Tuesday, June 28, 2011

A Welcome Reward (sermon, June 26, 2011)

Matthew 10:40-42

As lectionary passages go, today’s reading from Matthew is confusing, in part because it essentially drops us in on the last two minutes of an hour-long speech. For the whole of chapter 10, Jesus has been talking to his disciples. Finally, after following him and witnessing all that Jesus can do, the disciples are sent out on their own to start spreading the good news of the gospel in word and in deed.

That’s the good news Jesus delivers at the beginning of chapter 10 - he empowers his followers to do God’s work. The rest of the chapter, up until these three final verses we read, is the bad news.

The disciples will get to do this important work but they won’t get paid, they can’t take any supplies, and they can pretty much count on being arrested Wait, there’s more!This work that they are doing will turn family members against each other and create huge rifts in their own families.

Finally, Jesus tells them, only those who love him above everything else in their lives, only those willing to take up their cross and follow him, are worthy of him.

Then come today’s three verses, which sound downright pithy in light of everything that has come before: whoever welcomes you welcomes me and the one who sent me.

Of all the disturbing things about this chapter of Matthew, this verse might be the most disturbing of all, for in it, Jesus makes one thing perfectly clear: when Jesus’ disciples go out into the world to do gospel work, the people they interact with will not just encounter the disciples, they will encounter Jesus. And when people encounter Jesus, they encounter God.

Last week, the Boston Bruins beat the Vancouver Canucks in the seventh game of a seven-game series to win the National Hockey League championship known as the Stanley Cup. To add insult to injury, the Bruins beat the Canucks, not in Boston, but on the Canucks’ home rink in Vancouver.

But the big news story the next day wasn’t the Canucks’ loss; it was the appalling behavior of some disappointed Vancouver fans. First a few bottles were thrown, then some fistfights broke out, then flames erupted when a car was set on fire. Rocks were thrown, windows were broken, more cars were set ablaze, the ER of a local hospital was over-run with patients.

It was terribly embarrassing to the city of Vancouver. One Canadian who lives in Vancouver, but isn’t a native, noticed that many Vancouver natives were “desperate to convince others that the rioters were not ‘real’ Vancouverites.”

Associating with groups -- sports teams, schools, religions -- is a natural human tendency. What’s also natural is that when members of that group do things we don’t approve of, we tend to want to exclude them from the group: those weren’t “real” Vancouverites who started those riots; those weren’t “real” Ohio State football players who sold memorabilia; those weren’t “real” Americans who took part in the anti-war rallies; those weren’t “real” Christians who participated in the Crusades.

Whether consciously or unconsciously we know that when we identify ourselves with a group, the behavior of other members of the group reflects on us -- and our behavior reflects on them. (1) But what Jesus is saying goes beyond this -- when his disciples go out to do his work, they don’t just represent him, they are him.

Not long ago, the actor Michael Douglas appeared on Oprah. He talked a bit about his father, the actor Kirk Douglas, and he shared this story:

Dad called me the other night. He said, "Michael, I was watching myself in an old movie earlier tonight and I didn't remember making it."

"Well, Dad, you made 75 movies and you are 94. Don't be so rough on yourself."

"No, Michael, you didn't let me finish. I realized halfway through that I was watching one of your movies."(2)

Pachomius was a man who lived in Egypt in the fourth century. He was one of a group of people kidnapped by roving gangs and sent down the Nile River to work as a slave for the Roman army. The group was imprisoned in the city of Thebes. When Christians in Thebes heard about the prisoners, they brought them food and water. In the hospitality extended to him by Christ’s followers, Pachomius experienced Christ. Eventually, he converted to Christianity and became a leader of a monastic movement. (3)

Will Willimon has served as the bishop of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church for several years now. One of the churches he oversees is Highland United Methodist Church in one of Birmingham’s trendy downtown neighborhoods. Highland began a series of ministries to the homeless people in the area, feeding them and providing them access to washers, dryers, and post office boxes. The ministry has expanded to the point where the church has actually hired homeless people to run the ministries.

But one Highlands member, who actually lamented out loud that her once-beautiful church looked like a city bus stop, went around to local merchants and got them to oppose the church’s ministry to the homeless. A front-page article in the local paper detailed their complaints.

In response, Willimon wrote an op-ed piece to the same paper that said, “I love it when the United Methodist Church makes front-page news not for losing members or fighting over some social issue, but for being the church and doing what Jesus commanded us to do.” (4)

When the church reaches out to the world, it doesn’t just represent Jesus -- it is Jesus. It is God to a world that knows little of the ways of God. When the church does this, when we do this, people encounter the living God.

And this means that the work we do is serious business, because it is God’s work.

Matthew’s gospel isn’t easy, because our faith isn’t easy. Last week, we looked at the Beatitudes and discovered that the first step on the path of discipleship is admitting our need for God. Once we’ve done that, there are all kinds of new laws that Jesus actually seems to want us to follow -- like if anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer him the other to hit; if someone takes your coat, give him the shirt off your back as well. If your hand causes you to sin then cut it off. And now here -- when we go out into the world, people who encounter us encounter Jesus and God.

No pressure.

But if we look at the rest of these verses, maybe there is a way we can understand our call to be God in the world that we won’t find completely paralyzing to our life of faith. After informing us that we are Jesus to those we meet, Jesus goes on to say that, “whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple--truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”

“Whoever gives even a cup of cold water...”

I can do that. And so can you.

A cup of cold water to someone who is thirsty is all it takes. A gesture this simple is the work of discipleship. Sure, what the Highland church in Birmingham did for the homeless in its neighborhood was wonderful, but our actions don’t have to be that grand. And yes, reaching out to someone who became a leader of a monastic movement is pretty cool, but we don’t have to hit a home run to be Jesus. Giving a cup of cold water to someone in need is all it takes for someone to encounter Jesus, to encounter God. After all, Matthew’s gospel is also the one where Jesus tells the parable that ends, “When you did this for the least of these, you did it for me.”

Last week, as I stood outside the sanctuary door about to go into worship, Frank walked in. I met Frank a few weeks ago. He came to the church looking for help and we helped him. Last Sunday morning he was distraught. The friends he’d been living with had kicked him out and he had slept on the streets. Could we help him again? I welcomed him to the church, invited him to stay for worship and said I’d talk to him afterward.

But I’ll admit: I spent the whole church service trying to figure out what I was going to do. Here I was, preaching a sermon on the Beatitudes of all things, and there was a man -- obviously aware of his need for God -- waiting right outside the sanctuary doors for some help from Jesus’ disciples in this church. And I couldn’t figure out how to help him turn his life around.

Well, it turns out I wasn’t the only one trying to figure out what to do...two members of our church stayed with Frank during the service and finally decided that they had to do something for him. So they fixed him a bag of food from our pantry and scraped together a few bucks from their pockets and Frank thanked them and left. But still, they were worried. Had they done the right thing?

When they asked me that question, my response was this: when he came into this church Frank experienced people who cared, people who helped him however they could. Was a bag of food and a few bucks enough to turn his life around? Probably not. But in their hospitality, Frank experienced the love of God. Frank encountered Jesus.

The journey of discipleship is sometimes confusing, often disturbing, and always mysterious. Today’s passage is all of these things. When we encounter people in need, all of whom are God’s children, we are Jesus to them. We are God. It’s an overwhelming responsibility, to be sure, except when we remember that all God calls us to do is extend the smallest gesture of kindness. A cup of cold water turns out to contain more than enough of God’s love.

1. Ryan Dueck, “Real ______ Would Never Do That!”, June 20, 2011.
2. retold by Alyce McKenzie in her commentary on this passage
3. This story was retold by Paul Galbreath in his book Leading from the Water, Alban, 2011, p. 21.
4. Jason Byassee, “The Bishop’s Dashboard,” The Christian Century, May 31, 2011.

Monday, June 20, 2011

1 Corinthians 1:18-31
Matthew 4:23-5:12

What pictures do you carry with you?
Many of you, I know first-hand, have pictures of your grandchildren
or even great-grandchildren.
But however we keep them -- in our wallets or on our cell phones --
most of us have a picture or two of people we love
that we carry with us all the time.

There’s another picture we carry around, too,
not a physical picture
but one that is just as real
it is a picture of God.

What does your picture of God look like?
A benevolent old man with a white beard
--Santa Claus minus the red suit?
Or maybe in your picture God looks stern
or even angry
God is just waiting for you to mess up.
Maybe your God looks like a young man,
more like we might imagine Jesus.
Or maybe you have a picture that looks nothing like those conventional ideas.

In the book The Shack, God is depicted in several different guises,
but primarily, God looks like a
generously proportioned African American woman
who loves to cook. (1)
For many people, this was shocking, even heretical!
Often we don’t realize what pictures of God
we are carrying around
until we see someone else’s and
discover it is completely different from ours.

You’ve got to figure that’s what happened to the disciples
when Jesus started painting a picture of God and God’s kingdom
that looked completely different than what they had imagined.

The Beatitudes come after Jesus has begun his ministry of healing.
And remember whom he was healing: the sick, demoniacs, epileptics, paralytics.
In a culture that assumed any kind of illness was a punishment for sin
Jesus was practicing a radical ministry to “the least and the lost.”
And then, as if to explain this crazy behavior,
he takes his disciples away from the crowds
and pronounces the highest blessings on the very people
the culture has designated the lowest of the low:
the poor
the grieving
the humble
those trying hard to do the right thing
those who extend mercy to others
those trying to bring peace to a violent world.

The problem for us is that it’s all too easy to hear Jesus’ words
as conditions of our faith.
As in, if only we are
then we will receive the gifts God wants to give us
then we will be blessed.

Well, the good and bad news of the Beatitudes is this:
Jesus isn’t offering us a recipe for earning God’s favor
he is simply telling us who already has it.

The Beatitudes
reveal the fullness
and the mystery
of God’s grace,
a grace which is unconditional
which cannot be earned
and which is showered upon those who least expect it --
who also happen to be the ones our culture thinks
least deserve it.

In Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Revelation,”
Mrs. Turpin is an excessively judgmental woman
who sizes up everyone and everything she sees,
placing them neatly into categories:
white trash
ladies and gentlemen.
At night, she sometimes occupies her mind by
naming the classes of people.
The way she sees it,
so-called “colored people” are at the bottom of the heap
just one step above are the white trash;
above that are the home-owners,
the class to which she and her husband belong;
on top are people with lots of money and bigger houses and land.
What bothers her, though,
is the awareness that things are more complicated than that,
for some people with a lot of money are,
in her eyes, “common”
and some people below her had “good blood.”

In the story, she and her husband enter a doctor’s waiting room
and Mrs. Turpin quickly passes judgment on everyone there.
As time passes, she begins to voice some of these judgments out loud,
until finally, a young college girl who has been reading a textbook
and shooting Mrs. Turpin dirty looks
finally has as much of Mrs. Turpin as she can bear.

Fed up, she hurls the textbook across the room at Mrs. Turpin,
hitting her right above the eye
and then attacks her, strangling her, shouting
“Go back to hell where you came from, you old warthog!”

Ruby Turpin is shaken to the core.
Later that night as she remembers the incident,
wondering why someone would say such a thing to a
good and respectable person like herself,
she sees a vision.

It’s a highway in the sky,
and upon it
“a vast horde of souls were tumbling toward heaven.
There were whole companies of white trash,
clean for the first time in their lives,
and bands of blacks in white robes
and battalions of freaks and lunatics
shouting and clapping and leaping...
And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people who,
like herself and her husband,
had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right.
But as she looked closer at this group,
she could see by their shocked and altered faces that
even their virtues were being burned away. (2)

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Jesus begins his first sermon by turning everything upside-down.

It’s a hard message for the disciples to take in
and it doesn’t get any easier over time.
It’s the same message Paul had to deliver to the church in Corinth
when he wrote to this congregation
that cared an awful lot about social status
who was “in” and who was “out”
Paul informed them that God looked very different than they thought:
“God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise;
God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong;
God chose what is low and despised in the world,
things that are not,
to reduce to nothing things that are,
so that no one might boast in the presence of God.”

The core of this message,
the core of the gospel
is that we are blessed by God
at the very moment when we discover we need God most.

Some have suggested that Matthew’s first Beatitude
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,” really means
Blessed are those who realize their need for God.
Not just the poor who lack material things
but even those of us who have all the “things” we could ever need
and them some
but who recognize that without God
we have nothing of value.

Blessed are those who realize their need for God.
This blessing sets the tone for all the blessings that follow,
but notice there are no Beatitudes,
no blessings
for those who think they can help themselves.

For the last year, Heather Hendrick and her husband and four children
have been serving the people of Haiti.
Recently, they returned home to Texas for the summer.
Except they no longer have a home of their own to go to.
Heather is grateful to be following God’s call to serve the poor,
but at times she struggles mightily with how her life has changed.

“One year ago we were homeowners,” she writes. “[My husband] had a fantastic job. We had two vehicles...We were the ones people called when they needed help. When their car broke down. When they needed a place to stay. Or live. Our house had the extra bedrooms. We were the ones that offered security to others when things fell apart in their lives. They could count on us for meals, a listening ear, to loan them money, to watch their kids at the drop of a hat when an emergency came up...We were the ones with answers. Secure. Steady.

She continues, “...[E]verything....every single thing....about living the life of a "missionary" is uncomfortable. Not just the actual living in Haiti part. In so many ways, I want my old life back...my mortgage payment, [my gas-guzzling car], that feeling of control and that we're responsible. I liked being the givers instead of the takers.” (3)

In his extensive commentary on Matthew,
Dale Bruner calls the first four Beatitudes the “Need Beatitudes.”
Blessed are the poor in spirit
Blessed are those who mourn
Blessed are the meek
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness
These blessings that Jesus pronounces
are “for those who cannot help themselves”
those who have no help apart from God.

What follows these “Need Beatitudes” are what Bruner calls “the Help Beatitudes.”
Blessed are the merciful
Blessed are the pure in heart
Blessed are the peacemakers.
These are the blessings Jesus pronounces
for “those who try to help others”
those who recognize that the only faithful response
to an experience of God’s grace
is to draw alongside others
especially other suffering human beings
and offer them love and support
which is nothing less than what God has commanded us to do.

Finally, Bruner names the last two Beatitudes “the Hurt Beatitudes.”
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you
and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on Jesus’ account.
The Hurt Beatitudes let us know what Heather Hendrick has discovered,
that following Jesus is not going to be easy,
should not be easy.
In fact, being faithful disciples probably means
we are going to end up just like Jesus
In other words,
desperately aware of our need for God. (4)

Which is perhaps not such a bad thing,
because remember: “blessed are those who know their need for God.”

The Beatitudes,
the first sentences of Jesus’ first sermon
reveal to us that following Jesus
is a lifelong endeavor
that looks more like a circle than a straight line.
It is a kind of cycle of faith.
And as soon as we take that first step,
we are somewhere on that cycle.

I like to think of this cycle as a ferris wheel.
Sometimes you’re up, sometimes you’re down.
But you cannot experience the ride if you don’t get on.
And according to Jesus, the cost of this ride
is nothing less than admitting our need for God.
Until we do that, we haven’t really begun to follow him at all.

The Beatitudes are not a recipe for earning God’s favor;
the Beatitudes are a reminder that
in the life and cross and empty tomb of Jesus
God’s favor has already been poured out upon us.
But in order to receive it we have to be willing to admit that we need it
even though needing God’s grace
means we will be required to share it
knowing it will cost us nothing less than what it cost Jesus...
our very lives, given up for the sake of God.


1. Wm. Paul Young, The Shack. Windblown Media, 2011.
2. Flannery O’Connor, The Complete Stories. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1978, p. 508. Thanks to Mark Ramsey in his sermon “Reality” (Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church, Asheville, NC, January 30, 2011) for the connection of this story with these passages.
3. http://allthingshendrick.blogspot.com/2011/06/fever-induced-honesty.html
4. F. Dale Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary, Vol. 1: The Christbook. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004.

Monday, June 13, 2011

God Revealed (sermon, June 12, 2011)

John 20:19-23

A few weeks ago, as I was getting ready to leave the office
I couldn’t find my church keys.
I looked everywhere, but they were gone.
I figured they’d eventually turn up, so at first I didn’t replace them.
The problem was, I kept finding myself
locked out of rooms I needed to get into.
Which got me to wondering...why are churches so obsessed with locks?

At our last property meeting we talked about
installing a new system for the back door
so that it can be unlocked at the touch of a remote button,
rather than having to walk down the hallway.
But wouldn’t it make more sense
just to leave the door unlocked to begin with?

Well, no. If someone is alone in the building, it’s probably just not a good idea
because you just never know who might try to come in...
or why.
But locking the doors of a church ought to be something we do,
at the very least,
with a great deal of reluctance.

The same is true with my office.
Why does it need to be locked?
I have some books in there, sure,
but frankly, I’d be thrilled if you went in
and picked out something to read.
And as far as all the files full of session minutes and financial reports,
well, if you want them, by all means...!

The truth is, although we may have some good reasons for locking our doors,
we often do so at first based on a healthy sense of fear
but eventually, keeping things tightly locked up
becomes an unbreakable habit.

The reason the disciples locked themselves away after Jesus’ death
is quite clear in the text: they were afraid of the authorities --
which is what is meant here by “the Jews” --
so they hid themselves away
in a top floor,
in a back room,
behind a door closed and locked.
Fortunately, no locked door
or flight of steps
or fearful hearts
can keep Jesus away.

That first Easter night,
as the disciples
are ashamed
and confused
and wondering how on earth they are going to go back
to their friends and family
now that Jesus is dead,
Jesus appears to them
gives them peace,
unlocks their hearts,
and offers them a new way forward.
And he does all this with the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Jesus shows the disciples the wounds in his hands and his side
the very marks of the forgiveness
granted to them by his death.
Then, he gives the most astonishing gift of all
He makes them the church.
“He breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

This is the only time this particular Greek word for “breathe”
is used in the New Testament.
It is the same word
used to describe God breathing life into the first human being
in the book of Genesis.
The gift of the Holy Spirit is the gift of new life.

Twenty years ago, Magic Johnson heard words from his doctor
that would change his life forever:
HIV positive.
No one would have been surprised if Magic
had abandoned his career
gone behind closed doors
and hidden away in shame and fear
waiting to die.
Instead he went before television cameras
and told the world about his diagnosis.

It was 1991. There was still a huge stigma surrounding HIV.
But when Magic Johnson called his family
to tell them the news,
they didn’t shame him
or hang up on him
or lock the doors to their houses and hearts
to keep him out of their lives forever.
They booked plane tickets.

This is how Magic remembers it:
“My mom hung up the phone with me and got on a plane to come out here.
My dad got on a plane,
my brothers and sisters got on a plane to come be with me.
My aunts, my cousins--they all were getting on a plane.
That’s love, that’s support,
and that makes a world of difference in how well you fight the virus.
I know that’s a large part of why I’m still here today.” (1)

When we think of Pentecost,
we usually have the story from Acts in mind.
Loud wind...
Flames of fire dancing on people’s heads...
Miraculous ability to speak and understand different languages.

This text from John, the other place where the disciples receive the Holy Spirit
is much more subdued.
Like the Acts passage,
it is also about sending the disciples out
to share the gospel
but in this text we discover the
core of this good news.

It turns out that the gospel isn’t just about
Jesus coming to us,
through our locked doors
to where we are hiding with our shame and fear
and forgiving us.
The gospel is about the gift of the Holy Spirit,
and with the gift of the Holy Spirit
Jesus is entrusting the disciples
entrusting us
with the ministry of forgiveness. (2)

Hugh Hollowell pastors a congregation
largely made up of people who are homeless.
Several years ago, while speaking to a secular audience,
he mentioned that he ran a faith-based organization
which helped homeless people.
In that talk, as an aside,
he used the example of gay marriage as a way
that relationships change how we feel about “the other.”

After the talk, while washing his hands in the bathroom,
a young man stood by the door, staring at him.
After a few seconds, the man spoke.
“Are you gay?” he asked Hollowell.
Hugh told him he was not.
“But homeless people who are gay, you help them, right?”
“Yes, I do,” Hugh answered.
“And you’re a Christian, right?”
The man looked Hollowell in the eye and said,
“I didn’t know you could be a Christian and help gay people.”

Then he explained
how his family had disowned him when he came out to them
how they are very religious
and how, because of them, he no longer wants
anything to do with the church.

“I hate the church,” he said.
“After everything they have done to me and my friends,
I can’t stand their hypocrisy and self-righteous attitude.”

Hollowell said he didn’t blame him a bit.

With tears in both their eyes,
the man hugged Hollowell and thanked him
for being willing to help everybody, including gay people.
He turned to leave, but then stopped and said,
 “You know, it’s strange.
I hate the church.
You can’t pay me to go back there.
But I really miss Jesus.” (3)

With the gift of the Holy Spirit,
God makes us the church.
It is a huge responsibility.
As the church, we can lock people out with our judgments
our hypocrisy
our self-righteous attitude.
Or we can remember the forgiveness Jesus offered us
and we can be the church
by showing people how forgiveness sets us free.

The Greek word for forgiveness used here also means “to set free.”
To forgive someone is to set them free
and to set ourselves free from grudges and anger.
As Lewis Smedes once said,
“When you forgive you set a prisoner free.
And then you discover that the prisoner was you.” (4)

In 1993 Osheah Israel was a teenage gang member.
One night at a party, he got into a fight
that ended when he shot and killed
another teenage boy.
Oshea was sentenced to prison for second-degree murder.

The mother of the boy shot and killed that night is Mary Johnson.
Twelve years after the trial that put Oshea in jail,
Mary went to visit him at Stillwater Prison.
She wanted to see if he was in the same mindset
that she remembered from the trial when she had wanted to hurt
the boy who had killed her boy.

But Oshea wasn’t that same boy.
He was a grown man,
and to her own surprise,
Mary decided to talk to him about her son.

When it was time to go, Mary broke down and started to cry.
In their own words, here’s what happened after Mary broke down:

“The initial thing to do,” said Oshea
“was to just try and hold you up as best you can --
just hug you like I would my own mother.”

“After you left the room,” Mary responded,
“I began to say, ‘I just hugged the man that murdered my son.’
And I instantly knew that all that anger and animosity
all the stuff I had in my heart for twelve years for you,
I knew it was over,
that I had totally forgiven you.”

“Sometimes,” said Oshea,
“I still don’t know how to take it,
because I haven’t totally forgiven myself yet.
It’s something I’m learning from you --
I won’t say I’ve learned it yet --
because it’s still a process that I’m going through.”
“I treat you as I would my own son,” said Mary.
“And our relationship is beyond belief.
We live next door to one another.”

“Yeah,” Oshea said, “so you can see what I’m doing, you know, first hand.
We actually bump into each other all the time
going in and out of the house.”
“Well,” said Mary, “my natural son is no longer here.
I didn’t see him graduate,
now you’re going to college.
I’ll have the opportunity to see you graduate.
I didn’t see him getting married.
Hopefully, one day,
I’ll get to experience that with you.”

“Just to hear you say those things, Mary,
and [for you] to be in my life in the manner you are
is my motivation.
You still believe in me.
And the fact that you can do it
despite how much pain I caused you
it’s amazing.”

“Oshea, I know it’s not an easy thing
to be able to share our story together.
Even with us sitting here looking at each other right now,
I know it’s not an easy thing.
So I admire that you can do this.”
“I love you, lady.”
“I love you, too, son.” (5)

Jesus has given us the Holy Spirit which, it turns out, is not only the key
which unlocks the doors to the church
so that all may be welcomed in,
It is also the key to unlocking the doors to our hearts
that we might receive and extend
God’s most precious gift: forgiveness.

1. Allison Samuels, “Magic Johnson: I Survived.” Newsweek, May 16, 2011, pp. 64-5.
2. Craig Barnes, “Crying Shame,” The Christian Century. April 6, 2004, p. 19.
3. Hugh Hollowell, “The Gift of Tears,” on the Red Letter Christians weblog.
4. quoted in Craig Barnes' article referenced above
5. Heard on NPR’s StoryCorps project. Listen and read more here.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Heavenward (sermon for confirmation Sunday, June 5, 2011)

Acts 1:6-14

For those of you who have managed to stay away
from the social networking site Facebook,
let me take a moment to explain one of Facebook’s many idiosyncracies:
the “Like” button.

People on Facebook can post something called a status update,
which lets their friends know what they are doing
or thinking
or reading
or taking pictures of
at any given moment.
And when their friends read this status update
or browse through the pictures
or take a look at the recommended website,
they can click on the word “like.”
Then everyone who sees the update will see how many people “liked” it.
Once one person “likes” an update,
there’s even a cute little thumbs-up sign under the it
that tracks the number of people who have “liked” it.

As cool as this may sound
there is at least one person who thinks
all this “liking” is not a good thing.

Writer Johnathan Franzen is concerned about the way Facebook has
transformed “the verb ‘to like’ from a state of mind
to an action that you perform with your computer mouse.”
His bigger concern is that this reveals a tendency in our culture
to substitute an easy kind of liking for the more difficult task of loving.

To like something, on Facebook or otherwise,
is to keep a certain distance from it.
Liking is, by and large, a positive feeling.
Love, on the other hand, costs us. It is messy and complicated.
To love someone is to become vulnerable, to risk getting dirty.
Love, writes Franzen,
“is about bottomless empathy,
born out of the heart’s revelation
that another person is every bit as real as you are.” (1)

Without a doubt,
the words and actions of Jesus reveal that he was a man
who loved deeply and suffered all the painful consequences of love.

Seeking out the lonely and the lost,
calling his followers to leave family and secure jobs,
preaching a message of uncompromising demands:

Love your enemies
Turn the other cheek
Bless those who persecute you...

Jesus may not have known much about the superficial, Facebook style of “liking”
but he knew all there is to know about
what author Alice Sebold describes as
“getting down in the pit and loving somebody.” (2)

And Jesus wasn’t afraid to tell his followers that
they were called to do the very same thing.

After all, Jesus was no superhero of love.
He wasn’t even superhuman.
Jesus was the fullest expression of what a human being could be
and how a human being can love.

This particular story from Acts, though, of Jesus ascending into heaven,
certainly reinforces the superhero image.

If you go to the Holy Land, you can visit the
Chapel of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives.
You can go right up to the place where there is a foot-like depression in a rock,
said to be the exact spot from which Christ left the disciples
and disappeared into the sky on a cloud.
That footprint reinforces this image of Jesus the Superhero,
springing away from the earth with such force that
the very rock under his foot would forever bear the scars! (3)

With this image in mind, can any of us blame the disciples for standing there,
heads craned up
necks tilted back
mouths hanging open
watching their Lord disappear into the sky?
With this image in mind, can anyone blame us
for the persistent myth in our faith and in our culture
that heaven is somewhere up there...
somewhere in the direction of the sky where
the disciples last saw our beloved Savior?

That is where we tend to think of heaven, right?
Somewhere up there.
Of course, in our scientific age, we all know that heaven isn’t really “up there”
any more than hell is somewhere “down below.”
We have accepted that the earth is round, after all,
so that way of thinking just doesn’t work any more.

But still, polls show that nine out of ten Americans believe in heaven
and 85 percent think that they will go there when they die.

As Tom Long puts it,
“In sober moments of reflection,
our culture may find talk of heaven implausible,
but in moments of need, it finds
the hope of heaven irresistible.” (4)

So what if this passage really isn’t about the geographical location of heaven,
but something else entirely?

When the disciples are caught staring dumbly up in the sky,
the men in white tell them,
“This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven,
will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
What is that supposed to mean, anyway?
Theologian Christopher Morse has carefully considered
all the biblical evidence for heaven,
and he comes to the conclusion that
heaven is “not about blue skies or life only after death,”
but that heaven is coming toward us even now from God,
heaven is God coming to us,
“God’s unbounded love breaking in to every situation,
stronger than any loss, even death.
We don’t go to heaven; heaven comes to us.” (5)

It is so tempting for us to read this story in Acts
and conclude that the ascension is a one of a kind moment
that has nothing to do with our every day lives.
Like the disciples, we might stand in awe for a few moments
and then we walk away, shaking our heads,
feeling more than a little confused about
what in the world all of this means.

Confirmation and baptism represent the same temptation.

It’s a festive day, for sure.
It feels like a one of a kind moment set apart from the rest of our lives.

We are here to celebrate with these eight young people
who have worked hard all year
spent time in prayer
labored over faith statements
and ultimately decided to join our church
by professing their faith and being baptized
or renewing their baptismal vows.

It’s a festive day, but one that is all too tempting to leave behind
-- kind of like the ascension --
because, let’s face it,
it just doesn’t seem to have much to do with
life beyond these four walls.

If confirmation was a Facebook status update,
sure, we’d all “like” it...
but “liking” confirmation,
would be about the equivalent of “friending” Jesus,
which is in the end about keeping him at arm’s length,
letting him see just the parts of our day to day lives that we choose to share.

At the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver, British Columbia
there is a baptismal font which is a statue of
“a standing male figure,
looking rather stern and
dressed in a long, bluish-grey robe,
[holding] up a black bowl of water.”

An inscription nearby reads:
“[This statue was once] used as a baptismal font in a church
but was removed when children were frightened by it.” (6)

Whoever carved that statue surely knew
that baptism is by no means just a festive occasion;
it is a symbol of death.
Confirmation is not so different.
Today is not just a day to celebrate, it is the beginning of new life for
Megan and Ryan, Jacob and Dallas, Matthew and Tyler, Alex and Cory.
And new life can only begin after death.
Beginning today,
we are calling these young people in our church to
live every moment and every day differently than before.

“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you,”
says Jesus, “and you will be my witnesses to the ends of the earth.”

That is what the ascension is about,
that is what confirmation and baptism are about:
this promise that when Jesus goes away from us
that’s when the Holy Spirit is going to come
and give us the same kind of power Jesus had.
The power to love.
The power to bring God’s love into every situation.
The power to make heaven real, here and now.

Kate Braestrup’s kids were playing in the backyard
when her cousin George used gasoline to try and ignite a pile of brush.
The gasoline exploded into a fireball that badly burned
all three of them.
In a panic, Braestrup got them into the car
and started driving to the hospital while calling 911 on her cell phone.

Braestrup writes that
“George was cursing and crying because his burns hurt
and because he knew that the fire
that had injured these children was his mistake, his fault.
He was the adult who had decided to use gasoline to start the fire,
and his was the hand that struck the match.
“Are they breathing?” the dispatcher said,
and I held up the cell phone.
George, beside me in the passenger seat, said,
“Oh my God. Oh hell. I am so sorry. I am so sorry.”
Zach was sitting behind him in the backseat.
In the middle of his own loud litany of “Oh God” and “Oh hell,”
Zach leaned forward.
He reached out with his burned arm,
an arm blistering and shredding before my eyes,
and put his burned hand on George’s shoulder.
“It’s all right, George,” he said. “We love you.”

If you are living in love,” writes Braestrup,
“you are in heaven no matter where you are.” (7)

Heaven is here now,
not in some far-off place where Jesus flew off to
above the gaze of the astonished disciples,
not in some far-off future
that doesn’t have anything to do with today.

Likewise, these young people are not the future of the church,
and we do them and ourselves a disservice
if we think of them just this way.
They are the church...here, now, today,
and they are not the church by themselves
but with the rest of us, all here together.

Together, as Christ’s church, we are here to make love real,
to push past the superficial “liking” and “friending”
that we can do with a click of a computer mouse
and get down into the pit where real love happens,
a pit that looks a lot like everyday life.

And when we live together in that kind of love,
when we let that kind of love loose in a hurting and needy world,
no matter how messy and painful it may be,
no matter how much it might cost us,
we might just get the clearest glimpse of heaven
we will ever see.

1. Jonathan Franzen, “Liking Is for Cowards. Go for What Hurts.” The New York Times, May 28, 2011. Online here.
2. Ibid.
3. Wesley Hill, “Ascension Theology, by Douglass Farrow” (book review), The Christian Century, May 13, 2011.
4. Tom Long, “Heaven Comes to Us,” The Christian Century, April 25, 2011.
5. Ibid.
6. Paul Galbreath, Leading through the Water. The Alban Institute, 2011.
7. Kate Braestrup, Here If You Need Me. Back Bay Books, 2008.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Uncommon Ground (sermon, May 29, 2011)

Acts 17:22-31

A few weeks before Easter this year, a church in California paid $5,000 to run a 30-second ad in a local movie theater. But after previewing the commercial, the theater refused to run the ad and returned the church’s money. The ad, they claimed, was too controversial...because it mentioned Jesus.

The senior pastor of the church said, “They told us the ad looked great, it looked nice. It’s just that we couldn’t put the name of Jesus in the ad.”

The agency for the theater claimed that some of their constituents might be offended. It gave the church the opportunity to revise the ad to meet the theaters guidelines, but the church declined.

“We were told we could promote our Easter services with a commercial that featured the date, time, and place [of the service] with some fun bunnies and eggs thrown in,” said the pastor. (1)

Apparently, Jesus, a man whose life of love led to the cross, a man who came back from the dead, isn’t something everyone can relate to. The folks who owned that movie theater were afraid that the life, death, and especially the resurrection of Jesus were just too controversial.

If someone took a stroll through our city or our church or -- God forbid! -- our houses, what would these places reveal about our fears? Locked doors reveal our fear of strangers and theft. Hospitals and first aid kits and medicine cabinets and hand sanitizer everywhere reveal our fear of injury and illness. Banks and offering plates and retirement accounts reveal our fear of poverty and not having enough. Grocery stores and pantries and nonperishable foods reveal our fear of hunger. And each one of these things, in one way or another, reveals our fear of death. (2)

From Athens to Akron, things haven’t changed all that much.

Paul looks around Athens, the center of intellectual sophistication, and everywhere he looks he sees signs of people’s fear...which is to say that everywhere he looks he sees idols. The Athenians were so smart that they not only had idols to all the known Greek and Roman gods, they even had an altar to “an unknown god” -- covering their bases, as it were, just in case there was a god they hadn’t heard of who might protect them or reward them for their reverence.

The reason people have always fashioned idols is fear. To be human in any time, in any place, is to be afraid. In ancient times, religious practices were fairly straightforward: gods controlled everything, and if you made the right sacrifice of animals or money or worship then the drought would end, the harvest would be abundant, sickness would be held at bay. People turned to gods for protection and prosperity, hoping that if they did the right things then the things they feared -- and have we not always feared death most of all? -- would not come to pass.

Jen Lee grew up in a family that had a deep, abiding faith in two things: Jesus and Mary Kay cosmetics. She was determined to opt out of the Mary Kay part, but at a crucial moment she attended a recruiting meeting and before she knew it, she had signed up to sell the products.

Now Mary Kay has a very effective training program and Jen Lee turned out to be an excellent saleswoman. She perfected the art of what Mary Kay calls “warm chatter.” Here’s how it worked. She would go to her local Target, get a red cart and pretend to be there shopping just like everyone else. Really, though, she was trolling for new customers. When she’d see a woman who looked receptive, she would discretely follow her around the store until they ended up alone together in an aisle. Then Jen would casually say the words she had rehearsed hundreds of times, “Excuse me, can I ask you a quick question? I’m Jen with Mary Kay and we have just came out with a new line of lip gloss and we’re looking for some women to try it out. I happen to have some samples here in my purse. Is there any reason why you wouldn’t want to take one home and try it?”

At the same time Jen was successfully building her Mary Kay career, she and her husband had become involved in a local church, a church that, as she says, “was trying to be really hip and modern.” It met in a strip mall and had a rock band in worship. She and her husband were right in the demographic the church wanted to attract -- twenty-somethings, and they began to be recruited into the church leadership, first onto the leadership team, and then onto the core leadership team.

“I remember my first night at one of these meetings,” she says. “I don’t know exactly what I was expecting but I think I’d always imagined them to be...soulful events and I was really dismayed to discover that it is was this tedious conversation about branding and marketing and what the church’s next advertising campaign would look like. So it didn’t take too long before these two worlds -- the church and Mary Kay -- began to look more and more similar. They both had the lure and Mary Kay was giving out free samples. But at the church we were having free events trying to get people through the door. In both worlds I was being trained all the time to listen to people everywhere I went for whatever was missing or not working in their life and offer what we had as the solution. So, if you needed time or flexibility or money, Mary Kay might be perfect for you. But if you’re struggling with your marriage or you’ve had a recent loss or you’re trying to figure out the meaning of life...maybe Jesus is the answer.” (3)

After a while, Jen Lee ended up very confused. Eventually, she ended her career with Mary Kay and left the church, because she could no longer figure out what was the difference between Mary Kay and Jesus.

Can you?

Paul looks around Athens and he sees everything that he and the Athenians have in common: he sees how religious they are, how dedicated they are to serving the gods they know and even gods they don’t. He sees people desperately serving idols, but also desperately seeking a God completely different from the idols they have created.

And Paul can tell them all about this God, because he has seen him face to face...and in seeing Jesus, Paul indeed faced his greatest fear. The one, true God is not a god like all the other gods, Paul tells them, one who will offer protection and prosperity if they follow the right regimen of worship and sacrifice. This is not a god that needs us, but the creator of heaven and earth. Because the difference between idols and God, the difference between Mary Kay and Jesus is that one needs our devotion to exist and the other created us to be in relationship, a relationship that goes beyond our fears, beyond even death. Paul looks around Athens and he sees people enslaved to gods they don’t know and don’t understand, people searching and groping for the God who, it turns out, “is not far from each one of us.”

What Paul says about the people then in Athens is equally true for those of us today in Akron: we are all searching and groping for God. Sometimes it feels like God is so distant from us that our fears take over. We can’t find God and in our fear, we refuse to trust God, to trust that God is as close to us as our own breath, to trust that God has given us everything we need to thrive, to trust that in our darkest moments God is with us. And when we trade trust for fear, we create idols.

But, as theologian Rolf Jacobsen puts it, an idol is “that thing you think is serving you but is really enslaving you.” (4)

Heather Hendrick recently moved to Haiti with her husband and four children. She works in a medical clinic for Haitian mothers -- those who are pregnant or have newborns. Even more than providing these women and infants with basic medical care, the clinic works hard to educate the women about childbirth and infancy in a country with a high infant mortality rate.

One reason infant mortality is so high in Haiti is that there is a persistent myth there that breastfeeding is bad for babies. Many mothers refuse to feed their babies breastmilk, convinced that if they do so, they will make their babies sick. Of course, formula isn’t always available, so instead they feed these infants soda or other drinks watered down with often-contaminated water. Sometimes they even feed the babies table food. But these foods and drinks lack the nutrients developing babies need, so many of them die.

Hendrick writes that there is an evil lie planted in these mothers’ souls, and this is what it says to them: "[Your milk] is not good enough. You can't trust what God created, what God has planned. God is faithless. Take matters into your own hands." It is this lie, she says, that “causes a Haitian woman to hold her brand new baby far from her breast...risk killing the life that wiggled in her womb...when God was all the while pumping life...rich, abundant life...free of cost...liquid grace through that mother's breast.” (5)

Sometimes when we can’t find God, when we can’t figure out what God is doing, our fear takes over and we come up with our own ways to get the protection and prosperity and spiritual nourishment we crave...we create idols. And far too many of these idols are deadly denials of the very thing God has put right in front of us that could give us life. Instead of alleviating our fears our idols feed them, because without us, our idols could not survive.

Paul knows the difference between Mary Kay and Jesus, and, if we’re honest, so do we. Idols are meaningless without people to believe in them and although they may look and feel comforting they nourish us about as well as watered-down soda nourishes a newborn baby. But Jesus came so that God could be in relationship with each one of us, not a relationship that offers us protection or prosperity -- because nothing can do that. Jesus offers us a relationship that will not avoid our fears but take us right through them, all the way to the cross and on to the other side of death. Amen.

1. Eryn Sun, “Church Easter Service Ad Pulled for Mention of Jesus,” The Christian Post, March 30, 2011.
2. Quinn G. Caldwell, “Living by the Word,” The Christian Century, May 17, 2011.
3. From The Moth podcast. Listen online here.
4. Rolf Jacobsen, ed. Crazy Talk: A Not-So-Stuffy Dictionary of Theological Terms. Augsburg Fortress, 2008.
5. http://allthingshendrick.blogspot.com/2011/05/lies-as-old-asthat-garden.html

Monday, May 23, 2011

Trust (sermon, May 22, 2011)

John 14:1-14

At one time or another someone has said it to us. In the absence of knowing what else to say, we have probably even said it to someone else. At the calling hours, in the hospital room, after the funeral. “Well, at least he’s in a better place.” “We can be thankful she’s not suffering any more.” “He’s gone home to be with Jesus.” “She’s in God’s house now.”

If we ever wondered what Bible texts we get those sayings from, the number one culprit is probably our text from today. Of all the texts I’ve heard, this passage from John about a house with many rooms is one of the most common texts chosen for funerals.

Why is that?

Well, first of all, it paints a comforting picture. Jesus offers words that we all need to hear, even more so on days when we are grieving the death of a loved one and wondering how we are going to get along without them: “Do not let your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” Then, Jesus describes a place that sounds downright heavenly: God’s house, with room for everyone, and all the rooms prepared especially for us by none other than Jesus himself. In his translation The Message, Eugene Peterson has Jesus saying: “Trust me. There is plenty of room for you in my Father's home. If that weren't so, would I have told you that I'm on my way to get a room ready for you? And if I'm on my way to get your room ready, I'll come back and get you so you can live where I live.”

What’s not to love about a promise like that?

The problem is, the gospel of John simply isn’t about what is going to happen to us after we die. This is the gospel that is focused on the incarnation, the one that begins with this mind-blowing announcement: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God...and the Word became flesh and lived among us...” John’s gospel is all about the incarnation: God. In the world. With us. Here. Now. Today.

But just how exactly does this work?

That’s what the first disciples want to know. Thomas and Philip actually screw up the courage to ask Jesus what in the world he is talking about. “Lord, we don’t know where you going. How can you say we know the way?” questions Thomas. And Philip, “Look, Jesus, just show us the Father, show us God, and then it will all make sense.” Technically, Philip’s words are a demand, not a question, but what Philip is saying to Jesus is this: “what does God look like?”

And that is a question that good Jews are not supposed to ask. After all, the Hebrew Bible -- our Old Testament -- makes it quite clear that God’s glory is simply too much for human beings to behold. When Moses, the model of faith, asked to see God, God turned his face into a rocky mountain and passed by and Moses could see God’s glory all around -- even with his face pressed into a rock. Moses was finally allowed to turn around after God passed by, so that he could see the tail end of God’s glory. It is simply too much for us to see God and live to tell about it. (1)

So why would Philip ask for such a thing?

It might help us to remember the context of Thomas and Philip’s questions. This whole exchange takes place on the night of the Last Supper, after Jesus has washed the disciples’ feet, predicted Judas’ betrayal, and commanded the disciples to love one another. This is the night we celebrate during Holy Week, the night known as Maundy Thursday. Chapter 14 is the beginning of a section in John known as the “Farewell Discourse,” Jesus’ final words to his disciples on the eve of his death. The disciples are scared. They are disheartened. They don’t understand what is happening. And in the face of their fear and confusion, as they wonder how on earth they are going to survive if Jesus dies, what they want more than anything is to see God.

Will Willimon is the bishop of the Northern Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church. In his blog and on his podcast he has often criticized the organizational structure of the Methodist Church which he finds cumbersome. I didn’t know this until he said it, but apparently, the whole reason his denomination was originally named “Methodist” was because everything they did had a method.

But recently, Willimon published a podcast in which he repented of all that criticizing of the Methodists’ methods. In the wake of the tornadoes that ripped through northern Alabama in April, Willimon witnessed the benefits of that organization. Of the churches in his conference, fifteen were completely destroyed by the storms. Another fifteen were still standing -- at least partially -- but were not safe for people to enter, and so might as well have been destroyed. Churches that were undamaged immediately stepped in to fill needs for shelter and food for those hardest hit.

Willimon remembers when he first became bishop and toured the area of the conference. He was shown six disaster trailers, mobile units ready to be deployed to areas of need in the aftermath of disasters. He remembers wondering what in the world that small conference needed six trailers for...but those trailers were sent out as soon as the tornados hit, bringing much-needed supplies to devastated communities and showing the love of God to people in dire need of some good news. (2)

God. With us. Here. Now. Today. That’s what the disciples wanted to see that night. It’s what we still long for today.

Last year, on Maundy Thursday, at an army base in Afghanistan, the Christian chaplain there held a foot-washing service for soldiers who wished to observe Holy Week.

There were around 60 soldiers in the tent, the chaplain reported. Then, a general stepped forward, grabbed the towel, knelt, unlaced the dusty boots of his troops, and joined with several others in washing the feet of privates. (3)

God. With us. Here. Now. Today.

The version of this passage that I read today makes it very clear that belief is what is necessary for us to experience the incarnate God in Jesus Christ. But the Greek word that is translated as “believe” can also be translated “trust.” For most of us, belief is something we do with our heads while trust is something we do with our hearts. One John scholar says that the meaning of this goes beyond either of those English words, that what Jesus is talking about here is being in a relationship with him, a relationship that can handle our questions, our anger, our betrayal, even our fear.

Tony Campolo writes that “In striving to create the Kingdom of God here on earth one of our biggest struggles is fear. Fear of failing, fear of looking like a fool, fear of family and friends. The writers of the Bible were afraid as well. Because of this, fear is one of the most frequently addressed topics throughout the Bible.
“The words ‘fear not’ appear 365 times in the Bible. That’s once for every day of the year. Faith overcomes worry with hope...The devil wants us to worry. Christ wants us to trust him.” (4)

To trust Christ is to enter into a relationship with him. And relationships -- relationships that really matter -- are never one-sided.

When Derek and I got married, his aunt Jan, unbeknownst to us, asked all the guests to our wedding to send her a piece of advice for a happy, healthy marriage. She had all the advice typed up and bound into a book which she gave us as a wedding gift. It is filled with all sorts of wonderfully practical tips: don’t go to bed angry, have your own tubes of toothpaste, never start a serious discussion after 10p.m. But the one piece of advice that has really stuck with me over the years -- maybe because I find it a true challenge -- is this: no matter what your spouse does, assume the best.

This isn’t just good advice for spouses, of course. It works in all kinds of relationships. Assuming the best about the people we are in relationship with is really about trust. And what is so amazing about our relationship with God in Jesus Christ is that this trust, this relationship, is mutual. We don’t just trust in Jesus, Jesus trusts in us. “Very truly I tell you,” Jesus says, “the one who believes in me [the one who is in a relationship with me] will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these...”

Talk about assuming the best! Jesus knows that when we enter into a genuine relationship with him -- which means not just offering him reverence and obedience but also our questions and our fears -- when we do this, we are capable of doing all the things that Jesus did. And remember, what Jesus did was reveal that God is with us. Here. Now. Today.

Today after worship, the members of the confirmation class will go before the session to make a public profession of their faith. The process that has led up to this day has not been easy. There has been a lot to learn and a lot of hard questions asked as the confirmands have struggled to write their statements of faith. And that’s okay -- it shouldn’t be easy to put into words what we believe. Because when we focus on putting our beliefs into words we get into our heads. And faith is so much more than what we think. Faith is mystery, it is trust, it is entering a relationship with someone we can’t even see. Faith is living out that relationship by allowing God to work through us so that the world can see God, just as Jesus has shown God to us.

The confirmands are not professing their faith as some down payment on one of those rooms Jesus is preparing. Death should be the furthest thing from their minds today. Because faith in Jesus Christ is not about what’s going to happen when we die. It’s about entering a two-way relationship of deepest trust. As these young people go through the many challenges of adulthood, I want them to have a sure and certain sense that God is with them here, not in some far-off place, and that no matter what happens, God loves and claims them now. And even more, that God trusts and empowers them to reveal God’s love to the world just as Jesus did.

The wonder and comfort of God with us is not locked away in some mansion in the sky. God is with us...working through us...Here. Now. Today. Thanks be to God. Amen.

1. Thanks to David Lose’s “Dear Working Preacher” article on this passage for these insights. Read it online here.
2. Will Willimon’s podcast from May 3, 2011, “What I’ve Learned.” Access it here.
3. From Mark Ramsey’s sermon “Eye to Eye” on April 24, 2011, Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church, Asheville, NC. Online at www.gcpcusa.org.
4. From a post on Tony Campolo’s blog entitled “Actualizing the Kingdom on Earth,” May 17, 2011.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Believing Is Seeing (sermon, May 1, 2011)

John 20:19-32

A couple of weeks ago two veteran photojournalists, Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros, were killed while trying to document fighting between rebels and government forces in the Libyan city of Misrata. These men had been in war zones and disaster areas around the world, documenting them in pictures for the world to see.

In the most recent issue of Newsweek, former CNN correspondent Michael Ware remembers Hetherington and Hondros. Although Ware is no longer reporting from war zones, he did for many years and he writes that when he was in the field, he gravitated to photographers. They are “the ones who come the closest to revealing the truth, even if we never get the entire truth,” he wrote. “In war, everyone lies; their government, our government, the rebels -- even civilians lie through exaggeration or confusion. But what we can get is the shards of truth,” like those revealed in a picture Hetherington took of an exhausted, filthy soldier in a bunker in Afghanistan or in a picture Hondros captured of a five year-old Iraqi girl, wailing and blood-splattered after her parents were mistakenly shot and killed by American soldiers. (1)

We’ve all seen photographs like these of war or of natural disasters, pictures that completely change our understanding or feelings about these events. I’ll never forget a photograph I saw of the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti. The picture showed a huge pile of rubble atop which was sprawled the unquestionably lifeless body of an infant. At first glance that little body looked like nothing more than just another piece of rubble. Seeing that picture made the earthquake real to me in a whole new way.

Throughout the gospel of John, seeing and believing have a particular connection. Back in chapter one, John the Baptist sees Jesus and declares, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!” (1:29) Jesus calls his disciples by telling them to “Come and see.” (1:39) When Jesus encounters the Samaritan woman at the well, he sees her completely, saying things to her that no stranger could possibly know, and because of that, she sees him differently, first identifying him as a prophet and then as the Messiah. (4:19 and 4:29)

But if we dig a little deeper into John’s gospel, we discover that it’s not just seeing that is significant when it comes to Jesus, but any kind of incarnational experience of him, and by incarnational, I mean any encounter with him that involves people’s bodies, their senses. Throughout this gospel, we find that when people have a sensory experience of Jesus it deepens their understanding of who he is. Ultimately, these sensory encounters are what makes their relationship with Jesus real.

Scholar Karoline Lewis argues that in John, to believe in Jesus means to be in a relationship with him. (2) And this happens when people hear Jesus preach and teach. It happens when people taste food Jesus provides -- like at the feeding of the five thousand and at the Last Supper. It happens when people smell the stench coming from Lazarus’ tomb, proving just how completely dead Lazarus is before Jesus brings him back to life. It happens when the disciples feel Jesus’ touch as he washes their feet.

For reasons that no one understood, Emilie Gossiaux began to lose her hearing at a young age. In her teenage years her hearing rapidly deteriorated and she had to wear a hearing aid. Either in spite of this or because of it, Emilie was filled with a passion for visual art and after graduating from high school in Florida, moved to New York City to attend art school. Last October, Emilie was twenty-one years old. Just a few months earlier she had fallen in love with one of her classmates, a young man named Alan. One sunny day in October, after their usual morning routine, Emilie climbed on her bike and rode off down a Brooklyn street, headed for work. She never got there. While riding her bike that day, Emilie was struck by an eighteen-wheeler.

She was rushed to the hospital, where trauma doctors did everything they could to save her life. She emerged from surgery in critical condition, having suffered a stroke, brain injury, and multiple fractures in her head, pelvis, and left leg. Her prognosis was grim. Emilie’s parents flew up from Louisiana and, with Alan, kept vigil at her bedside. Against all odds, after six weeks, Emilie was still alive, although she showed few signs of mental functioning. Her mouth had been wired shut so she could not speak. Every time Alan or her parents tried to put in her hearing aids she would kick and hit and flail, so she could not hear. And, worst of all, the doctors suspected that she had lost some if not all of her vision in the accident, so she could not see.

In John’s gospel, after the resurrected Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene in the garden, Mary goes to the disciples and says, “I have seen the Lord.” But either they don’t believe her or they don’t understand what that means, because instead of going out to find Jesus, they go into a house together and lock the doors behind them. Of course, it takes more than a locked door to keep Jesus out, and he soon appears to them, shows them his wounds, gives them peace and the Holy Spirit, and their relationship with him deepens yet again.

Then Thomas shows up. Poor Thomas. Was it his fault he wasn’t there when Jesus appeared? Is it fair to cast him as the doubter when all he wants is what the rest of the disciples got -- to see Jesus for himself? He shows up -- late -- and all of the other disciples are shouting all at once: “He came! Jesus was here! We have seen Jesus!” The disciples didn’t believe Mary when she claimed to have seen Jesus and Thomas doesn’t believe the disciples, he just wants -- and needs -- what the rest of them got: a personal, physical, incarnational encounter with the risen Lord.

And lo and behold, he gets it. A few days later, Jesus reveals himself to Thomas. Seeing Jesus standing before him, Thomas actually becomes a model of faith for us. It’s Thomas who finally brings together the beginning of John’s gospel -- “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God” -- with the end. Seeing Jesus, he exclaims, “My Lord and my God!” Not just Lord, but Lord and God. And not the Lord and the God -- my Lord and my God. Believing in Jesus as Lord and God is deeply personal. We can’t just hear about him from others...at some point along the way, we must experience Jesus, we must see him for ourselves.

The poet Christian Wiman was interviewed in a recent issue of Christian Century magazine. When asked whether his attention to detail is simply a talent or a skill he has practiced, he responded, “attention, like spiritual awareness, cannot be completely willed. There's an element of givenness to it—of grace—which means that attentiveness has a passive quality as well as an active one. The world will come to you—and God will come to you—but only if you are open enough to receive it. I have trained myself to wait, which means that it is not at all unusual for me to go months without writing a poem. But I am listening during that time. I have learned how to continue listening.” (3)

Artists -- whether writers or photographers or quilters or cooks -- seem to understand that sometimes you must wait, both passively and actively, you must wait for the perfect word in the poem or the perfect light for the photograph or the right piece of fabric for the quilt or for the sauce to achieve just the right consistency. The moment will finally come -- as Wiman says, the world will come to you and God will come to you -- but you have to be ready to see it and receive it.

Lying in a hospital bed in New York, Emilie Gossiaux had no choice but to wait. She couldn’t see, hear, or communicate with those around her. She was utterly lost. The doctors recommended that Emilie go to a long-term nursing home facility rather than to a rehab center. They believed that nothing else could be done for her. She was, in their minds, a lost cause. But Alan believed that the woman he knew and loved was still there. One night, in a fit of desperation, he tried to communicate with her by finger spelling on her palm. He started by slowly and deliberately tracing each letter into her palm: I. L.O.V.E. Y.O.U. As soon as he finished, she spoke, her voice slurred but perfectly understandable. “You love me? Thank you.”

With growing excitement, he tried something else. “What is your name,” he spelled, and immediately, she responded, “Emilie.” “What year is it?” he asked and she correctly replied, “2010.” It was 4a.m. but Alan called Emilie’s mother and insisted that she come to the hospital immediately. When she got there, Alan showed her how he could communicate with Emilie. But it was clear to both of them that, although this means of communication worked to a point, Emilie didn’t know who Alan was. He kept spelling his name in her hand, but she couldn’t seem to connect that name with the Alan she had known and loved.

She also kept saying something strange, “Pull me out of the wall. Pull me out. Help me. I know you can do it. Pull me out of the wall.”

Finally, Emilie’s mother told Alan to ask her about the hearing aid. Alan finger-spelled “hearing aid” into her palm and Emilie agreed to put it in.

Alan put her hearing aid in and turned it on and said, “Emilie, can you hear me? It’s me, Alan.” And in that instant, everything came back to her. She remembered everything, she knew exactly who Alan was and she knew he loved her and she loved him. Then, hearing her mother’s voice, she said the words her mother had waited so many weeks to hear her say, “Mama. You’re here.” “Of course I’m here,” her mother said, “I’ve been here all the time.” Talking about this time later, Emilie said that during that time before Alan put in her hearing aid, she felt completely lost and helpless, she didn’t know where she was or why. “I was waiting for some communication,” she said. “And I was relieved [when Alan began to communicate with me]. Alan...he’s a miracle to me.” (4)

I know that all this talk about incarnational experiences of Jesus begs the question: how can this possibly apply to us? We can complain like Thomas all we want, we can set conditions for our faith, but we really don’t expect Jesus to show up and show us his wounds. We haven’t seen Jesus in person and we don’t expect to.

Or have we? Is there someone who has loved you like Alan loved Emily -- enough to fight to bring you out of the darkness? Is there someone you have loved like that? Then you have seen Jesus. Have you ever gathered around a table with friends and strangers and left nourished by more than just the food you consumed? Then you have seen Jesus. Have you ever heard music or smelled a flower or seen a sunset or watched a baby sleep and become aware, at some deep level, of the exquisite joy and pain of being human? Then you have seen Jesus.

The disciples, the women at the tomb, even Thomas -- they all got to see the risen Lord. And they believed in him. But it is us -- the ones who believe in him without seeing -- that Jesus blesses here: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” We are blessed because, having believed in Jesus, it turns out we can see and experience him in all the everyday moments of our lives. Seeing...hearing...tasting...smelling...touching...Jesus is here, every day, every moment, offering us the gifts of peace and the Spirit, and inviting us to share those gifts with others. Jesus is here, our Lord and our God. All we have to do is pay attention. Amen.

1. Michael Ware, “To Walk with Ghosts,” Newsweek, May 2, 2011, p. 43.
2. Karoline Lewis, in her commentary on the passage at workingpreacher.org.
3. Amy Frykholm, “Pain, Prayer, Poetry: An Interview with Christian Wiman,” The Christian Century, April 18, 2011. Online here.
4. See Emilie's website here and hear her story on Radiolab, “Finding Emilie."