Monday, April 30, 2018

Love Allows Us to Let Go

Love Allows Us to Let Go
Acts 8:26-40; John 15:1-8 

Baam, Ba-Bump Baam, Bup-Ba-Bup-Ah, Baam, Ba-Bump Baam.  Oooh, oooh, I bet you’re wondering how I knew, ‘bout your plans to make me blue. Oh, Oh I heard through the grapevine. Not much longer would you be mine. Baby, I heard through the grapevine, and I’m just about to lose my mind. 
I admit it. I cannot get through the scriptures on grapes without thinking of Marvin Gaye’s recording of this Motown classic. So now I have shared the ear worm that has been my companion all week long. I scarcely remember anyone else doing it. I was surprised that his version was not the first, and even more surprised to learn he did not write it. 
I bring it up because the song not only talks about grapevines, on a Sunday when we recall John’s illustration of the vine and the branch, but the song speaks to the truth about being faithful to our promises, and the way we are always connected to the community. The power of God’s love to sustain and bring fruit to maturity through the vine, is an image of our life within the faith community. God’s love passes through us and among us. 
One of the things I try to discern when I meet with a couple preparing for marriage is; does this relationship seem like it is based on a real world understanding of each person’s humanity and respect for each person’s dreams and life goals? A lack of reality, or lack of respect for one or the other’s dreams and goals are indicators the relationship lacks good roots. 
It is not uncommon to find ourselves thrown together in life with another soul whose presence and tenderness are a great comfort. As we negotiate our way into a meaningful relationship, it can be such a relief from the pain of recent past experiences, that we do not ask the hard questions about, “Where are you going? and, Do I even want to go there with you? and, What do I need to give up to do that?” 
I am not saying that we should not value those whose love has caught us from falling, and restored our sense of self and sense of self-worth. Thank God for love. Still, not every human relationship is destined to last forever. That is a genuine truth in this “real” world. This reframing of relationships is one of the ways that we acknowledge the full humanity of both partners in a relationship. We really ought not offer to commit to a lifelong relationship, if we have not determined to stay faithful. 
Phillip got into the carriage with the Ethiopian eunuch, and through his witness, took a man already interested in faith, into the faith of Jesus the Christ. The church that was established in Ethiopia has some of the deepest roots of our Christianity, though it looks and feels more African than European. My dear friends, Bob and JoAnn Avers, served with those Christians for years as missionaries and shared with Martha and I an  awareness of that faith and culture. 
Identified as a eunuch, we know that the Ethiopian would be limited by his deformity to less than full membership in the courts of the Jerusalem Temple. No amount of prayer or study could ever change that. In the good news of Jesus, he was welcomed into full communion in the faith of Jesus Christ. A deacon, dedicated by the original apostles, was whisked miraculously to provide this invitation, and baptism. 
Throughout recent years, this story has become a hallmark of the welcome offered to people of color, and especially those whose sexuality varies from the presumed norm.  When we proclaim, “All are welcome,” this text is one that underscores the availability of the faith to those who are outside of the constraints of looking like everybody else. 
But Phillip does not stay in the carriage and go on to Ethiopia to make a new life and new church with the eunuch. That fact does not in any way diminish the value of the time they spent together. Love then, needs to respect both the here and now, and what the actual trajectory of our lives, based on the gifts and dreams that are a part of our personhood, and that we were made by God to express. 
Phillip is offered in the book of Acts, as an example of bearing fruit, just as the gospel of John commands us to bear fruit. Jesus says, “I am the vine, and you are the branches.” Whether destined for the bottle of Welches that supplies our communion table, or the bottle of wine intended to make a romantic dinner more memorable, we know that the intention of the vine is to produce grapes. 
Phillip is viewed as a success; even though he did not increase church attendance, let alone improve the size of the offering in the collection plate. This success was identified with sharing the good news of the gospel in a way that touched a soul, and provided the seed for further spiritual growth. 
This is one of those hard and painful lessons in ministry. When we become too invested in doing what we have always done, and doing it the same way as we have always done it, our ministry becomes a temptation to serve our memory and our own institution, and not serve the gospel. I was thinking of this as I read the announcement of the closing of the UCC church in Stark, north and west of Chillicothe. 
Many rural churches are closing. This is due in part to the sharp reduction in the number of people employed on the “family farm” and living in the country. It also demonstrates the preference for more up to date programming, missions, and facilities, than isolated small churches can provide. At its closing in 2018, the Stark church is still served by a one-seat outhouse. Change is hard, and we know that. Resisting all change denies the invitation of the Holy Spirit.    
Churches that no longer bear fruit are removed and discarded. Those folks who were hanging on to the end, will continue to be faithful witnesses, but perhaps in a more productive community. Their gifts may be better appreciated and utilized in a setting where they can specialize, and not need to be clerk, treasurer, deacon and sexton all at once. We lose a piece of our hearts when the church doors close for the last time as the home of a faith community. Remember though, God’s promises are not tied to real estate. 
Considering promises and real estate made the news just this past week. In a public speech, Benjamin Netanyahu the Prime Minister of Israel, proclaimed that God has been faithful to the promises made to the land of Israel. Biblical scholars lifted an eyebrow and shook their heads. This is another case of political misuse of theology. 
God’s promises are made very real within the context of community. Beginning next week I will impose on you, The Pastor Chuck Them Song, that makes the claim. “It is all about the relationship.” I firmly believe that within the relationship I have with this community, God has blessed and increased my faith and spiritual life. 
Grapes do not grow and ripen in isolation. Sweet white or concord, cabernet or pinot noir, grapes grow in bunches. They hang together on the grapevine.The share the nutrients of the grapevine. They only know what the grapevine knows. 
There are some couples, whose love for each other was a saving grace, but lacks the fundamentals to make a strong and long lasting marriage. That does not make the relationship bad. That does not diminish the memory of the power the relationship had in the moment to save damaged souls from hopelessness. But it does not need to turn into a battleground in an attempt to force it to be something it could never be. 
The love of God is so good, that it gives us the power to love each other, even though we are imperfect. The love of God is good enough to  share. And like Phillip and the Ethiopian, or the congregation and the Interim Minister, we change and grow, and then we move on to deliver more of God’s love in that future where we are headed. 
We all know people who are very kind and generous, and who do not attend church. It is good to invite them, but I tell you it is better to encourage the value of what they do. When we embark on mission projects that touch on their interests, we should remember to invite them to participate. 
There are other folks who live in a kind of self-imposed isolation. We should reach out to those folks, inviting them into fellowship. The love of God is so much easier to name and honor in communal situations where faith can be proclaimed, and not hidden in the subtext. 
In all of your walking about this week, I invite you to think about being a branch on a grape vine. I invite you to think about how you share the word of God that sustains your efforts to be kind and generous, with those you work with, with your friends and neighbors. 
Be attentive to the church calendar. Invite people with children to Vacation Bible School. Invite people who care about music to share in the wonderful opportunities to attend and participate. Bring a friend to Bible Study on Tuesday, or Prayer and Study on Thursday. Brag a little on the welcome of our CORE Wednesday nights, though we have only 3 left for the season. 
And finally, during your prayer time this week, invite God to lift your own faith up a notch. Permit yourself to consider what it might mean for you, to grow in faith and action. Ask God what you might do, that will bring you closer. The key to success in a faith community, is to change lives. And change, like all acts of charity, begins at home. 

Baam, Ba-Bump Baam, Bup-Ba-Bup-Ah, Baam, Ba-Bump Baam.  Oh, Oh I heard through the grapevine. Not much longer would you be mine. Baby, I heard through the grapevine, and I’m just about to lose my mind. Honey, honey Yeah. (I heard through the grapevine not much longer would you be my baby, yeah, yeah yeah.) 

Monday, April 23, 2018

Let Us Love In Truth and Action

Let Us Love In Truth and Action
1 John 3:16-24; John 10:11-18 

The image of the Good Shepherd endures as an idyllic pastoral scene in many of the churches I have visited throughout the years. Just this week, I attended Boundary Training as required every three years for UCC ministers, at Good Shepherd Community Church in El Paso, where our friend Rev. Paul Kirker is pastor. They have a framed picture of the Good Shepherd in the entryway, a familiar graphic I have seen thousands of times since my youth. 
When I was a kid in the 1950s, the US was a nearly unbearably upbeat place to live. The entire culture was so positive, so sure that things were getting better, so confident that life was good. Preachers had no chance of preaching repentance, beyond a focus on our private and personal missteps. Life represented what we now call “Modern Thought” – where we theorized all humans were basically the same, we were optimistic, we believed science will save the day, we can make everything better, we care about the common good, reason is our greatest ally, tomorrow will be so great, I can hardly wait. 
The kind of Christianity that was so easy and attractive in the “Modern” world of the 1950’s was dusted in confectioner’s sugar, if and only if, you were a white, middle class person, who fit into the stereotypes. It was especially good for straight, white men. The world was yours when you were, “Free, white and twenty-one.” 
Today; where cultural icons are being torn from their thrones by credible accusations of sexual abuse and harassment, where government leaders are held in contempt for elaborate coverups for their financial and sexual misdeeds; where public monies are being employed in pay-offs and buy-outs; cynicism is having a hey-day, and optimism is hard to trust. In our “Post Modern” world, – every one has to look out for themselves, we know the whole thing could easily blow up, science does as much harm as good, things might get better – but probably won’t, it is not clear that there is a common good to protect, and we don’t trust what comes from the heart - but learn from bitter experience.
We need a much more nuanced faith than the faith of the 1950’s in order to be effective and be intelligible to the world today. We need a more grounded and compelling way to support young people who are growing up in this emotionally violent world. What does the Good Shepherd have to say about public trust and the emotional stability of a community? I think the Good Shepherd represents our first vision of stability. 
The Good Shepherd cannot accomplish anything of value until the shepherd has earned the trust of the flock as a whole. There will always be skeptics and poor-mouthers. When times are good, they are considered as eccentric parts of the community, welcome and understood as lovable oddballs. Think of Eeyore in the Winnie-the-Pooh stories. When times are bad, their pessimism is treated as a bell-weather of tough times ahead, and their sour worldview seems to have greater significance. 
The shepherd then, begins by doing the right thing, and representing goodness and confidence. Confidence says that it is right to be good and generous, whether the culture reflects optimism or not. It is always true, it is right to be good and generous. One courageous voice, sets the tone for others.  
There are several shepherd stories in the Bible, there are several in the gospels. It is a well-used metaphor. We love the image of the shepherd. The image works best, when kept in the frame by the front door. It is especially heart warming if you do not have experience with the blatant stupidity of sheep. When we regard them as little lambs, posing for pictures in a pastoral setting, it is a lot easier to deal with. 
We have been investigating the theological concept of “the scandal of the particular.” We realize that the theory is rooted in the unlikely particulars of Jesus of Nazareth - regarded as the incarnation of God’s good love. It is a scandal when we consider the specifics of his birth and the very ordinariness of the circumstances surrounding the human Jesus. 
The scandal plays out in the image of the shepherd, who in biblical times was often the youngest in the family, or the one who is not the sharpest knife in the drawer. The closer we get to the particulars, the romanticism wears thin. 
I for one consider this good news. I do not need to be a preacher like Billy Graham - filling stadiums and consulting with presidents - to be regarded as faithful to my calling. The integrity of my faith and vocation is not measured by the size of the congregation, or the number of readers of my blog. I am not called to represent the faith in heroic situations. 
This is likely a good thing. My sarcastic sense of humor might slip out at an unfortunate time, and social media trolls would denounce my very ordination as suspect. In this way I envy Nadia Bolz-Weber, the tall, tattooed, female Lutheran pastor who was first a stand-up comedian. Her entire public, pastoral persona is a celebration of her unlikely emergence as a preacher of note. The congregation she founded and pastors, “The House for All Sinners and Saints,” represents the most unlikely communion of fellowship. 
The Good Shepherd, when we take the picture frame off and consider the smelly reality, becomes a model that we can appreciate, and even imitate. We give people our word, and consider that more binding than a contract. A contract in this age, is only as good as your lawyer. For people of integrity, a promise has fewer weasel words, is backed by the integrity of your position in the family, and the family’s position in the community. 
It is very hard for me to consider the integrity of the biblical image of the Good Shepherd, and entertain the thought that Jesus would renege on a promise. In very simple terms, the promise made by any Christian should have the same expectation. If I make you a promise, I will do everything in my power to honor my word. 
Are there black sheep in the flock? In a church that welcomes everyone, our pews should be filled with characters that would find it hard to slip in unnoticed in other places. The “House for All Sinners and Saints” is a fitting destination for those who have a speckled past, attempting to make peace with the particulars of lives lived short of perfection, drawn by the promise of compassion and not even interested in the drive for perfection. 
The Good Shepherd might be presented today as the Kind Nurse’s Aid or CNA. My mother has become increasingly dependent on the attention of these over-worked and low paid assistants. The individuals who are kind, make a personal contact, look for ways to encourage mom as a person and more than the patient in the “B” bed are the best. Some of these folks are absolutely outstanding, and their care is often the difference between a good day and a bad day for my mother. 
What then is the message of the Good Shepherd in a Post-Modern, Post-Christendom world? Live your everyday life as though it were being presented as a model for faithful living. Be kind. Be fair, heck, be more than fair. Trust that God loves the world that you live in, and has planted blessings for you to discover, ahead of you every step of the way. 
Realize that like the Good Shepherd, or the kind CNA, or the cheerful retiree, you can be the sighting of God’s love to everyone, or at least to one someone today. It is scandalously smelly work sometimes. There might be exalted, public moments worthy of mention, but invariably it is simply every day living where we maintain an awareness of our connectedness to God and neighbor. 
Here is where the image comes to play. Like the shepherd, who is not chosen because they are brilliant or hold a position of honor, we represent care and compassion on the ground. As we confront the realities of this post-modern world, we bring our faith grounded in the love of God in action - that we know best through Jesus Christ, into the lives of those we encounter. We bless people when they are troubled. We deliver God’s blessings to those who may not even know they crave blessings.  

The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. We put our integrity as a child of God and follower of Jesus on the line, as we live in our troubled world. Our identity as people of faith is not credited to our ability to believe high and ascending thoughts. Our identity is rooted in the truth of God’s love for the world, and the steps we take to put that love into action. This call is not reserved for the rich, or even the most visible. In deed, the work is pretty humble. Even a humble shepherd can represent the love of God and the power of compassion, and so can you, Amen.   

Monday, April 16, 2018

Is It So Hard to Do What Is Right?

Is It So Hard to Do What is Right? 
1 John 3:1-7; Luke 24:36b-48 

We spend our lives, pretty sure of who we are and what we are about. But over time, the line between our work or vocation and our private identity may become blurred. We can lose our self in our relationship to God. We pray for what we want, but stay in the practical. Annie Dillard wrote in her Pulitzer Prize book the Pilgrim at Tinker Creek “I was still ringing. I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck.”

So much of the scriptures seems to be simple stories, until we reach the great and miraculous ones, where the characters in the story seem  bewilderingly human, and you and I, aided by centuries of interpretation and preparation, marvel at the player’s inability to recognize what is going on. And then, we put our own names in those stories, we face the reality of living the faith. 

Last week we considered the appearance of the resurrected Jesus to the doubting Thomas in the gospel of John. That episode - singling out Thomas for his lack of faith - only occurs in John’s gospel. Today, we have a vaguely similar episode from the gospel of Luke. This episode does not have any parallel in the other gospels. 

There are great diversity and differences in the gospel stories of the post-resurrection Jesus. There are plenty of theories about why these stories are so diverse. The most likely of course, is that Matthew and Luke were written following the outline of Mark, and the original ending of Mark left us with the disciples stunned and silent at the announcement of the resurrection. Since the master framework was left incomplete, the faith communities were free (or forced) to save their own traditions in their own words and memories.

I usually call the gospel of Luke, the Pot Luck gospel. It seems every time you turn the page in your Bible reading Luke’s gospel, Jesus is having dinner with someone else or some other group. Community, and the extraordinary welcome of Jesus, are core themes in Luke’s gospel. 

So then it makes sense that in Luke’s community Jesus would appear and ask, “Hey, what have you got to eat?” The intention is to prove that the resurrected Jesus has a real body, and he is not just a ghost. How better to prove it than eating with friends? How better to prove that he is “their” Jesus, than to ask for a snack? How better to prove he is the same today, though resurrected, as he was before?  

For Luke, faith and faith community are inseparable. The Christian who finds their identity most closely related to Luke’s gospel will be drawn to the church in public worship, in community action, and of course, the never ending string of Pot Luck meals. 

When we intentionally sit together in community, we create the opportunity to break through the barriers of isolation. We still need to do the work. On a Sunday coffee hour, we need to survey the room and talk with whoever might be on the sidelines, too shy to initiate a conversation, but wanting company enough to stick around and create the possibility. We prove we are real by eating half of a donut, and sipping some coffee or juice, and then building the community.  

The resurrected Jesus brings his battered and scarred body with him to be in the community. Have you ever noticed that none of the New Testament writings, especially the gospels, ever mention what Jesus looks like? Nowhere does it say Jesus is tall or short. We do not know if he was light or dark skinned, although it is very likely he was dark skinned. They never say if he looks too thin, or has a bit of a belly. I suppose the picture of Jesus in Luke’s gospel he would have at least the beginning of a belly, and full cheeks, since he was always eating and hanging out with friends and the curious. 

Today he is in the company of the closest disciples. Again the announcement “Peace be with you,” terrifies those who should be overjoyed to see Jesus. Last week we noted just how terrifying the appearance of the resurrected Jesus was to the disciples in John’s gospel. 

Today’s gospel is still another story today about doubting disciples after Jesus arose from the dead. Here Jesus is present, in the flesh. The same body, damaged by nails and a spear during his execution is present with them. This was just a room full of frightened people, but now, they have the presence of risen Christ. 
Can you feel how Jesus is trying to help these people he loves, make peace with this crazy idea of life after death? He is more the same as he was - than he is different. He seems to pass through locked doors or walls, and he did not used to be like that, but otherwise he is the same. This is a cause for celebration, but it is hard to recognize, because the divine script is not like our human imaginations design. Jesus is calling a dance in direct opposition to ‘le danse macabre,’ where the spirits of the dead lead the haughty into death. In this complete turnabout, the resurrected Jesus leads the humble faithful to a life of abundance. Wouldn’t you love to get in line and get a hug from the risen Jesus? 
Jesus is preparing them to go into the world, aware of his spirit being present, even when his bodily presence has gone on to heaven. Jesus is right there amongst them, asking them to acknowledge the truth of his presence, and live as he lived! 
Today we hear that repentance and forgiveness of sins is made clear in the resurrection. And Jesus said to them, "Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.” 

We have wrestled with repentance before. We know that repentance means to change our ways. We know, change is hard. We do not usually choose to change, until it becomes so painful to hang on to the old ways that in desperation we agree to try something different. 

I have seen institutions deal with structured change by offering rewards for achieving new milestones, in an attempt to overcome resistance by providing positive feedback and incentives for changed behavior. 

Like the disciples in Luke’s gospel, we are being encouraged to believe in the resurrection of Jesus, even when we cannot explain how it works. We are encouraged to trust that because Jesus lives, he is able to offer eternal life to us. We are encouraged to celebrate these promises when we are ecstatic - when we are terrified - and when we are calm; we behave like believers; when we are in a church full of believers - or at the Secretary of State’s office. 
So I hope that you will try to be aware of the presence of Jesus all of the ordinary places you go this week. Fully in touch with the wonders of the resurrection. At peace with the way that God does things we cannot explain, like raising Jesus from the dead, and sending his Holy Spirit to be our guide and companion - as we bring hope into very ordinary places, where hope so often seems out of place.  The epistle of First John tells us, “3:7 Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous.” We know we can do this, we simply behave like Jesus behaves. 
The gospel may as well tell us, that Jesus is now, just as he ever has been. He is among the faithful, and making what is good, blessed. Jesus is  now, just as he has always been, delivering the peace of God to the places where confidence is wearing thin. Jesus is among us now, encouraging us to follow his model, and be a blessing, be the Kingdom, bring the ringing sound of the truth of the ages into ordinary places. 

You were made for this, to be like Jesus, in life and in the resurrection. You were made to resonate with truth of Creation. You were made to be like the Christ, in life and in the world to come. “I was still ringing. I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck.” 

Monday, April 9, 2018

Meeting with the Resurrected Jesus

Meeting With the Resurrected Jesus
1 John 1:1-2:2; John 20:19-31 

In my reading to prepare for this, the Sunday after Easter, I found a great story by Diane Roth a Lutheran pastor. She tells of a tour a friend of hers took to see cathedrals in Spain. Often the tour guide would walk them through churches, even when there was a worship service in progress. 
The tour guide had been very careful to explain to the travelers that they needed to be careful and not “too trusting” because there were pickpockets and worse, ready to take advantage of tourists. Inexperienced travelers need these kinds of reminders. It takes a while to absorb this sense of awareness and let it linger beneath the surface during routine encounters with the world. 
One day they passed through a church during worship, and woman turned and approached her with her hand out, speaking rapidly in Spanish. The traveller recoiled and scurried back to her tour group. Only later did it sink in what the woman had said, “La paz de Dios.” The peace of God. 
It is so easy for us to recoil when we are out of our element, or do not understand or comprehend the routine. When we pass the peace of Christ in worship here, we can easily overwhelm a visitor who is not connected to the congregation, or may be inexperienced with the level of enthusiasm with which we perform this element of our liturgy. 
A theme I will be repeating for the next few weeks is what theologians call “the scandal of the particular.” In general it refers to the fact that Jesus of Nazareth represents God’s good love. Jesus was a specific person, at a specific time and specific circumstance. 
You and I realize that no self-respecting church committee would design the appearance of God’s love to come this way. I mean, a child born to an unwed mother? Really? Born in poverty, away from home, and not in the midst of family? How on earth does such an appearance reflect the power and majesty of the eternal and almighty God? 
The entire story is so unlikely. The confrontation with temptation in the desert before he begins his public ministry. Undignified. Surrounded by uneducated disciples who so often are missing the big picture. Not a priest among them. The conclusion of the story, torture and public execution. It is not just a suitable way to conclude this story that should be inspiring. You see, the scandal of the particular is that it is so real, so human-sized that it feels, well it feels wrong and unbelievable.   
Today the apostle Thomas gets singled out for embarrassment because he cannot resist saying the obvious, “You guys are too much. You don’t believe that stuff about resurrection, do you?” 
Into this very human scene steps the magical, resurrected Jesus, walking through walls and locked doors and saying, “Peace be with you.” Terrifying. The peace of God can be terrifying. We can imagine Thomas doing a double take, blinking his eyes, trying to get his eyes and his mind to focus. 
The peace of Christ, the peace of God, what on earth is that kind of peace? Is it a quiet night by the fire? Is it the absence of war? Is it a life of leisure with no stress allowed? None of that fits with the scandalous and human-sized Jesus, love in action, that we worship. 
No, the peace offered by Christ is more like confidence. Confidence that goodness can persist in a world run amok. Confidence that there are blessings to share, even when the powers of the world pretend that they know everything, and that the future is scripted to be in continual decline. The peace of Christ is about being faithful and joyful and confident when there is no earthly reason to be confident. 
Part of the requirements for a Master of Divinity degree from McCormick Theological Seminary, was to take a unit of CPE, Clinical Pastoral Education. In CPE we are exposed to a lot of classroom time: talking about how to “be with” people in their time of need; how to identify our own needs so we can keep “our stuff” away from those we serve; and practical experience. My experience came on the hospital floors and Emergency Room at Edward Hospital in Naperville in the summer of 2002. 
As a CPE student we were assigned one overnight a week to be the chaplain on call, and the six of us in the class each had at least one full weekend when we were on call. One night, my pager buzzed, and displayed an unknown number. I called and reached the nurse’s station on a surgical floor. The nurse explained there was a patient scheduled for early morning heart bypass surgery, and he was a religious man, and very agitated and unable to sleep. 
I went and sat next to his bed. He explained he was very worried about the surgery. He felt like he had a lot to live for. And then he said, he was terribly ashamed. He was an ordained Deacon in the Catholic Church, and he felt that his anxiety was a grievous sin against God, and that compounded his fear of death.  
I am not sure if you know any of the men who are called to serve as Catholic Deacons. I know several, including my own cousin. These are particularly devout men, who have been vital supports of their parishes, usually through many years and many pastors. They are invited into the Deacon program, usually through the pastor. They are given bible classes, and preaching classes, and taught about the sacraments. Once they are ordained Deacons can baptize, witness marriages, and perform funeral and burial services outside of Mass. As a second career pastor, I feel very close to these men. 
So sitting in the dark night of the hospital room, I assured my new friend that being anxious about serious surgery was certainly no sin. Not only would God not hold that against him, but God was reaching out to hold him in this anxious time. All of the resources of the church of those who love God, are his to confront those anxieties. 
Next I told him, that it was clear that he loved his family, and he loved the life he was given to live, and that pleased God. God celebrates how much he felt a part of so many lives and enjoyed representing God’s love to them. He was a good man with a good life, and it pleases God. He should count that as a blessing. 
Confident now that God knows and loves him, it should be easier to know that God will give him what is best. If God chooses to take him tomorrow, it will be the best day of his life. If God chooses to leave him in Naperville, serving God, it will be a good life. He was in a “can’t lose” position. Whether you live or die, you are in Christ Jesus, and that is all good.  
The peace of Christ is integrally connected to the resurrection of Jesus. The peace of Christ is wrapped in the understanding that the resurrection is an entire new way of being a community organizer. Because Jesus lives forever, we will live forever. Because Jesus embodies the love of God, we embody the love of God, and offer it to each other. “La paz de Dios.” Terrifying. 
The peace of Christ encourages us to lean into the future, even as we are shaking in our boots. Your Search Committee has already realized that seeking a pastor is not like a committee designing the ideal pastor. You do not get to choose a perfect person, you have to choose from among ordinary human beings, with experience and the scars that authenticate the experience. 
Some are tall, and some have bigger egos than others. Some are male and some are female, and some live in between that ‘either/or’ imaginary world that we think is commonplace. They are all black, and white, and Hispanic, and Asian, and increasingly, are a mix of cultures and races. As hard as it may be to believe, pastors are scandalously particular. 
So how do we dare to confront the uncertainty of the future? How will our traditions ever get sustained in the midst of such change? 
What did the doubting Thomas do? He chose to believe in Jesus. He chose to reach out in heart, mind, and soul, and accept the peace of God when it was offered to him. We are walking into the terrifying future, but we are walking with Christ, the love of God in action. 

We recognize what a scandal Jesus was, such an ordinary human to represent the all powerful, all knowing God. We recognize the scandal of  being the church that believes, and still admits to our anxiety. And because we are anxious, we grab a hold of that peace of Christ, that love of God, and put it to work. We share it. We give it to each other. We crave the opportunity to share it with strangers. We look forward to wrapping it around the new pastor, and seeing where God’s love will take us. ‘La paz de Dios,’ the peace of God be with you. 

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Terribly Good News

Terribly Good News 
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24; Mark 16:1-8

The gospel of Mark has two different endings. The passage we read today is considered to be the original ending. I know it is deeply dissatisfying. It claims that the closest disciples of Jesus were so intimidated by the announcement of the resurrection, that they went off in silence and fear. Often people abandon relationships when events take a turn we do not understand, and we assume the other did intentionally, whether they did or not. In this age of mobility, we can choose distance over relationship very easily. 
If the initial response of the disciples was truly the end of the story, we never would never have celebrated Easter morning. Mark always painted Jesus as the man of action, and his band of followers as the “Duh-ciples.” The duh-ciples never quite understand what Jesus is saying, never really see the big picture. The ending of Mark’s gospel, would have us believe that the followers of Christ, shrunk in cowardice on that first Easter morning. 
I think it is important for the church in the world today, to own the scriptures, awkward places and all, not simply settle for the feel good parts, or think that the entire volume agrees with the simplest of interpretations. The fact is, our children are so much less likely to push the “I believe” button than we were at their age. So as we mature in the faith, we acknowledge the difficult places, and learn what they mean. 
We prefer to consider the disciples as heroic, as depicted in the other gospels, as running back and forth between the Upper Room, high on Mount Zion west of the Old City of Jerusalem, and the holy sepulcher or burial place of the body of Jesus. So, we would gladly ignore this first ending of the first gospel, and attach ourselves to the later versions. 
But let us say right here and now, there is something reassuring about dealing with a human-sized bit of anxiety when faced with extraordinary happenings. I mean, this resurrection is really unheard of and few could believe it. It is not normal, and it is not what we consider humanly possible. 
Throughout the Easter season, we have sought to reassure our freedom to come before God without the defenses of orthodox theology - as reduced to platitudes. We are free to name the reality we face, and, in the nakedness of our own faith, address that reality. Whether we are anxious over surgery, or anxious about “what it might look like to others,” we are free to deal with reality of our faith; and then - within a truly personal relationship with God - try to do more and be more. 
The Eastern Orthodox portion of the church says that as soon as Jesus was raised from the dead, he released all of the souls in “Hades” the place of the dead. Artists show Jesus overcoming the gatekeeper of Hades, defeating the forces of death. The Western church has not kept this tradition alive, although it belongs to us, and is a rich way of seeing the communal power of the resurrection. Because Jesus was raised, we will all be raised. 
As awkward as it is, I think it should help this faith of ours, as we recognize just how exotic and supernatural it feels to those outside - and some inside - of the church, who are not able to push the “I Believe in the resurrection” button. It is great news that death is not the end, that there is another act yet to be played, where peace and love are the norm. 

But we know life after death stories, post apocalyptic tales, bring into play the fantastic horror stories the culture has created.That form of literature, end of the world apocalypses, was born in the time between the Old Testament and the New Testament, which is where the Revelation, the last book of the bible, has its roots. These past few years we have experienced a resurgence of life after death stories. 

The Walking Dead, a television series now in its eighth season, neatly defines the genre. It is an ‘end of the world as we know it’ saga. The human population is reduced to a couple of isolated bands, and mummies wander around posing a mortal threat to the continued existence of the human race. Other tribal communities, vie for resources and control, presenting still another level of threat. These kinds of fantasies - of human fears and defensiveness - are more predictable, than the story we celebrate of our beloved Jesus, defeating death and inviting us to be faithful and love one another.  

The unsatisfying original ending of the gospel of Mark, leaves the ball in our hands. Can you and I create a better ending to the story that the original duh-ciples? Do we have the clarity of vision, to pronounce the presence of the Kingdom of God, in a way that will be persuasive and confront the anxiety of those who face death? What do we tell the duh-ciples of Mark?  

We celebrate this morning as in-siders. We celebrate Easter with others who believe and celebrate the resurrection of the Christ. We sing songs, and the choir and the bells make a joyous noise. It is easy to feel good in here. 

Will we be willing to claim our Easter faith among our less religious family and friends? Or, will we replay Peter’s denial of Christ, when it might seem convenient to imitate his behavior? Can we live with confidence in God’s love and resurrection? 

This fantastic story of the resurrection is written into the very fabric of our natural life. Lilies, typical of those bulb flowers that bloom every year, are the classic symbol of apparent death and then rebirth. The season of Spring itself, when the weather gives it a fighting chance, soon will make the air smell of fresh vegetation, at least it does here in the midwest. 

The life cycle of congregations also goes through periods of decline, and then moves into a new season, with new possibilities and new challenges. This congregation, is moving into a season of rebirth. The Search Committee is meeting the possibilities of a new tomorrow - wading through the Profiles of multiple pastors, anxious to be considered for the chance to serve with you. 

Jesus, the man of action, has been raised from the dead. The power and glory of God has been revealed in a new way. The work of the church, the living body of Christ, continues to unfold before us - with new challenges and opportunities to put the love of God into action. 

The love of God: both, the way we love God as Jesus loved God; and the presence of God’s love that empowers our mission to the world; that love of God - is in evidence as we live and do our ministry. 

No one chooses death. Even in the church we fight like crazy to defend the status quo. But the God of love believes in new life, in resurrection, in restored relationships and possibilities. The terrible events of the Passion of Christ, result in the inexplicable, undeniable, and marvelously outrageous resurrection. The same resurrection that so overwhelmed the duh-ciples, so that initially they were stretched beyond what they could comprehend.  

Christ is Risen! Alleluia! He is Risen indeed! Alleluia! And because he lives, the love of God lives and is evident in every kind word, good deed, and especially in every effort made towards reconciliation of relationships, strained and left for dead. As the church, we are the body of the Risen Christ, “The Walking Resurrected,” bringing new life to the world.   

As we celebrate the risen Christ, we acknowledge our own part in making that life evident in the world. As we read the original ending of the original gospel, we recognize that we are gifted as apostles and angels, powerful beyond the pale of the original duh-ciples, and ready to write a new Chapter in the book of God’s love. Christ is Risen! Alleluia! He is Risen indeed! Alleluia! Christ is Risen! Alleluia! He is Risen indeed! Alleluia!