“To Infinity and Beyond!” Sermon by Laura, 5.5.2013, Easter 6, Resurrection Stories Series

Texts: Matthew 28:1-20, Jeremiah 31:1-6

In Pixar’s 1995 movie Toy Story, When a boy named Andy receives a Buzz Lightyear action figure as a birthday present,  Andy’s other toys have mixed feelings, especially Woody, a floppy toy cowboy, who finds himself displaced from his position as Andy’s favorite by the newcomer. But Woody soon realizes that Buzz does not know he is a toy. Buzz truly believes himself to be a space explorer, sent by star command to discover new planets. Trying to poke holes in Buzz’s delusions of grandeur, when Buzz shows off his spacesuit’s wings, Woody says, “Those are plastic. He can’t fly.”

Buzz responds, “They are a trillium-carbonic alloy, and I can fly.”

“No, you can’t.”

“Yes, I can.”

“Can’t, can’t, ca-an’t!”

“I tell you, I could fly around this room with my eyes closed!”

“Okay, Mr. Lightbeer,” taunts Woody, who now thinks Buzz is a little crazy, “prove it.”

“All right then, I will.”[i]

Spreading his arms, eyes closed, Buzz launches himself from Andy’s bed, intrepidly declaring, “To Infinity and Beyond!” As the other toys watch, Buzz nosedives into a beach ball, which bounces him up to the ceiling, serendipitously hooking him up to a plane on a mobile, which spins him around at ever-increasing speed until he is finally propelled through the air back toward the bed, on which he lands feet first, right next to Woody. Buzz opens his eyes and says, triumphantly, “Can!”

“To Infinity and Beyond!” is Buzz Lightyear’s mission statement. When we first meet him, he believes himself fully able to carry it out.  I wonder if the disciples, receiving their mission from the risen Jesus at the conclusion of our reading from Matthew’s gospel, feel the same.

This scene has become known in Christian tradition as “The Great Commission.” Doesn’t that title have a majestic sound to it? Doesn’t it seem like Jesus should be standing there, looking like the “Pantocrator, ”[ii] the all-powerful ruler of cathedral iconography, haloed in golden glory, hand extended in blessing, saying, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me,” his voice booming out and echoing across the vastness of eternity, a vast multitude receiving his words in solemn splendor?

But stepping back from the grandeur of tradition, the text gives us a different picture. There is no multitude waiting on Jesus, gravely accepting a commission of greatness. There is only a rag-tag band of disciples. As Thomas G. Long points out, “The scene is one of near-comic irony… Jesus is on an unnamed mountain in the backwater Galilee with a congregation of eleven, down from twelve the week before, and even some of them are doubtful and not so sure why they have come to worship this day.”[iii]  They are a fragmented group of people, with mixed motives and uncertain convictions. Any delusions of grandeur they might have previously have been pulled out from under them when their leader was arrested and executed. Few of them have forgotten their own shame in abandoning Jesus to death on the cross.

Nevertheless, it is to these people that the Risen Christ appears. It is to these people that he gives the Great Commission:  “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations…” Keep in mind that the word “nations” in the Bible doesn’t mean “nation-states” as we might imagine, but rather “foreigners,” or more pointedly, “Gentiles.”[iv] The disciples were Jews who knew the scriptures, how God has promised Abraham that one day even the alien Gentiles would come to worship Israel’s God. But as Tom Long notes, “like a lot of things in the Bible, this was a truth easier to swallow when it was a nice thought in the prayer book, rather than something you were expected to strap on your boots and get done.”[v]

The gospel of Matthew ends before we get to hear the disciples’ exact response. I imagine some were inspired and caught up in the moment, ready to take action. But that inspiration was surely mixed up with their misgivings. The Great Commission must have sounded “great,”as in bigger than anything they’d imagined and well-nigh impossible to carry out. Jesus may as well have told them, “You must go to infinity and beyond!”

And how do we react to the Great Commission we’ve been given? The challenges we face in making disciples are quite different than the first disciples experienced. For one thing, we have the blessing and curse of 2000 years of Western Christianity to contend with. We must be aware of the ways these words have been used and abused. The Great Commission has been the missionary slogan of the past century, fueling North American and European efforts at converting, and not so incidentally, colonizing the two-thirds world in the ways of “Christian” civilization, sometimes by violent means. Closer to home, these words have also fueled efforts of well-meaning Christians in evangelizing unbelievers. Many of us know folks alienated from the church by overly coercive attempts at conversion. It’s not surprising that we lack confidence in our ability to make disciples with integrity.

Now, forgive me for returning again to Toy Story, especially if you’ve never seen the movie, though in that case I highly recommend you check it out. But I just couldn’t stop thinking about Buzz Lightyear.  In the scene I recounted, he certainly proves he has courage, but, as Woody observes, it wasn’t so much flying as it was “falling with style.” Buzz simply gave himself with a blind sort of faith, into the arms of serendipitous grace. And the blindness of overconfidence becomes a liability. Later on in the story, Buzz loses his sense of mission and descends into a depression when he comes to a full awareness of the limitations of his true identity.  He almost resigns himself to being destroyed when he encounters real danger.

And I think that we, the church, have sometimes found ourselves in a similar funk. Some scholars are calling the era we live in “The Great Unraveling”—Gotta love all these “Greats!”—for the way all our commonly-held stories and ideas about authority have been coming apart in a storm of technological, economic, and cultural changes. Many “mainline” churches, so-called because they were usually founded on the main streets of America, used to experience themselves as established powers in society.

But in these times, we often feel sidelined. We thought we knew how to make disciples, and we work harder and harder at things which used to work to draw people into our congregations. Still, our denomination faces “decline”.  Just like Buzz Lightyear, we had thought of ourselves as having superior action capabilities. Maybe we thought that we have attained “trillium-carbonic alloy” worship services and quick-action teaching, or maybe we assumed our beautiful buildings and decent and orderly governance were enough to make us an attractive congregation.

But maybe we had actually lost sight of our true limitations and our true mission.  For while the continued pursuit of excellence is certainly important, the church has sometimes forgotten that we are not really called to “fly” so much as we are invited to fall with style into the forgiving embrace of God in Jesus Christ, and glide on the uplifting wind of the Spirit. We have forgotten to rely completely on the purpose, presence and power of God.

Now, bear with me as I put a few more “greats” out there, but I like how preacher John Jewell observes that Jesus doesn’t just give a “Great Commission,” without also giving us a “Great Claim” and a “Great Comfort.” [vi] The Great Claim, is that Jesus, the one who gave himself up to death on a cross and was raised three days later, has, in fact, been given all authority on heaven and on earth. This is the One who commissions us to carry out his commands. Our native abilities will inevitably fail us, but the power he gives will never fail.

We know this because of the Great Comfort: this One who contains all the power of the universe in human form, this Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, tells us, “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” John Jewell notes that “The English here is anemic compared to the Greek text. The force is more like ‘And GET THIS…I am with you day in and day out until My purpose is fulfilled and earthly history comes to an end.”  Jesus is telling us: I will go with you to infinity and beyond.

At the end of Toy Story, Woody helps Buzz come to a clearer picture, that his mission is to be a toy, not a solo space ranger, a toy who is a gift of joy to a growing child. Holding to that purpose, with a clearer sense of his true gifts, his true limitations, Buzz finds new courage, giving and receiving grace amidst the community of fellow toys. At the conclusion of Toy Story, we find Buzz Lightyear rescuing Woody, using his wings to glide to a safe landing back with the other toys. “Buzz, you’re flying!” Woody says, astonished, but Buzz replies, “That isn’t flying—it’s falling with style.”

My friends, when we put our sole confidence in the Great Claim and the Great Comfort of God in Jesus Christ and in the Holy Spirit, we are able to pursue the Great Commission. And in that context, is truly great. It is the invitation to embark on the “greatest possible adventure life can offer.”[vii]

But let’s be clear: our mission is not to “make converts” or “save people for Jesus” ideas which I think put a little too much confidence in human abilities. Jesus is the one who transforms others’ lives.  Our mission as Christ’s disciples is simply to “make disciples,” to invite others to come and meet this One who has transformed us, to invite others to join the life-long pilgrimage of learning we ourselves are taking. Each of us in the church are but students ourselves, learning by trial and error, by bold action, confession, and repentance, to walk in Jesus’ ways. In our time, most of us won’t have to travel too far to meet someone we’re called to invite on this journey!

Yet in other ways, the challenges are indeed great, for as we grow in our discipleship of Jesus Christ, as we ourselves learn to obey Jesus and teach what we have learned, we will find ourselves exploring the deepest, most hidden terrain of the human heart—our own, and others’—surmounting all the barriers of irreconcilable differences, forgiving and receiving forgiveness, giving of ourselves more and more fully in Christ’s love, traveling to the infinite depths and heights of resurrection life.

“To infinity and beyond!” Let us fall with style and follow with confidence in the Love of God the Father, the Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the Communion of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[iii] Thomas G. Long, “Homiletical Perspective” on Matt.28:16-20 in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 3, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011, 47.

[iv] Thomas G. Long, 47.

[v] Thomas G. Long, 47.

Can I Have a Witness? Sermon by Keith, Easter 4, 4.28.13

 Text: Luke 24:36-49

Can I have a witness?  No, I’m not going to break into the Marvin Gaye song, but I want to ask you a couple questions before we read this morning’s resurrection story.  Since we have several legal types in our congregation, I think this will be a fun conversation.  What is a witness?  What is a witness supposed to know?  Have you ever been a witness to an event that you just had to share?  What’s the problem with witnesses?

One of the definitions I like for witness is “A witness is someone who has, who claims to have, or is thought, by someone with authority to compel testimony, to have knowledge relevant to an event or other matter of interest.”  That sums things up pretty good, I think.  Now, keep that definition in the back of your mind as we read this morning’s text.  This text comes right on the heels of the road to Emmaus story, when Cleopas and his companion have rushed back to Jerusalem to share their encounter with the risen Lord, an encounter that took place over the breaking of the bread.  Hear these words of our Lord…

(Read text.)

The disciples were gathered in fear and confusion the evening we find them.  That is understandable, their leader was dead and his body was missing.  But reports were swirling that people had seen him.  The women at the tomb claimed they spoke with an angel that said Jesus had been raised from the dead!  He had been in the home of two of their own in Emmaus.  What did all this mean?  In the midst of this chaos and confusion, out of nowhere, Jesus himself appeared!  “Peace be with you!”  Followed by, “Now, don’t freak! Let’s eat!”  It was the same Jesus that they knew and had followed, but he was different.  He seemed normal, natural, the way they had come to know him from before. 

But his appearance was anything but normal or expected.  Jesus had been laid in the tomb, dead.  Earthly powers seemed to have triumphed over him and his message.  The religious leaders had charged him with blasphemy and won.  The Roman governor ordered him to the cross and the soldiers had treated him as a common criminal.  Even God seemed silent that day.  Where were the angels or the surprise witness coming in at the last moment to change the verdict?  Per the powers that be, Jesus got what he deserved, end of story.

But it wasn’t the end of the story.  God did have something to say to the religious leaders, the Roman Empire, and even sin and death.  None of them will have the final word in this story.  Truth be told, the story wasn’t even about them.  It was and is about God and will always be about God and God’s love for humanity and creation.  As Barbara Essex says it, “The ugliness of crucifixion gave way to the power of resurrection.”

When he was back with his disciples, Jesus didn’t go into the facts of the resurrection nor did he provide the play-by-play of his whereabouts those three days.  But what he did go into brought his entire ministry full circle.  Since the beginning of Luke, we learn that Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s plan for all of creation.  And from the beginning of his ministry, Jesus taught about God’s plan for creation and commissioned his followers to live into that plan.  Jesus’ whole life, death, and resurrection were about what God is doing in the world.    And Jesus points this out in scripture.  From the beginning, through the prophets and the Psalms, God’s history has always been about God and God’s purposes, aim, and agenda for creation.  God is reconciling people and creation to himself and each other so forgiveness and wholeness can be experienced.  And in Christ, God’s reconciling act has been fulfilled and continues to be fulfilled with those who witness him.

Jesus opens the scriptures for the disciples, to teach them to put their fears and doubts in the context of what God is doing.  And then he commissions them as witnesses of all that God is doing in the world.  They are now ready to be credible, reliable witnesses in Jerusalem and the world because of what they know and what they have seen.  They have a pretty good authority who sends them and compels them to testify on behalf of God’s love for the world:  The Risen Lord! They can point to God’s love by pointing to the one God raised from the dead.  They can be witnesses to God’s reconciliation in the world by witnessing to the one who triumphed over the tomb.  God’s work begins and continues in the resurrection.

Friends, when we witness the Risen Lord, when we have an encounter with him, he calls us to be a witness with and for him to the world.  But to be a witness, you have to know what you are witnessing, you have to see what is going on around you!  There was an experiment done where people was asked to be involved in an experiment.  But the actual research was happening before anyone realized they were involved.  People who said yes to being part of this experiment entered a room, went to a desk, and were given a release form to sign by a man standing behind the desk.  This man explained what to do, took the signed release form and bent over to file it, out of sight for just a second.  But the man who stood back up was a totally different person, an obviously different man.  He had a different hair cut, different colored shirt, different height.  When asked about what they did and saw when they entered the room, over 75% of the people involved never realized the man at the desk changed.  They were too caught up in their own stuff to even notice the person in front of them.

When we are caught up in our own stuff, we won’t notice the Risen Lord in front of us.  Jesus wants us to take our own fears and doubts and put them in the context of what God is doing.  He doesn’t say to forget about them, but he wants you to realize that something bigger is going on, that God is at work, that God is redeeming, healing and reconciling.  That’s when we will recognize the Risen Lord in our midst.  When we open scripture, we will witness him and his reconciling love.  When we gather as a community of faith, we will see him and experience his saving grace.  When a hand is stretched out to stranger in need, we will see Christ in their eyes.  Because wherever inhumanity and hopelessness exists, Jesus shows up to offer comfort, assurance, and reconciliation.  And it is there that the Risen Lord invites us to be his witnesses in our actions as well as our words to all that is about God and God’s intention for peace, love, compassion, justice and mercy to a world that is broken and sinful. 

Friends, where is it in our community that needs the presence of the risen Christ?  What is our response as a church to Christ’s presence with us?  What is our response to God’s reconciling work in the world?    No matter how we answer those questions, Christ commissions us.  By his authority, he sends us out as his witnesses to declare the presence and power of God in the midst of tragedy and death.  And tragedy and death have not triumphed over God.  God aims to redeem creation and us in light of the resurrection, and it is in Christ that we become part of God’s plan of redemption.

“Can I have a witness?”  Christ says yes; and here we are.

Into the Fire: Sermon by Laura, 4.21.13 Easter 3 Resurrection Stories

Text: Luke 24:13-35

Did you ever have a week you just couldn’t get a song out of your head? No, I don’t mean “Beer with Jesus” that Keith quoted last week! The one stuck in my head begins like this:

“The sky was falling and streaked with blood
I heard you calling me, then you disappeared into the dust
Up the stairs, into the fire
Up the stairs, into the fire
I need your kiss, but love and duty called you someplace higher
Somewhere up the stairs, into the fire.”

That’s Bruce Springsteen’s song, “Into the Fire,” written in honor of the New York firefighters who gave their lives on September 11, 2001. This song surfaced for me this week as I tried to take in the news of the bombings at the Boston Marathon and the explosion at the fertilizer plant in West, Texas. Alongside the stories of the survivors and the suspects, we have heard many stories about people who responded immediately, doing whatever they could to help out someone nearby. Like those firefighters in 9-11, who willingly went up the stairs everyone else was trying to get down, the first responders this week ran not away from, but toward the fire; some of them gave up their lives.

But when we first meet Cleopas and his anonymous companion in our scripture this morning, they are walking away from the disaster of Jesus’ crucifixion. We’ll give them a little credit—they had waited in Jerusalem as long as they thought they could on “the third day” after Jesus’ crucifixion, the day he had prophesied he would be raised from the dead. With the others, when the women came from the tomb they had heard the strange tale of the angels saying that Jesus was alive. No one really knew what to make of it.

But nothing further of note had occurred that long day of watching and waiting, and the sun was setting. It was not prudent to be on the road in the dark. So, turning from the city long central to Israel’s hopes, the city which was now the place their hope had been put to death, they slog the seven miles to Emmaus, seeking familiar, safe walls when the utter finality of their disappointment falls upon them.

Of all the characters in the gospel’s resurrection stories, I identify most with Cleopas and his companion. Last weekend, I had the privilege of accompanying some women from our congregation to a convocation in Seattle. We heard some tremendous speakers, women who have given of themselves courageously pursuing peace and justice. Particularly inspiring was Valarie Kaur, a young Indian-American woman, who had gathered stories of the racial violence which had occurred after 9-11 and created a film, “Divided We Fall,” which brought many of these unheard stories to public attention. As she spoke, our hearts were burning with both heartache and joy. It was the kind of story which made you want to get up and do something. It felt like an encounter with the Risen Christ!

Have you ever had such an experience? I hope you have. But maybe then you also know the tension of coming home. As we drove, my companions and I pondered how the speakers’ witness would affect the lives to which we were returning, a struggle between conviction and cynicism began inside me. What significance, what impact, could such an encounter really have on us, with all our mundane challenges of jobs and families and children? None of us could just charge off from such responsibilities to do anything like what she had done, could we?  And I wondered, was there really any way,we could transmit the fire of those speakers to our little old church community back in La Grande?  It seemed to me, just a bit, that we were driving away from the fire; by the time we arrived home, would it have gone out?

I hope you are not too confused by the different ways I am using “fire” as a symbol. I think that’s part of the brilliance of Springsteen’s song—that “fire” can mean a dangerous conflagration which must be extinguished to save life, even as it can also symbolize the hope, the energy of our life-force, the sacred spark of God’s image within us, the holiness at the heart of life.

Fire, for Christians, is an image of the Holy Spirit, as we will remember again when we hear the Pentecost story. Fire symbolizes the church’s burning awareness that, in Christ, we are made into a holy people sent to share the good news. We are anointed by fire to go into the fire.

But we are not there yet. Today’s story happens between Easter and Pentecost, between the resurrection of Jesus and the commissioning of the church. It happens in the middle of Luke Chapter 24, in the middle of the road, right in the mundane muddy middle of life where most us of live much of the time. It is a place where we are often faced with difficult choices.

Which fires must be dampened for life to flourish and which ones are calling us “some place higher?” The truth is that any fire has its dangers and we are right to fear getting burned.  Impulsively throwing oneself into every fire can certainly lead to “burn-out!” Sometimes it just makes the most sense to retreat, regroup, and reassess what God is calling us to do.

But the good news is that something happens when Cleopas and his companion are in the middle of that uncertain, uninspiring road. A stranger comes alongside of them. First, he asks them questions, draws out their sad, sad stories. And then, the stranger tells them a story—the story—opening up the bigger picture, connecting their little lives to the greater pattern.

We don’t know specifically what scriptures Jesus used, but whenever we gather here in this place we are also remembering those old stories, how God creates life from chaos, how God delivers a people from slavery to freedom, how God brings a renewed people home from exile. How, again and again, out of suffering and death again and again, God raises new life. How Jesus was crucified and buried so that we might enter into new life with him.

Now, the narrator has let us know the stranger is Jesus, but isn’t it interesting that Cleopas and companion cannot recognize him, not until that moment when they’ve asked him to stay, and they’ve gathered together around the table, and he takes that blessed bread and breaks it open to give it to them.

“Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him.” we often say in the Invitation to the Lord’s Supper. Recognition of who he is and opening to receive him are part of the grace we experience whenever we take communion. There is something about breaking open the bread which breaks us open to see Jesus wondrously alive, right here with us, he himself who was blessed and broken and given for us and for the sake of the world.

And while we celebrate the birth of the church in the fires of Pentecost, perhaps the church is first born around the hearth of that table, broken open with the bread.[1] For there is no doubt that something changes in those disciples when they recognize Jesus, when they receive the bread he gives. To consume it is to be consumed by the same holy power, the same holy pattern, which shaped Jesus’ way in the world: taken, blessed, broken, given.

That is why, I think, when Jesus vanishes from their sight, they do not grieve this time, but instead, they get up and get back on the road. It is even darker now on that road, but somehow, it seems, they run back to Jerusalem in no time at all.

“May your strength give us strength, May your faith give us faith,

May your hope give us hope, May your love give us love…”

In his song about the firefighters, Springsteen repeats that refrain over and over again. It’s a prayer to partake of the same Spirit which empowers anyone who is called to enter the fires of this world in the service of life. I believe it expresses well why we are here today. This is a place we come off of that muddy road for a moment; we stop here and share the old stories with one another, breaking our own lives open anew in the shape of that pattern. And then we share a meal, the bread and the cup of Christ’s purpose, presence, and power, consuming Christ’s life and energy and fire again so that we ourselves may be given to the world as holy sacrament. My friends, in Jesus Christ, we are being shaped to be first responders in all the killing fires of a world that does not yet recognize life has won.

Soon we will go back out on that road, changed and ready to run back to Jerusalem or wherever disaster has struck, wherever injustice seems to have ruled the day, wherever violence or unkindness or isolation or imprisonment has seemed to have conquered. Every single one of us has countless opportunities to do this no matter how mundane daily life might sometimes appear. A kind word, a prayer, a helping hand in a time of need, a meal shared with a stranger: Let yourself be taken, blessed, broken and given.

And…May Christ’s strength give us strength, may Christ’s faith give us faith, may Christ’s hope give us hope, may Christ’s love give us love.