Saturday, October 16, 2010

Homily for Robinson/Duffy Wedding

A Celebration of Christian Marriage for
Katelyn Elizabeth Robinson & Christopher Ryan Duffy
5:00 P.M. on 15 Oct 10
Town of Esopus United Methodist Church
Port Ewen, NY

Scriptural text is from John 2:1-11.

The Wedding in Cana is a perfect Scriptural reading for the wedding of Katelyn and Christopher. This is the only time that we actually see Jesus at a wedding, and the story appears only in the Gospel of John. I love to wonder about those who repeated the story so many more would know about it: the disciples were there and it increased their belief. But the servants who drew the water must have known and then the steward, who probably sampled both batches of wine. How else would he have known that the second batch was better?

Now look at the similarities to us here: We too are celebrating a wedding in a small village, like Cana. We too are a gathering of family and friends—and there are mothers present! These families also want everything to be just as it should be to honor this decisive moment in the lives of their children, to honor the new extended family that is being formed, and to honor all of us, their guests. Finally, our story today contains a miracle, one that I hope will be remembered by us who are here and told by those who are blessed by the married life of Katelyn and Christopher in the years to come.

We are not turning water into wine. And our feasting this evening is not a memorial of Christ’s sacrifice for us. But in a cynical time of quick decisions and casual arrangements, we are celebrating true love in the sight of God and the Church. Katelyn and Christopher have worked together. They have been friends and have taken the time to know and understand one another. I can’t forget what the couple said during our first conversations: Katelyn spoke of Christopher’s work ethic and of how much she could depend on him in every way. And Christopher said that he loves Katelyn’s “joy for life.” It was clear that they wanted their love blessed in the presence of God and of God’s people.

Our miracle starts, therefore, with the recognition of love that goes beyond self and self-interest. The vow that Katelyn and Christopher will shortly make is to give all that they are and all that they have. The poem we heard and Scripture readings speak of this amazing power of love. Marriage is a commitment to cherish so fully that two people are willing to trust their inner selves and hopes—and their daily lives—to one other. They must not only be willing to comfort; they must allow themselves to be comforted. I’m sure Katelyn and Christopher already know what it means to be pushed a little beyond their comfort zones.

And so there are risks in a commitment to marriage as well. The party in Cana ran out of wine; there was the danger that the rejoicing might end early. As the reading from Proverbs reminds us, in every marriage, there is the need to search—to stretch—for insight and understanding, knowing they are more precious than silver or a hefty bank account. Only with insight and understanding—and forgiveness—can a relationship survive. And when insight and understanding are not enough, Katelyn and Christopher will find themselves turning to God’s grace for comfort and help. The miracle of this evening is that Katelyn and Christopher are starting on a journey that will bring them even closer together and that will transform them and those who know them.

Katelyn and Christopher, with the commitment that you are pledging to one another this evening, the common everyday stuff of life—the water, if you like—can be turned, over and over again, into the wine of rejoicing. Remember this holy evening. May it bless your days together and may your happiness increase.

Let us pray:
Eternal God, creator and preserver of all life,
author of salvation, giver of all grace:
Bless and sanctify with your Holy Spirit
Katelyn and Christopher, who come now to join in marriage.
Grant that they may give their vows to each other
in the strength of your steadfast love.
Enable them to grow in love and peace
with you and with one another all their days,
that they may reach out
in concern and service to the world;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

(Intercessory Prayer from Service of Christian Marriage,
United Methodist Hymnal, p. 866)

Monday, October 11, 2010

A Spacious Place

Sermon for 10.10.10

Please pray with me: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

From today’s Psalm: “Come and see what God has done.…Bless our God, O peoples, let the sound of his praise be heard….We went through fire and through water; yet you have brought us out to a spacious place.”

Recently, I heard a letter sent by a nurse in a mission orphanage in Africa. A young mother had given birth. Shortly after, she died, leaving her infant and a little girl. Utterly without equipment, the staff had to try to keep the newborn sufficiently warm. One of the children in the orphanage knew that Jesus could help. She prayed to Jesus to send a hot water bottle for the baby and a doll to comfort the sister. The nurse confessed a reluctance in saying “amen” to the prayer since she didn’t see how Jesus could do what the child had asked. But that very afternoon, a package arrived from her former Sunday School students in the states, mailed five months earlier. It was the first package she had received from home. In it were brightly colored T-shirts for all the children, and—needless to say—a hot water bottle and a lovely rag doll. How could God have known, five months before, that those last two items were so needed!

That letter was not only an act of praise for the Lord who hears before we call, but an act of remembrance for a mercy received and an act of profound gratitude to the Lord who knows before we ask. These are the powerful messages of our Scripture this morning. Our Call to Worship, Psalm 66, insists on God’s grace to us and urges us not only to accept grace but to accept the possibility of grace, for us, and for all the earth. We are not alone even when we in some remote settlement in Africa or wrestling with a problem on our own laptop or waiting for a specialist to read our x-rays. We are, all of us, saved from our own human misery by the ever-presence of God’s grace.

There are examples every single day. But it’s also worth remembering those times in our lives when something wonderful occurs at just the right time—improbably, impossibly: a letter, a phone call, a chance meeting, a reconciliation, an outpouring of generosity and effort in time of need. Suddenly things open up before us. We can stretch and breathe again. We tend to speak of “coincidences” and “the miracle of human kindness,” when in fact these are blessings of God’s love at work in this world through us. Who would have expected a simple Carpenter to be our Redeemer? God’s love always has the last word and God is always up to something greater than we can imagine. As the Psalm tells us, God has “brought us [and is bringing us] out to a spacious place.”

But once there, it is essential to mark that moment, to say to God, “How awesome are your deeds!” and then recount, as does Psalm 66, the delivery from Egypt, the later crossing over the Jordan River to the spacious Promised Land, and anything else for which we owe God thanks. So Timothy is told, “Remember Jesus Christ.” “Remind” people that even “if we are faithless, he remains faithful—for he cannot deny himself.” Again and again, Scripture tells us to remember: There is the commandment, “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.” At the Eucharist, Jesus urges us to eat and drink “in remembrance of me.” In this way, no matter what else is happening, we will become more Christ-like, workers who need not be ashamed.

Aren’t we sometimes like the nine lepers this morning, a story that only Luke remembers? They cry for healing and then go rushing off to resume normal lives. Not that anyone can blame them. It’s so tempting to put the bad memories behind us and enjoy normalcy again. These lepers were social outcasts, banished from their homes and families. They were appalling to look at and their condition was associated with sexual misconduct, like someone with syphilis or AIDS. No one would touch them and even their shadows were thought to carry infection. No wonder they want to return to human touch and society.

But one, the Samaritan, is willing to put off that precious moment of return. He seems willing to transform normalcy and keep some of the sacred within it. He turns back, praising God and thanking Jesus. He remembers to stop, to praise, and to thank. This remembering and this gratitude cause Jesus to say, “Your faith has made you whole.” It wasn’t that this particular man deserved to be healed because of an extraordinary record of faithful belief. Simply by giving thanks, he was acknowledging God and therefore living out faithfulness, putting it into practice. He stopped his own urgent business of being declared clean by the priests in order to mark his personal encounter with a saving God.

Jesus’ farewell to him, “Your faith has made you whole,” has tied some Christians up into guilty knots. They fear they have not been healed because of their own lack of belief. But what Jesus is honoring is the man’s deep gratitude. Jesus defines that as faith, for gratitude is life affirming and life giving and acknowledges the source of life. C.S. Lewis has written, “Praise almost seems to be inner health made audible.”[1]

The grateful Samaritan was, in fact, a man at worship, remembering not only praise to God but thanksgiving to someone from another culture—an outsider in fact—Jesus, a Galilean. In these acts, the Samaritan was doing what Jeremiah urged the children of Israel to do in exile. In a sense, Jeremiah is telling them to shape up and accept the new conditions of their lives with good grace and as normally as possible: plant gardens, marry, have children. But he’s also telling them to pray. To pray their way through the lives they must now live, rather than pining for the good old days. He tells them to pray for the city in which they now live and in its welfare to seek their own.

Jeremiah was writing long before Jesus told us to love our enemies and to bless them that curse us. But this powerful prophet also knew that worship has the power to heal and that worship right where we are, right here, right now, opens up spacious and healing places for ourselves and, quite surprisingly, for those around us.

Our encounters with a saving God may be monumental, truly miraculous, or quite personal and seemingly modest. But acknowledging any of these encounters, remembering and treasuring them, is the faith work and the worship that God asks from us. This practice of gratitude, not only inside but outside these doors, even in the present-day Babylon that assaults us in so many ways—subtle and not—is unexpected news, but it will lead us to the “Good News,” the spacious place of the kingdom of God.

Let us pray: Dearest Lord, we are blessed to be able to praise you this morning and in this place for all that you have given and are giving, known and unknown by us. We thank you for our life and for this earth on which you have placed us. Let us not forget even your smallest mercies and, through them, help us to grow more like the one who humbled himself to share our humanity, your Son Jesus Christ. Amen.

[1] C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (London: G. Bles, 1958), 78-81.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Relational Disasters

Sermon for 10.03.10
Lamentations 1.1-6; Psalm 137; 2 Timothy 1.1-14; Luke 17.5-10

Please pray with me: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each of our hearts be acceptable to you, dear Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

From today’s Epistle: “Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.”

Years ago, when we were living close to the UN, Karl and I would often walk our dog quite late. On one bitter winter night, I noticed a nice lined glove lying on the pavement. About a block later, stretched out on a bench, we saw one of the homeless deep in sleep, covered with sacks and old clothes. My bright idea was to run back and get the glove for the woman. Then an odd thing happened. Although she was sound asleep and I had a man and a large dog with me, I was hesitant to go up to her. Possibly because her total isolation and misery made her seem so alien and that possibility frightened me. Taking Karl’s hand, I laid the glove next to her and we returned to our home, but the memory has remained.

Our Scriptural readings this morning talk about isolation and misery. Lamentations describes a people that have gone into exile, groaning, grieving, powerless. Our psalm describes people so full of despair that they’ve given up playing their musical instruments. Whenever I hear that line, “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” I think of those times when I, or people I know, have felt so cut off from joy and even from God’s mercy, that it’s hard to find a hymn to sing or a prayer for comfort. We feel alien, wrapped in a cold and dangerous misery that sets us apart. Even the New Testament letter to Timothy, speaks of Timothy’s tears, the tears of a faithful Christian who has become discouraged by what is happening to his church and who seems to be having doubts about his faith.

I’m grateful for such passages because we have felt heartbreak too in this church, certainly tears and fears. These passages remind me that we are not the only ones. All through history, the faithful have had moments of isolation and despair. But Scripture gives help in tough times too. Even when our faith is being tested, it is possible to pour out our distress, to call out to God. In fact, it is essential. The psalmist realizes that at the moment of greatest fear and pain, we can and must remember blessings: “Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set [the temple of] Jerusalem above my highest joy!” And the Letter to Timothy outlines a way of living through tears: Even when there is disaster, there is still relationship.

There is relationship with God, who continues to call us into a life that is holy and blessed; who saves us, not because of our own actions—or lack of them—but because of an all-embracing love and grace; who is a continuing presence in our lives. The wonderful thing about a deepening relationship with God is that it leads to a full range of relationships with others and with all of God’s creation.

There is relationship with the faithful and not only the holy memories of Scripture. Timothy is reminded of his grandmother Lois and his mother Eunice. They were good Jewish housewives, witnesses to faith in God’s power whom Timothy can look back to. We are witnesses, reminders to one another of the spirit of God. We can nurture ourselves and one another in goodness, in hope, and in Christian joy.

Moreover, Timothy is told to rekindle the gift of God. Think about rekindling a fire: You have to rearrange the little pieces of wood, add larger ones, stir around in the ashes, blow gently. Life requires similar discipline. The work of rekindling is sometimes tricky and sometimes hard. Sometimes we have to start over again. But there is that gift of God living within us, that divine spark that through God’s grace and the Holy Spirit glows and burns.

And we have the saving help of Christ. Today we will be given the great gift of that help through the sacrament of Communion, through the living presence poured out among us that “makes us one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world.”

These things—the good news of Christ, the mercy and peace of God, the power of the sacraments, and the faithful nurture of one another—are the treasure with which we have been entrusted, regardless of our present circumstances. I think of this treasure horizontally, stretching across the world, touching those people and places we may never know. I also think of it vertically, extending from the past into the future. We can’t know how fully it will extend in either direction. We certainly can’t yet know what it can be. But just as we know that we will not receive God’s treasure all at once, so we know that God’s power, working in us, will do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. This is our certain hope and therefore our faith.

Let us pray: O Lord God, you call us, your servants, to ventures of which we cannot see the ending and through dangers unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us. Amen.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Blessing of the Animals

Second Annual Blessing of the Animals
October 3, 2010
Pastor Dora and Fred Rhoda, guitar

Welcome by Pastor

Hymn: “The Friendly Beasts” UMH 227

But ask now the beasts,
and they shall teach you;
and the fowls of the air,
and they shall tell you:
Or speak to the earth,
and it shall teach you;
and the fishes of the sea
shall declare unto you. (Job 12:7-8)

Prayer (all together):
Hear our humble prayer, O God, for our friends the animals, especially for animals who are suffering, for any that are hunted or lost, or deserted or frightened or hungry, for all that must be put to death. We entreat for them all thy mercy and pity and for those who deal with them we ask a heart of compassion and gentle hands and kindly words. Make us, ourselves, to be true friends to animals and so to share the blessings of the merciful. (Albert Schweitzer)

Hymn: “God of the Sparrow, God of the Whale” UMH 122

The Blessing:
Praised be the Creator, who has given every creature its own wisdom and in whose clear eyes we can see the miracle of creation. We pray, dear God, that you will protect and bless all things that have breath, and especially these animals gathered here.

Individual Blessings as guests come forward:
Bless, O Lord, (name of pet and name of friend),
and fill our hearts with thanksgiving for their being.

Dismissal (all together):
May the Creator of us all continue to protect and sustain us, now and for ever. Amen.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Apple Festival Sunday Service

Morning Worship – September 26, 2010
Apple Festival Sunday
A Service of Song and Thanksgiving
Lectionary for next Sunday:
Lamentations 1:1-6; Psalm 137; 2 Timothy 1:1-14; Luke 17:5-10


Instrumental Prelude

Greeting by Pastor

Invocation (in unison):
God our Redeemer, draw unto us as we draw unto you in worship. We have pushed ourselves in service to you this week, and we give you thanks for all our many blessings. Now open our eyes to see, our ears to hear, and our spirits to encounter your will for us this day. Transform us with the truth of your love and grace, in the name of the one who loved us and gave his life for us. Amen.

The Entrance

*Introit “Softly and Tenderly” (see insert)

*Call to Worship: Psalm 91:1-6, 11-16 (no refrain) UMH 210

*Opening Hymn #600 “Wonderful Words of Life”

Prayer of Confession (in unison):
Gracious God, you lavishly bestow the gift of your love. Forgive us, we pray, when we don’t recognize your gifts; when we think we are entitled to your generosity; when we constantly ask for more; when we do not hear the cries of those around us. Teach us the ways of godliness. Grant us a spirit of contentment that we may be grateful for your provision and share what you give. As we are blessed by you, so may we be a blessing to others, in the name of your matchless gift, our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

(A short period of silence will follow.)

Words of Assurance

Anthem by our Choir

*Greeting One Another with the Peace of the Lord

Time for Children of All Ages

Proclamation of the Word

New Testament Lesson: 1 Timothy 6:6-19

*Gospel Hymn #156 “I Love to Tell the Story” (vs. 1, 3, 4)

The Gospel: Luke 16:19-31

Response to the Word of God

Congregational Hymn Sing

Sharing of Joys and Concerns

Silent Prayer followed by Pastoral Prayer

The Lord’s Prayer

The Offering of Our Gifts


*Prayer of Thanksgiving

Sending Forth

*Sending Hymn #64 “Holy, Holy, Holy!”

*Dismissal with Blessing

*Hymn of Blessing #673 “God Be with You”

Instrumental Postlude

Monday, September 20, 2010

Speaking Truth

Sermon for 9.19.10
Jeremiah 8.18-9.1; Psalm 79.1-9; 1 Timothy 2.1-7; Luke 16.1-13.

Please pray with me from today’s psalm: Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of your name; deliver us, and forgive our sins, for your name’s sake (Psalm 79.9). Amen.

From today’s Epistle: “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone.”

There are words of hope and comfort for us at the end of the sermon, but first I have some slogging to do. Please bear with me!

Our psalm this morning announces that the world has trashed the inheritance given us by God and defiled God’s holy temple. These words refer to conditions in ancient Israel, but I think most of us would agree that God’s gifts to us are not fully loved and that God’s holy laws are often broken, even though these gifts and laws are our sacred inheritance. In Luke, we have the story of the estate manager who cleverly uses his last days on the job to swindle his master. At the end of the passage, we are told bluntly that we “cannot serve God and wealth.”

Scandalous use of inheritance, scandalous use of responsibility. These readings are asking us to think about a wiser use of blessings, of our gifts, our time, talents, and service. No wonder they are sometimes used to launch a discussion of annual giving and the dreaded “M” word. Rather than doing that, let’s consider that such passages are asking us to think about speaking truth to a misuse of power or a misuse of assumed power. As such, the readings certainly ask us to think about stewardship—and that leads us straight to what is most important, namely our relationship with God.

Let’s start with that manager who is the steward of his master’s estate. The money and the deals he’s working with are not his. They have been delegated to him by a superior who expects that he will make the best returns possible. (You can see where Jesus is going with this so far.) But the steward has been caught in dishonesty and is being sacked. He doesn’t seem to desire confession, repentance, or contrition. In fact, he continues his dishonest behavior, brokering deals with debtors, while he has the power, to insure that he will have friends on the outside later. The final twist is the master’s commendation of his shrewd behavior. I’d bet that the master is pretty shrewd himself. Even though his steward’s behavior has cost him assets, it seems that he is intrigued and impressed by the other’s sheer, gutsy cleverness.

People really struggle with this parable, as you can imagine. Why is dishonesty being applauded? And then why do the next verses condemn dishonesty? And in what way does all of this build to a warning that money pulls us away from God? Does it always?

Maybe a number of sayings of Jesus were combined in this passage by disciples who didn’t want to lose a single word. It would be wonderful to be able to hear Jesus’ tone of voice. Maybe he was being sarcastic or ironic when he used the word “dishonest.” Maybe he was critiquing the economic system of his time with its exploitation by the wealthy of the poor or even middle class. Maybe Jesus was suggesting that there was no way to be honest in a system that was so brutally unjust. Maybe Jesus was speaking truth to power.

Here there is a bridge to our understanding of stewardship: We know about dishonest wealth in our society and we know about its effects on the poor and even not so poor. There are also those who must be considered ethically disadvantaged. How do we assess our actions now that we have no excuse for not knowing how they affect others, in sweat shops for example, on the other side of the globe? Jesus may even have been pushing further by showing us how a clever manager could undermine the landlord’s means of building his wealth. He’s a kind of Robin Hood, speaking truth by stealing from the rich to give to the poor. In God’s kingdom, after all, aren’t debts forgiven (“Forgive us our debts”) and aren’t slaves the equal of masters?

Maybe Jesus was sharing insights about means and ends. Maybe this is the way that Jesus was speaking truth to power. Think of an Andrew Carnegie: his wonderful philanthropy and the strike-breaking that helped build his fortune. Through the dishonest steward, Jesus may be asking us whether we are willing to say that part of our life can be peripheral to the Kingdom. What means do we use to accomplish good ends? What are our motives for the relationships we build? How are these relationships limited by the people we are willing to acknowledge as worthy of friendship?

And so we come to that famous rule: You cannot serve God and Mammon. That is true if by extreme love of wealth, we are pulled away from the serving love of others that witnesses to our love of God.

This truth leads to the beautiful passage from the letter to Timothy in which we are urged not only to prayer but to prayer for everyone, starting with those in high positions and moving right down the line. Lord knows we need it—all of us.

Sooner or later, prayer will draw us to the knowledge that God, revealed through Christ, wants every broken soul healed and loved. This is the true starting point of stewardship: using our heritage, our gifts and graces, our time, talent, and service to love as fully as possible; to bring the healing of comfort, support, and the power of God’s new life to everyone. That everyone includes each of us. Bringing healing to others brings it into our own hearts.

We are stewards, entrusted with life, companion creatures, and the world we share with all other life. Neither life nor planet is ours, although we seem to have a great deal of power over both. They are loans from God, given us to care for and enjoy in the very best ways we can. In creating us and all that surrounds us, God loved and loves us fully. So much so that God’s own goodness is also our most fundamental being. It is that which makes us, and it makes us whole.

The Anglican Bishop of South Africa and Nobel Prize winner, Desmond Tutu, writes that understanding our heritage of goodness “changes the way we see the world, the way we see others, and, most importantly, the way we see ourselves. The way we see ourselves matters. It affects how we treat people. It affects the quality of life for each and all of us” (7).[1] Treasuring the heritage that Bishop Tutu describes is stewardship.

And stewardship of God’s gifts goes further. God not only made us like God’s self but for God’s self. God’s Holy Spirit is within us and we are temples of that Holy Spirit. That means that the spirit of peace and of healing is within us also. We can call upon it. Doing so will fill us and our world with hope and joy. And there’s no telling where that will lead!

Let us pray with the words, once again, of Bishop Tutu:
My child, I made you for myself.
I made you like myself.
I delight in you….

You run everywhere looking for life,
Searching for the life of life.
All the while I am here.
I am as close as a prayer.
I am breathing in your breath….

Listen! For I have carved in you the heart to hear.
Listen and know that I am near.
I am as close as a prayer.
I am breathing in your breath.

Before you speak the word of worry or worship I hear you.
Before you sing your delight or moan your anguish I speak.
I am here.
I am as close as a prayer.
I am breathing in your breath….

With each breath you choose, my child, for you are free.
Will you breathe with me the breath of life?
Will you claim the joy I have prepared for you?
Will you seek me out and find me here?
Will you whisper the prayer?
Will you breathe in my breath? (16-7)


[1] Desmond Tutu and Mpho Tutu, Made for Goodness and Why This Makes All the Difference (New York: Harper One, 2010).

Monday, September 6, 2010

Throwing Pots

Morning Worship with Holy Communion, September 5, 2010
Jeremiah 18:1-11 and Luke 14:25-33

Please pray with me: May the words of my mouth and the meditation of each of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

From the prophet Jeremiah: “Then the word of the Lord came to me: … Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.”

I’ve never used a potter’s wheel. Maybe some of you have or have handled clay enough to know that it can really give your hands a workout. It’s messy. It can push back and that also allows it to be molded and to take and hold a shape. So I love Jeremiah’s comparison of God to a potter. God can be imagined as a five-star general (the Lord of Hosts) or, in Matthew, as a mother hen longing to gather her chicks under her wings. But for us, this morning, God is a down-to-earth potter working at the wheel, working hard because some of the pieces aren’t turning out so well and badly need reworking.

Now a potter can obviously smash, discard, or at least smush down a faulty pot before it’s dried. But what draws me is the way Jeremiah presents God as a creative force in our lives. First, this God is a professional, fully engaged, intent on drawing a good vessel from the clay, one that is useful and beautiful. Every turn of that wheel must be watched. This is not aimless, casual, or part-time work. Secondly, the clay itself is not passive like water or sand. It offers resistance to the potter’s hand. It can also be flawed because of impurities or because it has not been worked enough, prepared, before the actual shaping begins.

The comparisons to God and us are all too obvious: God, as watchful potter, intends—longs—to shape us as vessels. God knows there is something of sterling quality in our clay. It is too valuable to be thrown aside and discarded, and so God reworks and reshapes “as seems good.” God is aware of the condition of our clay and will do God’s best to draw us in ways that we could not imagine or were not willing to strive for. Throwing pots requires constant discernment of the piece and response to how it is coming along. The work of God-as-Potter is to help us become vessels of divine love and justice. And our Potter’s Grace will reach us, often when we are at our lowest or least expect it.

But there’s still us, so practiced at resisting over and over again that shaping—and reshaping—hand, that watchful eye and often fast-turning wheel. Jeremiah’s words describe us too. In our personal and common life together, we can choose to hear and respond. Or, like the crowd Jesus tries to shock into awareness in Luke this morning, we can care less about discipleship and relationship with God than we do about our own concerns, our own individual lives, acquisitions, achievements.

I didn’t include our usual Prayer of Confession this morning, but our Invocation asks that our worship may be a longing to find God and ourselves through God. It is that longing and a joy in finding that shapes our time together into worship. This morning, we do not have special Words of Assurance either, but in our prayer after the holy receiving of Communion, we will thank God from the bottom of our hearts for the “mystery in which You have given yourself to us” as Creator, ever-creating and shaping our lives. Without the mystery of God’s ever-present love, we are lost—just so much clay. Without the mystery of God’s ever-present commitment to us, we cannot experience the release of forgiveness, or any relief of pain and sorrow. After all, God-as-Potter is not only willing to take creative risks and get all messy for our sakes. Through the Incarnation, God was willing to live as clay—though without sin. God was willing to live as clay the better to understand us and the more fully to shape and to draw out our stubborn, self-involved selves.

Finally, the mystery of God-as-Potter and the often-resisting stuff with which God is committed to work—that would be us—calls me to separate the redemptive work we are given to do as disciples from those moments of pure Grace that can truly be considered miracles. Miracles do occur and we are right to pray for them, but let us first do all that we can to transform our lives and our world by the hard spiritual work of discipleship—by the hard spiritual love of discipleship—by actions that are in fact within our power. It’s sometimes easier to long passively for a miracle—“Wouldn’t it be a miracle if….” than it is to allow ourselves to respond to the firm, guiding hand of our ever watchful, laboring, and loving Potter.

Hear now our concluding prayer by the theologian Jack Riemer (slightly altered):[1]

We cannot merely pray to You, O God, to end war;
For we know that You have made the world in a way
That man must find his own path to peace
Within himself and with his neighbor.

We cannot merely pray to You, O God, to end starvation;
For you have already given us the resources
With which to feed the entire world
If we would only use them wisely.

We cannot merely pray to You, O God,
To root out prejudice,
For You have already given us eyes
With which to see the good in all people
If we would only use our eyes rightly.

We cannot merely pray to You, O God, to end despair,
For You have already given us the power
To clear away slums and to give hope
If we would only use our power justly.

We cannot merely pray to you, O God, to end disease,
For you have already given us great minds with which
To search out cures and healing,
If we would only use them constructively.
You have already given us great hearts with which
To bring comfort and support to those who are ill
And to be present with them.

Therefore we pray to You instead, O God,
For strength, determination, and willpower,
To do instead of just to pray,
To become instead of merely to wish.


[1] Quoted by Harold S. Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People (New York: Anchor Books, 1981), 130-1.

Monday, June 21, 2010

For Such a Time as This

Sermon for 6.20.10
Father’s Day & Report on Conference
1 Kings 19.1-8, Galatians 3.23-29, Mark 1.29-31

Please pray with me: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

From today’s Gospel: “Then the fever left her and she began to serve them.”

Last weekend was my first Conference, although I’d almost gotten there several times before. I’m afraid I wasn’t looking forward to a long drive and navigating new territory, I felt squeezed enough by my schedule and responsibilities here, and we all know the intensity of our grief last week for the loss of Olivia Belfiglio. Also, unless there’s a really good reason, I’m not usually one of your casts of thousands kind of person, and the Bishop had promised an assembly of 5000. (Actually, it topped 5500.) But I must tell you that I drove home Saturday afternoon with a full and grateful heart, so much so that I need to tell you about it.

Even before the grand procession with banners and the prayer service that followed, I began to be drawn in by the friendliness, high energy, and diversity of the crowd in the exhibit tents and open spaces. I actually found myself wondering whether heaven might not be a bit like that: joy, so many different kinds of people, and somehow a shared beat connecting us. To say nothing of all those chance encounters in the crowd of people I knew or know! Virginia and Lisa found me, even without a cell phone!

But what I equally wish each of you could have experienced was Worship. Of course Bishop Park warmed us up by having us sing every hymn imaginable and then, to illustrate the health of the body of Christ, he did 120 push ups. The service began cooking as several people rushed up to match him with checks of $120. I really understood the need for pushups when our preacher was introduced: Bishop James E. Swanson, Sr. whose Conference includes parts of Georgia, South Carolina, and West Virginia. Much as I would like to, I won’t try to imitate his good old Gospel style preaching—I won’t ask Steve to supply a background of music as I reach my main point; I don’t have a tie to loosen and you’re not going to allow me 45 minutes. But Bishop Swanson was a powerhouse, fully capable of focusing and unifying a crowd of thousands. Fully capable of giving us a vision, so that we and our church will not perish. It’s worth going to Conference even once, just for such an experience. We may not want this every Sunday. But it’s good to be reminded of who we are as a larger body and to hear that body sing, pray—and sit on the edge of its chairs in silence.

This message, based on our Gospel lesson, was simple and direct. There was Jesus, come into Peter’s house. And there was Peter’s mother, too sick to move. The Bishop reminded us that we don’t have to go halfway around the world to find people who are hurting. There are people right around our churches in need. People in our own congregations who may leave the service as sad as when they entered. Even when people are very different from us—male, female; Jew, Gentile; slave, free—they are still, as Galatians tells us, “children of God” in Christ Jesus. Don’t forget Elijah in 1 Kings: First, he is killing all the false prophets with a sword, and next, he is an exile, running for his life. Without the food and drink of angels, he would have perished.

And so the need around us is greater than we can anticipate. Our own needs, yes, but also the needs of others. We need the world so that we can be the people God created us to be. But many of us are suffering from spiritual fevers, lying flat. Then who serves? Except after the Resurrection, Jesus wasn’t usually the one to whip up a meal. That was the job of Peter’s wife’s mother—and she wasn’t doing it. The choice was to sit there and not eat—or heal the cooker! Jesus doesn’t discuss her. He goes to her, pays her some mind, reaches out to her, and lifts her up. She then does what any respectable Jewish woman would have done: she serves them. To illustrate, the bishop leaped off the stage, going up and down the aisles, raising people to their feet as he grasped their hand.

Here’s a concept! Here is Jesus’ challenge: Reaching out with the power, love, and energy of God. Christians pray to do this with all their heart and soul. We do it in this church. It happened yesterday as people brought dishes and deserts for the luncheon after the Memorial Service, a service for a family that has no relation to this church, but asked if we would serve them, asked if I would be willing to say the 23 Psalm over the ashes of a beloved wife. It happened yesterday as Shandy and Mike and their boys cleaned and scrubbed and made everything sweet-smelling and ready, as Joan and Edith cooked and presided. And the family was filled.
Yesterday, we were doing our best to witness to what Bishop Swanson was preaching. He knew he was preaching to people who try their best. But he wanted us to take as our own this example of our Lord. So in true evangelical fashion, he reminded us of the power of the Invitation at the end of a service. He wanted to give us his own energy and he wanted us to energize one another. And he didn’t want all the energy of that meeting to stay in the room.

I’m not going to invite you up to our altar today, but I’ll tell you the response to his altar call was serene, holy, and considerable. I was sitting next to Ann Rossini, whom some of you know. She had just been ordained the night before. I looked at her and she looked at me, offered her hand, and together with others we took our walk to the altar to give ourselves newly to Jesus and to those we would serve through him. This was a first for your pastor, although once, when I was thirteen and a high Episcopalian, I heard an invitation of this kind at an Evangelical church service and knew it included me. As I start my second year among you, I will continue to try my very best to be true to that call and to our Lord.

And now, it seems our best response to the invitation of Conference and to our Lord is that we reach out to one another with the peace and energy of Christ. People of God, let us greet one another in the name of Christ!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Prayer of Commendation

Commendation for a Service of Life, Death, and Resurrection for
Olivia Rose Belfiglio
at St. James United Methodist Church, Kingston
Wednesday, June 9, 2010
Pastors: Rev. David M. Jolly, St. James UMC
and Dora Janeway Odarenko, Town of Esopus UMC

The following were the concluding words offered by Pastor Dora:

Today we are praying for Olivia Rose and for ourselves. We can pray because we are a community of hope and we are not alone! Heaven and earth touch one another in an awesome and mysterious way at the time of death. There is comfort for us that Olivia is now in the eternal camaraderie of heaven into which she has been received as a friend and not as a stranger. We know that Olivia is now safe in the blessed company of the faithful, surrounded by hymns of joy and praise and victory.

When we celebrate the life of Olivia, we celebrate her continuing life with God and her new life in the true home to which she has been called and to which we too one day can go. This is our real cause for celebration today. Olivia is now a tenderly nurtured lamb of our Lord’s flock. Scripture assures us that “the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases.” Our Savior can lose none of the children that God has entrusted to His mercy and care. Olivia has been received “into the arms of mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints of light.”

Olivia now knows so much more than we do! For us still here below, perhaps it is heaven enough to imagine the heaven to which Olivia has been called, a heaven now filled with Olivia’s energy! Imagine the special gifts that she is bringing to heaven, her joy and spontaneity among them! Let us cry Alleluia for the full security that she now enjoys. We have work ahead of us, but Olivia is at rest from her labors. We are still wayfarers, but Olivia is living in her own country eternally. For us the Alleluia is sung in hope, but Olivia is singing it in hope’s fulfillment. Let us join her in that great song, all saying together, “Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia!” AMEN.

And now with the security of the children of God, let us pray,
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name….

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Remembrance Prayer

Memorial Day
May 31, 2010

Dearest God, we bless you for gathering us together here in safety. We praise you for all the good that you shower upon us in our county and in our land. We thank you on this Memorial Day for all Veterans, our best and brightest, who chose to put loyalty to freedom before love of self.

We thank you especially this day for those who, filled with honor, did not return. Their bravery and their supreme sacrifice must never be forgotten by anyone here. May their faithfulness and their great gift to each of us and to our country bring comfort to their families and friends. May our continuing tribute and pride ease the sorrow of those who love them.

We would also lift up to your mercy this day those whose names and whose sacrifice have not been remembered. They too were godly, and their righteous deeds have not been forgotten by you, our Heavenly Creator.

Righteous God, ruler of nations, preserve all who serve our country. Guide them and us into Your peace. AMEN.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Mindful of Us?

Sermon for Trinity Sunday (5.30.10)
Psalm 8; Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31; Romans 5:1-5; John 16:12-15

Please pray with me: Dearest God, come and nurture in us the spiritual gifts on which life in all Your fullness relies. We pray to You through your Son and in the renewing power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

From this morning’s New Testament Lesson: “And hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

Years ago, as the Red Army was marching into the Ukraine, a father prepared to say goodbye to his son, an officer in the White Army. The intensity of feeling, the love and pride, were understood by each. It was also understood that these were dangerous times and that they would probably not see one another again. There was little need for words, but the father gave his son a small coin minted in the year of the young man’s birth. The young man, who eventually became my father, entrusted the coin to me and it is one of my treasures.

The feelings generated by this story help me understand what Jesus and his disciples might have been feeling in our Gospel passage this morning. There was to be a parting and it would be very hard, too painful to put into words. But the love is so powerful that there will always be a connection. My grandfather gave my dad a coin, a token of enduring love that he could hold when everything else was gone, something he managed to keep through an escape that eventually led to New York. Jesus promised a gift to his frightened disciples. It is the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, who will guide and protect and speak in the name of Jesus and of the Father Almighty.

This Holy Spirit is an enduring lifeline from our Lord. And so for two centuries, Christians typically pray to the Father, through the Son, and in the Spirit. We call Father, Son, and Holy Spirit the Trinity, and on this Sunday, the Sunday after the excitement of Pentecost, we are invited to consider what thinking of our God as three-in-one might mean.

There are the historical events. Jesus was born as a human being, spoke of his heavenly Father, and promised a Comforter, an Advocate, who would remain with us after he ascended back to his Father. That Comforter announced itself with passionate urgency and inclusiveness on the Day of Pentecost. We are wonderfully prepared for the Comforter by the description of Lady Wisdom in the Book of Proverbs: “To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live.” And so we can think of the identity of these three: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. You may also have noticed that because I love to think of their function, I address them as Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. But churches have fought bitterly over the complicated relationship among the persons of the Trinity. Different answers are one reason for the schism between the Churches of the West and of the East. Arguments over the divinity and humanity of Christ are only one example, but such arguments caused blood to be shed. There are churches in the South today that are “Jesus only” churches. All of this means, of course, that students in seminary are tortured by having to write papers about the finer points of these controversies.

Far more important is for us to realize how blessed we are that our God is complex and rich in identity. Other religions attempt to capture this by having a pantheon, a whole collection of gods. We express God’s personhood as three-in-one, diverse and with differences, yet working together, in a harmony that is often a wonderful counterpoint of independent melodies joined into one. Our poor brains need to have something like a Trinity to hang onto since the fullness of God, the awesomeness of God is far beyond anything we can comprehend. It’s like the old story of the blind men and the elephant: to the one touching the leg, the elephant is like a tree; the tail feels like a rope; and the trunk seems like a snake. Both elephant and God are vaster.

Part of that vastness is the incredible generosity of God’s creation, a generosity that is also mindful of us, that sent Jesus to be one of us. This is also called love, the love—the letter to Romans tells us—that God poured into our hearts through Jesus and that Jesus pours into our hearts in the Holy Spirit, that he has given to us and wishes us to give to others.

For Proverbs, the incredible generosity of the Spirit of Truth is called Wisdom, a figure who is a continuing presence in our lives. For Proverbs and the great collection of Wisdom literature, she is a woman, Lady Wisdom. The description here is poetic and powerful. Proverbs describes Wisdom/personifies her as calling to us publicly, from the crossroads. The point is that she is strong and assertive, with a fresh perspective that she is not afraid to express. Because she stands in the crossroads, she speaks to everyone. She was not just added at the time of Jesus, but was there from the beginning, helping God. She is still here, helping God and us. She is “mindful of us,” not as a chore but with gladness, “rejoicing in [God’s] inhabited world and delighting in the human race.” She is our Sustainer, connecting us to past, present, and future. What companionship do we look for with her? What companionship do we have with her as part of God? How are we willing to witness to her as an aspect of our God?

What appeals to me most about the Trinity is its reciprocity. This reciprocity is basic to our lives as Christians: God giving to Jesus, Jesus giving to the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit beside God, “like a master worker,” God’s daily delight. The suggestion of attraction is appropriate here. For the Trinity is a circle of holy love. The Eastern Church—the church that is struggling now so desperately because of the wars in the Middle East—has always described the Trinity as perichoresis (peri + a Greek chorus), literally a group of dancers moving all around. Beautiful dancing always involves a give and take and the dance of the Trinity is no exception. Or here’s another metaphor of intimate involvement: Imagine “the Trinity as a plant, with the Father as a deep root, the Son as the shoot that breaks forth into the world, the Spirit as that which spreads beauty and fragrance” (Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace, 291).

Clearly this group of persons called the Trinity is not static, each person in its own little box with a fixed identity or function. Such a bureaucratic God wouldn’t be very helpful. Think of all the spiritual paperwork. It’s fine to turn in prayer to the sympathy of the Son or to the power of the Parent. But the compassion is united to the power. They are connected, united in the Trinity. Our God is whole. God is not fractured, broken, or partial, as we are. We can turn to God’s wholeness and be gathered into it.

Our Godhead/our Trinity is organic, either growing or dancing or both! It’s “a community that holds together by containing diversity within itself” (Norris, 289). It’s a community that’s diverse and yet works in harmony. It’s a community that not only needs the totality of itself and totally loves itself, but that draws us into itself as well. God is not a maker or owner. It is as One who suffers and who self-gives that God can claim “creation and all creatures as creator and redeemer” (M. Douglas Meeks in God’s Life in Trinity, 17). This is crucial: God as first person may be seen as a mighty honcho, if looked at in one way, but God as Trinitarian community owns and receives by giving and by the giving of self.

In this way the Trinity is mindful of us, draws us in, by overwhelming gift, example and precept. God’s community-with-us invites us into community with God and with one another. It fully shares our suffering and our joys. It connects us in full openness and receptivity to those families who are about to join our church. It invites us to recognize the fullness, the richness and the life-giving power of a community shaped and guided by such an awesome God.

Please pray: Dearest Triune God, joyful and faithful and strong, gather us into your fullness. Nurture us, teach us, and build within us a fuller understanding of you and of your ever-responsive and dynamic love for us. Teach us to hope despite the sorrows of this life. Keep us open to fresh encounters with you in all that you have been and are and will be. Through your love for us and in the way that you know best, set us free to become your children. Amen.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Stay Right Here with Us

Sermon for Pentecost (5.23.10)
Psalm 104:24-34; Acts 2:1-15; Romans 8:14-17; John 14:15-17, 25-27

Please pray with me: “May our meditation be pleasing to God, for in God we rejoice.” Amen. (from Psalm 104)

From today’s Gospel: “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you and he will be in you”

We all seem to like excitement, especially when it involved drama or danger. How many times on a Saturday night, when I’m sitting in my office, have I heard the fire sirens go off. And then how many times on Sunday morning are those sirens the first topic of conversation. “Did you hear them? What was going on?”

Something of the sort happened on the Pentecost after Jesus’ Ascension. This holy day, still called Shavuot by observant Jews, was one of the three great festivals of Judaism. Held on the “fiftieth day” after Passover—Pente-cost, it was a time when the first fruits of the harvest were given to God and it was a celebration of the giving of the first five books of the Old Testament, called the Torah, and, within the Torah, the Ten Commandments. Let’s not miss an exciting connection here. In both cases, it’s a question of something new: the excitement of the first crops of the season juxtaposed to the memory of early covenants with God, a Promised Land, and new rules—the Ten Commandments—for governing the community of faithful and oneself. And so this was considered a time to honor once again the covenants of God with God’s people and to renew covenants.

Jerusalem must have been crowded, not only with pilgrims to the Holy City for this festival, but with immigrants—“devout Jews from every nation”—who were living there. This immigrant group is important to the story. Chances are that they were at least bilingual. They probably spoke Greek, the language of the Roman military and the language of business for that period. But they also probably spoke their native language, and that often only at home or with those from their home country. And here, let’s not miss the contrast: there is the language of Empire spoken by those subject to Empire and there is the language of childhood and safety and comfort.

There is a third group in this story, the group that we begin with: “They were all together in one place.” The “they” and “all” seem to refer to the entire community of Christians, some 120 according to the previous chapter of Acts: women and men, the Disciples, and all those others whose names have been forgotten. The space must have been large, probably the courtyard of the temple, and it is this group that the fire engines can be imagined rushing to.

It’s not just a question of son et lumiere, a sound and light show. Suddenly there is what might to be called chaos. Out of nowhere and into the space where they are sitting comes the sound of a roaring wind, and then there are flames dancing, with a tongue of flame, “as of fire,” on the ready, above each head. We grownups know that in the Bible this kind of energy can only come from God: think Moses (Exodus 19), think Elijah (I Kings 19). But it’s really wonderful to give Sunday School students paint—lots of it, mural paper, and time to express this event, to really go for it. For what Luke is trying to capture here is something so mind-blowing that only images such as “as of fire,” can approach it—images, and then the crowd that quickly gathers.

Their curiosity and their group identity are soon transformed as each hears about “God’s deeds of power” in his or her own native language. This is no propaganda spoken in the language of Rome. The speakers seem to be Galileans, but their words, provided by the tongues of flame, burn into the hearts of the crowd. Acts records that 3,000 that day were baptized

I wanted us to hear Scripture read by youth this morning because I wanted to capture some of the freshness of what happened on that first Pentecost. These youth will shortly enter a Confirmation class and that means new beginnings and new commitments, both of which were there on that first Pentecost. I also wanted a surprise and some sense of overlapping realities as we heard the languages of the various prayers all at the same time: Italian, French, German, Spanish, and English.

I’ll bet that a literal translation of those first “deeds of power” would not have been identical. So for today, I asked people to think of a prayer; I didn’t tell them what. I hoped each person would concentrate on their particular text or message as they spoke. Obviously it’s not a question of out shouting one another. On that first day, the words were intended for specific ears and apparently reached them, despite the din.

It was interesting to call people this week to find who might be able to speak in another tongue. Those you heard this morning seemed really willing to take on the challenge and to think about how to pray in a language that they do not use every day. As a result, I began thinking about how differently we each pray all the time, even when we are given the same words, and about how right it is that we can do this. I began thinking too about praying and then acting upon those prayers in a way that transcends differences of cultures, backgrounds, circumstances. Such praying, speaking, and acting transcend the world’s expectations.

The first Pentecost promises us an Advocate, a Holy Spirit sent by Jesus Christ that abides with us, even though the world with its conventional wisdom cannot understand or accept such power. For me, this morning, this story of the first Pentecost is about the miracle of speaking so that the people who need to hear us can do so, whether they be family members, colleagues, or strangers, and it’s about hearing what God wants us to hear. We can wish to do this all we like, but the actual doing comes as we invite and allow the grace of the Holy Spirit to breathe deeply into our lives and actions. After all, every day the Holy Spirit invites us to use a new language, to find a new way of doing things.

And so is today the birthday of the church, as it is often called? In terms of the number of believers who are added and the way of life that they begin to follow, one might say so. But it seems to me that today is far more the arrival, and hence the birthday, of the Holy Spirit, sent by Jesus, to quite literally enlighten the disciples and those that happened to be around them that day. That same Holy Spirit animates our churches and each one of us. Through it, God’s word is still active, still brooding over the waters, still creating: now serenely, now restlessly. God’s covenants with us never grow old. The Spirit of God is something that church can help us experience. It is also something that each of us can bring to church and that can transform that institution into the sacred body of Christ, thus bringing a little closer the day of the Lord.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, help us to obey the Spirit’s call, both through speaking and listening to the languages you want us to hear. Remembering the light of our Christ candle and the living presence of Pentecost, let us show forth the glory that you are shining on us today. Remembering our Christ and the living presence of Pentecost, let us proclaim God’s deeds of power and God’s love, even when the world thinks otherwise. Remembering our Christ and the living presence of Pentecost, let us be the active peace of Christ to all whom we meet and to this earth that God has entrusted to us to share. We trust your sweet Holy Spirit to stay right here with us. We pray in Christ’s name. Amen.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Lively Faith

Sermon for 5.16.2010, Ascension Sunday (Observed)
Psalm 47; Acts 1:1-11; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53

Please pray with me: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

From today’s New Testament lesson: “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

I have a friend, an African-Cuban, who likes to tell me about her old-fashioned, devout mother. When, as a teen, Estella would droop around the house, disappointed with school, or a boyfriend, or whatever, her mother would say emphatically, “Daughter, look UP!” She wasn’t talking about posture or manners. She was talking faith: Raise your eyes, daughter. The King of Glory is in charge!

Estelle’s mother knew the passage we heard today, knew that when the time came for Jesus to end his time with his disciples on earth, he blessed them and as he was blessing them, he was “carried up into heaven.” Acts tells us that “a cloud took him out of their sight.” In the Bible, a cloud often indicates the presence and power of God. Remember “the pillar of cloud by day” that guides the Children of Israel. Certainly Jesus disappeared in a way that made them understand that he had moved beyond ordinary human sight and had joined God. The notion of the Trinity had not yet been developed and so the first Christians speak of “being seated at God’s right hand—the favored side—in heavenly places.” They certainly understand that the one who had been so disgraced by the crucifixion is now exalted beyond our comprehension.

Although the disciples may not have been able to put the experience into words, they knew how to act upon it. For the first time, they worship him. They finally understand that this man whom they have loved as a friend and teacher, and with whom they have broken bread, is also greater and more powerful than they could have imagined. Like one’s response to God, adoration and reverence and praise are what are now appropriate for Jesus. And so, when they return to Jerusalem, the joy of this realization is so great that they continually seek the holiness of the temple as the most fitting place to bless God for what has happened.

We often talk to God like a friend, a relative, an authority figure who needs to listen more fully, maybe even needs to be whipped into shape. But haven’t there also been times when the awesome nature of our God assails us? There is a healing, a new diagnosis, a change of heart, a job, a gift that can only be God-sent. One winter when I was in an elementary school in inner-city New Haven, I was assigned a group of non-readers who had to reach a certain level to be promoted. As you can imagine, there was real pressure from the District, and so I got to work in small groups or one-on-one, my favorite way to teach. Many of the students were able to make the grade and the consequences for them were powerful. But I remember one in particular. At the end of the year, I made an appointment with his mother. “Javon has passed,” I told her. Her immediate reaction was “Thank you, Lord Jesus!” These words were neither casual nor perfunctory. They were a cry of adoration to the One from whom all blessings flow. For several moments, the power of Jesus filled the room. Finally she was ready to turn to me for our conference. Her faith moved me one step closer to seminary.

So this is what Luke records for us and urges us never to forget: There was a birth, a ministry, a terrible death, a resurrection, and many appearances after that resurrection. And then there was also the Ascension, one of the principle days of celebration for the Universal Church. We have to have Ascension to mark the end of the earthly life of our Lord and to give it closure. Ascending completes his life by incorporating it into the life of God from which he came. After that everything is touched by something greater, something bigger, something awesome and often hard for us to wrap our hearts around. When our lives need something far bigger, far greater than we can imagine for ourselves, I urge us all to remember the Ascension.

And yet, as always, there is something more. At the end of Luke’s Gospel, we’ve just seen that Luke records that the disciples worship Jesus and commit themselves to praising God for what they have experienced. Well they might. Well we might. But Acts was written by the same author as Luke, and in Acts, there is a slightly different take. As the disciples are staring up into heaven—sometimes I think they’re gawking, sometimes I think of them in a holy trance—two men appear to challenge them and get them moving: “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus…will come in the same way as you saw him go.” Come how? Come when? That is not explained. But if Jesus is now right next to God and if he’s capable of returning, our worship and praise fill us with power that we can exercise in any number of ways as witnesses for Jesus Christ.

It’s appropriate that these two men/angels/heavenly messengers appear in Acts since Acts is a book of works, of witnessing. The witnessing of the first apostles, largely of evangelism, may not be our witnessing, but there is certainly the expectation that, like them, as our spiritual experience deepens, our faith and our witness of our faith will deepen as well. How can we not? I’m not only talking about food pantries, or community gardens, or suppers, or Apple Festivals, although you know how much I love them. This witness can also be personal, for us to work out in deep prayer with God and with one another.

I included the passage from Ephesians because of its suggestions for the way this witness is nurtured. Ephesians speaks of the “wisdom and revelation” that develop as we “come to know” Jesus. Gradually we can better understand the “hope to which he has called [us],” “the riches of his glorious inheritance.” The power that pulled Jesus from the tomb and transformed his disciples with a new faith is the same power that seats Christ Jesus next to God and makes him the fullness of God in all things. Our Lord Jesus Christ fills all things, is filling and will fill all things in ways we cannot imagine.

This new Jesus is the light we see by. As the theologian Rowan Williams has said, “We see the world in a new way because we see it through him, see it with his eyes” (Rowan Williams, A Ray of Darkness, p. 69). As we do this, we become committed to the world and its creatures—including ourselves—in a new way. This is a lively faith—a faith that is alive and a life that is holy because it is transformed by love for God and neighbor and with gratitude and humility for ourselves and our own private weaknesses and struggles.

In our opening prayer this morning, we prayed to Christ as higher than high and yet with footprints that are still warm on earth. That is the paradox of Ascension and that is its blessing: Because Jesus’ life after Ascension is so clearly bound up with God’s, heaven and earth are also bound together, and earth does not have the last word. Isn’t this really what the Incarnation—the coming into flesh of Christ—has prepared us for? What we think of as the powers and realities of this life—its evils, and illness, and death—are not the ultimate power.

The gravity of this world has been undone. We are free to look up. We are commanded to look up. God has put all things under Christ’s feet, “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion.” This day completes Easter. Now both heaven and earth are filled with Christ’s presence and with a totally new kind of power. We are commanded to look up—and then to look around and about where we are placed. There is a new era, a new vocation for us to be engaged in and committed to.

Let us pray: Dearest Christ, keep us lifted up with you so that we may grow in faith and the fruit of that faith. Lead us in our journey with you and enlighten our hearts so that we may know the hope to which you are calling us. Give us the grace to trust in you as the continuing source of power and strength and to imagine your ever unfolding lordship over the whole of creation. Amen.

Monday, April 26, 2010


Sermon for Fourth Sunday of Easter (4.25.10)
Psalm 23; Acts 9:36-43; Revelation 7:9-17; John 10:22-30

Please pray with me: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, you who are both Shepherd and Lamb, both our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.

From the book of Revelation: “And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

This fourth Sunday of Easter is loaded with special significances. It’s called Good Shepherd Sunday, Heritage Sunday, Earth Day Sunday, because of Earth Day last week, and now Faith in Action. The image of the good shepherd comes from Psalm 23 and from the praise of Christ the Lamb that we just heard read from Revelation. Heritage Sunday commemorates the creation of our church, The United Methodist Church, from the joining of The Methodist Church with the Evangelical United Brethren Church on April 23, 1968. It also celebrates the courageous people whose witness we are continuing by being here this morning. The convergence of the two churches that formed our present church points to the kind of unity promised in the passage from Revelation: a multitude, from every nation and tribe.

The subject of Earth Day—the third possible name for this Sunday—and our relationship to creation will require a whole service in the near future. But today we must look at Faith in Action because we have been asked today by our District to declare our Faith through Action. That is certainly a continuing commitment of this congregation, even if we are not out on the streets at this moment. It is also the theme of our central story for this morning about Tabitha, a widow. What Acts really wants us to know is that she was a disciple. The word, in its feminine form, is used right away to describe her: “Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha…She was devoted to good works and acts of charity.”

That is an exciting introduction, especially in a culture that devalued women unless they had wealth or wealthy connection. The early Christian community, on the other hand, was committed to mutual sharing and support. The community took responsibility for its widows. Tabitha is therefore neither invisible nor seen as useless. In fact, these first Christian communities were greatly empowered by the labor of such women. Tabitha is one of them. When Peter arrives, summoned in haste by two men—don’t you love it!—all the widows show him “the tunics and other clothing” that she had made. She is not a person they want to lose.

Peter brings her back to life. His raising her from the dead is an awesome and powerful action that is meant to remind us of Jesus’ raising of Jairus’ daughter and of his own resurrection. Peter’s action produces many converts. But the story is probably more about Tabitha and the kind of community that she is helping shape than about this action of Peter.

What church doesn’t have a Tabitha? I’m looking right at many of you—and there’s always room for more. You are those who demonstrate your wealth and power by compassion. I felt surrounded by Tabithas as I chatted with our Wednesday morning Crafts Group this week. Or as I spoke with Food Pantry people. Or as I prepare to meet with Church School teachers or the Vacation Bible School Planning Committee. The list goes on and on. And for the men here, I’m not forgetting Peter, a disciple of boundless energy.

There are several basic ideas embedded in this small but important story about a woman whose example was too important to let die. First: What is central to this new reign of Christ is God’s value system based on mutual compassion, not gender or membership in a particular family or social group. At the end of our reading, to underscore the point, we are told that Peter goes off to stay with a tanner, of all people! Tanners by definition would be unclean—Gentiles—since they carried the smells and blood of dead animals.

Second is the interconnection of faith and good works. Since Tabitha is a disciple, she must also have been a believer. But her life of faith isn’t being examined. What is stressed here is that faith and acts of service or charity or compassion go together. One may even be evidence of the other. The point is made in our Gospel reading from John today, when Jesus tells his adversaries: “The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me.”

Third is the glimpse into this early community that has developed beyond Jerusalem, on the coastline, in Joppa. I’d love to know more about this life of disciplined sharing. What other forms might their compassion have taken? What simple kindnesses were extended and what small cruelties or careless talk avoided? We know from many of the letters written by Paul that problems developed in the young churches, but the snapshot this morning from Acts gives us a healthy glimpse of a good woman who was loved, mourned, and wonderfully restored to life.

Loved and mourned. Note that she does not seem to have been ignored in her illness or her dying. This simple detail in the story is important for us today: No one should have to face disease or sorrow or death alone. Prayer partners and pastoral concern through cards, emails, calls, and visits are crucial for complementing medical diagnoses and treatments. They too are Faith in Action, our Prayer Life in Action. Our Joys and Concerns, lifted up before the community here on Sundays, are an essential beginning of that process. Coming to church as we do suggests that, to some degree at least, we wish a common life together. Living in community invites us to resist the intense protectiveness and habits of privacy and proud individualism that much in our culture fosters. When harm strikes, we pull into ourselves so no one will know that we or our bodies have failed us, so no one will know how vulnerable we really are.

Here is a quotation from The Sacred Journey by the Frederick Buechner:

To do for yourself the best that you have it in you to do—to grit your teeth and clench your fists in order to survive the world at its harshest and worst—is, by that very act, to be unable to let something be done for you and in you that is more wonderful still. The trouble with steeling yourself against the harshness of reality is that the same steel that secures your life against being destroyed secures your life also against being opened up and transformed by the holy power that life itself comes from (p. 46).

What we are meant to remember from Tabitha’s story is a community that suddenly finds itself in distress and therefore vulnerable. And so together they weep, together they care for the deceased, and together they dare to hope that Peter will be able to help them. By doing these things, they are actually putting all of their spiritual strength and energy into life and service. The story that restores Tabitha to the community that is her family is a wonderful one for the Easter season.

But what happens to spiritual strength and energy when the healing does not come or does not come in the way we hope? When we have drawn up our own personal maps for a particular cure rather than for God’s plan for our healing? Our Easter readings recognize those many moments within the life of our community that continue to try us and test us. This is why the passage from Revelation is included this morning.

John of Patmos reminds us that the Lord who is always our Shepherd was also the helpless lamb that was slain and who first knew despair and pain. That too is the message of Easter. When John writes so powerfully in this chapter from Revelation of those “robed in white” who “have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb,” he is most obviously describing those who have been martyred for their faith. But who is to say that those who have suffered horribly from cancer or Parkinson’s or discrimination or domestic violence will not also have their robes of pain and humiliation washed white through the redeeming love of Christ, either here or hereafter? John is celebrating Christ’s transforming, healing love that renews spiritual strength and energy. And so this morning’s text from Revelation can proclaim that the lamb who is our shepherd will guide us to springs of the water of life and wipe away every tear from our eyes.

Let us pray: Dearest Lord, let us rejoice in the strength that we can find in our church community and that we can offer to it. Let us know that we each can be Tabithas, disciples blessed by God and dearly beloved, whatever our contribution. Let us also be humble enough and brave enough—either in our times of success or of sorrow—to let go of our own carefully drawn roadmaps for you. Rather may you work within us through the grace of those around us in this holy fellowship and through your own great love and mercy. Amen.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Rescued from Ourselves

Sermon for 4.18.10, 3rd Sunday of Easter
Psalm 30; Acts 9:1-20; Revelation 5:11-14; John 21:1-19

Please pray with me: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

From today’s New Testament reading: “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”

This week I was introduced to two families. The first consists of an elderly brother and sister. The sister has Alzheimer’s. One of her grown nephews lives with them. They are known to be very poor and if the condition of their modest house is any indication, this is probably the case. They have been reported for the outside appearance of their property and have made some attempts to neaten it, but they long for a railing on the porch that extends from the second story, so that they can go out on it without fear of falling. I learned that some members of the family had attended Trinity Methodist Church before it closed and then had come here briefly.

I also learned that the brother, now 83, works at the Esopus Dog Shelter where he is known for his extreme kindness to the strays who must make that their home. People give him cans and bottles to redeem, perhaps for his own needs. He spends every penny from them for the dogs, buying them extra food or toys or blankets. The hot dogs he brings may not be good for them and he may be misguided in thinking that they need more protein, but he is loved for his generosity and love for his poor kennel friends.

The other family consists of a mother and son. The son has a dog who is his best buddy. The house in which they have always lived has just been condemned. The mother, who has a number of serious health issues, has been sent to live with a daughter in another town and the son with his dog has been placed in The Capri. Their plight was uncovered in January when it was discovered that they had neither heat nor running water. The mother has asked to be allowed to reenter the house to save some little objects that are precious to her; when I asked whether anyone else could help, I was told the building was too unstable to enter.

I am describing residents of Esopus, people who have lived here all their lives. They have not drifted here from Kingston or elsewhere. I had heard something of these people, but learned more as I searched for work for Faith in Action, the project that had been suggested by our District for next Sunday.

Once I learned—only this week—that the Clean Sweep was going to take place on Saturday, I felt momentary panic, wondering what on earth we’d do to fulfill our obligation to the District! As I called the Town Hall yet once more, I began looking for something personal, more one-on-one. The Faith in Action proposal has gotten me thinking deeply about how our faith might take action, beyond the many ways in which it already does in this church. I’m not a believer in quick fixes, and I suspect that right now we could start planning an action for a “Faith in Action” next April.

One of the people I’ve described has been coming to our Food Pantry and so that is good. But perhaps there will be other ways in which we’ll be able at least to touch families or people in need in a meaningful way and in a way that they will perceive as caring and God-sent. I am not dreaming that we can fix everything or even very much of what is broken. That would be foolish as well as arrogant. But this week we have been given a much fuller vision of the possibilities. No matter what we do—or chose not to do or realize we are unable to do—we have, in fact, been given a larger view. We’ve been invited to see some of the neighbors we hadn’t seen. There are concerns and joys to be awakened and they lie all around us.

Is this so unlike what happened both to Saul (alias Paul) and to Peter? The wonderful thing about comparing our lives to Scripture is that Scripture does not mince words about God’s role. Scripture makes it clear that God intervenes. Saul, an earnest and educated man, had clearly been on the wrong path, thinking that sweeping up dirty Christians was the best service he could offer his faith. He had just been present at the stoning of Stephen, the first to die in the name of Christ, and now Saul is breathing murder against other disciples as well. But Stephen had begged God not to hold the sin of killing him against those who were throwing stones, and what shortly afterwards happens to Saul is clearly God’s doing. God’s perspective was that Saul was a forgiven man—and, moreover, a useful man, too good to waste. And so God works to change his life. When God tells Ananias to heal Saul, the poor man is afraid that maybe even God is confused. “Surely not Saul,” he says. But Saul is precisely the one.

Saul’s story is as dramatic as his crimes. Maybe we think God is only present when there are flashing lights and a provocative question from on high. But we’ve all been on the wrong path and God doesn’t have favorite sinners to convert. God turns me around too, even at my most normal and boring. Since God is the primary agent of change, God can transform even the most ordinary. The fact is that God isn’t done with any of us yet, nor does God consider any of our actions as merely a private affair. In our collective foolishness, rottenness, or brokenness, we are never too damaged for God to use. Or for God to combine together for the common good.

And so Christ appears to Peter and to the others on the seashore, after they have gone back to their former livelihood of fishing. This is the Resurrected Christ but remember the powerful description in Revelation this morning. This one is also the Lamb, the totally weak creature who was slaughtered, but who then is praised by the united singing of every single creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea. There are no divisions, no rejections, no shunnings here. This lamb in his weakness revealed the power of God that moves and unites the world—and so certainly God will move us and those around us.

And so to the total amazement of Peter and to the others on the seashore, Christ appears, cooking them a sacred meal, showing that he will continue to bless and feed them. For Peter, who had let Christ down so badly, there is the additional blessing of forgiveness and self-forgiveness, followed by an invitation to start doing. Just as Peter denied Jesus three times, so Christ leads Peter in affirming his love for him three times, followed by the command that will shape the rest of Peter’s life: “‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’…And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep.’”

In both these Scriptural accounts—as well as in our own story here this week—we are reminded that it is in God’s light that we see light and that it is by God’s love that we discern our path. Remembering this will allow hope and trust to arise when we feel we have gone down into the Pit. When things go well, we love to say “I know what I’m doing, I’ve got it all figured out,” but when we crash, we need not burn. We do need to confess that it is God who will save us because we certainly cannot do it alone. In trusting and waiting, in praying and praising, we are allowing God to direct our lives.

Let us pray: Dearest Lord, take our brokenness and that of others and make it into your victory. Let us know that we are too good to waste. May our steps be guided by you and may our sight be opened by your Holy Spirit. May our hearts and lives be a worthy witness to your goodness and glory and may we remember to give you our unending thanks and praise. Amen.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Now What?

Sermon for 2nd Sunday of Easter (4.11.10)
Acts 5:27-32; Psalm 150; Revelation 1:4-8; John 20:19-31

Please pray with me: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

From this morning’s New Testament reading: But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than any human authority.”

In the Children’s Time, I encouraged us all to whoop it up. Meanwhile, in the Gospel passage, the disciples are hiding. In Acts, Peter and the other apostles are in deep trouble with the Sanhedrin, the central religious council in Jerusalem. And in Revelation, seven churches are under attack. There are big mood shifts here. As we begin our post-Easter life this morning, what are we meant to take away as gifts and responsibilities or challenge?

For us, Easter evening may mean cleaning up the kitchen. In the Gospel on this night, no matter what Mary may have told them earlier, the disciples are behind locked doors. Suddenly Jesus appears among them. Although he greets them traditionally, “Peace be with you,” these words should remind the faithful of his promise at their last meal together, when he urged them not to be troubled or frightened because he is leaving his peace with them and that this is the peace of God. He then shows them the evidence of his crucifixion.

As they rejoice, he moves quickly and, with his action, this day takes on a new meaning. The peace that he immediately offers them this time begins a commissioning: They are to do God’s work in the world, empowered by the Holy Spirit that he breathes upon them. It is an investiture that carries its own power. The seminary term for this is “epiclesis” and I speak it every time we celebrate Holy Community: After the affirmation of our faith—Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again,” the Service of Word and Table directs me to pray, “Pour out your Holy Spirit on us gathered here, and on these gifts of bread and wine.”

The ones to whom Jesus speaks on this evening are now his apostles, literally “his sent ones,” with the power not only to forgive but to judge the broken, flawed humanity of which he has clearly himself been a part. Forgiving and judging—it doesn’t get much tougher than this. But, for us, rather than thinking of all those others in Christian history who have used such authority to excommunicate or deprive or shun, perhaps we should link them, as Jesus does, to the authority of the peacemaker who brings comfort to the afflicted and shows affliction to the comfortable.

So maybe this is what we—ordained or not—are being given for Easter: the challenge of bearing Christ’s life-breath to the world, the holy responsibility of speaking words of peace, of saying what God wants to hear spoken so that humankind and the creation of which it is a part do not perish. If any of you are puzzled here, you should be. According to John, the Holy Spirit is being given on Easter, rather than on Pentecost as in the Book of Acts. Pentecost is a wonderful moment in the history of the church—and I’ll get all excited about it when the time comes, but I love the way John ties the breath of Resurrection as the particular Eastertide gift to us. Surely each of us can embody some part of the new breath, the new life that comes with Christ’s Resurrection.

And we’re only getting started: Thomas was not in the room that Sunday evening and when his friends told him that Jesus had been with them, his response is basically “No way, unless I see for myself.” And so the scene repeats itself a week later—this evening, in fact. This time Jesus invites Thomas to touch his wounds. Interesting when we remember that Jesus asked Mary not to touch him, not to reduce him to the human being she had cherished. Thomas, on the other hand, must be given permission to touch so that he can know that Jesus is not simply an apparition. We will never know whether Thomas really accessed that proof; instead we are given Thomas’s powerful affirmation: “My Lord and my God!” (These were the words that, years ago during Confirmation, I was taught to say during the consecration.)

I think that we get sidetracked by making a big fuss over Doubting Thomas. Thomas simply hadn’t seen Jesus yet. The others, including Mary, had. Perhaps only the Beloved Disciple deserves special credit, since John (who was writing for the Beloved Disciple of course) says that after seeing the linen wrappings in the tomb he believed, though as yet even he didn’t understand the Scripture. The point is that up to this moment, belief depended on physical evidence of some kind directly connected to the person of Jesus. Jesus is now preparing his disciples and all who follow them to this very day to believe based on hearing. I am not discounting visions or gifts of pure grace received through the most ordinary event or the most profound moment of sacramental worship. But right here, still well within the Easter moment, Jesus is birthing a church’s ongoing life as a community of faith that sustains itself by comparing testimony and witness: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” This is what we do in church or when we learn our prayers at our parents’ knees.

Loving and understanding Thomas’ stubbornness, which surely we also share, and then his complete and immediate capitulation, of which we are also capable, we might only wish that Thomas had been willing to believe the friends with whom he had lived and worked during their time with Jesus. At least for ourselves in our own worshipping communities, it is probably important to believe in the goodness and the witness of one another, without receiving a direct tap on the shoulder from on high. How much we have to learn from one another’s spiritual journeys and derailments. At least, we can check our tendency to discard opinions or dedications or motives that differ from our own.

And so my question: Now what? In our short passage from Acts, we see the immediate and inevitable response of some who were in that locked room. Summoned before the Sanhedrin, Peter and the other apostles get a taste of the hostility that will shortly lead to the martyrdom of Stephen by stoning. But Peter’s answer is clear: Because of what he has witnessed and because of the power of the Holy Spirit, “We must obey God rather than any human authority.”

Easier said than done. Peter is asserting that his membership in the newly emerging church requires that he follow the life of Christ and in so doing become a part of the body of Christ in this world. Peter is not defying the authorities, he is simply faithful to his witness. Christ and Christ’s body in this world will always suffer the same fate. But to be a witness is to take an active stance. Not aggressive but not passive either. It is to act on principle, to seize the opportunity to make known—in ways that prayer and the strength of community must reveal—the truth of God’s Word and God’s Word made Flesh. So here is another Easter gift—maybe not so much the gift of gumption (although a lot of us are good at that) as the desire for discernment, for fuller faithfulness and more faithful choices, for the energy of witness.

Such choices were being demanded of the seven churches to whom another John was writing in the letter that we call the Book of Revelation. We’re not sure which of two different and horrible persecutions they were enduring, but it’s clear that for them, as for us now, times were hard and full of fear. Once again, peace is offered from the faithful witness, Jesus Christ, who is here clearly empowering them to “be a kingdom,” a community of “priests serving” God. John wants to inspire his readers, fill them with hope that God controls human destiny, and that Christ will come again. John doesn’t know when, but he writes boldly since for him all times are held in the hand of the Lord God who is the first and the last, the one who is and who was and who is to come.

We can bask in Easter resurrection and victory over death, but we are absolutely right in feeling that much remains to be done. There is sometimes a flatness to Easter. We inwardly ask why there is so much joy when so much suffering remains. Our Easter celebration must not discount the pain around us. The point, I think—and this is surely another Easter gift—is the knowledge that God’s triumph is not finished.

The promise of Easter is waiting to be embodied by each of us. Easter challenges us to consider what relationships look like for Easter people. What our own behavior looks like. What issues, locally and globally, can begin to usher in the Kingdom. Being faithful as Easter people means remembering the God who is and who is to come.
Let us pray: Dear Lord, give us the grace and the will to inwardly digest the gifts of Easter so that we may be even more faithful witnesses and so that we and the creation of which we are a part may be transformed by your life-giving spirit and filled with the joy of Resurrection. Amen.

Monday, April 5, 2010

This Unexpected Day

Easter Day 4.4.10
Psalm 118:14-24; Isaiah 65:17-25; Acts 10:34-43; John 20:1-18

Please pray with me: On this Resurrection morning, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of each of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

From this morning’s Gospel: “Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord.”

We have had a wonderful Holy Week, a week that I will not soon forget. Even though not all of you were able to attend all of our events, I believe that the spirit of our church has been strengthened in the last few days as we have reflected upon Jesus’ great love for each of us—my own spirit has been renewed—and I know that each of us will be blessed in unexpected ways. And then there was yesterday. Often we don’t know what to do with Holy Saturday, but it has been described as a time of holding our breath, waiting in faith and hope for what will surely happen.

And now we have reached Easter! Easter stands for everything life-affirming, for everything that fills us with joy. Christians call themselves Resurrection People. And that is true. This week I have loved rereading John’s story of the very first Easter morning. Each book of the Gospel records a somewhat different experience, but we are always allowed to preach John’s account on Easter morning. Maybe it never contains precisely these things. It does not start with joy and celebration. Instead it mirrors what can be our faith journey. It is initially a story of shock and disappointment, grief, confusion, and then mistaken identity. But it ends with such a powerful affirmation of the Easter promise that it thrills me. This is our story as Christians, this is Easter, and we can’t remember the first Easter too often.

First of all there is Mary, coming by herself to the tomb in the dark and discovering that the heavy stone has been rolled away. Grave robbers, some evil-minded authorities who are not yet satisfied with their cruelty? By simply calling them “they,” Mary registers her despair. There was at least one occasion when, as a chaplain intern, I rushed to say a final prayer over a patient, only to find that the body has already been removed and the bed was empty. In Mary’s case, she wanted a chance to say a final, private goodbye—a hopeless memorial really—but she needed to make sure that the mortal remains of Jesus’ tortured body had been treated with respect. She had one fixed idea, fueled by her loving obligation as an observant Jewish woman to tend the deceased. She expected to find that dead body, surely not a grave that had been tampered with. There had to be something, for one last time, to which she could connect her memories. She probably did not remember Jesus saying on several occasions that “where I am, you cannot come.” If she did remember, she could hardly have understood.

Peter and the Beloved Disciple, whom we know as John, responded immediately. There is that amazing race to know! Peter is the first into the tomb. The way in which the head cloth has been rolled up by itself is puzzling and the two do not know what to think. Probably not grave robbers. John writes that the Beloved Disciple saw and believed, but did not yet understand that Jesus was risen. He believes the Empty Tomb and maybe that Jesus himself has had something to do with that. He may remember that Lazarus had to be freed from his graveclothes. But as yet there is no evidence for Resurrection. And so the disciples return home. The Empty Tomb is not Resurrection. Non-believers will grant us the Empty Tomb. This is not yet the Easter we know and love.

For reasons we can understand, Mary simply remains. But when she actually peers into the tomb, she sees two angels. Not that she’s impressed or even acknowledges them as significant. In fact, she turns her back so that she can look hopelessly around outside. There has been no God-talk from Mary. This impersonal “They” she is blaming is not God. And so when a figure appears, she supposes that he is the gardener. She is totally incapable of recognizing him. Think about it: a gardener makes sense; it’s what one would expect. Not a “God-related being” (David Kelsey, Imagining Redemption, Lousiville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), not the risen Christ.

But then the unexpected happens! Christ does what he promised he would do for each of us. He calls Mary by name, and faith and hope rush in! How often does this happen! We think we have totally lost Jesus’ voice and then suddenly, unexpectedly, the grace of His love finds us and we are aware of His presence.

In Mary’s story, he calls her by name, but he does not want her to touch him. This is not intended as a reunion story with hugs and eager conversation. That makes it merely sentimental, not Gospel-worthy.

It is also not a complete story. It will be complete only with Jesus’ ascension. That is the news Jesus wants her to spread. It includes us as well, and here comes the good news of Easter: “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” Mary is not complicated when she delivers Jesus’ first Resurrection message. That is why I quoted it at the beginning of the homily. What is important to her is that she has seen the Lord. After Jesus’ death, she has actually seen him. She now knows that the love of God embodied in him did not last only as long as the Incarnation. It is not temporary. Cross/resurrection/ascension, those three, forever change the way God can be experienced in this world and by us.

This is the day when we know, because of the witness of Mary and others, that Christ is risen, that Christ is risen indeed, that Christ is a living presence among us. We can still turn our backs on him. We can fail to recognize the Risen Christ in our midst—to say nothing of angels. We think we know the Easter story. I dare say, we may think ourselves superior to Mary and the male disciples. We know what is coming. Or do we? By its very nature, Easter must overthrow every expectation that the world and nature give us.

It is also true that Easter will affect each of us differently, as it does in our Gospel this morning. Sometimes, as on that morning for Peter and John, the process is incomplete—even though they raced with one another to find out what had happened to Jesus. Sometimes, as for Thomas, there must be proof. But we mustn’t trash Thomas; he is the first to call Jesus “My Lord and my God!” Sometimes the emotional love for our Christ, our Jesus, is so absorbing, as it was for Mary, that we miss Christ’s new word to us. Mary almost does, and yet Christ’s word of Grace reaches her. She is blessed enough to hear him call her by name and to respond.

She had loved Jesus. She had been faithful. Still, on the first Easter morning, she needed conversion. Turning her head and her heart to believe something that she had not anticipated, had not thought possible, she begins to experience a fullness in a Christ whom she must know in a new way. She is immediately given a task by Jesus and she goes to witness.

Mary announces, proclaims what she has seen. But this Lord is our Lord, this God our God. At Easter—on Easter morning—Jesus tells us that our conversion is still unfolding. And, like Mary, after conversion, comes commissioning. We are being commissioned this morning. The news of the ongoing Resurrection is bursting to be shared. Like Mary, we are invited to find our own voices by speaking this news! We know it is true. Resurrection is here! We can start by saying it again: The Lord is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Let us pray: Dearest Lord Christ, this day of Resurrection is a day of new beginnings. Help us to turn around and recognize you wherever you choose to be. You have loved us to the end. You have spoken to us in many ways. Give us grace to love you in return, to be messengers of your love and doers of your word in ways as unexpected as your own. Help us to fill all of creation with your hope. We pray in your name. Amen.