Losing to Gain: Sermon by Keith, 10.18.15

Note to readers: our sermon blog has been on hiatus for a bit, but I’m trying to catch things up. That’s why this is a sermon from October 2015 being blogged in February 2016. Such is the life of pastoral ministry: busy season and things go by the wayside. At any way, I’m going to do my best to get us up to the present in the next few weeks, so stay tuned. 🙂 Laura

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Scriptures: Hebrews 5:1-10 and Mark 8:27-38

It is mid-term exam time for the disciples.  The test will not only see if they have been paying attention, but it is also see if we have been paying attention.  And the test boils down to just one question from their teacher, “Who do you say that I am?”   And a lot is riding on their answer, for what they say not will not only reveal who they think Jesus is, but also who they are as his followers.

Up to this point, the disciples have been hearing a lot of questions and even asking a few questions about who Jesus is and what he is up to that might help them pass the teacher’s test.  From Jesus’ first healing, the question rings out, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority?”  Basically, who is this guy and where does he get his power?  When the paralytic is dropped through the ceiling of the house that Jesus is staying in and offers him forgiveness before offering healing, the questions come up, “Why does this fellow speak in this way?  Who can forgive sins but God alone?”   And when he is in the boat with his disciples and he calms the storm, the disciples ponder, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”  Even Jesus’ question about what other people are saying about him gives the disciples time to ponder who Jesus is.

Then he turns and asks them all, “Who do you say that I am?” When he says, “You are the Messiah” or the Christ, Peter becomes the spokesperson for the group. But in calling Jesus the Messiah, Peter isn’t calling Jesus divine or even delving into Trinitarian theology.

We have the benefit of reading these words on this side of the resurrection, of knowing how the church has wrestled with answering Jesus’ question for millennia. But in that time and place, what Peter meant in calling Jesus “the Messiah” is that Jesus is the true King of Israel, the heir to the throne of David.  Not Herod, not Caesar.  But Jesus was the long awaited king that they had all been waiting for.

I always have wondered what the teacher’s expression was when he heard Peter’s answer.  Was it a look of relief, “You finally got it”?  Or was it more of, “Well, you got the right answer, but show me your work.”

Now that Peter made his confession, Jesus begins to teach them something new, something different than they had ever been taught before about the Messiah.  Peter and the disciples had a specific job description for the Messiah: Cleanse and rebuild the temple, defeat the enemies of God’s people, and bring God’s justice upon Israel and the world.

But that isn’t what Jesus had been doing, he wasn’t gathering a military force or announcing plans to kick out the Romans or the temple authorities.  From the get go, he has been re-defining and re-describing what the Messiah would look like.  And now he adds a new layer to it:   There is danger ahead, and Jesus must walk straight into it.  It was certain death and it was what he, as the Messiah, had to do.

Now, I really like how N.T. Wright describes what must have been going through Peter’s head.  It would be like the new football captain telling his team that he was intending to let the opposition score 10 goals right away. The disciples had probably deduced that Jesus had something else in mind besides a military take over, but for sure they never thought he was going straight to his death.  To their ears, they were hearing that Jesus was going to lose, and worse yet, he was inviting them to come and lose along side him.  They want to play follow the leader, not follow the loser.  No wonder Peter pulls Jesus aside to give him some career counseling on proper Messiahship, how the Messiah is supposed to play the game.

So, what happened?  Peter gets the right answer, which leads Jesus to command them not to tell anyone, followed by the harsh prediction of the future that awaited Jesus, and finally by an exchange of mutual rebukes by Peter and Jesus that end with Jesus linking Peter to Satan. It appears Peter got the right answer wrongly.  This exchange between Peter and Jesus gives the indication that this suffering Messiah is not the one the disciples planned on following.

Now, if a suffering Messiah is hard enough for Peter to swallow, Jesus turns and open begins to teach what it means to follow him, to lead a life as his disciple.  They include denying oneself, taking up one’s cross, and following Jesus.  Peter probably thought that confessing Jesus as the Messiah put him on the winning side of things to come and a glorious leadership role, not the possibility of ending up on a cross himself.

And this is where Jesus calls for a change of human perspective to a divine perspective.  Of course Peter is looking at things from a human perspective; he is a man, how else does Jesus expect him to look at things?  Peter sees him as the one who will support his human wants and desires.  Peter sees him as the one who will sustain the values he wants in enhanced in his life and country.  Peter sees Jesus as the one who will enable him to become a winner and ruler in the age to come.

But Jesus’ words to Peter suggest that he can, and we can, set our minds on divine things.  In our relationship with Jesus, as we have seen what he has and is doing in our lives, the lives of our neighbors, and in the life of the church, there is a promise and the hope that somehow the divine perspective on who we are and what we are about breaks through.  In Jesus, God enables us to find a way that is different from the way of the world, enabling us to discern how life is fulfilled as God intends, and enabling us to live by values that are not embodied in the normal course of human affairs.

Even with the added benefit of reading Jesus’ words on this side of the resurrection, it can still be a struggle to discern the answer to the question, “Who is Jesus?”  We want a Messiah who will set the world right on our terms, but God gives us a suffering Christ who brings forth a new creation on God’s terms.  We don’t get the Messiah we want, we get the Messiah we need.

And in answering the question of “Who is Jesus?” in light of Mark’s answer to that question, we can come to a clearer understanding of the question, “Who am I?”  It is not only about what we confess we believe about him, it is also about what we do in light of that confession.  We are disciples, his disciples:  learners who follow Jesus; followers who learn from him.  And what we learn above all else from our teacher is that we follow him in obedience in the will of God, even though it may mean our suffering and death of the self.  Because when we take up our cross and follow Jesus, we are also following him to his and our own resurrection, participating with the power of God to bring life out of death.  Amen.

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Deep and Wide: Sermon by Laura, 5.3.15 Easter 5B

Scriptures: 1 John 4:7-21, Acts 8:26-40

“There is a room in the Department of Mysteries, that is kept locked at all times. It contains a force that is at once more wonderful and more terrible than death, than human intelligence, than forces of nature. It is also, perhaps, the most mysterious of the many subjects for study that reside there….”[i] Those words, spoken by Professor Dumbledore in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, describe the force which saves Harry from his enemy Voldermort, the same force 1 John describes in today’s scripture: Love.

Love: We rarely think about love as a “force” in our culture, where we throw the word around with abandon. We say we “love” almost anything and everything for which we have generally affirmative feelings.

And Christians do love to say “God is love.” But do we know what we are saying? Do we say it too easily, with glib sentimentality, from our relative places of privilege? Step back and think how shocking and foolish this idea, so familiar to us, actually sounds from the context of the common experience of the vast majority of human beings.[ii] Earthquake victims in Nepal and Baltimore rioters might justifiably question this claim. In light of the suffering so many people face, is it an “escapist fantasy”[iii] to claim “God is love”?

But 1 John is not describing a generally warm feeling. He’s making a radical, counter-cultural confession[iv] with major implications for how we live our lives; he’s bearing witness to the powerful force revealed and experienced in Jesus Christ. It is not the force of a shooting gun or a striking fist, but the force in the children’s song: “Deep and wide, deep and wide, there’s a fountain flowing deep and wide.”

Jesus was sent to unite humanity with a loving God, so that we can see and know in him that God is with us and for us. God desires to embrace and include us in the refreshing reality of peace, joy, hope and love which is God’s very being, an abundant flow of grace not even death can hold back.

God’s love is a force which can and does change the world. We see it in the encounter of Philip and the Ethiopian man on the wilderness road. The story in Acts begins with Philip, who was chosen one of the seven deacons who oversaw equitable food distribution between Hebrew and Greek-speaking widows. After the Jerusalem Christians are scattered by persecution, Philip shows up preaching and baptizing in Samaria. Here is a man who is willing and able to relate to others with hospitality and respect across cultural and language differences.

The man he meets on the wilderness road represents another realm of otherness—it’s not his race, religion or language. This Ethiopian, returning from his Jerusalem pilgrimage, is either Jewish—there were Ethiopian Jews—or a God-fearer, a Gentile who worshiped the Jewish God and followed Jewish teaching. He is wealthy, educated, able to read the Greek scriptures, and riding in a chariot. He is a powerful insider in places such things matter. But another aspect of his identity overrides them all with respect to his faith: he is a eunuch, a castrated male, a sexual minority excluded and barred from entering the temple.

We can learn a lot from these two men, whose actions reveal attitudes, habits, and practices sourced in the love 1 John describes. Philip’s humility and obedience, his responsiveness to the Spirit, is revealed in his willingness to run up alongside this stranger’s chariot, and to listen before he speaks. These are loving patterns of behavior.

The text from Isaiah refers to “one who is shorn;”[v] an experience with which the eunuch can identify. We don’t know what Philip says, but having spent time in the scriptures, he likely knows that Isaiah later prophesies hope which meets this man’s pain, that when the Messiah comes, eunuchs “who hold fast my covenant,” will have full inclusion among God’s people.[vi]

Philip shares the good news, that in Jesus the Messiah, Isaiah’s prophecy has come to pass. Those who have been shorn have in Jesus Christ a God who knows their suffering, and they are now fully welcomed as children of God’s house. Philip speaks and embodies Christ’s compassionate welcome to this man.

The Ethiopian also eunuch reveals patterns of God’s love in his actions. In devoted love for God, he’s journeyed to Jerusalem, even knowing he is barred from the Temple; and he continues to study the scriptures, even though some sacred texts name people like him aberrant and unworthy of inclusion. He receives Philip with hospitality and humility, acknowledging his own need for guidance. Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “For a modern parallel, imagine a diplomat in Washington, D.C., inviting a street preacher to join him in his late model Lexus for a little Bible study. The inclusion in this story runs both ways.”[vii]

The eunuch is receptive to the surprising Spirit, and when water appears near that desert road, he eagerly receives baptism. Can you imagine the tears of joy on his face, when this long-excluded man finally receives God’s affirmation of his identity as God’s child, wholly welcome and wholly loved?

He went on his way rejoicing; and the history of the ancient Ethiopian church perhaps evidences that he, who loved God, not only received God’s love but shared it boldly back home.

Friends, we are called—commanded!—to love one another as we have been loved. Indeed, 1 John says that we lie if we say “I love God” but act in hateful ways. God’s love is witnessed and perfected in our love for others. To proclaim “God is love” is a commitment to be formed in attitudes, habits, and practices which show forth God’s love to others.

This is a radical claim on us, because these attitudes, habits, and practices do not come naturally. We are conditioned to fear those who are different from us, which, truly, is every other human being. Every single person is ultimately a unique, fathomless mystery, a bearer of the image of our fathomless God.

And we are conditioned to see the raised fist as so much more powerful than the overflowing fountain. Violent force seems to promise immediate means to control our destiny.

But in drought-stricken times, the life-giving power provided by an overflowing fountain cannot be underestimated. That is the force of God’s love in Jesus Christ, the life-source in which we plant our roots, which brings forth life-giving fruit.

Which brings up an important point: you do not gain loving patterns, habits, and actions by forcing them upon yourselves or others. You become loving, first, by receiving. Some of us try to skip over that part, compelled by the go-go/do-do drive of our culture, which values productivity over receptivity.

To receive love, you must stop and take time to be with God and others, which can feel incredibly vulnerable. You will adapt to dwelling in vulnerability, deciding to arise with trust in a good God and to drop the fearful defenses which numb and block you from receiving the source of love and life. Trusting in God for your strength, you will learn that “Perfect love casts out fear.”

Friends, polarization, marginalization, and discrimination are all-too-common statements on our collective reality. We can change that.

We will not do it perfectly. We will make mistakes. Loving is awkward and messy at times. But sourced in God’s perfect love, we can boldly let it flow through us, accepting and welcoming others with Christ’s hospitality, so that the powerful force of God’s love overflows in us, deep and wide, replenishing the world. Alleluia! Amen.

[i] J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

[ii] Stephen Carlsen, http://day1.org/3817-a_message_so_good_as_to_border_on_folly

[iii] Carlsen, as above.

[iv] Carlsen, as above.

[v] Karen Baker-Fletcher in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2, Barbara Brown Taylor and David L. Bartlett, eds. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008, 456.

[vi] Isaiah 56:4-5

[vii] Barbara Brown Taylor, in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2, Barbara Brown Taylor and David L. Bartlett, eds. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008, 457.

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

Scripture: Mark 16:1-8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alleluia! Alleluia! Amen.

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

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

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

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.