Sunday, April 28, 2013

Love is All You Need

Had a little inspiration outside of the canon for this Sunday. We had a lot of fun at the Deer Creek Charge United Methodist Churches this Sunday!

Scripture: John 13:31-35 (NRSV)
When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now service the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Sermon: All You Need is Love
Love, love, love.
Love, love, love.
Love, love, love.

This is the word for our scripture lesson this morning. Here we are continuing our celebration of Easter, but we turn in the Gospel of John back to that Maundy Thursday meal when Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. Seems a strange look back when we are celebrating the resurrection, except that the message of this scripture--- love--- is important grounding for us in the Easter season, especially in the wake of violence in this country and around the world.

But such a message seems simplistic, doesn't it. Like Jesus is saying, “Hey disciples, a lot is going to happen to you, and I know I told you a lot of parables and taught you many things, but really, all you need is love.” So then why do we need this whole bible, when instead we can read Jesus' words in a Beatles' song?

Love, especially in our culture's mania of candy hearts and roses, may sometimes seem simple and nice and warm and fuzzy. Sometimes when we talk about love, we create this picture of a love that looks more like a bunch of people sitting around singing Kum By Yah rather than whatever Jesus is talking about here. And our own experiences of love tell us that what Jesus is saying here isn't all that simple, but love is a deceptive word and it is hard. So we can't just read it this morning and leave it with a nice feeling. We have to delve into it, try our best to grasp it, because it is the heart of this Resurrection Life we as Christians live.

There is passage after passage in the bible about love, and I thought about bringing them all into this sermon, but then I stopped and thought I'd use a more contemporary work of art to bring this scripture to life, to really delve into the meaning of this word love. So will you join me this morning as we try to understand Jesus' words read through the lens of a Beatles' song?

All You Need is Love” was written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney and first performed in 1967. They had been asked to come up with a simple song that could be easily understood by people all around the world--- even people who didn't speak English. Yet such a simple message has such a power to it, and points us to Jesus' instructions to his disciples: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Let us explore these words together.

There's nothing you can do that can't be done.
Nothing you can sing that can't be sung.
Nothing you can say but you can learn how to play the game.
It's easy.

The Beatles paraphrase what Jesus is saying pretty well, I think. John Lennon begins his definition of love pretty biblically, I think. He begins by talking about impossibility.

Now let's go back to the scripture here. The conversation we read takes place directly following Jesus washing everyone's feet. This is the beginning of a gentle but fierce conversation in which Jesus explains to his disciples what is about to happen. He tells them he is leaving them, he tells them that he will die. The disciples do not even understand that--- how can they understand something impossible like the resurrection? But he is patient and tells them that though he dies, yet he will live.

There's nothing you can do that can't be done.
Nothing you can sing that can't be sung.

We often say that nothing is impossible with God. Sometimes I think we forget that nothing is impossible with God because of God's love. That's the link the Beatles make for us. And it was a crucial link for the disciples. Even though they did not understand that Jesus was to die, Jesus was trying to plant within them the fact that, if they could just hold on to love, they would not be left alone in the impossibility of grief. If they could just hold on to love, the work to spread Jesus' teachings would not seem as impossible as it did in the face of Judas' betrayal, as it did in the shadow of the cross.

Holding onto love is not about holding onto a warm, fuzzy feeling. We learn from Jesus and the Beatles here that holding on to love is to say that nothing is impossible. Even in the face of war and terror, even in the face of death, love overcomes. Jesus shows his friends his love by washing their feet, and then he tells them that love is what is going to get them through the pain and hardship that is ahead of them.

Nothing you can make that can't be made.
No one you can save that can't be saved.
Nothing you can do but you can learn how to be you in time.
It's easy.

In the second verse, I think that the Beatles bring out for us another important piece of what Jesus was saying to his disciples. Love is about learning, learning to be the true self that God is calling us to be. Jesus says, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this, everyone will know that you are my disciples.” Jesus is encouraging the disciples to become love, as he is.

This takes time, as Jesus knows, I'm sure, but if he didn't know that he learns it after the resurrection where he finds his disciples hiding locked away in an upper room, on the road running from Jerusalem, so tired they are spouting disbelief, and even going back to their work as fishermen. He finds them running from that call to be themselves, running from the call to become God's love in the world.

The call looks different for everyone, but too often we, like the disciples run from it. We try to claim impossibility, saying that love really can't bring any kind of change in the world, so why bother? But in the end there is nothing for us to do but learn, turn to scripture, turn to those Godly mentors in our lives, and learn to be us, learn to love as Jesus calls us to love.

You see God doesn't leave us alone, and so there is nothing we can do but let the lessons of love God sends to us wash over us, and settle within us. Nothing to do but let the nonsensical but strong connections we make in love to lead us to become...

Nothing you can know that isn't known.
Nothing you can see that isn't shown.
Nowhere you can be that isn't where you're meant to be.
It's easy.

In a few weeks, we will be exploring the story of the Ascension, in which Jesus leaves physically, but this love he encourages the disciples to have back before he is crucified is meant to sustain them, sustain us through Jesus' physical absence. It is the event I think Jesus is looking to when he gives this commandment to his followers.

When he tells them to love he reminds them and us, that if we just love, other things fall into place. Nowhere you can be that isn't where you're meant to be, if you just love. At least, I imagine that part is included in Jesus' commandment. After all, the disciples work together a bit after the ascension, but when Pentecost comes, many of them find themselves scattered to preach throughout the world. And yet, with the love of Christ within them, they find where ever they are to be exactly where they need to be.

This is an important lesson for us as well, as I prepare to move to Presbury United Methodist and as you prepare to welcome a new pastor. Pastors, if they know anything at all, know that the most important rule of being a pastor is to just love the people. If you love the people, the the other things like preaching and administration and teaching and hospital visits--- those things work themselves out. It may take a while, certainly. But they do.

Now, at the end of each verse, John Lennon sings that all this is easy. I'm not so sure, particularly if we are still using the example of the Methodist itinerant system of moving pastors! Love is often hard work, and it is risky, particularly in the way Jesus is using it! But every time we claim something is impossible, love reminds us that it isn't. The tomb is empty. Christ is risen. Nothing is impossible with God.

All you need is love.
All you need is love.
All you need is love, love.
Love is all you need.

All you need is love (all together, now!)
All you need is love. (everybody!)
All you need is love, love.
Love is all you need (love is all you need).

Monday, April 22, 2013

Encountering Resurrection

This is the sermon I preached to the generous Deer Creek Charge United Methodist Churches upon my return from an UMCOR Volunteers in Mission Trip to Haiti. I am still processing the trip. Much of what jumped out at me immediately following the trip was our shameful misunderstanding of Haitian history and our own complicity with the country's poverty; so, though it may seem strange that I talked so much about Haitian history in my sermon, that is where I was.

Scripture: John 20:19-31 (NRSV)
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

Thomas Reflecting1
This next reading comes from the Wild Goose Worship Group, a group seeking to renew worship, make it more participatory. We are reading their interpretation of Thomas' story this morning to help us hear it with new ears. Here now these words:
I expected him to scold me not--- as you may think---
for doubting.
We had all doubted, at different times, and he was never angry.

Indeed, he doubted himself, sometimes,
or if he didn't, he certainly understood how it felt,
for he would sing Psalms of doubt with great fervor.
Doubt wasn't an enemy to him.
He could stand us doubting.
It was indifference he couldn't stand: indifference and apathy.

I expected him to scold me
perhaps for making conditions. I did do that and I won't deny it.
“If only I see this and do that...then I'll believe.”
What a fool, thinking I could make conditions with God,
but he didn't take me to task.

He say that I was happy because I had seen
and he said they were also happy who believed without making conditions,
without saying “if only” or “unless.”

I expected him to scold me
because I wasn't there when he came.

The others were present, I was absent. It wasn't their fault of his fault, it was mine.
I had--- for whatever reason--- decided that it was all finished.
He came back to say it was all beginning.

I expected him to scold me.
But he didn't.
He gave me his hand and, more than that,
he gave me his peace.
Sermon: Encountering Resurrection
We are continuing our Easter journey this morning as we read the first and second appearance in the Gospel of John to the disciples. May our continuation of the Easter journey in worship help us to remember the difficulties and the joys of resurrection as we face a violent and chaotic world this morning. So let us pray together:
Patient teacher, you know the doubt and fear,
the indifference, the conditions,
all the baggage we bring with us this morning.
We give thanks that in spite of all we carry, you come beside us,
again and again making yourself known to us.
We ask that you make yourself known to us this morning as well,
that we may feel your peace upon us
and your presence beside us. Amen.

Thomas often gets a bad rap, I think. There was this Episcopal Church meme going around on Facebook that had a picture of Jesus and Thomas together with the caption: Doubt for one little minute and they never let you forget it. We focus so much on what we read as Jesus' gentle scolding: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.

This is certainly an important message for those of us who are living so long after the historical Jesus. Two thousand years after his resurrection, we still believe, and so John's words are comforting for us, remind us that we are blessed. And yet, I think we miss the point if we see this story as a pat on the back for those of us who believe, for those of us who never doubt (if such a person exists).

If we think this story is a condemnation of doubt, we miss that the most powerful part of this story is not a scolding but an encounter with a wounded but victorious Christ. This is why we read the Wild Goose Worship Group's retelling of the story from Thomas' eyes. I wanted to draw us away from doubt and draw us to encounter, draw us to a Christ who gave Thomas not only his scarred hand but also his peace.

The story begins not with Thomas, but with Jesus' first appearance to the Twelve according to the Gospel of John. The story begins with locked doors and fear. The disciples had heard Mary Magdalene's testimony, and some had seen the empty tomb for themselves, and yet they still lived surrounded by fear and uncertainty, probably the way many people in Boston feel now. Yes, the two young men allegedly responsible for the bombing are no longer on the streets, but how gingerly Bostonians must walk, how mistrustful they must be waiting, waiting for more terror.

These disciples were also waiting for more terror. And, though we don't know what was going on inside Thomas' head, and the Gospel of John gives us no clues, we wonder if he was just trying to wash his hands of it all, as the reflection we read this morning suggested. If he had decided he was finished with his part in the Jesus story, finished with the terror, and too overcome by the confusion of the empty tomb to feel the joy in it. He is exhausted. And so when the disciples bring him the good news of Jesus' presence among them, he says that he is tired of the confusion of words. He says, “Show me.”

Episcopal priest Anne Howard, who I quote often, writes that in “seeking Easter,” seeking the resurrection, “we turn, seeking not proof but truth, not facts but encounter, [and so] we turn to one another and say 'Show me.'”2 She suggests that Thomas is not necessarily doubting his friends. He is simply searching for a way that the good news can reach through his fog of confusion and fear and stir up truth within him. He doesn't want facts and figures, he wants to feel Jesus for himself, and so he says to his friends, “Don't just tell me, show me. Help me feel the resurrection myself.”

I feel a lot like Doubting Thomas, seeking to encounter the risen Christ myself, to see the pain and the scars and to still feel the vividness of victory. This is what draws me to mission, I think, what draws me to places of immense suffering like Bosnia, like South Africa, and like Haiti. I first used the Doubting Thomas metaphor for myself when talking of placing my hands in the holes where shells had ripped through buildings in Bosnia. Here I was encountering a risen Christ who had experienced immense pain and not only survived but whose love was beginning to heal the pain.

And I felt this in Haiti too. Haiti is a country born of a revolution in 1804 in which slaves rose up and ejected their white French masters. This was a colony that made more money for France than all of France's other colonial holding combined--- and Haiti is only the size of Maryland, you know. Slaves harvested sugar cane, which even now is absolutely brutal labor, so they did not have a long life expectancy. They were also completely cut off from access to a common language for fear they would revolt (remember that most of the slaves came from West Africa where many different languages were spoken), and they birthed their own language, Haitian Kreyol, which is a combination of French and West African languages.

So against all odds, the former slaves succeeded and became free, but then they were faced with the fear and exclusion of the United States, and eventually a horrible deal with the French that they had to pay reparations to the French in order to get any trade with anyone. The wealthy French colony slowly became impoverished in its freedom. The United States invaded Haiti in 1915 and occupied it for almost twenty years, and continued to firmly grasp the country afterwards, which perhaps wouldn't be a problem except that the US continued to serve the military and economic elite and so the majority of Haitians were further impoverished and terrorized. They lived under the horrific dictatorships of Papa Doc Duvalier and his son Baby Doc for almost thirty years, and suffered more military governments until they finally elected a president, the first democratically elected president in their history (and elected by almost 70 percent of the vote) in 1991. He was then overthrown in a bloody military coup seven months later. And so even after democracy was restored in late years, the government was so weak and unable to deliver basic services that when the earthquake struck on January 12, 2010, the country just crumbled.

Now you may be wondering what this history lesson has to do with Thomas, but I want to give you a picture of the history of the suffering. I want to show you the pain, the wounds, show you how deep the suffering goes. I want you to place your hands in the marks in the hands and side of this country as Thomas did Jesus.

But the “Haitian people have long been resilient in the face of tribulation,” as many who are familiar with Haiti point out. Dr. Paul Farmer, a renowned public health expert who has spent much of his career in Haiti tells the story that one night after the earthquake a man grabbed his arm and said: “Haiti is finished.” It was the final blow in a long history of pain, the man thought. But two young Haitian doctors were working with Dr. Farmer and overheard. “No,” they said. “Haiti will never be finished.”3

Thomas had--- for whatever reason--- decided that it was all finished. Jesus came back to say it was all beginning.

This is what I saw in Haiti: a beginning. There were ten of us in our group, five who had been to Haiti before and five newbies, and the ones who had been before continually marveled at how much had changed--- a brand new airport, so much cleared rubble that I had to look for signs of the earthquake. Tent cities still existed, though we saw many colorful neighborhood building projects underway.

People remained concerned about the quality of schools, and you could see just in the sizes of the kids that there is still a huge problem with malnutrition. But we could see hope, and that perhaps the first part of encountering the risen Christ: hope. It brings, most importantly perhaps, renewed vision, invigorated imagination. Encountering Christ reminds us that life does not have to go back to the way it used to be.

Our task as a team was to help build a church. A school run by the church had recently been rebuilt, and so now the church was being rebuilt alongside of it. Often when you work construction on mission trips, you end up mostly on bucket brigades: passing buckets filled with sand or stone or cement back and forth for hours. And remember that this is going on in the hot Caribbean sun. It is very glamorous work, you know. And we were terrifically slow at getting anything done. But that didn't matter so much because we don't do mission to get the work done. We do mission to encounter Christ in one another, to show Christ to one another.

And that's what we did. The Haitians are beautiful people who were so welcoming and took such good care of us, who laughed at us when in our heat-addled state we would start dancing on the work site or singing songs about snow. Who said, when I asked them how they were or how they slept, that they were well thanks be to God, constantly giving praise to God. I saw the country being rebuilt brick by brick, student by student. I encountered the risen Christ in their smiles, in their patience.

It is not because I doubt the resurrection, but because I want to feel it so physically that I identify with Thomas. When in my own pain and fear, I just don't have the imagination to see the resurrection, I ask for someone to show me, to put my hands in Jesus' wounds to know he understands the pain I have experienced and he still stands before me full of new life. Jesus knows the pain the Haitians have experienced, a pain that has deep historical roots. And he comes beside them to bring them his peace and the courage to rebuild again.

Of course encountering the risen Christ is not just something that happens on international missions. I think for me, that is where I find Christ most vividly because our consumer culture, our comfortable culture kind of numbs me to experiencing Christ here sometimes. But this is what we are all to do as Christians: to seek encounters with Christ, to show one another vividly where Christ is alive. We are to do this not just on a formal mission trip but in every moment. And it is so crucial to do so as we are faced with violence all around us in our culture today, as we are faced with the uncertainty and terror of our present age that we saw in Boston last week. But the resurrected Christ is there, in the midst of it all. Do we have the courage to help one another encounter him?

Let us pray:
Risen One, we give you thanks for all the ways you meet us,
and we ask for your presence with us now.
Teach us to be your peaceful presence in the world and
give us the strength to work with one another to encounter you
wherever we are. Amen.

1Wild Goose Worship Group, “Thomas reflecting: Easter script 2,” Stages on the Way: Worship Resources for Lent, Holy Week, and Easter, Iona Community, (Chicago: GIA Publications, Inc., 2000) 208-209.
2Anne Howard, “Show Me,” A Word in Time, 1 April 2013, The Beatitudes Society,
3Paul Farmer, Haiti after the earthquake, eds. Abbey Gardner and Cassia Van Der Hoof Holstein, (New York: Public Affairs Books, 2011) 110.

Educate yourself more about Haiti! An important book to read, especially for people interested in mission work, was Jonathan M. Katz's The Big Truck that Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Going Fishing

Me and Carine: global preachers.
Now I am an international preacher! I had the wonderful opportunity to preach for the Methodist Church in Lévêque, Ayiti (Haiti). It was so nerve-wracking, but I had the most amazing translator Carine Odilus, who ought to be a preacher herself because of the passion and emotion she put into getting my message across. Such a blessing!

Scripture: John 21:1-14 (NRSV)

After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off. When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

Sermon: Going Fishing
Let us pray:
Patient teacher, as you fed your disciples,
feed us with your Word this morning.
Move among us as we explore this scripture together this morning.
Give us strength and courage to hear you call us to you. Amen.

I am going fishing,” Simon Peter tells the disciples. Here we are at the end of John's gospel, Jesus has appeared to the disciples twice already, and yet the disciples are returning to their boats, to their way of living before they ever met Jesus.

Now, the disciples are only doing what is natural, even healthy, for people to do after undergoing a major trauma: they are picking up the pieces of their lives and moving on. This is what we do after we survive intense pain, yes? We stay in a period of mourning, certainly, we can't skip that part, but eventually we must keep going. When we loose a child, we can't stop feeding our other children. When we lose a house, we must seek other shelter. And when we are forced to watch as our best friend, our teacher, our Savior, is murdered, we cannot live in hiding forever. And so Simon Peter reaches back in his life to before he even met Jesus.1 He turns to the sea, to his nets, to try and make sense of his life without his Lord.

But here's the difference: he is with the other disciples. Though Simon Peter is going back to his life as it was before Jesus, he is doing so with those men he has met through his life with Jesus. Though the other disciples seem to be trying to find some kind of normalcy again, they are doing so together. They all know what one another has experienced. They all know the pain deep within one another's hearts, and they know the wonder and joy there too. And yet sometimes, sometimes it is easier to stand side by side and leave those feelings lie dormant, unacknowledged. Easier, maybe, to forget. One writer I came across preparing for this sermon says that these disciples had a case of the postresurrection blues, when the disciples had come down from their excitement of seeing the risen Lord, of touching his body, of talking with him again only to “find the world was the same as it had always been. Nothing had changed.”2

They expected liberation from Roman colonial oppression, they had expected him to become their new king before he died, and when he rose to life, that deed of power gave them hope that they weren't mistaken. And yet here we find them going fishing, getting into their boats weighed down with sorrow and confusion even after experiencing the joy of resurrection.

Do we ever feel that way? We as people who know Christ's love for us, who have felt Christ's power in one way or another, do we find ourselves weighed down with sorrow and confusion? Are we like those disciples, having glimpsed a vision of a new way of living, of resurrection power, and yet we go back to life as usual, trying to forget that vision because it is easier to forget?

Except Jesus doesn't let us forget. Jesus doesn't let us go back to life as it was before we met him. Jesus doesn't let us stay in our boats, drifting.3

Children,” he says to them, “You have no fish, have you?”

The disciples haven't caught a thing, and it isn't because Simon Peter and the rest are rusty after spending so long following Jesus instead of fishing. The writer of The Gospel of John reminds us that when we try to do things on our own, when we try to forget Jesus' difficult message of joy in the face of sorrow, freedom from oppression, and healing for all, we are just adrift in the water. So Jesus comes, and I imagine him kind of half-smiling at the disciples, at us, shaking his head.

Because we get in our boats too and try to forget, go back to the way life was before a resurrection, before healing, before love, but we end up in our boats, sweating, working hard, but with nothing to show for it. So when Jesus says, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” He is really saying, “How is that going back to normal working out for you?”4 And he knows the answer. He knows we are drifting.

But then he said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.”

They did. Their catch of fish is so abundant it is another miracle that their nets do not break. They cannot haul their catch in because it is too heavy. And here, in the midst of this abundance when before there was nothing, the disciples knew. “It is the Lord!” The disciple Jesus loved said to Peter.

The disciples have spent so much time at Jesus' feet, absorbing his teachings, watching his every move. They saw the consequences of his teachings, saw Jesus die. But then they saw the resurrection, saw how he broke out of death. And still, still they are confused and afraid. Is it any wonder that we are too sometimes? This story, this third appearance of the risen Christ to the disciples, reminds us though that no matter how dense we may seem when we try to go back to the way things were before, Christ comes to us to help us see anew.

On Easter morning, I got word that two of my friends, a clergy couple, had lost their newborn baby girl after only 25 hours. And so here I was, supposed to be helping lead my congregation in proclaiming the resurrection, and my heart was breaking for them, in the unfairness of it all. How could I be joyous when my friends were burying their child?

I, like the disciples, knew the risen Christ, believed in God's victory over death, and yet on that Easter morning I saw the world as unfair and painful and full of death as it had always been. But Christ's abundance, Christ's love, does not belong only in the past. It belongs here, now, in this world.5 That's what this story in John reminds us. Even though the world is often cold and cruel, Christ comes to us over and over again to remind us that we don't have to do this on our own. Christ came to my friends in the hands of the churches praying for them that Easter, in the hands of their own churches who cooked them meals and made them eat even when they didn't want to, and in the hugs of friends who came to sit beside them at the funeral. Christ did not leave those disciples alone to take up fishing as though nothing had every happened. Christ does not leave us alone to face our own pain and fear as though Christ had never risen from the dead.

Yes, this story in the Gospel of John reminds us, yes, the world is the same. It is still hard and cold, at times. But we, we are not the same.6 We know Jesus. We know his power. And even though we might not always feel it, even though it may be easier to forget it, he does not give up on us, calling us, feeding us, and empowering us to build his kingdom.7

Let us pray:

Living One, we give you thanks for this morning.
We give you thanks for the ways in which you are beside us,
loving us, not giving up on us,
just as you did not give up on the disciples.
Stay with us, God, stay beside us,
and open our eyes to the work you would have us do.
In the name of the one who defeated death, we pray. Amen.

1Amanda Rohrs-Dodge points out in her amazing sermon that, “It is interesting that John never really identifies the disciples as fishermen like the authors of Matthew, Mark and Luke do, and yet this epilogue to John’s Gospel echoes the accounts found within the synoptic gospels where Jesus calls those first disciples away from their nets, away from the sea- when he calls them to fish for people.” Ressurection Sermon, Miscellaneous and Some Meaningful Musings, 29 April 2011,
2Dennis E. Smith, “The Appearance by the Sea: John 21:1-14,” The Storyteller's Companion to the Bible: John, vol. 10, eds. Dennis E. Smith and Michael E. Williams, (Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press, 1996) 188.
3“At first, Jesus' followers seem to drift aimlessly, accomplishing little. With the appearance of Jesus, however, they suddenly have access to a superabundance of spititual power. It is a reminder that when they church taps into the power of the risen Lord, rather than drifting aimlessly, it will have access to a power beyond human measure.” Dennis E. Smith, “The Appearance by the Sea,” 187.
4See again Amanda Rohrs-Dodge's Resurrection Sermon,
5“If we have wrongly concluded that Christ's abundant generosity belongs to the past and not the present, the epilogue gives witness that the risen Christ continues to bless and feed us.” Thomas H. Troeger, Homiletical Perspective on John 21:1-19 on the Third Sunday of Easter, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 2, Lent through Eastertide, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009) 423.
6“The world was the same--- they were the ones who were different.” Dennis E. Smith, “The Appearance by the Sea,” 189.
7“...none of this daarkness can overcome the light. For the risen Christ still calls, still feeds, and still empowers even doubters and deniers for the ministry.” Thomas E. Troeger, Homiletical Perspective on John 21:1-19 on the Third Sunday of Easter, 425.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Idle Tales, Ridiculous Stories

My first Easter sermon, at least that I have preached, for the Deer Creek Charge

Luke 24:1-12

The Easter story is a ridiculous story. The most immediate drama begins a week earlier when a poor dusty man with healing power in his hands enters Jerusalem on a lowly colt, not a warhorse as the Emperor would do, but a colt. He is greeted with joy and praise as a king would be, shutting down the city to honor him, this strange man from Nazareth. This entrance is the beginning because it is from here that the fear becomes palpable and things begin to move. Religious authorities and Roman imperial authorities feel their hold on the world getting weaker and they begin to scramble, to look for ways to get rid of this man--- who then proceeds to do everything they fear. He cleans out the temple of the merchants and loan sharks, and he taught there, every day gathering more and more people. The Gospel of Luke tells us that the people were spellbound by what they heard.1 And while priests and judges and imperial figureheads plot to kill Jesus, one of Jesus' own friends joins that plot, and things spiral into darkness. Jesus is arrested, abandoned and denied by some of his closest friends, humiliated and tortured at the hands of a man who said he did not find him guilty, and finally put to a bloody, painful death between two criminals.

But the ridiculousness of the story isn't just how we go from triumphant king to political criminal in five days--- the real ridiculousness of the story is the empty tomb. It is the point at which you have to stop the story-teller in his tracks and set him straight, saying, “well I might be gullible, but I'm not that gullible.” It reminds me of when we were really little, and my dad used to read stories to us when he got home from work. My dad is dyslexic and he would be exhausted after a long day, and so he would try to skip a page or cut out a paragraph; only I memorized stories and was a budding reader, and he could see when I was onto him. He would proceed anyway and end the story with, “And then a mean old snake man popped out and ate them all. The end.” I would stamp my foot at him, totally unamused, and say, “That's not how it ends, Dad!”

I wonder why more of us here this morning aren't stamping our foot at Luke, reminding him that we aren't that gullible. This is, after all, what the disciples did when Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women told them what they had seen. We read, But these words seemed to the disciples an idle tale, and they did not believe the women. The Greek word here translated as “idle tale” would be better translated as “hysterical nonsense,” because the word refers to the ranting of a delirious person.2 Even Jesus' own disciples' first reaction to the news of the empty tomb was to name the bearers of that good news as hysterical and ridiculous, and yet here we sit on Sunday morning in our Easter best, nodding along to the story like it is nothing out of the ordinary at all.

But Easter is a story that is very much out of the ordinary. When people die, normally what happens next in the story is that they stay dead (unless it is a soap opera, but there aren't enough evil twins or long-lost family members or amnesia to characterize this story as a soap opera). So Jesus is to stay dead. A group of women, the friends who were grieving the hardest and traumatized the most after Jesus' death because they had remained by the cross throughout his torture, go to the tomb to properly bury the body. They go early, but not in anticipation of finding anything out of the ordinary; no, they go early because they just need to be near him again, ensuring that though his last hours were not peaceful, now he will be at peace.

Can you imagine then what they would have felt? How sickened, really, they had to have been when they did not find Jesus' body? The text says that they were perplexed, but I think sickened would be more like it. Here are women who have watched someone they love deeply go through an unimaginably gruesome and painful murder. They did not need the trauma that losing his body would bring on--- the fear that as they tortured him in life, so they would not permit his lifeless body to be at peace. Yet the unsettling non-ordinariness of it all does not end with an empty space where a body should be. The ridiculousness continues. Two men in dazzling clothes suddenly appear, and the text tells us the women were terrified. They knew they were way past anything normal or explainable. No wonder the disciples referred to the women as hysterical: when you really try to let yourself feel what these women are feeling, the trauma, the grief, the confusion, and now terror, you begin to feel your heart rate go up a little bit too. But wait--- the story is about to get even more ridiculous, because the men say to the women--- this is my favorite part--- they say:
Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

I imagine these angels as nonchalant. Blasé. Like they were just walking by and had to stop and point out the obvious--- even though the obvious to them was certainly not obvious at all to anyone else! The women were doing what they were supposed to: caring for the body of their friend. And instead they keep getting slammed with surprise after surprise. Why were they looking for the living among the dead? Because they weren't looking for the living. They had watched him die, watched the life drain out of him. Had they not been so afraid, I think one of the women would have taken an angel by the shoulders and shaken him, shouting at him to explain what the heck they were talking about!

Why do you look for the living among the dead?” The angels ask them. “He is not here, but has risen. Remember?”

Another ridiculous question, but at this point in the story, it is just ridiculous enough to start making sense. And so they do start to remember.

When you lose a loved one, one of the most important things you do is to tell stories about your life with them. And so the women who followed Jesus must have done the same after his death, spending that Saturday before going to the tomb telling stories of their lives with Jesus.3 When the angels prompted them to remember Jesus' teachings, those memories then are on the tips of their tongues. Jesus' great healing power, his deep compassion, his righteous anger--- all these things swarm together in their minds and in the midst of it all lies the very simple plot line that the angels feed them: “The Son of Man must be handed over to sinners and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.”

And the women remember. But the ridiculousness of the story isn't over. See, the women in this story believe without seeing. I don't know if you noticed, but in the twelve verses we read in Luke this morning, a risen Christ is talked about, but he does not appear. All we have is some linen cloths, people wearing dazzling clothing, and the absence of a body. (We get a risen body next week, so stay tuned.) But this week, these things do not add up to an equation for belief or joy. Yet the women do believe. I don't want to make this into a sermon on the merits of believing without seeing, but I do want to point out that the triumph over death that we experience this morning is not extravagant, not impressive, but it is quiet and, well, crazy.

In this past year, most of us have lost someone close to us, through death, divorce, a family fight, a long-distance move. Most of us have been ourselves or been alongside someone battling a horrible illness like cancer. Most of us at some point in this year have felt alone, discouraged, unloved. We have been in places of deep darkness. Many of us may feel the darkness of Good Friday or the silence and aloneness of Holy Saturday more true than the light of the resurrection. And yet, some way or another, we have come to this place this morning to celebrate a ridiculous story that even Jesus' own disciples called an idle tale, a story of a man who was raised from the dead two-thousand years ago.

It doesn't make any sense.

But then, God's love for us never makes any sense. We are broken people, stubborn people, people with a ton of problems and doubt and frustrations and hatred--- and yet here's this God who loves us so much that God gives us a light in our darkness. God says, “Look here, the world can be an ugly and cruel place--- and you may even be ugly and cruel to me--- but I am with you, I will not forsake you, and I can defeat the cruelty with beauty and love.” That's what God is saying in the resurrection. Isn't it ridiculous? Isn't it wonderful?

Seeing that there is not physical resurrection in this story not only furthers the ridiculousness of it all, but it grounds us more firmly in our role in this story. We, like the women, are to become the tellers of idle tales, those who remember the power in Jesus' life and teachings and who do not give up when we aren't believed. We are to preach this message of our ridiculous loving God, this message of hope, even when we don't always feel it ourselves. We are to look for the living, even when all around us is death. Because we know God is victorious. Christ is risen. He is risen indeed!

Let us pray:
Living God, we praise you for breaking away from our rules
for loving us even when it doesn't make sense.
We ask that we too may catch your nonsensical nature,
loving with abandon and being the light in the darkness.
We pray this in the name of your son Jesus, who destroyed death,
and whose resurrection we proclaim. Alleluia! Amen.

1Luke 19:38 (NRSV).
2Jane Schaberg, Luke, Women's Bible Commentary, Expanded Edition with Apocrypha, edited by Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe, (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), 379. See also Gregory A Robbins, Exegetical Perspective on Luke 24:1-12, Easter Vigil, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 2 Lent through Eastertide, edited by David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009) 351.
3For a fictionalized exploration of this idea, see Mary Ellen Ashcroft's The Magdalene Gospel (New York: Doubleday, 1995).