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

Help from the Hills: Sermon by Laura on Psalm 121, 6.29.14, Summer with the Psalms

Greetings! We’ve had the blog on a bit of hiatus during a too-busy summer, so I am now attempting to catch up. This sermon is the second in the series we called “Summer with the Psalms,” for which we invited congregation members to share with us their favorite psalms and what was meaningful about them. Psalm 121 was chosen by Charlotte Brockway.

————————————————————————————————————–

Scriptures: Romans 8:31-39; Psalm 121

Have you ever taken a pilgrimage? Have you ever undertaken a journey to a place, one “officially” sacred, or one sacred only to you? Maybe it was an act of devotion, paying homage to God, or perhaps honoring someone or something important in your life? Right now our congregation has an official pilgrim on an ancient pilgrimage trail. David Still has been walking the Camino de Santiago Compostela through France and Spain for a month now. I’ve been following his Facebook posts along the way. One of his recent comments noted the difference in perspective seeing the world by walking on foot: “you get to see, taste, and smell your way along.”

I was reminded of pilgrimage I made some years ago, walking the Migrant Trail, from the U.S.-Mexico border to Tucson, Arizona. We walked those 75 miles through the Sonora desert in remembrance of the many undocumented migrants who have died attempting to enter the U.S. for work, and as a prayer for changes in the broken systems that have created these circumstances. I became vividly aware in my own body, mind, and spirit of the kinds of vulnerability such migrants face. The heat, the rocks, the thirst. I learned how vital it was not to overestimate my own abilities, supplies or equipment. On such a journey, no matter how prepared you are, something can always go wrong.

For me, it was my hiking boots. They seemed to fit well on short walks around my neighborhood. But not long after the first day’s walk, the blisters began appearing. Of course, unlike the migrants we were honoring, our group had a support team of volunteers with vehicles, who would pick up walkers in need of assistance. My need became obvious—to everyone but me! I was determined to hike every bit of the way, but my blisters finally overcame my pride and rode to the next stopping point. It was not easy to admit my need for help to myself, let alone to others.

The author of Psalm 121, on the other hand, is keenly aware of the vulnerabilities of travelers. This Psalm bears a superscription telling us this is a “Song of Ascents,” a clue to its context. It is part of a group of such psalms, and scholars suggest they were compiled as a kind of a hymnal for Israelite pilgrims “going up” to the temple at Jerusalem. Psalm 121 might have been used as a blessing at the outset of the pilgrim’s journey, much like we might commission someone going on a mission trip.

But since we may not currently be on an obvious pilgrimage, I think it will help us to enter this psalm and pray it with conviction if we get in touch with our vulnerabilities and our true need for help. This is not an easy thing to do in our culture of rugged individualism. How many of you comfortably ask for help? When help is offered, how many of you often refuse it?

To even come to the awareness of needing help can be excruciating for people raised with the notion that we must be independent and self-sufficient at all costs. But the truth is that on the great journey of life, all of us face fears, threats, and vulnerabilities every day. And there is a particular blessing in coming to awareness of our true powerlessness in life: we become more available to God’s power with, for, and within us.

So take a moment and think about a fear, threat, or aspect of vulnerability you or a loved one is currently facing. And then I want you to turn to your neighbor and share with one another a little about it. Go…How was it for you sharing such “personal stuff” with one another in worship on Sunday?

It’s telling how awkward this can feel. Even with our fellow faith-pilgrims in this congregation, even in this place and time a step away from the outside culture, where we are invited to show up before God and one anotherwith our whole, honest selves, many of us find it extremely uncomfortable to share from an experience of vulnerability or need. But now that we’ve done so, maybe our ears can be open to hear the statement of faith and the powerful promises of Psalm 121 in a new way.

I lift my eyes to the hills–from where will my help come? This is the key question of the traveler, who would certainly have seen hills all around on the journey. Living in the Grande Ronde Valley, we resonate with the act of lifting our eyes to the encircling mountains. When she chose this psalm, Charlotte wrote, “A dozen times I have thought of this song when everything seemed to be going wrong. In most of the places where we’ve lived there were always pretty hills or mountains to look up to or climb and forget everything but the beauty of God’s nature.” The mountains and hills can certainly speak a message of our Creator God’s strength and abiding presence.

However, for the ancient Israelite pilgrim, headed to Jerusalem, the hills had another significance. Throughout the Hebrew scriptures, the “high places,” other than Zion, God’s holy hill, were the locations of shrines where idolatrous sacrifices to foreign deities took place. As Eugene Petersen has pointed out, the ancient Israelites had two chief locations they might be tempted to seek “help,” the fearsome gods of the high places or Yahweh.

We have the same choice. As one preacher notes, “Things haven’t changed much. We still look to the high places. Some climb the corporate ladder and aspire to the boardrooms on the 37th floor. Many look for help to Capitol Hill, to address societal ills… Huge numbers of people are star-struck by astronomical athletic salaries. And everyone with an IRA or 401(k) loves the Dow Jones and Nasdaq indexes, as long as they go up. The high places have their allure, and many place the trust of their life there.”[i]

But as the Beatles’ song goes, “Help! I need somebody! Help! Not just anybody!” the same is true for us. We stand in need of divine assistance, but not just any help will do.[i]

The Psalmist, looking over all the options, makes a powerful, clear confession of faith in God: My help comes from the Lord who makes heaven and earth. The help we need, the only help we can truly rely on, comes from the One who created the hills, the Creator of heaven and earth.

The remainder of the Psalm describes the character and the promises of this God. A foot-traveling pilgrim in rocky, steep territory needs help so that tired feet do not stumble. God will not let your foot be moved. In a desert landscape, sunstroke is an ever-present danger. Moonstroke—we might call it “lunacy”—was also seen as a threat. God is your shade at your right hand. The sun will not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.

Ultimately the Psalmist moves far beyond the present pilgrimage, asserting God’s care over the whole of life. God is our “keeper,” one who protects, shields, watches over, and guards us at all times. God is like a watchman keeping guard over a city. But even more than a watchman, God does not sleep on the job! The Psalmist stands firm on the promises of God to keep and guard those who rely on him, not only from the dangers of desert travel but from all the evil we will face on our life journey, no matter what our comings and goings.

Now, by no means is this psalm a water-tight theological treatise, suggesting that those who trust in God will never experience harm. The psalmist is all too aware that “the wicked thrive unjustly.”[i] This psalm is a prayer of blessing, affirming faith in God and evoking God’s protection. It reminds us, as we look to and beyond the hills around us, to be aware of God’s steady, sheltering presence. Aware of our vulnerability and need, we are called anew to trust in the One who never sleeps but is always watching and caring for each step of our humble feet on this earth.

To close, I invite you to stand as you are able and repeat this affirmation: “My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” And now, I invite you to turn to your neighbors and bless them by making the sign of the cross, on their hand or forehead if you’re daring, saying: “The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in, from this time on and forevermore.”

Amen, and Alleluia!

[i] http://www.faithandleadership.com/sermons/matthew-floding-friends-high-places

[i] James H. Evans Jr., “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 2 Barbara Brown Taylor and David L. Bartlett, eds. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010, 56. 

 [i] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2002

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

I See You: Sermon by Laura, 1.19.14 Epiphany 2A

Scripture Reading: Isaiah 49:1-7, John 1:29-42

To get us in the spirit of this morning’s gospel reading, we’re going to try out a greeting I recently heard about,one that comes to us from the Zulu people of South Africa. Say you are coming down a road or a hallway, and you encounter someone; you say, Sawubona, which means “I see you.” One might respond to this greeting with the word Ngikhona, which means “I am here.”[i] Here’s what it might look like—we’ll use the English. (Ask Lay Leader to help me demonstrate). Got it? Now, please try this greeting exchange with some folks nearbyturn to someone, look them in the eye, and say, “I see you.” And if someone says it to you, you respond, “I am here.” Please use no other words, and try to say the words slowly, with a sense of intention. Pay attention to how they make you feel. Got your assignment? Okay, Go! …

So, what was that like for you? How simple the words of the greeting seem on the surface, yet how deeply moving they can be!

Author Robert Holden suggests four aspects that make this greeting powerful. First, there is the eye contact, which establishes connection. “Eye contact is akin to soul contact,” Holden writes. Second, “I see you” conveys more than a bland hello. It tells the other that you notice them, that you recognize and honor their unique presence. “I see you” affirms that you exist, you are equal to me, and you are worthy of my respect. Third, “I am here” is an acceptance that you have been seen and honored, just as you are in this moment, as well as an affirmation that you are willing to be present to the other person.

Holden notes that this greeting represents the Zulu way of ubuntu, of “humanity toward all.” He writes, “To practice ubuntu is to help your brothers and sistersremember their true identity, recognize their true value, and participate fully. Ubuntu teaches that our purpose is to be a true friend to one another.”[ii]

In our scripture today, there is an interchange that is both as simple and as profound as this Zulu greeting. The story begins with John the Baptist, pointing at Jesus. Interestingly, we don’t see him baptize Jesus in this gospel; we only get his second-hand testimony proclaiming Jesus’ identity: Jesus is the Lamb of God, God’s Son, here among us to baptize with the Holy Spirit.

Two disciples who hear John’s testimony follow Jesus. Jesus turns toward them and sees them. I imagine him looking carefully into their eyes, like we just did with the Zulu greeting. “I see you,” his actions tell them. And then he asks them, “What are you looking for?”

In typical Fourth Gospel fashion, simple words carry fathomless meaning below the surface.  The obvious response to Jesus’ question might have gone something like this, “Well, what do you think? We are looking for you! We just heard John the Baptist talking about you, and we want to see for ourselves.”  But even as the obvious is ringing out, my mind imagines Jesus repeating the question: “Yes, and what are you looking for?”

“Well okay, we are looking for the Messiah, God’s Anointed, promised to us for so long.”

“Yes, and what are you looking for?”

“(Deep sigh) Oh, Jesus, sometimes it seems like God is absent. There are so many places of hurt and hunger in our world. We want signs, that God is alive among us, really active and really doing things.”

“Yes. And what are you looking for?”

What sounds like a simple question, seeking basic information, invites the disciples to really discern their intentions, and even further, to ponder seeing in itself. For there is looking, and there is looking. There is the sequence of iris and pupil, optic nerve and brain receptors, and there is the inner call and response of the Holy Spirit, alerting us to God’s presence in our midst.

Systematic theologians call these two kinds of seeing general and special revelation. The first kind of seeing shows us the grandeur of the mountains, what one author calls our “brutiful” world (beautiful and brutal).[iii] “There must be a God,” we might say, as we try to take in the unfathomable intricacies of creation. The experience of awe and wonder is often the beginning of faith.

But God created us for more than wondering awareness. God created us for relationship. The God who created the cosmos, the God whose being is utterly beyond human comprehension and imagination, desires to be known to us and enter into a relationship with us. So God “comes down” to our reality and is revealed to us in a specific person, a specific human being, a man who is born and lives and dies and is raised again at a specific moment in history.

That’s what we celebrated at Christmas: in Jesus Christ, the unknowable God comes down to us, to be with and for us right here in our earthly reality. There is an amazing moment of recognition, when we go with the shepherds and wise men to the manger, to see with our own eyes the One of whose birth the angel chorus sings. It is a dazzling moment of special revelation.

But our faith is full of paradoxes. And even as God “comes down” to be with us, the unknowable fullness of God must necessarily become “hidden” in our earthly, worldly reality.[iv] God is revealed and concealed at the same time! Many who gaze on that baby in the manger see just that—a baby in a manger.

For us Christians, sometime the trouble begins when Christmas is over, and the shimmer and shine are put away for another year. There can be a flatness that comes upon us, and we may begin to doubt previous perceptions. Was God really there? Where is God now that we’ve returned to ordinary days?

It takes a special kind of “seeing” to perceive God’s presence, hidden in, with, and under seemingly ordinary people and things, and it does not come ‘naturally’ to us. It is a gift of grace. John the Baptist points this out repeatedly. Jesus’ identity as God’s Son was by no means immediately obvious. “I myself did not know him,” he says, even as he goes on to tell us how he comes to see.

John recognizes Jesus, not by spiritual extra-sensory perception, but because the God who sent him to baptize with water showed him the Spirit like a dove remaining on Jesus. Only then could John fulfill his calling and reveal Jesus the Christ to Israel. And then John’s testimony itself becomes a gift of special revelation for the disciples who hear it.   The disciples may have seen Jesus with their eyes before, but John’s testimony wakes up them up to look again. So they look, and this time, they begin to see Jesus, not only with their eyes but also with their hearts. They begin to recognize they are encountering a Person unlike any other they’ve ever met.

But I’ve always it odd how they respond to Jesus’ question. “What are you looking for,” he asks, and they reply, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” It sounds like they want basic information, an address; Jesus could give them a business card and be done. But we know now to look for another layer of meaning.

And indeed, the verb meno, here translated “staying,” is a key-word in the gospel of John. In John 15:4, this word is translated “abide,” as in “Abide in me as I abide in you.” One author explains this word “refers to the source of one’s life and meaning…[T]hese two disciples…are asking, “What is it that sustains you? What power do you have?  Where do you remain?  Where do you live?  How do you live?  Who are you really?”[v]

So it turns out, the two disciples are actually onto something. They recognize that a brief look at Jesus will not be enough. To perceive and receive the revelation of God in Jesus Christ requires “staying power,” a lifetime of tarrying, abiding, and dwelling with Christ where he’s found.

For his part, when Jesus looks so carefully at them, I think he sees these men are seeking more than fact-sheets or formulas; they long for a dwelling place, a home, a whole way of life. So Jesus gives them a wonderful invitation: “Come and see.” And the gospel of John tells us, “They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day.”

My friends, this is what discipleship is all about. By a gift of grace, we catch a glimpse of the Living God present in our very midst, a Person who greets us, sees us face-to-face, invites us into a relationship.

“I see you,” says God in Jesus Christ. “I see what you are looking for. I see the longings of your heart, your deepest hopes and fears, you frustrations and anxiety, your broken heart.  Come and see where I dwell, come and stay with me, that you may find what you seek.”

How will we respond to Christ’s invitation? He is longing to hear our reply: “I am here. I will come and see, I will stay with you, and I will learn to look ever deeper into the hidden places and faces of this world, seeing anew with the eyes of a graced and gracious heart.” May we notice the Living God active and alive in our midst, and may we share what we see with all those in need of a good Word, inviting each one to the transforming life in Jesus Christ: Come and see.  Amen.

P.S. The blessing I used as a benediction can be found here.

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.