Grace Presbyterian Church
May 20, 2018, Pentecost B
Can These Bones Live?
I did not get up to watch the royal wedding yesterday. Being awake and functional for an 11:00 service on a Sunday morning is enough of a challenge for me; being up at 5:00 a.m. to pay attention to a wedding is quite beyond me.
There was, however, a certain amount of this particular wedding that actually was of interest to me, something that is not typically true of royal weddings and me. Normally when these things happen I am about equally frustrated with those who pay all sorts of fawning attention to the event and those who complain and gripe loudly about all the attention paid to the event. Both are equally frustrating, if you get my drift, where royal weddings are concerned.
But this year, I wanted to hear that sermon, and thanks be to the internet, I was able to do that yesterday without getting up that early.
Partly it was professional interest to be sure – I’m pretty sure this is the first such wedding to take place since I started this path into the ministry. Mostly, though, I wanted to hear and see what happened when The Right Rev. Michael Curry, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church here in the United States, preached the wedding sermon before the royal family and a large swath of the British upper class – the stiffest of stiff upper lips, you might say.
Bishop Curry did not disappoint: he did what any preacher is charged to do in such a situation. In the presence of God and of the congregation, rooted in the scripture and led by the Spirit, the bishop brought the good news, with a little fire.
Fire, of course, plays prominently in the reading from Acts, the story behind the festival of Pentecost we celebrate today. First the disciples were touched with it, so to speak, and then they preached with it. That fire is represented, just a little bit, in what you see in the sanctuary today, the red of the paraments and the red in my vestments and the red you see around the sanctuary, a suggestion of those tongues, like fire, that touched the disciples and sent them to the windows to preach a message that would be heard in more tongues than any of them knew.
And that’s how we typically mark Pentecost in churches like ours. We turn things in the sanctuary red for the day, we might do something interesting in the reading of that Acts scripture in some years, we sing songs that make reference to the Holy Spirit. Then we put away the red for another year.
I wonder if we might need to hear another message, though. Not just us in this one church, although maybe we do, but maybe all of us in churches like ours, where things are quieter, more sedate maybe, than in some other churches. Maybe we need to hear the word from the prophet Ezekiel.
Ezekiel had something of a traumatic life, preaching as he did in a time of conquest and exile for the people of Israel. In one of those sieges against Israel, Ezekiel’s own wife was killed. His prophetic career was not against the backdrop of any kind of comfort or official support (but then most prophetic careers, or at least most real ones, aren’t). And he was the one to whom God seemed to give the strangest prophetic messages – that “wheel within a wheel” vision found in the very first chapter, and then this grotesque, almost macabre account of the valley of dry bones.
I don’t care how much stiff upper lip you attribute to the British, even that congregation at yesterday’s wedding was livelier and more alive than this “congregation” to which Ezekiel gets called to prophesy.
Brought out to the valley by the “spirit of the Lord” (you didn’t think I was going to forget this is Pentecost, did you?), Ezekiel is confronted with this … well, a valley full of bones. Human bones, to be sure. It’s the kind of thing that a Hollywood director of a particular sort might have a field day with. Ezekiel makes sure to let us know that the bones were “very dry.” They’re not just dry, they’re very dry, presumably dead a very long time, and exposed to the harsh elements of a desert valley a very long time.
And before this dead, desiccated valley, the Lord asks Ezekiel, “Mortal, can these bones live?”
What a question.
It’s no shock that Ezekiel’s answer is what it is; in fact, in the Hebrew, the answer is much more emphatic, almost as if Ezekiel is repeating himself for emphasis – “You, Lord, you, you, you know,” with the emphatic if unspoken “NOT ME” left hanging in the air.
The Lord doesn’t bother explaining; instead he gives Ezekiel a command: “Prophecy.” (We’d use the word “preach” in this spot.) God tells Ezekiel to preach to the bones, these dried-up bones in this dried-up valley, preach to them that they will live, will be restored, will be given flesh and sinew and skin and all the good stuff of the human body. Ezekiel preaches, and in a scene that Hollywood directors must absolutely freak out at the thought of preaching, exactly that happens. Sinew, flesh, skin; all of the bones come together – “foot bone connected to the ankle bone, ankle bone connected to the leg bone” like the old spiritual sings – and now instead of preaching to a valley full of dried-up bones, Ezekiel is preaching to … a valley full of lifeless bodies.
You see, one thing was still missing: the breath, and Ezekiel is now commanded to preach to the breath itself, to come in from the four winds, and bring these bodies to life.
Here’s where it’s useful to know one thing about the Hebrew in this passage; the words we read as “breath,” “wind,” and “spirit” (or capital-S “Spirit”) are all rendered with the same Hebrew word: “rua’h.” Breath, wind, and spirit, all linguistically intertwined. The wind, the breath, the Spirit…
And the lifeless bodies indeed live.
One hopes the obvious available metaphor doesn’t have to be hammered home too hard here. The breath – the wind, the Spirit – is going to breathe into us, if we’d just open up our mouths. Even the most lifeless of bones will live. As God promised through Ezekiel to raise up the crushed, exiled, lifeless people of Israel, to put his Spirit within them and see them live, so the Spirit breathes through us and into us, bringing us to life.
But do we recognize it, though? Or do we trust it?
Karoline Lewis, a professor of preaching at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, asks that very pungently important question, wondering if indeed we do trust the Spirit to show up and be the Spirit in our worship, or in preaching or song, or if we’ve:
gotten to a place — in our churches, in our church institutions, where we assume control over the Spirit. Where our longing for the Spirit’s imagination has turned into impatience. Where our hope in having the Spirit show up has turned into attempts to manage the Spirit’s presence with secular and indistinct demands of its manifestation. Where our yearning for the Spirit’s surprise has devolved into certainty of the Spirit’s core characteristics, core traits, core ways of being in the world.
Dr. Lewis continues:
As a result, with earthly and irreligious spiritual solutions meant to be relevant, substituting “creative” with “innovative,” “eschatology” with “forward-thinking,” and “inspiration” with “methodologies” and “taxonomies,” I wonder if the church would truly recognize an appearance of the Spirit. Rather, I suspect the church would shrug off a pneumatological apocalypse as too far outside the boundaries it has built, the stipulations it has constructed, the expectations it has erected.[i]
In short, would we know the Holy Spirit if it kicked us in the posterior? There’s a reason we get called the “frozen chosen” sometimes. We choke ourselves to avoid the breath of the Spirit rushing through us, whether lighting those tongues of fire upon us, or simply breathing through us, keeping us spiritually alive. Would we know an outbreak of the Spirit if we saw it, heard it, felt it? The church these days partakes of so many potential substitutes for the Spirit – big-time preaching, new and “exciting” music, special events – that we are numbed even to the possibility of the for-real Spirit moving among us, breathing through us. We make ourselves into dry bones.
Christian, can these bones live? God, only God, can know. And God says yes.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #282, Come Down, O Love Divine; #292, As the Wind Song; #286, Breathe on Me, Breath of God; #66, Ev’ry Time I Feel the Spirit
[i]Karoline Lewis, “A True Pentecost,” from Working Preacher, http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?m=4377&post=5154, accessed 5/19/18
Grace Presbyterian Church
May 13, 2018, Ascension B
Acts 1:1-11; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53
What Are You Looking At?
“What are you looking at?”
You can hear that in the voice of someone trying to keep something a secret, annoyed at being caught in the act; maybe in the voice of a stereotypical tough-guy movie or TV character (though a Robert DeNiro or Joe Pesci character might turn it around to say “you lookin’ at me?”); or a more causul, “hey, what are you looking at?” It’s a pretty flexible phrase.
You don’t expect to hear it as angelic proclamation, though.
But the end of the Acts account here features “two men in white robes” who suddenly appear beside the disciples (that’s a pretty characteristic way of the gospels describing angelic appearances) uttering a much more formal query: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” But really, they’re asking “What are you looking at?” Seriously, you have to wonder if one of the disciples was fighting the urge to turn on the two men in white and exclaim “are you kidding me? Did you not just see what happened here? People don’t just pick up and float off into the sky, you know…”
If one of the disciples did that (my money would have been on Thomas, with his snarky sense of humor), Luke did not record it. Instead, the men in white issue a promise; the Jesus they just saw lifting up into the sky would, and will, return one day in the same fashion. Something to hold on to, I guess, in the now-inarguable absence of Jesus from his followers.
Already Jesus had left this little band with plenty of instruction, and also a reprimand in the bargain. Luke’s account of the Ascension here at the beginning of Acts is a bit more expansive than that at the end of the gospel that bears his name, and there’s at least one really logical possible explanation for that: Luke learned more. At the beginning of the gospel we call Luke the author admits very frankly that the gospel is not an eyewitness account. Luke advises his recipient, “most excellent Theophilus,” that he has set out to gather the best information he could to pass on an “orderly account” of the evens of Jesus’s life. The end of Luke’s gospel sounds frankly a lot like the end of Matthew, with an account of the Ascension thrown in.
But by the time Luke started into the book we call Acts, he has a few things to add to the Ascension story. For one thing, we learn he was around for forty days, which the Luke account doesn’t really suggest. For another, there is more instruction included here. The disciples aren’t to rush off, but to return to Jerusalem and wait for the “promise of the Father,” wait to be “baptized with the Holy Spirit” before too many days have gone by. It turned out to be ten days, until the event called Pentecost lit a fire in the disciples (almost literally) and initiated the work of the church on earth in a way that, quite frankly, none of the disciples could have anticipated.
As for the rebuke, one of the disciples (this could have been Thomas too) had to ask, as Jesus drew his remarks to a close, the most oblivious possible question in the context: “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” Even at the very end somebody is trying to press Jesus about when he’s going to Make Israel Great Again.
Jesus answers with one of the most ignored (and outright violated) scriptures in the whole book: “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.” All these so-called ministers or biblical authorities spitting directly in the face of Jesus trying to work out some code or clue that tells them exactly when Jesus is gonna come back. It’s written right here, in Jesus’s own words: THAT’S NOT YOUR JOB. That’s not your place.
Your job is this:
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
That’s the disciples’ job; wait for the Holy Spirit, and then go! Go all over the world, says Jesus. And the church, in fits and starts, sometimes ruinously and sometimes beautifully, has been doing that ever since.
But what about the Ascension itself? What’s the point of this story with Jesus lifting off like a slow moving rocket and being taken from the disciples’ sight? One of the best explanations in scripture is actually found in this passage from the letter to the church at Ephesus. Towards the end of today’s reading we get the rundown of why Christ’s ascension matters; the same Jesus who walked the earth with his followers now is at God’s side, above – “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion,” not just now but for all time, with all authority over the church and everything else under his feet. To be short about it, we have no business – at all – giving our allegiance to any authority but Christ. None. (For all we talk about wanting to be followers of Jesus, we sure do skip over a lot that scripture instructs us what to do to be about that very business. Seriously, Christ’s church isn’t nearly radical enough.)
Still, though, you have to feel for the disciples, at least for those ten days. They’ve been told to go back to Jerusalem and … wait. What do you do when you wait for the Holy Spirit to overtake you (whatever that means)?
You have to figure there was some remembering what Jesus said and did, maybe some arguments about those things, some impatience to be sure. You have to wonder if they gathered around a table for a meal at times (they needed to eat, after all) and were reminded again, and again, and again of that last meal with Jesus, the bread and the cup; or the encounter on the Emmaus Road, or back in Jerusalem; you have to wonder if picking up that loaf and that cup could possibly have ever been the same for them, especially now, with their Teacher and Lord physically gone for good.
This meal is handed to us even today, to remember; to take to heart and to rememberthe words and deeds of Jesus in our very beings. With the church in every age, from Ascension to now, we take this bread and this cup and show to the world the Lord’s saving death until, like the men in white promised, he returns that very same way, to be with us and us with him for all time.
For Jesus who departed, and will return, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #263, All Hail the Power of Jesus’s Name!; #662, Christ, Whose Glory Fills the Skies ; #521, In Remembrance of Me; #265; Jesus Shall Reign Where’er the Sun
Grace Presbyterian Church
May 6, 2018, Easter 6B
The One Commandment
Today’s scripture from the gospel of John, you might notice, picks up where last week’s reading left off. As a result, we continue to deal with this word “abide” and its attempt to capture the sense of deep, rooted indwelling to which we are called in Jesus, like branches of the vine. Sure enough, there it is again in verses 9 and 10; “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love.” He then goes on to add that he has given his disciples these words for their joy; “so that my joy may be in you, and your joy may be complete.”
Then comes possibly the most important sentence in this gospel – yes, maybe even more important than 3:16:
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”
Truly, if I had the nerve I’d stop the sermon right here. If we at all call ourselves followers of Christ, that is surely all we need to hear, right? Love one another.
Except, of course, that’s not the whole statement. Look again: “that you love one another as I have loved you.” That’s something different altogether, if we’re honest about it. This isn’t warm fuzzies, or some easily ginned-up feeling. This is love that is tough, enduring, persistent, and even self-sacrificing if it comes to it – as Jesus will soon show to his disciples.
This reading is part of rather lengthy discourse from Jesus, often called the “farewell” discourse among biblical scholars. Here Jesus really is trying to prepare those disciples for the fact that, before much longer, Jesus will be gone. Not just crucified-and-in-the-tomb gone, though that is certainly part of it; but even after the crucifixion and resurrection, after some time and a few more stories with his disciples, Jesus will be physically departed from the earth. In the way the disciples had known him for these three years, Jesus will no longer be there.
How are the disciples supposed to get through that separation? How do Jesus’s followers keep going without Jesus? There will be other things (Jesus breathes on the disciples in John 20 and instructs them to “receive the Holy Spirit,” for one thing), but the most basic and elementary thing is to, as he says, love one another as Jesus loved them and loves us.
Sounds so easy, right? Ha.
We aren’t always the most loveable creatures in creation. We vex and torment one another, we can be breathtakingly rude to one another without even thinking, we gripe, we needle, we make ourselves impossible for others to love. And that’s not even taking into account the serious crimes we commit against one another.
If we are going about this business of loving one another entirely of our own efforts then we’re basically doomed before we start. But that’s not how it goes. It isn’t only about loving one another the way Jesus has loved us; it’s also about loving one another asJesus loves us, continuing and ongoing love that not only dwells in us but moves through us to the world and all of us in it.
What is both good and new about the good news is the wild claim that Jesus did not simply tell us that God loves us even in our wickedness and folly and wants us to love each other the same way and to love God too, but that if we will allow it to happen, God will actually bring about this unprecedented transformation of our hearts himself.
What is both good and new about the good news is the mad insistence that Jesus lives on among us not just as another haunting memory but as the outlandish, holy, and invisible power of God working not just through the sacraments, but in countless hidden ways to make even slobs like us loving and whole beyond anything we could conceivably pull off by ourselves.
Even with this knowledge that it is the work of Jesus through the Holy Spirit that even enables us to love as Jesus loves us, it is still darned near impossible sometimes just to get out of the way, to let that love go despite our petty grievances and grudges against that other.
But when we do…oh, when we do… .
You may remember Madeleine L’Engle’s novel A Wrinkle in Time, or you may have seen the movie a couple of months ago. L’Engle, a devout Episcopalian, infused the plot of that book quite precisely with the power of love. Indeed, it is made clear to Meg, the young heroine, that the one thing that will enable her to find and rescue her father, lost out in the cosmos, is not her intellect or cunning, but her love for her father, indeed her love for her whole family – her mother and her younger brother especially.
In truth there is really one other good part to this passage, one that makes it a good thing the sermon didn’t stop after verse 12. Jesus calls the disciples his friends. Not “disciples.” Not “apostles” – that word doesn’t show up until Acts. He calls them his friends. So great is the depth of Jesus’s love for them, for us, that we are no longer servants; we are friends. And like the hymn we’ll sing in a few moments says, “what a friend we have in Jesus.”
Our commandment is this: to love one another as Christ has loved us. If we can be such sticklers about those Ten Commandments represented by this little token over here, will we ever step up and be so committed to obeying this one commandment?
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #311, Here, O Lord, Your Servants Gather; #251, Christ Has Arisen, Alleluia; #465, What a Friend We Have in Jesus; #703; Jesus, Thy Boundless Love to Me
Grace Presbyterian Church
April 29, 2018, Easter 5B
Branches of the Vine
I am no gardener. If you ever see our house and get impressed by all the lush vegetation by the front door, know that it’s all Julia’s doing. She’s the one who does all the work, choosing and digging and planting and fertilizing and watering and all that stuff and probably things I’ve forgotten. I definitely have no green thumb, and I don’t think I even rise to the level of a brown thumb – when it comes to that kind of endeavor, I basically have no thumb at all.
Now if you look at that garden space, you’ll see that there are a lot of plants that are principally pollinators or pollenizers. They’re very good plants for bees and butterflies to muck around in and pick up pollen and spread around to other plants in the garden or elsewhere in the neighborhood or even beyond, depending on the bee or butterfly. Given the difficult state of bee populations both in Florida and worldwide, this feels like something worthwhile to do. Maybe we’re doing some good, you know?
What our garden – excuse me, Julia’s garden – doesn’t contain is any food-bearing plant. Aside from one that produces a fruit that looks like an extra-large blackberry except for being purple or even mauve, the plants in the garden are not meant to “bear fruit,” at least not anything that we humans should be eating. There are a couple of vines, true, but they are pretty clearly decorative rather than fruit-bearing, so if their branches splay out all over the place, well, that’s kind of the point. It looks lovely, until the vine gets too spread out and withers and has to be trimmed back.
You see where this is going, right?
Jesus is making about as direct a metaphor as possible for both his connection to God and his connection to us, using the vine as that connecting point in both cases. First, if Jesus is the vine, then God is the vinegrower, the one charged with caring for and maintaining the vine so that it bears the most fruit possible. That means that in some cases, branches of the vine that don’t bear fruit have to be removed, in order that the good fruit-bearing vines are able to bear more fruit.
This is one of those passages that certain gatekeeper-types in the church love to jump on, apparently because they get awfully excited about shipping people off to Hell. Notice that this is not where Jesus goes with the metaphor; those branches are simply removed. Of course, to those reading or hearing John’s gospel, being cut off from the community (the more likely interpretation of being “removed”) was frightening enough. Does that actually frighten us any more?
But even the branches that do bear fruit face their own “cutting.” The Vinegrower prunes the good fruit-bearing branches, in order that they will continue to bear fruit and increase in bearing fruit. Maybe that’s an image that gives us pause. You have no problem with pruning the plants in your garden (though I’d guess that if you were able to ask those plants, they’d respond that it’s not any fun to be pruned), but the idea of “pruning” away parts of our livesin some fashion sounds rather harsh to us. But indeed, I suspect if we looked back we might be able to identify times when things we thought were important or meaningful parts of our lives turned out to be pruned away, only for our lives to become more fruitful in the end.
Then comes the use of an important word in this part of John’s gospel. Jesus instructs his followers to “abide in me as I abide in you.” The Merriam-Webster app on my phone [note: the online version gives the same] give me such meanings as “to bear patiently”, “to endure without yielding”, “to wait for”, “to accept without objection”, and “to remain stable or fixed in a state” before finally getting to a definition that comes somewhat close to what the Greek work John uses means. The dictionary speaks of a meaning “to continue in a place”, and even uses a scripture-ish sounding phrase to demonstrate the meaning. That does get at the idea somewhat (the word “remain” sometimes appears here too), but doesn’t capture the full force of the idea of not only remaining in place, but dwelling deeply in that place. If we are not abiding in Jesus, not just staying in place but dwelling deeply, taking our spiritual sustenance and strength and growth in nothing other than Jesus, then we are gonna end up as one of those branches that gets trimmed away. Branches can’t bear fruit by themselves, after all; they have to be connected to the vine.
Of course, the next part of this passage makes the metaphor even clearer. Those branches Jesus keeps talking about? That’s us. And like those vine branches, if we get ourselves separated from the Lord, we bear no fruit; we wither, we dry up and are tossed away, good for nothing but to be burned off. If we abide in Jesus, we bear much fruit.
We bear much fruit, and God is glorified. That’s the kicker in the end; all of this business about vines and branches and pruning and pulling away is, in the end, how we are part of the business of bringing glory to our God. When we “bear much fruit,” that’s when we are disciples of Jesus.
The apostle Paul extends this idea in his letter to the Galatians, expounding in chapter 5 on the idea of what those fruits – “the fruit of the Spirit” as he puts it – might be; love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. When these are the qualities most prominently displayed in our lives, when this is what people see in us – not just individuals, but usas the body of Christ – we are being Christ’s disciples, and glorifying God above.
We bear that fruit by remaining – dwelling deeply – in Christ. We can’t bear that fruit any other way, we branches. When we abide in Jesus, and Jesus abides in us, we glorify God and bear much fruit. We live like disciples. And when the world sees that, they want to see more. Thus we bear witness. And that’s what it is to be branches of the vine.
For abiding – we in Jesus, he in us – Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #244, This Joyful Eastertide; #—, Love Divine, All Loves Excelling (insert); #504, We Come as Guests Invited; #765, May the God of Hope Go With Us
Grace Presbyterian Church
April 22, 2018, Easter 4B
The fourth Sunday of Easter, every year, offers in the lectionary Psalm 23. That psalm, the extremely well-known “shepherd psalm,” is always paired with some part of John 10, the chapter in which Jesus delivers up one of his “I am” sayings, in this case “I am the good shepherd.”
Today is also Earth Day, the annual celebration/commemoration, begun in 1970, in support of measures to protect and preserve the natural environment, already showing signs of damage even those 48 years ago.
It might seem that the two don’t mix. Psalm 23 is, well, Psalm 23. It is probably the most familiar chapter of scripture ever (in terms of recognizing the whole chapter, not just a verse like John 3:16). It is in some ways so familiar as to be un-preachable or un-teachable; folks hear the chapter and almost check out before the words “The Lord is my shepherd” have stopped ringing in the air, maybe checking in just in time for that part about dwelling in the house of the Lord. Earth Day, on the other hand, raises a serious concern about a climate changing too fast to keep up with, earth damaged by human activity, species going extinct or becoming endangered at a more rapid pace than we’ve seen before; all in all, not a terribly uplifting or pastoral effect.
But then again, maybe there is more to the connection than we think. If we can manage not to check out on the psalm, we might be reminded that virtually all of the imagery in that beloved psalm is grounded thoroughly in God’s creation. Sheep, those creatures cared for by the shepherd, are of course part of creation. Those green pastures and still waters are nature itself. Even an image found in verse 5 – “you prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies” — has its roots in that natural relationship; the shepherd was at times charged to go ahead of the flock and “prepare” a safe place, with plenty of grass, so that the sheep could safely graze when it was time.
A sheep is at risk if it doesn’t follow the leadership of the shepherd; there are plenty of predators that would love to take advantage of an unprotected flock, but the sheep can also find trouble itself. A patch of grass only lasts so long, especially if the shepherd doesn’t move the sheep along to a new patch before it’s ground out. Those waters can be hazardous if they aren’t still. There are risks.
John’s gospel, in which Jesus speaks to what constitutes a good shepherd, also introduces another risk; a “bad” shepherd, referred to there as the “hired hand.” In this telling the “hired hand” is not in fact concerned with the welfare of the sheep, or is only so as much as necessary to get paid. At the first sign of danger he’s off, covering his own hide. He’s not going to fish an errant sheep out of a rushing stream, or fight off a predator, or rescue an errant sheep from a precipice.
Maybe these things are relatable to our wounded creation after all.
We humans, maybe, overgraze fertile places until they aren’t fertile anymore, or exploit and extract resources that can’t be replenished.
We humans, maybe, foul those still waters, rendering them undrinkable, useless for human consumption.
We humans, maybe, aren’t always good at following the shepherd.
In fact, maybe one of our biggest problems with our destructiveness of creation is that we’ve quit following the Good Shepherd altogether. Maybe we’ve put too much of our trust and faith in the “hired hands,” the ones who are only there for what profit they can extract, the ones who are going to make darned sure that if anybody is going to face danger or suffer the consequences of our damaged earth, it’s not going to be them. And yet that’s who we’ve left in charge of, well, pretty much everything, creation included.
The prophet Ezekiel, in chapter 34 of that book, uses the contrast of fat and lean sheep to make the same point; the fat sheep get that way by treading down the grass and fouling the water, so that the other sheep have nothing to eat or drink. Whether hired hand or fat sheep, it’s an inescapable conclusion that some part of humanity is contributing to the degradation of the basic livability of others in an increasingly damaged world, one where the damage somehow seems to land almost universally on the ones Jesus would call “the least of these” in Matthew 25 (another chapter in which sheep are major characters).
At some point, if we’re going to call ourselves followers of Christ, the Good Shepherd, we have to stop treading down the grass and fouling the water, and maybe even (like that Good Shepherd) “prepare” and restore what he have already damaged, so that all the sheep, all of God’s people, have that plentiful grass to eat and water to drink. The “green pastures” and “still waters” need our help, or at the very minimum they need us to stop damaging them. And without those, what is Psalm 23 but a sad, distant memory?
For the call and opportunity to repair creation, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #370, This Is My Father’s World; #803, My Shepherd Shall Supply My Need; #713, Touch the Earth Lightly; #187, Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us
Grace Presbyterian Church
April 15, 2018, Easter 3B
In case you’re wondering, yes, today’s reading from Luke feels awfully similar to last week’s reading from John.
They’re not the same story, not at all (Thomas doesn’t even merit a mention here), but much of the same territory is covered; Jesus appearing to bumfuzzled disciples, showing the scars of his crucifixion while they get all goggle-eyed in disbelief and joy and yet wonder if they are seeing a ghost (and yes, that’s really a correct translation of verse 37). But there are differences, too; in this case, even while exhorting the disciples to see and believe, Jesus also manages to ask if they’ve got anything to eat around here (I guess he didn’t eat any of the bread he broke with the two followers at Emmaus?). Nowadays moderns might get a bit agitated about such a request, conditioned as so many are by TV shows like The Walking Dead and any number of zombie horror movies, but all Jesus wants is a piece of fish; no zombie here, just your average human being in your average human body, that just happened to be dead a few days ago.
OK, obviously not just your average human.
But Luke, in this account that happens just after the Emmaus Road story we heard on Easter Sunday, does have a different agenda than John does in his gospel. He wants us to hear a slightly different message than John does. While John has Jesus breathing on the disciples and invoking the Holy Spirit, Luke points to a different moment; Jesus unfolds, much as he had to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, how everything that had happened was written in the law and the prophets, and then he blows their minds.
That isn’t actually a bad way to capture the force of what Luke writes here, in contrast to the oh-so-bland “opened their minds” the NRSV translation uses. There’s a sense we need to understand of how transforming, how completely mind-twisting this moment is. Have you ever looked at one of those visual illusions that looks like nothing more than a circle with a bunch of differently-colored dots in it, until all of a sudden you see the number 6 right in the middle of it? Or maybe the one that looks like a silhouette of a vase, until it suddenly looks like two lovers about to kiss? Take that sensation, and multiply it by about a thousand, and you might be getting close to what the disciples experienced at that moment.
They had heard Jesus teach these things more times than they could count, and yet it never really did sink in, until this moment, when it all made sense, finally, with the risen Jesus standing before them. This is what it all meant.
But notice how there’s a little piece of this revelation that’s not quite like the rest. It’s one thing to talk about the law of Moses and the prophets, and what had to happen to the Messiah. Then comes this: “…and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”
It’s all well and good to talk about what happened, what was done, what led to this moment of the crucified Jesus now resurrected and standing before the disciples; this is different. This is about what happens going forward. It is, in a way, in how we answer the “so what” of the story. Jesus is resurrected from the dead; so what?
Clarence Jordan, a Baptist pastor, put it this way in a sermon titled “The Substance of Faith:”
Jesus’s resurrection is not to convince the incredulous nor to reassure the faithful, but to enkindle the believers. The proof that God raised Jesus from the dead is not in the empty tomb, but the full hearts of his disciples. The crowning evidence that he lives is not in a vacant grave, but a spirit-filled fellowship. Not a rolled-away stone, but a carried-away church.
Jesus’s next sentence makes it explicit; “You are witnesses of these things.”
You are witnesses of these things. You are witnesses of these things.
It’s a present thing. It’s also an ongoing thing; “are” never does become “were.” It’s not about what you saw and heard in the past remaining part of the past; it’s about what you saw and heard becoming what you see and say. You bear witness.
[For Clarence Jordan, that “being a witness” led to the founding of Koinonia Farm, a deliberately interracial farming community outside Americus, Georgia, in the deepest of the Deep South, at the height of Jim Crow.]
That’s a word – “witness” – that scares us, or maybe many of us, I’m guessing. It’s not hard to summon an image of people going door-to-door with gospel tracts in hand, endeavoring mightily to save people right there on their front doorsteps. Presbyterians in particular can be a bit reticent about such outward, even brash behaviors, no matter how much scripture might be encouraged among us. But my friends, the truth is much scarier.
You’ll notice that Jesus says “you are witnesses.” Jesus doesn’t say “go be witnesses.” This isn’t an imperative or a command: this is simply a statement of fact. You are witnesses of these things. In whatever you do, you are witnesses of these things.
Here in this sanctuary, you are witnesses of these things. But also at Publix, you are witnesses of these things. At a concert or play, you are witnesses of these things. When your neighbor starts saying ugly things about immigrants, you are witnesses of these things. When you share or “like” things on Facebook, you are witnesses of these things. When our country starts firing missiles that accomplish nothing but killing civilians, you are witnesses of these things.
There is no moment or place or act in which you, by taking the name “Christian” or “Presbyterian” or “Grace Presbyterian Church,” are not witnesses of the all that was said and done by Christ, and especially that repentance and forgiveness of which Christ speaks.
You are witnesses. The only question is, what kind of witness are you?
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #234, Come, You Faithful, Raise the Strain; #240, Alleluia, Alleluia, Give Thanks!; #526, Let Us Talents and Tongues Employ; #249, Because You Live, O Christ
Grace Presbyterian Church
April 8, 2018, Easter 2B
The Revised Common Lectionary is an organization of scripture for preaching and worship that offers the preacher, over a three-year period, a schedule by which one could preach from an extremely generous swath of scripture, Old Testament and New. Not everything is covered, and frankly not everything is necessarily sermon-ready, but a lot of scripture is covered, and a preacher who uses the lectionary will occasionally be goaded into preaching from passages he or she might not otherwise preach.
There are repetitions, though. The lectionary will always take you to Luke for the Nativity story, and Holy Week is largely taken over by the gospel of John, no matter which “year” of the lectionary you’re on. Psalm 23 and John 10 (the “I am the good shepherd” discourse from Jesus) are always paired for the fourth Sunday of Easter. And the second Sunday of Easter always brings us Thomas.
Not the Emmaus Road story (last week’s sermon was actually off-lectionary, in case you wonder if I ever do that). Not Matthew. (Mark doesn’t really offer any post-resurrection story, so he has only himself to blame for being left out). Not John’s other post-resurrection accounts. Always Thomas.
I wonder this every year at this time. What is it about this particular story that was so compelling to the lectionary compilers that we get this story again and again and again? What’s so important?
It’s not as if Thomas is, by most conventional measures, a big deal among the disciples. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all list Thomas among the disciples…and that’s it; he’s not mentioned in those gospels otherwise. Only John mentions him beyond that basic identification, and this gospel mentions him two other times beyond this story:
–in chapter 11, the Lazarus story, it is Thomas who says “Let us also go, that we may die with him” when Jesus says that he is going to Bethany, near Jerusalem, despite the knowledge that the religious authorities there are plotting to bring him down.
–in chapter 14 he’s the one who asks the question, “Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” that prompts Jesus to answer “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”
(Thomas also shows up in chapter 21, but only by name.)
While this is a small sample size, these two accounts do suggest that Thomas has a bit of a smart mouth on him, and is willing to say what the other disciples seem less willing to say. Nowadays we might say Thomas is “that guy”, the one every group seems to have, the one who “goes there” when everybody else is saying “don’t go there.”
We don’t know why Thomas wasn’t in that room with the other disciples when Jesus shows up the first time. To be honest, we don’t really know why the disciples are inthat room themselves. They’ve heard Mary Magdalene’s story; they have her witness that Jesus is not dead, but alive—resurrected from the dead. And yet they’re locked away in a room out of fear. Maybe they could be out looking for Jesus instead, I don’t know. Who knows, maybe that’s where Thomas was? But still, it has to be acknowledged that he did miss out on that experience by not being with the other disciples.
On the other hand, in last week’s scripture the two disciples took off and left town rather than sticking with the group, and Jesus tracked them down and appeared to them.
When the others tell Thomas about this appearance of Jesus, his reaction – the thing that has earned him the nickname “doubting Thomas” across two millennia of Christian history – is something along the lines of “I gotta see this,” or perhaps “I’ll believe thatwhen I see it.” Mary Hinkle Shore, a Lutheran pastor in North Carolina, makes the useful comparison to your possible reaction when friends tell you about, say, the latest big blockbuster movie or Broadway show, saying “you’ve got to see this!” Thomas’s answer is in effect “yes, I am going to have to see this before I can believe you.”
But then you go to see Black Panther or A Wrinkle in Timeor Hamiltonor whatever they’ve told you about, and you end up concluding that their praise was actually an understatement. That’s how Thomas reacts when he does see Jesus. If we’re going to zing him as “doubting Thomas” for his initial hesitance (or for his insistence on receiving what the other disciples received despite evidently doubting Mary Magdalene’s initial report), then we have to give him credit for being the first among the disciples to make the leap, as he does in verse 28, from “my Lord” to “my God!” Whether great act of—finally!—understanding just what Jesus has been about all this time, or overwhelmed response to what he didn’t think possible, Thomas’s profession is a landmark moment in the gospels. If Thomas must be punished for his reticence, he must be lauded for his exclamation of faith.
Still, though, the question lingers: why does this story come back every year, again and again? Is it because of Thomas’s final profession? Or is it because we, the church in this place and in every place, are too liable to react to the news of the resurrection the way the disciples did, not only after Mary Magdalene’s report, but even after seeing the living Jesus themselves – hiding behind closed doors, still in fear? Is there some sense in which we, despite hearing the good news of resurrection every year, we still don’t really believe it?
It might also be that we are fearful of what that exactly means for us. Maybe the part we don’t really want to hear is verse 21 – “as the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Maybe we’re locked up tight as a church because we fear being sent, outside the walls and windows of this place to a community or a world that doesn’t look like us, doesn’t talk like us, doesn’t believe like us, doesn’t vote like us, doesn’t automatically conform to be like us just because we think they should. Maybe that’s it.
And yet, for all of that fear, Jesus not only appeared to the disciples and to Thomas, but he also answered Thomas’s bluntest skepticism with the most tangible sign possible; his own wounded, broken body, scars and all. He practically dares Thomas to follow up on his skepticism – “here they are, my hands, my side” – and then does get in a little dig at the end – “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have come to believe.” Jesus does not give in to our doubts or fears or suspicions. Jesus insistently comes to us where we are, and presents nothing less than himself to our fearful, faithless minds.
For a relentless Savior, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #245, Christ the Lord is Risen Today!; #251, Christ Has Arisen, Alleluia; #238, Thine Is the Glory; #246, Christ Is Alive!