And so she did

This is me, standing in the finisher’s area after completing my first half-marathon.

That smile… it was absolutely fueled by adrenaline, pride, gratitude and all the “holy crap did that just happen?” that you might expect.

I have to say that the Historic Half was a great event in and of itself.  The community support was outstanding.  People were out in their yards and along the sidewalks.  One family made a BINGO (well… RUNGO) board and the kids were marking off athletes who carried flags or wore Marine Corps shirts or pushing strollers.

Other families offered watermelon and water between the official pit stops.  There were cowbells and signs and sidewalk chalk.  It was clear that they were there for the long haul, ready to support the fastest and the slowest and all of us between.

The route was challenging. I was as mentally prepared for the hills as I could be, since we drove the course on Saturday.  At least, I knew kind of what was coming. What I didn’t know was whether my legs were truly ready.  There’s only so much hill work on can do in the flat lands of Central Florida.

I blazed through the first 5K and thought, “well, I hope I didn’t just burn up my last 5K.”  When I got to the 10K mark (not quite halfway), I was still ahead of my expected pace, despite lots of rolling hills.  But I still felt really strong and was breathing well, so I figured I’d just keep adding to the cushion.

That’s pretty much the way things continued. I was paying attention to my legs and my lungs, pushed up the hills and relaxed down them, was able to chat a bit with spectators and other competitors… and then we were at the last 3.1 miles, 2 of which are mostly uphill.

I found myself powering up Hospital Hill (the infamous part of the course), past other folks who were struggling, grabbing a water at the station and taking on the last hill over a bridge into the home stretch.  And yes, there were a few tears as I entered the last .1 of the 13.1, but I totally enjoyed the moment as strangers cheered me into the finishing chute.  My intrepid sister/cheering section was right there yelling my name and reminding me to smile for the camera this time.

Not that I really NEEDED reminding.  Endorphines are good for that!

Some FAQs:

How did you feel about the race, technically? I finished about 10-15 minutes faster than my “it could happen, but not likely” goal.  My splits were pretty even, and the 5K and 10K both beat my current bests times at those distances as standalone races.   All of which makes me happy as a newbie.

 

 

Are you going to do this again? Actually, yes.  Going in, I was hedging my bets that I’d like this distance as a walker.  But I honestly think I could have done another couple of miles, which makes me think I can break three hours…

In fact… the next half-marathon on my calendar is in October, at Niagara Falls (starts in the US, finishes in Canada).

Couch to 13.1 in 12 months. Really?

I’ve been training so long, it’s hard to believe it’s coming up so quickly now! 

As of this moment, I am 3 days and 15 hours (and some minutes) from the start of my first half-marathon.  A year ago, that concept would have had me laughing.  Hard.  Like pee-your-pants hard.

But a funny thing happened on May 21, 2016.  I got out of the house and took a walk.  It was about 2 miles, wearing the kind of shoes that give you blisters, and really slow.

But it was a walk. On purpose.

That was the start of a year-long adventure in setting goals, finding community, making healthier choices, and pushing myself to do things that seemed a little crazy. Especially for a fat woman turning 50.

After a couple of 5Ks turned into a 10K, and the 10K walks turned into 8-10 milers, I set my sights on a 13.1 mile race.  I knew I needed time to get faster, so late spring felt possible. The interwebs offered up several choices… not all of which are friendly to walkers.

I chose the Marine Corps Marathon Historic Half.  Partly because I have heard amazing things about the MCM as an event.  And partly because I had hoped we could take our motorcycles up on the AutoTrain and ride home.  That hasn’t worked out for this round but adventures still await.

It wasn’t until after I registered that I realized the significance of the race date. I would be walking my first half-marathon on the anniversary of that first “get up off the couch” walk.

I don’t know what my time will look like… I’m hoping that I can manage the nerves and the hills well enough to average 14-15 minute miles, which would mean I’d finish under 3.5 hours.  My last couple of races, I’ve been well under 14, but that’s here in the flat swamplands of Central Florida.

Regardless, I will confess to more than a little pride in the fact that I’m going to start that race in roughly 3 days and 15 hours.

Because while I’m competitive enough to want an official time that is faster than my practice times.  I have accomplished so much more than walking a shit-ton of miles in a year.

  • I have lost almost a supermodel’s worth of weight, which is most visible part of this adventure.
  • I have gained a resting heart rate.  And normal blood pressure.
  • I have re-gained flexibility and strength that I was pretty sure were gone forever.
  • I have re-learned how to rest and sleep.
  • I have changed my relationship to food (for the better).
  • I have bought girl clothes. And I have worn them. In public.  Without irony.
  • I have learned how to make time for me sacred.  And by making space for the Spirit to join me there… I am experiencing daily times of Sabbath

Yeah… there’s a pretty good chance I’ll be weeping  3 days, 18 hours and however many minutes from now. There’s mix of pride, amazement and gratitude for the way the human body responds to challenges that comes at the end of every race, and more of that mix  has a way pushing out through the tear ducts as the distances have gotten longer.

Here’s To the difference a year can make.  Really!

Me in Spring 2016

When Worlds Collide

A sermon based on the Council at Jerusalem as described in Acts 15:1-18

It would be really hard to overstate just how important this particular episode in the early history of the church is. I mean, up to this point, the Spirit has been leading the disciples to do exactly what Jesus commissioned them to do:take the good news out from Jerusalem, farther and farther away from that upper room.

And as they traveled into Judea and Samaria and around the region, the Lord first added to their numbers people who spoke all kinds of languages, people who looked very much like the disciples and some who looked very different, people who would have claimed to be Pharisees, Saducees, Essenes… many different streams of Judaism.

It was pretty heady stuff.

Every where they went, the apostles (and some others) were part of God’s work: there signs and wonders, healings, visions, transformations, narrow escapes and miraculous interventions.

And then, about ten years before this particular gathering, Gentiles like Cornelius began to hear and respond to the Jesus story.  

These Gentiles are people who had not grown up looking for a Messiah.
People who had never been part of the Hebrew culture.
People who came to understand God ONLY by way of Jesus.

And they, too, were folded into the body of believers who worshiped and prayed and cared for one another and the communities in which they were situated.

As you might expect, gathering people from many different backgrounds and traditions into a unified worshiping community wasn’t easy. There were more than enough arguments to go around in every city the where Christ-followers founded a congregation.  Questions about how what it meant to be Gentile and part of the Jesus movement popped up pretty regularly… and now it was coming to a head.

The church in Jerusalem was made up primarily of Jewish believers. Which makes sense, really.  Even though the city housed other people groups, the majority of those who responded to the good news in Jerusalem were folks who worshiped at the Temple.

About 300 miles away, in Antioch, Paul, Barnabas and others had built up a thriving worshiping community that was primarily made up of Gentiles.  They were teaching and preaching, and all seemed to be going well.  Until these “certain individuals” from Judea arrived.

These individuals argued, from a deeply held personal conviction, that all followers of Jesus were meant to be Jews…  that in order for the saving work of Jesus to be effective on their behalf, the gentile believers would need to be circumcised.  They would need to follow the law in all ways.

After all, Jesus was a Jew.  He taught from the Torah, and the early Christ-following communities studied the Hebrew Scriptures.  

The question being raised – which is actually a fair question – is this: can Jesus be the Jewish Messiah and offer salvation that was somehow disconnected from the Law?   

Now – we need to remember that the rabbinic tradition is based on debate and discussion. Get a bunch of theologians together and they’ll talk forever, often disagreeing. This is true of most rabbis, who tend to be ok with a broad range of interpretations. That is why Jesus was generally unfazed by the leaders of the synagogues and in the temple challenging him to explain his authority and give more details about how he interpreted the scriptures.

Paul, being a Pharisee himself, would have entered into these lively conversations  with passion and maybe a little pride in his expertise and knowledge.  

I would imagine that Peter’s passion would have equalled Paul’s, given what we know about his passion for Jesus, so he would have felt compelled to argue his position, even if he had less formal training in the scriptures themselves.

Anyway… when Luke tells us “there was no small dissension and debate” in Antioch, I feel safe in assuming Luke was being funny.  Anyone who has shared their experiences in contentious meetings (church or otherwise) knows how effective a little understatement can be in setting the tone for a story.  

There was no small debate…  not only because Paul was passionate, but because this was a really big deal.

Paul’s worlds were colliding

His past…
his role as defender of the purity of the faith,
keeper of all laws,
crosser of t’s and dotter of i’s….

was crashing smack into his current ministry…
finding the nuance and the balance between the law of Moses and the law of love.
Seeking the way of Jesus, which was not about jots and tittles, as much as healing and reconciliation.

Paul knew what was at stake.
This was not an argument about circumcising the male gentile Christians in Antioch.
This was about understanding the grace and mercy at the heart of the saving work of Jesus.

It was well worth a 300-mile trek to Jerusalem.
It was worth engaging in yet another round of debates.

Of course, like debater, he makes stops along the way, telling his stories and building his case.  Perhaps he was even doing a little market testing – finding the best words and stories to help others see what he was seeing, to understand what he was arguing.

You know what I love about this story? The one thing that really kind of surprised me.  When they got to Jerusalem, they were welcomed.  They were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, who wanted to hear all that was happening among them.  

These folks knew why Paul and Barnabas had come up from Antioch.  They could have put up their defenses and been wary of conversation. But they opened their hearts and arms and welcomed them. They listened to the stories of Paul and Barnabas; they heard about the ministry in Antioch.

And then, the moment they had been braced for…

Some believers – just to be clear here, these are people who followed Jesus just as faithfully as Paul – some believers who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees stood up and said, “It is necessary for them to be circumcised and ordered to keep the law of Moses.”

It’s all well and good that they have heard about the Messiah. It’s wonderful that they understand his teachings and that this gathering of believers looks and sounds a lot like ours.

But a statement of faith is not enough.  If they are going to be in… they have to be all in.  They need to be circumcised and instructed in… and held accountable to the Law of Moses.  You have to order them to do so.

There it was.  

The people’s concerns had been voiced.
The Apostles and elders gathered.
The debate begins.
And this time Luke skips the understatement.

They went on for quite a while, the apostles and the elders. And then it was Peter who reminded the council that it was God who made clear that he was to preach among the Gentiles.

It was God who poured out the Holy Spirit on those who believed… and the Spirit was clearly at work in and among the Gentile believers, just as clearly and powerfully as among the Jewish followers.

And sounding an awful lot like the Paul we meet in his letters to the fledgling churches in Corinth and Galatia and elsewhere, Peter reminds his Jewish brothers that none of them had ever been able to keep the law perfectly.  Nor had any of the generations of Jews who handed down the faith to them. In fact, the saving work of Jesus is based on his fulfillment of the law on our behalf.

Why then, Peter asked, would we place burdens on these believers that we cannot carry ourselves?

The silence that followed must have been thick.
Thick with the tension that comes with inner turmoil and shifting balance of influence.
Thick with the palpable energy that marks the Spirit at work.

And into that silence, stories were told.
Then prophecies were remembered and scriptures were consulted
And after no small amount of time… they came to agreement.  

The council came to a place of consensus and were ready to spread the word.

Not that everyone was happy.  Not that everyone in every congregation agreed. In fact, this would come up again and again.

But in that gathering, the apostles and elders had discerned together that this was the will of God.  

And because they came together
Because they did the hard work of listening to one another and God
Because they trusted the work of Spirit as evidence of God’s desires
Because of the way they enfolded Gentile believers…

Generations of Christ followers have come to understand that  God’s grace and mercy – not ritual or law-keeping – are the basis of our salvation.

There is nothing you or I can do under our own power that will get us in
There is nothing you or I can do under our own power that will keep us in

We – you and I – are a part of God’s family, God’s people because God made a way, in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

That is good news, indeed.

But there is more good news.
There good news in this story for the church – for the Body of Christ.  

The church can live through hard conversations.
The church can live through conflict.
The church can find its way from deep division to unity of vision

Because it has, from its very beginnings.

But the process is important… and is critical for our elders and deacons to understand
These leaders demonstrated what it means to be spiritual leaders
They were seeking to grow in their faith
They were willing to gather and listen to others with great respect – even when they knew they disagreed
They made space for silence, because it is in that space, in that quiet, that God is likely to speak
They looked back to tradition
They looked out into the world
They looked for and trusted what God was doing right then, even if it contradicted what they expected to find
They went to scripture, looking for confirmation of a new decision, not just to shore up old arguments.

And when the decision was reached, they spoke honestly about the process (Luke lets us know it was hard and long!) and they moved forward together to help others get on board.

In other words, they allowed the Spirit to move them toward unity

See, there is nothing we can do under our own power to lead the church
There is nothing we can do under our own power that will keep us (all of us – together) in the will of God.

We can only attempt those things if we live in dependence on God in the power of the Holy Spirit.

When I talked to Flo on Wednesday evening, she mentioned being a little relieved at not having Sunday School this week- that she was not excited about having to tackle this passage…   I get that…  Really, I do.

I wasn’t super keen on preaching this passage.  It’s all about conflict.

And let’s be honest, this congregation has experienced plenty of conflict over the years. What happens if we mention conflict? Will that bring back to the surface all the stuff that has been neatly stashed away?  Or will it make people push it farther into the shadows?  It just seems a little fraught…

So, yeah, I get why this seems like a downer.

But the more I looked at this passage, the more I see it as a message of hope. For us, for the whole of the church.

If we place Christ at the center of our relationships
If we believe that God in our corner (not mine, not yours, but ours).
If we open our hearts, minds and eyes to the work of the Spirit…

There’s not a conflict we can’t work through
There’s not a barrier we can’t tear down…  so that all might experience grace of God in Christ Jesus and become a part of the family of God.

And that right there?

That is what we are talking about when we say “Christ is Risen!”
He is risen, indeed.

How did we get here?

Acts 8:26-39  (Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch)

I have to say, Luke set many interesting scenes and introduced a number of fascinating characters in his gospel and the beginning of Acts, but the farther we go, the more intriguing his narrative gets.

In a continuation of the travel motif in his telling of Jesus’ ministry, Luke makes clear at the start of Acts that we will be learning how the good news travels from Jerusalem outward… to Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the Earth.

In fact, after Stephen was stoned, he tells us that all but the apostles left Jerusalem to avoid the worst of the persecution, including another of Stephen’s cohort, Philip.  Philip found himself in Samaria.  Luke describes Philip’s ministry there at the beginning of Chapter 8:

5 Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah to them. 6 The crowds with one accord listened eagerly to what was said by Philip, hearing and seeing the signs that he did, 7 for unclean spirits, crying with loud shrieks, came out of many who were possessed; and many others who were paralyzed or lame were cured. 8 So there was great joy in that city.

Luke doesn’t give us a sense of how long Philip was there before Peter and John joined him, nor how long before the messenger from God told Philip to head out to the middle of nowhere on the road to Gaza.

And he got up and went.

I do kind of wonder what he expected to find there… or perhaps, having done many signs and wonders in the power of the Spirit, he had learned to set expectations aside. That would go a long way toward explaining his openness to just get up and go.  And to just start jogging alongside a chariot when the Spirit moved him.

I mean, surely it was not on that morning’s task list to catch up to a chariot belonging to a eunuch from Ethiopia.

We don’t get the name of the man Philip is sent to meet, but we do learn he is among the courtiers of the queen of the Ethiopians.  And that he is headed back home from a time worshiping in Jerusalem.

Now – Luke’s original readers would have understood a few things about this man that most of us don’t.

It was not unusual for male members of the royal family to face castration once it was determined they were not in line for the throne. By removing the possibility of producing an heir, the likelihood of their leading an overthrow was slim. This also meant they could be trusted to serve in high level roles, such as caring for the queen’s treasury.  So, it is possible that he was not just a courtier, but royalty, part of the royal family.

Many of the people who lived under Roman rule around the Mediterranean were fascinated, captivated even, by the exotic look and sound of people from Sudan, Ethiopia and the African edge of the known world of the time. That would have made this encounter all the more intriguing.

Another detail Luke seems to trust us to know is that there are Jews even as far away as Ethiopia. It’s not clear how long they had been in the country. Perhaps they were influenced by the exiled Hebrew people there.  But he was at the very least familiar with the Hebrew scriptures.  

So…we have a nameless Ethiopian who is clearly educated and wealthy:
He is literate and reading from the scroll of Isaiah.
He has the means to own this expensive scroll, as well as a chariot and probably someone to drive it. After all, it would be just this side of impossible to hold open a scroll and drive at the same time. The chariot must have been large, given that Philip was able to join this man and share with him the story of Jesus in answer to his question about the scroll.

But despite all his wealth, status, and intellect.
Despite his knowledge of the Hebrew scripture and desire to be righteous, like all eunuchs, this man was only just barely part of the community, marginally allowed to participate at the temple

Not accepted and affirmed…. but not outright rejected.
Until that day.

It all happened so fast.
A conversation, a baptism, followed by the long ride home.

And for Philip- undoubtedly- a conversation with his friends
How did you get there?  Of all places?
Out on the edge of reality, experiencing God’s glory and power in a way that was unique, even for the early church?

It’s common question when things seem way out of the ordinary…
Whether beyond our wildest dreams or our worst nightmares. 

How did we get here? 

How did we get here?
Into the family of God… into this place, worshiping as the Body of Christ?  

Like the Ethiopian… our stories start at the font, in the water.  With baptism.

Like the eunuch… we each and all needed God’s grace to be extended to us, in order to be welcomed into the family and begin our journey as followers of Christ.

The innate desire to be whole, to be known, to see the new Kingdom of God reign, that may well have been why he was reading in Isaiah…

The passage quoted in today’s scripture is from Isaiah 53, in the section that prophecies about the suffering servant. For most Hebrew people of that time, particularly those living beyond Jerusalem and the few cities the Christ-followers had visited, this passage was still imagining a future messiah.  They were – and today’s Jewish people still are  – waiting and watching.  

But when Philip heard those words that morning, whether he had heard it preached before, whether he had considered it himself before, the Holy Spirit opened his heart and mind with new clarity.  

That suffering servant sure sounded an awful lot like Jesus.

And because he was open and willing to follow the Spirit, not just physically, but into new spiritual and religious understandings, Philip had the opportunity to help one more person understand.

Through scripture that clearly made sense to him, this eunuch heard and understood Jesus was the messiah and that he, too, was welcome into the Christ movement.   

There must have been, somewhere in that conversation on the road to Gaza, a description of Jesus’ call to repent.  And there was likely a mention of the call for followers of Jesus to go and tell others- the commission to make believers, teaching and baptizing them.  

Perhaps, Philip explained all of this in the context of his own story,
remembering his baptism,
remembering Stephen’s faithful witness,
reminding his new friend that he had been sent on this particular day to this particular road.   

And the eunuch knew a beautiful thing when he heard it.
Is there any reason I can’t be baptized?

Philip also knew a beautiful thing when he heard it… and didn’t hesitate.
Is there anything to keep you from being baptized? 

This person’s race, nationality, or sexual identity… None of it was a barrier to the Holy Spirit. Here he was with a human being who heard the good news about Jesus, who was compelled to become part of this way of knowing God, and who had requested baptism.

Who was Philip to stand in the way?

Even their being in the wilderness – on a road through the desert – there was water!

In Luke’s gospel, he made clear:
Wherever Jesus is, there is salvation.

Jesus has ascended, leaving the Spirit to guide and empower his followers as they continue his work. Luke is making clear that wherever those followers are open to the will of God, there, too, is salvation.

Wherever the Body of Christ is, there is salvation.
Salvation looks a lot like a puddle or pond or oasis of grace on the side of the dusty road through life
Salvation looks an awful lot like welcome,
Salvation looks an awful lot like hospitality beyond what etiquette requires
Salvation looks an awful lot like love without prejudice, without assumptions.
Salvation looks like becoming part of the beloved community.

See – the good news isn’t that Jesus suffered
The good news is that Jesus didn’t stop at suffering
The good news is that Jesus understood that we humans get way too comfortable allowing people to suffer:
That as long as we are comfortable, we are ok allowing others to suffer
from hunger and illness,
from relational exile,
from addiction or imprisonment,

And he wasn’t OK with us being OK. 

Jesus witnessed all of that, healed all of that and fought against all of it and suffered tremendously himself as a result.

Not because God wanted to experience suffering through Christ,
Not because God was so angry with humanity that Jesus became the outlet for divine wrath.

Jesus’ shared in the suffering of those around him so that he might show the children of God how to get uncomfortable for the sake of others,
s
o that when we hear that other sibling are suffering…
so that when we see others causing suffering…
we are moved to compassion and repentance, as well as advocacy

The life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus was God saying loudly and clearly for all time:
it doesn’t have to be this way.

We don’t have to get tangled up in getting every detail right,
Or worry about who should be in or who to keep out…
By grace, even our missteps are redeemed. Our hearts are freed to focus on God and the loving heart behind the rules and rituals.

The sending of the Holy Spirit and the empowerment of the church was God saying loudly and clearly for all time that we are God’s plan

We are God’s Kingdom come and God’s will being done.
Right here on earth as it is and will be in Heaven.
Not just praying it, but believing it and being the builders of that Kingdom.

All of which begs the question, how did we get here?

For real… how did we get here?

How did we – the church in 2017 in America – get here?

How did we – by and large – become a body that is more comfortable behind gates and walls and fences than out walking among those who are suffering?

How did we get here?

How did we become more like the rich young man who refused to lay down his wealth so that he could follow Christ without distraction?

How did we get here?

How did we become a body that allows our members to claim allegiance to Christ while using their power to place millions of people in harm’s way through endless wars, environmental destruction and cruel legislation?

How did we get here?
More importantly, are we ok being here?
Because, I’m pretty sure we are not where the Spirit of God is.

Oh, yes, each of us has moments.  And groups of us are able to come together for short stretches of time and do good work in the name of the one who saved us.

But being faithful witnesses in our Jerusalems, our inner cities…
Bearing witness in our Judea and Samaria, our states or even the nation…
Being humble servants like him… Taking the healing message of Christ…to the ends of the earth?

As I scan the headlines, I don’t see much in the way of hope, compassion, grace or peace.
I don’t see the people of God working to bring the Kingdom of God to fruition.
At least not one that looks like the Jesus we’ve been reading about all spring.

Which makes me want ask…
How do we get to the places Jesus calls us to be?
How do we get there?

The answer is at the font.
Remembering who we are, whose we are
Remembering the painful joy that flows from confession, repentance and grace

The answer is at the table.
Putting ourselves in a place to remember that God nourishes us and sanctifies us
Remembering that Jesus continues to proclaim to and through us
It doesn’t have to be this way
Because wherever the Spirit of God is, I am with you
So that wherever the Body of Christ is, salvation is

The answer is sitting in the pews around us.
Being the true Body – united in love.
United in a purpose that goes beyond us.

The answer is in the neighborhood
Being the Body by meeting real needs with true compassion

The answer is in the phone book and on the internet
Being the Body by calling the larger body to repentance.
Advocating on behalf of not only yourself but on behalf of those without access, without a voice, without the power or energy to advocate for themselves.

How did we get here?
We got here by the grace of God
We got here by the work of Christ

Where will we go next?
That depends… on just how open we are to the ministry of the Holy Spirit

Faithful Witness

A sermon based on Acts 6:1–7:2a, 44-60

This week, it’s time to hit fast forward…. Since we have to go in real time between Easter and Pentecost,  and since Luke doesn’t give us much content to explore in his gospel and in Acts between those days, we are going to jump ahead in the story a bit. I promise, we’ll come back to the action in the upper room on the day of Pentecost in June.

Heading into the remainder of Eastertide, we’re going to zip past that, past Peter’s first big sermon and the church’s first wave of converts. In fact, the rapid growth of the church in Jerusalem is part of the conflict that shows up in our passage for today.

Even as a city made up primarily of Jews, Jerusalem is fairly diverse. Many of its citizens are from the diaspora- those who had been scattered during the time of exile and had learned the languages and customs of the places they had settled.

The groups Luke identifies most often are the Hellenists and the Hebrews. It’s likely that he was using Hellenists to describe the Jewish people in the community who were more comfortable speaking Greek, and he probably used the descriptor “Hebrews” for those whose native language was Hebrew or perhaps Aramaic.

As the numbers of people following the apostles in the teachings of Jesus grew, so did the numbers of people who had particular needs. There were widows and orphans, there were people who were infirm and displaced.

The apostles were trying to figure all this out – how to keep telling the story of Jesus’ resurrection, how to help other people understand his way of approaching life and love, AND how to care for all those who were in great need… and it was more than a little complicated.

Until they realized that they could share the load. They didn’t have to do it all.   

Listen to the first few verses of Acts 6

6:1 Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. 2 And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables. 3 Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, 4 while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.”

5 What they said pleased the whole community, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, together with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. 6 They had these men stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. 7 The word of God continued to spread; the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.

The twelve leaders brought in the larger community of disciples – the women and other men who had been around longest, were helping to support the work of the community. They could have done it all themselves, or attempted to control the process, but they trusted the Spirit to lead the community in this effort.

The prayers and laying on of hands conferred the authority and power to these men, so that they might make wise decisions and serve the community well.

And it seems that they did.  

The apostles continued in the work they were called to do… spreading the good news and teaching others.  And the work the church was called to do… it was done too.

It seems that when you are a faithful witness, when you stand up and speak truth to those with the power to make change- as the Hellenists did- you may indeed see justice.

The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased greatly.  Even many priests from the temple became obedient to the teachings of Jesus.  The Spirit was empowering this community of faith.  God was blessing their efforts.

Don’t you wonder what happens next?   Listen…

8 Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people. 9 Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), Cyrenians, Alexandrians, and others of those from Cilicia and Asia, stood up and argued with Stephen.
10 But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke.

Now, perhaps, like me, you’re wondering how did we get from Stephen serving in a role that looked more than a little like a deacon, to Stephen standing and arguing theology between the signs and wonders he was performing? He sounds more like a prophet than someone taking care of tables.

Truth is, Stephen was simply bearing witness -faithfully in word and deed – to the power of God and the resurrection of Christ. He was faithfully doing his work, and then responded to the call to show up, to speak up, to act up. To be Christ-like in every sense of the word.

It sure goes to show, you never know what might happen in the laying on of hands… And you never know how people will respond when you preach truth.

Certainly hearts can be transformed as the Spirit works and people are moved to compassion and hope and faith.

But hearts can also be hardened by fear, by desire to maintain their position of influence, by a lack of trust in God and in neighbor. And there were some in Jerusalem who were frightened by the power with which these followers of Jesus were speaking, including Stephen.

11 Then they secretly instigated some men to say, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” 12 They stirred up the people as well as the elders and the scribes; then they suddenly confronted him, seized him, and brought him before the council.

13 They set up false witnesses who said, “This man never stops saying things against this holy place and the law; 14 for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses handed on to us.” 15 And all who sat in the council looked intently at him, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.  

7:1 Then the high priest asked him, “Are these things so?”

Stephen, like Peter before him, begins to speak, not because he is an orator by nature, but because the Spirit of God was in him, ready to make known the truth.

His sermon is worth a read, though it is a bit rambling. He responds to their accusations by connecting the dots between Moses and Jesus, by describing the ways that God has been among them.  He finishes with some hard words… We’ll pick up near to the end.

2a And Stephen replied: “Brothers and fathers, listen to me…

44 “Our ancestors had the tent of testimony in the wilderness, as God directed when he spoke to Moses, ordering him to make it according to the pattern he had seen. 45 Our ancestors in turn brought it in with Joshua when they dispossessed the nations that God drove out before our ancestors.

And it was there until the time of David, 46 who found favor with God and asked that he might find a dwelling place for the house of Jacob. 47 But it was Solomon who built a house for him. 48 Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made with human hands; as the prophet says,

49 “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me, says the Lord, or what is the place of my rest? 50 Did not my hand make all these things?’

51 “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do.  52 Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. 53 You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.”

54 When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen.

55 But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!”

57 But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him.

Sound familiar?   Luke is helping us remember, even as he tells the story of Stephen, what happened to Jesus.
Once again, the Sanhedrin is the location.
Once again the people are stirred up by a small number of those who are against this new stream of Judaism in their midst.
Once again, the story and promise of liberation, of redemption, of God’s love for the people of Israel and God’s power to turn the world upside down… the potential that Stephen was right about Jesus… that powerful teaching was enough to set this small group of leaders against Stephen.

And as he closes his impassioned and faithful witness to God’s promises made and kept, he knows that their hearts are not open.
That his time has come.
And he doesn’t back down.
He doesn’t back down. In fact, he looks up.  

He looks up and describes a vision of Christ as Messiah, ascended to heaven and reigning with God.

And while I’d like to say it’s hard to imagine the scene that comes next, we have seen all too frequently the reality that angry, frightened people do awful things.  And this crowd has been stirred up…
by the group that wanted Stephen quieted,
by the passion in Stephen’s voice,
by the truth in his words and the confusion in their hearts.

They were ripe for a riot.  

58 Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”

60 Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.

Stephen was a faithful witness to the end.  And like the prophet, teacher, messiah he followed in death, he asked that those responsible for his death might be forgiven.

I’ll be frank with you. I don’t know how to get there. I don’t know how to get to that kind of forgiveness.
I mean, I am a person of faith.  I believe that Jesus was who he and his closest followers and generations of disciples after claim him to be.

I don’t understand them, but I believe that there were signs and wonders wherever he went. I believe he healed and forgave and set people free from all manner of ills.

And I believe that both he and Stephen meant those words, “Forgive them.”  

But I am pretty sure I am far from mature enough in my faith to be able to do that.   To ask for forgiveness on behalf of someone who is in the midst of an unspeakable act of cruelty.

But then I have to look again at what they saw…
The people who came after Jesus.
The people who came after Stephen.
They were – in their own ways – making every effort to be faithful witnesses.

And they were, just as much as Jesus, equally as much as Stephen or you or me… Children of God, beloved and worthy of compassion.

It would be easy to characterize them as evil people.  Or at least people who have been overtaken by evil.  In fact, that very characterization has been an excuse for generations of anti-semitism as Christians blamed Jews for killing Jesus and early martyrs like Stephen.

Stephen himself called them stiff-necked, calling to mind Moses and his frustration with the generation God called him to liberate.

Stubborn, yes.
Evil?  No.

You know –  faithful Christ-followers today find themselves disagreeing about what Scriptures say about many difficult topics.Not just because of their political party affiliations, though that does sometimes get in the way…

No- I’m talking about people who have spent hours with the Bible and commentaries and the Holy Spirit in conversation with God about
whether the Body of Christ should support the death penalty
or should be ok with using drones as opposed to foot soldiers in a war zone
or if we should lead the way in welcoming immigrants and refugees
or whether the church should limit the role of women or fully embrace and affirm LGBTQ folk in church leadership.

Because the scriptures are complex and complicated, the answers to those questions aren’t simple and faithful people come to very different conclusions.

Within denominations or with theological cousins, within particular congregations, even within this congregation, we Christians have been known to throw some pretty large (if metaphorical) stones at one another. Often causing significant emotional and spiritual wounds.

We are passionate about holding our position, stiff-necked even, and we believe that God is equally passionate about supporting us. And so we bear witness to what we understand God is saying to us.

We make every effort to be faithful witnesses.
But what happens if we’re wrong?  

What happens if we’ve spent years arguing and fighting against what we perceive as a threat, or what we believe to be unfaithful? And then we find that we were wrong?

There was a young man on hand at Stephen’s death. His name was Saul.

The people who were ready to stone Stephen, to kill him for his words – they put their cloaks at Saul’s feet.

We don’t know the timeline…

It may be that this is the moment that launches his career as the persecutor of Christians.
Or perhaps it verified for him that he was right…
Or maybe he was among the pot-stirrers that got the whole incident started.

Luke doesn’t say.   But he does tell us, going into Chapter 8, that Saul approved of their killing Stephen. And that a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria.

And you and I, we know more of the story to come;
we know about the redemption to come.
The re-orientation that was coming in Saul’s heart, so complete that it made him a new man.
So complete that he needed a new name.

And I wonder, was it the prayers of Jesus and of Stephen that set in motion the work of God to make that change? Was it the forgiveness that flowed as thick as their blood?

Was it that faithful witness to God’s enduring love and mercy that made possible the change in Paul’s heart?

And then made it possible for the very church he had persecuted to see and hear and embrace him as a leader among them.

I wonder…
I wondered about that quite a bit this week. And then I begin to trust.
Because there is power in forgiveness,
healing power,
saving power,
resurrection power

And there is even greater power in the seeking of forgiveness:
In the confession of our own sin, of our shared sin,
In the confession of our complicity in the pain and oppression of others nearby and worldwide
In the confession that we, too, can be stiff-necked and proud, when God would have us humble and willing to bend

There is power in confession and forgiveness and orienting our hearts to God.

Not the sort that lords over another, but the sort that allows the Lord to enter a relationship to heal and redeem it.

That is the power of full submission to God’s will,
The power of choosing to bear witness to God’s great love, not by force, but by faith

Bearing witness by taking risks on the side of love and welcome,
On the side of forgiveness and compassion
On the side of life over death.

That is the hard work of being a follower of Jesus. Submitting to God’s will and bearing witness to the fullness of Christ’s teachings shapes our lives in community with one another even as it deepens our relationship with God.  And it is the means by which we assure succeeding generations have the chance to hear, believe and become faithful witnesses.  

I give thanks for the faithful witness of those who made it possible for us to worship here today.  The generations of women and men who built this church, literally and spiritually.

Can you give thanks for them with me?

I give thanks for the faithful witness of those who have fought for this congregation’s life, who are fighting for it even now.

Can you give thanks for them with me, too?

I give thanks for the faithful witness of  those who took the fight for the life of the Body of Christ elsewhere, when their gifts were no longer welcome in this place.

Can you give thanks for them?

I give thanks for the faithful witness of those who have endured the pain of staying when their gifts were less than welcome in this place.

How about them, can you give thanks for those dear ones, as well?

I give thanks, by faith, for the faithful witness of those who will use their gifts to express God’s love in ways we’ve not yet imagined… here in this place… to the glory of God.

I pray that we might all bear faithful witness to God’s grace and mercy, and God’s justice and love, to one another and to a world in need.

Today and every day to come.  Amen.

The Road Goes On

Psalm 30

This psalm is one of Thanksgiving, one that expresses the kind of hope and gratitude that has been earned and developed over time.

A psalm that reveals not only the depth of pain we humans experience in life, but the joy that comes when we find our way beyond illness, beyond grief, beyond separation.
When we find ourselves blinking and adjusting to the light of a new day, a new opportunity.
When we can’t help but give glory to God as we begin the next portion of our journey. Because the reality is that the road of life goes on.   

The Gospels tell us that Jesus was on the road for much of his life…

Of course we know he traveled with Mary and Joseph from Bethlehem to Egypt and from Nazareth to Jerusalem on multiple trips to the Temple. For most of the years he spent teaching and healing, he and his followers walked all over the region around the sea of Galilee.

During Lent, we followed them on the road to Jerusalem, where he spent his final week before being crucified. He was placed in a borrowed tomb nearby, and that was the final place anyone expected to see him.

And now, just hours after the women discovered the empty tomb, were reminded that he would be raised back to life, and then told their story to the others. Just hours after Peter ran to the tomb to confirm their story.  Just hours afterward, Luke tells this story about Cleopas and his traveling companion, listen…

Luke 24:13-35

Luke doesn’t tell us, but I suspect these two companions left Jerusalem around mid-morning. After all, they were discussing the mysterious events of the early morning.  And, they were clearly still unsettled by them.  

I can’t speak for you, but I can relate to this story more than I can to many others told about Jesus’ followers.  This story resonates with me because Cleopas and his friend are doing exactly what I do with my friends when something leaves me (or all of us) confused and unsettled.

We spend time talking it out.
We go back over the things we can wrap our heads around.  The verifiable details.
We recount the things that were most unbelievable.  The most difficult to reconcile with those verifiable facts.
We struggle out loud with the things that cause us pain, that leave us unable to go forward emotionally.

So when Jesus joins them on the road, they assume he would want to be folded into their conversation. And because this is the biggest, craziest news these friends have ever had to process, it’s stunning to them that Jesus has no idea what they’re talking about.

Of course, they don’t know who they’ve just invited into the conversation.  Luke tells us that – for reasons we don’t ever get – they were kept from seeing who he was.

But surely anyone walking away from Jerusalem, any Jew in particular, would have been talking and thinking about the events of the past week.  You might say it was the talk of the town.

But apparently not this man.
And it stops them in their tracks.
Literally.

They stop and look at him. Dumbfounded.
Dude- seriously?
You must be the only person in Jerusalem for the Passover feast that didn’t hear about it…
Or maybe you just don’t remember… ??
How many glasses of wine did you drink during that passover meal?
Huh.  Really. Ok… well… where do we start?

Perhaps they took it in turns to fill in some of the details that Luke leaves out. I mean the conversation went on for 7 miles!

But the gist of it was this…
Jesus was as important to the children of Israel at this moment as Moses was in his.
He was an amazing prophet, wise, powerful, before God and in front of all the people.
He was a liberator.
He was our hope.
And they took him away – the chief priests and the leaders.
They took away the one who would save the people.
And they had him killed.
They didn’t do it themselves, but they handed him over in a way that made clear what they hoped was going to happen.
It was awful. Everything about that trial and crucifixion.  Awful.
What were we supposed to do… he was the one we just KNEW was going to turn the world upside down.
We had hoped at the very least…

Well, now where are we left after all this?
Do we continue on his path?
Following his teaching?
We’ve spent the last couple of days wondering exactly how we could do that without getting ourselves nailed to a cross.

And now – today – on the third day since all of this got started, things got even weirder… maybe a good weird. But definitely more confusing.

So it just seemed like a really good time to leave.
Get some space between us and Jerusalem;
between us and the danger.
Between us and the sorrow.
Between us and what might have been…
What might still be… ?

Jesus- incognito as he was – must have been enjoying this a little.  Pulling the story out of them with nods and mm-hmmms.  Even as he smiled knowingly on the inside.  

There was so much they hadn’t quite understood, that they hadn’t quite managed to connect between his teachings and their current situation.

And so eventually, he can’t help himself.  

Even as he remains hidden from their recognition, he takes them back to Scripture and begins to teach.
Starting with Moses and moving through all the prophets.
He reminds them of all they’d heard – from the time they were children in synagogues to the times he was with them on the plain and in the various synagogues of the region and even in the temple courts.

They continued on down the road, talking, walking, teaching and learning until they finally arrived in Emmaus.

Now, I do a lot of walking, and when I get deep into a conversation with someone, it takes a lot longer than usual to get where I’m going.  So it doesn’t surprise me that a walk that could have been completed in a matter of 2-3 hours (even faster if you’re in a hurry), took the better part of the day.

And because they had been talking for so long, it makes sense that they would ask this stranger to stay, to eat, for sure, and perhaps to continue the conversation.

Doesn’t it just seem right that Jesus would say “yes” and join them at table?
After all, so much of his ministry happened around tables…
So much of his ministry was about making sure that everyone had a place at the table.

And doesn’t it seem right that it is at the moment Jesus breaks the bread…
When Jesus is doing the thing that is most HIM,
When Jesus is reversing the roles of guest and host,
When Jesus offers hospitality and sustenance through the blessing and breaking of the bread…
THAT is is the moment when it becomes clear who is at the table.

It wasn’t while he was walking and teaching… though he was surely reinforcing all that he’d said about himself over the years.  And certainly the teaching would have felt at least a little familiar.

No- it was at the table.

Perhaps it was his unique way of blessing the bread
Or the way he held it and looked at it.
Or perhaps the fact that this guest so humbly had taken the role of host to serve them

Regardless, in that moment, their eyes were opened.
They saw him
They knew that all he had said, on the road that day and on all the roads they’d walked together before,
they knew – deep in their hearts- that it was true.
They understood that he had been with them all along.
And then, he was gone.

Yes, it was baffling and unexpected.
And yet, it was so HIM.

Of course, they had to go and tell the others:
We have seen the risen and living Lord.  Thanks be to God!

You know, every time we gather at the table – every time we gather at the font, for that matter – there is a long prayer. The prayer of thanksgiving we call it.

And I know that it is annoying sometimes to listen to a prayer that long because I’ve felt antsy plenty of times myself. After all, we ministers seem to enjoy the sound of our own voices… And mercy, but we can make worship inefficient with long sermons and longer prayers.

But that prayer does what Jesus was doing on the road that day.
It is meant to remind us of just how far back we can travel and still not find the beginning of God’s love and care for us.

The prayer is meant to help us to rehearse and retell the story of our liberation from slavery, of God’s promises kept, of our salvation in Christ and through Christ, who is not only a great prophet, but is also the Messiah.

That long prayer is meant to remind us that we are at the table of the host who knows and loves us best.

Many of you wondered, some of you aloud and in my hearing, why we would add communion in today, when we we shared the bread and the cup on Maundy Thursday and again at Easter.  And it will be the first of the month in a couple of weeks.

Why add in one more round of communion?
The truth is, we need to be at the table.  

We need to be nourished, spiritually nourished, if we hope to live faithfully in this world of ours.

In our noisy, fast-paced, efficiency-focused culture, we are taught or at least convinced to ignore our spiritual hunger pangs – those longings for communion with God and one another- that ought to lead us to the table more often, rather than waiting for our regularly scheduled meal.

Coming together in fellowship at this table is crucial, because It is around the table that we reveal the body of Christ, in all of its human, flawed but forgiven glory.

It is at the table we experience the presence of Christ,
where we experience the grace that abounds as it extends to sinners and tax collectors,
And as grace extends to preachers and retirees, to teachers and business owners, and everyone else who hears and responds to his invitation to come, eat, and remember.

Preparing the table, whether once a month, or three times in two weeks, is an act that embodies faith,

Preparing the table in an act that embodies hope and embodies love.
Gathering the bread and the juice, setting the table, offering an invitation…
Each step of the way we are re-membering, re-enacting the hospitality of these bewildered disciples and their beloved Jesus
our beloved Jesus.   

Their hospitality opened the door, literally and figuratively, to the opportunity to encounter Jesus at this meal.

They welcomed the stranger on the road,  and he opened the scriptures in new ways
They welcomed the stranger at the table, and he offered a revelation of his care for them.

Luke’s telling of this encounter with the Messiah tells us that an encounter with the risen Lord requires two parties.
There is Christ’s divine act to come and reveal himself.
But we have a part to play.
Without an openness and vulnerability on our part,
Without a spiritual willingness to risk and a physical willingness to welcome,
we may as well just close the door.

For our eyes will not see and our ears will not hear,
And our hearts will not burn in the telling of this very good news:
Christ is risen.
He is risen, indeed.

Inconceivable

Primary Scripture: Luke 24:1-12

If you’ve watched the movie adaptation of The Princess Bride more than once, you probably can’t help but hear the word  “Inconceivable” in Wallace Shawn’s voice.  He is the brilliant stage actor who has become at least equally well known for playing Vezzini, the self-proclaimed genius and leader of a trio of criminals in the film.

Vezzini and his partners in crime kidnap Buttercup, the titular princess, and find themselves crossing a channel in a boat at night: a time at which they don’t expect anyone else to be sailing.

And yet there is a boat behind them.  

Not to worry says Vezzini… Probably a local fisherman, out for a pleasure cruise through eel-infested waters. But a little later it becomes clear that the boat is following them.  And even gaining on them.

Inconceivable, says Vezzini.

They reach the Cliffs of Insanity- aptly named as they are insanely high and impossible to scale. But Fezzik, the giant in the trio, is strong enough to climb AND to carry Buttercup, Vezzini, and the third of the crimninals – Inigo… all at once.

As they climb, whoever had been pursuing them by boat begins to follow them up the cliffs, using the same rope Fezzik is climbing.

Again,Inconceivable

They reach the top… the man continues to climb

Inconceivable.

Vezzini then cuts the rope, sure that their pursuer would fall to his death… but when they lean over the ledge to look, there he is, clinging to the cliff face. And then he begins to climb again.

Inconceivable!

At this point, Inigo turns to him and says, “You keep using that word… I do not think it means what you think it means”

I love that line…

Truth is, he’s definitely using the right word.  Every time the man persisted, it was illogical.  

The speed of his boat was beyond their understanding of sailing and physics.  It was beyond comprehension that anyone other than Vezzini’s strong man could climb straight up a cliff, much less quickly enough to close the gap between them. It was puzzling, unbelievable, confusing…  In a word – inconceivable.   

Luke never uses the word inconceivable as he describes the happenings on that first morning after what had been a tragic Friday and very long Saturday… but he sure could have.

Nothing was quite as expected.  

It’s easy for us to lose sight of that truth, having heard the story so many times, having gotten used to the idea, the miracle of it all.

But imagine living it.  In real time.

The women have been waiting, since sundown marked the beginning of sabbath and kept them from their work.  They knew what to expect, in terms of the process they would follow. The rituals they would complete.

They knew right where to look for the body. They knew what what they were about to see, and – I would imagine – dreaded the prospect of dressing a body that had been treated with such violence.  Especially seeing that evidence on the body of a man they loved.

Resolute, determined… they arrived.  The stone had been rolled away. Inconceivable

The body was gone…Inconceivable

Two men in really shiny clothes show up…Inconceivable

And truly, what the men had to say wasn’t much help in making sense of what they were experiencing.  At least not at first

“Why do you look for the living among the dead?  He is not here, but has risen.“

Wait… what?  What does that even mean?
No… We aren’t looking for the living.
Jesus is dead.  That’s why we’re here.

How could the mind possibly conceive of a living Jesus?
They had seen him crucified. They had seen him, lifeless.
So had everyone else….

But the men were right.  Jesus had said those words…
He had talked to them more than once about his death to come. And he had spoken about three days… and being raised…  

But even after seeing Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead.
Even after seeing countless people raised from spiritual, relational, and financial death to new life in community with God. Despite knowing that Jesus had the power to heal and more…

But Jesus’ teaching about being raised to life?
It had been more than they could wrap their heads around.
It was beyond recall.
It was inconceivable.

Until they remembered for themselves. They remembered his words; they remembered him saying those words, and that was enough. They left the tomb and they went to tell the story.  

Can’t you see it?

Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James and several other women excitedly describing what had just taken place…

And the men’s response…

Psh… what?  Look… you all know we love you.
We’d all love to have Jesus back with us right now.
But come on…

For 10 out of 11 apostles… Jesus being alive was clearly inconceivable.
But the 11th, Peter, the one who had denied knowing and following him…
For Peter, It was conceivable.
It was plausible.
It was possible.

He had ears to hear.
He had eyes that were eager to see.
He believed enough to go to the tomb and see for himself.

And that spark of faith – Plausibility mixed with just enough hope and just enough love…It was enough to make it worth looking… And even worth the risk of being seen while he was at it.

See, faith is not about knowledge- at least solely about knowledge. Faith is an expression of courage-
the courage it takes to believe the unbelievable.
To conceive of the inconceivable.

Faith believes that there is life at the mouth of the tomb.
Faith believes that there is life in the words being spoken that morning.
That there was life in the words they had almost forgotten.

For the women and for Peter, faith is what told them that the words Jesus spoke can and should be trusted –  even though they made as little sense in the first light of this first morning of the week as they did while during the long journey to Jerusalem.

It took tremendous courage to go to the tomb, when the Roman powers who killed Jesus remained a very real, very present danger. Both for the women and for Peter

And they believed without even having seen the risen Jesus!

That’s the funny thing about Luke’s Easter morning account… Jesus isn’t there.
Not when the women arrive.
Not while Peter visits the tomb.

He is not among the dead.
He is alive and – presumably- out among the living

Among those who are actively worshiping God
Among those who love mercy and do justice
Among those who weep, who mourn
Among those who are pressed on every side
Among those in need of healing and yet trust that God hears them.
Among those with eyes to see, with ears to hear.

The sinners.  The tax collectors.  The cast-offs and rejects.
We still have a hard time believing that part… Perhaps we have a hard time believing Jesus is with them because we don’t want to be them.

But we do want to Jesus to be with us.
Clean, shiny Jesus; predictable, knowable Jesus.

But now that we’ve walked the road to Jerusalem:
The road that led us through the audacity of a Palm Sunday parade and the passion that cleansed the temple
The road that led us to an intimate dinner with a family of choice and the sorrow of betrayal, denial and arrest.
The road that led us to the cross and the deep sense of grief and powerlessness that death always brings.

We have arrived at the moment for which we have longed:
the day of resurrection!

And so now we must live.
Among the living.

We must believe it in our bones in spite of evidence all around us that the work of Christ is not done.

In a world that remains ravaged by loss and injustice, we are still challenged to believe in the power of the resurrection.
Not because it makes any logical sense
Not because we can science or logic our way to an understanding

We are challenged to believe the unbelievable, to trust the inconceivable, because the power of resurrection is the very power than can and will transform our daily lives.  As individuals and as a church.

The power of resurrection
The power of the God who created all,
The power of the God who loves all
The power that breathes life into tired bodies and newborn babies
That is the power that restores vision, renews faith and reconciles siblings in Christ that have long been separated.

I have no idea how that works.  But I have seen the power of resurrection at work. And you know what?
I don’t need to understand it in order to long to see it again.
In order to long for each and every one of you to experience it
In order to pray daily that we might – together – be the evidence of new life in this community.  

And so, when we sing Jesus Christ is Risen today, remember and trust, like the women at the tomb, like Peter, that the Christ we seek is the Christ who keeps promises.

And thus is we can trust that Christ is alive at work in the world.
In us
Through us
With us.
Now and in the age to come.

He is risen
He is risen indeed

You have arrived…

Primary Scripture Luke 19:29-44

As we have worked our way through Luke this winter and spring, we have had several opportunities to compare notes, so to speak, with the other gospel writers. We’ve seen places where Luke’s descriptions of Jesus’ ministry match up very closely with Mark’s and Matthew’s.  We’ve noted places where the parables or events were similar, but appear in a different order. And then we’ve paid attention to material that is unique to Luke.  

This week, as we remember the final week of the Messiah’s ministry and life, we will continue to focus on Luke’s telling of these events.  But the timeline would be very sparse if we counted solely on his witness. Like the other gospel storytellers, Luke comes to the story with a particular purpose and audience in mind. Both influence Luke’s determination for which details and conversations and events to include.   

For instance, Luke tells us that when they saw Jesus riding along on the borrowed donkey, people spread their cloaks on the road. No palm branches being waved.  No tree branches of any sort. Not even a sycamore branch in honor of Zaccheus.

We expect them, even though the palms only appear in John’s gospel – launching thousands warnings to young children and choirs about the dangers of palm fronds near other people’s eyes.  And just for the record… even John doesn’t tell us that children were the ones singing and waving palms. That tradition came much later.

No, Luke’s parade starts with cloaks on the donkey and continues on the road where he passes. And the farther he goes down the road, the more vocal the crowd got.

It must have been like the storms that roll through on a summer afternoon… the kind you can hear coming down the street… first it’s the drops on the sidewalk and then windows and roof, just loud enough to hear.

That would be the murmuring of the crowd as they turned from the road to the person beside them, pointing and half-whispering, “Yes, it’s him, Jesus.  The one from Nazareth.”   

Then the stories begin. And in the same way the rain becomes a steady pulsing beat as the drops grow heavier and more densely packed, with each testimony, the joy and excitement mounts until the shouts of praise ring out like peals of thunder!

Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!

Where are our Hosannas, you ask? Oh yes, John, Mark and Matthew include them… But Luke must have assumed that his people would know the story well enough to fill in that gap. Like we did with the palms.

But even without the Hosannas, Luke is referring to some pretty powerful, pretty cosmic stuff. On the night Jesus was born, his arrival was announced to the shepherds by a different multitude:  

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”  (2:13-14)

It was a boisterous, joyful announcement. It may have echoed off the hills like thunder.

And now this second multitude was singing and borrowing the words of the angels:
Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!

We don’t know exactly who they were… this multitude, but there were clearly more than the usual people around. Certainly it would have included the twelve, the ones we are most familiar with, the ones Jesus was closest to.

But others have seen his deeds of power, too…  some experiencing that power directly.

Zaccheus and the blind beggar might have followed him through the mountains from Jericho.  After all, Jesus had just spent the night at Zaccheus’ house.

There were all those women, forgiven, healed, seen and heard — maybe for the first time in their lives experiencing true love and compassion. Knowing that they were the first on the scene in the garden on resurrection day, we can trust that Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James were among the followers singing and crying out that day.

I wonder if the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet at Simon’s party… you know, the one known only as a sinner?… I wonder if she followed him to Jerusalem, or the woman who was cured of her twelve years of hemorrhaging when she touched Jesus’ cloak… Perhaps her cloak was among those in the street.

Jairus may have come, maybe even at his daughter’s insistence. After all it was Jesus who said to her, “Little sister, wake up”

Was there a tall and regal looking woman who had once been stooped over?  

Were there lepers whose skin had cleared and people unable to stand still after being healed of paralysis?  

We don’t know… but we do know this: multitudes sang his praises, longed to see him made King, and were painfully aware of the dangers they were in.And yet they persisted in their celebration… because they had seen it. They knew the glory of the Lord as it had been revealed in the person of Jesus.

And they would not be silent.  

Not when it became clear that they were not alone. That they were part of this multitude of people, all of whom had lived on the edges, in the margins, all of whom had been transformed.

The kingdom of God was near.
Salvation had come to them.
In the form of a man riding on the back of a donkey.

And with or without tree branches or palm fronds, the people were loudly and proudly honoring him.

They were treating him like royalty. Not that Jesus was entering Jerusalem like a king or prince. That would have looked very different.

These people would have been familiar with the spectacle of Roman military parades.  Not only in Jerusalem but anywhere the empire wished to remind its subjects of its power over them.

Or the processions of the various rulers set in place by the emperor, each empowered and expected (and probably more than happy) to maintain a sense of being set apart, set above the rabble.  

Not too high, mind you… otherwise they run the risk of …. Well, the very same risks that Jesus was taking in allowing the people to refer to him as king.

While Jesus is willing to deal with the consequences, there are some among the religious leaders in Jerusalem who are definitely not.  They are horrified by the prospect of the crowd drawing too much attention to Jesus, too much attention to the Jews.  They are more than a little scared for the lives of their people.  Not to mention their own lives!  

Shh… can’t you get them to be quiet?  I mean, what in the world, man?!  These are your followers, make them stop!

He couldn’t…
He wouldn’t…
And even if he did… the rocks would cry out.

Because this was so much bigger than church politics.
Bigger than the convoluted relationship between the church and state
Bigger than the challenges of being an oppressed people

Jesus arrival in Jerusalem is a divine visitation.  
This is God with us. Being with us.
This is the Word of God for the people of God.  Among the people of God.
And what has been seen cannot be unseen
What has been done and experienced, must be told and retold.

In Jesus, these people have experienced the reconciling work of the priest, they have heard the teaching of the prophet, and now they are ready to see the power of the King.

They have waited for one who would pick up the thread, who would return to the House of David and begin to reign again. They don’t need the powerful in the church to tell them where Jesus got the power to heal and transform. They already know. And they are ready to follow him.

John the Baptist had said it would be so back in Luke 3. When religious leaders claimed their special inheritance, said that they were in with God based solely on their lineage, John told them that repentance wasn’t optional and inheritance wasn’t guaranteed. And he said, “I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.”

Plain old rocks, nothing special… made heirs to God.
And now, those stones had come to life!

People who had been treated like nobodies:
The sinners and the tax collectors
The blind and the lame
The unclean and worthless…
Today they were walking and shouting like somebodies!

It was glorious.
And Jesus was all for it.

No way was he shutting this down.

And yet, he had to have known.  After all, he had been predicting it for years, though more frequently as they approached the Jerusalem.

This was the beginning of the end.

And the reality of what that meant for Jesus was almost secondary to the truth that Jerusalem, the very heart of the people of Israel, would turn from a scene of triumph to a place of rejection. There would be no peace for Jesus in Jerusalem.

And he knew that Jerusalem would not experience peace either.

Jesus, the Prince of Peace, who offered the very peace for which all of humanity hungers had no words of comfort: And make no mistake, he felt no comfort in these hard words…

After all, As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it.
And he said “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace!”

The day will come when you are surrounded and besieged.
You will be crushed, and not a stone will be left on stone.

“…because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.”

On a day when so many people saw him – recognized the Lord in him – Jesus knew it would not last.  Because not everyone saw him… really saw the truth of him.

Not everyone was ready to follow his way of loving God and loving neighbors. Some found his popularity as distressing as his theology. Others were bound by law to assure that there were no threats – even small ones – to the powers of Rome.

And so the very stones that had come together to praise Jesus, they would be the ones that suffered.

There would come a time of destruction, when the Temple that stood proudly would be torn down, stone by stone. People would be scattered – physically and spiritually.

The stones would be weeping. Out of pain, grief, and fear.

And that, my friends, is the bittersweet truth of life, even now. Even as we experience joy, even as we have moments of quiet, even as we hold onto the glimmers of hope in our hearts, we don’t know lasting peace.

Not as a community,
not as a nation.
Not as a species.   

We humans are a violent lot

We can’t go a week without news of airstrikes, chemical weapons, arms races being reignited
We can’t go a week without shootings, bomb threats, and beatings
We can’t go a week without arguments between spouses that escalate into fist fights, children being harmed by parents.
We can’t go a week without someone seeing no other way out than harming themselves.
We can’t go a week without using our words, our relationships  and our influence to tear down someone else.

We humans are a violent lot

I suspect that as we begin this holy week, Jesus weeps still. Not just for Jerusalem, but for the hearts of his people everywhere. Because we can’t place the blame – at least not solely –  on the people here and around the world who don’t know Jesus.

I have to believe that the God in Jesus who wept at the thought of Jerusalem’s destruction, weeps whenever we choose to be a destructive force in the world.

And I have to believe that the God in Jesus, who is at work in and through us, would weep with joy to see us repent.

God in Jesus – would weep with joy to see us – each of us and all of us – re-oriented to the peace we are offered in the way of living that Jesus taught.

Confessing, repenting, choosing to follow again.

Then, and only then are we likely to hear the words “You have arrived at your destination.”

 

The View

Primary Scripture Luke 18:31-19:10

Jesus has just about made it to Jerusalem. It has been quite a journey since that day he set his face for the city, but they are now headed into Jericho, about 15 miles from Jerusalem as the crow flies. On foot, through mountainous terrain, however… The road gets longer as it winds its way to the city.

We don’t know how many days will pass between their time in Jericho and their arrival in Jerusalem. But our reading made clear that what awaits Jesus there is clearly weighing on his mind.

For a third time, Jesus shares a glimpse into his future: his death and resurrection.  And once again, those closest to him are in the dark. Unable to see what he means.

Taken together, these three predictions or teachings paint a fairly robust picture of what is to come. The first time, Jesus says that his suffering, rejection and death will come at the hands of the elders, chief priests, and scribes in Jerusalem. Not as a result of what he is doing, but because of his identity.

The second teaching is much shorter, with Jesus saying that he will be betrayed into human hands.  And then in today’s reading, Jesus takes it further.  He will be handed over from the Jews into Gentile custody.  Those political powers will mock and insult him, physically abuse and ultimately kill him.

At every level, Jesus will be refused; he will be the messiah rejected by humanity so that what is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished.
He will suffer and die.
He will rise.
All so that he might accomplish all that he was sent to do…
All that he might seek and save the lost.

And so, all of the interruptions and side trips and all of the interactions that seemed not to be in their itinerary to Jerusalem…  They were definitely part of his agenda.

It is no surprise then, as they enter Jericho, that the journey to Jerusalem is interrupted yet again… first by a blind man.

The blind man is a beggar by trade.  He sits on the roadside, listening for the sounds of people passing by. He asks, people give, hopefully enough that he can eat.  

It’s a pretty straightforward transaction. For him and for those who give.  

Almsgiving was a mitzvah – a good deed.  Offering the mercy of alms is a way to bless someone and perhaps receive a blessing from God in return.  

Everyone knew how the financial transaction worked.  There was honor in the giving, and there was shame in the sin that must have caused the blindness, along with shame in the need and in the asking.

The second interruption, was a bit different. As a publican by trade, a chief tax collector in fact, Zaccheus was also familiar with financial transactions. His work was not as much like an IRS agent as we might first assume.  The Romans generally did their own dirty work in that regard. They had plenty of mid-level overseers to keep track of what was collected and and military personnel to intimidate (or worse) as needed in the collecting.

No, Zaccheus was a more like a private contractor hired by the Roman government to handle international trade contracts and to collect the customs payments on goods that moved in and out of the empire. These jobs were fairly common in port cities and along the border, and Zaccheus apparently supervised others in this work. He had also been at it long enough to amass enough wealth to be known as a rich man.

If the blind man was at the bottom rung of the financial ladder, Zaccheus was accustomed to the view from the top. Not that his wealth meant Zaccheus was viewed any more positively than the beggar… at least not by most Jews. After all, he was a Jewish businessman profiting from the very empire that made all of their lives miserable. Let’s just say he would not have been invited to many dinner parties.

Tax collectors and sinners… they were regularly lumped together. Though for different reasons, this very rich man and this very poor man were both living on the margins of Jewish religious life.

And on this day in Jericho, neither of them can see Jesus
But they both persist.
And on this day in Jericho, Jesus sees both of them.
He sees the blind man, but not simply his poverty or his blindness
He sees Zaccheus, but not primarily his wealth

Jesus sees them and stops for them because Jesus sees what so many others have not.
Jesus sees men whose hearts see in him what so many others have missed.
Which is why the transaction between these men and the Messiah is nothing like what either of them have grown accustomed to.

For the blind man, Jesus offers mercy. But not the mercy of almsgiving that will allow him to eat for a day or two. Jesus offers mercy that asks the question, rather than assuming the answer.  What do you want?  

I want to see.
I want to know that I, too, can be forgiven.
That I am a child of God, beloved and worthy of dignity.
Jesus, Son of David, I want you to be who I believe you are.
I want you to be able to do what I believe you can do.
I want to see that… I want to see God’s glory revealed.

Jesus offers mercy that looks like forgiveness.  Forgiveness that looks like healing
The faith that the blind man offered up in those words… I want to see… that was faith enough.  

Salvation had come.
And it looked an awful lot like healing, wholeness and opportunity.
It looked an awful lot like Jesus.

And as Jesus moved on, the view from the no-longer-blind man’s spot was pretty amazing.

Zaccheus had worked awfully hard to catch a glimpse of Jesus. And he had tossed aside whatever dignity he had to climb up into the tree to get a better view.

When Jesus calls him down to talk, we actually hit some of the limits of translating ancient Greek into modern English. See, Luke uses a verb tense that can be rendered a couple of different ways, because it can mean both in Greek.

The NRSV has Zaccheus speaking in the future tense…
I will give half of my possessions to the poor;
I will pay back anyone I defrauded with four times the amount.

But it is also possible to translate Zaccheus’ words as
I have given away half of my wealth;
I have made things right by returning four times more than what was illegal gain.

A more complete understanding might be I have and will continue…

He may well be saying “I know what people say about me, why people despise me, but this is how I have done my job… this is how I will keep doing it. They really don’t know me. 

Scholars much smarter than me and my preaching friends have been arguing about this for quite some time.  But regardless of whether he is indicating a new change of heart or explaining to Jesus the truth of what has gone on, Zaccheus has shown a much better understanding of what it means to serve God, rather than serve his own wealth, than 99% of the people Jesus has encountered.    

As I reflected on what Luke was hoping to convey, it struck me that the translation we prefer might be shaped by the way we understand Jesus’ reply to Zaccheus.

Salvation has come to this house today

It’s hard to separate our understanding of Jesus’ words from the understanding of salvation that we have inherited here in 21st century America. Waves of evangelicalism have swept North America since the Puritan fathers arrived and the Great Awakening was stirred. The resulting focus on individual salvation from eternal damnation can make our relationship with God seem like a single transaction: In exchange for a “sinner’s prayer” we receive a ticket to paradise.  

This is, in fact, a relatively new doctrine. And it certainly was never the primary focus of Jesus’ teaching. Like the prophets and John the Baptist, Jesus teaches that repentance happens again and again as our hearts are reoriented to God’s will again and again.

Jesus’ work was all about bringing wholeness right then, right there.  Offering forgiveness and healing, reconnection into community.  Saving their lives in this flesh and blood realm, often by removing any barriers to their being part of a family again…. even as he rewarded their faith in the God they could not see. The God we cannot see.

Doing that work meant being present for people in such a way that he – personally – was their salvation. Before, during and after his death and resurrection.

Seeing Jesus
Being seen by Jesus
Experiencing the reality of God’s love and grace simply by being near him.
That is salvation.

His presence was sufficient to shore up the faith of all who who had ears to hear. All who had eyes to see (even while they are physically blind!)

His passing through town, encouraged the faith of those who wanted to see Jesus badly enough to keep shouting when other would shush them or to make a fool of themselves by climbing up for a better view.

People still long to see Jesus,
to hear a word of hope
to be in the presence of the divine

They long to experience love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

They need to hear assurance of grace and mercy
People still want the healing and wholeness that comes when we are loved and accepted just as we are

OK – Not just people.
Not just they.
You, me, everyone I know
We all cry out for mercy.

What do you want? Jesus still asks   

We want to see.
We want to be seen,
We want to be known,
We want to be loved.

Salvation still looks a lot like community,
Salvation looks a lot like the Body of Christ

And where, if not among others who have been in the presence of Christ,
Where, if not around the table…
A table where a rich man like Zaccheus, wearing his purple cloaks would feel welcome
A table where a poor man, who had begged for years in ragswould also feel welcome

Where,  if not here are we no longer lost?

Let us pray….

Pastor’s Note for April

I haven’t told a whole lot of people what really got me started on all this walking I’ve been doing.  Like most folks, I have known for years (decades even) what it takes to be healthy: regular exercise, a balanced diet, plenty of sleep, and time away from stress and responsibilities.  And like many folks, I was pretty much living at the opposite end of the spectrum for most of those areas.  And so, it was just a matter of time before I got the kind of news I heard right about this time last year.  

I had gone to an urgent care clinic for a sinus infection and my blood pressure was way out of control. As in, they wanted me to go directly to a hospital. Right that minute. Immediately, I was thinking about all the things I was responsible for and all the people I would be leaving in a major squeeze if I was in the hospital overnight. Or even for the next few days.  I didn’t have time for that. Who has time for that? 

So instead, I signed the paper releasing them from responsibility if I died before actually going to the hospital. Definitely not the smartest move I’ve ever made. Definitely not something I recommend.

But as I left, I thought to myself, Ok. Get past this crazy month – and if you’re not dead, it will be time to get serious about living.

I did exactly that. I managed to survive what was a really stressful, hectic few weeks, and then I got serious about making the changes I needed to make in order to live to see my 50th birthday.

There was a little bit of dying involved. I had to kill the idea – my own misguided belief that had somehow lingered since adolescence – that I was invincible.  And I had to take aim, one by one, at some of the habits that were making me sick. And I had to put to rest the biggest myth I had carried around: that I was not worth the effort it would take to make those changes.

I share this with you now because I want to say that we are past the point of antibiotics and rest. Becoming a healthy and thriving church again – it’s going to take a lot of work. A lot of energy and activity.  It will take persistence and trust in God’s resurrection power. It will take all the community and love we can muster when the inevitable misunderstandings and disagreements pop up.

But hear me, friends, when I say that this congregation is so very worth it.  You are worth all the effort it is going to take, all the pain we will endure, all the sweat and tears that are bound to fall. You are worth it because the church is God’s plan for the world to know all the love, grace, hope, and peace that we have experienced through Jesus Christ.  You are worth all that God has and will invest in you, and I am honored to be walking alongside you.