.  The World Series would have meant so much to them.  Almost uniformly, the interactions end with two words: thank you.
Cubs manager Joe Madden said that for the most part, they don’t want an autograph or picture.  They just want to shake your hand and say thank you.  (story shared by Diana Butler Bass in Grateful, p. 115.)

The secret, says Paul, is to be thankful, to be grateful, whether you have just won or whether you are in the middle of a 108 year losing streak.  Whether you are on top of the world, or whether you are in a prison cell.  Paul is not just mouthing the words.  Writing from prison, his joy and gratitude mean something.  And gratitude shared in the community can really change things.

Paul writes, “I thank God every time I remember you.”  There are those people that when we think of them, it brings a smile to our face.  This week, I want to give you a little homework assignment.  A mission, if you choose to accept it.  It is simply this: to express our gratitude more freely.  This week, as you interact with people, express gratitude.  And in your own way, in your own words, reach out to somebody this week and say, “I thank God every time I think of you.”  Try it and see what happens.

And I guess I should try this myself, so let me say this.  I was talking with someone this week that I had not talked to in several years.  They said, “Wow, you’ve been at the church in Ames a long time.”  I said well, I think it’s a good fit and Ames is a great place and the church is filled with good people and it really is a great church.  I was bragging about you, but for some reason it is harder to say those kinds of things directly.  So let me just say thank you to everyone here, thank you for all that you do, thank you for your caring spirit and for offering grace and for taking your calling seriously but not taking yourselves too seriously.  Thank you for putting up with my attempted humor and for making this a church where I can be myself.  I am thankful to God for every one of you.

Now, it doesn’t necessarily come naturally for me to speak like that.  My default mode is that Midwestern reserve, but Paul has set a good model for us, and I am working on it.  Amen.


“Let All Creation Praise” - April 22, 2018 (Earth Day)

Texts: Psalm 150, Psalm 65:5-13

1968 was a momentous year.  I turned seven that fall, and I didn’t realize at the time all of the significant events that were taking place.  One thing I was aware of was that the St. Louis Cardinals lost the World Series to the Detroit Tigers.  I was in third grade, I remember that Eric Nickens was a big Tigers fan, and I took it hard. 

I also remember watching TV with my sisters on our great big metal cabinet black and white TV when a special news bulletin came on saying that Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated in Memphis.  I was not really up to speed on the civil rights movement or all of the news of the day, but I remember how serious and somber the announcer was and ran to tell my mom and dad that something really bad had happened.  Not long after that, Bobby Kennedy was shot in Los Angeles.

In January of 1968, North Korea captured the US spy ship Pueblo.  In Czechoslovakia, there was an effort to bring about and democratic reform called the Prague Spring.  The country was under Soviet domination and this did not sit well with the Soviets, who eventually sent tanks and 500,000 troops into the country to stomp out the resistance.

At the Mexico City Olympics, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, two African-American athletes, staged a protest of racism and racial segregation as they raised their fists in the black power salute as they received their medals.
 
As the Vietnam War wore on, police clashed with anti-war protesters at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.  The Chicago 7 were arrested and charged with conspiracy and inciting to riot in connection with the protests.

In 1968, 747 jumbo jets were introduced, revolutionizing air travel.

1968 was arguably the most historic year in modern American history.  One more thing happened that I want to mention.  Jim Lovell, Bill Anders and Frank Borman, American astronauts on board Apollo 8, became the first humans to travel to the moon.  They sent back photographs, including the iconic photo printed on the front of our bulletins today.

On Christmas Eve, as they orbited the moon, Bill Anders looked out a small window and saw the earth rising.  He snapped this photograph that captivated the world.  This was the first time anyone had seen the earth from space.  This was the first time we had seen earth as it is – a small, beautiful, blue marbled globe.  This photograph actually changed the way that people thought of our world.  From this perspective, the constructs of political boundaries and differences among nations seem insignificant.  We see the world as small and fragile and vulnerable. 

Anders said, “We came all this way to explore the moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth.”

This photograph led directly to a rise in environmental consciousness and the very first Earth Day, in 1970.  Nearly 50 years after that photograph was taken, we are celebrating today the 48th Earth Day – a day to remember our responsibility to care for this planet.  Earth Day is not a religious holiday per se, but the impulse to care for creation is deeply religious.

Nine years after that first Earth Day, I went to college.  I majored in chemistry.  Part of the attraction of chemistry was that it was so elemental - well, of course it was elemental, a little chem humor there - but just so basic to life.  At one level, at least, chemistry is about understanding the world and how life works.  There are plenty of other levels, other ways to understand the world, but that is one level.

I majored in chemistry but I wound up with a minor in Environmental Science.  And looking back, I think that somehow, perhaps even subconsciously, this represented a spiritual component of my education.  Oh, I took several religion courses, and before I graduated I had plans to go to seminary, but the impulse to understand and care for and protect the earth is at the heart of it a spiritual impulse. 

While for a lot of people that kind of concern may have been awakened, or reawakened by that photograph and the advent of Earth Day, it was as old as the scriptures.

From the first words of Genesis, we read that God created the heavens and the earth, the rivers and mountains and animal and plant life and finally human beings, and that God called all of it good.   

And then God gave the humans the charge to “till and keep the earth.”  When Genesis says that we are to “keep” the earth, it uses the very same word as that great blessing, “May the Lord bless and keep you.”  We are to care for God’s creation in the same way that God cares for us.

The Psalms in particular are filled with descriptions of the wonder and glory of creation.  Psalm 65 gets at some of that by describing God’s work in the cycle of seasons and the blessings of the natural world.  After speaking of the power of the seas and majesty of the mountains, it reads:

You visit the earth and water it... settling its ridges, softening it with showers, blessing its growth.  You crown the year with your bounty; your wagon tracks overflow with richness.  The pastures of the wilderness overflow, the hills gird themselves with joy, the meadows clothe themselves with flocks, the valleys deck themselves with grain, they shout and sing together for joy.

John read for us the very familiar Psalm 150.  It is a great Psalm of praise, used often as a call to worship.  But it is interesting how it ends: “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord!”  It is not limited to the faithful few; it is not even limited to human beings.  Let EVERYTHING that has breath praise the Lord.

I went to a pastors’ conference in Omaha this past week.  We were getting over one snowfall and getting ready for another.  It hasn’t been a typical spring.  But I drove through fields and across rivers, and then along the Loess Hills for a while, and it just struck me the beauty of the countryside, even with spring slow to arrive.  And if you really look, it’s not that hard to see the fields and meadows and trees and flowers and hills and valleys singing for joy.

We live in a beautiful world.  It is hard not to be moved by the beauty and the power and just the sheer awe and amazement that creation can evoke.

If that photograph of the earth taken from space had an effect on people, imagine how actually being in space would affect a person.  Astronauts who experience Earth from orbit often report feelings of awe and wonder, of being transformed by such a perspective.  As Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell perfectly and succinctly put it, “Something happens to you out there.”  For many astronauts, being in space and seeing the earth from that perspective is a deeply spiritual experience.

We may not get to have that experience ourselves, although if you have tens of millions of dollars lying around, space tourism and a seat on a future space flight may be a possibility.  But we can all experience awe at God’s creation.

I have experienced it hiking in the Alps or looking over the vastness of the Grand Canyon or seeing the rugged landscape of the Badlands or experiencing the power of the ocean.  But that can also happen watching geese fly overhead, or looking over an expanse of farm fields, or maybe just experiencing the plants and wildlife in your own backyard.  Or in your home, for that matter.

It’s not that often that Earth Day actually falls on a Sunday, but even with that I have to confess that part of me hesitated to go with an Earth Day theme today.  And that is because I don’t want to preach a sermon that is all about guilt, and it is pretty easy to turn on the guilt when preaching about care for creation, even without trying.

We are 93 million miles from the sun, which is exactly the right distance to give us the solar energy and light that provides for all living things.  Our globe spins at a rate where we have a length of day and night that results in the balance we need-between dark and light, heat and coolness.  We have air with just the right amount of oxygen for all plants and animals.  We have a water cycle that moves water from sky to soil to rivers and back to the sky.  We have an incredible array of life, ranging from bacteria to whales.  We have reason and skill to protect and preserve this amazing world.  And yet, we are not preserving and protecting this world – we are not keeping the earth.

I don’t need to tell you that the earth is in trouble.  17 of the 18 hottest years on record happened in this century.  Sea levels are rising.  I read just the other day about a traditional village in Alaska that had to relocate their entire town.  Several families have already lost their homes to rising seas, and in not too many years the whole village will be underwater. 

Researchers from Columbia University report that a boundary that divides the humid eastern U.S. and the more arid western U.S. has shifted eastward.  John Wesley Powell first identified this boundary as the 100th meridian, which runs roughly through the middle of Nebraska and the Dakotas.  To the east, rainfall and humidity allow farmers to grow crops like corn and there is more population and infrastructure.  To the west, farms are larger and depend on more arid-resistant crops like wheat, or agriculture might involve very large ranches.  The Great Plains, west of this boundary, are sparsely populated.

Because of an increase in temperature and decrease in precipitation, this boundary has moved about 140 miles east, to the 98th meridian – almost to Iowa.  If nothing else scares you, imagine climate change turning Iowa into Nebraska.  

Add to the list polluted waters, deforested lands, species extinction, and habitat destruction around the world, and it is not a pretty picture.

A lot has happened since that first Earth Day.  People used to casually throw trash out the window of their vehicles.  For the most part, that doesn’t happen anymore.  We are much more aware of how our activity affects the environment.  Cars and power plants are cleaner and more efficient.  Lake Erie at one time actually caught fire – some of you remember that.  We have made strides, and protecting the environment is at least on the radar.

But it is a continuing challenge.  There is always the temptation to favor short-term profit over long-term care of the earth.  Future generations cannot speak for themselves.  And the issues that our natural world is facing today are much more daunting and complex than they were on that first Earth Day.  The current picture is pretty bleak.

It would be easy for an Earth Day sermon to focus on ought-to’s, to be scolding and preachy and make us feel guilty.  And I can do that.  Americans have 6% of the world’s population and consume 30% of its resources.  We need to live more simply.  The city of Ames is offering shares in a Solar Energy project – we could all buy in on that.  We could be more serious about recycling and reusing and repurposing.  We could demand that our elected representatives work for the common good and work to protect the earth instead of devaluing environmental concerns.  I could go on with a list of possible actions, but I don’t need to.  We all know things we can do. 

I don’t want to talk about guilt, and I don’t want to talk about ought-tos.  Instead, I want us to think mostly about gratitude.  Yes, gratitude.  What if we focused on praise?  What if we focused on reasons to be thankful for this world God has given us?  What if we took delight in the natural world and the creatures in it? 

I thought back on my college experience and how the impulse to both understand and care for creation maybe had something to do with what I chose to study.  And it struck me that there is a connection between our work or study and care for creation for many of us.  I think of our church and I think of soil scientists and foresters and farmers and Agriculture and Animal Science and Horticulture students.  Not only that, I think of engineers and architects and veterinary students and food scientists and culinary students and chemists and biologists, all of whose work or study touches in some way on God’s creation – on the use of natural resources and plant and animal life.

And we could add to that human life – we are also a part of creation, right?  We too are among the earth’s creatures – and we could add educators and Neuroscientists and psychologists and musicians and folks in business and the social sciences and yes, clergy, and I don’t want to leave anybody out, but whether it is through our vocation or not, I believe we all have within us an impulse to care for God’s world.

With a sense of thankfulness and gratitude for this world as a starting point, it seems to me that doing what we can to care for God’s creation will follow naturally.  I want to share a poem from Mary Oliver, that may point us in the right direction:

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean –
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one eating sugar out of my hand, who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down –
who is gazing around with her enormous
and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms
and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention,
how to fall down into the grass,
how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, which is what I’ve been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
The swan, the black bear, the grasshopper, the fields, you and me.  Let all creation praise the Lord!  Amen.

Friday, May 4, 2018

“Feed My Sheep” - April 15, 2018

Text: John 21:1-19

Our scripture today addresses a question that was a real live issue for Jesus’ followers – both then and, in a way, even now.  The question is, 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.  

That seems like the ending, but then there is another chapter.  It’s like people were saying, “Tell us another story!”  It’s like a concert when the performer leaves the stage and then comes back for an encore.  John can’t help but add another story, or two.

Well 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 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.

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.

But if you are picturing Pater and John and Andrew and the others casting their line and just sitting back and swapping stories and maybe 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?  Yell at the guys out in the boat, who have been at it for hours, “Hey, you haven’t caught anything, have you?”

Well, it was early in the morning.  Maybe there wasn’t anybody else around.  Although if it is like our neighborhood, there could have been a bunch of walkers and joggers out early in the morning – I can see them running and maybe riding their bikes on the path around the lake.

Well, Jesus calls to the disciples in the boat and they respond that no, they hadn’t caught anything.  This 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 to be fair, 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 while Peter is swimming and running through the water, the others they manage to make it to shore – without jumping in.

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 really big catch.

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.

The meal actually serves another purpose here.  The last couple of week shad been completely surreal.  Did it really happen?  Was Jesus really alive?  Was it just a spectre, just a ghost as it were?  But here was Jesus, doing the most basic and down-to-earth things.  Building a fire, eating fish.  Jesus had appeared to the disciples on Sunday evening after the resurrection, and again the next week, when Thomas was with them.  And now, here he is along the lake.

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?

Jesus looks Peter in the 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 that he can jump in the sea – I don’t know about that.  Exactly 153 large fish – I’m not sure about that either.  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 few years ago, we had the students over to our house for a cookout.  At the time, 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 exactly 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 missionaries, or 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.  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.

“Living With the Questions” - APril 8, 2018

Text: John 20:19-31

Last Sunday morning, the choir processed in to that great Easter hymn, there were lilies and tulips and daffodils all around and even noisemakers.  There was the excitement of Easter.  But that was then, and this is now.  Now, those Easter eggs aren’t nearly so exciting.  Now, those chocolate eggs are gone, leaving only foil wrappers in their wake.  Now, the extended family has gone back home – or maybe you are the family who has come back home.

On Easter, we can get caught up in the excitement.  But the Alleluias fade, and that is where we meet Thomas.  Thomas is not part of the glorious celebration of Easter.  Thomas is just trying to make it through another day, just trying to get by in a crazy, mixed-up world where things have lately become very confusing and frightening. 

He sounds kind of like us, doesn’t he?

When we left the disciples last Sunday, Mary Magdalene had met Jesus at the empty tomb and returned to share the news: “I have seen the Lord!”  But the other disciples had a hard time believing Mary’s news.  They were together that evening, still in fear, behind locked doors, when Jesus appeared among them. 

“Peace,” he said.  “Shalom.”  It was the common greeting.  But then he said it again, for emphasis.  “Seriously – peace be with you.”  The disciples had been through the wringer emotionally and spiritually.  And Jesus proclaims peace on them, meaning life and hope and well-being and wholeness and security.  He continued by saying, “As the Father has sent me, so send I you.  Receive the Holy Spirit.” 

Imagine that you are in the disciples’ shoes, having seen your friend and leader and teacher arrested and killed.  You are fearful for your own life, but now you somehow see Jesus again.  What a swirl of emotions.  And in the midst of all of that, the forces that led to Jesus’ crucifixion were still at work.  How was peace even possible?  Peace was made possible through the Spirit.  “Receive the Holy Spirit,” Jesus says.

The spirit made peace possible.  It helped to bringing about community.  And it was missional – Jesus gives the disciples a charge, sending them out.  Knowing what the world had done, how could they possibly go out into the world?  They did so by the power of the Spirit.

And then, speaking to the disciples on that Sunday night,  Jesus made this statement that has always bothered me and that we usually want to just glide right past.  “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”  It sounds like way too much power and that there would be a lot of potential for abuse.  “Ok, you are forgiven, you are not forgiven, you – I’ll think about it.”

Actually, there isn’t a Greek word that translates exactly as our English word forgive.  The word Jesus uses here means “let it go.”  If you let go of sins, they are gone; if you hold on to them, they are held on to.

The sense here is really holding to account.  If someone acts abusively and they are forgiven, and they abuse again and are forgiven again and it keeps happening, that is not forgiveness as much as it is enabling.  Jesus is saying don’t turn a blind eye to wrongdoing.  Don’t keep saying “let it go” to hurtful behavior.

But then, there is a time for letting go and when we do, it means that the wrongdoing no longer defines the future.  Forgiveness helps to make possible a new future.

They may seem odd, but we need to think about Jesus’ words in context.  Jesus said these words to the community, to a group of disciples who were being sent out.  Instead of a few holy people having secret powers to forgive or not forgive, Jesus is commissioning his disciples to go out and speak prophetically, holding to account sin, but also to offer grace and God’s forgiveness – a letting go of the past that makes possible a new future.  And this mission is possible by the gift of the Spirit.

All of this happens on Sunday evening.  Think about all the disciples had been through.  Think about how powerful this moment must have been.  But Thomas was not there that evening.  We’re not sure where he was or what he was up to.  Whatever the details, wherever he was, Thomas was not there.  But the other disciples told him all about it.  I’m sure they relived every little detail.

Now it is not that Thomas thought everybody was conspiring to pull one over on him.  He didn’t necessarily doubt that they believed it.  But he needed to have his own encounter with Jesus.

What did Mary say?  “I have seen the Lord.”  What did the other disciples say?  “We have seen the Lord.”  Thomas is asking for nothing more than the others had already received.  They had seen Jesus, they had heard his voice, they had seen his scars.

He is called “Doubting Thomas,” but I think Thomas has got a bad rap all of these years.  None of the others believed based on Mary’s testimony, but we don’t call them doubters.  And we don’t call Simon “Denying Peter.”  I’m not sure why Thomas gets that label.

In some ways, it is actually admirable that he doesn’t believe.  If like the others, he had refused to believe based on Mary’s testimony, but then believed when these guys told him, Thomas would be a typical chauvinist pig who wouldn’t believe an emotional woman but would take the word of some men.  But not so; he is an equal opportunity disbeliever.  He really does want to find out for himself.

I think that Thomas would have been shocked to know that nearly 2000 years later, we would be here this morning discussing his reaction to the news that Jesus was alive.  He simply had a natural reaction to news that was not normal or natural at all.  He’s skeptical when he finds his friends all worked up about something that sounds too good to be true.

To be honest, there is a lot to like in Thomas.  Thomas wouldn’t fall for those deals that sound too good to be true.  He wouldn’t believe everything he read on the internet.  He wasn’t susceptible to scam artists.

A lot of us are like Thomas.  We value evidence.  We value science.  We value that which can be proven.  But then we come to church on Sunday.  And we worship a God whom we cannot see and who cannot be proven.  We profess faith in something that cannot be apprehended in a strictly scientific way.

And if we are honest, we will admit that there are actually a lot of things that can’t be proven like a mathematical formula, and that these are some of the most important things in life, things we absolutely depend on.  Things like faith and hope and courage and love.

We can never have life all figured out.  We will never have God all figured out.  The only way to live honestly is to live with a mixture of belief and uncertainty.  We will never have everything nailed down 100%.  We have to be able to live with the questions.

The Bible itself, in fact, is full of doubts and questions.  The Psalms are not simply God’s words to us, but also our words to God, and they contain the full range of human emotions.  The writer time and again will cry out to God, question God, and express honest doubts.  On the cross, Jesus quoted from the Psalms when he said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Even Jesus questioned God.

When asked about his return Jesus said, “No one knows the time, not even the Son, but only the Father.”  Even Jesus did not have all the answers.

This is the way life is – filled with both certainty and uncertainty, bedrock belief and deep questions.  Times when faith is easy and times when faith is hard.  There are those wonderful moments when it is easy to say, “Alleluia!  I know that my Redeemer lives!”  And then there are those times when faith is harder to grasp, when we’re not exactly sure what we believe, when we may wrestle with our faith.  Our lives involve searching and praying and rejoicing and wondering and struggling and believing, sometimes all at the same time.

I sat in with the Theology Class a few weeks ago.  We watched a presentation by Richard Rohr.  He was talking about levels of spiritual development and “liminal spaces.”  A liminal space is a time of transition, a place where we are on the threshold of something new, a time when things are changing.  It can also be a very difficult time, a time of doubt, a time of confusion.  Often it may be a time of pain and loss that we experience.  It can be through those kinds of times that we grow spiritually.

It was certainly that kind of time for the disciples.  It was that kind of time for Thomas.  But when we face times of doubt, times of uncertainty, even times of despair, we can come through those times with new insight, greater compassion, and a deeper faith. 

Several years ago, there was a College for Seniors class that went to a different house of worship each week to learn about the history and beliefs of that particular group.  One week, they were here at our church.  I told them all about Baptists, and in the course of it tried to explain about the numerous varieties of Baptists and how they were different.  It didn’t take long for me realize that I was probably confusing a lot of people.  They wanted to hear, “This is what Baptists believe and this is what Baptists do,” and I was saying, “Well, some believe this and some believe that and maybe even within a particular congregation, not everyone will be in agreement.” 

One person couldn’t believe that we didn’t use the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed, and I tried to explain that most Baptists would not have a problem with what is contained in the creeds and we might even recite a creed occasionally, but it’s just that we are not real big on an external authority mandating faith.  Baptists sometimes say “We have no creed but the Bible.”  Of course that begs the question of what does the Bible say, but it’s a statement Baptists sometimes use.

Actually, there are Baptist statements of faith, but they are intended to describe what we generally believe, more than to prescribe what we have to believe or state what we have to sign on the dotted line.

The individual freedom and responsibility that we stress – freedom and responsibility to search, to explore, to believe, to decide for myself, to commit my life - is part of what I like about being a Baptist.  And maybe it is part of what I like about Thomas.  It’s not that he didn’t appreciate the witness of his friends.  He just needed to decide this for himself, on his own terms.

Of course, deciding for ourselves and making our faith our own faith can be risky.  Because all by ourselves, we can wind up off course.  By ourselves, we can end up out in left field somewhere.  That is why we always need to balance individual belief and personal faith with the fellowship and support and encouragement and accountability of the community.

It is very interesting that while Thomas does not yet believe, he is still there the next Sunday evening.  I love this.  Part of the value of the community of believers is that sometimes, when we can’t believe or we’re not sure of what to believe, or we’re too tired or too hurting or too weak or too depressed to believe much of anything, others can carry us and be there for us and maybe even believe for us.

The best place for us to struggle with hard questions, the best place to be honest about our doubts and to honestly seek answers is in the Church.  And so as a church, we need to be sensitive to those who are struggling, sensitive to those who are seeking.  We need to be mindful of those who don’t have it all figured out.  Which, if we are honest, includes every single one of us.

Being faithful, if nothing else, means being honest with God and honest with ourselves.  If we can’t be honest about our doubts, we can’t be honest about our believing.  If we can’t be honest about our doubts, we can’t be honest about our faith.  It strikes me that we hold back on expressing questions and we also hold back on expressing our faith.

Thomas sets the bar pretty high, but he gets the answers he needs.  And who in John’s gospel do you suppose makes the greatest confession of faith, the highest expression of belief in Jesus?  Of course, it is Thomas.  Thomas says to Jesus, “My Lord and my God.”  In all the gospels, this is the highest expression of Jesus’ identity.

Thomas wants answers, and he gets them.  But in the end, he makes a leap of faith, just as we are called to do. 

We don’t always find the answers we want, certainly not in as dramatic a way as Thomas did.  The life of faith involves trusting in God, living in relationship with God and others, and following the light that we have, even as we live with those questions that are not easily answered.

According to tradition, the apostle Thomas traveled to India, to the city of Madras, and led people there to belief in Christ.  The church that grew in that place, the Mar Thoma Christian Church, has survived 2000 years of persecution as a minority religion.  The church developed a worship life and liturgy without any written word.  Imagine the surprise of Portuguese missionaries who arrived in the 17th century and found that Christian faith was already alive and well, even though the Mar Thomas Christians had never heard of such a thing as the Bible!  What a legacy to leave behind: one who would not believe without seeing leaves a church that does believe, even without the scriptures.

Jesus said, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”  He was speaking of us, questions and all.  Amen.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

"Easter Fools" - Easter Sunday, April 1, 2018

Text: 1 Corinthians 1:18-25, John 20:1-18

In case you somehow didn’t know, today is Easter Sunday.  It’s the high, holy day of the Christian year, the day that we celebrate the resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and the ultimate victory of life over death, of love and joy over pain and despair.  If it happens to be the day that we have biscuits and gravy and grits for breakfast and get Easter eggs and chocolate bunnies, well, all the better.  It is Easter Sunday.  But it is also – April Fools’ Day. 

Easter and April Fools’ are generally in pretty close proximity, but rarely do they fall on the same day.  The date of Easter depends on cycles of the moon and falls somewhere within a six week period each year, while April 1 falls on a Sunday only once every seven years, on average.  The last time Easter fell on April Fools’ Day was in 1956.  For a lot of us, this has not happened in our lifetime.  It will happen next in 2029, and then again in 2040 - but after that, not again in this century. 

The two days could not be more different.  It is unclear exactly where April Fools’ Day came from, but many believe it started with the change from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar in the 1582.  Under the old calendar, the New Year was celebrated on March 25, but festivals marking the New Year were put off until April 1 if March 25 fell during Holy Week.  The year that the calendar changed, there were a lot of people who did not realize the year now began in the cold of January, and they went ahead and celebrated the New Year on April 1 - and so they were called “April Fools.”  It is unknown whether this is actually the way that April Fools came about, but it has come to be a day for “fooling” people – a day for hoaxes.

One of the best media-generated April fools’ jokes dates from many years ago.  It was a news report that aired on BBC.  It opened with a line about Spring coming early that year, prompting the spaghetti harvest in Switzerland to come early, too.

Against a video backdrop of happy women harvesting spaghetti from trees, claims about the cultivation of spaghetti were made in a serious and straightfaced manner. Spaghetti’s uniform length was explained as the result of years of painstaking cultivation. The ravenous spaghetti weevil, which had wreaked havoc with harvests of years past, had been conquered, said the report.

Afterwards, the BBC switchboard lit up with calls about the piece.  Many people asked where they could go to watch the harvesting operation in person.  Others wondered whether spaghetti would grow well in Britain, and could they buy spaghetti trees for themselves?

Well, we all know about April Fools, a day for jokes, a day for trying to get people to fall for unlikely stories.  April Fools, of course, is not a religious holiday, and has no connection at all to Easter.  Easter is not about preposterous claims – it is a day in which the disciples were given the news that Jesus, who had been crucified, was actually alive… a day that we celebrate the news that death is not final…. 

Wait a minute...  It may be that there is more of a connection between Easter and April Fools than we may have thought.  And since I may be retired, or as Jere likes to say, rewired the next time Easter and April Fools' Day coincide, if I am ever going to look into this, today is the day.

On Easter, Jesus fooled the power of empire.  As we have read and considered and experienced through our journey through the gospel of John since the beginning of this year, Jesus was a threat to the religious leaders.  He threatened their place, their role, their authority by saying that God’s favor and power and blessing was available to everyone, even to outsiders, even to sinners, even to foreigners, even to Samaritans.  This did not go over well.  He said that the law was made for our sake, not the other way around, and that to choose a legalistic application of the law over human life and flourishing was to do violence to the spirit and intent of the law.  He said that the law was basically summarized in “Love God and love your neighbor.” 

Jesus hung out with the wrong kind of crowd.  He broke social taboos.  He criticized the financial operation of the temple.  He had harsh words for those who were self-righteous and hypocritical.  At the same time, he was all about grace and forgiveness but as the power brokers saw it, he was far too lenient on sin.

Jesus was a threat to the way things were done, a threat to the prevailing order, a threat to the powers that be.  He scared them because they feared that he would excite the crowds and bring on the wrath of Rome.  This man of love and grace and forgiveness and integrity and honesty was such a threat that they wanted him gone.

Now for the Romans, Jesus was a minor problem.  For Pilate, the Roman governor, he was more of an irritant, and in the end, even if he didn’t see much harm in Jesus, he was willing to have him put to death in order to keep the peace.  In the eyes of Rome, Jesus died to eliminate the risk of future rebellion.  It was the way that empires always deal with those who pose a challenge, who threaten their power.  And so Jesus was arrested and beaten and mocked and hung on a cross.  Problem solved.

But the joke was on them.  Jesus could not be contained by the tomb.  The problem was that Jesus just would not stay dead.

Rome continued with this solution to its Jesus problem, its Christian problem, its minority religion problem that refused to bow to Caesar problem.  In that day and time, to say “Jesus is Lord” was a dangerous statement, because the empire demanded that subjects say “Caesar is Lord.”  Christians suffered persecution and worse.  Many were martyred.  Caesar thought he was in charge of the world and that Jesus would be forgotten.  But the joke was on him.  Today, Caesar is a salad – and millions of people confess not that Caesar is Lord, but that Jesus is Lord, and are gathering this morning to sing “Alleluia!” 

That’s not all.  On Easter, Jesus fooled Mary and the other disciples.  Mary came to the place of Jesus’ burial to mourn, just as many of us have gone to the graves of loved ones to mourn.  When we go to the cemetery, the last thing in the world we would expect to see is a grave opened up.  The last thing in the world Mary expected was to find the stone rolled away.

And so she ran to tell the others.  Peter and John returned with her, running ahead.  They found that the tomb was empty, all right.  We read that the other disciple, who was John, saw and believed, but apparently what he believed was Mary’s report that the stone had been removed.  They did not buy that rising from the dead stuff.  Peter and John went back home.

But Mary remained.  When she looked in the tomb, there were two angels standing there.  “Woman, why are you weeping?” they said.  “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him,” she said.  Then she turned around, and there was Jesus.  But she didn’t recognize him.  She thought he was the gardener.  “Sir, if you have carried him away, just tell me where you have taken him.”  But then Jesus spoke her name.  And she knew.

The best news, the greatest news that we hear can evoke both laughter and tears.  Relief and joy and shock and surprise and disbelief and a flood of happiness, all at once.  A loved one pulls through a terrible illness.  A child we have worried ourselves sick about turns out to be safe.  Even at a memorial service, we mourn for a loved one and at the same time celebrate a life that has blessed us.  Tears and laughter. 

We have all experienced this.  In 2015, the Oxford Dictionary named its Word of the Year.  Some of the runner-ups were dark web, on fleek, ad blocker, and Brexit.  The winner was not a word at all, but a picture.  It was the tears of joy emoji, a symbol of a whole mix of emotions that end in joy.

I picture it that way for Mary.  Tears of joy, laughing and crying at the same time. 

Mary ran to tell the others.  She announced to them, “I have seen the Lord!”  But their response is underwhelming.  They do not seem to put stock in Mary’s news.  It was literally too good to be true.  As Luke puts it, “It seemed to them an idle tale.”  Something like a bad and completely inappropriate April Fools’ hoax.

But the joke was on them.  Later Jesus appeared to the disciples, and they believed.  Jesus was alive!  And there was no doubt laughter.  Jesus could laugh with Mary, laugh with the other women, laugh that she had thought Jesus to be the gardener.  He could laugh with the disciples when he showed them the holes in his hand and side.  Laughter and tears together.  What started with weeping ended with alleluia. 

Easter is a celebration that the greatest joke is on death itself.  There is a reason that Jesus’ resurrection is celebrated in the spring.  There is even a certain logic to the way the date of Easter is determined each year.  Easter is the only holiday based on cycles of the moon.  It comes on the first Sunday after the first full moon on or after the spring equinox.  That sounds pretty complicated, but it makes sense if you think about it: Easter coincides with the greening of the earth.  Christ is risen and the whole world comes to life.  The grass is turning green.  Birds are singing.  Woodpeckers are hard at work.  Robins are coming back.  Crocuses are popping up and daffodils will soon be blooming.  Folks are getting their lawn mowers ready, or at least thinking about it.  


At Easter we think about bunnies and chicks and lilies, living, growing things.  These are all signs of new life.  But there is a big difference.  These things are natural.  They are expected.  Easter is not at all natural, not at all expected.  Imagine a police officer banging on your door in the middle of the night.  “Sir, I have some good news.  Your son who was buried last week is alive.”  We just don’t get news like that.


Barbara Brown Taylor said, “When a human being goes into the ground, that is that… You say good-bye.  You pay your respects and you go on with your life as best you can, knowing that the only place springtime happens in a cemetery is on the graves, not in them….”


Easter is a celebration that death does not have the last word. Frederick Buechner put it this way; “Resurrection means that the worst thing is never the last thing.”  The joke is on death, because in the end, God’s love proves stronger even than death.  

This is Good News.  This is Great News.  This is news that calls for Alleluia!  Because death is not just something that confronts us at the end of life.  Far from it.  Death confronts us every day.

Pastor and writer Nadia Bolz-Weber says, “The Christian faith, while wildly misrepresented in so much of American culture, is really about death and resurrection.  It’s about how God continues to reach into the graves we dig for ourselves and pull us out, giving us new life, in ways both dramatic and small.”

Sometimes we dig a grave for ourselves.  And sometimes, life seems to do it for us.  We all need Easter because we all long for life.  I’m not only talking about the hope of a future on the other side of physical death, though that is certainly part of it.  But the fact is, brokenness is all around us.  Death is a part of our lives right now.


We all know about disappointment.  We all know about heartache.  We all know about things going badly wrong.  We look at our world and see violence, greed, poverty, disease, terrorism, abuse, just egregious inequality, and a whole lot of fear.  Outright cruelty seems to be part and parcel of our national conversation. Within our circle of friends and family there will likely be broken relationships, unemployment, problems with drugs and alcohol, serious illness.  We may be facing divorce or financial crises or legal troubles or just plain sad stories.  There are plenty of cases we would think to be hopeless, beyond fixing, beyond repair. 


We all know about Good Friday.  We live Good Friday all the time.  It is a Good Friday kind of world.  And I think we are really here today because we have all had it with Good Fridays.  We know hurt and pain and suffering all too well, and we are ready – we are desperate - for Good News.


The Good News of Easter, the message of resurrection, is that even when we don’t expect it, even when we don’t believe it to be possible, God brings new life.  It is surprising.  It is amazing.  It elicits those alleluias.


Now, living with the assurance of Easter – living with the faith that God can take our hurt and pain and disappointment and bring blessing, faith that God can somehow take our feeble efforts and bring forth something wonderful, faith that out of all the deaths of this life God can bring new life – can appear foolish.  Our reading from 1 Corinthians speaks of the foolishness of the cross, and later in 1 Corinthians, Paul says that we are Fools for Christ.  You might say that followers of Jesus are Easter Fools.  


Easter means that in the end, the joke is on death.  Beyond all of the deaths we experience, there is the new life that God gives.  Beyond all the deaths of this life and even beyond, there is resurrection.


That is the Good News, the Great News of Easter.  Alleluia!  Amen.


(Children will have noisemakers to use whenever they hear the word “alleluia.”)