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  1. 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 http://www.pcusa.org/news/2011/5/10/presbyterian-church-us-approves-change-ordination/

  2. 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.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/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. 
    5. http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-504943_162-20059425-10391715.html?tag=mncol;lst;1 
    6. http://www.drmartinlutherkingjr.com/mlkquotes.htm 
    7. Dixie Chicks (recording), “More Love,” http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/dixiechicks/morelove.html. Gary Nicholson, Tim O’Brien (writers), 2002, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Home_%28Dixie_Chicks_album%29
    8. “Mother Teresa Quotes,” http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/m/mother_teresa_2.html 

  3. 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.

    1. http://www.cnn.com/2011/US/04/28/severe.weather/index.html?hpt=T1 
    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.”  http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/damianthompson/100084843/a-six-year-old-girl-writes-a-letter-to-god-and-the-archbishop-of-canterbury-answers/

  4. 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.

  5. Sermons : Beatitudes 7: Blessed are the Peacemakers, the Persecuted

    Palm/Passion Sunday

    Matthew 21:1-11
    Matthew 5:9-10

    Today, this Palm/Passion Sunday, we conclude this series on the Beatitudes.  We rejoice with the crowd who laid their cloaks on the road, who waved their palm branches and shouted: “Hosanna to the Son of David!  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”  But we know that this week, this Holy Week, moves towards a cross.

    There is a celebration coming, which we will celebrate with choirs and brass next Sunday.  But in between now and then, much will happen.  Please make it a point to return Maundy Thursday evening, as a part of your own Holy Week preparation, as we journey through these days.  Let us pray…

    Christ of blessing, as you gathered with your people, as you called truth and life into being, do so again for us today.  Entrust us with a glimpse of your wisdom, so we might follow you with boldness.  Amen.

    Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

    My grandmother-in-law and I have a running joke about the passing of the peace.  We do it sometimes here, when the worship leader says, the peace of Christ be with you, and you say, and also with you.  We greet each other with those same words and, because we are Presbyterian, we get a little uncomfortable and quickly sit down.  If anything, it ends up being a bit perfunctory.  But listening to Nana talk, one would think it was an unconscionable disruption.  Nana likes to come in, enjoy the music and the stained glass in her small congregation in northern Virginia and, frankly, not have to talk to people.  And the passing of the peace drives her crazy, as she says, people leaping all over pews, joking and laughing, talking to each other, sharing germs, when they need to be sitting in their place.  When she is in town, she asks – with a smile – “You aren’t going to pass the peace today, are you?”

    But I think we underestimate how much we need it.  Erik Kolbell, in the book that guides our study, writes:  “Maybe it’s the promotion we didn’t get, or the illness we did, the child out past curfew or the cigarette pack we found in his coat pocket, the middle-aged regret over challenges we failed to take, people we refused to love, milestones we could never reach, slights we could never forgive.” 1 These yearnings within us, things done or left undone, leave us with a strange sense of dis-ease.  And out of this deep-seated anxiety we, even in our strongest relationships, lash out the moment we feel threatened, strike back, regardless of another’s intent.  Regardless of the collateral damage we inflict.  And that is to say nothing about the violence rampant in our cities and our schools, the violent discourse that pervades our political system, the way countries like ours are so willing to undertake yet another war.  And around here, with Don’s funeral on Friday – the third in a little less than a month.  As tornadoes blow through.  It all feels heavy after awhile.

    And with everything we have going on; it’s easy to miss it.  And to take the wrong approach.  Sometimes we confuse peacemaking with avoiding conflict, with being afraid.  But Jesus calls us to be active…doing, creating peace.  “Peace does not mean leaving evildoers on the loose,” James Howell writes.  “Peace is not passive, but aggressive, engaging in the far more arduous labor of making peace, of reconciling with the person who hates you, of sparing no effort to get inside the other’s skin and figuring out how to live together on this planet…of striving after shalom.  Peacemaking requires people who work tirelessly for a just society that mirrors, however obliquely, the kingdom of God.” 2

    And we must partake in it, as we learn, get active, advocate downtown, study about the Middle East.  But that feels so far.  Much of it is about our goals, our level of intentionality in ALL of our interactions.  It begins on the ground, in simple acts of compassion.  We are making peace when we honor the person across from us in the shelter line, when we bid on items for the Youth Auction so we can go to Mexico and work with our partners there, when we take care of little ones in the nursery with deep compassion.  I know you all tend to be late signer-upers for things, but there is no reason, with all the people around here, that after today those signup sheets for the Community Workday aren’t full.  That is making peace, one shovel, one rake, one paintbrush at a time.  As we get to know someone different from us, as we take just a little more time to listen when we feel ourselves getting defensive.  It’s hard, but Jesus doesn’t seem terribly concerned with the level of exertion.  This making, this creating of peace, that is what children of God DO, he says.  Yearn for it, pray for it, sacrifice for it.

    All of which brings us to our final Beatitude: Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  This one feels tough to identify with, conjuring up images of early disciples chased around the Roman Coliseum for sport.  We aren’t Christians in China, or Iraq.  Here in the southeastern US, we rarely get funny looks for praying out at lunch.  Some people still listen, for better or for worse, to what preachers say.  But Kolbell again helps us hone in.  Up to this point, he writes, Jesus has extolled the value of the blessed life.  Now…it is time he discloses the cost.” 3Any real work of making peace, of speaking for those who have no voice, of seeking to effect real reconciliation between families or governments, comes at a tremendous price.  That is the direction all of these Beatitudes move – so that this one can in some ways feel like a summing up.  They all contain a remarkable promise, but not without cost.  We don’t suffer persecution like many throughout the world, and for that we give thanks, but we still live too easily, too comfortably, when we are called into a certain amount of conflict with the world.  If we are doing it right, I think, our neighbors might think us a bit strange, making all this time for church, honoring faith in our homes.  For being prayerful about what you do with your money and your stuff.  Who digs down deeper for the Easter offering?  Who gives things away, after all?  Who is unscrupulously honest at work, transparent in relationships, not going along with the way things are always done if they run counter to the One who truly understood, in ways we never will, what persecution feels like…

    Because that is where this week moves.  Today we will wave palms, receive new members, and rejoice.  But before worship is over we will tighten down, will focus in, on the week to come.  On this One who, this week, embodied this final Beatitude on the cross.  He is our model, of course, reminding us that you, that we will pay for seeking His way, with your comfort, with your life, if you truly seek to make peace, seek this radical encounter with Christ’s kingdom that is the Beatitudes.  We will pray together this week, and gather around a holy table, almost in darkness, as we remember his anguish and despair.  And then next Sunday morning we will KNOW, once again, that blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

    On a brisk Thursday evening back in March, I headed east on Main to the Shepherd’s House United Methodist Church, up the hill, into the dim narthex.  The sanctuary was a little smaller than this one, all brown with wood, a small pedestal at the end of the center aisle, elevating the speaker about a foot above the floor.  As the hymn ended, a woman walked up to the mic.  She was the moderator, one of the leaders of the Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham.  Her daughter, 6 months pregnant at the time, had been kidnapped and beaten to death about a decade prior.  It had taken her a long time, she said, but she came because she wanted to be a part of something different.  And so they worshipped, as they do every year about that time, to grieve and remember the murder victims in Durham the year prior.4 In 2010 twenty-nine people in the city of Durham were murdered.  And after she spoke they read the names:  Crystal Lynn Baker.  Vincent Lee Webb.  Martin Martinez.  Charlene King, a bell tolling after each one.  Daniel Evans.  Manuel Lopez Mata.  Kareem Fowler.  And this mother stood, and other parents around her came forward.  If you had a family member murdered in previous years, you came up to the microphone, too.  My son, was shot on the porch of our house.  My uncle, shot in a robbery.  My daughter, my sister.  I miss her so much.  And this one mother issued her proclamation.  She said that we must not let fear surround us in our neighborhoods, she said.  We must not let those who want us to be afraid win.  We must seek justice, she said, so that no other parents have to feel what I feel.  So that no other parents have to feel the pain that I feel.  And the whole way home, through downtown, back up by Forest Hills and Rockwood, back to the edge of Hope Valley, all I could hear was Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.

    Here in a moment, we will pass the peace again.  This time I want it to be more than a simple greeting.  I want you to mean it, willing, praying the peace of God get into the person across from you, into their doubts and fears, the things you love and might not love as much about them, the things they love and don’t love as much about themselves.  Extend that peace to them, to everyone around you, to your kids who don’t want to get in the car, to the person who cuts you off in traffic, to the coworker who never finishes the project on time.  To the person you really need to listen to.  And leave here to make peace.  And let it echo, far past here, out into our neighborhoods filled with overwork and economic anxiety, to those in our very city who live in fear in being shot on their steps, yet refuse to be silent.  Maybe it will echo from Raleigh and Washington, to Libya and Afghanistan, that we might take heart, because Christ, the peacemaker, the blessed persecuted One, has come among us.

    There will be failures on the journey.  A cross filled with death.  But on the other side….boy, on the other side.  Christ’s kingdom made plain, for us to be a part of, for all the world to see.  Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.  Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven

    All praise be to God.  Amen.

    1. Erik Kolbell, What Jesus Meant: The Beatitudes and a Meaningful Life, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2003), 112.
    2. James Howell, The Beatitudes for Today, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2006), p 78.
    3. Kolbell, 123. 
    4. The 19th Annual Vigil Against Violence, on March 3, 2011, was sponsored by the Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham, Parents of Murdered Children, and Durham Congregations in Action. 

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