Sunday, May 19, 2019

Fifth Sunday of Easter

Acts 11
11 “Right then three men who had been sent to me from Caesarea stopped at the house where I was staying. 12 The Spirit told me to have no hesitation about going with them. These six brothers also went with me, and we entered the man’s house. 13 He told us how he had seen an angel appear in his house and say, ‘Send to Joppa for Simon who is called Peter. 14 He will bring you a message through which you and all your household will be saved.’
15 “As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning. 16 Then I remembered what the Lord had said: ‘John baptized with[a] water, but you will be baptized with[b] the Holy Spirit.’ 17 So if God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?”
18 When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, “So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life.”

From the “you know you’re old when” file, I asked my son about House.

Not the dwelling, not the show, but the musical genre. My satellite radio is constantly trying to lure me away from TV-news-on-the-radio to various music channels—like House. I can’t recall Isaac’s exact definition, something like ‘mellow electronic dance music’ or some something like that, and popularized by artists such as Deadmau5—that’s mouse spelled in German with a 5 instead of an “S.” Oddly, Deadmau5 lives near Lang, so maybe Lang would be a better person to ask about electronic dance music. Our picnic is sounding more interesting all the time.

Intrigued, I wanted to know more. So there is Techno, with the same four-on-the-floor beat as House (not sure what that means) but with more “atonal samples and dystopian atmospheres.”* Or Dubstep, with a two-step beat and a sound that has been compared to “demon growls” or “a blender full of pennies.” I don’t think they’re selling it very well.

Finally, there is Trance. If House and Techno had a baby, in Germany, in the 90s, it would be called Trance. The name more-or-less describes the genre, with repeating phrases that can put you into, well, a trance. It’s obviously not for driving. I share all this because the passage Bob read includes a famous example of a trance, and because I presume you are planning the rest of your weekend, and it may include a little clubbing.

So what about Peter’s trance? The words we heard this morning—the trance and the blanket covered in creatures—is an exact retelling from the previous chapter, events that happened in the home of Simon the Tanner, and involve a certain centurion named Cornelius.

Chapter 10 begins with a vision: Cornelius is a God-fearing member of the Italian Regiment, attentive in prayer and generous to the poor. God speaks to Cornelius and says “send for a man named Peter, who just now is in Joppa, staying in the home of Simon the Tanner.

Meanwhile, in Joppa, Peter is hungry, and waiting for the noon meal to be served. He retreats to the roof of Simon’s house to pray, and he falls into a trance. The heavens open and down comes a blanket, held by four-corners and covered in “four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, reptiles and birds.” Then a voice saying, “Get up, Peter, kill and eat.”

“Surely not, Lord!” Peter said. “Nothing impure or unclean has ever entered my mouth.”
The voice spoke from heaven a second time and said to Peter, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”

Pondering his vision, doubtless still hungry, the Spirit speaks a third time and says ‘Peter, there are three men downstairs waiting for you, so go with them, for I have sent them to collect you.’ Greetings are exchanged, the words of the Spirit are shared, and the next day they set off. It’s 33 miles from Joppa to Caesarea where Cornelius is posted, so after a couple of days on the road the group arrives.

Peter enters a full house. Cornelius has gathered family and trusted friends, and Peter addresses them all: ‘You are well-aware,’ he begins, ‘that it is against our laws for me to visit the home of a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean. For this reason, I came without objection. May I then ask you, then, why you have invited me?’

Cornelius explains his vision—the Spirit who commended his devotion to prayer and the poor—and the command to summon Peter. “So I sent for you immediately,” Cornelius said, “and it was good of you to come. Now we are all here in the presence of God to listen to everything the Lord has commanded you to tell us.”

Peter shares the words we heard in Easter Sunday: God loves those who fear God and do what is right, from every nation. God sent Jesus, anointed with truth and power, but the people could not receive him. He died on a cross, but God raised him on the third day, becoming life to those who believe. As Peter spoke, the Spirit descended on the household, members and guests, and all believed. “No one,” Peter said, “can stand in the way of their baptism. They have received the same Spirit we have.” He then baptised them in the name of Jesus Christ.

The Spirit made is seem so easy. A word here, a vision there, and trance thrown in for good measure. And it turns out that this, indeed, was the simple part, because our lesson this morning comes with the sub-title “uh-oh.” Word of the whole episode has reached Peter’s colleagues at Church House (in Jerusalem) and they object: “You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them?”

Peter’s response is simple: tell the story, emphasize the places where God (in the Spirit) has acted, and defeat them with one question—”So if God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?”

Who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?

This past week, I had the opportunity to hear Dr. Matt Skinner, who teaches at Luther Seminary in Minneapolis, MN. Professor Skinner spoke on Acts 16, the time Paul and Silas land themselves in jail, and the parallels between that story and this story are striking. They are both stories about “hospitality in the homes of the newly baptized,” stories where “strangers become friends,” and stories where God saves surprizing people—jailers and centurions—as we look on in wonder.**

Reading through the Book of Acts—according to Dr. Skinner—we can see “what becomes possible in a post-Easter world." A member of the occupying army is welcomed into the household of God. A jailer witnessed the power of God as chains are loosed and the prison door is thrown open, and then the jailed asks, “what can I do to be saved? Even the Ethiopian eunuch—perhaps the best modern equivalent would be a member of the trans community—is embraced by St. Philip. Remember the end of the story?

As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptized?” And nothing can stand in the way, as Philip baptized him immediately.

It is the questions—Who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way? What can I do to be saved? What can stand in the way of my being baptized?—it is the questions that define what becomes possible in the post-Easter world. And the answer is anything—with God all things are possible. Strangers become friends, outsiders become members of the household of God, and anyone who calls on the name of the Lord can be saved.

I’m still thinking about Peter’s trance, and the extent to which he entered that altered state to see a vision of a new world. In a world without sirens and horns, blaring televisions or electronic dance music, maybe you needed a trance to move from a relatively quiet world to a place where the Spirit could speak. For us it might be simpler, maybe just some silent prayer to open ourselves to the Spirit. And what would we hope to hear, what vision might we see?

Like Acts—the other time the church was confronted by so much confusion and indifference—it may be a glimpse of what God is already doing around us. Strangers become friends, outsiders become members of the household of God, and anyone who calls on the name of the Lord can be saved. Amen.

**Festival of Homiletics, 2019, Minneapolis.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Fourth Sunday of Easter

John 10
22 Then came the Festival of Dedication[a] at Jerusalem. It was winter, 23 and Jesus was in the temple courts walking in Solomon’s Colonnade. 24 The Jews who were there gathered around him, saying, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”
25 Jesus answered, “I did tell you, but you do not believe. The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me, 26 but you do not believe because you are not my sheep. 27 My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. 29 My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all[b]; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. 30 I and the Father are one.”

I decided to get a jump on my summer reading, so I bought a copy of the Mueller Report.

The first problem is page after page of redactions, entire pages made up of a large blocks of black ink where the words are supposed to go. On one hand, I got more ink, so that’s good, but on the other hand, fewer words, that’s bad. And I have already spent too much time trying to guess what’s under all that ink—to no avail. And of course, after Carmen handed me my new book, I couldn’t resist saying, “hey, what did you do to my new book?” Who know redactions could be so much fun?

(Just as an aside, my friend and colleague is a pastor in Iowa, and he experienced some illness last year. He’s a funny guy, so he’s in the hospital and he says to his wife “I really hope that your next husband is healthier than me.” Without skipping a beat she says, “I’m not sure what Robert’s health is like.”
“Robert! Who’s Robert?” he says.
“Robert Mueller, of course.”)

I think of it as a 448 page trip down memory lane. That time Comey went to the White House and felt compelled to make contemporaneous notes. The meeting the Oval with Kislyak and Lavrov. Or the time Flynn lied to Pence about his conversations with Kislyak. Is it collusion or obstruction, or both?

(Just now you’re thinking that this is the strangest Mother’s Day sermon is human history, and you struggle to see how any preacher could possibly make a link from Mueller to Mother’s Day. But I think I know, so let’s look.)

First of all, consider Mike Pence. He’s the conservative governor who was selected to join the ticket in an effort to solidify support from the religious right. And he succeeded, partly by convincing his co-religionists to keep their eye on the prize—conservative judges—and partly by making a Bible-based argument for supporting the ticket.

The argument is to point to Cyrus the Great, king of Persia, conqueror of Babylon, the very king who allowed the Israelites to return to Jerusalem. For Pence and for others, the parallels seem too clear to ignore: Cyrus was pagan, normally someone you ignore or revile, but he became an instrument of God’s desire to return the people to the Promised Land. Isaiah even calls Cyrus a messiah, an anointed one, sent to save the people.

So in a remarkable misuse of the Bible, conservative Christian voters were told that even though their candidate seemed to represent everything a good Christian should avoid—pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth—they should set this aside because he might be a modern-day King Cyrus. And if you think all this might be a bit of a stretch, remember that the Prime Minister of Israel made the same point about Cyrus the Great, in the Oval Office, after the election.

Clearly, this is a moment to review this idea of messiah. In our passage, Jesus’ religious critics want to know if he’s messiah. In Isaiah 45 we read about Cyrus as messiah, and for our Jewish sisters and brothers, they continue to wait. So how do we sort through all this? Just now, some of our Lenten study friends are remembering that just such a question came up, so they can go to their happy place for a moment while we look at this idea of messiah.

To begin, messiah simply means “the anointed one,” associated with kingship of the human and historical variety. David is considered the greatest king, anointed and given the promise of an enduring line. The Babylonians had other ideas, of course, so the idea of an Israelite king become a future hope, and eventually a messianic hope—in the sense that God will anoint another king to rule over them.

At the same time, the Bible begins to give the anointed king divine qualities, using language like Son of God (Psalm 2) as an honourific. So we have the idea of a messiah, a divinely anointed king, and he have the name “Son of God,” an important marker of divine authorization. Add this to the language of the Son of Man: beginning in Daniel and expressing a future hope someone more powerful than an angel (and in human form) would come on the clouds to liberate Israel.

So by the time Jesus arrives, the hope of salvation is described in a number of ways: Messiah, Son of God, Son of Man, righteous branch (of the Jesse tree) and so on. And it follows that Jesus fits the part. When Jesus says to the twelve “but who do you say that I am?” we get Peter’s response: “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.”

Which brings us back to our passage. When asked if he is the messiah, he says “I told you that, but you didn’t believe me”—
and then he does two things. First, he reminds them that everything he has been doing should be proof enough that he comes from God, and second, he talks about sheep. I’m going to talk about sheep in a moment, but I want to underline here that the language of messiah is less important to Jesus than it might seem. Titles have a role to play in the story, but Jesus wants to people to see God at work through him and he wants to discuss sheep.

First, one final word on messiah. You may have noticed that within the mainline church we tend to use the word ‘messiah’ less than in other traditions. And the reason is simple: for our Jewish brothers and sisters, Messiah has yet to come. In many ways, it is a conflict that troubles the heart of both religions. Either we are mistake or they are mistaken. And this is so deeply dissatisfying that liberal Christians (and reform Jews) tend to say we’re both mistaken: we say that Jesus was not the Jewish messiah after all, and Reform Jews focus on a messianic age rather than an individual figure.* As compromises go, it’s a good one.

So we’ve looked at the messiah question, so what about sheep? Listen again to part of our passage, and I think we’re hearing the language of relationship: “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow one will snatch them out of my hand...nor can anyone can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I am one with the Father.”

This is the Good Shepherd, tirelessly searching for the lost sheep, speaking that we might recognize his voice, and related to the Most High because Jesus and the Father are one. In other words, a relationship. The religious critics were busy trying to trip Jesus up with questions of messiahship and such, but Jesus just wanted to talk about the things God was doing, and the relationship God-in-Jesus wants to have with each and every one of us.

So we’re still trying to get from Mueller to Mother’s Day, and of course we have to talk about Confirmation too, since Olivia and Jenna are equally confused about how all this fits together. Truth is, we already have the answer: Jesus wants to talk about the things that God is already doing, like moving young hearts to join the church, and he wants to talk about relationship, like the lifelong relationship with the Christian church that begins (and continues) today.

Olivia and Jenna, you have made a profession of faith and helped us remember our own promises, but the real action today is relationship—joined to this fellowship and the Good Shepherd who makes us one. We hear his voice speaking through others, we know him through the good work of others, and we follow—together—never walking alone.

So one final piece in this puzzle: Mother’s Day. But before I share perhaps my favourite scholarly quote, I want to caution you on the misuse of scripture. It is a grave error to suggest that God would lift up a reprehensible person to further a narrow and intolerant agenda. And our role as believers is to vehemently make the counter-argument: that we serve a God of love and mercy, who lifts up the vulnerable, and seeks a just sharing of all the world’s resources. God works from below, through relationship, and by placing us in the midst of human need.

So here is the quote from Rosemary Radford Ruether, let’s call it a Mother’s Day card from the Bible:

In the story of the Exodus we find that the first acts of rebellion against Pharaoh are those of women. The mother of Moses refuses to obey the decree to kill her newborn son and hides him in the bulrushes. The sister of Moses seizes the opportunity to save him by presenting him to the daughter of Pharaoh who comes to the river to bathe. Pharaoh’s daughter also disobeys by accepting the Hebrew child and bringing him up as her own. Thus a conspiracy of women takes place across class and ethnic lines to save the child who will be the liberator of Israel. (Women-Church, p. 43-44)

May the things that God is doing in our midst be never more plain than today, and may you remain bound, one to another, in sacred relationship, now and always, Amen.


Sunday, May 05, 2019

Third Sunday of Easter

John 21
14 This was now the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead.
15 When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”
“Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”
16 Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”
17 The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. 18 Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” 19 Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!”

Apologies if you rushed here this morning and missed breakfast, but I want you to think about your comfort food.

Comfort food, for those of you visiting this planet for the first time today, is the food you reach for when you need more than nutrition. It’s that warm feeling you get when you tuck into something familiar and comfortable. At our house there is something about the lunchtime combination of grilled cheese and tomato soup—comfort food.

And there are obviously lots of variables—culture, memory, circumstance—all of which determine your comfort food. It’s also highly subjective—one person’s comfort food might sound odd or unappealing to someone else. But that’s the nature of comfort, it depends who you are and how you were made.

Related to comfort food is the idea of a comforting friend, the person you turn to for support or well, comfort. For some this will be someone who really understands you, or won’t judge you, or doesn’t need a long explanation to understand what you are saying. Maybe you have different friends for different areas of concern, one for kvetching and another for sharing something good. In this era of posting and forwarding, you might see some pattern—certain stories sent to certain people—knowing that what you send will be appreciated.

And then, of course, there are comfort activities, that thing you do when you have a particular need. Maybe you’re too tired to do anything else, except your comfort activity. Maybe you’re stressed out and you know which activity will calm you down. Or maybe it’s like your comfort food—tied to memory and circumstance—an activity that transports you to a different time and place and gives you a sense of comfort.

Like fishing, for example. The reading Kathy shared is part of an extended narrative that begins back home, some days after Jesus first appeared to his disciples. John picks up the story:

Simon Peter, Thomas, Nathanael from Cana, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples were together. “I’m going out to fish,” Simon Peter told them, and they said, “We’ll go with you.” So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

Even with John’s sparse telling, you get the sense that they are engaged in a comfort activity: “I’m going out,” Peter said. “We’ll go with you,” they said. Back to the water, a familiar place and a familiar activity. They obviously can’t turn back the clock, return to whatever moment was happiest or most comfortable, but they can sit in the boat, with the friends that remain, and do something as natural and familiar as breathing. And then the dawn breaks.

Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples didn’t realize that it was Jesus. He called out to them, “Friends, haven’t you any fish?”

“No,” they answered.

Then Jesus said, “Cast your net on the other side and you will find some.” When they did, they were unable to haul in the net because there were so many fish.

Suddenly this story about friends finding comfort in the familiar transforms into something else, this miraculous catch, too many fish to haul into the boat. Suddenly the unexpected breaks into the familiar, and it doesn’t take the beloved disciple long to figure out what is happening here.

That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It’s 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. The other disciples followed in the boat, towing the net full of fish, for they were not far from shore, about a hundred yards. When they landed, they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish on it, and some bread.

I don’t do sermon titles, but if I did, it would have to be some variation on “Fishing Naked with Peter.” Interesting that in 1611 (the old King James) Peter is naked, but by the middle of the last century the translators can’t bring themselves to describe him as naked, then in the latest translation (NRSV) he’s naked again. Later, when someone asks you the theme of the preacher’s message, what will you say?

Back to our story. Jesus said, “bring me some of the fish you have caught, and Peter obliges: 153 large fish in the net, yet the net was not torn. “Come and have some breakfast,” Jesus said. None of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” But they knew it was the Lord. Jesus came, took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish.

Now we get to the comfortable heart of the story. He broke bread and gave it to them, and likewise he shared some grilled fish. Simple elements transformed into a heavenly feast, one the body of Christ and the other a sure sign of the Kingdom, 153 fish in the net. 153, then, is the number of abundance, the number of the inexpressible generosity of God. The unexpected breaks into the familiar: thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

But the meal is only the beginning. We’re back to the part that Kathy read, certainly one of the most emotional conversations in scripture. Jesus was known for emotional conversations, the rich young ruler, the woman at the well, Nicodemus by night— but this one is different. This one is an extended version of that conversation I expect we have all had at one time or another, the conversation that can be summarized simply as “are we good?”

What John records, of course, is more complex—a threefold dialogue in a threefold movement—that seems to take the familiar (the need to be reconciled) and transform it into something unexpected. Listen again:

“Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
“Lord, you know I love you.”
“Then feed my sheep.”

By the third time this questioning repeats, we should know that something else is happening here. The answer to “are we good” is an obvious ‘yes,’ having been granted a window on the love between Peter and the Lord. It might seem cliche to say that Jesus was Peter’s comforting friend, but here it becomes clear. The darkness of denial has lifted, and now they can resume this remarkable partnership, a fisherman from the Galilee and the Lord of All.

This might seem the most likely place to end, but I want to add more one unexpected element to the familiar end of John’s Gospel. And that has to do with the miracle of scripture. Time and time again we have talked about finding yourself in the Bible: imagining yourself in a parable, seeing yourself among the twelve, guessing your reaction when standing on holy ground. But in John 21 we get to enter the conversation, with a different kind of comforting friend: the comforting friend who asks the questions we need to be asked, the comforting friend who sees what we can’t see, the comforting friend who knows there is much more in store for us.

“Do you love me?”
“Lord, you know I love you.”
“Then feed my sheep.”

Our comforting friend, the ultimate comforting friend, is calling us to fill this role for others, for this is how we glorify God and bring the Kingdom to them. First we accept these words, and then we bring them to others.

May the God of the unexpected find us and make us new. Amen.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Second Sunday of Easter

Revelations 1
John, To the seven churches in the province of Asia:
Grace and peace to you from him who is, and who was, and who is to come, and from the seven spirits[a] before his throne, 5 and from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.
To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, 6 and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father—to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen.
7 “Look, he is coming with the clouds,”[b]
and “every eye will see him,
even those who pierced him”;
and all peoples on earth “will mourn because of him.”[c]
So shall it be! Amen.
8 “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.”

When in doubt, you should prepare an elevator speech.

You can picture the moment: the doors close and you discover yourself stand beside someone important to your work: client, boss, supervisor and so on. You now have the duration of the elevator ride to describe something important. So you prepare an elevator speech.

This was the basic advice that Carmen received as she embarked on her advanced degree: have a summary statement prepared that describes your research, and what you hope to prove through your dissertation. It’s sort of one-part selling yourself and one-part being clear in your own mind. If someone is going to ask, you need to rehearse what you’re going to say. Apparently “oh, not much,” or “you know, this and that” won’t cut it.

So it may be time, then, for a little thought experiment. Imagine the every-persuasive Joan has you delivering an Easter lily, and you step on the elevator, flower-in-hand, and the person standing beside you says “what’s the occasion?” In this thought experiment you are not allowed to say “oh, not much,” or “you know, this and that.” You need to declare that you are delivering a flower to a member of your church, and you wait for the next question.

And since this is my thought experiment, I’m going to steer the hypothetical conversation to something like, “United Church huh, what do you folks believe?” This is the moment you think ‘elevator speech, elevator speech—I knew I should have followed that advice and prepared an elevator speech.’ And then you speak.

I’m not going to put words in your hypothetical mouths, instead, I’m going to share a bit of work from the late Michael Martin, who taught religion at Boston University. When I say “taught religion” I should clarify, since his most important book is called The Case Against Christianity. It’s ironic on a few levels, but we won’t get distracted by that. Nevertheless, he does us a big favour by beginning his book with a really good definition (set of definitions?) of what Christians believe.

He begins by defining a basic Christian.

[You are] a basic Christian if and only if [you believe] that a theistic God exists, that Jesus lived at the time of Pilate, that Jesus is the incarnation of God, that one is saved through faith in Jesus, and that Jesus is the model of ethical behaviour.

In other words, you believe there is a God, that Jesus came from God, lived and died, saves people, and teaches us how to live. That’s a basic Christian. Then he biggie sizes his definition by adding another layer, the Orthodox Christian: You’re orthodox if you are a basic Christian but you also believe in the Trinity, the Virgin Birth, the Atonement, the Resurrection and the Second Coming. I hope it’s a long elevator ride, maybe the CN Tower.

Again, in other words, you take the basics and add a layer of belief that the church in its history has declared as important. These ideas begin in scripture, to be sure, but they come to full flower though councils, creeds and the work of important thinkers. So we have the basic Christian and the orthodox believer. So what else?

Michael Martin’s not done, because he adds another layer to the story. He adds two types of liberal Christians, the first that believes in God, and believes that Jesus lived and taught some important ethical lessons. And then the final one, what Martin calls the extreme form of liberal Christianity: following Jesus as an ethical teacher, and stripping away everything else. And then he adds a little side note: that many Christians wouldn’t consider liberal Christians to be Christians at all. That sounds like my Pentecostal cousins, who give me that sad look because they seem to know I’m going to hell, but that’s another story.

Basically, you need to stop the elevator. And you might need a chart, or a list, or maybe a tattoo, upside down so you can read it. Or maybe you just know that there are the things you cling to, and there are the things you can set aside (or you’re just not sure about). And that’s okay. In the United Church we talk about the “big tent,” the spectrum of belief that makes up the diversity of our denomination, and the extent to which we put service in the name of Christ ahead of doctrinal differences. There seems to be some minimal standards of belief for ministers, but that’s a conversation that is far beyond the scope of this sermon.

I share all this today because I’ve had a couple of days at a learning event and I’m thinking the diversity of the church as it was described by the various speakers, and also because Revelations opens the same topic, and seems to find a way to help us summarize who we are and what we believe. So what is this book we seldom read and rarely hear preached? What can we say about the Book of Revelations?

The first answer would be “it depends who you ask.” Before we ask, however, here is the nutshell summary: seven letters to seven churches, some prophetic visions for us to ponder, and a description of the second coming of Jesus, or the culmination of human history, a new heaven and a new earth. After the nutshell, things start to get messy.

Some scholars think it’s a creative retelling of recent history, some a forecast of coming events, and some an elaborate allegory, layers of symbolic meaning for us to unpack. We would need the afternoon to debate and decide, so instead I might have us look at the letters, and what they say about the church in that day.

All seven churches were doing something right, and the author makes careful note of what they upheld and what they resisted, the good news in a good news/bad news summary. Then the bad news: in Smyrna they’re too fearful, in Pergamum they flirt with strange ideas, in Thyatira they need to take the personal boundaries seminar again, and in Laodicea they are lukewarm, not too hot and not too cold.

In other words, just like churches today. Churches that seem afraid of the streets that surround them, churches that get strange ideas or have no ideas at all, churches with too many huggers or not enough huggers, churches that are too hot or too cold, or poor old Laodicea, forever not-too-hot-and-not-too cold.

St. Paul adds another set of churches, from the “foolish Galatians” to the church at Corinth, a church that makes Game of Thrones look like a church picnic. Yet all of these churches are in the fold, trying to find their way in a world that is at least indifferent and in some cases hostile. They are doing their best to follow the Way of Jesus in a confusing mess of half-expressed belief and human failure that seems to define any attempt at being the church in the world.

So back to Revelations, we get a gift from John of Patmos, visionary and supervising minister, shepherd to these seven churches. He begins his letter and sets out his own definition of the basic Christian:

Follow Jesus, a faithful witness to the ways of God, the first to die and live again, the king of kings. He loves us, and he died that we might live, and be free from sin. He made the church into a sign of God’s Kingdom, to serve God and give God the glory forever more. Jesus will return on the clouds one day, and appear to everyone, even those who turned away. “I am the Alpha and the Omega” says God in Jesus, the first and the last, “who is, and who was, and who is to come.”

It’s an awesome elevator speech, and an amazing summary of the Christian hope. Jesus prayed “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” which distills our passage even further. Wait for the Kingdom of God to appear, wait for the time when earth and heaven are one, wait for the moment when God’s dream for the earth is fulfilled. Theological arguments will fall away, the foolish and the wise will stand together, and all will dwell in the completeness of God. Alpha and Omega will define us, Jesus the first and the last, setting aside all that divides us and confounds us and then drawing us together.

In the meantime, in the time before the promised time, think about your elevator speech. Think about the words that might be new life to someone else, or at least cause them to lean in as you describe this community of believers: diverse, but bound together; far-from-perfect, but made the semblance of God; and ever-patient, convinced that the coming Kingdom will renew the earth and all her people. Amen.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Easter 2019

Acts 10
39 “We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a cross, 40 but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. 41 He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen—by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42 He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. 43 All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

You obviously don’t need to be church person to be upset by a cathedral on fire.

I guess I was a little surprized by the extent to which Monday’s fire at Notre Dame in Paris dominated the news. Of course it was a big story, but the networks gave it hours and hours of coverage. Secular media, in a secular society, tend to acknowledge church stories rather than drag them to the front page and leave them there.

My leading theory is the unique place Notre Dame plays in people’s lives. I’m guessing that for many tourists, this is the only cathedral they have ever visited. I’m surprized when someone tells me they went to London and missed St. Paul’s— but I’ve never heard of someone visiting Paris and skipping Notre Dame.

By all accounts, the cathedral can be restored. The stone walls and the vaulted ceiling are designed to withstand such a calamity, assuming the fire can be extinguished in time. It turns out that ability to recover from a fire such as this is a design feature, and thank goodness for that.

As I followed the story throughout the week, I was also surprized to learn that Notre Dame is the property of the French government, and that over the course of its history, the cathedral has been seized by the government on two occasions. The first time was during the French Revolution: all church property was claimed by the state, and priests had to pledge loyalty to the revolution under threat of exile or death.

The cathedral itself was rededicated to the official Cult of Reason, and then turned to a warehouse. Most of the artwork was destroyed, including twenty-eight statues of biblical kings that the revolutionaries mistook for French kings. Eventually, Napoleon restored the cathedral to the church, but the damage was done. The last renovation (following the publication The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1831) created the cathedral that we remember. Fast-forward to 1905 and another radical government seized all church property in France. Churches could use their buildings, but did not own them. In time, we may learn if this ownership arrangement had a role in the fire.

For me, however, this is a resurrection story: that for all the trouble—revolution, destruction, misuse, neglect—the cathedral remained. Every calamity was met with resolve—and faithful people understood that the cathedral’s original purpose would eventually be restored.

There are many ways to define resurrection: new life, hope restored, the end of death, Jesus triumph over the grave. We mark events of renewal and hope and we frequently label them resurrections, lives turned around, second chances taken, restoration after a time of trouble. It’s a handy metaphor, a way to express an abundance of meaning in a single word.

But when we’re marking the day of resurrection, it’s seems important to return to the source, those who first described the resurrection in the hearing of others. The women at the tomb, first heralds of the resurrection, share the good news: an empty tomb, angel visitors, and Christ’s own instruction to tell the others that he will visit them back in the Galilee. The others struggle to believe them, but Christ will soon correct the slow to believe.

And them there is Simon Peter. After the resurrection, he is slow to believe, but by Day of Pentecost he has found his voice:

“We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a cross, but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen—by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.”

Peter the fisherman points to the tangible and the practical (“God raised him for the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen”). Poor Thomas gets the most grief for wanting proof, but Peter’s sermon at Pentecost says ‘here is my proof, and I know he was raised because I have seen him.’ He even points to other witnesses—few in number—but selected to eat and drink with the Risen One in the days that follow that fateful day.

So that’s Peter, but what about Paul? It’s hard to beat the drama of Resurrection Day, but Paul is close. Unhorsed by Jesus, challenged by Jesus, redeemed by Jesus, Paul joins the fellowship and claims his place among the apostles. He too is a witness to the resurrection, with specific instruction to carry out. As Paul testifies to his faith, he reports what Jesus told him: “I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen and will see of me.”

The Bible, then, is the primary source material for understanding the resurrection. “He is not here, he is risen. God raised him on the third day and caused him to be seen. He commanded us to preach to the people and testify.” Like the movement itself, the good news of Jesus begins in a small circle a ripples outward. The movement is from recognition to witness, understanding that he lives and then telling others.

Yet even that simple path can be interrupted, but a determined God will find a way to make the message heard. One of best examples of this involves St. Paul, newly filled with a desire to make Christ known, but finding a slammed door instead. Luke picks up the story at the end of Acts 9:

26 When he came to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he really was a disciple. 27 But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles. He told them how Saul on his journey had seen the Lord and that the Lord had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had preached fearlessly in the name of Jesus. 28 So Saul stayed with them and moved about freely in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord.

In some ways, the disciples never seem to learn. Fear seems to be their first response to something new, like an empty tomb or a life transformed. But no matter, because Barnabas becomes a witness to the witness, seeing something the others can not. He is witness to Paul’s resurrection, and the transforming power of a life in Christ.

So we witness to the resurrection, but the resurrection also witnesses to us. We remind ourselves every time we come together as the Body of Christ. The Body of Christ is his resurrected body, taking the shape of this congregation. We remind ourselves when the bread and the wine are transformed into his body and blood, bread of heaven and cup of blessing. We remind ourselves when we say “they shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore, the sun shall not strike them nor any scorching heat, for the lamb in the midst of the throne shall be their shepherd, and guide them to springs of living water.” The resurrected lamb witnesses to us and calls us home.

The resurrection witnesses to us. Beneath our feet is one of those places that witnesses to the resurrection each day. Yes, there are wonderful stories of lives transformed, but for many who make the drop-in part of their lives, there is a more everyday-kind of resurrection, where people find each other and form a community, where friendship is extended, and love expressed. This is a the power of resurrection: challenged, but not alone; distressed, but held by others; hungry, and frequently fed.

You don’t need a disastrous fire to see the power of resurrection. You just need to look around. Who has finally decided to make a change after years of trying? Who has rededicated themselves to some higher purpose? Who has recognized something in another person that no one else can see? These are resurrections, a gift from God, which we can witness if we have eyes to see. You simply need to look around you. Christ is risen! Amen.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Good Friday 2019

Psalm 22.11
Do not be far from me,
for trouble is near
and there is no one to help.

Picture Jesus in your mind’s eye, and what is he doing?

If you were contemplating Jesus last night, you might picture him at table, sharing the bread of heaven and the cup of blessing. Perhaps you see him washing the feet of his friends, servant and master all at once, humble and exalted all at once.

Or maybe it’s five thousand you see him feeding—loaves, fishes, and the power of God. Or another hillside, proclaimed “blessed” the least and the last. Maybe you see him healing, the mud and spittle on his fingers, restoring and healing, always making whole.

Or maybe you see Jesus in the context of worship: praying quietly, singing a psalm with his disciples, reading in the house of prayer, teaching the twelve to pray—to hallow God’s name, to seek the Kingdom, to always resist temptation.

What a remarkable blessing that we can read the Bible Jesus read, recite the Psalms he loved, pray his words and share them with others, and seek the same intimacy with God he felt each time he slipped away to spend time in prayer.

It should not surprize us then that his last hours mirror a life given to prayer and scripture. Many of the words of the psalmist can be placed on his lips, springing from the very heart of God.

Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help. I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint, my heart is like wax, it is melted in my breast…

When trouble comes, when we feel lost or alone, when we feel scorned or encircled or poured out or dried up—we know that this road has been traveled before, that Jesus has walked this way and will walk beside us. When his suffering meets our suffering, we can pray the same prayer: ‘Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is not one to help, except you Lord.’

Naturally, in his final moments, Jesus prayed. Father forgive them, they know not what they do. Father, into your hands, I commend my spirit. Forgiveness and trust, forgiveness and trust, what more can he give? Even as he breathed his last, the truth remains, even in his last moments on earth, his work continues:

He cares for me.
He prays for me.
He dies for me. Amen.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Fourth Sunday of Lent

Luke 15
22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.
25 “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27 ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
28 “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
31 “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”

Our parable begins in the belly of the whale.

(Just now you’re thinking that perhaps I dropped my Bible, maybe some pages came loose, and maybe I put them back in the wrong place.) It didn’t happen—not this time at least. Hear me out as I try to understand how Jesus came upon the parable of the prodigal son, because I’m certain it began in the belly of a whale.

Jonah lists his occupation as prophet, but you would hardly know it from the beginning of the story. He receives a call from God—a command really—to go to Nineveh and prophesy against them. God has taken note of their great wickedness, and prophet’s job is to give them one last chance.

Jonah gets this call, and even as he’s hanging up the phone, he’s already slipping on his coat and running out the door. But it’s not toward Nineveh, the great city overcome by great wickedness—it’s in the exact opposite direction. Our Jonah’s on his way to Jaffa, to catch a ship, with a one-way ticket to Tarshish, which I’m told is lovely this time of year.

But I don’t think Jonah was really interested in Tarshish, he was only interested in getting away, and so must have breathed a deep sigh of relief once on board, sailing west, away from trouble—until trouble found him. A great storm came up, maybe the perfect storm, and the crew begin to panic. They cast lots to determine who was to blame, but they could simply have noted a rather sheepish looking prophet hiding away. You see, God was now angry at Jonah too, squandering his prophetic inheritance, and you could see it in the wind and the waves.

Obviously the lot fell to Jonah, but the crew did something unexpected: they resisted throwing this fugitive overboard. Even today, you can be disqualified for throwing someone overboard, evidence that suggests they were racing on a yacht. So whether it was racing rules or just common decency, they continued to resist until they could continue no more. And over Jonah went.

But the story doesn’t end there, because God still had plans for Jonah. And like that day you realize that the pigs are having a happier time—eating their pig pods—Jonah come to see the same thing, or rather feel the same thing, in the darkness, in the belly of the whale. It’s a well-known fact that prophets cause indigestion, so Jonah is regurgitated on to a beach, to mend his ways, and finally go to Nineveh.

Now Nineveh is big—three days across—and Jonah spent those three days doing what prophets do, saying “Forty days more, and Nineveh will be destroyed.” Obviously he did something right, because everyone in Nineveh put on sackcloth, and sat in ashes, from the king in his regal sackcloth and this throne of ashes, to the ordinary folk, and the children, and even family dog.

God is overjoyed. So overjoyed that God forgave the people of Nineveh, trading their sackcloth robes for some finer robes, celebrating with them the repentance they so thoroughly embraced.

But Jonah was not celebrating. He stood at a distance and refused to celebrate the good fortune of Nineveh. “This!” he prayed to God, this is why I ran to the coast! I knew that you’re a compassionate God, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love...a God who relents from sending calamity. When this wicked city shows a little remorse, and puts the beagle in sackcloth, you throw a forgiveness party instead of smoting them as you ought!”

And then the Lord said to Jonah: “Is it right for you to be angry? We should celebrate with all these people, foolish as they are, because they were lost, and now they are found!”

Do you see that Jesus did there? How did Jonah and the Whale become a parable, a window on the Kingdom? Jesus did it the only way that makes sense: turn Jonah into two people, two brothers, and set the story on dry land, which is always safer. And so he did:

Early Jonah, maritime Jonah, is profligate with his prophetic gift, and the younger brother is profligate (note that word) with half his inheritance. Jonah discovers the error of his ways in the belly of a whale, and the younger brother makes this same discovery in a pigpen, I’m not sure which would smell worse. Then we meet later Jonah, born-again prophetic Jonah, who judges Nineveh harshly and hopes they get what they deserve. He can’t stomach all this forgiveness and understanding, all this slow anger and steadfast love. He came for the smoting, and all he got was a lousy sackcloth t-shirt.

Funny word, profligate. I used it once to describe my own son, and he pretended that he didn’t know what it means. “You know, profligate, like one more broken cell phone, smashed to bits or soaked in water.” Why does everyone under 30 have a cracked screen, or a cell phone drying out in a bag of rice? But I digress.

Profligate means “recklessly extravagant or wasteful in the use of resources.” And who might that be? Running across the field to greet his lost son, fitting him with the finest robe, killing the fatted calf, forgiving 120,000 Ninevites (God is very precise about this number), and generally being profligate with all that grace. Forgiveness would seem to be a finite resource, at least it is in human terms, but God is profligate—recklessly extravagant with forgiveness and steadfast love.

So why does Jesus remake the story, making one prophet into two brothers? Well, maybe the answer is vocational, found in the role of the prophet, the role Jesus knew well. Take Isaiah for example. In chapter 39 he’s saying to the old king, “look around at everything you have, because one day it will all be carried off to Babylon,” and just a few verses later it’s all “Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people...He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms, and carries them close to his heart.”

In other words, prophets—people of faith—need to tell forth, “Forty days more, and Weston-Mount Dennis may be destroyed,” AND forgive, as God forgives. But Jesus gave a thought to his audience, primarily his disciples, and knew that a simple telling was better. One prophet becomes two brothers, dividing one conflicted person into two stereotypical siblings, with a forgiving father, profligate with his love.

Of course, Jesus had another motive, beyond adapting this story for landlubbers: Jesus wanted to highlight what happens to the righteous when they cross over into self-righteousness. You don’t need to have an older brother to know the older brother because churches are filled with them—except this church, of course. In fact, we all have a little older brother in us, imaging that our younger siblings-in-the-faith have it easier than we did, and generally resenting that fact that everyone is equal in God’s eyes, lifelong members and the people here for the first time today.

May you know this profligate God, reckless in mercy and steadfast in love. And may you be profligate in your love for others, Amen.