June 25, 2017
In 2011 a book was released about God and God’s love for all creation, at least that is what Rob Bell thought Love Wins was about when he wrote it. At the time Bell was the Pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Michigan and known worldwide. He had written numerous books by this point and had release a series of videos called Nooma. Bell’s church was what we call today a Megachurch when he was there, but when Love Wins was released something unexpected happened, people turned against him, calling him a heretic among other things. There are some reports that the church lost 3,000 members because of the book and when asked about it Bell said the book put a lot of pressure on people in his church. He said congregants were telling him that family and friends were relentless in asking them why they were allowing themselves to be led by a false teacher. Ultimately, everything changed for Bell and his family as he resigned from the church and moved to southern California. Everything changed because he decided to share the good news of God’s never-ending love for all creation. And even though he may not have known this sharing God’s love for all creation would make him controversial, by writing this book and having it published, Bell had made the decision to stand up for his beliefs.
Now for a large percentage of people there are certain things in life that are to be avoided at all costs. Like disagreements, or facing someone we know is either frustrated with us or disappointed in something we have done. It seems all situations likes these feel hard to deal with.
It certainly doesn’t make it any easier when the disagreement, or the frustration or disappointment is with a family member, right? Adding this additional element only causes the difficulty we are facing to multiply leaving us paralyzed by the what ifs circling in our minds. Most of the time the end result is avoidance. Sometimes it is avoidance of the people themselves while other times it is avoidance of the topic that has caused the disagreement, frustration or disappointment. Not that avoidance ever makes any of it go away, its just that in that moment we believe it easier to avoid.
There are 2 topics that seem to be off-limits for almost everyone, unless of course you know beforehand whose side the other person is on: Religion and Politics! For reasons we don’t have time to explore today, these 2 topics are so divisive that even families aren’t immune to being torn apart because of them. When the tearing apart begins I want to scream WHAT IN THE WORLD IS GOING ON HERE because I’m not sure I really understand why relationships can be destroyed by such things. Yet I know it happens and it happens more often than I would like. In fact, history shows us it was happening from the start and our present day shows us it continues.
When it comes to religion, I’ve been wondering lately if there is something so inherent to the topic itself that just holding different opinions, different beliefs and/or different understandings could divide people who love one another? Now last week I asked some serious questions about discovering your passions in hopes that we begin to explore ways we can expand the ministry of this church beyond our physical space. Today I again am asking serious questions… What is it about the topic of religion that can lead to such divisiveness amongst people, even people of the same family? Questions like these deserve our attention just like the topic did when Jesus foreshadowed for his Disciples that their current relationships could be severed in the days ahead as they began to venture out and speak about this radical new understanding of religion. We must remember “[T]he Gospels are filled with stories of Jesus creating life with a whole variety of people and carrying out the mission of caring for the lost, the down-trodden, and the forgotten. Jesus was a border-crossing, taboo-breaking refugee who sought to break down barriers by creating companionship.”
You see, I believe Jesus was telling his Disciples that their relationships may suffer when he told them in verse 34 “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” If taken literally those words seem pretty harsh, not to mention they seem to say the opposite of who he was and what we know about his ministry of grace and peace to all of creation. In fact, I initially resist associating these words with Christ. They just don’t seem to fit, and quite frankly they sound wrong. In my mind I have a difficult time connecting “Not peace but a sword,” with the Jesus I claim to know. I wonder though, just like so many of us who avoid discussing things like religion, if my resistance is for another reason entirely… like the fact that I KNOW IT’S TRUE! When people answer the call to speak about their truth and stand up for their beliefs, division may result. The thing is that possibility of division should never stop any of us from speaking the truth, doing what is right and standing up for our beliefs.
The question then becomes, why are doing right and speaking the truth about doing right the reason for arguments, hurt feelings or division? Is that really what doing right and speaking the truth are meant to cause? Surely, we would all respond “NO” to such questions. Sadly though, when the truth is calling people to a whole new way of life, a whole new way of understanding who they are in this life, argument, resistance, fighting and division most often result. That, it seems, is what Jesus is teaching when he tells his Disciples to anticipate some relationship problems, even from members of your own family when you begin publicly sharing the truth about God’s Kingdom.
You know, that Kingdom that disrupts oppression.
That Kingdom that unsettles.
That Kingdom that upends empires of oppression masquerading as champions of peace.
That Kingdom that calls into question the rulers and systems that promise peace but really swing a sword of terror and use weapons to force allegiance.
Expect strong resistance when telling people the Truth about God’s Kingdom that “comes with the demands on which true peace insists… love and acceptance of someone’s authentic self.” Expect strong resistance when telling people the Truth about God’s Kingdom that “never lets go of the kind of peace God has in mind.”  You know, that kind of peace that comes only from loving everything and everyone in creation the way we love ourselves.
I happen to believe this is rather remarkable advice for all of us, but I also know how difficult it is. Truth telling about an Expansive God reaching out to all of creation… truth telling about an Expansive God who always goes looking for the sheep, no matter what, is risky business. This is what Jesus was telling his Disciples and he was direct about it, maybe even a little intimidating, but at least he let them know what to expect. Maybe Jesus was wanting them to know that when you stand up and speak out for what you believe, people start falling away, and there was no easy comforting way to say it.
Jesus is letting them know that when you finally stand up and speak out about God’s love and acceptance of everyone, current relationships will change and some will even end altogether. In fact, there is a good chance nothing will be the same, and in this world of social media, people may start to unfriend or unfollow you, or troll and bully you. Jesus seems to be saying that these are just some of the consequences for standing up for what you believe… especially for those standing up and speaking the truth about their belief in God’s love for all of creation.
History has proven this in many different contexts, right? Think about the way women have worked tirelessly to speak the truth of being called into the workforce, or better yet being called into vocational ministry. Or how about people of color having to decide, not once, not twice but countless times, whether or not they speak the truth and name their fear of a country in which systemic racism continues to be validated.
I can’t help but wonder if the Church claiming to follow this Jesus is even ready to listen to his words. You see, to listen to these words of advice, means decisions have to be made. Decisions about who the Church really is and what message it is really trying to tell. Listening to these words will make “the church decide whether or not it will actually tell the truth of the Gospel -- the Gospel that brings true peace to those who suffer, to those in need of healing, to those marginalized, to those demonized, to those oppressed; God’s true peace, realized and known in gladness and joy, fulfillment and contentedness, happiness and blessedness.” In my opinion, a Church choosing this path is a Church free from fear. It is a Church who hears Jesus’ command that it not be afraid.
If we choose to listen and look for meaning behind our literal understanding of his words, Jesus is letting us know potential difficulties in speaking the truth of the Gospel. Yet, of all the commands in the entire Bible, there is one repeated more than any and it is found 3 times in today’s reading… “Don’t Be Afraid.” 3 small simple words if left by themselves, but when placed together and point to our need to stand and speak the truth of the Gospel message will lead to powerfully positive transformation.
The thing is if we want to influence anyone, even members of our family who disagree with us we can lead the way through our own actions. No one is going to change their worldview or religious view because of something posted to social media, but when they see us following through on these claims of love for everyone, they can’t help but notice.
The challenge we face, just like the challenge those first Disciples faced is being courageous in the face of opposition, especially opposition from those who love you. This is why, I believe, Jesus said he didn’t come for peace because Jesus knew better than anyone that having that kind of courage was no small task. All of us would much rather fight against evil, not against those we love and those that love us. Here is the thing, though, avoiding them or avoiding talking about certain things doesn’t honor you nor does it really honor them.
Don’t be afraid!
Do not fear!
Even if there is a period of time when you are thought of as strange, or an outsider…
Don’t be afraid!
Do not fear!
Because eventually you’ll earn your right to freedom and when you do so fear will no longer make your decisions for you. And then there will come a time when you might hear them say, “oh there goes _____ again. That’s just what she does. Or they’ll think, _____ has another crazy idea… but the last one worked out pretty well for him.”
And you want to know something, every once in a while a funny thing happens: those initial nay-sayers learn from the decisions you made, and how you stepped out and faced down your fears. And then maybe they will talk about you in a different way.
So for those of us being made to feel that cultural conformity is more important than anything else, where non-conformity is misunderstood as a threat to the establishment, or for anyone who feels pressured to be like those around them, it’s all up to you to lead by example. Who knows—maybe some will be transformed with you.
In the lead up to today, I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about my Father. Now this is not a rare occurrence as I think about him a lot. Father’s Day though has become increasingly difficult for me over the years as I have watched my Dad’s illnesses reduced him to a shell of the man I call my Dad.
So just like last year at this time, and the year before that, and so on and so forth, this past week I reflected on our relationship and what it has meant for me to be the son of Tommy Frank Knight. As I reflected, many memories and teachings came to my mind, but it seemed this week one topic dominated the others: my Dad loved to picture his only son as a hard worker. The arena never seemed to matter as much as my effort. From the athletic fields and gyms to the floor of the service department at Black Cadillac in Greensboro, my Dad wanted to know that his son wasn’t sitting around watching like a spectator.
Then I thought about the summer when I was 14 when for some reason, my Dad believed I needed to get a job… an idea I was not very keen on… yet there I was being woken up at 6:00 AM so that I could catch a ride to this factory in Burlington. My first day on the job was terrible. I was the youngest worker and my co-workers made my life pretty tough. When I returned home I told my Dad that I would not be going back the next day to which he replied, yes you will. And sure enough that next morning here he comes into my bedroom waking me up and sure enough I went back to work. That pretty much sums up that summer.
Then there was the time I came home from practice to find all of our groceries on the table in our kitchen with Dad sitting at the table. I asked him what was going on and he said, “Boy, I got you a job bagging groceries… Now I am your customer and these are my groceries and here are the bags. I want you to bag my groceries for me.” Telling this story today can sound a little funny, but I can assure you he was not joking. So I proceeded to bag my first customer’s groceries, even though I was in my home with my Dad. Each time I “messed up” he lovingly corrected me. You see, he knew I didn’t know how to bag groceries and he wanted to make sure I had a solid foundation before I ever showed up for my first day of work. It was important to him, and in turn has become important to me.
A few years back I learned that my Dad came by every job I had as a teenager, without me knowing, and met with my boss to talk about me. My Dad was only interested in knowing one thing though… is my Boy working hard for you or is he just standing around watching. Luckily each of my bosses responded by letting him know that I was a very hard worker and each time I was asked to do something I did it to the best of my ability. Today, I have this sense that hearing that from my bosses was gratifying to my Dad. He didn’t want me to stand around watching. He didn’t want me to be a spectator, especially not when there was work that needed to be done.
I know this has shaped and form the person I am today. Working hard, giving all that I have to give, is very important to me and it is something I want pass on to my own children. In every aspect of their lives, I want them to participate to the fullest extent possible. I want them to give their best effort and I want them to work when there is work to be done.
There is something though that I want them to avoid because it is not a healthy nor is it a joyful way of living, and you want to know something, I know this firsthand… I want them to avoid over-working. I don’t want them to place such a high importance on working hard that they miss out on other things life has to offer. I want them to find a community of people who are willing to share the workload because sharing the work within the community is critical. I want them to belong to a community of people committed to participating, not just spectating. I want them to belong to a community committed to sharing the workload because then I will know they have found a community committed to each other.
You want to know something else… I want this for us too. All of us deserve a community where the participants outnumber the spectators. This is especially so because today’s harvest is plentiful, just like yesterday’s harvest. While some spectators may be necessary, if a community wants to thrive, wants to reach its potential, it needs more participants than spectators, and not the other way around.
Jesus, I believe, recognized this and knew change was needed. I believe he knew this new kingdom movement would struggle if 1% of the people continued to do 99% of the work. So he set about to change things and he started with his Disciples. Up to that point in their journey together, Jesus participated and his Disciples spectated and while those roles are rooted in the Rabbinic teaching tradition, we will also find within that tradition, a point where the spectator becomes the participant. They had watched Jesus cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers and cast out demons, but now they were going to participate in this mission.
This is our tradition too, yet most of the time the masses seem more comfortable spectating. We think of the church as a refuge, a place of comfort and hope, and a place where we revel in our good fortune and celebrate God’s love and forgiveness. And as good as all that may be, when it happens, we are reduced to nothing more than consumers of God’s love…content to be spectators just following the action. The thing is spectating is not the life for which we were created or the life to which God is calling us.
The life modeled for us in Jesus moves us from spectators to participants, even and especially when the movement stretches us… gets us out of our self-created comfort zone. Jesus had been out there preaching, healing and helping, as only he could do. The Bible says he had compassion on the people ‘because they were harassed and helpless’. He seemed to think there were a bunch of folk like that. He said the harvest was plentiful. But the laborers were few.
So when he recognized this Jesus stopped, called the Twelve together, gave them an awesome task, blessed them and sent them out to find what he called the ‘lost sheep’. And get this. He told them not to worry if they had enough money or training or anything else! Just go! Just show up.
It was as if he was saying: ‘There are a bunch of people out there who need to hear a word of good news. Many of them are hurting and live without hope. Their lives are lost. Some of them will hear you and find hope. Others won’t, but that is not your problem. Don’t try to anticipate all the obstacles you may encounter. Just tell them the good news and live by faith.’
Maybe if it was up to them they would have remained his assistants, helping out, following along. They would have remained comfortable spectators, but Jesus would have none of that. Jesus did not ask them to help. He told them to do the very same things he had been called to do. He realized he could not do it all by himself. And he sent them with no further training and precious little advice. For Jesus, it would never be enough to take care of the sheep already in the fold. So, he sent his disciples into the uncomfortable places of life…where the thickets and briars rule…to find those who are lost and to share with them a word of hope.
That is how Jesus lived. So far as we know, he never gave public opinion a second thought. He never worried about how to pay for something. He offered no program, save the gospel. And virtually all the training was accomplished ‘on the job’. It was not like you had to take a class, learn the Bible or answer all the questions ahead of time. It was almost a call to improvise, once you figured out what the need was. It was a call to action. There are sheep not in the fold. That means there is work to be done.
This should not come as a surprise to us. As Barbara Brown Taylor says, “Preaching the kingdom without doing anything about it is just politics, and good works without good news is no more than a temporary reprieve, but to proclaim the kingdom while acting it out-that is powerful, and that is what Jesus sent his friends out to do.” (SW-201, p.153)
And he sent them with nothing…no money, no shoes, no bag…just power and belief. God’s sufficient power and Jesus’ belief in them. They relied, not on the overflow of their abundance to do ministry, not on their own resourcefulness, but on God’s power and Jesus’ belief that they could do it.
I believe it is time we collectively begin praying about the areas of harvest in the life of this church. What areas of ministry are ready for harvest and then who among you will step-up and participate in the work? These are serious questions which can lead to a revitalization if we respond.
There are numerous ministries we could do if we choose wisely, but no matter what we none of us can do the work of harvesting alone. Once we figure out what is needed, then we can put out a call to action. I want each of you to think hard about your passions. Is there some ministry rooted in helping and healing and building community that pulls at you? If there is lets talk about it and lets figure out a way to empower and help answer this call to action. There is work to be done and lets stop spectating and start participating.
There are days, sometimes weeks when I am dog tired. During those days and weeks the sabbath cannot come soon enough. The work needing to be done during those days and weeks was plentiful, especially when I was doing that work alone. While at times the volume of work frustrated me, there was always something deep in my bones calling me to work when there was work to be done. It is still calling me today and its pull feel ever stronger. Maybe it comes from being Tommy Frank Knight’s son. Maybe its who I was created to be. Maybe it’s a bit of both.
Even though Dad can’t really talk with me anymore, I like to think he is proud of the way I work when there is work to be done. It was important to him that he raise me that way and I believe his lessons stuck with me. Sitting idle and hoping that others pick up the slack just doesn’t sit well with the person I know I am.
There are times when spectating has its advantages. Being a spectator places certain limitations on us though… and while we might feel comfortable in that spectator role, we have been called to be participants in this life. Not all of the time, but some of the time we need to participate because I believe we honor God each and every time we stretch ourselves by participating in the ministries of helping and healing and building up our community as a whole.
Participants… that is who we were called to be because the harvest is plentiful. Let us move from spectators to participants for there is work to be done.
Do any of you remember the phrase “Can’t we all just get along” became popular? Do you remember who said it back in 1992? Well truth be told, these questions aren’t really fair because Rodney King didn’t actually say those exact words. Instead in that nationally televised interview he said “People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along? Can we get along?,” but most of us prefer to remember the somewhat famous quote as “Can’t we all just get along?”
Now King cried out for all to get along after he became the unwanted face of the 90’s race riots in Los Angeles. King was a taxi driver who gained international fame after being beaten by police officers following a high-speed chase in the early part of 1991. Then about a year later, in the middle of the 6 day race riots tearing LA apart, King was interviewed and during that interview he made this plea for everyone to get along. Although King’s plea happened some 25 years ago, it many ways the same plea happened before him and most definitely after. I suspect most of us would agree that it continues today. And with the rise of social media, and the ease that platform provides for negative communication, a plea for us to get along is a plea needing to be heard.
I wonder though what people mean when they say it. Do they want everyone to just agree all the time? Or, do they want to silence the ones who may not agree with them in order to appear that everyone is getting along? Certainly, we can agree that just appearing to get along, or silencing the voices of those with different ideas for the purpose of just getting along is never really productive. Nor does it lay the foundation needed for the building of strong relationships. Getting along at the expense of your own voice is never really getting along in the first place.
Some believe conflict is in our very nature, and while I’m not so sure about that, I do find it really easy to see conflict all around, all the time. In fact, I would say my legal career has made it pretty easy to see conflict every day. For me, our legal system is structured in a way that conflict ALWAYS happens. Now I’ve heard people try to justify this by saying that our system is adversarial, and while that may be the case, people who hold different opinions do not have to be seen only as our adversaries or our enemies whom we seek to destroy. Nevertheless, getting along with others operating within such a system is next to impossible.
Sadly, people in conflict is not limited to our legal system because make no mistake, conflict within the church is just as prevalent. And you want to know something, conflict within the church is not a new phenomenon and the Apostle Paul’s letters to the church at Corinth demonstrates that.
Now before we get into the actual passage for today it is important to know that Paul wrote to his churches for numerous purposes like:
Defend his gospel message against other competing messages; and
Promote harmony in congregations where class, ethnicity, and gender issues created conflicts
Now when we turn our attention to Corinth and to its First Church, what we find is a community torn by separation into groups. In fact, the Corinthians’ divisiveness has been front and center since Paul’s first letter. In 1 Corinthians 1:10, Paul says “Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.” Then in our scripture today where Paul is closing out his letters he expresses the same wish: “mend your ways,” “agree with one another,” and “live in peace” (13:11).
But lets take a step back because we need to make sure we understand that for Paul, agreeing with one another or, thinking the same way is not to be read as an appeal to uniformity. Paul doesn’t want them to just get along for the sake of getting along. In his first letter he makes sure he tells them how much he loves and celebrates the diversity of their congregation (1 Corinthians 12:12-27).
His request is altogether different… he wants them to have the same mind as Christ when he voluntarily humbled himself and died for the sake of the world. He wants them to have that kind of love for one another because he knows that kind of love will facilitate living at peace and will bring together those separate groups that have only torn the congregation apart.
That kind of love, however, is not possible without the power of God’s Holy Spirit. Paul urges the Corinthians to demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit working in them -- particularly joy and peace. In verse 11, what the NRSV translates as “farewell” is more literally “rejoice” and Paul knows that joy is a marker of God’s kingdom.
Now greeting one another with a holy kiss is a tangible way to show love and fellowship, especially in a community like this who continue to struggle to love one another and who still are learning how to be the body of Christ. But those who are seized by this love, who have the grace of Jesus in their bloodstreams, are joined together in a family which the world has never seen before… a family not based on physical or ethnic descent or relation… a family where anyone and everyone is welcome. It is a family called to share a common life, and the word Paul uses here, koinonia, (can be translated ‘partnership’,’ association’, sharing’, ‘communion’, as well as the familiar ‘fellowship’) has been under enormous strain as Paul and the Corinthians have struggled to work out their relationship through visits, letters, reports, rumors, despair and hope. It is because Paul believes passionately that God’s own spirit is at work in both his life and that of the Corinthians that he cannot let them go.
Likewise, Paul’s desire for peace is also a marker of God’s Kingdom and the Spirit’s work. For him, the mind that is set on the Spirit is a mind that knows peace and living peaceably should be a sign of the church. God calls the saints to peace and God is a God of peace.
In short, the presence of joy and peace are the indicators of the Spirit’s transformative work to reveal God’s kingdom… a kingdom of righteousness and peace and joy. In closing his letter this way Paul is not calling on them to just simply get along, he is urging them to be the new creation that the Spirit is equipping them to be.
The final remarks include one last reminder of the theological bedrock that makes the church’s existence possible: the Trinity, and even though the Trinity is a doctrine that did not exist during Paul’s day, he is very much aware of all three when he says, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”
The mention of God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit in one breath, however, should not be surprising to any reader of Paul’s letters. He has already claimed them all in various parts of these two letters. This final appeal for the presence of Christ’s grace, God’s love, and the Spirit’s fellowship bears witness to the divine power that has created and sustained both the Corinthian church and the church today. God is the very source of our life in Christ Jesus, and in Christ we are a new creation.
Taken together the 2 letters we have from Paul to the Corinthians are a roller coaster ride of controversies, raw emotions, and quite frankly a whole lot of irrelevant junk that goes on inside a Christian congregation.
But then comes the end of this exhausting correspondence in which Paul offers this blessing upon them. At this point he’s been through the wringer a few dozen times and has surely shed his share of pastor’s tears over the Corinthians themselves. Yet in this benediction he blesses them by saying “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”
And what more is there to say really? When we take our rightful place inside the Trinity, and live into its fullness we come to find everything we need to exist as believers. This benediction was calling them to break down walls and to build bridges with gifts of grace, love and fellowship. This benediction is calling us to do the same.
The Trinity means an end to conflict and isolation and separation. We are invited to reflect on how God’s grace, love and fellowship interplay in our own lives, and the way we choose to live them inside and outside our Church walls.
We need grace and we need to extend grace to others. Just as Paul returned to this gift of grace again and again in trying to straighten out all of the conflicts in Corinth, we need to be reminded too. We need to be reminded of that gift of grace so that we will keep forgiving and re-forgiving all the ways we manage to wound each other. We need Jesus to be gracious with us and we need to extend that same grace to one another.
We need the love of God, and we need to embrace it. God’s love is always present and always available for each of us no matter what. God loves because God must love. God loves because Love is God’s very essence and there is nothing any of us could ever do to stop God from loving us and we need to be reminded of that.
And there is one more thing we need… Koinonia. It is that abiding fellowship of the Holy Spirit who took up residence in our hearts after Pentecost. We need that community and God needs it too. If the Trinity only shows us one thing, it should be that God loves community and God wants community for everyone. No one is to be alone. Isolation is not who we were created to be and isolation is not an aspect of God. Thankfully with the Holy Spirit we have the glue that can hold us together no matter what. Sometimes the Holy Spirit may be the only thing holding people together, and that’s OK.
When it is all said and done, we need to be reminded of this Trinitarian blessing of grace, love and fellowship. We need to be reminded that grace, love and fellowship are for all people no matter what problems those people have created or are creating. We need to be reminded because only though this Trinitarian blessing of love, grace and fellowship can we find that crazy peace that passes all understanding. We need to be reminded that these gifts rain down on God’s people no matter what.
KISER MIDDLE SCHOOL 8TH GRADE PROMOTION
Student named Chris who was hit by a car and has been in the hospital ever since.
Kiser community came together through cash donations and Go Fund Me to provide Chris’ mom some financial help.
Citizenship Award named in Chris’ Honor.
Recipient overcome with emotion
Received a standing ovation.
That part of the promotion ceremony was very emotional, as it should have been. In addition to the emotional aspect I saw something else… I saw grace, love and fellowship on full display. In that moment, I saw the fullness of this Trinitarian blessing being poured out in 8th grade middle school children. And you want to know something, it made me want it even more for us.
Grace, Love and Fellowship need to be our focus always. They have been promised to us and poured out on us. This is the path to peace and joy and it is the path we must take.
 Carter, Warren & Levine, Amy-Jill, The New Testament Methods and Meanings
 NT For Everyone Commentary
Do you find forgiveness difficult to give but easy to receive? If you and I are like most people, forgiving is a tall order. The very act feels like it requires so much of us, doesn’t it? We may find ourselves wondering things like what are we supposed to do with all of our pain? Does forgiving feel like being asked to move on with life, like you are just supposed to forget? On that issue, it seems to me at least, the act of forgiveness is completely separate from forgetting, as I am not sure we can ever really forget much of anything. As some say, once you know you can’t unknow.
Yet there is something quite powerful about forgiveness. It’s why stories of forgiveness make such an incredible impact on us. I have found this to be especially so when the story is about those who have experienced unspeakable trauma finding the spiritual fortitude to forgive those who caused that trauma. Take the story of the Amish School shooting in Lancaster Pennsylvania in October of 2006. A man named Charlie Roberts walked into an Amish school and began shooting students, ultimately causing the death of 5 and then killing himself. The brutality of that event is unspeakable and it is something that will never be forgotten for those who experienced it. There is something else, though, that will never be forgotten by Charlie Roberts’ mother Terri, the immediate forgiveness of the parents who lost their children that day.
All Terri wanted to do was move away from Lancaster and do it immediately. That all changed quickly when parents who lost their children showed up at Terri’s house the very same night and sat with her and told her they wanted her to stay. Then, some of the victims’ families came to Charlie’s funeral. In an interview with CBS News, Terri said, “For the mother and father who had lost not just one but two daughters at the hand of our son, to come up and be the first ones to greet us -- wow. Is there anything in this life that we should not forgive?”
In an amazing sign of the ways in which forgiveness can bring new life, every Thursday since that tragic event, Terri cares for the most seriously wounded survivor of that shooting. A spokesperson for that Amish community sums it up best when he said “You have this mother who raised a son who did this horrific damage to this young woman and the mother has the courage and spiritual fortitude to come back and care for this young woman, and the parents of the young woman welcome her into their home. It's a powerful, powerful story.”
Now, this is only one example of the transformative power of forgiveness, and I am certain you could think of others. I am also certain that all of them are powerful, powerful stories of life only made possible by and through forgiveness. That seems to be what forgiveness does for us… give us NEW LIFE!
On the other hand, there are stories about those who could not forgive and as a result their life became bound by some past experience… a life that looked stuck in the past. Worse than a life stuck in the past though is a life overtaken and dominated by stress, and that is exactly what happens to those who don’t forgive. Did you know that scientists have shown that the inability to forgive causes our bodies to release all of the chemicals associated with the response to stress? In other words, when we don’t forgive, when we retain the harmful things done, we live in a constant state of stress, and I have never met anyone who would intentionally choose to live that way… but even knowing this doesn’t make forgiving any easier I suspect.
I have to believe the disciples were full of stress when Jesus came to them behind those locked doors. Don’t you?
Do you wonder now if this is what Jesus saw when he appeared before his disciples? People so fearful, people so full of stress about what others had done to someone they loved, that he knew their inability to forgive would haunt them the rest of their days. Maybe the entire concept was foreign to them, after all they had mostly lived oppressed lives and were mostly subject to the rule of someone else who never really appeared to care about their wellbeing. Surely the very concept of forgiveness in those circumstances was unknown.
Now here they were… a fearful group, most likely a stressed out group, meeting together, behind locked doors for reasons we can only speculate about because the text doesn’t actually tell us, when Jesus appears greeting them is a most interesting way. At first he says, Peace be with you, then as though knowing what was needed he shows his wounds then says again Peace be with you again. Powerful imagery, isn’t it?
The imagery doesn’t stop there though because with his next sentence, Jesus breathes on them and calls on them to “RECEIVE THE HOLY SPIRIT!”
Recently we have been talking a good bit about the Holy Spirit. We’ve been asking hard questions like:
What does it mean to be led by the Holy Spirit? and
What are people really saying when they claim to be led by the Holy Spirit? We have been searching for concrete examples instead of typical Sunday School programed type answers.
No doubt these are difficult questions, but they are real, and their difficulty should never cause us to turn away from them. In fact, their difficulty should be seen as an invitation to further exploration. Facing the difficult questions head-on is in fact the only doorway leading to better understanding. Facing difficulties head-on is how we get out of our huddled, fearful, stressed out state behind those locked doors, and discover our new life God intended all along.
In freely displaying his wounds, or better yet, in greeting his disciples by displaying his wounds, Jesus lets everyone know he has faced life’s difficulties head-on and we should too. He is letting them know he cannot be held back by his wounds and while his wounds are part of his life’s story, they aren’t the whole story. By freely showing his wounds he is transforming them into his glory because maybe Jesus knows that facing the difficulties of life head-on leads to new resurrected life. This new resurrected life also required forgiveness of others and even though throughout his life he modeled the importance of forgiving others, maybe he knew help was still needed.
Surely, it seems, he knew the disciples felt this way, and as always, he finds them, right where they are, and brings peace. This time, though, he brought something else, he brought his breath and in so doing brought the Holy Spirit.
Maybe he knew this task of forgiveness felt too big to do alone.
Maybe this gift of breath, this gift of the Holy Spirit was to be seen as another aspect of the communal nature of life.
Maybe it was all of these things and more, but no matter what, Jesus knew his disciples, and that includes us, need to receive the Holy Spirit in order to forgive. Maybe he knew his disciples, and that includes us, need the Holy Spirit so that we don’t retain the hurt.
Maybe he knew his disciples, and that includes us, need the Holy Spirit to empower us to face the difficulties of life so that we may truly live.
Maybe Jesus knew the Holy Spirit was the way to New Life for all followers of The Way!
No matter what, Jesus seemed to know that we always need the help of others. This gift of breath, this gift of the Holy Spirit is a gift of togetherness. It is the fulfillment of God’s promise to always be with you.
I found this an interesting choice for today’s Lectionary Gospel lesson, after all today is Pentacost. Truth be told, maybe it would have been easier if I had just chosen this week’s reading from Acts because Acts chapter 2:1-21 is the detailed account of the day of Pentacost. That day, 50 days after Easter when the Holy Spirit descended upon the Followers of The Way. In fact, at my Tuesday meeting last week, I was the only preacher using John’s Gospel as the scripture for their sermon.
For me though, John’s telling of Jesus appearing to those scared, stressed out Disciples, huddled behind locked doors, and breathing the gift of the Holy Spirit for them, is of equal importance. Could it be that Jesus appearing and breathing this gift of the Holy Spirit was exactly what the Disciples needed to give them the strength to get Pentacost? Needing the help of others is universal. Acknowledging this need actually helps connect us to those who have come before, like the Disciples.
Sometimes we need the help of others to reboot our lives so that we can take that first step toward the next destination on the journey of life. This is most certainly the case when we are asked to forgive. It feels like such a monumental task that I suspect Jesus knew we couldn’t do it alone and that is at least one reason he talked about forgiving or retaining immediately after breathing on them. That fearful stressed out group behind locked doors needed someone, or at least something, to help them come out and begin life again. But to truly begin anew they would need the power to forgive others so Jesus Breathed on them and said RECEIVE THE HOLY SPIRIT! And the fact that we are here today, talking about all of this, claiming and re-claiming when necessary this Faith, is amazing evidence of the Disciples reception of the holy Spirit and the new life that resulted.
That new life was only possible through this gift of the Holy Spirit and the resulting power to forgive.
If left to our own devices, we might retain all of the wrongs of others and our lives may just become stuck.
If left to our own devices we might think that running away from the pain caused by others is our best option.
That is certainly what Terri Roberts said she was going to do because of the horrendous acts of her son, and who knows what would have happened to her and her life if she actually acted on that impulse. Luckily though for her and for all who have heard her story, being forgiven by the parents of those victims, who by the way were victims themselves, and being asked to continue living in community with them transformed everything.
Forgiveness became the launching pad for a new life dedicated to helping. True and thorough forgiveness, the kind that comes with the Holy Spirit, is the reason this mother has the courage and spiritual fortitude to come back and care for a young woman who was permanently harmed by the son she raised. True and thorough forgiveness, the kind that comes with the Holy Spirit is the reason you have the parents of the young woman welcoming Terri Roberts into their home.
Lives transformed… Lives made anew… All made possible because forgiveness paved the way for a hopeful future.
Maybe there is someone, or something you need to forgive and if that is the case then my prayer is that you do it. That you trust in the power of this gift of the Holy Spirit for it has been breathed into you too. New life is possible as long as we start forgiving and stop retaining.
For many, our scripture today has been the go to passage in times of death. If you knew my schedule this past week you may think this would be the perfect time for me to talk about that very subject. It seems death and funerals found their way to our FBCJ family this past week. On Tuesday evening and again on Wednesday I traveled to Archdale, NC to be exactly where I believe I needed to be: standing in the presence of Malinda Dillon and her family as they grieved and celebrated the life of her sister Mrs. Doris Hamilton. Then on Thursday, I traveled to Burlington, NC so that I could be present (that is all I knew to do) for Lawrence and Becky Straughn who, along with their daughter Heather and grand-daughters Hadley and Kylee were grieving the untimely death of Nick Carnes, Heather’s husband and Hadley and Kylee’s dad. I strongly believe it is our duty, if we are to call ourselves a church family, to be present when any one of us experiences the loss of a loved one, and it is scripture like this that proves valuable in such times. In it we find absolute assurances that God always has room. In this text Jesus leaves no room to doubt that our dwelling place with God is secure. We need not worry another second about it, and all of us at one time or another can find comfort in such assurances.
Yet, like I am apt to do, today I want us to spend this time together exploring some of the other ideas Jesus was inviting his Disciples then, and us today, to think about and discuss. Now I want to make clear, my desire to explore other ideas in this text should never be interpreted as discounting the positive power of Jesus’ assurances of our place in God’s eternal house. Those assurances are invaluable to each and every one of God’s children, and those assurances provide powerful support to those grieving the loss of a loved one. I believe wholeheartedly in those assurances, both for myself and for all of God’s creation. The thing is, it seems clear to me that in addition to these assurances, Jesus is extending another invitation to all who followed then and continue to be followers of THE WAY. I believe Jesus was extending an invitation to expand our understanding of God and God’s continual longing for deeper and deeper connection and relationship with each and every part of God’s creation. No matter how scared we may become when faced with a choice of expanding understanding and acceptance; no matter how much those voices of fear scream for us to remain in the comfortable box we have created, I believe Jesus is inviting followers of THE WAY to grab hold of the life in front of them, which can only happen by expansion.
I love movies. Especially those from my childhood that connect me to my past in only the ways those type movies can. I trust we all have movies like that in our life. One such movie for me came out in 1985 and is called The Goonies, and I love it. I love it so much that I couldn’t wait to sit with my own kids and watch it with them, and truth be told I rushed the experience for both of us. As I sat beside my then 10-year-old son Joshua, wanting him to connect with The Goonies in the same way I did years earlier, I discovered a PG rating in 1985 was a lot more lenient than a PG rating is today.
Even as I squirmed (after all I was now on the Parent side of The Goonies whether I liked it or not) I found that I was much more interested in Joshua discovering the power, the liberation and the beauty in The Goonies finally answering the never-ending call to journey beyond themselves and their surroundings. Maybe I wanted my 10-year-old Joshua to see what I saw and feel the way I felt because The Goonies “had everything you could want, thrills, spills, pirates, treasure, adventure, freaks and bad guys. For most of us growing up when the movie came out, we just wanted to be a Goonie or go on a Goonie style adventure” and I suspect I wanted my son to feel the same way.
For those of you who may not know, The Goonies storyline goes like this:
“Mikey and Brandon Walsh are brothers whose family is preparing to move because developers want to demolish their home and the surrounding neighborhood and build a golf course in its place. ” The developers’ desires will happen unless enough money is raised to stop their construction of the golf course, but there is little chance of that actually happening. All seems lost and while an attitude of DOOM & GLOOM starts to dominate, Mikey stumbles upon a treasure map of the hidden fortune of the famed Pirate ‘One-Eyed’ Willy. Convinced this is their best chance to save their home and the life they love, Mikey convinces his older brother Brand, and their friends "Chunk", "Mouth", "Andy", "Stef", and "Data", to follow him on the way to recover the treasure.
Right from the start The Goonies find trouble as the starting point on the treasure map is a cavern underneath the restaurant of the Fratelli crime family. With little more than this ancient treasure map and the un-ending desire to face his fears and journey beyond the limitations imposed on him, Mikey convinces The Goonies time and again that he knows the way to the treasure. At times fearing for their lives, the rest of The Goonies choose to trust Mikey and follow him. Each and every time it looks like their pathway will close in on itself, it expands and ultimately leads to One-Eyed Willie’s hidden treasure.
Can any of you describe what it feels like to be called? Not on the phone, or not like my mom when I was growing up (JASON TIME TO COME HOME), but knowing that something is calling you to expand yourself and your life beyond what you already know? Do any of us know what it’s like to be called in such a way?
The fact of the matter is that we have all been called like this, but being called doesn’t necessarily mean we answer and when we don’t answer we might not even realize we are being called. For some reason this seems to be the preferred response when we are called to expand our mind, expand our understanding, expand our world. Answering that call to expand feels hard and more often than not, we avoid working through hard things. We may not see it this way but each time we avoid working through barriers, each time we stay put instead of journeying beyond, our world contracts and we miss out on the opportunity to live life to its fullest. We might just miss the chance to do great things.
Fear can so easily take hold in the moment and when it does a blindness of sorts can overtake us. This blindness would have us believe that life is better by keeping the status quo. We tell ourselves that life is better when we stay within the boundaries of our self-created world. We tell ourselves that we know THE WAY and we don’t like our knowing to be challenged.
So today we find ourselves listening to Jesus say I am the Way, I am the Truth, and I believe most of us have a firmly held belief about what all of that means. As my father-in-law says, “Most of my life has been spent trying to be a follower of a first century middle-eastern peasant Jew, known as Jesus. The religion that grew up around his memory and after his death has come to be called Christianity. We Baptists are one of 33,000 different denominations world-wide who say we are Christians.
Across the ages we Christians have developed our different rituals and styles to worship this Jesus, whom we say is the Son of God…and in point of fact, is God himself. At the same time, several other religions have developed, too. And this single verse from John’s account of the gospel [that says Jesus is the way to God] has fostered a view of Christian ‘exclusivity’ that has resulted in wars and heartache and division unlike any other force in our world. It says we Christians are right and everyone else is wrong.
For those who cling tightly to such exclusivity, any attempt to expand understanding is seen as an attack. It is as though attempts to expand the understanding of Jesus’ claim of being the way, the truth and the life is blasphemous and must be squashed. Yet, for those willing to face that fear head-on, for those willing to expand their own understanding of themselves, their faith and the created world in general, fear vanishes and love takes over. Jesus’ claim of being the way and the truth should never been seen as a narrow road, it should be viewed as the wide, ever expanding road it actually is.
As Professor of Jewish Studies and New Testament at Vanderbilt, and a Jew herself, Dr. Amy-Jill Levine says, “Far too often for Christians, Jesus is seen as the ticket to heaven. You believe in him and you get to heaven, and the most important thing he did is defeat sin and defeat death.
So Christianity becomes a matter of belief.
But recognizing Jesus within his Jewish context means recognizing his enormous concern for how people relate to each other on a day today basis. The issue for him is not, “Here’s what you need to believe in order to get into heaven.” The issue is, “Here’s what you need to do in order to have one foot in the kingdom of heaven. Here’s what you need to do because here’s what God wants you to do, and here’s what your tradition calls you to do.”
It is his Judaism that associates love of God with love of neighbor; his Judaism emphasizes what
we call the golden rule, also found in a number of different religious traditions. That’s why he talks to people about reconciliation and says that human interaction is more important than ritual. Saving a life always trumps any law of the Torah for Jews.
Jesus teaches people how to live, how to act. That’s the Jewish Jesus, and that too often drops out. If you go straight from Jesus being born to being crucified, you’re missing a whole lot.”
It takes courage to embrace such an expanded view of Jesus’ statement about being the way, the truth and the life, yet when placed in its proper historical context, it becomes fairly impossible to claim otherwise. When Jesus says I am the way it seems he is calling us to reflect on who he is and what he cares about and then model ourselves in that same way. Love all of God’s creation. Care for all of God’s creation. Love your neighbor in the same way you love yourself. Make every effort to care for the oppressed, those who are left out. Break bread with them, not because you are told to do so or not to do so… not because you think doing so is going to get you into heaven… Do it because you recognize his enormous concern for how people relate to each other on a day to day basis. Do it because you are willing to face your fears and uncertainties head-on, just like The Goonies did each and every time they trusted and followed Mikey. Do it in order to have one foot in the kingdom of heaven now, not at some later unknown time. Do it because seeking justice and loving mercy is THE WAY of Jesus.
Close with Keith Cokely
This morning something told me to stop by the Burger King on Wendover at the Palladium. IK had never been there before but had seen it while driving by on other occasions. So I walk up to the counter and place my order and after handing the gentleman (who happened to be the manager) my money I read his name on his name tag, Keith Cokely.
I had never met him, but I had heard the name numerous times because there was a Keith Cokely who played basketball for my grandfather at Oak Ridge Military Academy (ORMA).
You have no idea how hard it was to be an African-American boy at ORMA during those time. We would go to places to eat as a team and they wouldn’t serve blacks. Each and every time we went to places like that your grandfather would say follow me son and I will always take care of you.
With tears in his eyes, Keith said to me, your grandfather cared more about me as a person than he ever did about me as a ball player.
Your grandfather was willing to face discrimination and oppression head-on because he recognized the value in my humanity.
Your grandfather may be the greatest man I have ever known and I want you to know I am who I am because of him.
This is the best example I could ever have hoped for when thinking about what it is like to follow Jesus along THE WAY! Jesus’ way is a way of expansion. Jesus’ way expands to reach all of God’s creation. This is the way for us to follow.
Do it because you are willing to face your fears and uncertainties head-on, just like The Goonies did each and every time they trusted and followed Mikey. Do it in order to have one foot in the kingdom of heaven now, not at some later unknown time. Do it because seeking justice and loving mercy is THE WAY of Jesus.
Who here has ever herded sheep? Alright, even if you haven’t herded sheep yourself, which of you understands the basic concept? As best I can tell sheep typically:
Now for those of you who didn’t have a clue about any of this, if it makes you feel any better, you are not alone. I really knew nothing about any of this until the past couple of months when the concept of Shepherding began to intrigue me.
Now this initial intrigue of mine did not start because of some Bible story, or some far off heady metaphor about a Shepherd and his/her sheep. It actually began on a Sunday evening in our Youth Room. It was there that I discovered we have the daughter of a real-life Shepherd right here in our FBCJ family. Maybe you all already knew, but a couple of months ago I learned that Fiona Chicosky’s Dad, Hamish (“Hay-Mish”) was a Shepherd back in her native Scotland. I was talking with Fiona about growing up on farms when she said her farm life centered around her Dad being a Shepherd.
I hope I never forget that moment, because it was another example of how easily my world can expand if I simply pay attention. I want desperately to broaden my understanding of this vast world. I want desperately to broaden my understanding of everything that inhabits this world. I see it as the best possible way I can know more about God. You see, I hold tight to my belief that all of creation was created in God’s image and while this includes the world which I live in, I am reminded daily that the world is so much bigger than the part I inhabit daily.
Now my initial reaction to her sharing this might have looked like shock, and maybe I was, but not in some negative kind of way. I was shocked because I had never met a Shepherd and to that point in my life I don’t think I had ever met a child of a Shepherd. My initial shock quickly turned to excitement and intrigue because I recognized the possibility that my world could be expanded a little more… I was now being exposed to another aspect of life previously unknown and even though I was profoundly intrigued, I thought it best not to pepper Fiona with too many questions in that moment.
So, fast forward to this past week and two (2) things stirred this pot even more. First, today’s Gospel lesson begins with Jesus’ Parable about a Shepherd and his/her sheep. Second, another child of a Shepherd became a part of our church community exactly one (1) week ago. Would you believe Daniel Godfrey, our new Director of Youth, Children and Families grew up on a farm where his Mother, Trecia (“Teresa”) raised and Shepherded sheep? Even Daniel himself had a role because as some of you now know, he went around our State showing sheep at County Fairs.
The inter-connectedness of all of these seemingly independent things fascinates me. I believe this is the first Church I have ever been a part that can claim two (2) people so closely connected to the world of Shepherds and their sheep. While there are some who might say these things are not connected at all, they just happened by chance, I happen to think that these separate things coming together in this way indicates this might be something I need to spend time getting to know a little better. I have more to learn.
I knew Daniel grew up on a farm in Monroe, North Carolina, but this past Tuesday at my Lectionary Reading Group I found out that sheep and Shepherding were also part of his life. Now earlier this year I was invited to join this small group of Ministers every Tuesday to share thoughts and ideas about the scripture we will be using for our upcoming Sermon. This group has been wonderful for me in many ways and I thought Daniel might enjoy becoming part of this group.
So off we went to Sedgefield Presbyterian Church on Tuesday to discuss John 10:1-10. About half-way through our meeting my friend the Reverend Dr. Darryl Aaron, Senior Pastor of The Providence Baptist Church on Tuscaloosa Street in Greensboro and former Preaching Professor at Wake Forest University School of Divinity, looked at Daniel and in that powerful southern soulful voice said, “well young Reverend, you have been sitting there mighty quiet and I was just wondering what your thoughts were about these ideas of a Shepherd and his/her sheep?”
Now I don’t know if Daniel was nervous about being called on, after all it did just kind of come out of the blue, but he sure didn’t seem so because he quickly started sharing that his mother raised sheep and that he and his sister showed sheep at county fairs. He said that even though he and his sister showed the sheep at these Fairs, his mother was clearly the Shepherd. Daniel went on to say that anytime his mother called the sheep, they followed her and even though the sheep were familiar with Daniel they didn’t react the same way to him, or anyone else for that matter. Daniel’s lived experience was unique to our group, and his ability to share this lived experience opened everyone’s eyes to a deeper appreciation of the words found in this Gospel lesson.
2 The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5 They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.”
Until Dr. Aaron prompted Daniel, and he responded by sharing part of his life’s story, the four (4) ministers around the table had been talking about the words of John’s story as though its purpose was only as a metaphor. Daniel’s lived experience showed all of us that metaphor is not the only thing going on in this story. His lived experience grounded this parable about the Shepherd and sheep in today’s reality.
When Daniel said, “oh this is exactly the way my mom’s sheep responded to her… you know, she called them by name and they followed her lead” this Gospel story became more than just a teaching about an un-named Shepherd and his sheep.
This Gospel story become real.
It became a story about us too.
Did you know that even today, in the Middle East, a Shepherd will go into a crowded sheepfold and call out his own sheep one by one, naming them? The sheep will then recognize the Shepherd’s voice and come.
In fact, I just recently read a story about a Ph.D. student named Judith who spent several months each year in Israel as part of her studies. One day while walking on a road near Bethlehem, she watched as three (3) Shepherds converged with their separate flocks of sheep. The three (3) men hailed each other and then stopped to talk. While they were conversing, their sheep intermingled, melting into one big flock.
Wondering how the three (3) Shepherds would ever be able to identify their own sheep, Judith waited until the men were ready to say their goodbyes. She watched, fascinated, as each of the Shepherds called out to his sheep. At the sound of their Shepherd’s voice, like magic, the sheep separated again into three flocks. Apparently, some things in Israel haven’t changed for thousands of years.
Just like these sheep, what distinguishes us is not so much the “pen” we inhabit, but who we follow. Some come running as soon as their Shepherd calls, but some struggle and can be led astray whenever tempted by others.
The Shepherd, though, is totally different than those would-be tempters masquerading as “shepherd’s.” After all, the Shepherd spends most hours of most days in their company. The Shepherd knows their individual characters, markings, likes and dislikes, and they know their Shepherd. They know his/her voice. Someone else can come to the sheepfold and they won’t go near them, even if they call the names. They are listening for the one voice that matters, the voice they trust. This is exactly the way Daniel described his Mother and her sheep.
Now this story comes as the start of what we call Chapter 10 of John’s Gospel, but when the book was written there weren’t any divisions of the story into chapters and verses. By keeping this in mind we may discover that it might be important to find out what was happening right before. In this instance, a handful of questions dominated Chapter 9, like:
Is Jesus from God or not?
Is he a prophet or not?
Is he the Messiah or not?
You may be wondering what these questions have to do with this Parable about a Shepherd and his sheep and luckily what we find is that our Bible uses the Shepherd/sheep image to refer to a King and the people of the Kingdom. Even though in our modern world we may not think about a King and the people in this way, in the Bible the ideal King is pictured as a Shepherd (Ezekiel 34). In a world that understood the necessity of intimate contact and trust between a Shepherd and sheep, the ideal Kingdom required the same between King and people. Anyone can call followers. Even Thieves and Bandits call on people to follow, but their only reason for calling on people to further their own self-interests.
The thing is, the sign of the real King is seen in the response of those who hear and follow out of mutual love and respect. Each trusts the other and each is willing to lay down their life for the other. This is when a King becomes a Shepherd because a Shepherd’s priority is never self-interest. Prioritizing self over others, protecting self over and above protecting others goes against the very nature of Shepherding.
Looking out for one’s own interests is what Thieves and Bandits do. They tell lies and deceive the sheep. They steal for their own gain and leave their followers for dead. They manipulate those around them for the purpose of continued glorification of themselves.
Sheep instinctively understand when self-gratifying Thieves and Bandits are among them and they run. Their running away is justified, and so is their instinct to turn and run toward their Shepherd upon hearing his/her voice. They have come to trust and love their Shepherd and their Shepherd trusts and loves them.
So, as I stand here today I wonder if we are choosing to turn toward the Thief, the Bandit or the Shepherd. Are we even able to distinguish their voices? I certainly pray that we can because when we turn toward the Thief and Bandit we can so easily become them, but the Good News is that God is always calling us to turn and follow the Shepherd, and thus become Shepherds ourselves.
Maybe our lives are so far removed from Shepherds and sheep that it is hard for us to locate ourselves in this parable. If that is the case, then I believe we at FBCJ are very lucky because walking among us are two (2) children of Shepherds who just might be willing to share some of their lived experiences. And just like Fiona’s sharing prompted me to learn more and just like Daniel’s sharing last Tuesday open our eyes to deeper meaning, lived experiences like theirs make Gospel stories like these real. Their lived experiences help me realize the parable about the Shepherd and the sheep includes me and it includes you, and most importantly, it includes all of creation and that is Good News!
 NT For Everyone – John Ch. 10
The Moken People Who Survived the Tsunami of 2004
At the end of 2004 an earthquake in the Indian Ocean triggered the most devastating Tsunami in history. This Tsunami roared along the various coastlines of the Indian Ocean hammering the entire region from South Africa all the way to Indonesia. The death toll alone is hard to wrap your brain around. How could a two (2) hour event like this result in 220,000 to 280,000 deaths? Would you believe this two (2) hour Tsunami is the deadliest in recorded history?
Now I don’t know if any of you remember this Tsunami, but would you if I told you it happened on December 26. It does for me, because death and destruction at Christmas time is almost impossible for me to comprehend. Even though I realize disasters happen when they happen, I just always seem to think of Christmas as being immune to such things.
Now I suspect most of us were celebrating with loved ones and family on December 26, 2004. That is what we do during Christmas. While some travel to be with family, others stay put while family and loved ones’ travel to them. Then there are those who might take a once in a lifetime family vacation to some far away resort, like those found in Sri Lanka, Thailand, or Myanmar, also known as Burma. I have never been myself, but from all I read and all I see, the beaches in this part of the world are breathtakingly beautiful and the resort industry thrives because of it. December of 2004 was no exception as thousands of foreign tourists (mostly European) were enjoying all that these beautiful resorts had to offer while on holiday. Would you believe over 9,000 of the confirmed dead were foreign tourists on holiday?
The sadness that grips my heart is still profound when I think about this Tsunami. Then I recall discovering a people called the Sea Gypsies of the Andaman Sea. The Andaman Sea being part of the Indian Ocean where the Tsunami originated. These Sea Gypsies, known as Moken because of their connection to the sea, are a nomadic people who roam and live off of the sea in handmade wooden boats that actually serve as their homes up to six (6) months out of each year.
If I told you every one of the Moken people survived this Tsunami, would you believe me? The deadliest Tsunami in history did not claim the life of a single Sea Gypsy. Now in and of itself, that is amazing, but the amazing part for me is that luck had nothing to do with their survival. It was their connection to the sea… their ability to read its signs. It was their ability to understand what the wild elephants were communicating by running to higher ground. Then there was the complete silence of the Cicadas.
One of the Moken, a man named Saleh Kalathalay (“Sa-lay Coo-lot-oo-lay”) was actually on the mainland close to one of those swanky resorts when he noticed the silence of the Cicadas. His first instinct was not to run to higher ground… no his first instinct was to run around warning everyone he found in the resort. He says the young people first called him a liar. Then his own daughter, who he grabbed by the hand and said child get out of here or you will die, called him a liar.
I wonder how we might react to people calling us a liar. Would we stay around those people trying to get our point across or would we say we have done all that we can do and leave them to perish? Luckily for those skeptical tourists and for Saleh’s daughter, Saleh didn’t leave and for those who initially looked upon him as a strange man to be avoided, a liar if you will, he convinced them to follow him to the water’s edge where they finally saw the danger he had been warning them about the whole time.
Even though his words sounded like gibberish to those tourists, eventually they listened to this stranger in their midst. And you want to know something, every tourist who listened, followed Saleh to higher ground and lived.
Coming to trust in the life saving words of a stranger is what saved the lives of those tourists. Their ability to overcome their skepticism of this strange person allowed them to turn toward the truth. Overcoming their skepticism allowed them to embrace the fact that Saleh came to them in peace, came to them in love. For some, coming to believe in Saleh’s truthfulness didn’t happen immediately, yet something lifted their blindness so they could see their need to trust in the guidance of this stranger.
For me, the story of the tourists and Saleh closely resembles today’s Gospel story of Cleopas and his un-named companion’s encounter with Jesus. Both stories seem to depict what life might look like if we could place our trust in the words of a stranger who seeks to helps us.
Choosing to do that is rather amazing, isn’t it? Here we have a man named Cleopas (of whom we never again hear about in scripture) and his friend, who never gets named in the first place, having an intimate encounter with Jesus…after the resurrection, and at first, they have no idea. In fact, they initially call him a stranger and make fun of his lack of knowledge. [Read v. 18]. Yet just like those skeptical tourists, they do not reject this stranger or demand he leave them alone. I wonder if we would react this way to a stranger appearing before us?
There are many reasons I love this story, all of which we cannot discuss in one sermon, but I want to share a couple of them with you today. First, Luke provides us incredible detail in his telling of this story. There emerges an almost dreamlike quality of this chance meeting on the road to Emmaus and the scene around the table as they broke bread together. Then we have this moment of recognition… seemingly causing the immediately disappearance of Jesus… followed by the reflecting upon what he said and what they felt in their hearts as they walked with the one they labeled a stranger.
While it is a wonderful, unique, spellbinding tale, it is also a model for a great deal of what being a Christian is all about. The slow, sad dismay at the failure of human hopes; the turning to someone who might or might not help; the opening of our eyes so that we might find truth. This describes the experience of innumerable Christians, and indeed goes quite a long way to explaining what it is about Christianity that grasps us and holds us in the face of so much that is wrong with the world, with the church, and with ourselves.
Next, I love the way Luke emphasizes the importance of relationship because I believe he is offering us powerful instruction about life fulfilled. The thing is we might miss this instruction if we don’t slow down because sometimes slowing down is necessary, and this seems to be one of those times.
The pain of shattered dreams.
The pain of hopelessness.
The pain of Crucifixion.
This was no easy cross-roads for Cleopas and his companion for they were now at a point where they had to figure out what to live for. Before the Crucifixion, their vision of the future had brought order and purpose to their suffering… to their lives, but that vision seemed to die at the Crucifixion.
Maybe you all are better than me, but I still can’t figure out how to deal with this kind of pain and I don’t assume for a minute that Cleopas or his companion knew either. The major difference is that they didn’t try to do it alone. Neither of them tried to pick themselves up by their boot-straps and quickly move on with life.
Maybe they knew doing so would never lead to fulfillment in the long run;
Maybe they knew they needed a companion in whom they could confide;
Maybe they knew trying to do it alone would only lead to a painful death; and
Maybe Luke knew how important it is for all generations that follow to know this part of the story.
You see, this part of the story tells us that we must bring our problems, our agony with us on our journey, but more importantly, at least to me, this story tells us to be prepared to listen to the kind, loving words of a stranger who is doing his/her best to lead us to a fulfilling life. This story tells us to learn to listen to his/her voice… the voice that seeks to explain; the voice that seeks to lead us forward; the voice that will warm our hearts if only we allow. This story so desperately wants us to learn to live inside of it because when we do we will discover the limitless nature of the Good News.
“The disciples’ choice to walk together and talk about all the things that had happened to them was, in some ways, fairly radical. They could have decided that what they had been through was so personal, so traumatic and so confounding that they didn’t want to talk about it until they had gotten a handle on it. Or they could have chosen to walk together but avoided talking about what was really going on, chatting away about anything but that.
But no. While the experiences of the weekend were still fresh and raw, unvarnished and unresolved, they chose to walk together and talk with each other about all these things that had happened. And there was something about the willingness to walk together and speak honestly about the fundamental issues of their lives that caused Jesus himself to come near.
They weren’t praying in any formal way. They weren’t having a Bible study or worshiping in the synagogue. They were not having a formal quiet time. No, they were discussing the stuff of their lives—the things that had happened that were impacting them so deeply—and something about the nature and quality of their conversation opened up space for Jesus to draw near.
The encounter that took place between Jesus and these two disciples was completely reorienting and life changing. Transforming, if you will!
And that is the essence of Christian community. Before Jesus draws near, a group of people journeying together is merely a human community. Once Jesus joins us on the road, it becomes a Christian community. As we discover ways to open to Jesus’ transforming presence we become a transforming community!”
So today I wonder…
How often do we include strangers in our conversations?
How often do we listen to strangers and heed their advice?
The thing is, maybe those people we label as Strangers are only trying to show us the pathway toward a fulfilled life. As hard as it may be to imagine, especially in a culture that seeks to teach us that a stranger only represent danger, we might actually encounter strangers seeking to love us.
Strangers who only want what is best for us as well as themselves. Are those types of strangers’ worthy of our listening ears… or is it better if we continue to label them as strange, or crazy, or alien?
Far be it for me to project meaning onto a Gospel story, but it certainly seems this story is calling us to accept that following Jesus involves listening to strangers who come in peace and love. Ironically, Saleh seemed to know this without ever claiming to be Christian. Neither he nor Jesus looked for ways to be offended.
Neither of them were offended by the name calling. Their purpose was so much greater than seeking to be offended that name calling became meaningless. They only wanted to save lives. That was their purpose.
As I stand here in front of you today I wonder what the life of this Church might look like if we stop looking for ways to be offended by strangers trying to help? Might we be saved like those foreign tourists who chose to listen to Saleh. Or better yet, might our lives be transformed like Cleopas and his friend?
The Good News is that transformation is possible and my prayer is that we open ourselves to that possibility and allow it to happen.
 NT Wright, Luke for Everyone
 Ruth Hayler Barton, Part 1: The Road Between the Now and the Not-Yet
Believing Thomas- April 23, 2017
Rev. Courtney Stamey
A few months back, when I just started my position at FBC Greensboro, I went to a preaching conference at Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas TX. WBC is kind of the foremost Baptist Church when it comes to residencies like mine, and they want to support other programs through the pastoral residency network. What this means is that the network paid for my trip to Texas. I had never been on a business trip before, and I love Tex-Mex so I was pretty excited. Not to mention I wanted to learn some preaching methods and get creative about proclamation with peers I had never met. But there was something unusual about this preaching conference...the keynote speaker was not a preacher, but a poet. Needless to say, my tex-mex taco high was brought back down to earth. I know a little about preaching, but I know NOTHING and understand even less about poetry. But the trip was paid for so I was going, despite my doubts. Turns out the poet’s name was Christian Wiman, Yale Professor and seasoned cancer and faith wrestler. His latest book, “My Bright Abyss” is subtitled “Meditation of a Modern Believer” is a testimony to the wrestling he has done and continues to do. The book opens with the poem entitled “My Bright Abyss” it goes something like this:
My God my bright abyss
Into which all my longing will not go
Once more I come to the edge of all I know
And believing nothing believe in this:
And there it ends, well kind of, the last line is punctuated with a colon, expectantly waiting a second stanza. Describing all the things he believed in, all the things drawing him into the deepest parts of the bright abyss, drawing him down into nothing more and nothing less than “My God.” In the first paragraph of the book Wiman writes this…”For several years since I first wrote that stanza I have been trying to feel my way-to will my way-into its ending...I have wanted some image to open for me, to both solidify my wavering faith and ramify beyond it, to say more that I can say…
Perhaps this is where we enter into our text today with that poem.
My God my bright abyss
Into which all my longing will not go
Once more I come to the edge of all I know
And believing nothing believe in this:
We find ourselves perched on that last line, scraping desperately for any image that characterizes our belief.
And as we look for that image it is easy to compare ourselves to Thomas. His doubt comes in the dawn of that Easter Monday. Thomas, missed the glitz of the Sunrise service, the empty tomb and the flowered cross. An instrument of death, turned into a sign of new life. He could not imagine generations later, crosses adorning steeples, and altars, jewelry and car bumper stickers. How could he, it was still Good Friday for Thomas. He could not imagine a resurrected Christ as he saw him beaten, bloodied, and bruised. The man he left it all behind for spat on, speared, pierced, and hung on the tool of the Roman Government for criminals. What he thought was the hope of the world died that day and was rotting in a grave. There was no belief, only unbelief. And Utter disbelief.
I think before we move there, it may be helpful to acknowledge our baggage with this text. Like my doubts of the poet at the preaching conference we may associate Thomas with doubt. In my research I learned that this passage is not really about doubt or skepticism, but it about traversing the chasm between belief and unbelief. Between faith and unfaith. In the version that I read from today, when Jesus confronts Thomas he says, “Do not doubt, but believe.” A literal translation of the verse would read, “Do not be unbelieving but believing” or as the King James puts it, “Be not faithless but believing.” The word pair here, apistos, unbelieving and pistos believing is the only time that these two adjectives are used in contrast in John’s gospel. Like Thomas, we must move from unbelief to belief, when we come into contact with the risen Lord. It feels like doubt is something different. Doubt is an integral part of our faith, it means that we have faith and we are wrestling within it.
So, when we hear of Thomas’ request, there is nothing to criticize. He is merely requesting what Jesus offered the other disciples. It is not the glowing gowns of the mount of transfiguration. Instead he wants to know that the horror of the crucifixion was real. He wants to know that the pain he saw was not glossed over as the images replay in his mind every night before bed. This is brave, this is courageous. It reminds me of the person with PTSD who realizes that in order to live their life they must speak about the horror they saw.
Just a few chapters before, in John 11, the disciples have received news from Mary and Martha that Lazarus is sick. The other disciples say that they should not go, for fear of the Jewish Authorities. But Thomas, not hiding away in this current scripture and not hiding in John 11 says this, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” Thomas is the one who would lay down his life for his friend, he was willing to do it for Lazarus. But he has now realized that Jesus has done it for him. So, if Jesus has resurrected, Thomas needs to see it, not because he is cowardly or afraid or doubtful, but because to experience Jesus is to believe. And to experience another, wounds and all, is the bravest thing we can request.
So, eight days later, the next Sunday. (Like this Sunday) Thomas gets his request. And this is what is beautiful. It is when Thomas sees Jesus with his wounds that he confesses, “My Lord and my God.” It is only when Thomas sees the remnants of Jesus’s humanity, that he can confess his divinity. Thomas is the first one in the gospel to confess Jesus in this way, “My Lord and my God!” His confession brings the gospel full circle. John 1 tells us, “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God and the Word was God.” Thomas’ confession makes the final connection, that the Word, Jesus, whom we have been living with is in fact divine.
The Gospel of John is also unique in that the scene of resurrection is the same as the commissioning of the disciples. When we believe, we are sent out with the Holy Spirit, representatives of Christ, who can speak like him, and say those powerful words that your sins are forgiven.
But will people believe us without our wounds? Would Thomas have believed and made such a powerful confession had Jesus come with a shiny new makeover? I’m going to say no. As scandalous as it was for Jesus to come lowly, riding a donkey instead of a steed, it is even more scandalous that he is resurrected with his wounds. Jesus shows us that being a new creation does not mean forgetting what happened to us, but leaning into the pain and testifying to it.
What it means is that as followers of Christ, sent out with the power of the Holy Spirit, that we too must show our wounds to testify to the risen Lord.
As of late I have been reading a lot of Henry Nouwen. As you may know Henry Nouwen was a respected priest and professor who later in his life decided to move into a L’arche community called Daybreak in Toronto. L’arche communities are intentional communities where folks with disabilities and folks without disabilities live together. Peacehaven Community Farm, where I split my time, and work as a chaplain is also based on the L’arche model. All that to say, I have a lot to learn from father Nouwen who teaches me that the greatest wound is isolation.
In ministerial circles Father Nouwen is well known for a model of pastoral care called “The wounded healer” and it comes from the Talmudic story that follows
Rabbi Yoshua Ben Levi came upon Elijah the prophet and he asked Elijah, “When will the Messiah come? Elijah replied,
“Go and ask him yourself.”
“Where is he?”
“Sitting at the gates of the city”
“How shall I know him?”
“He is sitting among the poor covered in wounds. The others unbind all their wounds at the same time and then bind them up again. But he unbinds one at a time and binds it up again, saying to himself, ‘Perhaps I shall be needed: if so I must always be ready so as not to delay for a moment.”
Nouwen says that in this way, ministers are to act as wounded healers, modeling the messiah, tending to their own wounds and the wounds of others. This model recognizes that our wounds are a shared experience of the Christian community. Wounds are not meant to be compared to another or aired out for one's own glorification or even shown when too raw. But when we see each other as wounded we become more grounded in the human experience. When we move toward the pain, instead of trying to avoid it, minimize it or disavow it we are able to find community and in so find healing in the deepest wound of all, isolation.
In a later book, “Life of the Beloved,” Nouwen writes to his secular friend about how he sees the great commonality available to humanity is recognizing themselves as the beloved of God. In one chapter, he talks to his friend about brokenness,
He writes, “My own experience with anguish has been that facing it and living it through is the way to healing. But I cannot do that on my own. I need someone to keep me standing in it, to assure me that there is peace beyond the anguish, life beyond death, and love beyond fear. But I know now, at least, that attempting to avoid, repress, or escape the pain is like cutting off a limb that could be healed with proper attention.”
Our brokenness reveals something about who we are. It reveals our uniqueness as no two people suffer alike. That is why it is a privilege when someone shares their pain with another.
Nouwen also says, “Instinctively we know that the joy of life comes from the ways in which we live together and the pain of life comes from the ways that we fail to do that well.
When we show our wounds we are demonstrating that we are willing to fight the battle against isolation. And we demonstrate That entering into the Kingdom of God is not something that we do alone. Without showing our wounds we risk the danger of being cacti in a desert rather than trees in a forest. Storing up water for ourselves, prickly to the touch unable to provide shade for anyone, let alone ourselves. Perhaps the greatest danger is that without showing our wounds, who will believe?
If Thomas shows us anything, it is through Jesus’ willingness to show his wounds that he believes. Thomas doesn't need to poke and prod anymore, he just needs to witness the humility of our savior, caring for his sheep. This passage isn't really about Thomas or the disciples but it is about Jesus always willing to meet the needs of his sheep. And as followers of Jesus we are sent out to care for the sheep, and to show our wounds as Christ did.
What I do not want to propose is redemptive suffering, meaning that redemption or salvation occurs when God causes us to suffer. Nor am I saying that one should remain in an abusive relationship so that God may bring some good in it, or that the broken relationships from addiction are a result of a masochist God. Rather, when we have experienced suffering of any kind, when the wounds have healed, will you be willing to show it? Will you be willing to move towards another, in the fullness of your human self, so that God may be witnessed?
It's not that we are wounded to be saved but that we are willing to show the humility of Jesus. We are willing to be fully human instead of hiding ourselves, no matter where the nails and spears have pierced or where the whips have landed.
In Catholicism, One of the greatest gifts that a saint is said to receive is the stigmata. If you look at an illustration of St. Francis for example, you will notice that he has the marks of the crucifixion on his body. He was never on a cross, and yet his hands and feet and side are scarred like Jesus. The thought being that when one receives the stigmata they can experience the suffering of Christ for the conversion of sinners. So that when an individual looks upon the marks of Jesus on the saint, people will come to belief.
Friends, each of us has experienced suffering, we do not need literal marks to reveal that. But how can you, and I, share our wounds with another. How can we, like Jesus, humble ourselves and share our story to meet the needs of belief for another. To help them move from unbelief to belief, from unfaith to faith? It is not in shining ourselves up, or pretended that we have it all together, but in the real ness of our lived humanity.
At the end of Christian Wiman’s book he concludes with the same poem that he began with, through his journey from unbelief to belief, he ends as he started, kind of like Thomas and the gospel of John
My God my bright abyss
Into which all my longing will not go
Once more I come to the edge of all I know
And believing nothing believe in this.
As you may notice, it is exactly the same, with one nearly imperceptible change. It ends with a period instead of a colon. It ends in a period.
Wiman no longer searches for the perfect image to characterize belief. He recognizes that the beauty of the poem is that it ends there. Insufferably infinite.
And this could mean a lot of things, but what if it means this, that instead of speaking about our belief it is time to show it. What if the period marks the point where we point to our own humanity as evidence of our risen Lord?
It is time to follow Jesus’ example show our nail scarred hands, the piercing of our feet, and expose the gape in our sides. It is time to recognize that God is revealed in Christ’s wounds, his humanity, as his followers our wounds are our strength, our wounds are cause for belief. We just have to be willing, as Jesus was to show them.
Matthew 28:1-10 April 16, 2017
In many ways I still carry around the summer of 1991. It was a memorable time for me. Some of my experiences back then left their mark, but today one experience in particular comes to mind; the death of my grandfather, Walter “Tee-Pot” Frye. Now truth be told, and this is not easy to admit, I had not been the grandson I wanted to be in the months leading up to his death. The thing is, I didn’t know how to handle standing by as cancer reduced this larger than life hero of mine to a mere mortal. So I stayed away. Maybe other teenagers would do the same as I did, but I wish I had done things differently.
I did end up spending time with Pop, but only after he died and looking back, I believe my desire to be with him is part of the reason I spent so much time with him as he laid in the casket at the Funeral Home. When everyone left the visitation, I stayed. That next morning, I arrived at the Funeral Home before the first employee and patiently waited for the doors to open. As soon as they did, I went directly to the room where Pop laid. I opened the casket (I know, some of you might be thinking how weird, but it was what I needed and it is time I will always cherish) I pulled up a chair and continued right where I had left off the night before. At that point I just wanted to be with him… near him.
I apologized for not being there more often during those last months… He let me know he understood and that it was OK.
I told him over and over and over how much I loved him… He let me know he knew that all along, and that He loved me too.
I told him how much I would miss him… He let me know he would always be around.
I found as much peace and quiet as I could so that I could empty my sorrows to this man I so deeply loved. It was all I could do. No one directed me to do it. No one suggested that I do it. I just did it, and those around me provided the space I needed.
When I read Matthew’s Gospel text for today, I think Mary Magdalene and the other Mary wanted to do something similar when they went to the tomb. You see, Matthew tells us that their reason for being there was simply to look at the tomb. Isn’t this similar to others who simply want to sit alongside a loved one they have just lost. It is as though Matthew wants us to see the heartfelt human side of these women, instead of the side formed by adhering to rules and rituals and customs, like how to properly bury the dead. And while there is nothing wrong with adhering to rules, rituals and customs, Matthew doesn’t focus on them. Instead, he tells us about two women who came to see the tomb. Two women, mourning the loss of one they loved. Two women who simply wanted to be near him. No indication that they brought spices like we find in Mark’s and Luke’s account. What we have with Matthew’s account is two women, mourning a loss by doing what any of us would do… take advantage of any peaceful, quiet moment we can find just to be near our loved one and stay there as long as we can. Maybe they needed some peace and quiet so that they could pour out their sorrow.
Peace and quiet is not exactly what they got when they arrived at the tomb though, is it? Do you remember what happened when they arrived? [Read Matt. 28:2-4]
“And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4 For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men.”
Stunned Guards; and
Messages that the one they are looking for cannot be found here.
In this way, Matthew’s account of Jesus’ graveside scene is clearly the most dramatic of the Gospels, and for this reason some scholars have suggested Matthew added some details to make things a bit more spectacular, but New Testament scholar N.T. Wright says, “For Matthew, standing within a long Jewish tradition in which angels tended to appear at great moments within God’s purposes, this wasn’t a problem.” (NT for Everyone Commentary). We at FBCJ know a little of what N.T. Wright is saying, for we have heard a good bit about Angels appearing since the start of 2017 and like I’ve said before, there seems to be something to this idea of God communicating through Angels or messengers… and this story is no exception.
And while Angels of God always seem to begin their conversations by saying “Don’t be afraid,” how could these women not be afraid? Only days before they
entertained grand visions of the Kingdom of God with Jesus Christ as Lord. Life, when he was with them, had been good in so many ways. Now, though, their life had become anything but those grand visions.
Jesus had been crucified!
The earth upon which they were standing firm shook!
An angel of the Lord appeared and was talking directly to them and told them that the man crucified, the man who three days earlier had died, was actually alive!
How could they not be afraid?
It does appear that all of their fear didn’t evaporate because the text goes on to tell us that they quickly left the tomb with fear and great joy and ran to tell the disciples. As they were running, though, they run into Jesus, who, like the Angel before him, says to the women, “Do not be afraid.” Maybe because Jesus said it this time “Do Not be afraid” had its desired effect. Or maybe it was the fact that this man, once dead was now alive and saying it, but no matter what, Jesus saying “Do not be afraid” worked as this is the last anyone speaks of fear in the Gospel.
When Jesus says, “Do not be afraid,” he is making a clear statement that “the end” is not what Mary Magdalene and the other Mary originally thought. For them, the earthquake and the resurrection are clear signs that the end was upon them so surely, they wondered about the end. What kind of end would it be? For them… For those who deserted Jesus. What about the one who denied Jesus or those who were powerless to do anything but look on at the horrific crucifixion? Isn’t it safe to assume they wondered if Jesus’ blood shed would be a judgment against them? Doesn’t this make their fear more understandable?
The Good News though, is that just like countless other times, Jesus finds Mary Magdalene and the other Mary. He finds them, not the other way around. They were told they would find him in Galilee, but Jesus found them on the path they were actually traveling. And while Jesus finding them on the way is part of the Good News, there is more… this time fear lost its grip, and freedom took its place.
As more and more followers of “The Way” (those earliest followers of Jesus were not called Christians, they were known as followers of The Way) came to recognize the risen Christ, they experienced boldness and freedom of speech like never before. The best way I know to describe such boldness and freedom is by saying their security came from the inside out. They were not afraid of people who scoffed at their claims. They were not afraid of authorities who ordered them to stop speaking of Jesus. They were free from what the neighbors thought about them and free from what the established power structure could do to them.
What might that kind of freedom mean for you? How might it change the way you listen? How it might it change the way you pass a stranger? Would Freedom like that change anything about you?
The Freedom those early followers of Jesus experienced in his resurrection changed everything about their lives, especially in the ways they dealt with those trying to harm them. You see after Christ’s resurrection those first disciples were often in harm’s way. They were oftentimes threatened, but the threat no longer owned them. Another’s power over them was no longer all that they knew about themselves. In Christ’s resurrection, they discovered that even after all their mistakes… even after all their cowardly and foolish ways… even after all their fear led to statements of un-belief, Jesus came back to them. Jesus found them and when he did he let them know they no longer had to be afraid, and they believed him.
We see this just a few weeks after the resurrection, on the Day of Pentecost, when Peter and the others were warned by the authorities to stop preaching about Jesus. These same disciples, who had denied him and hidden away for their own self-preservation, now boldly proclaimed the resurrection…even in the face of deadly threats by the religious and governmental authorities.
In his resurrection, Jesus let them know that God is no enemy.
In his resurrection, Jesus became the clearest example of true Love, which is never about self and always about the other.
In his resurrection, Jesus showed everyone that this true Love is God’s very essence!
Like Mary Magdalene and the other Mary who came to the tomb looking for Jesus without actually finding him, the resurrected Christ found them and from that moment on, they, and all who followed Jesus, were never the same. They were bold and they were free because if Jesus was alive they believed anything was possible. Can’t you just feel the hope in someone who comes to believe that anything is possible?
Having an experience that leaves you with such hope must be life changing and maybe some of you have had similar life changing moments. While some may have experienced good moments, say a wedding or the birth of a child or grandchild, others may have been not so good, like a serious illness or the death of someone you loved deeply. No matter good or bad, such moments leave us changed and cause us to ask different questions, and quite possibly rearrange priorities.
The thing is, even though our world and its reality is far different from the first century world, people are still people. Life changing moments are still life changing moments and odds are the change brought into your life was not to decide to fill every waking hour with more and more activity. I suspect the change was more like making sure what you did really counted for something worthwhile, meaningful and lasting.
That is what Easter does for us. It energizes us! The Bible tells us that the women left the tomb filled with a mixture of fear and joy, and that they “ran” to tell the others. I’ll bet they ran! They could not be held back. They had “Good News” and could not wait to tell the others.
My Mom has told me a story numerous times about something that happened shortly before my Pop passed away. Cancer had eaten away and left him unable to do anything but lay on the hospital bed Hospice setup in his home. He wasn’t eating or drinking and was unable to speak. But before this time I believe he and my Mom had discussed death, and Pop had even shared some of his fears with her. A few years ago, while my own Dad could still communicate with me, he shared similar fears with me, and I pray I experience something similar to what my Mom experienced with her Dad.
As Pop laid in that hospital bed, a mere skeleton of himself, surrounded by my Mema, my Mom and my Aunt Dayl, he sat up. While sitting up he looked at each of them individually, but looking at them was only part of the story. It was the look of unspeakable joy that consumed him that my Mom remembers. He smiled from ear to ear as he spent those last moments looking at his wife and two of his daughters. As my Mom said, whatever he was seeing made him joyful and let us know that he was joyful about that next step. I would have loved being there to see with my own eyes, but the truth of the matter is I find great comfort in knowing it happened. Much like I find great comfort, great joy, in knowing that Christ’s resurrection happened. There is unbelievable freedom in this knowing. It is a freedom that calls me to respond with boldness. It is a freedom to believe in blessings and to believe that all of us are worthy of those blessings.
So as we leave here today, on this glorious Easter day may we truly experience this freedom. May it change us in the most positive, loving way possible and may we find everlasting joy as we follow The Way of the Risen Christ!
John 11: 1-45
Death has been on my mind this past week. Maybe it was the two funerals I attended. The first celebrating the well-lived life of Mrs. Eva Kochuba, the mother of our own Jewell Miller, and the best banana pudding maker, so I am told. The second celebrating another well lived life, that of Mr. Charles W. Patterson, III, known by most as Charlie, who told Chris Paul (the former Wake Forest Basketball All-American and current NBA All-Star, that he Charlie was the original CP3. Or maybe it is the realization that there is a good chance I will only step foot in my Mema & Pop’s house one more time as my Mom and her sisters signed a contract to sell their home, which just happens to be their childhood home.
Then as I drove to work one morning listening to a morning radio show, the following question was asked, “if you could know when you were going to die, would you want to know?” It is an interesting question, isn’t it? Maybe not the death part, but what about seeing into the future. Would any of you like to have that ability? I suspect some of you said yes rather quickly… a gut reaction as they say, but when you really stop to think about this idea, this concept, would you really want to see into your future?
The very idea intrigues most of us. It has even served as the plot for numerous movies and TV shows over time. I think of movies like the Back to the Future series, and TV shows like the series Heroes. I’m certain you can add to my list.
As for this TV series Heroes, I had not even heard of it until just a couple of years ago when Jacob received seasons one through three as a Christmas gift. Although he didn’t stay interested through much of the series, Amy and I really got into it. For those who have not heard of this show, the basic plot is that ordinary people discover they have superhuman powers, and most of them try to work together to prevent catastrophic future events.
One “Hero” caught my attention early on. We were first introduced to him in his native country of Japan where he was an office worker for a large corporation. We would later find out that his father owned the large corporation and he was the intended heir apparent, even though others seemed to only see him as a young affable childlike figure. This young man, aptly named Hiro Nakamura, possessed the ability of time-space manipulation. In other words, he could teleport himself wherever and into whatever past, or future era he desired. For instance, while traveling on a train in Japan he saw an advertisement for a vacation in New York and in an instant, he was teleported to NYC. While in NYC he witnessed a huge explosion, but before the blast reached him, he used his power and returned to the same train he was on when he first saw the advertisement.
Bound by his internal calling to do good, Hiro decides he must save the world by preventing that explosion. Believing this to be his true calling Hiro does everything he can to prevent it. At times, he jumps into the future to learn as much as he can about why the explosion happened, only to jump back into the past to try and change the future. All his efforts take a toll on Hiro and his health. It is as though each harmful event he witnesses opens another door into the world of IFS. If I jump into the past, then I can make sure bad things don’t happen… If I jump into the future and learn all I can, then I can jump back into the past and make sure the bad things don’t happen… If this, then that. You get the point.
A major problem with the “if-then” mindset is that it makes no room for the present. No room to experience all that is in front of you. It does not allow you to take it all in, both the good and the not so good. The “IFS” bind us to the past or the future, never letting us live in the present. Yet I know saying “IF” always seems so easy, doesn’t it?
As all of us know, if-then logic, in all its forms, dominates human society so we should not be surprised to find it in many stories in our Bible. Take today’s Gospel story, first Martha greets Jesus by saying, (v.21) “Lord, IF you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Then comes Mary, who like her sister greets Jesus with the same words. Mary (v. 32) says “Lord, IF you had been here, my brother would not have died.” This might suggest that even before Jesus’ arrival the sisters had discussed his absence and what it would have meant IF Jesus had showed up earlier. The thing is, after receiving this type of greeting for a second time, our text says Jesus was disturbed in spirit and deeply moved, but a more accurate translation is that Jesus was frustrated or maybe even angered.
So what was frustrating Jesus? Why was he angry and at whom? The fact of the matter is none of us knows for sure but the commentaries say Jesus was angry because everyone was crying. These same commentaries conclude the tears meant no one had faith in him. The problem with that idea is the very next moment where we find Jesus weeping.
What if Jesus wept for the whole world while simultaneously weeping tears for his beloved friends Martha and Mary in their grief?
What if Jesus wept tears over the loss of his friend Lazarus? Tears for the frailty of life and the randomness with which it ends.
What if Jesus wept because no one seemed to understand what he was saying… No one seemed to understand what his very life was all about. How could they believe him, believe in his life and his Good News if they could not understand why he lived in the first place?
What if Jesus wept over the enormity of his own life and mission?
What if Jesus wept because of what he had been given to do and how alone he was?
We are forever talking about how compassionate Jesus was, so isn’t it, at least, possible Jesus wept tears because of that very compassion? I don’t know about you, but Jesus weeping out of compassion for God’s Beloved, resonates with me. It is how I like to imagine Jesus, and you want to know something, it fits perfectly with the way Jesus is described throughout all the Gospels. From my viewpoint, this is the Gospel in Action because I believe wholeheartedly that Jesus weeps when we weep.
Here’s the thing, I don’t believe this out of ignorance. I believe it because this is always how Jesus is presented. He weeps because he so deeply cares. He weeps because those before him want to greet him by saying “If you had been here…” and what he wants them to know is that his very presence changes their “IFS”
to God’s “WHEN.” It is not IF he shows up, it is WHEN.
Never should we start a conversation with Jesus by saying “IF you get here.” We should instead say “WHEN you get here” because just like last week, Jesus ALWAYS goes looking. Martha and Mary are bound by their past ideas of what Jesus could, or would, have done “IF” only he had arrived earlier. Yet Jesus is showing them that their “IFS” are better understood as God’s “WHENS.”
When it comes to faith it never really is about “IFS.” That would put everything on us, and that is just not how God, or God incarnate works. In this story, where Jesus receives the message from Martha and Mary about Lazarus’ sickness and proceeds to wait two days before traveling two more days, we are offered a chance to see that life is never about “IF” God shows up. True life is focused on “WHEN” God shows up, and “WHEN” we recognize God’s presence. Don’t get me wrong here, recognizing “WHEN” God shows up is no easy task. Not for us today, and clearly not for those who lived long ago.
God always shows up. Isn’t that what the un-named Samaritan woman at the well would say?
Isn’t that what the man born blind would say?
Isn’t that what Lazarus and Martha and Mary would say?
This does not mean though that death does not still happen because the fact of the matter is we all die. No matter how strongly we pray for healing and long life… no matter how glad we are when those prayers are answered… the fact remains that we all must die and facing that fact may be the most difficult of tasks. Like Martha and Mary, we plead to some power to protect us from it. Like Jesus, we weep because of the overwhelming nature of our sadness and anger at it. We simply don’t know how to make sense of it. Yet we long to make sense of it all as though knowing why, when, and how we die… knowing where death fits in the divine economy of things, would somehow make our sadness and anger go away. IF only I had more information… IF only I knew what the future holds… IF only you were with me… Lord, IF only you were here!
It is not explanations we want, at least not for themselves; it is the security and sense of control those explanations might give us. Tell us why, God, and maybe we can offer a convincing argument why not. Tell us why, and maybe we can be so outraged by the answer that we decide to reject it and manufacture answers of our own. Tell us anything we can handle, tinker with, control, but do not ask us just to believe-believe what? That everything will be all right. How, exactly? Just all right. Will I still be me? It will be all right. Please, God, give us something we can work with, something we can hold on to. Do not ask us to step out into the air without a net.
It is the ancient, ancient cry of the human heart: Why me, why this, why now? Don’t you care that we perish? Give us something to hold on to! My God, my God, why have you forsaken us?
They are strong words, strong questions to ask the ruler of the universe, but they are the truth of how we feel when we cannot make sense of what happens to us, when we are not given a reason. We feel abandoned, forsaken, but because the patriarchs and prophets and even Jesus himself has joined us in these words and feelings, they are not something we must hide. To have faith in God, to have faith that we are in good hands, to have faith that whether or not we understand it, the universe makes sense- that is the hardest choice any of us must ever make. To decide it is all true is to step out into the air without a net, because we have no proof, no evidence, nothing but the adamant witness of our own hearts that it is so. We simply give up the illusion that we are in control of our lives and step out. Which is why, perhaps, it is called a leap of faith.
At Charlie Patterson’s funeral this past Friday, the entire family wore lapel pins that contained the word EGBAR. EGBAR was one of Charlie’s favorite sayings so he created these pins and would pass them out to people he met. I’m not sure when he started doing it or even why, but I wonder if Charlie instinctively knew how much people worry. Worry about the past and the future. Worry about making the right career choices, the right life choices.
I do know this, Charlie was wise. He had accomplished and experienced a lot during his life. Knowing this makes me think people saw Charlie as someone who had been there before… someone who could be believed when they said EVERYTHING’s GONNA BE ALL RIGHT!
Even in his death Charlie’s message was still reverberating, EGBAR, “EVERYTHING’S GONNA BE ALL RIGHT!” Maybe Charlie learned this message from Jesus because this is exactly what he was trying so hard to teach. And while Lazarus’ death and resurrection can be seen as foreshadowing Jesus’ own death and resurrection, in both instances Jesus was teaching that EVERYTHING’S GONNA BE ALL RIGHT.
Maybe we can’t know for sure and maybe that is OK. I for one find great hope in EGBAR. I find I need to hear those words constantly. [EGBAR]
They reassure me;
They let me know that I do not need to be like Hiro Nakamura and jump in and out of the future and the past in attempting to figure out the present;
They reassure me that God hears my IFS, but desperately wants me to know that the truth of the matter is not IF, it is WHEN.
The Gospel in Action turns our IFS into God’s WHEN because it is never IF God shows up. It is WHEN God shows up. This is the best reassurance of all and it is why people of faith can claim boldly EGBAR!
 Barbara Brown Taylor, Mixed Blessings