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  1. Sermons : Which Way Do We Go?

    Fifth Sunday of Easter

    1 Peter 2:4-10
    John 14:1-14

    What would you do if you knew it was your last night on earth?  Who would be there? What would you say?  What would you do?

    Remember with me back to Maundy Thursday.  Jesus was troubled, John tells us. 1 So many things moved towards this moment, as the disciples made their way to an upper room.  It was that last supper, before His arrest, the beatings, his tragic death the next day.  And it was His last chance.  John sets aside chapters 13, 14, 15, 16, and 17 for this farewell discourse, for these things Jesus says to his friends around the table.  He sets the tone early on by taking off his outer robe, wrapping a towel around his waist, pouring water from a bowl over their dusty feet.  He warns them of the coming trials, of one of their betrayal, and offers a new commandment, that they love one another: “Just as I have loved you,” he says, “you also should love one another.” 2 After that comes the interchange recorded in today’s text.

    And while it is a wonderful one, too often this is a text you hear shouted.  At a gathering last fall a friend of the family sat down, eager to pick the brain of the preacher.  ‘What do you think of the Muslim threat?’ he asked.  When I told him I didn’t feel particularly threatened as a Christian in the southeastern US, and that people of all faiths needed to work together to root out radical elements within all of their communities, a confused look spread over his face.  I had not satisfied him.  And then it came.  ‘Well, Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life,’ he said.  And the verse just sat there, hanging over us.

    Because everyone is scared.  He knew it, so he begins with words of comfort.  Do not let your hearts be troubled, he says, by your fear, by the guards you know that are coming.  Believe in.  Trust in.  Lean into my strength as the bills mount and the doctor calls back.  In my Father’s house, he says, hospitality abounds, as does grace.  And there are many dwelling places, he says, plenty of room, Lamar Williamson says, for those who find in Jesus the way to God. 3 He reminds them of promises made – that He is preparing a place, that He will come and take us to Himself.  That Christ will gather us all together.  This is welcoming, invitational language spoken at table with his dear friends.  You know, he says to them, you know.

    And then comes Thomas’s question.  Thomas has gained a reputation because of his later questions, after the resurrection, when he needed to know if Jesus was really alive. 4 Thomas knew this was important.  So much swirled around him, violence, economic anxiety, pressure, pressure, pressure.  Lord, tell me.  So much is unclear.  Tell us.  We HAVE to nail it down.  We have to be sure.  We have to know.  This is the point at which I am sure Jesus smiled.  He knew these friends, knew who was going to ask the question, who was going to shy away.  Like the committees we are on – we know who is reliable, who has great ideas but forgets things, who is always fired up about something that no one else worries about.  That’s what it’s like working with people, and we love them, we do.  And Jesus leans in and looks him in the eye.  Thomas, I am the way, I am the truth, I am the life.  I have been here with you the whole time.  In what is an amazing statement, He says that you don’t find God any other way, through something different that what you have known of us together.  “There is an exclusive quality to this love,” Williamson says, again.  “Like Israel’s walk with the God who would not tolerate the worship of other gods, and like life together in a faithful marriage whose partners forswear intimacy with all others.” 5 Not everywhere, not anywhere, but here.

    We, as followers of this Jesus, are caught in a difficult bind when it comes to texts such as these.  We want, so desperately, to be faithful to what we believe is true, but we also don’t want to shut ourselves off from the world He is even now transforming.  We don’t want to compromise what we believe – nor should we.  But too often Christians have used this text to put up walls instead of to break them down.  I have a hard time believing that the most important thing this text has to tell me is that the Mormon family I sat with at the baseball game on Tuesday, or my Jewish friend from college, or my neighbor who confessed shortly after we moved in that she couldn’t remember ever actually walking in a church, are all destined for eternal damnation.  That is why I will readily proclaim, with the church, that “Jesus Christ is the only Savior and Lord, and all people everywhere are called to place their faith, hope, and love in him.”  But we must also say, right after that, that “Grace, love, and communion belong to God, and are not ours to determine.” 6 We work as hard as we can, and we trust.  This text comes as good, good news, and it is important that we let it be that good news, and not try and make it something it isn’t.

    That is why the rest of the conversation, often left out, is so useful.  After Thomas’ first question, Phillip keeps pushing.  Show us, he says, and we’ll be satisfied.  I have been with you this whole time, Jesus says.  Whoever has seen me has seen God.  And then comes something extraordinary.  Jesus says, even if you don’t believe because I say so, if that is not enough; believe because of what you have seen – of blind healed, of lepers cleansed, of Lazarus walking out of the tomb.  Believe, he says, because you have seen my work, because it is unmistakable, as children sing, as youth ask great questions, as we work in the shelter line and sawing up trees in yards in Raleigh, as we hammer nails for Habitat.  Jesus looks into the disciples’ eyes, and says, “Thomas, you have just seen the way when I knelt and washed your feet.  You have felt the truth in the Spirit at work around this table as we ate together.  You have experienced real life through the words I have spoken.  Phillip, I am the way, and the truth, and the life.  Live like I do, love like I do, and you will experience everlasting life.”

    I don’t know how to explain love to you.  I don’t have the words to describe it.  I don’t know anything about love apart from the way the way my parents cared for me, from the embrace of a good friend, what I know from the feeling that gripped me when I saw my wife begin to walk down the aisle.  When Ella Brooks, then Heath, were placed in my hands.  As far as I know you can’t know love in theory, in any meaningful way, at least.  I wonder if Jesus is saying something similar to His disciples here.  Maybe that is what He is trying to help Thomas and Philip see.  God is not something, someone far, away, Jesus says.  God is here.  I am here.  You don’t get God any other way, out there – God in theory.  That cannot be the way.  God cannot be understood in isolation from the depth of human relationships, as God is, in the essence of God’s own self, love in action, embodied in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  And this Christ bears fruit among us as we gather together, laughing over meals, clutching each other in hospital rooms or beside the grave.  When we sit together and listen and talk through something hard.  The way isn’t out there, Jesus says.  Look at me.  Hold my hands.  Feel, in your gut, our relationship.  That is love, He says.  And that is God.

    I can think of few better ways that God’s love is made flesh than in the teachers we appreciate today.  Those of us up front tend get all the glory, but it is these folks, on Sundays and Wednesdays, that form the backbone of faithfulness here.  That way becomes real as art supplies are gathered, as behavior issues are tended to, as a teacher sits up late on a Saturday with curriculum and bible, struggling, learning.  I learned of Jesus as the Truth through folks like Gene and Smith Wilson, and Tommy and Ed Hay.  These retired couples sat with me, often the only kid in Sunday School those first few years in Black Mountain.  In 5th grade, and much of 6th grade.  I don’t have any idea what we talked about, but I know of their faithfulness as they kept showing up, over and over again.  One summer, years later, when I was escorting some 6th graders of my own in clubs in Montreat, a car pulled up alongside.  It was Tommy, Ed’s wife.  He had just died.  And she rolled down her window and held out a book, an old Greek Lexicon, well used.  Ed was a retired Presbyterian minister, had taken Greek at Davidson and done so well they asked him to help teach it when he enrolled at Louisville Seminary.  She wanted me to have it.  I think he would want you to have it, she said, and drove off quickly as the tears came.  And we feel this life embodied in those relationships.  I know how much my kids adore guitar man, how Heath looks forward to Daddy and Sissy Ketch, as he calls Susan and Jim, as Ella Brooks sits with Helen and Muff, Julie, Angela and Alice.  These relationships are so meaningful, and they change things.

    “I am the way, and the truth, and the life,” He says.  He does not say the church is the way.  He says He Himself is the way.  And He says that the truth is not words, neither his nor anyone else’s.  It is love embodied – love in action – that comes to us, and to the world, most fully in the person of Jesus the Christ.  And through it all, as the unanswered questions grow, I believe that we are still called, each day, to follow.  Not to hurl these words as a dart, not to decide things for others that are not ours to decide.  But to lean into His promises, to trust, to believe.

    All praise be to God.  Amen.

    1. I am grateful to Lamar Williamson, who pointed this out in his book, “Preaching the Gospel of John: Proclaiming the Living Word,” (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2004), p 178.  When his friend Lazarus died (11:33), as His own death approached (12:27), and knowing that one of His disciples would betray Him (13:21). 
    2. John 13:34. 
    3. Williamson, 179. 
    4. John 20:19-31. 
    5. Williamson 182. 
    6. From “Hope in the Lord Jesus Christ”, a document commended to the church at the 2002 General Assembly, lines 155-168.

  2. Sermons : Filled With the Spirit

    Fourth Sunday of Easter

    Psalm 23
    Ephesians 5:15-20

    Texts like this make me immediately skeptical.

    “Be careful then how you live,” Paul says.  Don’t be foolish, “but understand what the will of the Lord is.”  It sounds like a stump speech, as the politician bounds up to the stage. And we are told that America is great as long as she is good, or we must protect our values for our children, or our increasing debt means we are going to have to make some sacrifices.  And we nod, agreeing, until someone raises their hand:  “Which values do you mean?  Which thing that we are passionate about must get cut? ”  We all want to follow the will of the Lord, just as soon as we know what that is, exactly.

    We struggle with this wisdom in the church.  A presbytery in Minnesota voted on Tuesday to approve amendment 10-A to the constitution of the PC (USA), putting the total number of affirmative votes over the threshold for passage.  This amendment, once it takes effect this summer, replaces some of our church’s language about ordination standards.  The present standards speak of officers in the church living in obedience to scripture and our confessions.  Then there is a special note about our sexuality, added 14 years ago:  “Among these standards is the requirement to live in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness…” (G-6.0106b).

    Now, we ought to agree that the way one lives in relationship is an important arena in which we live out our faith.  We don’t get to wall off portions of our lives that God doesn’t get access to.  But the mechanics get tricky.  The church actually amended the Westminster Confession of Faith some 50 years ago to sanction people getting remarried, and to grant some grace on divorce. 1 While I am sure there are couples who have gotten divorced too quickly, who didn’t try hard enough to work it out, most of the couples I know did so through deep pain, praying to the very end that things could be otherwise.  Paul says, ‘be careful how you live,’ and ‘understand the will of the Lord.’  And then we step out the door, and it is infinitely more difficult.

    And Paul’s language sounds like a stump speech because, in many ways, it is.  First of all, most scholars doubt this letter was written by Paul.  The language and writing style is different.  And it might not have been written to the Ephesians.  The phrase in 1:1 ‘in Ephesus’ is missing from several early and trustworthy manuscripts. 2 The author repeats a lot of Colossians, and the book lacks any specific mention of problems in the community that prompted Paul’s writing.  In so many of his letters the context is unmistakable.  Paul writes his first letter to the Thessalonians who are worried about their loved ones who have died, to assure them of the hope they have in Christ.  He writes to the Christians in Corinth because factions threaten their unity.  He follows up with a second letter seeking reconciliation, and in gratitude for an offering the church sent for Christians in Jerusalem.  Galatians is about circumcision, about identity and being the rightful heirs of Christ’s promise.  Paul is in prison and writes to the Philippians to endure against persecution, similar things to Colossians.

    But not in Ephesians.  Paul, or someone writing in Paul’s name, begins with a long section of gratitude that turns into a prayer, and then calls the people to seek a brand new life in Christ.  Its language is rich, with a lot of great stuff about the church as the body of Christ, about being called to bear witness to him in the world.  It is filled with exhortation.  A stump speech, what many scholars think is likely a sermon that traveling preachers would share, from pulpit to pulpit.  Our preacher reminds his hearers that Christ is our peace, that he has broken down the dividing walls between us (2:14); he tells us that we are no longer strangers and aliens, but are citizens, saints in the household of God (2:19).  He challenges us all to lead a life worthy of our calling (4:1), and not to be tossed about, back and forth, blown about by winds of doctrine, by following our impulses instead of doing the deep discernment to which we are called.

    And so our preacher, to this church in Ephesus and to many others, dares to reuse some of his material because he believes it is important.  He does this because he believes that how we live in all of our relationships, that how we conduct ourselves as a church, matters profoundly to each other, to the world, and to God.  Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil.  We are summoned to live with intentionality, to live into opportunities for ministry placed before us.  All of that can certainly mean different things to different people, just as this vote does for the larger church.  There are many who have been blasting away, who would argue that the PC(USA) has given into the values of these evil days, have been batted about by the winds of culture, who are simply following along and tossing scripture out along the way.  This wasn’t a debate in the church for many centuries, so why toss all that out?

    It is because, I believe, that at the core of our Christian and Reformed tradition is that we are always being reformed by the Spirit of God.  That the moment things stay the same, we are in fact heading backwards, missing opportunities to be at work in the world.  I am not going to re-litigate this whole thing for you, though I would – either Betty or I – would love to sit and talk with you, would love to sit and listen to you.  I do believe, though, that this dynamic Spirit calls us to seek faithfulness in every age, as our church has been seeking for the last 33 years.  These new standards do not throw open the door for every broken sinful person to be an officer in the church, any more than broken and sinful people are leaders – pastors and elders and deacons – in the church already.  We are they.  What the church has done is remove a categorical condemnation that was inconsistently enforced, and that ignored that fact that we all fall short in countless ways.  I tend to think we focus on sins of sex because we like to believe that those are sins that other people do.  They can’t pertain to us.  And we point the finger, ignoring the log in our own eye, when scripture says some pretty powerful things about greed, about idolatry, about honesty and gossip and forgiveness that we don’t seem to worry about so much.  This new language, while offering freedom for bodies to no longer exclude gifted gay and lesbian people who have been called to serve the church, more importantly focuses us not on each other, not on your sins and mine, but on the Christ who is the Lord of all.

    And the new language points us to God, in ways that the preacher of Ephesians would appreciate.  “Standards for ordained service reflect the church’s desire to submit joyfully to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all aspects of life (G-1.0000).” 3 We lean on scripture and the confessions, and our local governing bodies – sessions and presbyteries – who will decide for themselves, and for the church, through deep discernment and prayer, who will lead and serve the church.  This is what our preacher encourages us to do: to be filled with the Spirit, to seek her everywhere.  The Spirit of boundless hope and joy, laughter and love, who is the Spirit of the Risen Christ, who broke down boundaries over and over again, who extended compassion and love to all He met, who called all people to repent, to turn around, to stop following themselves and their own gods, and seek the One God, the God of Abraham and Sarah, of Deborah, Isaiah and Micah, of Mary and Joseph and Paul, of Augustine and Calvin, of Knox and Witherspoon, of our grandparents, of pastors we knew growing up, the Christ that seeks YOU, that seeks ME.

    And then our preacher, finally, at every stop in every little coastal town, points the people to worship.  We work and study and struggle with these hard issues, then we worship.  We sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs to God, so we might give thanks and praise.  And we do it here, on this day in which we give thanks to God for the musicians that lead us in this central act of the church.  It is through worship, through these songs, that we are lifted up, beyond and through our pain, the tedium of our lives, and pointed yet again to the divine.  In hospital rooms, as the words come to us… Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.  Through this Lenten season, I would hear myself singing, rejoice, and be glad, blessed are You, Holy are You…as sung by our chancel and junior choirs.  Holy Darkness, blessed light…as the choir sang on Maundy Thursday: as we await You, O God of silence, we embrace Your holy night. As we worship with the anthem the choir will sing today, which they sang so powerfully at Mickey Henriquez’s funeral in January.

    And we’ll do as we always do, circling back to worship, with remarkable music by such talented and generous people.  But even more so beyond and through the music, through our exhaustion and pain, through a world filled with violence, to the Christ who comes among us, who is making all things new.  And who fills us with His Spirit, so we might live joyfully, serving in Sunday School and with Habitat, in the choir, at the dinner table and in the shelter line.  As we remember, through all things, that in Him, in Christ, we find our hope.

    All praise be to God.  Amen.

    1. The Book of Confessions of the Presbyterian Church, USA, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1999), “The Westminster Confession of Faith,” Chapter XXVI, 6.133.
    2. Charles B Cousar, An Introduction to the New Testament: Witnesses to God’s New Work, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 2006), p 81.  I found additional background in Pheme Perkins’ introductory section in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume XI, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000), pp 351-355, and 441-443.
    3. Find out more at

  3. Sermons : Astounding Women

    Astounding Women, Rev. Christi O. Brown

    Third Sunday of Easter

    Luke 24:13-24
    Luke 24:25-35

    It would be hard not to realize that today is Mother’s Day. Inundated this week with advertisements for specials on flowers, jewelry, balloons, brunches, gift and greeting cards, it would be hard to miss it. 

    I dug up a little history and found that in the United States this holiday began with a campaign led by Anna Jarvis in the early 1900′s. Anna was a young lady who wanted to honor her deceased mother. It turns out her mother had founded Mothers’ Day Work Clubs, where mothers of all backgrounds would join forces and come together to improve sanitary and health conditions within their cities. During the Civil War, it was this band of mothers who saw beyond the gray and blue—medically treating, feeding and clothing both Union and Confederate soldiers with neutrality. Anna promoted the adoption of this national holiday for over 6 years until President Woodrow Wilson (a Presbyterian, I might add) made it an official national holiday in 1914. 1

    However, no sooner than the holiday had become official, it became commercialized—turning into one that was all about cards and candy, and not about the service day of mothers working together and honoring one another for which Anna had dreamed. She was so disgusted with this distortion of Mother’s Day that less than 10 years after its inception she began campaigning against the very holiday she had helped establish.

    Today in the Reformed church, Mother’s Day is not an official church holiday. It is not a season or a sanctioned occasion or celebration on the church’s liturgical calendar, yet it is acknowledged that both mothers and women in general have played a tremendous part in our Judeo-Christian faith.

    From Eve in Genesis to Mary in the Gospels, from Miriam in Exodus to Phoebe in Romans, from Deborah in Judges to Apphia in Philemon. The list goes on: Ester, Ruth, Naomi, Rebekah, Leah, Hannah… and many more, including those who played large roles in our faith but remained unnamed by the historians and scribes.

    Today in the account of the Road to Emmaus in the Gospel of Luke, we run across disciples of Christ who have been astounded by women. The original Greek word for astounded is not very different from our current English word in that it can carry both positive and negative connotations—meaning everything from amazed to flabbergasted. Were these disciples in awe of the women’s bravery in going to the tomb of their Savior? Were they stunned that the women were the first to know of the resurrection? Were they unbelieving of the women’s account of the empty tomb?

    In the preceding passage, Luke recounts the scene earlier that Easter morning. Armed with aromatic spices, a group of all women went to the tomb of Jesus, prepared to properly bury their Rabbi, friend and Lord. The women were actually so prominent in the narrative that Luke was comfortable identifying this group as a generic “they” six times before even revealing that it was a group of women 2, because he assumed the readers would know precisely who he was referring to without that specification. After all, the women were the ones who stood by Jesus when he was crucified as well as attended the burial when his body to rest in the tomb. They had been beside Jesus every step of the way.

    So it was this motley crew of women who were the first to learn the news of Jesus’ resurrection. One had co-habitated with seven demons, two were wives of fishing entrepreneurs and honored in their village, one was the wife of a top official in Herod’s household, and others had sufficient money to hire servants to do their household chores while they wandered with Jesus and the twelve. Not one of them was biologically related to Jesus, and yet embalming was normally the task of the blood relatives. 3 Jesus was family to them, and God chose these women to be the first bearers of the momentous event of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

    These women were perplexed by the empty tomb until the angels reminded them of Jesus? very own words that he would rise from the dead on the third day. They were immediately enlightened and moved into full clarity of the gravity of the meaning of the empty tomb. Elated, they rushed from the tomb to share this joyous news with the apostles that Jesus was alive!

    As commentator Joel Green noted, “Luke [even] underscores the faithfulness of their testimony by noting that [the women] announced ‘all these things’—what they had observed, been told, and the new significance they attributed to Jesus’ passion and the absence of his corpse.”4 And yet, after all this, Luke reports that the men just dismissed the women’s account as an idle tale and did not believe them. One man, namely Peter—still not fully believing but curious enough by their report—decided to walk to the tomb to check it out for himself. But it seems all the others just continued to stay where they were and wallow in their grief. The women had full clarity while the others continued to lack full recognition.

    It was at this moment that Jesus meets two disciples walking on the road to Emmaus. Jesus joins them on their walk and begins talking to them but they do not recognize him. They provide Jesus with a summary of the Gospel, recounting his very own life to him, including the momentous events of the last several days, as well as the astounding news from the women of the empty tomb that morning. But to this seeming stranger to whom they had the amazing opportunity to evangelize, they missed the point. They ended his very own story with sadness and unbelief, not with the glory of his resurrection.

    Quite frustrated, Jesus (in a loving tone I’m sure) called them foolish, and quickly realized an intervention was needed for their unbelief. He began by first opening the Scriptures to them as he spoke on the road, and finally by opening their eyes as he broke bread with them that evening. After their communion when their eyes were opened, Jesus mysteriously vanished as quickly as he had appeared. The disciples immediately walked the seven miles back to Jerusalem to proclaim to the apostles the exact same news the women had shared that very morning, “Friends, the Lord has risen indeed!”

    Can you imagine the women, probably sitting in the back of the room, shaking their heads, rolling their eyes, throwing their hands in the air, and saying, “Guys, this is exactly what we told you this very morning! Why didn’t you believe us then?”

    Having studied a fair amount of women’s history, there are far too many times when women’s voices have not been believed or even heard. I cannot imagine how many un-recorded scenes of women’s hands being thrown up the air have occurred over the last several thousand years. But today, on this Mother’s Day, we celebrate and recognize the voices of astounding women—those saints who have come before us and formed our faith, and those who walk and serve among us now, proclaiming that Christ is risen indeed, and inspiring us to live into who God created each one of us to be.

    I do think it is important to acknowledge that Mother’s Day is not a bright and cheery day full of celebration for everyone. There are some who have recently lost their mothers or children to illness and death, some who have never had an easy relationship with their mothers or children, some who long to be mothers but struggle with fertility or finding the right mate, and some who have chosen not to be mothers. This can be a day of extreme celebrations for some while a time of extreme loneliness for others. This is one reason I have appreciated Pastor Betty’s Mother’s Day sermons the last several years when she has talked about not only mothers but strong women in general.

    The truth is, there are many women in our lives who are not our mothers, but who inspire us in a motherly way. Even in Biblical times you did not have to experience childbirth to be considered a mother. Deborah was a great strong judge who was deemed the “mother of Israel” even though there is no mention of any children of her own.

    Strong women surround us. We have female church members who are builders, doctors, nurses, project managers, partners, teachers, executives, volunteer extraordinaires and more. But these women are so much more than their professions—they are inspirational pillars in our church and community, walking side-by-side in friendship with Jesus, just as the astounding women in the Scripture passage today did. And despite the commercialism of Mother’s Day, today is the perfect opportunity for us to celebrate and tell the inspirational women in our lives how much we appreciate them.

    Just as it would be hard not to realize that today is Mothers’ Day, so it would have been hard not to bring into worship this morning thoughts of the news that has been plastered in every media outlet this week. In the midst of ads for flowers, brunches, and greeting cards, there were contrasting banner headlines, breaking news alerts, Facebook and Twitter fervor over the death of Osama bin Laden. Emails were flying and deep conversations were had with pastoral colleagues around the question, “How can we faithfully respond to the news of his death?” Though many of us were relieved that the unnecessary deaths of so many innocent people might now be curtailed, we simultaneously grieved the responses of those who cheered on the death of a fellow human being. As Christians, how could vitriol and violence, death and destruction ever be the ultimate answer? Just as Jesus responded to the disciples in the passage today who missed the point of the story, would he also lovingly call us foolish?

    One of the most helpful pieces quoted in the aftermath of the news an introduction by a 24-year old graduate student followed by a quote from The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr:

    I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy.5 Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that. 6

    The lyrics of a popular song from several years ago also kept ringing in my mind this week:

    Just look out around us, people fightin’ their wars. They think they’ll be happy when they’ve settled their scores. Let’s lay down our weapons that hold us apart, be still for just a minute, try to open our hearts. More love, I can hear our hearts cryin’ more love, I know that’s all we need. More love, to flow in between us, to take us and hold us and lift us above. If there’s ever an answer it’s more love.7

    I believe if there is a proper response to the news of this week, or any week for that matter, that this is it: more love. More love starting with those we encounter every day and spreading out. More love (and likely grace and patience too) with our families. More love to our neighbors, our coworkers, our cashiers and waitresses, and yes, even more love (as Jesus taught us) to our enemies. For if we do not model a posture of love starting in our own lives, then how will we ever expect our enemies to change?

    It was, after all, out of love that God sent God?s only son to die for our sins. And this son, Jesus the Christ, proclaimed that the greatest commandment is to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul and mind and to love our neighbors as ourselves (Matt 22:27-39). It is what the resurrected Lord opened the disciples? eyes to when he broke bread with him. It is what our eyes are opened to every time we take communion. It is what those astounding women believed when they saw the empty tomb.

    It is what many first time mothers experience. I will never forget feeling this remarkable love in the hospital last Thanksgiving weekend as Kelan held our precious baby girl—barely a day old—while Lettie?s birthmother and I held a long, trembling embrace, each thanking the other for the gift we had been given.

    One of the most amazing women of our time, aptly named Mother Teresa, also believed in more love. She proclaimed that:

    Love is a fruit in season at all times, and within reach of every hand. Love begins by taking care of the closest ones—the ones at home. It is not how much we do, but rather how much love we put into each action. Spread love everywhere you go. Let no one ever come to you without leaving happier, [for it is not] our work [that is] our vocation. Our vocation is the love of Jesus. 8

    Friends, like those on the road to Emmaus, may our eyes be opened to the beauty of the resurrection of Christ, to the promise of the empty tomb, to the proclamations of the astounding women, so that we may live out this vocation of more love—perhaps beginning by sharing it with the inspirational women we celebrate today, until the love of Christ emanates out to all whom we meet. For if there’s ever an answer, it’s more love.

    All praise and glory to the Lord our God.

    1. “Anna Jarvis.”
    2. Cradock, Fred. Interpretation: Luke. (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), 281. 
    3. Saunders, Ross. Outrageous Women Outrageous God: Women in the First Two Generations of Christianity. (Australia, E.J. Dwyer, 1996), 65. 
    4. Green, Joel B. The Gospel of Luke. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Copany, 1997), 839. 
    7. Dixie Chicks (recording), “More Love,” Gary Nicholson, Tim O’Brien (writers), 2002,
    8. “Mother Teresa Quotes,” 

  4. Sermons : In Defense of Thomas

    Second Sunday of Easter

    Psalm 16
    John 20:19-31

    It is amazing how far away Easter feels.  Early last Sunday we got up, got everyone dressed, and began to gather.  We journeyed with Mary, early in the morning, through her alarm, her grief, her stunned surprise when Jesus, who she thought was the gardener, called her name.  And we gathered, sanctuary packed to the hilt, the 8:30 people got to hear our wonderful choir, the brass leading us as we sang, shoulder to shoulder, “Jesus Christ is Risen today!  Alleluia!” It was a wonderful, wonderful day.  But it doesn’t take much.  A cranky kid, an awkward argument at lunch.  And it was back to work and school and life, as the earth quakes, as tornadoes roll through much of the country again, leaving almost 300 people dead in six states.  The mayor of Tuscaloosa, Alabama wondered aloud on Thursday how anyone survived.  “There’s parts of the city I don’t recognize, and that’s someone that’s lived here his entire life.” 1 It is amazing how far away it feels.

    It must have felt like an eternity to the disciples.  The great movement their Lord had started was apparently over, defeated.  They had rumors of this resurrection, but who knows?  Who can you trust?  It was still scary out there.  And in the midst of it, it was precisely to this despondent, pitiful little band of failures that the Risen Christ appears. 2 “Peace be with you,” he says.  He moves towards them, showing his wounds, and repeats himself.  “No, really.  Peace be with you.  My peace I am giving to you.”  And here, in a crucial point in John, the blessing becomes a commission.  The risen and glorified Son of God sends his disciples to bear witness to the life and light they have found in him. 3 And with it Jesus calls us to participate in acts of giving and forgiving, in paying close attention to our relationships with each other.  This is John’s Pentecost, condensing Luke and Acts 50 days into one resonant day.

    And then there’s our friend Thomas.  For whatever reason, he missed this first time Jesus came by, and was frustrated.  Unless I see his wounds I will not believe.  Doubting Thomas, he has been called, always with a sneer.  And I don’t like it one bit.  First, we act like doubt is a bad thing, which it isn’t.  Frederick Buechner once wrote that “doubt is the ants in the pants of faith; it keeps it alive and moving.”  This life, this faith is hard.  Anyone breathing has doubts of some kind or another.  It’s about the courage to voice them, to call out to God for what wisdom may come.  God can take it.  And Thomas wasn’t asking for anything the other disciples hadn’t seen already.  This intensity, this passion is who he is.  In John 14, Thomas is the one who speaks up and says, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going; how can we know the way?” setting Jesus up to proclaim that He is the way, the truth, and the life.  In chapter 11, Thomas hears Jesus begin to speak of his death.  Even when the other disciples don’t seem to understand, Thomas does, urging them towards commitment.  “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” (11:16). 4

    But the amazing thing about this passage is not Thomas, I think, but Jesus.  A week later – I wonder what that week was like for Thomas – back in that house, Jesus shows up again with the same greeting: “Peace be with you.”  And then he reaches out to Thomas.  Jesus didn’t rebuke Thomas for his tone, lecture him on his lack of faith, tell him he needed to just sit there and be quiet.  He creates a space for him to question and struggle, and doesn’t judge him for it.  He stands, offers Himself, and waits.  Here.  Put your finger here.  See my hands.  Touch this scab, where the spear pierced my side.  Do not doubt this.  Do not doubt me, friend.  Believe.

    Because I wonder if, in his reaching out to Him, Jesus sees something in Thomas.  Maybe it was really only Thomas who knew how important this was.  Maybe he knew that if this was true, that everything would change.  That our fears would no longer need to bind us, that our value wouldn’t be in how much stuff we had.  Maybe Thomas knew that if Jesus was actually alive, that people in despair, in hospital rooms, on battlefields, sorting through the rubble of their homes, could KNOW that God is stronger than anything that can separate us from God’s love.  Because if Jesus would stand there, and he could see his wounds, touch the scars himself, he knew he would be boldly and powerfully sent out, to work and serve and pray.  He knew he couldn’t help but do everything differently.  And as Jesus creates space for Thomas, we, too, are called to be a church that creates space for struggle, dare we say even for doubt.  What if children knew – and I pray they do – that their questions, especially the ones we don’t know the answers to, will be met with adults who will listen, who will honor their questions.  That our youth, that adults of all ages, feel safe here to struggle.  Not to ask questions that are really speeches, not to try and argue anyone into a corner or make anyone look bad.  But questions that come out of a genuine desire to explore, to seek to live in faith together, questions about our joys, our deepest pain, will be met in a thoughtful and honest place.  None of us have it figured out, but we can gather around scripture, mine the riches of our theological tradition, we can listen and pray and work together.  The church must be a place for this kind of inquiry.

    In all the royal wedding coverage I almost missed a wonderful story in the London Times back on Good Friday.  Alex Renton sends his six-year-old daughter Lulu to a Scottish church primary school.  Her teachers asked her to write the following letter: “To God, How did you get invented?”  Dad, a non-believer himself, still forwarded the letter to the Scottish Episcopal Church (no reply), the Presbyterians (ditto) and the Scottish Catholics (a nice but theologically complex answer). For good measure, he also sent it to “the head of theology of the Anglican Communion, based at Lambeth Palace” – and this was the response:

    Dear Lulu,

    Your dad has sent on your letter and asked if I have any answers. It’s a difficult one! But I think God might reply a bit like this –

    ‘Dear Lulu – Nobody invented me – but lots of people discovered me and were quite surprised. They discovered me when they looked round at the world and thought it was really beautiful or really mysterious and wondered where it came from. They discovered me when they were very very quiet on their own and felt a sort of peace and love they hadn’t expected.

    “Then they invented ideas about me – some of them sensible and some of them not very sensible. From time to time I sent them some hints – especially in the life of Jesus – to help them get closer to what I’m really like.

    “But there was nothing and nobody around before me to invent me. Rather like somebody who writes a story in a book, I started making up the story of the world and eventually invented human beings like you who could ask me awkward questions!’”

    And then he’d send you lots of love and sign off.

    I know he doesn’t usually write letters, so I have to do the best I can on his behalf. Lots of love from me too.  +Archbishop Rowan 5

    In a world filled with so many difficult things, so many enormous questions, we need Thomas.  But even more than that we need his God, who comes among us, bearing His wounds, meeting our doubt with – as the archbishop says – lots and lots of love.  Might we, too, be that kind of church?

    All praise be to God.  Amen.

    2. “Easter Forgiveness,” by William Willimon, in Pulpit Resource, Vol.39, No.2, Year A, April-June 2011, p 26. 
    3. Lamar Williamson, Preaching the Gospel of John: Proclaiming the Living Word, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2004), 282. 
    4. Lose, David J., “Realities Old and New” sermon on John 20:24-31, in Journal for Preachers, Easter 2007, 12-14. 
    5. “A six year old girl writes a letter to God.  And the Archbishop of Canterbury answers.”

  5. Sermons : But What Do WE Say?

    Easter Sunday

    Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
    John 20:1-18

    Twice she stood there, alone.

    The first didn’t last long.  She was up, early, while it was still dark, to make the silent walk to the tomb.  She took her time, body heavy with the grief.  But something was amiss; it didn’t make any sense.  The stone had been removed.  They took him! And she runs back, bursting in: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”  Peter and John leap up, gathering their clothes and sandals, sprinting.  John recorded the footrace, making sure we know who gets their first, chest heaving, to the edge of the tomb.  And the linen wrappings, oddly, were there, Simon saw them, too, others rolled up separately.  The other disciple, at that moment, John says, glimpsed something, and believed.

    And then the strangest thing happened.  They went home.  John makes sure we know they get it, he saw and believed.  Then, John says it plainly, “the disciples returned to their homes.”  They went home.  Back to their families.  Back to their fishing nets and schoolwork and cubicles and carpools.  John doesn’t tell us why – maybe life was hard enough, maybe they were tired of the way this Jesus was doing things, tired of hanging out with poor people, the sick, those the world leaves behind.  Maybe, as much as they loved him, it was a relief it was over.  It was time to go home.

    And then it was Mary’s second time.  Dear Mary, filled with hope, waited.  Weeping, John says.  She leans in, tears dripping off her chin, and two angels were there.  They ask why she weeps, and she sputters back more frustration.  They have taken him.  He is gone.  I don’t know where they took him.  She didn’t have any idea who they were.  It’s always their fault, anyway.  Ask anybody.  They led us into the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression; they shoved us headlong into another war.  It is their fault that we were misunderstood, that communication got wacky, that a cousin chooses not to speak to us anymore.1 They say that hope is futile in these days.  And she was about to believe it, as desperate as she was.  Another man is standing there, someone else she doesn’t recognize, who asks her AGAIN why she weeps.  Supposing him to be the gardener and, I would imagine, about to take a swing if anyone else asks her why she is crying, she pleads with him.  If you have taken him, just tell me.  Please.  I will go get his broken body.  I will bring him back.  It was the bottom.  I wonder if you’ve been there.  Back against the wall as the bills pile up, the strain on the marriage mounts, as the cancer treatment takes its toll.  I wonder if you’ve been there, silent, in the darkness…

    But it is there, in that moment, when God shows up.  God was there before, of course, she just didn’t realize it.  Jesus calls to Mary, she calls back to him, and they embrace for what must have seemed like forever.  And then he slowly clasps her hands, sending her back into the world.  Go back to them, he says.  Go and tell.  Go to those disciples who have given up, who have gone back to their nets, who think things can’t get any better than they are.  Go there, tell them, tell the world, sleeping in our Sunday School rooms this week, or sitting up with sick kids, or wondering if their work matters, or if their life matters.  Tell them, he says, and Mary does.  “I have seen the Lord,” she says.  As friends hold friends as they grieve, as we give generously, as we seek to be a church that embodies that grace in the power of our worship, in the depth of the conversations we have about faith, in the ways we serve, over and over and over again, reaching beyond ourselves, seeking that Risen One who might be right in front of us.  In a world quick to blame them, quick to be cynical, Easter points us again to the ground of our hope.  Because Jesus Christ is alive, sin and evil and death, though real and terrifying, do not have ultimate power over us.  And hope sprouts anew.  And the rules are different.  And He calls to us to be transformed.

    “Easter,” she called.  “Easter.  Christmas.  Easter.”  Betty and Paul Ransford and I had been in touch with colleagues in Raleigh and beyond this week, trying to see how they were, how their communities were, what they needed in the wake of last Saturday’s tornadoes.  One put us on to a teacher at Powell Elementary School.  The neighborhood surrounding is up north, off Rock Quarry Road.  You didn’t see much for awhile, then a few branches down, a handful of trees with tops twisted off.  Then we hit it – a boys’ and girls’ club with people lined up at a truck for food.  Same thing a few blocks down.  The debris piles on the side of the road began to rise.  And we turned into the neighborhood and practically all the tops of the trees, in what I would imagine was a lush, green, neighborhood, were shredded.  The roads were mostly passable, limbs and sawdust, trunks sawed through, stacked everywhere, blue tarps covering holes in roofs.  And then every third or fourth you would see it – tree trunk down on the corner, crushing an SUV in the driveway.  Tree still sitting in the middle of the roof.  Or a blue sticker on a window, telling you the city had condemned the house, that it was no longer fit for people to live in.

    We checked in at the school, saw the supplies beginning to stack up, and started walking around, introduced ourselves to some folks, asking if anyone knew anything.  Most just shrugged their shoulders.  I just came on out with my chainsaw, figured I could help. These are just neighbors, friends pitching in. A girl pointed us to another man, who said – Sure, come on; we have to get these boxes out of this house, let’s form a line.  He moved towards what we soon learned was his mother’s house.  It had one of those blue stickers, a huge hole in the living room on the right, shredded insulation over the piano and the couch, a tree through the carport and part of the kitchen, crushing the van.  The whole yard was piled with limbs, sections of trunks.  He picked up boxes, handed them to me at the door, then his nephew, then a friend, then Betty, then his niece, then some firefighters, salvaging what belongings they could.  Part of what he was going through were closets that held dishes and their holiday belongs.  Plates would come out, a few small kitchen appliances.  A crushed Christmas wreath would go in the trash.  Clothes.  A life.  And, strangely, the holiday stuff kept coming.  Easter, and a box with baskets filled with that green plastic grass, Easter, and a few stuffed bunnies.  Christmas, and a little light-up tree.  Halloween.  Fourth of July.  The whole year.  And the amazing thing was how it was happening.  The niece, laughing, telling her uncle to hurry it up.  Joking with the firefighters.  Hearing them tell of things they had done in that house.  And how they would pack it up, get it fixed, and do it again.  As they helped their grandmother, slowly down the stairs.  And they were there, so courageous, joking with each other as their life went out the door, into a pod, or into the trash, determined to do it together.  And I wondered why?  How?  And then I was given my answer.  Easter, he yelled, as he handed me a box, and it would echo down the line.  Me, the nephew, the niece, the friend, Betty, the neighbor.  Easter.  Easter.  Easter.

    And so today we get to choose.  We know Easter doesn’t mean everyone we love will be healed, every problem magically solved.  And because of that, maybe we’ll end up like those disciples, heading back to work and school this week as if everything is the same.  But if we have the courage to linger, looking, something happens.  As we gather this Saturday for the Community Workday.  As we get some teams headed over to that neighborhood in Raleigh tomorrow – which Betty will tell you more about in a minute, as we make that phone call to a friend, as we reach out to someone we might need to listen to.  We might be able to say with Mary, that we have seen Him on the loose in the world.  That Christ is alive.  That Easter is calling out in the midst of the devastation, and we have work to do.

    But you gotta watch out.  They say that things can’t change.  That the dead stay dead.  That there is no reason to hope.  They say that.  But what do WE say?  What about us?

    All praise be to God.  Amen.

    1. This idea comes from Mark Ramsey’s sermon, “Conversion,” in the Easter 2011 edition of the Journal for Preachers, pages 33-37.

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