“Like a Rat in a Maze, the Path Before Me Lies” – Simon and Garfunkel:​ A Sermon on Mark 2

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As another school year winds down, I am reminded we all need a certain amount of open time in the summer to allow space to plant new seeds in the fields of our life. Sometimes the best thing we can do for ourselves is to sit back and watch the grass grow, taking a hike, walking along the river, going fishing, knitting. These little “sabbaths” are needed to replenish our bodies, and minds, and spirit.

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The full moon earlier in the week took me back to my childhood days when I was reminded how I could spend the entire day and night outside playing. Our work, when we are children, is to play. A healthy childhood involves play for the sake of play. One of our issues in our modern society is that we have lengthened the school day and shortened the number of time children has to play. When was the last time you saw children playing in the streets? Maybe you remember a time when children were free range, and as long as they were safe, life was good. Nowadays, children have to be protected and with what little free time they have, it is the usually structured activity which leaves little if any free time to discover a personal freedom and playing for the sake of playing.

This happens in part because of the parents and adults. Yes, we know the influence adults have on children. And our society has become so consumed with work and running a rat race, that we have almost entirely forsaken our own need to play. It’s sad really, we are teaching our youth to value work and being busy more than just being. We weren’t created to work all day, every day. Even God rested after created humans on the six-day, so why do we think we are smarter than the Creator? It’s just foolishness.

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Have you ever met anyone who has won the rat race? If the answer is no, then why do we feel like we must compete in an unwinnable race? Seems as if your human inclination is to consume more and more and we get sucked into a vicious cycle of the rat race to keep up the pace so that we feel good about ourselves, our existence, and purpose. Some people are motivated by their own need to feel like my people, so they run the rat race to buy beautiful clothes and fancy automobiles and toys. Fact is, there is no end. It’s an empty hole that is hard to dig your way out of. Only when you look back in self-examination, do you discover your motivation and purpose has been wrong? Heck, some people never examine themselves, and as a result, they become miserable because they are tired of running the rat race.

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See, the scriptures tell us there is a dichotomy between God’s order and order of this world which produces a strain on Christians. We all know that to live and buy stuff, you have to work, but the problem comes when all we know how to do is work and forget about the living part. Now I know there are worker justice issues and the real wages in this country have been stagnating for several decades, and the living wage is far higher than actual salaries paid. It’s a real issue for many people working three part-time jobs. The thing is, the system we find ourselves in is unsustainable. At some point, it will collapse. So, why put more effort into a system that only pays off in the short run? There has got to be a better way, right?

Actually, there is, it’s called a Sabbath. And the good news is that God commands us to take it. Hear these words of Jesus: “The Sabbath was made for humans., and not humans for the Sabbath.”

Some of us are better at taking sabbaths than others. We can all learn something for people who make the time for self-care and leisure. Who in your life is good at this? Talk to them and learn from them. I bet they are probably in pretty good mental, spiritual, and even physical health. They are more self-aware than the rest of us because they take time to care for themselves. Learn something from them, they have something to teach you and us.

Abraham Joshua Heschel, a great Jewish thinker, writes: “The Sabbath as a day of rest is not to recover one’s lost strength and becoming fit for the forthcoming labor. The Sabbath is a day for the sake of life.” If we are taking a sabbath rest, it should disrupt our lives in a right way. Setting aside time from busy daily life and allowing ourselves to just be alive, it gives us something to look forward too and can make us feel good about ourselves and our daily labors. If God can take a day of rest, you can too. Everyone can. Jobs, families, lovers, employers, and friends can exist one day a week without anyone of us, none of us are that important and if your ego permits you to admit, actually they could exist eternally in our absence.

I am always amazed at the energy I discover in my zeal for ministry when I set aside the time to take care of my own needs and step aside and remove myself from my vocation. It’s not that I’m trying to get out of my service, but it refreshes me to step out of the rat race of life, and let my mind wander into something new. It’s way refreshing and energizes me for newness and change. If we don’t step outside ourselves, we become dull. Our world becomes small, and we lose that sense of wonder for life.

Sisters and brothers, don’t lose your zeal for life. Take the time to care for yourselves. It’s not only good, but it’s also a commandment! Your soul and spirit will become energized by the time you take away. Your soul is on a different timetable than your body. It doesn’t like to be rushed, so it is of utmost importance to remove yourself from the daily task for moments of contemplation and the dimension of our spiritual realities.  You will be a happier person because of it. Amen.

Know When to Hold Em, When to Fold Em, and When to Just Walk Away- John 15

[Jesus said:] 1“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. 2He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 3You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 4Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. 6Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.”
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Tools to prune branches.

I didn’t think that the yard work I did last Monday would turn into the subject of a sermon, but it fits perfectly with Jesus metaphor of vines and branches. My lilac shrub and this vine plant that I can barely stand needed to a cut, so with the beautiful weather, I didn’t want to miss my chance to trim a little of the plants. Here is a piece of the branch that I cut.

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What Jesus is talking about as fruit is faith. We can be confident he is talking about faith because he gives a clue. He says that those who are not bringing forth fruit will have to be pruned and thrown away. This is because they apparently are not drawing their life from Christ who is the Vine. They are cut off from Christ. Consequently, they are cut off from life. Their lives are fruitless and dead. They must be pruned and taken away and ultimately thrown into the fire. On the other hand, Jesus says to his disciples, “You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you.” This is to say that Jesus has already cleansed, pruned, and trimmed his disciples that they might be able to yield the proper fruit. This is an essential point in the text…. They did not cleanse themselves. They did not make themselves fit branches for bearing fruit. Jesus himself furnished them with the righteousness to produce their fruit acceptable to the Divine Vinedresser.

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The point of all this pruning work is so that we “abide” in God. Really, the heart of John’s gospel message is to abide in Christ love.

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So, this week, I want us to think about the fruits of our faith. Jesus says it like this, a good tree bears good fruit. And in our text, Jesus is the vine. God is the vine grower. We are the branches and expected to bear fruit. We cannot do so unless we abide in the vine.

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Like the shrubs I trimmed, God removes branches that don’t bear fruit. God prunes those that do. God is glorified when we become disciples and bear fruit. And what this fruit is not spelled out.

But, we might take a cue from Paul, who wrote about bearing fruit long before John wrote his gospel: The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control…”(Galatians 5:22) If we consider this interpretation of fruit, love, peace, joy and such as the fruit, then John is saying we find these by dwelling in Christ.

Here’s this morning’s take away – the branches (disciples) cannot bear fruit (good works) apart from the vine. Our good deeds come from God. And if the branch tries to bear fruit apart from the vine, it will wither. Focus in abiding in Christ first, and the branch will eventually bear fruit.

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Being connected to Christ is the only way we can honestly know we are connected to the source which provides life.

It seems to me that in every parish I have served, there are a some who worked their fingers to the bone trying to do good at some point they flamed out. They weren’t connected to the vine. It’s our only source of energy, and we need reminding that we have to stay connected to Christ, the source of life. Some of us, rather than discerning God’s direction, operate frantically. Worship and prayer were secondary to some. I’m all for helping people, but without the spiritual food and drink, we will all eventually run out of gas.

Our spiritual lives are the food we need for a life of ministry, a life of walking the way of the cross. We can’t get there on our own. We need the energy from the vine to keep up going. So many of us take on too much and eventually we wither, like the seed that fell in rocky soil and then was withered by the sun because it didn’t have the depth of root. Even though some folks meant well, they got crispy from not receiving nourishment and fade away.  

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What are the things in my life that God calls me to Hold, Fold or Grow in my walk with Christ? Maybe I need to think about rearranging some of the priorities and values I profess to have??? Perhaps I need to do something more?  Possibly I need to cut back???   Pray about it and remember through your baptism your connection to the source of life.

And this week I want you to consider what you immerse yourself. What would it be like to immerse yourself in love? Specifically, what would it be like to immerse yourself in the love of Christ – to love as Christ loved?

Let us pray…. Amen.

The Shocking News – An Easter Sermon

Late last year, I received a message from someone I didn’t know on Facebook informing that I had lost something that carries a lot of meaning in my life. I didn’t think the item the person claimed was missing and believed I was being baited, so I chose to ignore the message. Later, I received a second attempt through another means of communication from the same person who was attempting to reach me because she believed her husband found something of value that belonged to me. Again, I chose to ignore the message and brushed it aside.

Finally, on the night of New Year’s Eve, I revisited the message from a woman who lived in Wisconsin. She informed me that her husband works in a recycling center and that a class ring was found in the recycling with my name on it. She asked me if I could identify the ring. I was baffled. I take good care of my items and couldn’t imagine how this person could contact me about a personal class ring from my college I received in 1998. So, I went to the place where I kept my jewelry and discovered that the class ring I wear from time-to-time was indeed missing. My heart tightened, and different scenarios began running through my mind. The brain thinks strange thoughts when it is surprised, and reactions are not rational. So, I stepped back and thought, “How can this be?” What on Earth? I had no idea my ring was even missing.

I contacted the person and described the ring. She then sent me a picture of what was indeed my class ring. I just couldn’t believe what was happening. And quite honestly, I am still baffled by this. Somehow my class ring wound up in the recycling either at my home or here at church in the office. I can’t say for sure because I hadn’t any clue it was even missing. From the recycling, it made its way to a recycling center in Beloit, Wisconsin, and Billie Jo’s husband found it while he was cleaning out the box where all the foreign objects went when he discovered it.

What I learned is that trash from seven different states are shipped to this location, and the probability of having something of personal value found is improbable. Billie Jo went on to say that her husband lost his class ring over 20 years ago and they were devastated when they realized it was gone. She found my name on the inside of the ring, did a quick google search and discovered I was a pastor and found my website and reached out to me. Less than a week later, I received a package with my ring inside. I couldn’t repay Billie Jo and her husband despite trying to mail a check or a finder’s reward. Her only request of me was to share the story in one of my sermon’s. How there are still good people out there, who are watching and caring for each other. She and I agreed that somehow God was at work through this encounter and the lesson for her (and for me) is that we need to do right by others.

Sisters and brothers – life is full of surprises. We never know when we will be surprised by the sudden news. That’s the reality of life – we are shocked by some story that makes us anxious or afraid. Some of us live in fear of what could happen. This fear can sometimes paralyze us because we are so scared of what might happen.

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Perhaps that was the feeling of Mary Magdalene when she went to the tomb expecting to anoint the body of Jesus, but all she found was an empty shell. Her surprising message left her confused and afraid. After all, the tomb was empty. Nothing in all of the scriptures points to the fact that Mary Magdalene ever expected the body of Jesus to be missing. She showed up early to visit her Lord and Teacher. Little did she know what she would find.

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You and I get the privilege of getting excited about the empty tomb. It gives us a great hope that Christ has Risen…. But Mary Magdalene was devastated and shocked. She had lost a mentor who had great value for her.  The one to whom Mary had given much glory and devotion had been brutally put to death just three days prior, and now his remains were missing. She had no clue early that Easter morning that Jesus was missing and had risen from the dead. Could it be that someone stole the body? After the betrayal and everything that Jesus had been put through, it would have been heart-breaking for her to discover that someone had desecrated his dead body.

That is not what the Bible says. The Bible says Mary ran to get Simon Peter and another disciple, presumably John, the gospel writer, who ran to the tomb together to see what was going on. Inside the tomb, all that was left was the linen cloth that the body which wrapped the body. 

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The bible isn’t clear why the disciples still did not comprehend what was happening; it merely says the two disciples returned home leaving Mary Magdalene alone at the tomb. When two angels of the Lord appear where Jesus lay and question why Mary is weeping, she turns around and encounters the risen Jesus, whom she mistakes as the gardener. Jesus instructs Mary to go and tell the disciples that Jesus is alive and has not yet ascended to the Father. So, Mary goes as Jesus directs and shares the Good News.

And what does this all mean?   No one had, no has ever been, raised from the dead, and then set loose back in the world. What does that mean: “He is raised?” 

Just for this morning, let me say to you that it just means this; although we are all frail, mortal, finite human beings and are wholly inadequate in our words and our deeds in the face of death-  God – the one who creates and gives us life is determined to be the creator and the giver of life even in death.

Because Jesus is raised, we are bold to believe that we also shall be raised. The end of life is one problem that we can never solve. We can prolong life, but not bring life eternal on our own. We may have been successful in overcoming many of our daily problems. But death is one problem we cannot solve on our own.

And the good news of this day is that we don’t have to solve this deadly problem. Our culture tries it’s best to avoid death and aging, but it’s merely a false reality and message. Here is good news. Here is the best good news you will ever hear: “He has risen!” Do not fear death doesn’t get the last word. God does.

Easter carries with its fear. The Bible says that it is a “fearful thing to fall into the hand of a living God.”  And today, we and all our fears have fallen into the everlasting arms of a living God. God does for us what we cannot do for ourselves:  God triumphs for us in what St. Paul calls our “final enemy” – death. God does do something about our death problem.

So, whether it be fear, doubt, joy, whatever you feel, you can drop whatever it is you are doing and run, tell this Easter message: “He has risen!”  Because this day we can be like Mary Magdalene and my friend, Billie Jo who announced the good news of something that was lost and of value to me is not gone but has been found! Despite our fear and concerns of rejection to tell anyone who will listen in our culture of disbelieving: “He has Risen!  He is risen, indeed.”  Alleluia. To God be the Glory. Amen.

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Pouting in the Pit or Preaching to the People?

If I had been assigned the task of putting together the Old Testament, it would probably look a lot different than the one we use today.  First of all, I would take the opportunity to get rid of some of the folks I’ve never liked.

I know David is a pretty significant character, given that he is the ancestor of Jesus and all, but the whole infidelity thing has always bothered me—so, either David would have to go, or I would revise the story to take out his transgression.

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I would keep Deborah, for sure.  And maybe write a little more about her— we don’t really have enough female leaders in the Bible, right? 

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Elijah and his wonder-workings are too good to pass up, so he’d stay.

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Elisha, on the other hand, would have to go. After all, I think it is highly inappropriate to retaliate just because some little boy has called you – ‘baldy.’ (- 2 Kings 2:32-35)

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In my version of the Old Testament, Amos would stay with his beautiful metaphors of God’s justice rolling down like cascading waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

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Hosea would have go—his divine marriage metaphor just doesn’t work for me. —    (Hosea 1:2-3:5)

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And some of the smaller, minor prophetic books seem redundant, so I’d probably cut some of them and add someone a little more modern like Dorothy Day or Martin Luther King Jr.

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But the person I’d be least likely to include in my canon would be Jonah.  Sure, it makes for a great story, being swallowed by a fish.  But if you look at his character, it just doesn’t meet what I like to think of as good family values.

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Let’s see, the first time he ‘got the call’ from the Lord, Jonah went running the other direction.

In fact, he tried to hide from God by getting in a ship with a bunch of sailors and going to sea. Jonah must have known what God had in mind.  God must have known that God wasn’t going to cause destruction upon those Ninevehites.  Jonah must have known that God was merciful, even to those who run away.  And Jonah, in his indignation, did not want the good news to come to people like them.  Jonah thought he could keep the good news from the Ninevehites.  So he wimped out and ran as far away as he could from God’s call.

Okay, maybe not the first place that I would go if I were hiding from God, but this is Jonah’s story, not mine.  Not only does Jonah not listen to God, but he tries to make things better by getting the sailors to dump him overboard.

Jonah goes into the ocean only to be swallowed by a giant fish.

I don’t recall enough of my high school biology classes to remember much about fish anatomy.  I presume they must have ample stomachs.

But one big enough to hold a person, for three days? 

Or maybe Jonah was just a petite person?

I’d be curious to know what the Biblical literalists do with this one.

At any rate, Jonah’s marine home is short-lived, as he is literally ‘vomited‘ by the fish onto the shores of Nineveh.  God comes to him a second time, as we have in today’s lesson.

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I wonder why God is so patient with little Jonah here. It’s equally as unbelievable as Jonah’s being swallowed up by the fish.  He’s already proven himself to be a bit of a weasel and reasonably fool-hardy to boot.  Why God didn’t look for another more qualified person to prophecy to Nineveh?

But God tells Jonah, again, to go to Nineveh.  Get up, God says, Go to Nineveh and proclaim the message. 

So Jonah, grudgingly, picks himself up out of the sand and wipes off the fish goo.  His fists are clenched, his face twisted, as he stomps off to do the ministry he was called to do.

We never get to find out why it is that Jonah is so opposed to going to Nineveh.  We don’t know why these people, the Ninevehites, who were so eager to hear good news, were the object of Jonah’s disdain.

Why did Jonah dislike them so?  Why is it that sharing the good news was so awful for Jonah, that he would have preferred the cold sea to ministering to them? Was it because the Ninevites were different than Jonah?  Was this an ancient ‘race problem’?

Perhaps Jonah wanted to claim God for himself, and not share him with those of a different lifestyle and culture?  Was this an ancient case of ‘affirmative-action’?  Did Jonah think that these non-Jews were getting special treatment?

Maybe Jonah was upset because he had been faithful to the covenant, keeping the law, and earning the love of God, while the Ninevehites—who had done none of these things, were about to receive this very same love of God.

Was he mad because he had played by the rules, the same rules that had gotten him ahead in life?  Was Jonah jealous that God would waste his time on people he refused to get to know? 

Jonah, in his refusal to go to Nineveh, was saying that he knew more than God.  Surely, you don’t want me to go there, to those people, Jonah was speaking.  You wouldn’t want me to spend time with people who don’t share my same values, could you?

God, Jonah must have been thinking, you must have misspoken.  I’ll just wait over here for a while until you come to your senses.  Indeed, your message can’t be for people like them.

I said earlier, how I would choose to keep Jonah, among others, out of the Hebrew Scriptures.  I mean, his story is disturbing, perhaps too distressing. There is a part of Jonah’s story that hits a little too close to home.

There is a part of Jonah’s story that looks a little too much like myself, like someone I wish I were not.

It’s the part of me that get jealous when I hear other people’s good news.  It’s the part of me that gets angry when it feels like others get rewarded for not following the rules.  It’s the part of me that would instead judge a person based on stereotypes then get to know her for myself.

And its this same part of me that fakes happiness for a friend when deep down I am scowling with envy.  It’s this little, but persistent part of me that would instead remain in my insecurity than enjoy the Nineveh’s of the world. 

It’s the part of me that would rather pout in the cold stomach of a fish than celebrate what God has done. 

There is this pit, deep inside of me that resists being seen.  There is an ugliness that shows itself when one’s guard is down.

And it is from this pit that we find ourselves doing things for which we are later ashamed, like feeling for our wallets when we walk past a person of color, like only having friends who look like us, like thinking less of immigrants or the working poor.

These shameful parts of ourselves show themselves at unexpected moments.  We try to hide them by insisting that, ‘yes, I have black friends,’ or ‘skin color doesn’t matter to me.’ But our ugliness keeps us, like Jonah, sitting in the pit of a fish, holding us prison to our jealous fears and insecurities. 

But God doesn’t want us to stay in these pits.  God doesn’t want us to stay in the stomach of a fish when there are places like Nineveh that have yet to hear the good news.  God offers us a way out of our hatred, our isolation, and our shame.

And God doesn’t want us to rewrite scripture or pretend that there are not parts of us yearning for connection and security.  God knows that we are held prisoner to shame and envy. But God does not want us to live that way.  God does not want us to keep on living in the stomach of a fish!

That’s why God sent Jesus to us.  That’s why God offers us a new way to live, a new way that doesn’t see envy before humanity.  God teaches us this new way to live. God frees us from our pits of despair in the simplest of ways.  We don’t need to stay bound by our ugliness and insignificance.

Because God loves it away. 

God loved little Jonah, stuck in a fish, insignificant next to giant Nineveh, the giant sea, and the giant fish.  God found little Jonah, who had tossed himself away to sea, who was afraid of all that life had to offer and returned him to safety.

God seeks us out, especially when we feel insignificant, especially when we are isolated, and returns us to dry land.  God loves us out of our shame.  God loves us out of our insecurity and our envy. God loves away any ugliness that may be buried deep inside.

But the story doesn’t stop here. 

God rescues us from the pit, so that we may be freed to go to places like Nineveh, that we may be able to love others as we have been loved.

God rescues us from the isolation that we may connect with others.  And those of us, like Jonah, who know what it feels to be trapped in the pit of a stomach don’t forget this feeling of insignificance.

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But instead of being bound by this feeling, we use it to seek out others who may feel or who may be treated that way.

God sought us out, so we can do nothing else but seek others out, and share with them this great love that has restored our humanity and given us life.

Because with God’s love, no one is insignificant, no one is shamed, and all are made whole.

Amen.

 

Advent I – Three Parts of the Bible We Need to Know.

This first Sunday of Advent out focus is on being patient while we wait and watch. And for some of us, it might be a harsh lesson to learn. I’m afraid that in our instantaneous culture, something we must use our best skill of patience as we trust in the work of God. No doubt, Paul talks about patience as being a fruit of the spirit and there are some among us for whom patience is a spiritual gift. For others of us, we have much to learn from our sisters and brothers for whom patience is an innate spiritual gift.

I mean, after all, for what are we in a hurry? Some of you might be asking the obvious. Watching and waiting. For what? And what Mark seems to be telling us is that we are waiting for the coming reign of God. In one of my classes at Luther Seminary, I took this summer on sabbatical, one of the authors of the books we used encouraged us to read the bible as an entire story (which is directly opposite of what many have been taught). We show, rightly so, that the Bible is almost like a library of 66 books each with its own unique chrematistic and set of circumstances. This author thesis is that we should understand the Bible as a missional statement of who God and what God is up to in the world. His argument does have a point.

So, in light of our scripture text from Mark this morning, maybe we could think of the bible as having three parts.

Part I: Genesis One. All of creation is under God’s authority; which includes people. God’s power is over us is what the reign of God is all about (we talked about this last Sunday). We were created so that God would reign over us.

Part II: Genesis 2 and 3: Creation falls through the human creature’s rebellion at God’s authority. Adam and Eve disobeyed God: ‘You can have everything except this one thing…” and what was humanities response? “But we want just this one thing…” And then Adam blames someone else for his rebellion. “It was Eve’s fault.” and then Eve blames the serpent.

Part III: is Genesis 4 through Revelation 22. God acts to restore the fallen relationship and God’s divine authority. From Genesis 4 through the end of the Bible, the story is about how God continues to work to restore power over us so that we might be able to enjoy life as God intended experience to be. Of course, with the New Testament, being justified and restored with our creator comes through Jesus Christ through his death and resurrection.

And getting back to the first message of waiting and spiritual practice of patient and waiting for God’s restored authority over the earth, it seems that some of us have woke to this divine reality. And even still, the Bible records that everyone will be made aware of the reign of God at the end of the world (Phil. 2:10-11). The end will come eventually, but the spiritual awaking can come now.

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So, using the three parts of the biblical story, we can use them as the backdrop for our Advent awaking. And that is the first step in the Advent Awaking. It is waking and the awareness to understand the direction we are going isn’t working. The secular trend and values are dysfunctional. It leads to disaster. While all around the world is walking on the dead-end street called secularism, we can write an alternative story. The alternative story has been written long ago. It’s called the Bible! We can wake to the reality of God, our creator, the one from whom we came and the one to whom we must one day offer an account.

The second stage is commitment. People who are spiritually alive know there is a better life narrative. They aren’t consumed by what is happening around them. They “hear” the song behind the words spoke. And yet, the amazing thing about God is that God will take us as we are, searching and or aware of God’s presence. God starts with us wherever we are willing to start.

And the third stage is entering into a fellowship with the mission. Once we make the personal commitment to walking the way of Christ, the realization will sink in that it is about me. It’s about the body of Christ. Every Sunday that we gather to worship God, there is the real possibility that someone will wake up to God who is at work in the body of Christ. People will realize that they cannot make it in life on their own, that they must be a part of something larger than themselves. It happens. We’ve all seen lives that have been transformed by the power of God working through the body of Christ. People to wake up to God’s advent.

As Jesus reminds us, “Be awake, keep alert; for you do not know when the time comes.” It might be today, tomorrow, or years and years awake. But Christ will come. Rest assured. Christ will come. Come, Lord Jesus, Come. Amen.

“Keeping the Edges Hot” a Reflection on Matthew 25

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Each year, after we hear God’s promise of eternal life on All Saints’, we focus our attention on the return of the Son of Man. When we reflect our awareness to what happens around us, it seems to be fitting that following our remembrance of God’s promise on those who have already entered eternal life through our commemoration of the saints, at some point, all we have known and will know will come to an end. We call this the cycle of life, and while our culture does it’s best to distract us from thinking about the end of things, the gospel calls us to be aware of the reality of life.

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         Jesus tells the parable of the Ten Bridesmaids as a way of inviting our attention to the details of our life. In a real sense, it is a parable about spiritual literacy which, according to our passage means being alive to what life is telling us and an awareness of the presence of God in the darkness of the night.

         There are all kinds of delightful and essential things that are happening in front of us, but we often miss most of them because we are either too busy to notice or not awake to realize what is happening. Which seems to be Jesus point in telling this parable.

         This past week in our confirmation class, our class discussed how Christianity is similar and dissimilar to other world religions. Our youth talked about Buddhist and how meditation can lead to Nirvana or an enlightenment as a life path. Buddha says everything in life comes down to one thing- staying awake and being aware. And you remember Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane? “Watch and pray,” Jesus says. “Remain with me.” He tells the disciples. And yet, the Bible reports that the disciples are unable to remain awake.

         God is in the details, and if we are not paying attention, we will miss the message. Paying attention requires disciple and practice. As a community of faith whose core is the Gospel message, we lift up and affirm our spiritual practices as a way in which we remain aware of the presence of God as a way to express our faith in Jesus Christ as a different way to live and be in this complicated world.

What does it mean to pay attention? Being alive and awake in the case of Jesus parable is to live intentionally without reservation in the here-and-now. To be attentive, we must put ourselves in a place where we are open and receptive and entirely present. This takes work and practice. There is no one “right” way to practice an awareness. Psychologist tells us based on brain scans that people who have a spiritual practice of consciousness and alertness have created more Alpha waves in their brains which in turn translates into a less stressful life and peaceful feeling. And conversely, if we are not aware and alert we can be distracted and eluded from what is supplying energy to our lives a thousand times over.

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         How often has each of us not fully embraces those moments of grace, epiphanies, and great insights because we have been too wrapped up in a hurried pace of life? Too busy to slow down to appreciate the good stuff that gives our lives meaning.

         Spiritually, too many Christians are just playing church. Just going through the motions. We say we want to follow Jesus as long as following Jesus fits nicely into my schedule and doesn’t require any time or monetary commitment from me. We might show up on a Sunday morning, but the message we come away with doesn’t do for us what it does for some of the other folks. We might not be aware of God’s presence in our life because we haven’t given any thought to the matter. And then we are in a rush to start the week ill-prepared because we’ve been so busy during the weekend that by the time Monday rolls around, and we get to the office, God’s message of life and meaning is as distant to us as last year’s vacation. Like the foolish bridesmaid who was ill-equipped for the darkness of the night, they were not alert for the moment at hand.   

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         Each day, each moment has its own needs. Each day has its own set of thoughts and words. Are we living in tune with what God is speaking to us? Because as the parable expresses no moment is trivial since each moment in time contains a spark of the divine. If we are not aware and present, we miss what God is speaking.

         Jesus parable of the bridesmaid is like our reminder of God’s grand banquet that is spread out before us, and God desires that we partake and seize the present moment to recognize God’s presence with us without any regret for the past or the future. Pledge to yourselves this moment and let the moment teach you. Surrender yourself to the moment and make it preach to you because the quality of each moment we are aware of the Life inside us determines the quality of life we lead.

         Where do we start? “Pastor, how can I be more in tune with the life that lives inside of me?” How can I be like the bridesmaid who was alert and awake? The starting point in the recognition that we are already on the journey. We can’t attain the presence of God anymore because we are already entirely in the existence of God. What is missing is our awareness. Little do we realize that God is maintaining us with every breath we take in. Maybe the best way to be aware is not so much about what we need to learn or even attain, but rather what things do I need to unlearn so that I am more aware of God’s presence?

         I mentioned that our confirmation students class time was about world religions. Some might wonder why it would be essential to teach the students about other religions when we are instructing them in faith in Jesus Christ. It’s a fair question to ask, and I would answer that all religious teachers without exception have recognized that we humans do not naturally see; we have to be taught how to see.

         And what that might mean for many of us is that to be aware of God’s presences in our lives, we have to accept what is often difficult to realize that it is God who walks alongside the problematic moments in lives. That’s why Buddha and Jesus say with one voice, “Stay awake! And Remain watchful.” We have to learn to see what is there because if we want to remain awake and engage in spiritual practices remember what a spiritual exercise is designed to do – religious traditions help us to get rid of the illusions we hold so that we can be fully present. Spiritual methods exist to help us see who we are, what is happening in life and what is True. On the contrary, our mass culture is like scales over our eyes. We only see life through the material eye which will always desire to acquire more and more.

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   So then, if we are to believe and take to heart these words of Jesus, then we must start with what spiritual teachers coin a “beginner’s mind.” That is to be aware of the voices inside us that presume that we already see what God wants us to see. A beginner’s mind starts with the reality that I know nothing and has everything to learn. A beginner’s mind understands there may be no sufficient answer and that the questions we ask or more important than any answer given. A beginner’s mind is merely an awareness. An awareness that we cannot live in the presence of God, but rather that we are entirely surrounded by God.

         St. Patrick said it like this: “God beneath us, God in front of us, God behind us, God above us, God within us.”

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         To be aware and live means that we cannot earn God. We can’t prove ourselves worthy of God, but rather than that to be awake and alert is to be attentive to the reality that God is already present and because of that, we can enjoy the present moment. Right here. Right now. For sure, there are moments when this happens smoothly for us. When life makes sense, and all is right with the world.

         But Jesus doesn’t leave us there. Jesus pushes us further to see past our social edges. Can you see the image of Jesus in the least of your brothers and sisters? How about your enemies are those whom would cause you harm? Notice this parable says nothing about commands, or church attendance, nothing about church law. Jesus parable is only about our ability to see.

         Perhaps what it means to have oil in our lamps is when we can see the image of God where we don’t want to look and see, then we know not with our own eyes, but with the eyes of Jesus. Amen.

 

Dealing with Conflict – Matthew 15

 

With all the traveling I’ve done this summer, I pulled out an old book on cd and listened to it as I was driving around the country. The book was about guidelines for having meaningful conversations with other people and how to react when communication become what the author calls “crucial” which is an emotionally charged discussion when the stakes are high. His point is that when we engage in critical conversation the most primitive part of our brain, the Amegda takes over, and cause us not to think clearly. Thus, when the stakes are high, and we need to be able to reason at our best, we are not able to because our brains are wired to the fight or flight response to a threating situation or conversation.

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The key in these types of situation is to be self-aware of our response and knowing how to keep the conversation safe so that both parties feel open to contributing to the shared pool of common knowledge. We often shy away from the crucial conversation because they are challenging and we don’t want to upset or disappoint the other person. Often avoiding issues is no good either. It could lead to a passive aggressive attempt to get back to a person if we don’t talk through an issue, or sometimes conversation that isn’t handled well can lead to violence or hurt feelings.
I think Jesus knew that there were going to be disagreements and conflicts when well-meaning people gather. Jesus knew this wouldn’t be easy for you and me to practice our faith together as children of God.

images-4When we are honest with ourselves, sometimes we as people of faith must be engaging in a crucial conversation about a matter that is important to us individually as well as the Body of Christ, but in this passage from Matthew’s gospel Jesus lays out a method for handling sin within the community of discipleship.
How does it work Jesus’ first step is to talk straight with others. You’ve got a problem with someone else? Deal with it directly. Don’t embarrass the person in public – deal with him or her one-on-one. Don’t do it over the phone or letter. Words on paper can be misinterpreted. Do it in person, and don’t beat around the bush. Get right to it. But we are dealing directly with that person, point out the fault and resolve the situation. Don’t talk behind the others back, tear them down. If you don’t have the gumption to deal directly with that person, then keep your issues to yourself. More harm is done to others with “I probably shouldn’t be telling you this, but did you know….” Speak, speak, speak; don’t keep your mouth shut. You will be held responsible for your silence and for the consequences of your unwillingness to talk.
You see, you can either speak it out, or you will act it out. In the long run, talking with someone is always more productive than acting out by not have a crucial conversation with someone else.

Of course, there are also some folks who have no problem with straight talking. In fact, the trouble is they seem to enjoy it too much. I don’t think that is what Jesus or Paul had in mind when discussion about the conflict in the body of Christ. Paul says when you must speak the truth to a loved one, a friend or fellow church member, tell the truth in love.

As hard as it might be for some of us, it is our job and obligation, to speak the truth lovingly and genuinely when someone has sinned against us. And if the straight talk doesn’t work in resolving the problem, then get other involved, Jesus says. It’s a systematic process, take it to the elders. And if nothing else works, then be done with them. In the end, we are called to love not to be like by everyone. Sometimes our call to love is tough.

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How do you deal with others who have caused problems for you? Jesus has the answer. With straight talk, due process, but most of all, with grace. Knowing that we are all human and everyone we meet is carrying a heaven burden. All of us; there are no exceptions. By treating one another with Grace, you will be fulfilling more than the law and the prophets; you will fulfill the gospel of Jesus Christ. Amen.

THE WEARY WAY: Reflections on the Road to Emmaus Story – LUKE 24:13-35

The Road to Emmaus from Luke 24:13-35

Have you ever met anyone famous? Or maybe somewhat famous? Or perhaps just have been in the same airport or restaurant as someone well known?

In early April, I attended the opening day celebration for baseball by attending the home opener for the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium.

 

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Waiting in line to enter Busch Stadium on Opening Day 2017.

 

This year’s home-opener featured a team *from Chicago* that won the World Series in 2016, and, is a team that most in St. Louis would consider the Cardinals greatest rival.

The energy on opening day was incredible. People filled with spirit and cheer because of the return of America’s “favorite past-time” following a long offseason.

Folks are everywhere around Busch Stadium for opening day. Many are across the street to gather in the BallPark Village waiting for the gates to open and the crowds to begin to file in on Opening Day, find their seats and wait for the greatest living Cardinals and the current team to be introduced. It’s quite the spectacle with all the Clydesdale Horses prancing along the warning track making their way to home plate.

 

 

Despite my lack of intimate knowledge of the appearance of former Cardinal greats, I convinced myself while standing in the BallPark Village that on the second-floor balcony, I spotted Bruce Sutter, a pitcher from the 1970-80’s who arguably developed and perfected the split-finger fastball pitch.  Bruce was standing near the VIP club waving down to the crowds with a scepter in his hand.

 

For many seasoned Cardinal fans, this would not be so remarkable a feat as Sutter is well known in the St. Louis Area.  And yet,  I had a sense of pride in my ability to recognize this well-known figure based on his appearance from a distance.

So, if I, a casual, yet passionate, fan could recognize a Cardinal great somewhat out of context, I’d like to think that I could have spotted the risen Jesus Christ if he had chosen to accompany me just a few days after his resurrection.

Moreover, you might say to me that I’m relying more on my own ability to recognize someone, and while that’s true, the Holy Spirit also assists us in “seeing” the personhood of others.

The Holy Spirit opened the eyes of two early disciples of Jesus shortly after his resurrection on a rural road as they walked.

As Luke, tells the story, we, the reader get to be in on the joke. Luke says of these two travelers, returning home, perhaps, after Jesus’ death and resurrection. As listeners of this story, we are stunned to find out that anyone could fail to recognize the risen Christ, especially two of his closest followers.

But that is just what happens. Cleopas and his companion, just happen to be joined by Jesus on their walk to Emmaus. And instead of instantly recognizing who he is, they take him for a stranger. And they fail to figure out who he is until the end of today’s lesson when Jesus breaks bread with them. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

 

 

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“The Road to Emmaus”  artwork by He Qi. 1997. 

As easy as it is to kind of laugh at poor Cleopas and his companion, thinking of them as fools who don’t know their leader, I must say I just may be able to recognize myself—and maybe a few others in their plight.

Cleopas and this fellow traveler without a name, I sometimes imagine her as his wife, were among the faithful. They were friends with the 12 disciples, we learn later, which suggest they were among the inner circle.

Their statement of faith, which they somewhat humorously share with the stranger-Jesus, uses all the right language, hits all the highlights. Surely, they would have passed any confirmation test on their first try.

Cleopas and companion were dedicated and faithful followers. They had certainly been to church Easter Sunday. Well, not just to church—they probably helped cook the churches’ Easter brunch. Surely, they had attended all the Lenten services, probably helped with the Wednesday meals, most likely had washed more than their fair share of dishes.

They were the type of couple that we can imagine as dedicated and faithful. The sort of people to volunteer, to show up, to serve on the committee after committee, the kind to come to church not just on Easter but 2 Sundays into it. And I imagine that they had become weary.

In all their efforts to be faithful, their vision had become blurred. They missed seeing the most famous person. Perhaps their dedication had gotten in the way. Maybe the stress of leadership, their stubbornness, their investment in an outcome had slowly squeezed Jesus out of the picture. So that when he showed up, they had no idea who he was.

What sort of objects blur your vision? What is grabbing so much of your attention that you are unable to realize that Jesus is right next to you? What is keeping your life out of focus?

Perhaps Cleopas and his companion were caught off-guard by the trauma of Jesus’ death. Perhaps this experience was too much to handle, more than they had bargained for, their grief eating them alive.

I wonder what kind of stress losing not only a dear friend but a leader can cause. Isolation? Need for distance? An overwhelming desire just to forget everything and leave town?

This is the part of the lesson that begins to look familiar, at least to me. Cleopas and his companion remain the center of activity. Disheartened at what has happened. Stuck in the middle of the story, unable to see through to the end.

They look for an escape, a way out, one that doesn’t require believing in something so extraordinary. They look, to perhaps, shed themselves of idealist principles. They can’t take any more disappointment or disillusionment. Wanting to get away from a life of faith which brings on struggle, despair, and cynicism.
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And how familiar is this road—the one that makes us believe change is unlikely, one that drains our energy, one that makes us feel any real work done will not make a difference.

One thing the faithful know is that the life of the faithful can get weary. It can feel pointless. This weariness can erode our hope; it can blind our sense of purpose, can diminish our drive to keep at it.

And it is just then that Jesus shows up, re-enters our lives.

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I like this Jesus… this Jesus that Luke writes about. It’s not a neon-tee-shirt Jesus or an extra-large billboard on I-80 Jesus. This is a reserved Jesus.  

Jesus is a little cunning and a lot clever.

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A Jesus who bides his time, very willing to let Cleopas and company do the talking, a Jesus who is not just offering answers but is willing, encouraging really, of Cleopas and companion to come to their conclusions.

What kind of presence draws you within? What type of conversations keeps you up past your bedtime? What kind of stranger is so compelling that you can’t get enough? That, however, long or short your conversation is, you are left wanting more?

We don’t get to know Jesus’ motivation for not blurting out that he indeed is the risen one. But we do know that because of his actions, his ability to remain mysterious, Cleopas and his companion are left wanting more.

They practically beg Jesus to stay with them. Jesus has listened to them. He has taught them. They are compelled to stay with him, to be close to him. They invite Jesus to stay.

And that’s when it happens. As Jesus breaks bread, their hearts turn, re-turn to him, their eyes are re-opened and they re-congnize. They re-know Jesus once again.

If you are one of those people who can recognize Jesus in everything, in every moment, in every person, then you have a lot to offer the rest of us. But if you are like Cleopas and his companion, like me, like so many others, and you can’t always make out Jesus, even when you have your glasses on and he is right in front of you, this story brings good news.

Our vision may not be perfect, but Jesus’ is.

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He comes over and sits right beside us. He IS patient with us. He listens to us. Wants to hear what we say. He recognizes us from a distance.

Even more shocking, he recognizes us close-up. Despite, maybe because of our blemishes, our imperfections, our choices that look ugly, no matter the lighting. Jesus knows who we are, comes to us, recognizes us, and walks along on our journey with us.
He is companion, listener, teacher, and provider. He promises to show himself so that we may recognize him and be witness to what he has done and is doing in our lives.

Today we get to experience this promise. Today we welcome Cameron Hill into the fold. We promise on his behalf to tell him what we know, to show him what we have seen.

About Jesus in this world; about Jesus in our lives. About a hope so high we cannot avoid it. About a love that is always gathering us in, despite, and especially when we try to run away from it.

And then we do what we do every Sunday.

We come to the table for nourishment. Because when everything else has gone astray, when hope seems lost, when God feels distant, when disillusionment begins to steal our souls, Jesus opens our eyes and shows his love to us.

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Crumb by crumb, drop by drop, God gives us something to chew on, liquid love to restore our souls.

And with a restored vision, we may continue our journey, sharing this meal, hearts burning with love, to all that may receive it.

Amen.

Easter- Evidence or Experience? A Sermon for Easter

 

The Bible makes a definite point that Jesus died.  He hung on the cross until he was dead.   It wasn’t a spiritual death, but a physical one.  His body was dead.  The heart of man stopped beating.  Furthermore, when he was taken down from the cross by the soldiers, they made sure there was no mistake about it – they speared him in the side to drain the blood.  Eventually, the body of Jesus found its way to the tomb of a wealthy man, Joseph, because Jesus had no tomb of his own.  The body was laid to rest in the grave, and the tomb was sealed off from the world, placing a stone in front of the grave, the guards were ordered to watch the tomb to protect the order of the empire from the people’s uprising.

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Everyone thought the story was over.

The death of Jesus on the cross was like a baseball announcer thanking everyone for coming out  to watch the game following a disappointing home team loss,  but it’s now time to return to your cars and depart for your homes.

The game was over. Even those who followed Jesus had already returned home try to make sense of all the events that took place.

 

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Then early on that third day, the gospel accounts record that the women – Mary Magdalene and the other Mary go to the tomb to out of respect for their spiritual leader to anoint the dead body with oil and spices so to remove the stench of death. We are not sure what the disciples thought about their teacher, but no could have suspected that he rose from the grave.  That’s just not humanly possible, nor does it follow any logic of the natural order!  As Jesus hung on the cross, folks though he was just one more honorable person who had said and done some amazing things, but who died like everyone else.

 

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The Bible says that early on that first Easter when the women arrived at the tomb, they met an angel of the Lord, who came and rolled the stone away.  The women boldly make their way to the tomb when the angel appeared the men, the guards were the ones who stood in fear and were rendered useless.   “Don’t be afraid,” the angel told the women.

You remember those words, “Don’t be frightened!” Don’t you?  They happen all the way back when at the beginning of the gospel at Jesus’ birth when the angel speaks to the shepherds on the hillside.   This time the words are articulated to the women as he announces the good news of Jesus resurrection.  “Jesus isn’t here.  Come and look for yourselves. And then, go and tell…”

And then Jesus appeared to them, calms them, and tells the women to continue to Galilee and to tell the men to go to Galilee where his brothers will see him.

You have before you and have heard for yourselves the story of Jesus resurrection.  None of us were there that day, the gospel writers left us this evidence of the resurrection.    This morning I want you to know that there is a vast difference between the evidence of Easter in God’s Word and the experience of Easter.

This Easter morning, I can stand before you and offer you every possible view of the empty tomb.  I can try to explain to you in human ways in which the empty tomb might be possible, and I can point you to all the evidence of Easter, with all the emotional fanfare of the celebration of the Easter season. But what I cannot do for you that you should decide for yourself is to experience the empty tomb.

What I’m getting at here is the experience of an empty tomb to deepen our faith and trust in the resurrection of Jesus.  Evidence only can do so much, but the important step is going to the empty tomb of Jesus for yourself.

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The Easter story was never really meant to be argued about if it’s true, or real, or relevant, a waste of time, or otherwise.   Look at those Easter Lilies; they don’t argue; they just bloom.  The changing of the seasons doesn’t argue or listen to our popular opinion on the matter, the seasons just come.  Same as the setting of the sun and the rising of the moon.  It just is part of a natural process.  Around these parts, we could say the same when a farmer buys a bag of seeds and plants it in the earth.  It just does with it does without argument.  The same thing is true for music and beauty.  Sure, we have our favorite styles of music, and each of us has a differing appreciation for the beautiful things in life, but music and beauty are meant to inspire us and beckon us into a deeper appreciation of life.

The Easter story was made to invite us to experience the resurrection of Jesus as being true.  It’s intended to invite us into a deeper understanding of God’s love and grace.  The Easter story is only genuine when we experience the resurrection of Jesus and the impact that resurrection has on our collective life together.

Over the past several weeks, I’ve had the occasion to proclaim God’s Word to many who have lost a dearly departed loved ones. And one simple verse that we preachers proclaim at the time of death is from the Gospel of John 14 in which Jesus assures us: “In my father’s house there are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go and prepare a place for you?”  It’s Jesus way of saying to his disciples, believe me!  Trust me!  I’m not pulling your leg.  “And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may also be,” Jesus tells us there will be a reunion and a resurrection.

Like the fear experience by the guard at the tomb on that first Easter morning, death can and does create much anxiety in our life.   The Apostle Paul says that death is our last enemy that Christ has defeated for us.  But also like the words “Do not be afraid” that appear at the beginning of the gospel and Jesus’ resurrection, on the other side of all our lives at our birth, the prospect of coming and begin born into this world must be scary.  Think about it.  There is no way we can be born into this world understanding all the differences and ways of being.  We live without air in the womb.  How then can we live with it and breath on our own?  We live without light in the womb, yet how can we imagine the world without light?   In a certain way, birth seems like it is a death, wrenched away from all that sustains us in the womb.

But in the miracle of creation, God has prepared a place in this world for us.

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They say that a newborn’s first experience of the world, our first awareness in this life is of the strong arms that surround us and keep us warm; eyes that consider ours with love and tenderness.  Someone had anticipated our coming.  Created is a place for us to dwell.  Unknown to us we began to develop an awareness of our eyes and start to see the light, unknown to us was that we had a pair of lungs that we would need to breathe, ears to hear.  If God so carefully planned our entry into this world, what would make us think that he would have anything otherwise prepared for when we depart? Remember Jesus saying: “I go to prepare a place for you.

Sisters and brothers – Easter isn’t something that we can prove happened.  At the end of the day, Easter isn’t about the evidence of Jesus resurrection.  Faith, after all, is not provable.

Think about the last time you cried.   For some of us it may have been as recently as this week, others we may have gone for an extended period without the need to shed tears.   What is a tear?  It depends, doesn’t it? I can give you a dictionary definition of crying, but I’m not speaking to your personal experience, am I? Here’s the evidence:

A tear is a drop of the watery saline fluid continually secreted by the gland between the surface of the eye and the eyelids, which serves to moisten and lubricate these parts and keeps them clear of foreign particles.” 

That’s a tear?  Really?

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I give you no more evidence of Easter – I want to invite you to be aware of Easter and experience God working through the power of our final enemy –death- to create life.  Ask a child, “What does Easter mean to you?” and she might say (as my 4-year-old told me at Aldi) this week, “Easter is about the Easter Bunny and the chocolate rabbit.”  Ask a teenager, “What does Easter mean?” and he might answer that Easter means, “Christ rose from the dead.”  And if you ask a mature person of faith the same question, “What does Easter mean?”  That person might reply:

“Easter means that I have only begun to live.” 

The good news of Easter isn’t only that it is a celebration of a future gift in another life, but that it is ours to experience right now!   Today!

Easter is getting in touch with that same power that brought Jesus out of the tomb and into life.

Come to the tomb and see for yourselves!  You don’t have to fear like the guard at the tomb, but stand strong with the women – the Mary’s.  Don’t bend down in shame, hold your heads up high and proud.  And for Pete’s sake, don’t look for evidence of the resurrection.  It’s not there, at least in any form we can prove to the world! Just trust that experience of transformation will happen without anything we think, say, or do.  It’s all God!  So, embrace the resurrection moments.  Embrace the experience of the Lord who is risen and alive!  And who comes to offer to walk with us.

No matter what else comes our way.  Christ goes with us!  Amen.