Resurrection…Now!

Scripture: Luke 20:27-38

I have an interesting history with this passage.  It seems to pop up now and again in theological conversations I’ve had with people over the last several years.  One of those conversations was just an out of the blue phone call I received when I was sitting in the office.  “First Presbyterian Church of La Grande.  This is Keith, how may I help you?”  “You a pastor?”  Since I was kind of shocked at abruptness of the question, it took me a second to answer, “Yes, yes, I’m a pastor.”  “Well, my friend and I are having an argument.  He says angels are male.  I say they are female.  Who’s right?”  I’d never been asked a question like this before, so I had to think for a second, but this passage came to mind.  “Did you ever consider that angels are neither male nor female?  There is this passage in the Bible that talks about how in the resurrection we will become like the angels.  There is no longer any marriage or death.  When you read it, there is a subtle, possible implication in this passage that angels aren’t sexual beings, but created as eternal beings with no sexual identity.”  After a pause, I get a, “Well, that doesn’t do me any good” with a click on the line.

Actually, there is a lot in this passage that doesn’t really do us any good if we get stuck on them, like are angels male or female.  But if we start with the end of the passage, where the good news rests, it will make this passage come alive and have an impact on our lives and probably make us ask different questions.  The good news of this text is that God is not the God of the dead, but the God of the living.  Say that with me, God is not the God of the dead, but the God of the living.

So, keep that in mind as we start working on this passage.  We hear a lot in scripture about the Pharisees.  This is the first and only place in Luke where the Sadducees show up.  Just like today, there are different camps that believe different things about who God is and what God is up to in the world.  And one of the arguments between these two groups was “what is authoritative scripture.”  Basically, the Sadducees believed that only the first five books of the Bible, the books of Moses, had any say in the theological life of the Jewish people.  Since Moses makes no comment about an afterlife, there is no afterlife.  To the Sadducees, when you died, you were dead.  No heaven, no hell, no resurrection, just the grave.  This life was the only one you are given.

But the Pharisees believed that God revealed the divine will not only in the books of Moses, but continued to speak to and through God’s people in their changing circumstances.  So as time went by, the Psalms, the prophets, the history of Israel as we have now in most of our Old Testament became authoritative to the Pharisee camp.  And from this new understandings of God’s promises evolved.  Like the resurrection of the body  You find a bit of an understanding for it over here in Daniel, and in a few versus in Ezekiel and the Psalms, and the prophet Isaiah writes poetic lines about being bodily present in presence of God.  So they took this understanding of resurrection and looked at what was happening around them in the culture.  Here is what they saw:  The righteous suffered and the wicked seemed to prosper and they knew that a just God wouldn’t let that be the final word.  From scripture, they concluded that God would raise the dead and the righteous would receive their reward and perhaps the wicked would be raised to receive punishment.  Most of the general population believed in the day of resurrection and so did Jesus.  And this teaching drove the Sadducees mad.

That’s the background of this scene between Jesus and Sadducees. It starts off with this crazy question about this women’s married life that speaks to some of the laws in the first five books of the bible.  And we can’t get stuck here.  Their goal in setting up this extreme example was to put Jesus on the spot.  The crowds would see just how brainless such a belief was.  How can the dead be raised, the Sadducees say, if those who are raised aren’t even able to tell who is married to whom?

Since we are going to focus on the good news of this passage, that God is not the God of dead, but the God of the living, Jesus’ response not only affirms the life after death experienced in the resurrection but also goes on to briefly teach about what that life will be like.

First, since God is a God of the living, life on earth and life after death are not alike.  The resurrected life will not just be an extension or repeat of this life, thank God!  We experience death and decay here.  In the resurrection, we will be totally in the presence of the living God, completely enveloped in his presence and death and pain will be destroyed and all tears will be wiped away.

Second, there will be no marriage in the age to come.  For some of you, that might be a relief.  For others, you might be heart broken.  You love your spouse.  Again, God is a God of the living.  Jesus doesn’t say we won’t know our present spouse in the age of the resurrection, but rather that our relationship will be different.  I love Laura.  I love Laura with all my heart.  But we don’t have a perfect marriage.  I thank God everyday that she is able to forgive me for my screw ups.  But I can celebrate the fact that in the new life of the resurrection that my relationship with her will be so transformed that it will go beyond marriage.  But that also includes my relationships with you, too!  No one will be less than the other, no one will be greater than the other, but we will be focused on God.  In the Message, Eugene Peterson says it this way:  All ecstasies and intimacies then will be with God.

Third, there is no death.  All these rules about what happens when you die and keeping blood lines don’t matter any longer.  God is a God of the living, no more death, the resurrected will be like the angels in heaven, eternally serving, praising, and living in the presence of the living God.  Now it doesn’t say the resurrected become angels, but are like them, no longer experiencing death because God is the God of the living.  Our existence and nature becomes fully alive in the presence of God.

But in all these points, Jesus is debunking their argument based upon scripture outside of the books of Moses. This argument holds no water for the Sadducees.  But Jesus then turns to the book of Exodus to say, and again I’m quoting Peterson:  Even Moses exclaimed about resurrection at the burning bush, saying, “‘God: God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob!’ God isn’t the God of dead men, but of the living.  To him all are alive.”  Now, this is really exciting and really hard to put our heads around.  Here’s why:  God, in defining Godself, uses the relationship experienced with these patriarchs of the faith to say who he is.  And God uses the present tense:  I am currently the God of Abraham, not I was the God of Abraham whom I dearly miss.  In this argument about the resurrection, Jesus is saying that to God, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are alive in the presence of God.  And to say that they are living, it is necessary to conclude that they have been resurrected.  Don’t ask me how this works, because you can go visit the graves of the patriarchs today.  Their bones are in the dirt!  The best way I’ve been able to even attempt to grasp this is in a lecture I heard Tom Long give he said that when we die, we enter God’s time, eternal time, resurrection time.  If God is the God of the living, in our death, to enter God’s presence, we have to be fully alive, body and soul.  Wow.

So, why does that matter?  I said earlier that believing that God is not God of the dead but God of the living would have a impact on our lives.  Here’s why:  One of the reasons the Sadducees pushed against the teaching of the resurrection was that people who believed it pushed against the status quo.  If this life was all that you had, you will compromise with the powers that be and hold on to all that you can get your hands on.  And guess what?  The Sadducees were the ones who pushed for alliances with the Romans and were generally the wealthiest members of the Jerusalem population.  Don’t rock the boat.  Don’t push back or it might mess with this comfortable life I’ve created.  But what about those who pushed back, who said the Romans shouldn’t be in the temple, who pointed out the wrongs in this life, who demanded justice, who rocked the boat, who said God intended something better for the world he created?   These were the ones the Romans nailed to a cross and they were the ones who believed that they would be resurrected and vindicated by God.  Knowing that we will live fully in the life to come pushes us to live life fully now, not just for ourselves, but for our neighbors and all creation.  We come to the point that lives can be lived with a certain amount of hope, a certain amount of daring in working for justice, a certain amount of adventure, a certain amount of confidence because God is a God of the living.  We don’t have to let the things of this life control us, we don’t have to hoard and hang on, we don’t have give up when the path God is calling us down seems crazy.  God is calling us to live, live the hope of the resurrection today.

So, don’t get stuck on all the details of this passage.  Get stuck on God, for God is not the God of the dead but the God of the living and the promise of resurrected life in this passage invites us to live fully alive with God today.  But at the heart of it all will be a people who live.

God in Christ is making you into his living people by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

(Sermon preached by Rev. Keith Hudson on Nov. 13, 2016 at First Presbyterian Church, La Grande, OR)

 

Only You Know, Lord: Sermon by Keith, 5.24.15 Pentecost B

Scriptures: Acts 2:1-21, Ezekiel 37:1-14

It’s interesting sometimes how the church calendar and the secular calendar lineup sometimes.  Like this well known passage from Ezekiel about dry bones falling on Memorial Day:  A day of memories and cemeteries.  And this definitely had to be a day where Ezekiel’s memories were being stirred up by God.  He had been a young priest in Jerusalem when the Babylonians came, torturing the inhabitants of that holy city with siege warfare.  The two year siege led disease and despair.  They took the city, razed the temple to the ground, killed many who lived there, and forced the brightest and best into exile in Babylon, including Ezekiel.

Now Ezekiel, either by vision or physically being taken up and brought back to his homeland, was being led by the Lord around this wasteland of dry bones.  These are not just any dry bones–they are his people.  Ezekiel remembers their names, their faces.  They were once a dynamic, loving people, the friends and family that he had grown up with.  Even the bones of his young wife lay somewhere among the bone heaps.  He had to have been in despair and probably even angry at God for feeling abandoned or betrayed and forced to face this scene.  His heart was broken.  This was not the kind of homecoming he had in mind.  Why had God left them and allowed this to happen?  The memories of his life, his people, and his temple were brought before him as he is being led through not only his past, but the glorious past of his nation reduced to weathered bones.

You might say that this past week the Holy Spirit led American Christendom through a valley of dry bones as the Pew Research Center released their survey results about faith in America.   Their report was not what most would call good news, but it is a scene we must face. What they reported is that there are now less people affiliated with the Christian Church than ever before as a percentage of the population. The biggest increase was in the “nones, ”and that doesn’t mean Catholic women joining the cloistered life, it means people with no affiliation to a religious group.  And people who said they were affiliated with one of the mainline churches, like the Presbyterian Church, saw some of the biggest declines.

These statistics on paper just solidify what churches have been seeing in reality and feeling in their hearts.  Previously full and dynamic churches now sit mostly empty.  Churches have been responding in anxiety and fear over the loss of membership, the loss of influence in society, a loss of any guiding mission or purpose beyond survival, and a sense that God may have given up on them.  The glory days are long gone.  How is the church to respond in an environment that sees the church as irrelevant and God unnecessary?  Denial, fear, anxiety?

All three of these reactions would be normal.  Looking out over all the bones of loved ones and knowing the history of what created this valley of bleached bones, Ezekiel answered God the only way he could when he was asked, “Mortal, can these bones live?”  Ezekiel knew only bones that only weather and dry out more as time goes by, so he gives God’s question back to God:  “Oh, Lord God, you know.”  And resurrection happens.

One of the most powerful words in all of scripture shows up 10 times in 14 verses.  The Hebrew word ‘ruach’ can be translated breath, but it also means Spirit or wind.  The same word is used at creation when the ruach blew over the formless void and the ruach filled the lifeless lumps of clay that became living humanity.  Ruach happened to these dry bones, breath and Spirit were given, life was given.  Where there was death, now there is life.  Where there was anger, now there is joy.  Where there despair, now there is hope.

And that is what we celebrate this Pentecost: hope.  Ezekiel’s home coming was not about ending back in the land he was from, but the promise of coming home to God.  The Babylonians may have destroyed Jerusalem, the temple, and the land; but they couldn’t destroy God or God’s love of his people.  God wasn’t tied to Jerusalem or the temple, and what Ezekiel learned is that God met up with the people in Babylon.  God was in exile with the Hebrew people in a foreign, strange land.  Things had changed, but what hadn’t changed was God’s love, God’s faithfulness, and God’s power.  God still had plans for his people to experience him and the life giving Holy Spirit in ways they could never dream or understand.

Friends, God is in exile with us, speaking a promise of new life to us.  Things aren’t they same as they were 50, 25, or even 10 years ago.  And that is okay, in fact it may be a good thing.  What may look like destruction and the loss of power and prestige is also an awesome opportunity for God to do something new.  Our hope lies not in ourselves, or in our churches, or our structures, but in the God who can put flesh on dry bones, who can stir imaginations that have forgotten the possibility of new life, who can give us the gift of waiting when we are restless and apathetic, who can, yes, set us free from thinking that we are the only ones responsible for the solutions to our problems.  We want to fix things, but when faced with dry bones, there is nothing that we can fix.  Ezekiel, when faced with a much more hopeless situation than the church faces today, put his hope of restoration and resurrection in the only one who could do it, God’s power in the Holy Spirit.  And only the Spirit of creation has the power to resurrect.

Friends, the promise God gave to Ezekiel is the promise he gives to us, too.  “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live.”  God has promised to bring us home, and in that promise, God’s call on our lives as individuals and as a church is to be faithful, not successful.  And that takes discernment and prayer, waiting for God to give a word of guidance and sometimes a word of prophecy.  It means stepping out in faith to see where the Holy Spirit is moving.  It means offering up the dry bones to God for the breath of restoration and resurrection.  God hasn’t abandoned his church, but is still as faithful and active and loving as he ever has been.   This assurance can underlie all of our living, even when we are in exile.  God can and will find us even in exile, and bring us home to him.  Amen.

I AM the Man: Sermon by Laura, 5.18.14, “I AM” sermon series, Easter 5

Scripture: John 9:1-41

Today I want you to imagine yourselves in the experience of the man born blind. Most of us will find this pretty difficult, because we were born seeing. Some of us can no longer see as well as we used to. There is a sadness in that loss, yet we still have the memory of seeing clearly.

But it’s not so much a state of “loss” for this man as it is an entirely different way of life he must inhabit from those around him. He has had to adapt to a world arranged for sighted people. And in the ancient world, the man’s vocational options are even more limited than they would be today. So, he begs for a living.  It’s how he deals with the life he’s been given.

Let’s imagine him sitting at his usual post, begging cup in hand. He’s using his other four senses to perceive what’s happening around him. The sun feels warm on his face. He hears the footsteps of people walking the dirt path, maybe the sounds of animals. He smells the dust on their clothes and skin.  There are some voices of people approaching. They are talking about him. “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

This is another part of his adaptation to a sighted world. There are always people who think his reality is the result of punishment for errant ways. He copes with a strange mix of pity and judgment from people who don’t know anything else about him. All they can see is his blindness. They don’t even know his name. He is used to it, and he doesn’t expect things to change. He patiently anticipates the clink of coins in his cup.

But just then, there is different kind of voice. “So that God’s works might be revealed in him, we must work the works of him who sent me while it is day,”[i] says a voice with authority, and then there’s the sound of someone spitting. Unexpectedly, the man smells mud, feels warm fingers, gently placing it on his eyes. “Go wash in the pool of Siloam,” says the voice. The man hears and obeys; he goes where he has been sent.

Can you imagine what it was like for him to wash that mud off and be able to see? How dazzling, how overwhelming, to experience light and color for the first time!

In The Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, author Annie Dillard is enthralled by a book about the healing of congenitally blind people. Recounting what she learns, she notes, “The mental effort…proves overwhelming for many patients. It oppresses them to realize, if they ever do at all, the tremendous size of the world, which they had previously conceivedas something touchingly manageable…A disheartening number of them refuse to use their new vision.” A newly sighted twenty-one-year-old girl shuts her eyes to go around the house, and finds her greatest ease by closing her eyelids and relapsing into blindness.[ii]

A whole new reality begins to impress itself on the man. It is a holy moment, a disrupting and confusing one, too.

John’s gospel handles it quickly and matter-of-factly, though. There is much less emphasis put upon this moment than we might expect from our modern medical perspective. But our tendency to focus on the healing formula or technology, what we perceive as the moment that healing occurred, might keep us from attending to the rest of the story, or get us stuck in a narrow focus on Jesus the miraculous physician.

But there is a different purpose to this story. For the man born blind is much more than a moral lesson for passers-by, and he is much more than a “prop” in a scene to demonstrate Jesus’ miraculous powers.[iii] He is a complex human being on a journey of transformation, and the whole journey is the healing miracle.

I think that’s why, after the man goes to wash, Jesus steps out of the scene for a time. For 30 verses, actually. In our class last summer at Tall Timber Ranch, Professor Jeff Keuss pointed out that in no other gospel is Jesus out of the picture for so long. Keuss noted that John’s gospel is probably the latest written, and the gospel-writer lived during a time when Jesus was, in fact, out of the picture. Faith in John’s time, as in ours, meant trusting in a person you’d never actually seen.

But is Jesus completely absent from these verses? Look what happens when the man returns from the pool, now able to see. The people who have known him all his life do not recognize him.  They argue with each other about him, still treating him like a “prop.” Finally he speaks, affirming his identity in spectacular terms: “I AM the man.”

Is this an “I AM” statement? It’s not one we usually recognize as such, because Jesus doesn’t say it. Yet it’s certainly the same language Jesus uses in John to reveal himself as God-with-us. The man uses those same syllables reserved to name the great “I AM.” Could John be telling us that Jesus is not, in fact, absent, but somehow present and exhibited by this man he touched and healed?

It’s clear the man himself received much more than physical sight in his encounter with Jesus. He returns, as one preacher says, “with a sense of mission and self-worth that stuns his neighbors.”[iv] He who was limited to begging has received a calling. This man becomes a seer and a witness, proclaiming the gospel in his own story, as he is called upon to testify again and again. “I was blind, but now I see.” He becomes a “Christian,” a little Christ, as he testifies. “Christians will not be known by their sickness, they will be known by their cure,” said Gregory of Nanzianzus.[v]

Ultimately, the man who can now see also pays the price of being a witness, or to use the Greek, a martyr. His neighbors don’t believe him and take him to the religious authorities at the synagogue, who are themselves divided by his story. His parents testify that he was, in fact, born blind, but they otherwise abandon their child for fear of those religious authorities.

Called in the second time to testify, it seems the man has grown by leaps in his boldness. “Here is an astonishing thing!” he says, and you can almost taste the sarcasm. “You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes…Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” Confessing faith in Jesus Christ, the man is driven out of the synagogue.

It’s a caution for us. New life, resurrection life, a life in Christ Jesus, brings change. Systems are disrupted as individuals, families, and churches come into new ways of seeing the world, into a new reality of Christian discipleship. You whom Christ has touched and called to new mission, purpose, and freedom must be aware you will encounter resistance. You will encounter it in the cultural systems and politics-as-usual of our world, but even more painfully, you will encounter it in those who are closest to you, who want you to maintain the status quo of your old identity. Change in an individual causes ripples throughout family systems. As a congregation welcoming people who need Christ’s touch, we must also be aware that we are prone to offer that resistance if we are too tightly wedded to doing things “the way they’ve always been done.”

But first and foremost, like those newly seeing folks Dillard wrote about, who refused to use their new vision, we will find resistance in ourselves. “How much easier to live with our defined, even if deformed, sense of ourselves and others than to risk the new identity and abundant life Jesus offers,”[vi] notes one author.  Our fear of rejection, our fear of confrontation with the compulsions of our time, can keep us from embracing our resurrection calling in Jesus Christ.

That’s when Jesus comes back on the scene in John’s gospel. He seeks out the newly seeing man, who has been cast out of his primary communities. Jesus the good shepherd, who seeks every lost sheep, comes and confirming the man’s “healing, new identity, and abundant life”[vii] as the man confirms his belief in Jesus the Son of Man, sent by God.

The man is invited into a new community of discipleship, ushered into the fold of the “sheep” who know the shepherd’s voice. “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. “I am the good shepherd,” Jesus says shortly thereafter.[viii] And laying down his life for the sheep, Jesus will pay the ultimate price of rejection from the fold. Three days later, he will be raised.

And at first, Jesus’ closest friends do not recognize him. Mary Magdalene thinks he’s the gardener! But they also will be given the grace of seeing in new ways. Outcasts will be gathered into a new community and given a risky, powerful, and life-giving mission to proclaim what they have seen and heard. “I have seen Jesus!”

Friends, the good news of the gospel is that Jesus has touched us and we are healed. Christ heals us, not just one moment in time, but through a lifetime of transformation. He heals us by giving us his very self. Though we sometimes still struggle with the symptoms of our toxic culture, the anxiety and confusion and despair which mark our times, new life has broken into our world. Christ is giving us new eyes to see how God is at work everywhere, bringing healing and wholeness, how we can be a part of that work, exhibiting Christ’s presence in our own lives.

As we allow Jesus to transform our individual lives, our families, and our congregation, opening us up to the spacious place of God’s loving freedom, we are called to bold witness. Let us proclaim, “I AM the man”; “I AM the woman.” Christ has called us to new, resurrection life! I once was blind, but now I see. Alleluia! Amen!

 

[i] I’m using an interpretive suggestion of D. Mark Davis at http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/

[ii]Annie Dillard, A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, New York: Harper & Row, 1985, 30; on http://www.victorianweb.org/courses/nonfiction/dillard/group3.html; Dillard is quoting from Marius von Senden, Space and sight: the perception of space and shape in the congenitally blind before and after operation,

Free Press, 1960.

[iii] Rev. Duane Steele,  http://day1.org/5640-the_blind_man_who_knew_too_much. Rev. Steele himself was born blind, and his sermon on this text is powerful! I’ve been very influenced by his insights.

[iv] Steele, as above.

[v] As quoted by Jeff Keuss at Tall Timber Ranch Family Camp, June 2013.

[vi] David Lose, http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3123

[vii] David Lose, as above.

[viii] John 10: 10-11

Giving Up Death: Sermon by Keith, 4.20.14 Easter A

Scripture: Colossians 3:1-4Matthew 28:1-10

Every year, Laura and I have some very important discussions about the Easter service.  This is the celebration of the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, the biggest day on the calendar for Christians.  And since we are Presbyterians, we are going to celebrate decently and in order.  Every line of every hymn and song is reviewed for the right theological message, prayers are scrutinized for detail and placement in the service, even, “how does this prayer connect to that banner.”  Everything has its place and time in the service, and by golly, it just better stay that way.

But then there is that (see photo below).

decorating the blooming cross
decorating the blooming cross

That cross is chaos.  I remember standing in front of it the first year we decided to do it thinking, “Now, how will we manage this.”  We talked about inviting children up by age groups.  No, that would take too long.  Maybe we do sections of the sanctuary during verses of a song.  No, that would be too complicated.   How about a lottery?  Numbers 1-20 go first and so forth and so on.  But, who would want to be handed a lottery number when they came in for worship, especially on Easter?  Then I remember saying with great hesitation, “Maybe we will just have to let the congregation have at it.”  And what we saw this morning was crazy: kids shoving and pushing, people trying to sing while flowers are flying.  It was noisy and unruly, very un-Presbyterian.  But look at it.  It is beautiful, more beautiful than I ever could have imagined, more beautiful than I could have done on my own.  Every year, I approach that cross with fear and joy.

And I think our cross helps us get a slight glimpse of what happened that first Easter morning as the women approached the tomb.  Matthew’s version of the empty tomb is filled with the most drama, the most chaos, of all the gospels.  It would be the version with the most special effects if it was a movie.  The earth shook and so did the guards.  Flashes of light more spectacular than the grandest 4th of July fireworks filled the sky as the angel descended.  The women watched in awe as this angel pushes the stone away from the sealed but now empty tomb.  And then he sits atop the stone.  Can you picture him? I picture him excited; more excited than the kids pushing their way to put in a flower on the cross this morning.  “Don’t be afraid!” He says, “Come look!  Something more beautiful than you can imagine is here, something more wonderful than you have ever experienced.  An empty tomb!  Go tell the others that Jesus has been raised from the dead!  He is waiting for you!  He is waiting for them!”

And they ran; they ran with fear and joy from this chaotic scene of lights and angels and earthquakes.  But that fear and joy is good news.  The fear comes from encountering something outside of what’s expected, while the joy comes when that something is so much better, more wonderful, than what was expected.  God had done something huge that day.  In a world that says the dead stay dead, God said, “Enough.”  And the whole fallen cosmos shook.  This wasn’t a scene of chaos for God.  Chaos is no match for God.  In the beginning of Genesis, God breathed the Holy Spirit over the chaos and brought forth life.  From the beginning, our God is a God of life.  And, on that first Easter morning, God brought the cosmos back into the way he had created it; back to the way he had intended.  Truly alive and truly free in resurrection of Jesus Christ.  No wonder the earth shook!  It had been created as a garden where life could flourish, not a cemetery to bury the dead.

But God doesn’t just leave us at the empty tomb.  We have to turn away from it and face the chaos and craziness of our daily existence.  And that is where we find him.  Or, I should say, he finds us.  There is the risen Lord, waiting for us.  That’s the second wonderful part of the resurrection.  We have a God of life and love.  God just didn’t raise Jesus from the dead to show off his power to two innocent bystanders, but gives the resurrected Lord so that we can live our daily lives in a new, loving relationship with him, each other, and all of creation.  He is there.  In the midst of broken relationships and families, there he is, offering forgiveness.  In the shadow of addiction, he is there, offering hope and wholeness.  In the middle of sickness and cancer, there he is, offering healing.  In the middle of war, he comes bringing peace and reconciliation.  Christ is there, drawing us towards God and molding us in his Spirit to be the people we were created to be, truly alive and truly free in him.

Friends, Christ is risen.  And his resurrection was more than a miraculous light show to shock and awe those who had him crucified and those who were his followers.  When Jesus rose, he turned the entire universe on its head.  In his resurrection, death is silenced and all creation is made whole and restored.  God has the final word, and that final word is Jesus.  And it is in Jesus the entire cosmos celebrates.

 

 

Giving Up Our Lives: Sermon by Keith, 4.6.14, Lent 5A

Scriptures: Ezekiel 37:1-14, John 11:28-44

I want everyone to close their eyes.   Now, I want you to picture Jesus.  Does everyone have a picture of Jesus?  Ok, now I want to take one step back from Jesus and picture the scene or setting he is in.  Imagine those things around him.  When you have Jesus in his scene, go ahead and open your eyes.  I’m not going to ask you what Jesus looked like, I’m more concerned about the scene you placed him in.  Who would like to share?

Now, did anyone picture him in a cemetery?  I know I wouldn’t have, I usually picture him teaching.  I know when we usually think of graves and tombs with Jesus, we think of the empty tomb on Easter morning.  And typically Jesus isn’t even in that scene.  Of all the Easter bulletins we looked at that had the stone rolled away from the tomb, Jesus isn’t around.  We don’t picture the two together.  But that is exactly where John puts him this morning:  Right in the middle of a cemetery.  But based upon who Jesus says he is, we shouldn’t be surprised that he is found among the tombstones and crypts.  He is the resurrection and the life.  And we can’t have a resurrection with having a death.  We can’t have new life in Christ unless the old one has been buried and put away.

But to understand what kind of new life Jesus just might be calling us to in the resurrection, I found it really hard to start in the graveyard.  I needed to step back from that scene and move to the edge of tombs and dry bones and peer in with those who were also looking into the graveyard.  Those who are dying have a totally different perspective on life than those who are healthy and active.  Bronnie Ware recently published an article titled, “Nurse Reveals Top 5 Regrets People Make on their Deathbeds.”  As one of the people that was close to those who were in their last few weeks of life, Ware had the privilege of hearing what people felt were their biggest regrets they had in life.   I think that looking at these deathbed regrets in light of the one who is the resurrection and the life, we can turn to Christ and experience life as God intended from the beginning.   Because life with the one who is life and gives life is a life without regrets.

The most common regret that Ware heard from her patients was, “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”  Ware shares that when people realize that their life is almost over and look back clearly over it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled.  Most people had not honored even half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made.

Now from a Christian perspective, I’d want to use the word ‘calling’ instead of ‘dreams.’  Each and every one of us is created uniquely in the image of God with different gifts and talents to live a full life.  And Frederick Buechner says that the calling you receive from God is first and foremost what you need to do.  You were created for it.  There is a deep hunger to do it and live it out.  And second, the calling is to something the world needs to have done.  He sums it up as “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”  Anything else that you pursue, including the expectations placed upon you from yourself, family, or the world, bounds you and keeps you from experiencing the life you were created to live.

Men, pay special attention to this second item of regret that Ware shares.  She said she heard it from each and every one of her male patients.  A few of the lady folks said it too, but every man said it.  “I wish I didn’t work so hard.”  They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship.  They regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.  Their time was lost to the office or factory at the expense of their families. I think this regret grows out of the fact  that God created us to be in relationship with him and each other.   American society seems to think we were created to be machines, created to be cogs on the wheels of productivity and growth of the economy.  But I’ve never heard someone say, “I wish I’d of spent more time at the office” on their death beds.

Now, I’m not saying everyone should quit their jobs and stay at home, but I am saying we need to weigh the costs of giving up our lives to our jobs.  Our families are a gift from God, and I also believe that our jobs are a gift from God.  But when placed on the scales of importance, the building and maintaining the relationships in the family should far outweigh the building of a job legacy. Our relationship with God should even far outweigh our relationship with our family and it is when these three things get out of whack, dysfunction and regret rule the day.

Third regret, “I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.”  Many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others.  And Ware adds, they settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were truly capable of becoming in those relationships. Many of the illness that the people were suffering from on their deathbeds were related to the bitterness and resentment they carried because they didn’t let others know how they felt.

It becomes about reconciliation.  It is about forgiveness.  It is about love.  When we confront our feelings and the hurt by either confronting those who hurt us or ask for forgiveness from those we have hurt, it raises the relationship to a whole new healthier level.  Either that or it releases those unhealthy relationships from our lives.  It’s why God sent Jesus in the first place, into the graveyards of our world, and confronted the brokenness of our sin and separation, to show God’s love and rebuild and restore relationships.  Do you remember the Lord’s Prayer sermon skit that Amy and Miller did for us awhile back, and especially when they did, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors?”  Amy was angry with her friend and that anger and the thoughts of revenge were eating her up.  When she released that anger by forgiving her friend, Amy was made new, made alive again.  She could now move forward in her relationship with her friend beyond being stuck in anger.  Anger leads to death of relationships, forgiveness frees those relationships.

Number four:  “I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.”  So many of these people became so caught up in their own lives that they let golden friendships slip by over the years.   There were many deep regrets about not giving friendships the time and effort they deserved.   People do want to get their financial affairs in order, but in the end, many of the people Ware worked with were even too ill to even do that.  All that mattered in the final weeks were love and relationships.

Do we want to wait until the end to remember a dear friend?  It’s about the relationships in our lives that God has given us.  I don’t know about you, but I’m not the best in keeping in touch with my friends, but Jesus teaches that friendship is at the heart of the relationship he wants to have with us.  And I don’t want to forget about that.  Later in John, Jesus gives his new commandment, that his disciples love one another as he has loved them.  Why?  Because no one has experienced love greater than someone who has laid down his life for his friends, and now he calls us his friends.

The last one:  “I wish that I had let myself be happier.”  Ware was surprised at how common this one was.  It helped her realize that happiness can be a choice in life.  When people were stuck in old patterns and habits, the ‘comfort’ of familiarity overflowed into their emotions and physical lives.  Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to their selves, that they were content.  Ware says that “When deep within, they longed to laugh properly and have silliness in their life again.”  Now, there is temporary happiness  that comes when the circumstances are just right, when things are pleasant and we are free of troubles.  And we know this kind of happiness never lasts when things change.

Then there is happiness that comes from God, it lasts, and it brings about an inner peace regardless of the circumstances.  It’s not based totally on what happens around us, but because of the one who walks with us.  The happiness through Jesus is a contentment that fills the soul, even if the eyes are filled with tears and is not based on success or failure, wealth or poverty, fame or obscurity.

Friends, we all stand on the edge of the graveyard looking in at Jesus.  We claim from the story of Lazarus the power of Jesus to call us out from the things that bind us and will bury us, all the fears, the pains, the griefs, the worries, and the pressures.  He has the power over death and with that power, the gift of new life free of regrets.  And he offers that gift to each and every one of us.  Be free to live.  Amen.

 

Living: sermon by Keith, 11.10.13 Pentecost 25C

Scriptures: Psalm 98, Luke 20:27-38

As a person goes through their day to day routine, there are a variety of questions that a person can get asked.  Simple questions in passing, such as “How are you doing?”  that can begin a conversation on life’s joys and tribulations, or it can be answered simply, “Fine.”  Or the kind of question that has a relative definite answer, like “How long does it take to drive to Portland?”  Depending on the number of potty breaks, usually around four hours.  There are also the questions that are asked to find out what side of the fence you are on politically or religiously.  The person asking is trying to determine if you are on his or her side of the argument, if you are one of the good guys or bad guys.  Are you for gun control?  What do you think of Obamacare?  Do you say tomato or tomaato?

Then there is the kind of question that Jesus is asked this morning in the passage we just read.  The Sadducees already knew what side of the resurrection fence Jesus was on.  He believed it and taught it.  But to fully understand their question and what they were trying to do to Jesus in asking it, we have to understand who the Sadducees were.  They were the temple elite, the priestly class, and wealthy, and in the 1st century Jewish world, they would have been labeling theologically conservative.  Scripture for them only consisted of Torah: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. No teaching was considered authoritative if it wasn’t given in these five books and they found no doctrine of the resurrection there.  In fact they found no teaching at all about an afterlife.  Death had the final say for them in the matter of life.

The other primary Jewish group at that time was the Pharisees.  They were the teachers out in the small town synagogues and were the ones we usually see Jesus butting heads with in the Gospels.  They considered Torah as authoritative, but also included the prophets and the oral traditions as having the same level of authority.  It would be what we call the Old Testament plus the traditions handed down all the way from Moses to that day.  It is in the oral traditions and prophets that spoke of the day of the resurrection that would take place somewhere far into future.  One day, God would raise the dead and give them a new glorified body.  It was not considered a resuscitation of the former physical body but a new form of existence.

Resurrection was hotly debated between these two camps, and it is because of this debate, Jesus is asked a question that comes straight from the heart of Torah.  “Based on the rules of marriage found in the Law of Moses, if a man dies leaving his wife with no children, his brother must marry her.  If this happens a total of seven times, whose wife will she be in the resurrection?”  The reason for this kind of question is to make Jesus re-think his position, because they ask it in a way there are only two possible answers, answers that prove the Sadducees right and Jesus wrong.  Answer A is she is married to seven men in the resurrection.  This violates the law and God wouldn’t have a separate set of rules of marriage in the life that is found in the resurrection as there are now.  If Jesus can’t go there, opening the door to allow this woman to have seven husbands, then he must close the door completely, which is Answer B, there is no resurrection.  From the Sadducees point of view, it is the kind of question that will force Jesus to agree with them or be silent.

But Jesus does answer them, but not how they expected.  His answer is two fold and I believe it points to the heart of a Christian hope for the future. It’s important to look at what he says and what he doesn’t say as we explore his answer.  The first part of his response simply points to the inappropriateness to the question, given the difference between this life and the life to come.  We live in a world where death is a reality.  We will all die.  That’s a point both the Pharisees and Sadducees could agree on.  And because of the fact we all die, marriage and perpetuation of life in the family becomes essential while we live.  But in the resurrection, we are given the gift of life everlasting so there is no need to marry or a need to have children.  The Torah laws regarding marriage and family no longer hold sway in the resurrection because we belong to a new family, the family of God.  Any Pharisees who were in ear shot of this part of Jesus’ answer would have been nodding in agreement as they heard Jesus’ words.

In the second part of his answer, Jesus uses the scriptures that the Sadducees see as authoritative to reveal an implicit reference to the resurrection in Torah.  The resurrection of the dead is found at the heart of Moses’ encounter with God at the burning bush.  God did not say from the burning bush, “Once upon a time I was the God of Abraham, was the God of Isaac and was the God of Jacob, and now I miss them all dearly.”   God says, “I am their God.  Now, right now, in this very moment, I am their God.”  God is a God of the living and not of the dead.  It follows then, that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are living, not dead, and in the presence of God.  And when Jesus points to this passage as support for the resurrection, he means Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are bodily in the presence of God.  Ironically, this response probably would have got the attention of the Pharisees, too.  Resurrection day was somewhere in the future, not something that was already being experienced by the dead.

Now here is where Jesus response to the Sadducees gives us hope for the future.  Now the hope isn’t only for those who grew up in a dysfunctional family or experienced divorce and can say, “Thank God I don’t have to spend eternity with him!”  nor does this passage remove the hope that we will be in the presence of loved ones when we die.  But this passage refocuses our hope in God.  God is a God of the living first and foremost because we have a living God who calls us into relationship with him.  God is not some spiritual force that flows through the universe that our spirit leaves at our birth and returns to in our death, but a personal triune God who created us in love in his image and declared us and all of creation good.  And this God who breathed the breath of live into us calls us into relationship from the day of our birth to the day we die.  This doesn’t mean we don’t take death seriously.  It destroys life and relationships.  Paul even calls death the last enemy of God.  But death isn’t stronger than God.  We know that because in God we find life.  God takes life so seriously that that he sent the Son into the world so we could experience eternal life with him, both body and soul, in this life and next.  And Jesus died, really died, experiencing agony and suffering on his way to the cross.   And God’s love of life broke out of the tomb that first Easter morning when God raised Jesus from the dead for us.

It is in his resurrection we get a glimpse of what the resurrection of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and even our own resurrection is like.  His disciples recognized him, but he was not a disembodied ghost.  He walked and talked, he ate and drank, and the disciples touched him.  He had a body, but it was a different body.  Sometimes those who knew him best didn’t recognize him.  He could vanish or show up in rooms where all the doors were locked.  He was the same person in a different way.  In the resurrection, we don’t lose who we are by being dissolved into some universal spirit like a drop of rain being lost in the ocean.  As Shirley Guthrie puts it, “In an unimaginably different and better way we will still be the individual human beings we are now, with the ability to have genuinely personal relationship with God and other people in the eternal “communion of the saints.””

Sometimes talking about the resurrection raises more questions than it answers, the kinds of questions that just might not have a clear answer.  A question like how can Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob be bodily present with God when we can go visit their tombs today?  You know, I don’t know.  Scripture just gives us small glimpses here and there, but I trust and hope that in the words of Jesus to the thief of the cross that something happens that only can be described as a gift from God.  “Today you will be with me in paradise.”  At the point of our deaths, we enter God’s time, eternal time, and we will be raised to be with Christ and God will claim us as his children.  Even when we don’t have all the answers, we can trust in his promises that in this life he will be with us and that we will be with him in the next.  Nothing, not even death, can separate us from God and God’s love.  Because he is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  He is God of (pick 3 names of people sitting out there).  And he is the God of Bonnie, of Gene, and of Gordon.   He is God of the living and in him we find life.  Amen