Tag: John

Why Are You Standing There?

Acts 1:6-14 Angels-Talking-To-Disciples-After-The-Ascension-Of-Jesus
John 17:1-11

 

Ever feel like telling the angels in Acts or the Gospels, DUH! Maybe giving them a dirty look to boot? I know I do.

The disciples are speaking with the Risen Jesus, and then before their very eyes Jesus rises up and goes into the clouds. Quite naturally, the disciples stand there gaping up at the sky.

I’ve never seen anyone levitate. Let alone rise up into heaven. I think standing there slack jawed is about the nicest way I’ll look if I ever seen such. I might just have wet pants too.

But these two angels appear and ask, “Why do you stand looking up towards heaven?”

DUH!

This isn’t the first time the angels have been jerks, in my opinion. Remember when Mary is sobbing over Jesus’ empty tomb in John? Once again, two angels appear in white. And once again, they ask a question. “Woman, why are you weeping?”

DUH!

Mary, bless her heart, actually answers: “Because they have taken away my Lord and I do not know where they have laid him.”

In Luke’s version… just like in John… two angels appear to Mary at the tomb. And they, too, ask her a question. Only they ask her: “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

… say it with me…

Duh.

Jesus is dead. Jesus’ dead body was left here. Mary’s seeking a dead guy.

We don’t have to read these stories and think the disciples and Mary and the women are wrong or unenlightened. We don’t have to think the angels are perfect. These stories are meant to be relatable.

And relatable means, to me, hearing these angels being kinda jerkish and asking questions that sound condescending, insulting, when taken just as they are.

But you know, sometimes jerkish questions do us good.

It is no secret I was scared and AM scared to be a pastor. In my mind, there is a lot less on the line to be a writer and a scholar of religion than to actually be preaching and sharing lives with people. I was speaking to a spiritual counselor about this once. I told her how I was scared of saying something wrong to a parishioner or in a sermon and harming someone’s faith. The counselor asked me, “Are you more powerful than God?”

Duh. Of course not.

She continued, “Then why do you think you’re the most powerful voice in someone’s life? You’re not. You’re going to say things wrong. But you’re not God. It’s vain to think you’re going to make or break ANYONE’S faith. Faith is a journey between a person and God. A pastor just gets to walk alongside that journey for awhile. But the journey is way, way outside the pastor’s control.”

Sometimes, jerkish questions help us a whole lot.

At the tomb in Luke, the angels’ question of ‘why do you look for the living among the dead’ leads them on to remind the women that Jesus is Risen. He isn’t dead. He’s not going to be in a graveyard. The women realize this from the question, and they go back to the apostles with the news. They’re the very first witnesses and testifiers of Jesus’ resurrection. A jerkish question from the angels wakes them up, shows them new possibilities, and moves them to action.

Just like a pointed question did the same for me.

In John, at the tomb, both the angels AND Jesus get to ask Mary why she is weeping and whom she is seeking. Twice, she states she is seeking the body of Jesus and doesn’t know where to find Jesus. The questions let us see and understand, and eventually let Mary see and understand, that the dead body of Jesus isn’t what we really are seeking. And if we’re seeking Jesus only in the past, dead, buried… we’re not going to find him.

Our Lord is risen, ascended, and returning. Our Lord is not buried and gone. But are we still only seeking him among the dead and not among those living today?

That brings us to those angels standing near the disciples who are catching flies looking up to heaven some time after Jesus’ resurrection. “Why are you standing there looking up towards heaven?”

Duh.

But their jerkish question has a point. Standing there and staring into heaven isn’t what Jesus commissioned us to do. They had just asked, ‘Is it now that Israel is going to be restored?’ And Jesus tells them no. And reminds them again that God’s message and restoration isn’t just for that ancient country, but for all counties — all people — everywhere. And again, Jesus charges them to carry this message of love everywhere.

Yes, he told us to keep watch. Yes, he told us to stay awake. But never once did he tell us to wait around for his return doing nothing. Rather, he told us to do greater deeds than he. Told us to carry his message everywhere around the world. Told us to do his commandments, to do God’s commandments, and to actively love one another.

So… the question gives the disciples and apostles direction. They go back to Jerusalem. They return to sharing their lives together in prayer, and study, and in good works, and in living the Christian Way.

As we heard today, as Jesus prayed over the last supper – he said to God, “I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world,” and so it is. Jesus is Risen. But Jesus is present through us to one another. Jesus is with God Our Parent, but has sent our Holy Advocate among us to remind us how to live Jesus’ teachings.

What does this look like in action today?

The first example I can think of is our offering today.

A second I think it speaks wisdom into our church woes. It’s no secret at all that churches are closing left and right. Attendance is way down from the height of the 1940s and 1950s. Most congregations operate in the red with their budgets and most congregations are strapped for people under the age of 50.

Like Mary at the tomb, we look in these once-grand buildings but find them empty. And we weep.

Like everyone staring up into heaven, we keep watching and waiting thinking that a return: maybe when the teens are adults and married. Maybe when the adults retire. Maybe when the retirees get lonely.

Some churches are trying to shake up things. You’ve heard of the churches with contemporary services and live music. You’ve heard of churches who worship outside, or worship over coffee, or even in bars. Some get rid of pews and some get rid of hymnals.

But in the end, even these churches find it is hard to keep being relevant to people’s lives. Their numbers may swell for a year or two, but then… things go back to looking drear.

The truth of the matter is – people don’t want to go to services to worship God.

Worshiping God isn’t important in their lives.

And I don’t blame them. That was me for years and years. Standing there staring into heaven felt nice once and awhile… like maybe an Easter or a Christmas service… but doing that weekly didn’t really get the house clean, or pay the bills, or make my day better.

The truth is… church wasn’t relevant to my life and it isn’t for most people.

And I think that’s what the angels are pointing out in our scripture, and even today… reflecting on the past is good, but fixated on it is not. It’s time to move on. Time to trust God, time to do as God asks, and welcome the new reality God gifts us. Reflecting on the glory years of our churches is good. But pining, wishing, for those years to come back is not good.

We won’t find the living among the dead. We’re not going to fill up this church or any church by changing little things or big things in our services.

You see, services don’t make Christians, services aren’t designed to and aren’t aimed towards people considering Christianity. We say prayers that aren’t printed, and we sing hymns not known in pop culture, and we use terms and phrases no one who isn’t ‘in the know’ understands.

Standing there gazing into heaven doesn’t spread the message to all of the ends of the earth. It doesn’t make our faith relevant.

What does?

Mission work. Out reach. Living a Christian life. When the apostles return and live lives of hope, of sharing, of community – people want to know more. Want to join. When a church has a mission, a purpose – people want to join in, and make a difference. When a church has an out reach, a program to assist the community – people want to participate.

The food pantry.

Foundation dinners.

5th quarter, Hope homes, One Great Hour of Sharing, the PIN fund, Vacation Bible School, donating our hymnals, donating time and resources here and there – these are mission and out reach.

Praying for each other. Giving each other rides. Sharing our garden produce and our clothes, our homes and our lives with each other. Knowing how each other are doing. Calling, writing, facebooking, loving each other… this is living a Christian life. This is community.

Church? Worshiping God? These are the results of mission work, outreach, and the Christian life. Church is not an ends unto itself. It is the human response to God’s presence throughout our whole week – our whole lives.

This is where we recharge. Where we stand gazing into heaven and smile. Where we sink on our knees at the tomb in wonder. This is where we pause, reflect, and praise God.

But church is only relevant, only meaningful, if we have been in relationship with God and working for God long before we entered the church doors.

So… let me play the role of the angels for a moment and ask a jerkish question…

Why are you here today? Is church relevant to you? If not, what is missing?

Amen.

Never Orphaned

Acts 17:22-31hands-old-young
John 14:15-21

 

Orphan. This is one of those categories of people the Bible has a lot to say. Over and over again God tells us to care for the orphaned and the widows. To care for the fatherless and the stranger. To care for the outcast and the afflicted. A sign of God’s people is their love and care for those who are most vulnerable.

In these ancient cultures where our scripture comes from, men are the people who can own property and bring in income. So… a widow… or a child without a father…. where are they going to get food? Water? Shelter? Who is going to protect them from being victims of violence?

God says again and again – you are. You are their protection.

Jesus reminds us that it isn’t just widows and orphans God wants us to care for – but ALL. So he shows us again how to care for strangers, care for outcasts, care for the physically and mentally sick. Whomever is at risk, we are their guardians.

So who is at risk? Who is Jesus telling us to remember in our prayers, to give our money and food to? Telling us to protect?

I tell you, I visited an orphanage.

I know – you tell me they are all closed. There are no more ran in the US and we only use the foster care system. But I tell you otherwise: I walked in and signed my name to the Visitor’s Sheet. Eyes poked out of doorways to see who this new person was with curiously and then disappeared back into their rooms. I got my badge that marked me as something even more different. That badge saying I’m permitted to be there, but not OF there. Permitted to enter, but also permitted to LEAVE. And I walked the halls of these orphans. Some laid in their beds calling for their mommies. Some had photos of their missing parents on their walls. Some asked me if I’d seen their loved ones, or knew who they themselves were.

Here, in this Alzheimer’s Unit, are the people who need others to give them food, and water, shelter. To protect them from violence. To be parental figures.

I found my orphan and she didn’t know who I was. But my orphan and I, we sat and talked anyways. Bit by bit, she told me a few memories of her parents, a sister… or a brother…

I sat and I thought it’s strange to think that nearly all of us will be orphans before we pass away. Eventually, nearly all of us, will bury first one parent, then a second, maybe even a third. We actually pray we pass away before our children, so it’s not a strange thing to be orphans… but yet… it doesn’t mean its any easier.

My orphan lost her parents decades ago, but the hurt was still so deep and fresh. And she still thought of them with mixed emotions. Relief – that they are no longer in pain. Relief – she’ll see them again. Sorrow – she doesn’t see them now. Sorrow she can’t ask them for advice, can’t introduce them to her great-grandchildren, can’t just share a cup of coffee. Simultaneously she recalled to me great bitterness and anger with her parents and great love and longing for her parents. No one has simple relationships with others when we’re honest.

The same is true in our scripture on feeling like an orphan today. This isn’t a simple relationship Jesus is describing. He is giving his farewell speech to his disciples. He’s telling them he’s going to a reunion with his father and they’re not welcome… yet. Telling them they know the way… but it isn’t on a map. And they are realizing Jesus is speaking about his death, and going to Heaven, and waiting for us there.

They are realizing they are about to be orphans.

Anger. They can’t go back home. They gave up their homes to follow Jesus. Fear. Who is going to protect them when Jesus is gone? Worry. Who are they going to turn to for advice? How are they going to keep following Jesus’ Way when Jesus isn’t there to lead them? Sorrow. There won’t be walks together and sitting down to dinner. Fear. How can they trust themselves to be the leader, the parent, the wise on when they know they know so little? Feeling so not ready.

And Jesus reassures them in these words. You do know the Way. What is more, the Spirit of Truth, which you have known through me, will be given to you to abide in you. This Holy Spirit will help guide you on the Way. We will meet again.

You will not be orphans. You will not be without someone caring for you. You have someone watching out for you, someone being your advocate – your helper and companion and champion – you have someone leading you, listening to you, loving you.

Want evidence? Lead, listen, and love another – and you will find you, too, are led, listened to, and loved.

So, again, who is at risk? Who is Jesus telling us to remember to lead, to listen to, and to love in our prayers, to give our money and food to? Telling us to protect?

Those who are aging are one of our brothers and sisters we need to give special protection to.

Another is those with physical or mental disabilities. Remember in Jesus’ time he cared not just for the widows and orphans… but also those with trouble walking, or speaking, or seeing. And those who suffered from mental illness and internal distress.

Today, our orphans are not in orphanages. They are in nursing homes, and at friends’ and families’ homes. And our orphans are in foster care and state custody. Our orphans are often homeless because there is so, so little help for those with mental demons.

Sadly, many police are like you and I, and not trained how to handle responding to someone in mental distress. So they see this ‘crazy erratic’ person, and choose to respond in ways that cause MORE distress and so more erratic behavior. Many, many mentally ill people are killed by responding officers because neither the cop nor the person know how to relate to each other – fear takes over – fear what the other will do – and one or the other goes from fear into attack mode.

Growing up, there was one of these guys living under a bridge near my hometown. Everyone knew him. He screamed at telephone poles most of the day. Where was his family? Did they know he was doing this? Had they passed away, had he run away and they lost track of him? Had he been more than what they could handle and care for?

… I’m his family, you know. So are you. Where were we?

Standing on the opposite street corner watching him and blaming his absent family. Judging them. When in actuality, Jesus commissions us – gives us the commandment – to love and care for those at risk and orphaned.

That man with mental illness is my brother. Your son. Our family.

And yes, he needed more help than any one set of parents, any one person, could give. But that is why we are more than one. We are the Body of Christ. Our parent in heaven, our risen Messiah, and our abiding Holy Spirit give us when we work together all that we need to care for all the orphans among us.

Paul argues to the Athenians in part that God isn’t like their statues. God doesn’t need us to feed God, bathe God, and bring God gold and silver because God provides US with everything and God isn’t IN a statue. Rather, God is in us and we are in God. We are God’s children, offspring.

In the same way, Jesus says he is in God, and we are in Jesus, and therefore with God. God doesn’t need us to care for God… but if we love Jesus, we will do as Jesus asks. Jesus asks us to love God – and love each other. Scripture tells us to love God, and love each other. The Spirit within us tells us to love God, and love each other. That Advocate reminds us again and again of the highest commandant: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind: and love others as you love yourself.

God doesn’t need bathed, need food, need support – God’s children do. The aging and the young, the physically or mentally challenged, or able or disabled, the often well or often ill – the widows and widowers – the orphans and the foster care kids – the moms and dads – the grandparents and neighbors – every single soul needs someone being their earthly advocate, just as we all need our Heavenly Advocate.

So who are the parents to the orphans?

Who are your parents?

We are. We are each other’s support, each other’s protection, each other’s advocates. We are each other’s family. We are the family of God.

Care for every person in some way – great or small.

Care for each other – here. And care for each other – out there, the strangers we are yet to meet.

We are never orphaned.

We are the children of God.

We are the family of God – and to love God is to love one another.

Amen.

Abundant Life

John 10:1-10 wentz-barn-gate-strap-hinges
Acts 2:42-47

Every evening, there is a ritual across the world – boys and girls, women and men, go out and lock up their barns. When I was a child, it’s what we did right after dinner. Close the goat barn – lock the door. Check the chicken coop for sneaky early evening ‘coons, then shut the two doors. Shut the big field doors as the cows do their sleepy moos. Turn off all the lights. Exit by the last door, and shut the last gate. And the doors and gates keep all the animals safe.

If something got into the barn, it was never through the door or gate. It was a coyote that leapt a fence; a raccoon that dropped out of the loft; or once it was my dog who decided sweet feed might make good dinner. Anyways – whatever it was – they didn’t enter by the front gate which was lit and could be seen from the house. They snuck in another way. And they snuck in with the intentions to serve themselves rather than the barnyard animals. We never had animals worth thieving – but I know of others that do – and again, the thieves entered in a way not visible from the house to lead the valuable horses out the back.

Jesus, today, tells us he is not only the good farmer, the good shepherd, who leads the animals into safety from the outdoors and brings them out again in the morning… but he’s also the protective gate that stands against the death-dealers all night long.

We hear this story as Jesus affirming the 23 Psalm, that the Lord is my Shepherd.

He is, but also, Jesus tells this story to the people in the middle of his healing ministry, when the religious leaders have told the people to stop listening to Jesus, and literally are tossing those Jesus heals out of the security of the town.

Therefore, Jesus’ message in context is not just about lambs in the field – Jesus is actually suggesting that the religious leaders are thieves and bandits set out to kill and destroy the people! They’re more concerned with their public image than the lives of individuals. They’re more concerned with obtaining and keeping power than sharing and being equals.

He’s saying that those who have power ought to use that power to protect people who are the most vulnerable.

He’s protesting getting rich off of other’s misery – such as many insurance and drug companies do. He’s protesting staying in power by silencing the weak – as many politicians do. He’s protesting anyone who comes as ‘wolves in sheeps’ clothing’ promising you’ll get rich if you just pray for it, you’ll be healed if you just have faith, and protesting anyone who says you’ll have an easy life if you just follow their lead or become Christian.

Jesus says he isn’t’ concerned about his public image, or obtaining and keeping power. He is concerned that we have life, and have it abundantly. That we are kept spiritually safe and secure, are led towards good things, and learn to listen to the voices that love us rather than the talking heads who lie for their own benefit.

So, do you listen to love?

Do you live abundantly?

What does love sound like? What does abundant life look like?

Luke tells us about the early church and how they listened to love and lived abundantly. They were in –awe– because of what generosity and love people were showing one another in the name of Christ. These early Christians were getting together to teach, share fellowship, break bread, and pray. They shared what they had with each other and anyone who had need, and they knew one another at church and out in the community. They sang praises to God and lived so abundantly, lived with so much joy and depth of emotion, people kept flocking to join them. People asked: where did that joy come from? Where does that source of strength in hard times come from? The hope? The love? Tell us more! And so, they did.

Have you ever wondered if WE are the early church? I don’t mean: are we living and praying and thinking like the people in Acts… I mean, like… in 2,000 or 5,000 or 10,000 years… we ARE going to be the early church. And what will people say about us?

I kinda think they’ll say the same things Luke did in Acts.

People might say of us: They taught each other at Sunday School, and they shared Fellowship time. They broke bread together, and prayed for one another. They lived in awe because people kept being so generous with each other not just in the church, but in their community too. They spent time together not just in church, but outside of church too. Their community knew they were Christian. People asked them – why are you following that Christ? Why are you so hopeful? What keeps you going when things have gone so wrong? And they spoke of their faith.

So maybe we are listening to love, and are living abundantly…

… But you know, it’s a daily ritual to listen to the shepherd and enter the security of the enclosure each night, and then go back out into the world each morning.

It’s a daily ritual to face the world through prayer, through the gate of Christ, and listens to Christ’s words, and then come back together with other Christians to re-center yourself, recharge your spirituality, so that you can go out again later and serve the world.

No animal can live cooped up in the barn their whole live OR out in the field their whole life. We are meant to gather here, secure in the fold, break bread and share life and encourage one another – and then go out to spread the good news that the Shepherd had many flocks and is always calling more towards abundant, loving, life with each other.

Amen.

Knock knock!

John 20:19-31
Acts 2:14a, 22-32

Knock knock!
who’s there?
Luke
Luke who?
Luke through the peephole and find out!

Tsk! But Jesus never knocked! Not even in the book of Luke. Instead – he just jumped right into the scene – but that means we get ever more hilarity as the disciples start screaming ghost! And Jesus stands in the middle of the chaos saying Peace! Peace!

And when the disciples see it really is Jesus, and see he still has the wounds in his side and isn’t a ghost – but really is there – they rejoice! Jesus then gifts them the Holy Spirit. The Spirit comes in joy of the Risen Lord!

Far too often, we forget to laugh – forget to take ourselves lightly – forget that the Bible tells us that just as there is time for sorrow, there is also a time to laugh.

Now is the time for laughter!

Rev. Lois Harder said, “God delights in our laughter and receives it as an act of worship. [We continue] the Easter story. We’re celebrating the greatest practical joke of all time: God overturned death. God, in fact, had the last laugh over death.”

Is it any wonder why Peter stands and proclaims his heart is glad, and his tongue rejoices, and his flesh lives in hope? “God will not abandon my soul to Hell! God has made me filled me with the Joy of the Spirit!”

The joy that Jesus is raised up, love is stronger than all powers, and we are now an Easter people!

Hallelujah!

Think about the upside down world Jesus introduced us to….

Jesus told us of workers who were given full day pays for minutes of work, stewards who were successful cheats, wasteful sons welcomed like kings, camels going through needles, people not noticing whole planks of wood in their eyes, and wedding banquets at all hours.

Then — Jesus showed us a few loaves becoming many, water turning into wine, calming the seas, walking on water, healing the sick, curing blindness and lameness, and literally raising people from the dead.

And Jesus showed us what the world could be – welcoming in the strangers, the sinners, the outcasts, the misunderstood, the feared. The woman at the well. The Good Samaritan. The woman who the town wanted to stone. The boy with schizophrenia. The countless multitudes who Jesus taught us to stop labeling by their conditions and start labeling Beloved Children of God. Jesus showed us to love and converse with all people as equals.

The reality of God’s reign is chaos compared to what we know! It is a world all turned around so that the least are lifted up and the greatest are pushed down. A world where those who don’t labor are still fed; and those who ‘fit in’ with the world are actually the ones who need to change.

Rev. H.A. Williams’ in his book Tensions writes, “[It is] No wonder the Pharisees, who seem to have been always wholly serious, had to have Jesus put down. He couldn’t be allowed to go on indefinitely standing everything on its head and making their piety look ridiculous. Why, in the end, they might even laugh themselves, and that would be the ultimate catastrophe.

“…but Eternity had the last laugh after all. Here are Caiaphas and all his crowd, Pilate and Herod and all theirs, sitting complacently in a state of grave and dignified self-congratulation. They have done their duty and justified the authority vested in them by efficiently disposing once and for all of a dangerous fool. He is safely dead. And with solemn calm again restored, they can concentrate once more on the really serious matters to which their lives are dedicated.

“But behind their backs, without them having the slightest inkling of what is going on, the fool has popped up again like a Jack-in-the-box and is dancing about even more vigorously than before and even more compellingly. People here, there and everywhere are falling under his spell…

“If that isn’t funny, nothing is. It (the resurrection) is the supreme, the final, the ultimate joke. And since laughter, although not irresistible is none the less highly contagious, perhaps the brass hats themselves will in time catch the disease, turn around, see the joke, and then laugh with the rest of creation because the kingdom of God has drawn near.”

What a beautiful, beautiful reign it is!

Alright! Time for a joke break! Got one to share? If not… there should be one in your bulletin…

[jokes]

Ready for a few from our Bible? Listen to 2 Chronicles 21:20 NIV: It reads: “Jehoram was thirty-two years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem eight years. He passed away, to no one’s regret, and was buried in the City of David, but not in the tombs of the kings.”

Guess we know what people thought of Jehoram’s leadership skills!

In … Elijah and the priests of Baal are in a competition to see whose God will light up their own altar. They wait and wait and wait on Baal. Elijah gets tired of the waiting and in 1 Kings 18:27 we have this line, “About noontime Elijah began mocking them. “You’ll have to shout louder,” he scoffed, “for surely he is a god! Perhaps he is daydreaming, or is relieving himself. Or maybe he is away on a trip, or is asleep and needs to be wakened!”

Your god might be sitting on the porcelain throne. You best shout louder! Yes, we have a potty joke in the Bible. This is the cleanest of several.

There’s a ton of sex jokes too – but you’ll have to ask me about those after the sermon!

And we have funny stories… which are meant to be funny!

When God comes to Abram and Sarai to say they – at 99 and 100 – are going to have a son, Abram – whose name means ‘Father’ – doesn’t understand and Sarai laughs. And their son’s name? Isaac – which means, He Laughs.

The entire book of Jonah is rolling in puns and humor! For example: Go to Nineveh, Jonah, and warn them. Jonah refuses. Runs away. And so a storm hits his boat. And his boat mates ask ‘Who made their god mad?!’ So Jonah is tossed overboard. He’s happy! He’ll escape God’s mission to Nineveh in death! But a big fish swallows him and spits him out back on the route to Nineveh. The story goes on and on like this with Jonah attempting to escape his mission to save a city with just his words and God refusing to let Jonah kill himself!

So!

Knock knock?
Who’s there?
Babylon.
Babylon who?
Babble on, I’ve stopped listening.

Means it’s time for our take home message: Psalm 17:22 “A joyful heart is good medicine.”

Let us laugh with holy humor! Let us rejoice in our Risen King!

In the Garden

Jeremiah 31:1-6Jesus-Comes-to-Us-Resurrection-Mary-Magdalene-John-20-1-18

John 20:1-18

In the beginning, writes Genesis.
In the beginning, write John.

Genesis tells us God -spoke- and created all.
John tells us the Word was with God and through the Word all was created.

In Genesis, God is a Gardener. God makes a peaceful garden and places people in it – but people must flee in it tears when they disobey God.

In John, Jesus is mistaken as a gardener. People have fled to this sorrowful garden in tears. Mary leaves it with joy to obey God.

In Exodus to Moses- God says God is the I AM! In John, Jesus repeatedly says “I AM.”

John 6: 35, 48 I am the bread of life
John 8: 12, 9:5 I am the light of the world
John 10:9 I am the door
John 10:11 I am the good shepherd
John 11:25 I am the resurrection and the life
John 14:6 I am the way, the truth, and the life
John 15:1 I am the true vine

And, John 8: 58 “Before Abraham was, I am”

In this garden, humanity and the Great I AM meet once again. In this graveyard, new life springs forth. In this place of sorrow – unexpected joy is found.

“Resurrection is nothing short of re-creation. That the burial and resurrection of Jesus take place in a garden underscores the Fourth Gospel’s unrelenting commitment to holding the divine and the human together. Death is the reality of life, but resurrection points to the reality of abundant life.” (Karoline Lewis)

The Great I AM wants to recreate with us; wants to begin again; wants to restore our relationship.

Our scriptures, our faith, our God is all about restoring relationships. Today, we read the story of Mary and Jesus meeting, but we also know that this is also a story about humanity and God meeting and beginning again. This time, instead of leaving the garden in anger with each other, humanity and God leave the garden ready to work together.

Now this is all heady – so let’s bring it down to what that really means: it means living into God’s reign now. It means being Christ-like now. It means living that ever-renewing, abundant life now.

You see, people come to Jesus through personal encounters. 1 on 1. It’s 1 on 1 conversation that brings the Samaritan woman to understand Jesus as the Messiah. 1 on 1 debate for Nicodemus at night. 1 on 1 for Zaccheus in the tree. Doubting Thomas will stop doubting when he personally touches Jesus. Saul will turn from persecuting Christians when he personally meets Jesus. It is the personal encounter with Phillip and his faith that converts the Ethiopian man; and it is personal encounters with the disciples – the apostles, the women, all those who witness – that bring the faith in Jesus’ way from a small following of middle eastern men and women to a world religion.

How did you end up here, today? I bet someone personally told you about their faith, and you had a relationship with that someone – a mother, a father, grandparent, good friend, spouse – very, very few people (if any!) come to Christ through scripture alone. This is a faith of relationships. Of personal encounters.

Today – Mary is the first to have a personal encounter with the Risen Christ. And she shares this encounter.

Would you be here today if Mary hadn’t left the garden to tell the Good News?

The Garden of Eden was large, but it wasn’t the entire world. We have a new mission – to spread the Good News everywhere. To plant God’s garden everywhere. You and I are co-gardeners, co-creators, with God. We are tasked with feeding, clothing, and caring for one another. We are tasked with gardening the world – caring for its plants and animals, waters and skies. We are tasked with carrying hope into hopeless situations and responding with love in hateful situations. We are called – by name – to rise from our graves and live the abundant life God offers to us now.

The I AM told the prophet: “I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.” Out of everlasting Love, God abides with us. Out of everlasting Love, God builds again. Out of everlasting Love, God bids us to go from the garden and take the good news to all peoples – for all peoples are the children of the great I AM.

I AM is Risen! I AM abides with us. I AM will come again!

Christ is Risen!

Go out and share this beautiful news like a spring flower with all peoples! Amen!

Hope Against All Hope

Ezekiel 37:1-14sunrise-bali-1
John 11:1-45

Ezekiel’s prophecies don’t just spring to life without context. God gives them to Ezekiel to speak about the very real world Ezekiel knows.

Ezekiel was born into a priestly family of money, and power. He got an education, and worked as a priest advising the royalty of the Kingdom of Judah. Picture for a moment that Mexico and Canada get into a war… where are they going to fight? In the US. This happens to Judah, and the country begins to take sides with either Egypt or Babylon as the two nations both fight for land in the middle east. Babylon wins, and takes the nobles of Judah back to Babylon as captives. Sorta like if Canada wins this imaginary war, they take our president, his family, and our representatives and senators back to Canada. The idea is that without these leaders, we’re less likely to rise up and fight again.

Ezekiel is one of those people taken captive because he’s an important prophet. He and his wife begin to live with the other captives of Jerusalem in Babylon. There, he has prophecies that more woe is coming to the Kingdom of Judah. Sure enough, the old king’s uncle takes charge of the country, and rebels against Babylon with an alliance with Egypt. In our fake war, the president’s uncle goes to Mexico, gets support, and decides to lead a war against Canada.

Babylon’s had enough of these Judeans and Egyptians. King Nebuchadnezzar returns to the country. Clay tablets found in modern day Israel recount how the people in Jerusalem saw the signal fires of their neighboring towns disappearing one… by… one… as the Babylonian army destroyed everything and everyone in its path on the way to the king in Jerusalem. When they get there, they utterly destroys the Judean capital city. Archeological evidence shows that virtually the entire city was burned to rubble, including its walls. The Bible recounts how the king’s family was murdered before his eyes, and then the king was blinded before he was marched to Babylon. The Temple of Solomon – in all its glory and beauty – was ransacked. All the religious items, the Ark of the Covenant, the sacred scripture – all of it taken, sold, burned, or destroyed. Everyone in the city was scattered – some ran into the country, many died, and the rest were taken forcibly back to Babylon. About 1 in 4 of all the nation’s people were forced into exile.

Today, that would be like 80 million Americans kidnapped and sent abroad. 80 million people sent to a place with a different language, different religion, and different way of living. 80 million prisoners.

The people left in Judah are largely the rural peasants, the uneducated, the foreigners, and they later become known as the Samaritans, for they don’t keep burned and destroyed Jerusalem as their capital.

Ezekiel has seen visions of all of this, and has tried again and again to warn his people. He’s in exile, not able to return home. He’s seen his country defeated, and all his family and friends murdered. He’s seen the Holy Temple of God ruined, and his sacred books and items desecrated. His wife dies, and he can’t even mourn.

This is the context his bones vision rests in. He has literally seen the bones of his countrymen. He has literally seen his city, and his country, defeated. Ezekiel sits in exile with his home, his land, his people utterly, utterly destroyed. When God gives Ezekiel this vision of valley of bones… Ezekiel and the Israelites are dry. Out of hope. Out of joy. Tired. Exhausted. The ones who are still walking are zombies, husks – there is no life left in them.

God asks Ezekiel, can these bones live?

Ezekiel answers with exhaustion, “O Lord God – you know.”

You know – these bones are weary and dead. You know – these people are hopeless. You know – we don’t even have tears left to cry. We’re dry.

And God says: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord: you shall live. I shall put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the Lord.

And as Ezekiel tells the dry bones that God will put them back together, and gives them flesh, and muscle, and tendons, and skin – the bones wiggles and clatter and rattle and organize themselves back into people.

Then God tells Ezekiel to call to the four winds — call everywhere – and let God’s breath bring life. From all corners, God breathes, and the people stand up – healthy – no longer slain. No longer dry. No longer breathless.

God tells Ezekiel, “These bones are the whole house of Israel. They say ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost. We are cut off completely.’ But I say, I am going to open your graves and bring you up. I will bring you home. I will put my spirit in you, and you will live. You shall know that I have spoken and I will act.”

There, when all hope is lost, when the country is destroyed and the people scattered, when so many have died and even more are living hopelessly – with one foot in the grave and just waiting for death to claim them – when the breath, the Spirit of God, is snuffed… God says, I have spoken and I will act. I am speaking and I have acted. I give you hope. I give you life. I will bring you home.

The words of God are literal for Ezekiel – God literally helps the Israelites eventually return home, rebuild Jerusalem, and the Second Temple. But God’s words are also metaphorical – the hope and life given to the dead bones is the hope and life given to the people living in exile. Do not fear. I am God. Do not be hopeless. I am God. I am acting. I am giving new life. I bring hope against all hope.

Lazarus’ situation seems hopeless, too. Jesus was ran out of Bethany with the people there wanting to stone him to death. And now, back in Bethany, Lazarus is very, very ill. Mary and Martha have sent word to Jesus. Jesus tells his disciples Lazarus has fallen asleep – and the disciples are relieved. Oh good! Then Lazarus will be fine. There’s no need for us to go back to Bethany, which is right in the shadow of Jerusalem, and get stoned to death. But Jesus tells them plainly – no, Lazarus is dead and we are going back to Bethany. You hear Thomas say, “Well, guys, let’s go to Bethany too – might as well all die together.” They don’t have any hope that this situation is going to turn out well. They’re going to join Lazarus in the grave.

When Jesus and his disciples arrive in Bethany, they learn that Lazarus has been dead for four days. In ancient Jewish understanding, the soul finished leaving the body after three days. This makes sense medically – someone could enter a coma and appear dead, and wake up in a day or two… but if someone has appeared dead for three days… and rot has begun to set in… you know, they’re not in a coma. They’re not going to wake up. This person is very, very dead. Since it has been four days, Lazarus is beyond hope. Everyone knows – he is dead.

Martha goes out and meets Jesus. She says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died! But even now I know God will give you whatever you ask of God.” Listen to that angry accusation! Jesus – I sent you word – you knew Lazarus needed you ahead of time – yet you didn’t come. Where were you when Lazarus needed you? Now he is dead. I know you could have asked God to cure Lazarus and God would have answered your prayer.

Jesus replies, “Your brother will rise again.”

Martha’s heard this phrase over and over. Many Jews at this time believed there would be a final day when the dead would be resurrected and stand before God. I think Martha must sigh and say, “I know.” I know we’ll all meet again. I know there’s an afterlife – but Jesus – you could have done something now! I sent for you! I called for you! And you came too late!

Jesus replies, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

Do you believe this? Do you believe that a person’s body dies, but they live on? Do you believe that in Jesus, there is abundant life – even for those who are beyond hope? Even for bones that are weary, and dry, and souls that thirst, and are weighed with sin? Do you believe that we suffer death and deaths, but through it all, resurrection – new life – is always possible?

Martha replies, “Yes, Lord, I believe.” And she shares the news with her sister, Mary.

Mary comes to Jesus with the same accusation as Martha- but she comes in tears and falls at Jesus’ feet, “Lord – if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died!”

I’ve said both of these prayers of the sisters. I’ve cried out in anger – God, I told you when the prognoses didn’t look good – I gave you heads up – why didn’t you act?! If you’d intervened, my loved one would still be here! I’ve also fallen to my knees in prayer and sobbed, God, where were you?

… Mary is crying. Lazarus’ family and friends are crying. And Jesus begins to cry too, and asks where Lazarus’ body lays.

Around Jesus, people mutter, “Look at him cry! Look at how much he loved Lazarus.” Others say, “He opened the eyes of that blind man, he can cure and heal people. If he’d come quicker, couldn’t he have saved Lazarus? He’s crying out of guilt.” Why do we think Jesus is crying? Maybe he knew he was going to resurrect Lazarus, and that deed – the seventh and final sign in the book of John – would lead to Jesus’ death. Maybe Jesus is crying because he knows this sets into motion his return into Jerusalem, and his passion, and the scattering of the disciples. Maybe Jesus is crying because he loves Mary, and sees how much she is hurting. We’re told he is greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. But why? We don’t know.

In his agitated state, and full of tears, Jesus goes to Lazarus’ tomb. Show me him.

Martha reminds Jesus that Lazarus has been dead for four days. He stinks. He’s beyond curing. He isn’t in a coma – there is no soul left in his body. Jesus… Lazarus is beyond hope. Do you really want your last memories of him to be his rotting body? The tomb is closed. The story is done. The hope is gone.

Jesus replies, “If you believe, you will see the glory of God.” And he begins to pray over the reopened tomb – and calls out to Lazarus – “LAZARUS – COME OUT!” “Like the sheep that recognize the voice of the shepherd who calls them by name, Lazarus hears his name being called, he recognizes the voice of the shepherd, and the dead man comes out, because only the shepherd can lead his sheep out.” (Karoline Lewis)
The very dead man comes out of the grave still bound by the grave clothes. And these rags of death are unbound, and he is set free. Lazarus is alive!

Yet this very miracle, at the end of this chapter, is what leads in the book of John many to plan Jesus’ death. This final sign – that hope cannot be extinguished – is what leads to the cross.

And yet, we know, that even the cross cannot extinguish God’s ever renewing life and hope. Even should God Incarnate be crucified, nothing is ever so dead, so hopeless, to be beyond God’s saving grace – beyond God’s love.

Ezekiel stands in a landscape full of death – yet the hope for renewed life remains. Jesus stands at the tomb of his dear friend, in the shadow of the death – the shadow of the cross – Jesus knows the death and dryness of our own lives – literally stands with us in a garden of grief with gut wrenching tears – and yet, hope against all hope remains.

Amen.

Rest on Grace

John 3:1-17jesus_nicodemus_2
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17

Paul’s writings are thick, complex, and wrote in a style of rhetoric, argument, that we don’t use much anymore. So let’s break him down into little bits today. First, let’s replace Abraham in our scripture with George Washington. Think: What then are we to say was gained by George Washington, our ancestor according to the flesh? Or rather, why do some people brag George Washington is their great-great-grandpappy? Does that make them more American than those not related to George Washington? In other words, it’s great to have grandpappies who did great stuff… but God doesn’t care who your grandpappy is… just like your American Citizen status doesn’t rely on being related to George Washington.

Next, Paul argues Abraham didn’t work for God, and God didn’t pay Abraham his due. This wasn’t an employee and store owner relationship. Instead, God -granted- -reckoned- -gifted- Abraham righteousness in return for Abraham’s trust. Paul even calls Abraham ungodly. God gifts grace to people who haven’t even turned their lives around towards living faithful lives. Faithful lives doesn’t win you God’s grace. God gives it freely. So, God doesn’t care who your grandpappy is… and God doesn’t require living a sinless life to receive God’s love.

If we’re going to use our American analogy, it would be that your citizenship to America doesn’t depend on being related to George Washington… and, it doesn’t depend on you speaking English, dressing in jeans and a tshirt, and being Christian. You can be American and speak Spanish, or wear a hijab, or pray at a Synagoge.

Why is this important to Paul? Because he’s writing to ancient Jews who had always been taught that their literal ancestor – Abraham – is what made them Jewish, and made them God’s people. These new converts to The Way of Jesus (seen as form of Judaism at the time) are NOT biologically related to Abraham. How can they, too, be God’s children?

Sorta like… many say that to be an American citizen, you have to have been born here. Raised here. OR act, look, speak and pray like you were raised here. But what about people born abroad to American parents, but due to the military, are raised in a foreign country and speak a foreign language and hold dual citizenship? Are they Americans? People who immigrate here – are they Americans? What about the Amish – are they Americans? We’ve got a lot of people who don’t wear tshirts, jeans, and speak Midwestern English. So what is the criteria for being an American?

Paul’s churches are asking – what is the criteria for being Christian?

He argues if being a child of God means being a literal descendant of Abraham… we have no reason to follow God. None. Born Jewish? Bam! You hit the jackpot. Automatic inclusion. Born Greek? Chinese? Sorry. You’re not loved, and even if you convert, you still are excluded. This way of thinking doesn’t promote faith. It doesn’t even promote living a good life style. It just promotes keeping a strict genealogy record so you can prove you’re related to Abraham, and so got your golden genetic ticket to God.

Instead, Paul argues that Abraham existed before there was really a Jewish people or Jewish faith. There wasn’t even a Torah, a Bible, at the time. So… being Jewish or following the Torah doesn’t include or exclude people from God’s children. Abraham was loved before the Torah and before Judaism. Instead, God’s children, Abraham’s heirs, are all of those who follow his faith. All of those people who trust God. And all those people – regardless of their biological ancestor, or their depth of knowledge of religion, or how little or how often they sin — none of this makes or breaks your relationship with God. Instead – you’re a child of God – just as you are, who you are – because God loves you.

What do you call this? It’s called grace. Unmerited favor. God loves you because God loves you. There’s nothing you can do to gain more love or to lose that love. To be Christian is to accept that love as reality with faith. With the belief in things unseen, not wholly proven, but chosen to be accepted. Paul writes, “God gives life to the dead, and calls into existence the things that do not exist.”

Biologically, you’re likely not related to Abraham… but you are his descendant through things that don’t exist. Living faith flows from him to you. You are Abraham’s heir. You are God’s child, too.

In our American analogy, you’re likely not related to George Washington, but you are his political heir. The spirit of democracy, freedom to speak, freedom to worship in your own way, freedom to influence your government is known to you. You’re an American child too, regardless of where you were born or what language you speak or how you worship.

Spiritual heirs are what Jesus and Nicodemus are talking about.

Nicodemus is walking a faith like our own, and like many of those whom Paul wrote to. In John’s gospel, light and dark, day and night, mean a lot more than just how much illumination there is. It also means whether or not someone is understanding Jesus, or if they’re misunderstanding Jesus. So Nicodemus comes literally at night and figuratively in misunderstanding. He thinks he knows who Jesus is: a great rabbi from God. Jesus tells him, “Bingo… and more. But to see more, one has to be born again or born from above.” The word used here in scripture means both — both again and from above.

Nicodemus is in the dark. He misunderstands and takes the literal translation — born again. He gets caught up in the literal – and starts picturing himself trying to get into a womb to be born again. SO not possible.

For our American analogy, it would be like saying Americans are those who are born American. But what about all the immigrants? Even if they get their greencards and are full citizens, are they still not Americans? They can’t be literally born again here. People don’t have two births.

Jesus explains – spiritual birth. The Spirit of God moves here and there, people here and there are reborn with it.

In our analogy, some people are spiritually born as Americans and come here with that spirit, that love, of liberty from wherever they were biologically born.

You just can’t predict who is going to faithfully vote and faithfully attend church based on their birth certificates. There are people born in America who never vote and there are people born with Christian parents who never attend church. Just as there are people born in Middle Eastern countries who move here and never miss voting, and there are people who have atheist parents who never miss time to pray.

Biological birth is not the same as spiritual birth.

Nicodemus, like many of us, still can’t get his head around it. He wants a clear checklist of what it means to follow Jesus. Sorta like we want a clear checklist of what it means to be American. But Jesus won’t give it to him. Grace isn’t earned. Grace — God’s love — is just given. Faith isn’t something to testify and be good for all time. Faith is lived. It is a verb.

Nicodemus asks for more help. He’s a scholar, he knows his religion, he’s affluent and educated and clearly devoted to understanding and practiving his faith. Jesus replies look – you disbelieve me about these earthly things. You know I’m doing miracles, but you still question. I told you God’s love is for more than Abraham’s biological children, but you didn’t believe. How am I to explain heavenly things to you? God loves you. God is saving the world through God’s son. God is giving new life — full life — life to the depressed, the lonley, the outcast, the foresaken, the poor, the ignored, the hopeless. God is welcoming in the “huddled masses” and “wretches refuse” and “temptest tossed.” God isn’t condemning them, isn’t condemning the world, but opening the door of welcome wide to all.

Have you ever pictured yourself back in ancient Israel? Like, say you woke up one day and you’re back there — 2030 years ago — and you actually meet Jesus in the flesh. I’ve always thought I’d instantly recognize him. I’d not be like Nicodemus and be sneaking in the dark. I wouldn’t be the religious leaders and spit on Jesus. I would know my Lord and drop everything to follow him.

Professor Karoline Lewis posed these questions that made me pause: “Do we really think that we could have understood Jesus any better than [Nicodemus?] this well-versed, well-educated Pharisee? And if we do, what makes us think so? What makes us so sure? Because we have two thousand years of Christianity under our belts? Because we have more theological insight? Because we have more faith?”

Nicodemus has more than two thousand years of Judism education under his belt. He’s literally speaking with Jesus in the flesh before him. He’s risking his reputation, his job, maybe even his life to speak with Jesus. Do we have more faith than that? And yet – here he is, misunderstanding because he is carrying so many expectations of who Jesus is and what God is doing.

… I might be carrying those too and stuck to my misconceptions more than God’s reality.

Jesus’ words are that whoever does good to the most wretched has done good to him. Whoever has spat on others has spat on him. Where did I see you Lord?

I don’t need to time travel back to ancient Israel to see Jesus in the flesh. Jesus is attempting to get his kids to school around Immigration Customs Enforcement agents. Jesus is sitting in a 103 tent watching her son slowly starve to death and praying the money comes through to get him help and out of this refugee camp. Jesus is the last survivor of a capsized boat in the Mediterranean.

In reality, I am Nicodemus. I get stuck in the literal. I get stuck thinking I’d recognize Jesus in the flesh 2000 years ago when I don’t even recognize him in the flesh today.

I try to follow Jesus. I try to understand, but I often look at the world with literal eyes and ignore the spiritual. Nicodemus shows up twice more in our gospel. He defends Jesus before his peers… and he helps bury Jesus. Nicodemus walks a faith life that goes into periods of darkness and light. Periods when he is attuned to the way God views the world, and Nicodemus does much good. And periods when he is confounded by God, and Nicodemus flounders, messes up.

That is why Paul’s argument and Jesus’ argument is so important to us during Lent: being a child of God, being loved by God, is God’s gift to us. We don’t earn it. We don’t lose it. We choose to respond to it.

We do wrongs individually, and collectively. We hurt others intentionally and unintentially. We miss seeing Jesus in others. We choose not to see Jesus in others. But God still loves us… even as we hurt God. Even as we take God’s child and shame him, torture him, murder him… God still loves us. Today, we still take God’s children of all backgrounds and shame them, torture them, murder them often by just ignoring them. But God still loves us.

And from that love, offers forgiveness. Offers us to begin again. Offers us a new life where we live more Christ-like and extend not condemnation, but salvation, to others. Out of God’s love for the whole world — not just Americans, not just Christians, not just Abrahamic faiths, but the WHOLE WORLD, Out of God’s love for the WHOLE WORLD, Jesus is given. Forgiveness is offered. We are given a new chance at peace, embracing each other, and living in harmony.

Amen.