7 Easter 2020

“Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.” 1 Peter 4:12

A couple of weeks ago, my sermon dealt with perspective.  We all like to think that whatever difficulties we are facing are unique and worse than anything anyone else has ever had to deal with.  The reality is life is hard.  It always has been and it always will be.  Some times are harder than others, but even then it is not equally difficult for all individuals at the same time.  The true test of our character is how we respond.

Last Thursday was the day we remember Jesus’ Ascension. It has been a wild six weeks for the followers of Jesus. In less than the time we have been “sheltering in place” Jesus’ closest friends, and in a sense his employees (they dropped their secular careers to follow him) watched his triumphal entry into Jerusalem with the people screaming “Save Us” (that is what Hosanna means), Jesus redefined the Passover (one of the most defining acts in their faith tradition) instituting what we call the Eucharist. One of their own turned traitor and handed Jesus over to the authorities and later committed suicide in remorse. Jesus was publicly tried, tortured, and executed on a cross. His tomb was found empty just days after his burial. The same day his tomb is found empty, Jesus shows up, materializing in a locked room like something out of a Star Trek episode, then de-materializes. He shows up again, hangs out with them for 40 days, and then once again says good-bye and disappears into the clouds with the promise that he will send a Comforter.  PTSD, interrupted grief processing, vocational confusion and I am sure a host of other diagnosable emotional disorders were certainly possible if not actually present.  

We too are in the midst of difficult times.  Serious health concerns, and while fortunately we here in the Coastal Bend have been spared the devastation seen in other areas, we have been impacted through shelter in place, social distancing, shortages of supplies, school and business closures, job losses for some and overwork for others, social and political unrest, disruption of business as usual.  Peter tells his followers “the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you.”  Cling to this promise. Be comforted in knowing that this too will pass in time. 

It is no wonder that in Jesus’ long prayer before his crucifixion he prays to his Father to protect his disciples, not in the way that we typically ask for protection, but perhaps the prayer we should be praying.

“Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” John 17:11. What Jesus prays for these people whom he loves is not protection from hunger, or sickness, or cold and homelessness, or enemies who threaten their lives or imprison them.  Many of them will experience these very things.  This is part of the fiery ordeal to which Peter refers.  Jesus prays that they may be protected from divisiveness. “That they may be one, are we are one.”  Jesus is well aware that the most dangerous enemy is not the one from outside, but the one from within.  You don’t have to get very far into the book of Acts to see that Jesus knew exactly what damages the church.  In no time, a couple pretending to be more pious than they were lied about their income so they could shortchange their tithe.  The Greek speaking members of the congregation began complaining that their widows and orphans were being neglected in the distribution of food.  The conservatives and progressives began fighting about whether Gentiles had to convert to Judaism to become a Christian.  Paul and Barnabas argued over re-hiring John Mark after he abandoned them on an earlier missionary journey.  Paul writes the Corinthians, in what has ironically been labeled the Love Chapter, chewing them out because those who speak in tongues are lording it over those who don’t, implying that the others do not have the Holy Spirit.  And the list goes on.  What keeps the church from being effective is not the trials and temptations brought on by the outside world, but the internal conflicts that distract and disrupt the mission of the church.

You, the members of the churches that made up the Coastal Bend Partnership are about to be in a similar place as Jesus’ disciples at the time of his Transfiguration.  Not that our situation is anywhere near the magnitude of what Jesus’ disciples faced, but you are about to be in a place where everything has changed.  How we worship has changed and is continuing to change.  Who is in charge is changing.  You will have to re-evaluate your priorities, your methods, and your expectations.  When Jesus ascended into heaven the last thing he told them was you don’t need to have all the answers, you need to wait for the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and then you need to be my witness in Jerusalem, Judea and the whole world.  I would encourage you to use this time between now and next week to pray together that the Holy Spirit will descend upon these congregations much as happened on the first Pentecost.  I know that we cannot gather together physically, but we can be together spiritually and pray for one another. 

The conditions that Peter writes under, the persecutions of Christians by both their own religious establishment and their government cause them to scatter, but in doing so also pushed the gospel into a wider and wider areas.  Peter reminded his followers, “Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. Discipline yourselves, keep alert.” These challenging times may put some of us in new environments.  Take advantage of that opportunity.  I have several pots of aloe vera, a pretty common plant in these parts.  My pots are crowded because the plant keeps making more plants in close proximity.  As a result, they are all stunted in their growth.  If I spread them out a bit, they will all grow larger and also continue to make new plants in close proximity filling those pots.  Be like the aloe vera.  Take advantage of this space to grow more yourself and while doing so, add more disciples in close proximity as well.

Next week is Pentecost.  God willing, it will the first time since the pandemic lockdown that we have gathered together to worship in person and it will also be the last time we gather together as the partnership to worship.  It will be tempting to stand around looking to heaven saying, “What just happened?”  It will be tempting to slip into old habits and patterns, but I hope each of you will look at this as a fresh start, a new opportunity. Take this week to wait and pray, then begin again fired by the power of the Holy Spirit.

6 Easter 2020

Photo by Kelvin Valerio on Pexels.com

Have you ever noticed that scripture frequently draws our attention to the absolute necessities of life and connects us to the necessities of the spiritual life?  Perhaps one of the reasons we fail to appreciate the importance of these spiritual necessities is that we have grown so accustomed to having the physical necessities that we no longer appreciate them.  A few years ago Business Insider published an article on survival records in unusual circumstances, but they warned that under normal circumstances the rule of three applied – 3 minutes without oxygen, 3 days without water, 3 weeks without food and most people are in serious trouble. (Kane, 2016)

The psychologist Abraham Maslow is famous for his “Hierarchy of Needs.”  He fails to clearly define a relationship with the divine as one of the needs, though I think for Christians we can plug that into each and every level in different ways.  At the base, the most important and most necessary to sustain life he puts Physiologial needs – air, water, food (those 3 again), shelter, sleep, clothing and reproduction.  I would like to focus on the first three – air, water, and food and their connection to God.

The quest for food has been the primary goal of humanity for most of our existence.  As Maslow illustrated, only when the essentials of survival have been met have humans had the ability to seek the loftier experiences such as pursuit of the arts and sciences.   Food was tied to the ancient practice of sacrifice, humans’ earliest attempts to acknowledge, and to be honest, to control God. The first sacrifice offered to God described in scripture (and noteworthy, the first human to human conflict recorded) concerns Adam and Eve’s sons, Cain and Able and their offerings from the garden and from the livestock. God ordained the Feast of the Passover to commemorate his hand in the saving of the Hebrew’s from slavery in Egypt and the first complaint the Hebrews make against Moses and God is the lack of food in the wilderness.  King David muses that God “spreads a feast” for him in front of his enemies, a sign of God’s favor and protection.  Satan first tries to tempt Jesus to use his power to feed himself when he is hungry.  Jesus refers to himself as the bread of life and establishes the Holy Eucharist by redefining symbols within the Passover feast calling the bread his body and the wine his blood.  Food, probably because it was essential to life, was and is an affirmation of the relationship between God and humans, and humans and humans.  During this pandemic, this is the first time many of us have walked into a grocery store and seen empty shelves and wondered what will happen if I run out of food and there is none on the shelf.  A reminder perhaps, wondering where their next meal will come from is a daily occurrence for others.  Many are feeling spiritually starved while we are fasting from Eucharist in an effort to keep one another safe from illness during this pandemic.  One thing I hope we gain from this season is a renewed appreciation for both physical nourishment and spiritual nourishment and the connection between the two.

Water has huge symbolic meaning in the scriptures.  Clean water, in reasonable amounts, at the right time are essential for life.  I was fortunate enough to visit Israel several years ago and one of the most beautiful places there is at the northern border, at the head of the Jordan river, where the water flows gently in beautiful clear streams surrounded by lush fig trees, date palms, and beautiful flowers.  A little further down is the Galilee, a crystal-clear lake that provides fish for food, but is also prone to storms that are devastating to small boats.  Continuing south you go through a desert and at the far end is the Dead Sea.  The Jordan does not dump into the ocean but deposits its sediments in a water filled pit almost 1000 feet deep, whose surface is 1400 feet below sea level. Nothing lives there.  The shore is a stinking black mud and the water is so salty it feels like swimming in Jello.  The people in scriptures knew the lifegiving property of water. They also knew: the destructive force of chaotic water (floods and storms), the dry arid world without water and the stench of poisonous water.

In our lesson today, Peter is looking back through scripture and as he reflects on the spiritual life-giving rite of Baptism he reflects on how this was “pre-figured” by events in the world’s history.  We like to tell our children about Noah saving the animals, but Peter reminds us that God saved Noah and his family, and in doing so all of humanity by giving him the instructions to build an ark.  Noah was probably ridiculed by his neighbors for doing so, just as you may be teased by others for doing what you believe God has called you to do.  Love your neighbor in a world where “every man for himself” is the motto may seem foolish to some, but the vows that we made in our baptism are our ark. Clinging to those vows and going through the water of baptism is what brings us to safety and helps to save the human race. Moses led the descendants of Israel through the waters of the Red Sea out of slavery and into freedom.  As we pass through the waters of baptism, we are released from slavery to sin and death and cross into the freedom of life and salvation through Christ.

And Christ describes himself as the living waters.  When we move away from death, away from the desert, and out of the storm into the fresh living water that is life in Christ, as the Psalmist says, we will “…be like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper” (Psalm 1:3).

Finally, breath is so fundamental to life that the ancient Hebrews and Greeks did not differentiate between flowing air – i.e. wind, our own breath, and what we call the Holy Spirit.  In our gospel today, Jesus knows that for his disciples the absence of his physical presence will be like having the breath knocked out of them.  But he promises them that when he leaves, he will send the Holy Spirit, the breath of God to fill them.  This is the same breath of God that passed over the chaotic waters at creation and brought order and life to all creation.  When the resurrected Jesus visited his disciples, he breathed on them, just like God breathed into Adam.  On Pentecost, which we will celebrate in just a couple of weeks, we remember the breath of God entering that upper room and filling the early Christians with God’s presence and giving them the power, and hope, and determination to face their own friends, family, and religious organization that did not understand them, the Roman government that found them disruptive, and the general population whose lives were so different from theirs.  That breath of God, the Holy Spirit, is what made possible the changed lives of the early Christians and revolutionized the world. That same breath can change our lives and can still cause a revolution for good if we are open to being filled with God’s Spirit.  

This week as you sit down to a meal,  as you drink from your cup, and even as you draw each breath – remember that these are gifts from God designed to not only give us life, but to draw us close to God and cause us to have compassion and affection for our neighbor.

5 Easter 2020

Photo by Richard Štefún on Pexels.com

I have always been both fascinated by and frustrated by optical illusion pictures.  As a child I can remember the Magic Eye pictures that looked like repetitive patterns until you looked at it just the right way and then you could see dolphins swimming or some such design.  Anamorphosis is an art technique that makes use of perspective to either hide an image within an image or reveal what appears to be a clear image out of something by distorting it: eyes that follow you around the room, a rock star’s portrait composed of minute photos of his fans, is it an old hag or a beautiful woman? While some are intended to be a challenge, many are intended to correct distortions caused by our viewing angle, but even the most challenging ones become easy once you have seen the intended picture once.

This morning we have several glimpses into the face of God. They reveal the importance of perspective.   As the apostle Paul said, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” (1 Cor. 13:12).

In this morning’s Psalm we heard the Psalmist say, “Be my strong rock, a castle to keep me safe, for you are my crag and my stronghold;” and “for you are my tower of strength.” (Psalm 31:1-2) Our English translations bring to my mind a Norman castle from the middle ages, a distortion of my perspective, but not an inappropriate representation of the poet’s description of God.  Many ancient cities, Jerusalem in particular, were walled fortifications built on top of a high hill with watch towers built into the walls. Their design protected the inhabitants from enemies because they provided them greater vision of the surrounding area and provided a buffer against physical attacks from outsiders.  Jerusalem was and is in scripture an icon of the presence of God with the people.

But I think even Jerusalem is an embellishment of the Psalmist’s vision. Our English rendering of this Psalm is very beautiful but the Hebrew is more primitive, more earthly.  Parts of Israel are composed of high hills of basalt or lava rock.  These rocks are pitted with thousands of small shallow caves that were used by shepherds and others as a safe place to shelter, to sleep.  If you were in one of these indentations you were protected because there was only one small entrance.  You were totally surrounded by the strong rock.  Our poet begs God – “be my strong rock, my safe place” and then immediately rejoices because he sees God in the rock and says “you are my strong rock, my safe place”.  We don’t know if the Psalmist is in the rock cave or wishing for a rock cave at the time he utters these words, I suspect the later, but he has recognized the face of God in the image of the rugged mountain where he can rest safely.  In another Psalm he says, “I lift up my eyes to the hills— from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth” (Psalm 121:1-2). Once he has seen the face of God in the hills, he only needs to look toward the hills to see it again.

As Christians we confess a belief in the Incarnation. We proclaim that Jesus is both fully human – a flesh and blood historical figure, and fully God.  It is one of those concepts that is easy to define, but much harder to comprehend. It may feel like you are standing in front of one of those Magic Eye pictures with everyone saying “don’t you see?” – and you want to see – but the image is just not there.  You are in good company. 

In our Gospel reading for today, Jesus has been teaching and healing and feeding people and performing all sorts of signs and wonders and twelve men have been his close companions during this time and witnesses to all that he has said and done.  Jesus is now trying to prepare them for his eventual arrest, crucifixion and resurrection.  We look back on this story with two thousand years of generational experience and we understand what Jesus is saying, but for those standing there with him, they don’t understand. They can’t see as badly as they desire it.

Again, our vision of what Jesus is saying is somewhat distorted by culture and language.  Jesus says, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?” Many of us grew up with the word “mansion” which gives the idea of private ownership of our luxury spot in heaven, but this is not what Jesus meant. The translation in the NRSV as dwelling places is a bit more accurate but could conjur up many different images.  In first century Mediterranean life, a household, which is what Jesus is talking about not a building, often consisted of multiple generations of relatives, as well as household servants, especially if it was a wealthy family all living together in close proximity.  Think Downton Abbey without the British accents.  Jesus is talking to the working class for whom this image may have been as foreign to them as life in a British landed estate is for us, but it was the closest earthly explanation of eternity Jesus could use. The disciples are grounded in their present reality and they are trying to figure out where Jesus is going to set up this new home for them.  Earlier in the Gospel of John we are told “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God” (John 1:12). Their vision is that they will be sons and heirs, not servants, in Jesus’ great estate which is Good News, but he is being allusive about where it is.  Thomas speaks up and says, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” (John 14:5). Thomas is looking at the picture but cannot see the image Jesus is describing so Jesus tries to shift his perspective.

“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” (John 14:6-7). Jesus is trying to get them to see that he is describing a heavenly, eternal scene.  If they will only look at him with the right perspective, everything will be revealed. 

Philip responds, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” (John 14:8).  I can remember people physically trying to move me in front of one of those Magic Eye pictures to change my perspective and the frustration on their face that what they see so clearly, I do not see at all.  You can hear the frustration and disappointment in Jesus’ voice when he responds to Philip. “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me?” The image of God has been with them all this time and all they have been able to see up to this point is the man, Jesus.  It is the voice of God, speaking through Jesus that says, “Have I been with you all this time… and you still do not know me?”

God wants to be seen and known by us and he gave us Jesus as the image in which that can happen.  Sometimes that is hard, especially if we have not recognized the face of God before in the images before us, but Jesus promised us that if we keep looking we will be able to see and once you have seen, it is hard to not see. He said, “Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you” (Matthew 7:7).  Jesus was not talking about stuff. He was talking about seeking him, seeking God, being given the Holy Spirit to open your eyes to the knowledge of God.

May Christ bless you this day with eyes that see, ears that hear and lips that confess the glory of God.

4 Easter 2020

Photo by Yaroslav Danylchenko from Pexels

What does it mean to be the church in the middle of a pandemic, in the middle of the post-Christian era, in a global community, but a highly divided and polarized country? What does it mean to be the Church today?

We get three glimpses this morning of what it meant to be the church two thousand years ago.  I would like to see if we can look at these passages and draw from them some meaning for us today.

Our gospel story this morning is one of the many places where we see Jesus as the image of the Good Shepherd, but I want to focus on the sheep.  Jesus says, “the sheep follow him because they know his voice” (John 10:4).  As Christians we are called to 1) be able to distinguish the voice of Christ from all the cacophony of noises around us. 2) We need to be aware of and acknowledge that the voice of Christ is the voice of the one who cares for and provides for us. 3) We need to trust that voice to the extent that we are willing to follow that voice and that voice only.

The greatest challenges to hearing and following Christ is the information overload we all currently experience and at least for me, this has gotten worse not better, as we have been “sheltering in place.” While I am not discouraging you from listening to the voices of others concerning their experience of faith, that is exactly what you are doing listening to this sermon, I would remind you that we must check all interpretations against the original, the Holy Scriptures and we can only do that if we intentionally and consistently study them.  I am not just talking about a cursory reading during our daily devotional time, hoping that something will jump out at us, which by the grace of God does happen, but systematic reading, reading of multiple commentaries for cultural clues and looking for the places of agreement and disagreement between them, and most importantly reading the passage into the larger story of scripture to see where and how it fits.

The other way we learn to distinguish the voice of Christ is learning to be aware of how God is working in our lives.  My cat knows what time I get up in the morning and is eagerly waiting for me to feed her.  When I walk into a room, she will interrupt her nap and come running to be near me.  We need to be so aware of God, that we recognize that all that we have comes from God and we should so desire to be in God’s presence, especially though the person of Christ, that when we sense his presence we are willing to interrupt what we are doing to be close to him.

Lastly from this passage, we need to trust the voice of Christ to the extent that we are willing to follow that voice and that voice alone.  There are so many voices out there: our friends and family whom we want to please, political voices that try to convince us that they have all the answers and that anyone who thinks differently is an idiot. Academic voices that do the exact same thing. Marketing voices that know how to manipulate you into believing you will be richer, better looking, smarter, and happier if you buy into their product, and this is not just clothes, toys, etc. but lifestyles that require you to purchase one product over another. We all need the necessities of life, and I would argue an occasionally luxury is good for the soul, but we also need to approach life as though it was Jesus’ checkbook we were managing.  We need to ask ourselves who are we helping and who are we hurting by our choices.

In our reading from Acts, Luke gives us a quick status check of the first group of Christians after the day of Pentecost.  It is a bit Utopian and even Luke quickly lets us see that human sin finds its way into the community very quickly, but he lists four things that are significant of this group of people after they have been filled with the Holy Spirit: 1) they devoted themselves to the apostles teaching 2)to fellowship, 3) to the breaking of bread and 4) to prayers. 

“To the apostle’s teaching” was more than likely the retelling of the stories of Jesus.  I have already spoken at length about the necessity for intentional Bible study.  For the earliest Christians, this was a natural response to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.  Many of them already studied the Torah and the prophets, what we call the Old Testament.  We know this because they remained attached to the synagogue in the early days of the church and that is where the apostles began telling the stories of Jesus.  Jesus, himself, used the Old Testament to illustrate what God was doing in him. I can’t emphasis this enough, because this is where I see the church has become the most complacent in our age. A great many Christians are Biblically illiterate.  How can you recognize the voice of God if you ignore His phone calls?

To Fellowship – This of course has been one of the challenges during the pandemic.  How does one socialize and “shelter in place” and practice “social distancing?”  I think we make use of the technology we have been given and keep contact with one another.  I intentionally chose to have  services via ZOOM rather than broadcast either live or pre-recorded services because I wanted you to have the opportunity to see and hear one another.  Once we are able to reconvene, I hope we fully appreciate the physical presence of one another, but I would add a word of caution.  Part of loving our neighbor is honoring their need for personal space.  Loving our neighbor does not mean I feel good when I give you a hug and so I am going to hug you whether you want a hug or not.  Loving our neighbor means I want you to know your presence is valued and I will do that by watching your body language for clues and by asking “what can I do for you today.?”. 

“In the breaking of the bread”  – one of the most difficult things for me, and I know for many of you, that this pandemic has disrupted is our ability to come together around the altar for Eucharist and around the dinner table to share a meal, and I think Luke means both.  There is something deeply intimate about sharing a meal together.  Jesus recognized this and chose to make this one of the ways he reveals himself to us.  Last week we heard that the travelers on the road to Emmaus only recognized Jesus as he was breaking bread with them.  But I think, despite all this, there is a way we can continue to break bread with one another and with Christ.  That is be being aware every time we eat how interconnected we are with other people, with God’s creation, and with God by this very act.  Probably more so now than most times in human history.  I have a good friend who is a bi-vocational priest in England and the occupation that helps her financially be able to do ministry is that of milk maid.  She posted something on Facebook that was eye opening to me.  One of the drawbacks of the giant processing centers is their inability to quickly adapt to changing circumstances.  There have been times this year, and I suspect some places there still is, a shortage of milk on the shelves at the grocery store.  It was not because the cows had quit producing milk, or that there was no one to milk the cows, but the way it is processed and packaged for restaurants is different than the way it is done for individual consumption.  When the restaurant consumption dropped and the retail consumption increased, the producers were not able to change their methods quick enough to meet the changing demands and everyone suffered. We are no longer sustenance farmers as was once the norm.

To prayers – Prayers connect us to God. It helps us to recognize our dependence upon God, it helps us to acknowledge our human failings and to experience the mercy of God.   Intercessory prayer connects us with one another.  It takes us out of the “all about me” mindset and is a way of loving our neighbor.

The Holy Spirit in the lives of these first Christians drove these actions and these actions produced signs and wonders that caused people to be in awe of God.  Their response to God brought glory to God.

Lastly, Peter talks about the suffering endured by the early Christians.  He is not talking about domestic violence or unsafe workplaces.  He is talking about persecution for holding on to the truth and refusing to compromise our faith even in the face of torture or death.  We are extremely fortunate in this country.  Most of us have never known persecution of this kind and while I would never wish it on anyone nor do I believe we should actively seek it for itself, these early Christians did not have the luxury of being lukewarm Christians.  It was a life or death matter.  I recently read a book, and I forget the title, about two young women from Waco who went to Afghanistan shortly before 9/11 for the purpose of giving aid to the people there who had been suffering during a long civil war, and who committed that they would honestly share what Jesus meant to them if asked.  It was at that time, and may still be, against the law to attempt to convert locals to Christianity. These women would warn people that if they committed themselves to Christ, they could be putting themselves and their families at risk, but for them it was a risk they were willing to take. They were arrested and imprisoned for several months, along with several locals who had close associations with them.  They were brought to trial and were potentially facing a death sentence, all because they shared with others what Jesus had meant to them.  They were rescued when military powers in the area changed, but this is what Peter is talking about.  Being so passionate about what Jesus means to you that you cannot help but tell others.  Jeremiah called his call to prophecy “like a fire in his bones.”

Is the Holy Spirit “like a fire in [your] bones”? As we move through this pandemic and as you are moving into a new phase of your life as a congregation I would encourage you to train your ears to hear the shepherd’s voice, join with the earliest Christians responding in what ever ways are open to you at this moment to the voice of Christ, to the workings of the Holy Spirit within you, and then go forth without fear in the name of Christ.

3 Easter 2020

Our current culture tends to encourage us to leave the past behind us and to live in the present moment. For people that have a tendency to get bogged down by prior mistakes there is a certain amount of good advice in that, but in general, if we don’t ever look back, 1) we fail to analyze and learn from our mistakes and 2) we fail to see God’s hand in the difficult times of our lives.

If you read the Bible, the Israelites were constantly looking back for the purpose of remembering 1) the ways they failed to obey God’s commandments and the consequences they suffered as a result and 2) God’s mercy and forgiveness and constant saving them from themselves.

It is difficult to be objective in our observations when we are in the middle of a crisis, but when it is behind us, we often find that what was lost opened a door for something to be gained: a lost job opened the door for a new adventure, a lost relationship opened the door for a different and more meaningful one or the freedom to be more creative, to travel, to learn something new.

Our story in today’s gospel is about some people who are in the middle of a crisis and it is only in looking back that they realize Christ was walking with them through it all.

Two of Jesus’ disciples are walking down the road toward the town of Emmaus from Jerusalem. We are not told specifically, but it is likely that they lived in Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem and had traveled by foot, which was the common method of travel at that time, to Jerusalem for the feast of the Passover.  They had been following the teachings of this new young rabbi named Jesus and he too was in Jerusalem for the Passover. These two were not part of the inner circle that ate dinner with Jesus on Thursday night, but part of the larger crowed that had followed him. One of them is named Cleopas, and it is the only time he is mentioned in scripture. Perhaps they had been among the five thousand that Jesus fed with 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish. Perhaps they had heard him preach or been among the crowds who experienced healing at his hands. They may have been among those who laid down palm branches and their cloaks for Jesus the previous Sunday. I suspect they were among the crowds that witnessed his crucifixion on Friday. Saturday was the Sabbath and travel was forbidden, but today, Sunday they are headed home and their conversation turns to the events of the prior week.

Jesus approached the two on the road and joins in the conversation by asking them what they are talking about. Who is this man, they wonder, that has no idea what happened in Jerusalem this week? They do not recognize Jesus and he does not reveal to them who he is. They proceed to tell him about Jesus’s trial and crucifixion, about his burial and the fact that his tomb was found empty this morning. They share the news that some women had been to the tomb and had reported visions of angels who told them Jesus was alive, but (and I can just hear them) “you know women, the guys went and saw the empty tomb, but no Jesus, no angels.”    There is doubt in their voices. There is despair and dismay because the hope that they once had for Israel’s salvation has suddenly been taken away.

Jesus is amazed at the direction their conversation is going. These are apparently individuals who have studied the scriptures, yet they have failed to understand what they have read. Jesus chastises them for their foolishness, their lack of faith in the words of the prophets, and their failure to understand what they have just witnessed. His chastisement must have been done in a kindly manner because he goes on to teach them what the scriptures say and why the Messiah must suffer. There is no indication that they resent him voicing his opinion and telling them they have totally misunderstood everything about their religious beliefs, in fact as the get close to the turn-off for their village, Jesus moves on ahead of them and they call him back, inviting him to stay with them that evening.  This was probably not that unusual. Nighttime on the roads back then was very dangerous. There are no fast food restaurants where one can freshen up and grab a bite to eat. Generous hospitality was a way of life with some strict rules because looking out for one another was a life or death matter in this harsh environment. They urge Jesus to come abide with them and he agrees. “Ask and you shall receive” This verse was never intended to be about stuff, but about the presence of Christ’s Spirit. Jesus does not force himself on anyone, but if we invite him into our lives, he never turns down the invitation.

At dinner, they invite Jesus to have the honor of breaking and blessing the bread. As soon as he completes this act, they recognize him. John is being subtle, but he is reminding us that it is in the breaking of the bread, in the Holy Eucharist, that Christ’s presence is most easily recognized by us. Then Jesus does the same disappearing act that occurs in most of his post-resurrection visitations. His purpose has been served, their eyes were opened, and Jesus moves on to visit others.  Jesus is no longer bound by the restraints to time and space that we currently experience, yet he makes it clear that he is still fully human. At other times he allows people to touch him to see that he is flesh and blood, not a ghostly phantom. He eats in people’s presence.

These men, pause and think back about their conversation with Christ on the road and they realize that their hearts had been “burning within us” the whole time they had been talking with Christ. Jesus had taken them back through the history of their people, all the way back to Moses to show what God was doing in their midst, then they looking back at the events that led up to their seeing the risen Jesus for who he was, filled them with joy and excitement and hope for the future.

John tells us that after Jesus’ disappearance they got up from the table and rushed back to Jerusalem – a seven mile walk in the middle of the night on dangerous roads, and they sought out the eleven, those who were known to be Jesus’ closest companions, in order to give them the Good News that Jesus was alive.  By this time, Jesus has already appeared to Peter, and the eleven now also believed the women. Everyone was gathered together sharing their joy and excitement.

Are you aware of the presence of Jesus walking with you? Have you invited him to come into your home, to bless and break bread with you? Can you look back on your life and see God’s hand at work even during the difficult and trying times? Has your heart ever been “burning inside you” and looking back you realize that was the presence of the Holy Spirit lifting you up when your heart was heavy? Have you read the scriptures and seen God’s hand at work for thousands of years guiding and rescuing his people?  

These are difficult times. I am not going to pretend that is not so. But Jesus didn’t promise peace and prosperity.  He promised wars, famine, pestilence, earthquakes (Matt 24:7) and a cross, that is life here on earth, but he also promised to be there with us and he promised resurrection as the final outcome. My prayer is that you will ask Jesus to come stay with you, that your eyes will be opened, and that you will know the joy that these two found, the joy that inspired them to turn around and go back to Jerusalem to share the Good News.   

2nd Sunday after Easter 2020

Labels are a tricky thing.  When I go to the grocery store, I want my food to be labeled clearly and accurately.  For people with food sensitivities, this can be a life or death matter, but when we label people, we tend to put emphasis on something that is often irrelevant to the current situation that adds a bias, either for against that person intended or unintended.  For example, I saw a recent Facebook post where someone had shared a very talented drummers offering for our isolation.  The headline included a sexuality and an occupation label on the individual.  My friend was upset, feeling that the labels were unnecessary and could potentially create a negative bias where someone else felt they were very positive because of the initial audience for whom the video was created.  We are all far more complicated that any labels that are used either to honor or defame us.  This morning we hear the story of the unfortunate disciple who has been labeled as a doubter for the last two thousand years.

So who was Thomas, the Apostle?  Thomas first appears in Matthew 10:3 and the parallels Mark 3:18 and Luke 6:15 where he is named in a list of Jesus’ twelve apostles and never mentioned again in any of the synoptic gospels. It is in the Gospel of John that we get to know a little about him.  John mentions the twelve as early chapter 6, but Thomas is first mentioned by name in the story about Lazarus, brother of Martha and Mary in chapter 11. After Lazarus has died, Jesus determined to return to Bethany, a town just on the other side of the Mount of Olives from Jerusalem.   The disciples were concerned about Jesus returning to Jerusalem because last time they were there the people had tried to stone him.  Jesus is adamant that it is time to return.  John tells us that “Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’” (John 11:16) Thomas already has a label “The Twin” though we have no idea who his twin was, but we can see from this statement that Thomas makes that John believes Thomas to be both loyal and courageous.  If Jesus is determined to return to the area near Jerusalem, then Thomas will be there by his side for better or for worse. 

The next time we see Thomas, Jesus is talking about his upcoming departure.  He is talking about leaving to prepare a place for them and telling them that they know the way to the place where he is going.  It is Thomas that speaks up and says, “Lord, we do not know where you are going.  How can we know the way?”  Thomas does not appear to be suffering from poor self-esteem. He is confused and he does mind admitting it, to Jesus or in front of all the other disciples.  He genuinely wants to know how to follow Jesus wherever he is going.

There is no mention of Thomas by name during the Holy Week activities, though we have every reason to believe he was there. From the time that each of the synoptic gospels gives the list of the twelve, which is fairly early in Jesus’ ministry – they often just refer to the group as the twelve who were constantly with Jesus until they scattered at the time of his arrest and who, according to John, still gathered together after his death bringing us to today’s story.   

It is Sunday, Jesus was crucified and buried on Friday.  Sunday morning, Mary Magdelene and at least one other woman witnessed the empty tomb and Mary is stating that she saw and spoke to Jesus. Peter and another of the disciples, probably John, have seen the empty tomb.  It is now evening and the disciples, which probably means more than just the twelve, have gathered together in someone’s house and have locked the doors because they are afraid of the Jewish leaders.  Thomas is not with them.  We do not know why. He could be out getting food for everyone.  He could have decided to go back to his former occupation and/or family rather than continue to hang out with the twelve.  He could have been “sheltering in place,” hiding out wherever he ended up on Friday night.  We just don’t know what he was thinking or doing at this time.

Jesus suddenly appears in the room with the disciples.  I visualize Resurrection as being freed from the restrictions of time and space because Jesus just materializes in the room with them.  He speaks to them, “Peace be with you” (John 2: 19).   I’m sure they were terrified, even if it was Jesus.  First, because of this strange otherworldly appearance of one you know died and secondly, they all failed him on Friday – most of them ran, Peter denied him, John found his way to the foot of the cross, but not before Jesus was tried and executed. But Jesus speaks not of their need to be forgiven, he forgave them while still nailed to the cross, but of their need to forgive. Forgive themselves, forgive each other, forgive the Jewish authorities, forgive the Roman authorities, forgive the crowds that mocked Jesus and called for his crucifixion.   John also preempts Pentecost and says that Jesus breathed on them and told them to “Receive the Holy Spirit.” ( John 20:22) Then as mysteriously as he appeared he is gone.  WOW! and for whatever reason, Thomas missed it.

We don’t know if one of the twelve tracked him down or Thomas was just late getting to the party, but the disciples tell Thomas what he missed that day. The empty tomb, the angels at the tomb, Jesus speaking to Mary, Jesus appearing in the room with them that evening.  Jesus showing them the holes in his hands and his side. Jesus offering them Peace. Jesus telling them to forgive others, and finally, Jesus breathing on them and giving them the Holy Spirit. This is all a bit much for Thomas who saw Jesus’ arrest, probably saw him crucified and hanging on the cross, but did not see or experience any of what they are talking about.  Thomas is a realist.  Thomas likes to have his facts in order and then he can act.  If going to Jerusalem meant dying with Jesus, he could do that.  If Jesus wanted them to follow him to some new home, he could do that, but he needed a map, he needed to know where he was going.  If Jesus was alive, he wanted to see for himself.  We have learned to verify anything posted on the internet, perhaps Thomas had learned to verify anything he heard by word of mouth.

John tells us “A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them” (John 20:26).  Once again Jesus materializes in a locked room.  Again, Jesus greets them with “Peace be with you.” Then, he immediately turns his attention to Thomas.  Jesus knows what has been said, and even what Thomas has been thinking.  He offers Thomas the reassurance he knows Thomas needs – “Put your finger here and see my hands.  Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt, believe.”  Jesus not only assures him that he is real, he helps him to connect with the sacrifice Jesus made for Thomas and the rest of humanity. 

Thomas’ response to Jesus is “My Lord and my God.” Thomas’ affirmation is more than confirmation that Jesus has risen from the dead.  Thomas’ affirmation is a pledge of allegiance to Jesus the Christ, affirming not only that he is alive, that he is the Messiah, but that he is one with God, but that Thomas is his slave.  This is much more than even what Peter confessed when he stated the Jesus was, “the Christ, the son of the living God.” (Matthew 16:16).  This is the point that Jesus was trying to make on Thursday night when he washed their feet and instituted the Eucharist, and no one got it at that time.

Jesus’ question to Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me?” is not a condemnation of Thomas, but sets up for John the opportunity to tell all those who will come to belief later, in the future, not because they too got to see and touch the physical risen Chris, but because they hear the stories and hear truth in them.  John has Jesus saying that they are even more blessed for they have come to that belief through faith not evidence.

Jesus commended the faith of children.  Sometimes it is easy for us to become religious snobs, and I confess that I can be as guilty as the next person and must constantly remind myself that it is not what we know about theology or church history, or how well we perform the liturgy, or how beautiful our prayers sound, or how hard we work that is important.  What is important is the statement that Thomas gave to us, “Jesus – My Lord and My God.”  If we can say that and mean it, if we can live into that confession then our denomination, high church or low church, traditional or progressive, ZOOM or Facebook Live, are of no consequence. Peace be with you and may all your labels be in the grocery stores.

Easter Vigil 2020

An interesting difference between first century Jewish culture and 21st century Americans is our concept of the day.  In the story of the creation we are told “And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.” (Genesis 1:5b).  In the Jewish culture, even today for those who strictly observe the Sabbath, the new day begins when the sun goes down, and so we begin our celebration of Easter this evening, shortly after the sun has gone down, with the lighting of the new fire and the Pascal candle.

We are at a liminal stage liturgically.  We have one foot still in Lent and the other foot stepping over the threshold into Easter.  We are still in darkness, but there is hope of the sunrise and a new awakening.  This Easter it may seem as though we have a rope tied around our waist with someone pulling us back, refusing to let us move forward.  You may not have Easter lilies, Easter outfits, Easter baskets, Easter eggs, Easter bunnies, or the Easter banquets that help propel us out of the fasting and introspective aspect of Lent and into the joyous and celebratory remembrance of our salvation, but Easter will come this night just the same.  I would encourage you to find ways to celebrate tomorrow even if it looks a little bit different.  

We begin our readings with the remembrance of what God has done throughout Israel’s history.  The BCP allows up to nine readings but requires at least two.  I chose a happy medium of four, but the reality is there are many more than nine stories recounting God’s mercy and forgiveness in the Old Testament.  Why do we do this?  We are in a way giving a letter of introduction or recommendation concerning God to those to do not yet know him. Why do we believe that God raised Jesus from the dead? We believe because it is in the nature of God to have chosen to do this for us and we know that because we know God through the stories we have heard about what God had done in the past, the promises that he made, and the promises that he kept to previous generations.

We believe that God created the world, we believe God caused order to come out of chaos – that is what Genesis 1 is saying, and that God created human beings in his own image because he wanted to be in relationship with us.   Among the stories we might have read was that of Noah and the flood.  Despite the chaos humans created within God’s creation, he chose to save the human race through Noah and give humanity a second chance.  We could have read the story of Abraham and how God chose Abraham to be the father of a nation through which God would bless the entire world and how God revealed to Abraham his faithfulness to that promise in ways that proved it was God’s doing and not Abraham’s delusion.  We did read about God hearing the cry of his people in bondage and sending Moses, whom he spent 80 years preparing for this task, to bring his people out of Egypt and safely across the Red/Reed sea.  We read in Isaiah how God’s salvation is and was always intended to be for all people from every nation.  We could have read about Ezekiel’s vision of the Valley of Dry Bones that God resurrected when Ezekiel witnessed to them about the power of God.  We read that story just a few weeks ago.  We read about God’s promise through the prophet Ezekiel to restore Israel.  Why do these story matter?  Why were we commanded not to forget them, but to tell them to our children and grandchildren?  Because this is how we keep alive the knowledge of who God is, but telling of what God has done.

Tonight we tell another story.  Perhaps the most important story.  It is only the last little portion of the story we have been telling all week, but like any good serial – let me remind you what came before.  We began this week with Jesus riding into Jerusalem in what appeared to be a triumph or coronation ceremony.  Quietly, but quite visually, Jesus announced the beginning of his reign, the start of the Kingdom of Heaven, in the streets of Jerusalem.  Later he drove the money changers and merchants out of the temple courts and talked about the destruction of the temple and his ability to rebuild it in three days.  He was speaking of his body, the true temple, but his words were the final straw for many who saw him as a troublemaker.  Jesus gathered with his disciples in the upper room of someone’s home in Jerusalem. There, while sharing the Passover Seder with his closest companions he washed their feet demonstrating his expectation of servant leadership from them,  he altered the words of the Haggadah stating that the wine in the Cup of Redemption was his blood and the unleavened bread was his body which would be broken for their salvation.  While saying prayers in the garden after the meal, he was betrayed by one of his own, Judas Iscariot, accused by the Jewish leaders, and arrested by Roman soldiers.  He was beaten, mocked and though tried by the temple, the Jewish crown, and the Roman prefect – he was found innocent, but too dangerous to release and he was crucified on a Roman cross to please the riotous crowds. Finally, before sundown on Friday night, before the beginning of the Sabbath, he was placed in a borrowed tomb.

It is now the earliest hours of dawn on Sunday morning.  The sun is just beginning to emit a faint glow at the horizon and some women, Matthew tells us Mary Magdalene and another Mary, go to Jesus’ tomb with the intention of finishing the process of preparing his body for burial, as they were not able to finish before the Sabbath began Friday evening.  Matthew tells us, before the women arrived, an earthquake caused the stone sealing Jesus’ tomb to roll away and an angel descended from heaven and sat on top of the stone frightening the Roman soldiers who were guarding the grave.  Romans were a very superstitious people and had no trouble believing in other-worldly happenings but did not necessarily wanted to stick around to see what the angel had planned.  The angel greeted the women with the usual greeting from heaven “Do not be afraid” and explained to them what had happened.  ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ The angel instructs them to go tell quickly and tell the disciples – the men.  They run off with very mixed emotions.  They have just been visited by and angel which I’m sure is disconcerting, to say the least, so they are frightened, despite the angel’s insistence that there is nothing to fear, but they are also filled with joy. Their beloved Jesus is alive. Suddenly Jesus, himself, appears before them and in a most casual way, says “Greetings”. The women fall to the ground and reaching out and touching his feet they worship him.  Jesus reminds them of the angel’s instructions to go tell the men to meet him in Galilee.

Each gospel tells this story just a bit differently.  Tomorrow morning we will hear John’s version, which is my favorite and describes a tender private meeting between Jesus and Mary Magdelene.  Matthew’s version seems almost comical by comparison, but the gist of the story is the same.  That which they thought was lost has been found. The impossible has become reality.  The nightmare has become a message of hope.

I would encourage you, if you find you have time on your hands in the coming weeks, and I know for some of you that is much and others you have even less than you did before, try to spend some time reading the stories in the Bible.  If you find it difficult, don’t be embarrassed to use a book of children’s Bible stories or a paraphrased version.  The important thing is to familiarize yourself with the stories in the Bible enough that you can tell them to others and know why they matter. 

Alleluia, Christ is risen!