Stakeholders: Sermon by Laura, 5.17.15, Easter 7B

Scriptures: Acts 1:12-26; 1 John 5:9-13

A lot is at stake in this story from Acts. I mean that quite literally, since the word translated “lot” appears twice in it. First, Peter talks about the “allotted share” in Jesus’ ministry, Judas Iscariot cast aside to “go to his own place;” then the story describes how the 120 believers chose Judas’ successor: by “casting lots.” Those instances of the word “lot” also point to a lot—as in a “considerable quantity”—of tensions facing this group as they wait, in the days between Ascension and Pentecost, for the baptism of the Holy Spirit, promised by Jesus as he commissioned them to be his witnesses to the “ends of the earth.”

They waited ten days. And you know how hard it is for some personalities to just sit and wait! Peter, definitely one of those “do-something guys,” decides to make sure they are attending to organizational business. Now, they have no Book of Order to guide them, so, as they try to figure out their way forward, they draw from what they do have, their Jewish practices, the Psalms, and their prayer. From these sources, Peter names the mandate to replace Judas and restore the complete number of apostles Jesus seems to have intended, having promised in Luke 22 that the Twelve, would sit upon thrones in Christ’s kingdom, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.

So there is a question of filling a gap in leadership. But the gap itself feels like a raw wound. Anger, distrust, and grief linger in relation to the absence of Judas, whose name is forever marked in the Church’s memory as the one who betrayed Jesus.

We get a deeper understanding of that wound as Peter names the replacement apostles’ necessary credentials: he must be have had a committed presence in the discipleship community from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, through and “beyond betrayal and death…into the time of resurrection.” The twelfth apostle must have the capacity to embody the full message of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection to others, and witness to the entire scope of redemptive grace.

Preacher Randy Hyde wonders if, even more than Judas’ act of betrayal, it’s Judas’ tragic absence which grieves the disciples.  “As far as I can tell, all the disciples of Jesus were betrayers. None of them believed or endorsed Jesus’ mission,” Hyde notes.“The only difference between Judas and the rest of the disciples – especially Peter – was that Judas didn’t stick around for final redemption.  Judas wasn’t a witness to the resurrection….…all of them were betrayers, but betrayal does not need – in fact it cannot be – the final word. Redemption is and always shall be the very last thing.”

Tradition is inconclusive on whether Judas died by his own hand or by a cursed accident. However it happened, he died isolated and alone, never knowing that his betrayal was not the end of the story. What a tragedy, that Judas didn’t fully experience the eternal kind of life Jesus offers, the quality of present and future life grounded in the good news of God’s unstoppable love.

All of us betray God and one another at some point; but rooted in the Risen Christ,
we find a new life in God’s forgiving love, which bears fruit as that love flows through us to release others from bondage to isolation and shame.

The believers in the upper room with Peter are grounded in that unstoppable grace
as they pray their way forward together. They have not yet received the Holy Spirit,
but their devotion to prayer throughout empowers them to go ahead and nominate candidates to replace Judas, and then they cast their lots together in the future of Christ’s people.

Now those who have recently participated in a rigorous leadership selection process
might be surprised by the means of deciding between Matthias and Justus. To “cast lots” is essentially like flipping a coin: heads, Matthias, tails, Justus.  The believers saw it as a tried-and-true way to determine God’s will. And there is no evidence that the means or outcome were not okay with God.  In the absence of a clear choice, sometimes we simply find a way to move forward.

But neither Matthias—nor Justus, for that matter—are ever mentioned again in scripture,
which makes some commentators wonder if the believers were too hasty in this decision. Would waiting until after Pentecost have allowed them to choose in concert with the greater perspective of the Holy Spirit? Paul, whom no one would have imagined would be called as an apostle, makes an indelible impact on the Church, so some interpreters suggest that Paul, not Matthias, was the Holy Spirit’s choice of the twelfth apostle.

Frankly, I doubt we’ll come to a firm conclusion on any of the questions this story raises for us. But I see good news here which meets us in the tensions faced by this generation of believers, as we seek to be the faithful church together.

We the Church are living through a profound time of transition. Author Phyllis Tickle calls “The Great Emergence,” when all previous assumptions about the Church have been thrown into question. Older expressions of being church are declining, making room for new, as-yet-unimagined expressions to emerge. Reading the book of Acts, we recognize this pattern of new emergence is characteristic of the Holy Spirit’s action. In a messy transition time, full of uncertainty, how do we, Christ’s community, faithfully discern our way forward?

We take our cue from our ancestors in the Acts’ story, committing ourselves to each other, devoting ourselves to prayer together, stepping out in faith and experimentation, “making our road by walking.” Sometimes it feels like we just muddle through, awkwardly grieving and moving through past wounds, doing the best we can with what we’ve been given. But the good  news is that we have indeed been given something to work with! We have much, much more than basic necessity or chance to go on: we have God’s testimony in Jesus Christ.

1 John tells us that “whoever has the Son has life;” whoever trusts God’s unstoppable love,
revealed in the whole scope of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, is already immersed in the eternal kind of life, because you can  know and trust, “beyond a shadow of a doubt,” that life in Christ wins through. Redemption—not betrayal—has the final word.

Learning and accepting that testimony in scripture and our faith community, we, too, become witnesses. We are empowered to bold engagement in Christ’s ministry here and now, trusting that God can work with whatever comes. Thus, we see and experience for ourselves Christ’s incarnation and resurrection right here, among this particular group of people, in this particular place and time.

Now, I’ve been thinking about this text in relation to welcoming Nick and Christy
to membership in our congregation today. The believers in that upper room committed themselves to waiting, praying, and making decisions with all the others, particular people of that time whom Jesus Christ had gathered to his side. Each of them “cast their lot” in with each other: in this case, that phrase means we accept the portion provided for us in whatever particular situation we find ourselves.

Baptism means that Christ has gathered us to his side, and we will follow him wherever he takes us. It is a welcome to the universality of Christ’s Church.  But membership is all about particularity: we affirm that it is this particular place and people where he is presently calling us to share our particular gifts up-building of Christ’s community and witnessing God’s love to the world.

There are risks in planting our stake in this soil, this all-too-human community with its layers of history, where conflict and betrayal and loss are a part of the messy fabric of ministry together. So many people simply choose to just “check out” of community rather than
take the risks of messy relationships.

But we who have witnessed the resurrection know and trust that God shows up as we muddle through, covering us with grace as we step out again and again in faithfulness together. Betrayal and loss are never the end of the story: In Christ, the final say is always redemption and love.
Alleluia! Amen.

Sources:  http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/lot; Acts 1:4-7,  Luke 22:28-30;

Frank L. Crouch, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2456;

Randy L. Hyde, http://www.lectionary.org/Sermons/NT/05-Acts/Acts-01.15-26-Witnesses-Hyde.htm;

Jeffrey D. Peterson-Davis, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008: 528.;

http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1295

Get Ye to Galilee: Sermon by Laura, 4.5.15, Easter Sunday B

Scripture: Mark 16:1-8

“Terror and amazement had seized them; they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” So ends Mark’s gospel. The Bible gives two other endings, but most scholars say they are not original to the earliest manuscripts.  And no wonder later readers thought Mark’s gospel needed help. What a disturbing way to finish! Not only is there no narrative closure but even the grammar is awkward. A more literal translation of the final words reads, “To no one anything they said; afraid they were for…” The gospel of Mark ends with a dangling preposition!

It’s also painfully minimalist. Matthew, Luke, and John’s resurrection accounts give us a little more to work with. There are earthquake-toppled guards, dazzling angels, heartfelt reunions, and joyful shouts of “He is risen.” Most importantly, in the other gospels, Jesus appears sooner or later! Where, in Mark, is the resurrected Jesus?

Mark’s strange ending seems inadequate. But maybe it’s just as the author intended. Maybe Mark is inviting us to wrestle through our distress toward a different kind of Easter joy.

Mark’s gospel puts us right beside those first Easter witnesses,  women who had witnessed the horror of Jesus’ suffering, death, and burial. They carry spices to the tomb in defeat, having lost not only a beloved leader and friend, but also the kingdom of God Jesus represented. Even their quest to properly bury Jesus’ corpse looks bleak, since they can’t imagine how they’ll move the enormous stone sealing the tomb.

They struggle to keep faith and fail, just like we do. If we’ve not yet experienced a season of failing faith, we surely will, when a loved one is dying, or a cherished relationship imploding; facing a dreaded diagnosis or a loss of livelihood.We often struggle simply as overwhelmed spectators to the horror of violence and suffering in our world.

And then, at the empty tomb, the stone rolled away, with the women, we are shocked and amazed, dangling between hope and fear, between disappointment and fulfillment. It’s a crisis of faith. If “dead things don’t stay dead,” anything is possible, the kingdom of God is alive after all!

But the women don’t see Jesus or hear him call their name. They must choose how they will respond, but they don’t get to touch the wounds in his hands. We don’t either.  Like them, we are trying to believe, but sometimes we need someone else to believe for us, to encourage us to enter the now wide-open future.

What they and we receive is a messenger, the white-robed young man. What a mysterious figure he is! There are numerous theories about him, but most scholars just assume he’s an angel. In scripture, divine messengers bring surprising news, saying, “Do not be afraid!” The white-robed youth does fit that bill. But Mark never calls him an angel. Why not? What is Mark up to?

Maybe Mark’s using his faithful imagination and his authorial license to a deeper purpose.

In 160 A.D., Justin Martyr wrote describing the early church’s worship practices. In his era of persecution and martyrdom, becoming a Christian was serious business: it took three years of preparation to become a Christian. On Easter morning, candidates for baptism went naked into the water, “dying with Christ.” Coming out of the waters, “rising with Christ,” they were covered with white robes, and they received the Lord’s Supper for the first time. Liturgical scholar Gordon Lathrop has suggested that Mark intended his ancient church readers to see a symbolic connection between this white-robed youth and such newly baptized Christians.

I like this idea. It works, because God’s time is not linear. God’s time moves in spirals, in and out, above and around the day-by-day pace of chronological time. So why not a time-traveling messenger from the not-yet-existent church, going “Back to the Future” to encourage the women at the empty tomb? How appropriate that a representative  of the unimaginable future points them toward their own “back to the future” journey: “Go…[for] he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”

To go to Galilee is to return to the place the disciples first encountered Jesus, to go home to the place God’s kingdom reality broke into their world in Jesus’ healing and teaching, Jesus’ presence and purpose.

And how appropriate that this white-robed youth also travels to the future inviting us, today’s disciples, to return to Galilee. The story doesn’t end at Ch. 16. Turn the pages back to Ch. 1, where Mark’s readers first encounter Jesus: “Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God.” Read the story again, after the cross and the tomb, with post-resurrection eyes.

Soon you’ll see, the story doesn’t end at all! Easter is not the end but a new beginning;  the tomb is a birthplace from which new life ripples out in expanding spirals of God’s time. Mark’s story has become your story, our story, and the Risen Christ is faithful to his promises. He is out ahead of you in your daily life, and you will see him there, as you return to the roots of your discipleship, studying and praying, worshiping and being nourished in Christ’s body and blood.

Maybe that’s why you’ve come to church this morning. You’ve come home to Galilee, to encounter again the Risen Lord in this place, in these people, in your own heart as you hear the preposterous news again.  Friends, it’s hard to keep faith on our own. We need past, present, and future witnesses to encourage our faith through both death and resurrection. Today, we are sent to one another, like the white-robed youth, sent to every seemingly lifeless place in the world to share the Easter message. We are sent, on behalf of our sisters who could not speak to shout the news with joyful confidence. “He has been raised. He is not here. He is going ahead of you.”

Alleluia! Alleluia! Amen.

Notes: To the best of my recollection, I heard the suggestion from Gordon Lathrop came from a lecture or sermon at the “Walking Wet” conference at Austin Seminary in 2005.

I am also indebted to Anna Carter Florence, who I am quoting in the comment, “If dead things don’t stay dead…”

Poured Out: Sermon by Keith, 1.12.14, Baptism of the Lord A

Scripture Readings: Isaiah 42:1-9, Matthew 3:13-17

Rodger Nishioka shares a story of a ninth grader who just finished confirmation at his church.[1]  Kyle and his family had attended Rodger’s church sporadically since they moved to the area when Kyle was in the fifth grade.  But when the invitation to join in the confirmation class was given to Kyle, Rodger was surprised at the enthusiasm in which Kyle and his family gave in saying yes.  They all came to the orientation and agreed to the covenant to participate in two retreats, a mission activity, work with a mentor, and weekly gatherings for study and exploration.  And Kyle flourished!  Kyle rarely missed a class and was always engaged in the conversations.  He developed some wonderful relationships with the other youth in the group that he hardly knew.  And since Kyle hadn’t been baptized, on that Pentecost Sunday that the confirmands came before the church, he was baptized.  As Rodger puts it, “It was a marvelous celebration for all the confirmands, their families, their mentors, and the entire church.”

But then Kyle disappeared.  The party was over and he was gone.  Rodger knew something had gone wrong.  After a bit of time, he checked in with Kyle and his family.  They were all a little surprised that they were receiving a check in from the pastor.  Roger recalls the mother’s words, “Oh, well, I guess I thought Kyle was all done.  I mean, he was baptized and confirmed and everything.”  And Rodger knew something had been missed.  He realized that for Kyle, and many people, they think that the baptism of the infant or the young adult or the adult is the culminating activity of faith, and that we are all done.

Jesus’ baptism gives us a chance to exam and explore our own baptisms.  In our day and age, typically baptism has been boiled down to dealing with our sinful nature.  We hear the radio preacher cry out, “Repent from your sins and be baptized!”  But Jesus clearly had no need to repent from his sins.  John loudly cried out “Repent!” to those crowds on the banks of the Jordan River.  “Repent because the kingdom of God was at hand.”  John is proclaiming something bigger than just sins.  The Greek word that we see just previously before this passage to describe John’s baptism is the word metanoia, and it suggests a transformation or turning of the whole heart and mind and even of the body.  This turning can and does involve sin, but it is more than just that.  For Jesus, there is a turning from one direction to another.  Up to this point, he had been a carpenter in Nazareth, and that was his identity in the eyes of that community.  But Jesus had another identity, an identity given to him before the foundations of the world, an identify God affirms at Jesus’ baptism when we hear the voice from the heavens boom and Spirit descend like a dove.  “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  In his baptism, Jesus was turning toward this God given identity of Beloved Son and embracing his relationship with God the Father through the Holy Spirit.

In Matthew, the baptism of Jesus is not the end.  He didn’t go back home and tell his mom, Mary, about his swim in the Jordan with Cousin John and then head back for the workshop.  It may have marked the end of his identity as a carpenter in Nazareth, even though I can imagine he may have picked up a hammer now and then, but it marked the beginning, the launching, of his ministry.  It is his commissioning to begin the public ministry for which he was created and to which he is called.  Surely, Jesus’ identity is confirmed in his baptism, but we know that personal identity isn’t a static thing.  Identity is also about purpose.  Being claimed as God’s beloved means that Jesus has been called to be and do the will of God in the world.  And we even see this in Jesus as his identity as God’s Beloved grows throughout his public ministry.

Friends, whether you were baptized as a squiggling baby in the arms of a preacher you don’t remember, as a young adult on a Pentecost Sunday after weeks of a confirmation class, or as someone who has years of hard living showing in gray hairs and deep lines in the face, you have an identity given to you by God.   Whether you are a student, a cook, a farmer, a doctor, or lawyer or retired, if you have no letters of credentials after your name, or a whole trail of them that you have to use the back side of your business card to list them, you have a deeper, truer identity.  That identity is from God and given by God and is formed by God.  Friends, you are the beloved children of God.  (Here I think I will stop and say, “__________, you are God’s beloved daughter.”  “_______, you are God’s beloved son.”) And this identity as God’s beloved supersedes any titles you have earned or degrees that it took years to get.  Because you don’t earn God’s love.  You can’t earn it.  It is freely given as a gift of grace from God because God is more interested in a relationship with you than he is in the titles and accolades that the world my push you to get.

In his baptism, Jesus receives both affirmation of his identity and receives his commission for ministry in the world.   Jesus gives everything—his dreams and deeds, his labors and his life itself. Jesus gives himself to God’s people, taking his place with hurting people.  And so do we, both as individuals and as a community.  Our commission is different and the same as Jesus’ commission.  We are not Jesus, we are his disciples.  In following him and his example found in his baptism, we cannot make ourselves comfortable, cannot do only what will be appreciated, and cannot be satisfied with the way things are.  Our baptisms demand that we struggle with what’s right and what’s wrong, what’s important and what’s not.  The children of God tell the truth in a world that lies, give in a world that takes, love in a world that lusts, make peace in a world that fights, serve in a world that wants to be served, pray in a world that waits to be entertained, and take chances in a world that worships safety. The baptized are citizens of a community where financial success is not the goal, security is not the highest good, and sacrifice is a daily event.

And that means there will be no guarantee about what will happen next.  For Jesus, he spent the next 40 days in the wilderness, I believe, discerning what it meant to be God’s child, hungry, lost, and being tempted.  Coming out of the water’s of baptism does not provide a special protective layer from the powers and threats of the world.  If anything, being claimed as a child of God will make us more of a target of the pain and suffering the world can throw at us.  That can be seen in the life and ministry of Jesus.  He spends all the days and years that follow that afternoon in the Jordan discovering the meaning of his baptism as he lives into his relationship with God the Father as he heals, preaches, teaches, and shares the love of God with those he meets.  And that journey leads him to a cross.  He dies because he takes his baptism seriously. When Jesus cries on the cross, “It is finished,” it is at that moment that his baptism is complete.

When Rodger Nishioka had a chance to sit down with Kyle and his parents, he tried better to explain what had been missed, how Kyle’s baptism wasn’t the end, but just the beginning.  He shared with the family that not just Kyle was missed by the church, but that people wondered what happened to the entire family.  He explained that Kyle’s mentor hoped to be able to continue the relationship they had built and his friends hoped to continue doing ministry and having fellowship with him.  Roger apologized for himself and the entire church community for not doing a very good job of conveying what baptism was.  “Kyle’s baptism and confirmation was not simply about his profession of faith,” Roger shared.  “It is about his continuing to grow in his understanding of what God is calling him to do as he lives out his identity as a child of God.”

My brothers and sisters in Christ, if you are not baptized, I’d invite you to come talk with Laura or me about being baptized and acknowledging your true identity from the one who has claimed you.  Let the journey begin.  I can’t guarantee that it will be safe, but I can tell you it won’t be boring.  And if you are baptized, I invite you to remember your baptism and where your baptismal journey has brought you so far.  The journey isn’t over.  It continues every day of your life.

Amen.


[1] This story of Kyle is shared in Rodger Nishioka’s commentary in Feast on the Word, Year A, Volume 1, pages 236-240.