Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Kitchen Table Associates  

Acts of the Apostles 2:1 – 21 

I called the Confirmation Class the Fun Faith Formation Experience. We met on Sundays after church. We began each class eating together, most often at the round table in the church kitchen. 

The heart of the family home is nearly always in the kitchen. In some families, it is even more specific, the coffee pot is at the center of gravity. But for matters of the heart, there is no place like the kitchen table. 

There is very little pretending that can stand the heat of the kitchen. In the kitchen, it has to be real. It might get spicy, it could get rich, but it must be real. 

Jesus promised his followers that they would receive his spirit, the Holy Spirit. Like the presence of God, we are always in the presence of the Spirit. What is lacking most often - is our awareness. Sometimes, our emotional response to the immediate issues of life, make it hard for us to feel the spirit. 

Today, we are conferring the sacrament of baptism and the rite of Confirmation on young people from our congregation. The congregation both grows in number and decreases in average age. The work of the church in the world is sure to continue, as more hands commit to sharing God’s love and forgiveness. 

The visitors to Jerusalem were amazed at the behavior and speech of the disciples on that first Pentecost. We had planned confirmation for Pentecost Sunday, June 4, the traditional birthday of the church. The families graciously allowed me to compress the schedule and finish the confirmation class with the kids. Like the first disciples, the class demonstrated their faithfulness when we met with the Deacons. 

What faith does for us is hard to define in only a few brief statements. Still, I think it is useful to consider where we stand in the greater sweep of humanity. 

We believe that there is a God, who created the heavens and earth, and believes that all creation is good. From that premise, we see how Jesus of Nazareth worked to relieve the people from their obsession with rules, and focus on love and forgiveness. Even saying that may seem strange, because so many churches continue to devote their time and attention to rules and judgment. 

This congregation, and the wider church that we are in relationship with, do our best to encourage each other to keep our focus on the gospel truth. The task can be a challenge, but we have the resources of the church to support us. Those resources include; the scriptures, the sacraments, our community worship, and the community itself. We bless each other with our faithfulness. 

Now let us be candid. Faith, in even the most faithful of human beings, is not an inanimate thing like a rock. We cannot take our faith, and stick it in a shoebox, and store it under the stairs, ready to be pulled out at full strength when the troubles of the world crash down on us. 

Instead, I like to think of faith as a living thing. It needs to be fed. It needs to exercised. It needs the promise of love. 

The church is not a museum full of the artifacts of faith, but rather the kitchen in the family home of the faithful. It is where the resources of the faith are used not displayed. The church is where the faithful coordinate their love for the world in ways that can be effective. 

But most of all, the church is where we can go in good times and bad. Some of us feel best when we can lend a hand, and be present for others when they are hurting. When we hurt, our faith can take a beating. In those moments, we lean on the faith of others. We pray in the name of the God that our community believes in, until that day our faith can sprout once more. 

There are subtle points of theology that may make us crazy trying to define and polish. The heart of the faith is less about the fine points of belief, and more about the living of life with grace and graciously offering forgiveness. 

Today we celebrate that the long line of saints being extended. The reach of God’s love continues and has a future. The promise of the new life, is carried into all of the places these young people will be a part of. 

In a good many of our homes, it is the kitchen table where the major decision of life were worked out. It is where the family gathers in good times and bad. It is where the wedding announcements are addressed, the baby showers are organized, and the funerals are planned. The food may not always be served in the kitchen, but it is where the potatoes are peeled, and in the end, where the pots are washed and put away. 

But the pots are not displayed, just saved for another day. Saved for another holiday, another baptism, confirmation, graduation, another chance to celebrate the ways we are connected. This is the church. This is a place of connections. 

You may grow up in one church, but then find yourself in another. It is the same spirit that is shared in that place. It is the same God that demands our faithfulness. The usefulness you learned in one kitchen, is recognized and welcomed in another. 

We are part of a greater community. I first learned the church life at St. Alexander, then Divine Heart Seminary as a boy; then First Congregational - now Open Table UCC in Ottawa, McCormick Theological Seminary, and shared what I learned in St. Luke’s in Downers Grove, Edward Hospital in Naperville, Spring Valley UCC and now Somonauk. 

No one knows where we will be called to represent our faith. But kitchen skills travel well. No one knows when the next wave will come crashing down, and anxious people look for the love of God. Still, we know that God is faithful. We know that there are saints, who love God, and share God’s love, and will move the chairs around to make room at the table for one more. 

Today we shuffle the chairs in the kitchen, where the Fun Faith Formation Experience started every class, to permit the church to grow with intention and joy. Amen.  

Monday, April 17, 2017

The Disciple the Jesus Loved

The Disciple that Jesus Loves  

10:00 am Acts 10:34-43 
John 20:1-18    

The story of the Resurrection in the gospel of John has a couple of unique features. The writer of this gospel associates himself with the apostle John, often referring to himself as “The disciple whom Jesus loved.” While much is made of Peter as the leader of the band, in this gospel at least, the apostle John is given most favored status. 

Even in the story of the Resurrection, the most important story in the entire gospel, the writer will not let the chance go by without throwing in one more, “the one whom Jesus loved.” He is not shy about self-promotion. 

But it does make one wonder, is he only seeing what he wants to see? Is he looking at the whole picture? 

None of the accounts of the Resurrection are actually accounts of the resurrection, but accounts of the female disciples discovering the empty tomb, and then getting the explanation. The key moment in our faith in Jesus the Christ, is completely left to a second-hand report. 

Mary Magdalen, Mary from the town of Magdala, goes to the tomb while it is still dark and finds the stone has been removed. She runs back to the Upper Room to report her findings to the apostles. Peter and John immediately take off for the tomb. 

They enter the tomb, and find the burial cloths of Jesus, but nothing else. The text says that John saw and believed, but he did not yet understand. Perhaps most of us are like that, we have to absorb new information in steps or pieces. New information cannot be swallowed in one gulp. 

The two of them, Peter and John, observe the scene and then leave. Like most guys I know, when there is no problem to be solved, they shrug and return home to ponder what it all might mean. Mary, stays behind. 

Now that the men have left, she is free to go into the cave and observe for herself. Two angels appear to Mary. She has a conversation with them. The men did not see angels. Were the angels present, but the men were not able to see them? Maybe, they saw them, but unnerved, they backed out and went their own way. 

Mary sees them, hears them, and converses with them. Then she turns and has a direct encounter with the Risen Christ. She does not recognize him at first. She is not expecting to see a man raised from the dead. It is hard to trust your eyes when you find the unexpected. 

The text is clear, Mary saw what the men could not see. Mary heard what the men could not hear. Mary was able to relate to the Risen Christ, before the great apostles could absorb what was happening. Maybe Mary Magdalene is “the disciple that Jesus loved.” And this is the stuff where imaginations take off, and a variety of stories and fables have their beginning. 

What is truly happening, is that we are being given an opportunity to see the world through the eyes of the divine. The creation includes both the physical world and the spiritual world. The resurrected Christ had a body, but it had characteristics that made it not immediately recognizable.

We can see that while the powers of this world dealt Jesus a violent and public humiliation and execution, the truth of God does not stop. The love of God alive in the world does not depend on the continued life and work in the world of any one person. Not even the person of Jesus of Nazareth. 

In time the disciples will be ready to see Jesus. In time the apostles will be able to talk with him. In time, they will be ready to live and act as Jesus lived and acted. 

You are “the disciple that Jesus loved.” The Risen Christ is here, in this room, to lift your spirits and make you ready for your mission in the world. As you are able to see the way that love changes our perception of reality, you will find yourself less anxious. You will be ready to respond with love, even to those who chose to be your enemies. 

Others around you might not be able to see it yet. Others around you may still be intimidated by the power of the world over our bodies. The public humiliation and execution of Jesus was meant to intimidate and silence his followers. But you are not silenced. 

So brothers and sisters, be of good cheer. Christ is Risen! Christ is Risen Indeed! And you have the power to bless all of creation, with no exceptions. Amen. 

The Grand Opening - of An Empty Tomb

The Grand Opening - of An Empty Tomb    

7:00 am Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24 
Matthew 28:1-10   

The resurrection story in the gospel of Matthew is short and sweet. Here, there are two women who arrive at the tomb, and experience an earthquake and witness the angel rolling the stone away. Then the angel says the classic words of angel introduction - “Do not be afraid.” Angels nearly always say that. It is on Page One of the angel handbook. 

Then the angel tells them that Jesus has been raised from the dead. So we have a report of what happened, but no eye witnesses. But before the women can leave the garden, they have a direct encounter with the Risen Christ. 

You are here in this early hour of the morning. You came with certain expectations. You came to join in the company of these faithful people. You came expecting to hear this classic story. You came to renew your memory of Easter Sundays that came before. 

Maybe, if you would permit yourself a quiet moment, you too can feel the presence of the Christ. Perhaps we cannot see the Christ, but maybe you can sense the presence of the Spirit of the living Christ. 

Jesus appeared to the women, but promised to meet with them again in Galilee. Jesus promises us this morning, to be present with us in Spirit everyday, and meet us in the resurrected form at the end of the age. 

On Maundy Thursday, we paused at the communion table to make ourselves aware of the way the presence of the Spirit of Christ is essentially a way of being in the Kingdom of God, right now, right here. We have the living God. We have the community of the faithful. We have a clear reason to rejoice in the Lord, I say it again, Rejoice! 

This is more than a promise for tomorrow, it is a present reality. We can carry this reality as far as we are able to live in the presence of God. Certainly, the Kingdom of God extends to the Fellowship Hall. We can easily stretch it to the Parking Lot, or the spaces along Washington Street. 

With intention, we can carry the Kingdom of God all the way into Easter Dinner with the family. Maybe you will call members of the extended family later today, call the folks who cannot make it home. You can try out that presence of the Kingdom through the technology of the phone or remote video. 

The resurrection is not a one time event restricted to the person of Jesus of Nazareth. The point of the resurrection is the defeat of the entire expectation that this life is all there is. The resurrection of Jesus is our assurance that a life lived with love, is a life that does not end. The key to that life is the love of God. And the love of God is love for you, and the love in you, and most importantly, the love you share. 

The threat of death and the powers of this world have been revealed - in the empty tomb. There is no true death in the cave. There is no defeat in the cave. The real power is in the love of God. That is love is vital - and real - and it belongs to each of us. And better yet, it grows whenever we share that love. 

And so we celebrate, celebrate Jesus, and the new reality that Jesus has shared. We move forward, not made perfect, but made whole and empowered to live without fear. No matter how disturbing the powers of this world may be, the truth of God and God’s love lives on. 

As we live, aware of the presence of the Spirit, as we live, empowered by what we know of the truth, we can live with greater freedom and joy.  

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Celebrating with Our Eyes Open

Celebrating with Eyes Open  

Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
Matthew 21:1-11

Today marks the beginning of Holy Week. We call it Holy Week because it contains the events of Jesus in Jerusalem during the time up to and including; the passion, crucifixion, death and burial, and resurrection from the dead. This is the very core of our identity as followers of Jesus the Christ. 

Palm Sunday is an enigma. For people like me who prefer simple logical progressions, Palm Sunday is a detour. The mood of the Temple authorities toward Jesus had taken a turn towards the dark side. We have already noted through the Lenten scriptures, how Jesus of Nazareth fits the profile of a violent revolutionary who threatens the precarious balance of power between the Roman occupation, the puppet Jewish King - Herod and Sons, and the Temple Council. 

There is no greater proof of the validity of the Council’s concern than the historical record. In 70 CE, 30 to 40 years after the death of Jesus, Rome responded to an uprising by destroying the Temple and causing the Jews to scatter and abandon Jerusalem. While they misinterpreted the role of Jesus of Nazareth, the evidence is clear, the status quo relied on control of the population. 

Palm Sunday does not fit the straight forward progression. Jesus and his band of merry men arrive in Bethpage at the base of the Mount of Olives. They acquire a donkey for Jesus to ride. There is a humorous side to this. Matthew follows the same outline in discussing the life of Jesus as was played out in the gospel of Mark. In many places where Mark says there was one person healed, Matthew has two. Here he says Jesus rode both the donkey and the foal. 

It is no accident that a donkey was chosen. The gentiles would mock the Jews as being a lower or working class people. While an important gentile would ride a horse, only a Jew would make an entrance on a domestic animal. So Jesus fulfills the scripture, arriving on a donkey, but he also works in and through the cultural bias alive in the land at the time. 

I am sure that the crowd gathered rather slowly. The procession that takes place in Jerusalem today starts at the church at Bethpage, at the base of the south side of the Mount of Olives. The road leads up to the top. Today it is a narrow residential street with plenty of traffic, even our tour bus went up the hill to the Church of the Pater Noster. 

The walk down the west side of the Mount of Olives, directly facing the Temple Mount in the walled “Old City”, is a narrow, stone path. There is very limited vehicular traffic on any given day down this portion of the ceremonial path. Today the march ends at the Garden of Gethsemane and the Church of All Nations. The Kidron Valley, between the Mount of Olives and the city, now contains the equivalent of an Interstate Highway, so it is no longer a part of the procession.

I imagine that the location helped feed the growing crowd - as the gathering would be visible for miles, as they made their way down the west side of the Mount of Olives. People who had gathered in Jerusalem for the Passover at the end of the week would be very interested in any diversion. When they heard it was the talked about prophet Jesus of Nazareth, the crowd would swell with the faithful and the curious. The whole thing took on a party atmosphere. 

They called Jesus the son of David. Being a part of the family of David is a requirement for being the rightful Messiah. David was the second King of the Jews. He was the leader of Judah, the south portion of the land for seven years after the death of Saul, before uniting the entire land. When he joined north and south together, he selected Jerusalem to be the capital. It was near the line between north and south, and it had never been the capital of either the north or the south. It was conveniently only 4 miles from David’s hometown of Bethlehem. 

So David selected Jerusalem as his capital. It became a holy city when he brought the Ark of the Covenant to the city. Later, his son Solomon, built the glorious First Temple on the prominent Temple Mount, with a commanding view of the countryside, and the natural safety of being situated on the side of a cliff, limiting ways in which it can be attacked. 

Jesus made his entry clearly within the view of the Temple Mount. The Palm Sunday procession, with all the shouting, echoed up the walls of the canyon, and the priests and scribes had a clear view of the arrival of the prophet. And their anxiety builds. 

The shouts of the crowd make a book end to balance the shouts of the crowd later in the week, imploring Pontius Pilate to “Crucify him!” The fickle nature of crowds is exposed by this sharp contrast, only days apart. Public opinion can be swayed pretty easily, at least in those days. It should be clear that when Pilate places the label “King of the Jews” on the cross of Jesus, he forever links the faithful and the political. For us, Jesus expresses the fundamental sanctity of all creation.  

So here we are. It is Palm Sunday. We wave our palms to welcome the arrival of our Lord and Savior, knowing full well that some in the crowd are just caught up in the moment. Some in the crowd do not have a genuine understanding of how Jesus represents the love of God, and represents the perfect way into eternal life with God. 

We live in a world where many profess to be Christians, but seem only to be attached to the cultural and sentimental values of the faith. The call to live with God’s love and forgiveness, the command to love our neighbors and our enemies, these are often lost in the translation. We are not judging others, but acknowledging that faithfulness requires that we do more than follow the crowd. 

We celebrate Palm Sunday with our eyes open. We know where we are headed. We know that being faithful does not mean that we get a “Get Out of Jail Free” card. We face all of the challenges and heartaches that everyone else goes through. We simply do not face our troubles alone. We count on the love of God, supported by the faith community, so that we can persevere no matter what pain and evil comes our way. 

We pray that the love of God strengthen our faith as we move through our own challenges. We pray that this year, as we walk through Holy Week, we are blessed with new understanding, greater appreciation of God’s love. We pray that the light of God’s truth within us, be enough to comfort and support those around us, who feel the call to faith, even while they are growing an understanding of what that might mean.