Claiming the Body of Jesus

cross

Sermon preached at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church for the Ecumenical Good Friday Service, 2017 in Enid, Oklahoma.

John 19:38-42 NRSV

After Jesus is crucified, John speaks of two individuals who emerge from the shadows, exposing themselves, risking their anonymity, putting their reputations on the line, by claiming the body of Jesus.  The first is Joseph of Arimathea, a disciple of Jesus who had previously hid his faith in secrecy for what John calls “fear of the Jews.”  He was one of the Jewish authorities who never openly confessed their faith in Jesus because of fear of losing their political power and position in the synagogue.

And the second was Nicodemus. You may remember Nicodemus from John chapter 3. He had previously come to Jesus secretly by night, showing some interest in Jesus, but never making a public profession of faith.  However, now on Friday afternoon, in claiming the body of Jesus, the faith of both of these men is clearly exposed and made very public.

And as we read John’s account we notice that by coming out of the shadows, openly claiming the body of Jesus, these two men do much more than risk their anonymity and their reputation in their community.  They also put at risk their religion.  For touching the dead body of Jesus made them ceremonially unclean which meant that they would be unable to celebrate the Passover and the Sabbath with their families.

The extravagant amount of burial spices which weighed about a hundred pounds that the men bring to anoint Jesus’ body, tell us that these men also put at risk their riches. Along with the expensive spices, the linen burial clothes they used to prepare Jesus for burial were usually something worn only by people of wealth and prominence. The pristine condition of the garden tomb also underscores the extravagance of Jesus’ interment.

So in this story we see two persons who come out of the shadows risking reputation, religion and riches to claim the body of Jesus.

The question which should come to our minds is why?  Why risk anything for someone who is dead?  Why would Joseph and Nicodemus risk their reputation, their status in the community; their religion, their standing in their family; their riches, and their wealth for a lifeless corpse?

What was it that led these men to risk so much?  Well, one might ask: What would have happened to the body of Jesus if these men had not claimed the body of Jesus?  Well history tells us that after a Roman crucifixion, the unclaimed bodies were often left hanging on the cross to be picked apart by birds. And other times, the unclaimed bodies were simply thrown into the trash dump outside of town.

So these men, living in secret shadows, loving Jesus from afar, simply said, “enough is enough.”

We can no longer conceal our faith.  We can no longer mask our love.  We can no longer sit back and do nothing. We can not bear to let our Lord and our Savior’s body be defiled by being picked at by birds or thrown into a pile of trash.

We must do something.  Even if it means putting at risk every thing that we cherish, everything that we hold dear.  Even if it means risking our reputation, our religion (the way we have always done it anyway), all of our riches, we must act.  We can no longer stay in the shadows. Our love for our Lord demands that we claim his body:  that we remove him from the cross; that we prepare his body for burial, that we seal him in a rich man’s tomb.

It was love, pure and simple and powerful which caused these men to act on the behalf of Jesus by claiming his body risking reputation, religion and riches.

The irony here is that it was the same love which caused our God to act on our behalf.  The story of Joseph and Nicodemus is the story of our God.  Out of a high and holy place, our God said: enough is enough.  I can no longer love my creation from afar.  I can no longer watch my creation suffer and perish.  I can no longer keep myself from risking my all, from empting myself, from becoming a human being.  I can no longer keep myself from offering my creation all that I am and all that I have. I can no longer keep myself from pouring myself out.  I can no longer keep myself from loving my creation even to the point of death, even death on a cross.

Joseph and Nicodemus claimed the body of Jesus because they were filled with the divine love of God.

The question for us is this:  How long are we going to continue to live in the shadows?  How long until we open our hearts to the story of God’s love; to the divine love of God which wants to fill our souls, to be so overflowing with the love of God that we have to cry out: “enough is enough!   I can no longer sit back and do nothing, I must act. I can no longer love my Lord and my Savior from afar.  I must claim the body of Jesus, the body of Christ, for myself even if it means putting at risk the things I most hold dear.  Even if it means risking reputation, religion, and riches, I must share this pure and simple and powerful love with everyone I know. I can no longer let others suffer alone. I can no longer sit back and allow injustice to continue. I can no longer ignore inequality. I can no longer turn my back on those who are marginalized and ostracized. I can no longer keep my faith private.  I can no longer remain silent. I can no longer keep myself from giving all that I have and all that I am to the ones who are lonely, thirsty, cold and hungry.  Enough is enough!  I must claim the body of Christ!”

Well, what are we waiting for?  Are we afraid of what we might lose from risking so much?  Let’s look at what Joseph and Nicodemus lost by claiming Jesus’ body.  They really did not lose a thing.  Instead of losing their reputations, their good names, their names are remembered by the gospel writers and by you and me two thousand years later as the ones who risked everything to claim the body of Jesus.

How do we want to be remembered?  As someone who lived only for one’s self; accumulating a lifetime of reputation, religion and riches?  Or would we rather be remembered as one who because of so much divine love welling up inside of our heart, we risked it all to claim the body of Jesus?   By doing whatever we can to serve our Lord in our community and in our world.  By giving all that we have and all that we are to our Lord by loving others with the complete, divine love of God.

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Crown of Thorns

Matthew 21:1-11 NRSV    nerve gas

Palm Sunday—it’s the spectacular day we celebrate the King of Kings’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem!  And in this world of so much suffering and pain, oh how we need a day like today!  Oh how we need to hear that Jesus Christ, our ruler and our king is coming through the gates to finally set things right, to take complete control of things. Oh how we need a day to reassure ourselves that no matter how bad life gets, no matter how distressed, fragmented and chaotic life becomes, and how hopeless it seems, Christ is large and in charge! “He’s got the whole world in his hands,” as we all like to sing.

Ok. Now, as we Disciples of Christ like to do, let’s get real for a moment. Let’s honestly think through this. Is the truth that “He’s got the whole world in his hands really that comforting?”

Although none of us good God-fearing, Bible-believing, church-going folks like to admit it, is this truth of God’s supreme providential power more than a little disturbing?

Think about those times you were reminded by someone, albeit with good intentions, that “God is in control.” When Lori and I lost our first child two months before the due date, people came up to us and said, “Don’t let this get you down. Just remember that God doesn’t make any mistakes.”

After the doctor gave you the news that the tumor was malignant, people came up to you and said, “Don’t worry, God knows what God is doing.”

When people learned that you were going to lose your job, they reminded you, “It is going to be alright, for God in control.”

At the graveside of a loved one, your friends and family lined up between you and the casket and whispered: “God has a reason for this.”

And very politely, we nodded. We even thanked them for their words with a hug or a handshake. But then, a short time later, after we dried our tears and came a little bit more to our senses, while we were sitting quietly at home or while we were out on a long drive, or maybe sitting in church, we began to reflect and to ponder those well-intended words. We began to think to ourselves: “If God is really sitting on some providential throne in complete control of this fragmented fiasco called life, this disastrous debacle called the world, then, really, just what type of ruler is this God? Just what type of king sits back and allows so much evil to occur in their kingdom, especially to people we are told the king loves.

The king of kings makes his triumphant entry—what is supposed to bring us great strength, peace and comfort, instead brings us frustration, anger and doubt.

Hosanna, the King is coming to save us—what is supposed to bring us assurance and hope brings us misery and despair. And we become tempted to join all those who will laugh and ridicule Jesus by the end of this week: “Umphh!  King of the Jews! Some King!”

I have said it before, and I do not mind saying it again—If God is the one who willed our first baby’s death, causes tumors to be malignant, gets us fired from our jobs, takes our loved ones from us, and sits back allowing such atrocities as the snuffing out of lives of little Syrian children being with nerve gas, then I really do not believe I want anything to do with a god like that!  I think I would rather join the millions of people who have chosen not to be in church on this Sunday before Easter.

But the good news is that I am here.

And I am here to proclaim with a confident voice God that God is not the type of King who decrees the death of babies, pronounces malignancies, commands layoffs and orders our loved ones to be suddenly taken from us. There is no doubt about it, Christ is King.  But thank God, Christ does not reign the way the kings of this world reign.

The reason I believe we allow ourselves to be tempted to give up on God in the face of evil is because we often forget that our God reigns not from some heavenly throne in some blissful castle in the sky. But our God reigns from an old rugged cross, on a hill outside of Jerusalem, between sinners like you and me.

I believe we oftentimes become despairing and cynical about God, because we forget that our God does not rule like the rulers of this world.

The kings of this world rule with violence and coercion and force. Earthly rulers rule with an iron fist: militarily and legislatively, and with executive orders. Worldly kings rule with raw power: controlling, dominating, taking, and imposing.

But, as the events that took place this week in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago remind us, Christ is a king who rules through self-giving, self-expending, sacrificial love. Christ is a king who rules, not from a distance at the capital city, not from the halls of power and prestige, but in little, insignificant, out-of-the-way places like Bethlehem and Nazareth, and Waukomis and Enid.

Our King doesn’t rule with an iron fist. Our King rules with outstretched arms.

Our King doesn’t cause human suffering from a far. Our King is right here beside us sharing in our suffering.

Our King possess what the late theologian Arthur McGill called a “peculiar” kind of power.

God’s power is not a power that takes. It is a power that gives.

God’s power is not a power that rules. It is a power that serves.

God’s power is not a power that imposes. It is a power that loves.

God’s power is not a power that dominates. It is a power that dies.

And as Arthur McGill has written, this is the reason that it is “no accident that Jesus undertakes his mission to the poor and to the weak and not to the strong, to the dying and not to those full of life.  For with these vessels of need God most decisively vindicates his peculiar kind of power, [a] power of service whereby the poor are fed, the sinful are forgiven, the weak are strengthened, and the dying are made alive.”[i]

Christ the King did not take our first child. The day our baby died, our King came and cried with us in that hospital room.

God did not cause the tumor. The day the doctor said the word “cancer” was a day of anguish for God as it was for us.

God did not create the layoff. The day you were told that your job was ending, God stayed up with you and worried with you all night long.

And God did not take your loved one.  When they died, something inside of God died too.

What we all need to learn are very different definitions of “king,” “rule,” “reign” and “power”—very different because they define the holy ways of the only true and living God, rather than defining our false gods and their worldly ways.

When life gets us down (and if we live any length of time at all in this world, it most certainly will), we need to remember the great truth of this day—The king has arrived. The king has entered the gates. And this king is has come to take his place on his throne, on an old rugged cross.  Do you see him reigning today? Do you see him bleeding, suffering, sacrificing, and giving all that God has to give from from the cross?

God does not make mistakes. God knows what God is doing. God is in control. God is king. But God’s throne is not made of silver and gold. God’s throne is made of wood and nails. God wears not a crown of jewels. God wears a crown of thorns.

This past week, I visited with Marion Batterman whose doctor just told him that he was dying. He said, “Pastor, my doctor gives me no hope. They said that my lungs are just about gone.”

I said, “Marion, I am so sorry.”

“Oh don’t be sorry he said. “Because my hope is not in my doctor! My hope is in my Lord!”

“So Marion,” I said, “Even when your lungs stop working completely…”

Marion finished the sentence, “I still have hope!”

No, he was not delusional. His mind was not clouded with medication. Marion was at peace, because his King reigns from a cross.

Marion was filled with hope, because his King is not far away from him seated a celestial throne removed from his agony. His King is seated at his very side suffering with him.

His King is not above his pain. His King is experiencing every bit of his pain.  His King is not willing or decreeing his death, his king is experiencing his death.

His King is not slowly taking his life away from him. His King is giving the King’s eternal life to him, pouring out the King’s holy self into him, and promises him every minute of every day to see him through his dying.

After he described an intensified intimacy that he now shares with his Lord, he then said something miraculous. With this hopeful joy in his smile and eternity in his eyes, he told me that he was a blessed man.

Think about that for a moment.

A man, barely able to breathe, nearing the end of his life, told me that he is blessed.

Aren’t we all?

[i] Arthur McGill, Suffering: A Test of Theological Method, 61-63.

Loosening the Bonds of Death

Lazarus

John 11:32-44 NRSV

John 11 is a great example of why I love the Bible. I love the Bible because the Bible is honest. The Bible is real. The Bible does not hide, cover up or try to sugarcoat the difficulties and even tragedy of life in this fragmented world.

I love that, because this world in which we live is sometimes incredibly painful. We live in a world surrounded by poverty and economic pain. We live in a world where the rich take care of themselves while taking advantage of the poor.

We live in a world where so-called “Christians” in the church are some of the meanest and most evil bullies we know. We live in a world where our loved ones suffer with all sorts of dreadful diseases. And we live in a world where we are continually reminded our own mortality.

Thus, I love John 11, for here in this very honest chapter, there is no denying the harsh reality of this fragmented existence we call life, especially in dealing with the most tragic aspect of this life: the death of a loved one.

Too many Christians, for many reasons would rather treat the tragedy of death as if it does not exist. We don’t want to talk about it.  And when we do, we try to deny the harshness, the sheer austerity of it. We do not even like to call it “death.” We would rather call it “passing away.”

We say things like: “there are worse things in this world than death;” however, in death there still exists an inescapable starkness that cannot be denied or ignored. When we are honest, we would admit that death is the most difficult thing about life. Losing someone we loved is the worst of all human experiences. We try to comfort ourselves by saying things like, “at least our loved one is no longer suffering.”  “At least she is now finally at peace.”  But if we are honest, just a second later, we find ourselves questioning why she had to get cancer and suffer in the first place. Why did they have to die as young as they did?

And we like to comfort ourselves by saying that he or she is in a far better place. But then a second later, we question why he or she would not be better here with us, at home, surrounded by family and love.

Yes, in John 11, there is no refuting the stark reality of death. Notice that Martha is absolutely horrified when Jesus commands the stone to be rolled back from the tomb. Her horror reminds us of something that we would rather ignore: the body was beginning to decay. The very sound of the words of verse 39 “Lord, already there is a stench, because he has been dead for four days” seems inappropriate to read from the pulpit. Dressed in our Sunday best on a beautiful spring morning, we don’t want to hear that!

But this is reality. This is truth.  And sometimes we simply do not want to hear the truth.

And sometimes we just think it is our Christian duty to be an example to the world, to the weak, to the unfaithful, how to be strong, how to put on a brave face and hold back the tears.

But notice in John 11 that there is no holding back.

Mary, the brother of Lazarus, weeps. The mourners who had gathered at the cemetery that day weep. Even Jesus himself weeps. The harsh reality of death and grief is evident everywhere.

We are told twice that Jesus “was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” Is there really a difference there? That is like saying that Jesus was grieving and mourning.

Just looking at the tomb of Lazarus caused Jesus to burst into tears.  Even Jesus, who we believe is manifestation, the very embodiment of God, the creator of all that is, who became flesh to dwell among us, does not remain calm and serene as one unmoved and detached from the fragmented human scene. Jesus himself is deeply disturbed at death’s devastating force. There is no denying it or escaping it or muting it. Neither is there any dressing it up with euphemisms like “passing away” or “gone on to be with the Lord.”

John 11 also points out why Jesus grieved. In verse 36 we read: “So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him.’”

It has often been said that the only way to miss pain in life is to miss love in life. Garth Brooks sings a song entitled “The Dance.” One line of the song goes: “I could have missed the pain, but I would have had to miss the dance.” Grieving only means that we have loved as our God has created us to love. The only way to never grieve is to never love. But to never love is to never truly live. As the song goes, the only way to miss the pain of loss is to miss the whole dance of life.

So, I believe John 11 gives each of us permission this morning to grieve. May we grieve long and deeply. May we never dare to run away from it.  May we never treat it as it was some stranger that we could send away, or deny that grief, because someone who doesn’t know any better thinks grieving means our faith is weak. Let us grieve what is lost. Grieve honestly, lovingly and patiently. Let us grieve until our cups are emptied.

However, (and here is the good news for all of us this day) as the Apostle Paul reminds us in his letter to the Thessalonians that those of us who call ourselves Christians should not grieve as others do who have no hope.  As Christians, our grief is real, but our grief is different. Our grief is not despairing, because as Christians, we possess hope because Jesus, who himself was not immune to grief and even death, always brings resurrection and new life.

Those of us who are not immune to grief and death need to again to hear Jesus’ prayer which came in a loud voice.  “Lazarus, come out.”

I heard a preacher once ask his congregation, “You do know why Jesus said, ‘Lazarus, come out’ and not simply ‘come out’ don’t you?  Because if he did not call Lazarus by name, if he did not say specifically, “Lazarus, come out, then every tomb in Jerusalem would have opened up that day!

We need to hear this voice and see this very real and foul, decaying corpse walking out of the grave, still wrapped in burial cloths, coming, at the voice of Jesus, to life.

And then I believe we need to hear again, and hear again loudly Jesus’ words: “Unbind him, and let him go.”  “Unbind him, and let him go.”  Lazarus is loosed from the bonds of death. He is freed from the shackles of his past. He is let go into a brand new future, liberated and set free.

Then, I believe we need hear John and Jesus himself tell us over and over that this event reveals the glory of our God. What we have in this story is much more than the resuscitation of one dead corpse by one man.

Always for John, miracles are much more. Miracles are always signs that point us to something greater. Thus this miracle is the revelation that the God in whom we serve and trust and love, this God who is not unmoved and detached from the human scene, is always a death-overcoming and life-giving God.

The good news that we need to hear is that this God is still working in our world today unbinding, letting go, loosing, freeing. God is here enabling us to confront death and grief, us to acknowledge it, to look it straight in the eyes, to see all of its harshness and starkness, and then be liberated from it.

And if God is here liberating us from the shackles of death, then there is nothing else in all of creation from which God cannot set us free.

From evil bullies bent on crushing our spirits.

A job that is draining the very life from us.

A relationship that is killing us.

Fears that paralyze us.

Disease that is destroying us.

Economic hardships that never seem to end.

Depression that never lets go.

One of the great things about being a pastor is how I have the awesome privilege to witness this good news all of the time.

Someone loses their job. They come to me believing it is the end of the world. But a year later, working a new job, they share with me that losing that job was the very best thing that could have happen to them.

Someone else comes to me and says that their marriage has fallen apart. And that they are partly to blame. They said they thought life as they knew it was over. But a few months later, they tell me that they are beginning realize that although they cannot go back to the good old days, they have plenty of good new days ahead.

Someone comes to me sharing their deepest fear: the fear of being known for who they really are; the fear of rejection and ridicule. Then I see them a short time later, and they tell me how they have been surprised by unconditional love and unreserved acceptance.

People call me to share their doctor’s grim diagnosis. They say that they had just received a death sentence. But a short time later, I visit with them, and they tell me that they are beginning to understand that being alive and whole have very little to do with physical well-being.

And then I have visited with countless people as they are facing what is certainly their final hours on earth, and I hear in their voices, and I see in their eyes a faithful awareness that there is nothing at all “final” about them.

Thus, like Lazarus, in this incomplete and fragmented world where death, divorce, disease and hate entomb us, we can be loosed. We can be freed, and we can be unbound.

We can come out and let go and celebrate the good news together: where there is incompleteness and brokenness, there can be wholeness. Where there is tyranny of the mind, there can be freedom of the heart. Where there is an imprisonment of the soul, there can be a liberation of the spirit. Where there is grief and despair there is hope. And where there is death and even decay, there is always life.

Let us pray together…

O God of New Life, may we be a church that shares this good news with all people, honestly and truthfully and faithfully. May we weep with those who mourn. May we be deeply moved with those who are afraid. And may we be deeply disturbed in our spirit with all who are suffering. Stay beside them. Befriend them. Accept them. Love them…until they are whole, liberated and fully alive now and forever through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Sunset or Sunrise

Sunset

This picture appeared recently in the Enid News and Eagle. The caption simply read: “Sunset.” However, at first glance, it is difficult to tell if it is a sunset or a sunrise.

As attendance, giving, and baptisms continue to decrease in North American churches, many are asking: “Is the sun setting or rising on the church?”

After posting the picture on facebook and posing the question, “Is it a sunset or a sunrise?” Rev. Dean Phelps, a facebook friend and long-time minister, wisely commented: “It all depends on when we wake up.”

Rev. Phelps was prophetically suggesting that if the church wakes up early, it could be a sunrise. However, if the church wakes up too late, it could be a sunset.

I believe it is a sunset if the church continues to slumber under the covers of the culture. I have called this embracing an “alternative gospel” or a “fake news Jesus.” It is a protective, safe, defensive religion that fears the other, and thus judges, excludes, and condemns the other. It is miserly with mercy, stingy with love, and tight-fisted with grace.

However, I believe it is a sunrise if the church awakes to pull back the covers of the culture to embrace the authentic gospel and good news of Jesus. We must awaken to discover our purpose to be a community of radical inclusion and extravagant grace. We must awaken to answer our call to love others as Christ loves us, unconditionally, unreservedly and fearlessly.

I believe it is a sunset if the church continues to dream of the glory days. Sadly, the dreams of many churches are either stuck some in distant past recalling fuller pews and bigger programs, or they are stuck in some heavenly future, fixed on pearly gates and streets of gold.

However, I believe it is a sunrise if the church awakens with eyes wide-open to see its mission in the here and now. We must awaken with our eyes focused on the present suffering of the entire creation, and then we must selflessly and sacrificially use our gifts, time and energy to be a movement for wholeness, healing and peace.

I believe it is a sunset if the church continues to hit the snooze button to rest in their comfort zones. Many churches have no desire to get up and go out, leaving their cozy environments behind. There is no interest to get outside of the security blanket of the sanctuary to do the hard work of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, defending the marginalized, and breaking the bonds of injustice.

However, I believe it is a sunrise if the church will rise up from its comfort zone to go out into what can be a cold and dark world. We must awaken to be the embodiment of Christ in this world even if it means there is a cross involved, even if it means suffering for the sake of God’s creation.

Is it a sunset or a sunrise?

It all depends on when we wake up.

It Can’t Be the Messiah. Can It?

FullSizeRender

John 4:5-29 NRSV

With United Methodist Bishop William Willimon, I believe that the Bible is not so much an account of our search for God, as it is the amazing account of the extraordinary lengths to which God will go to search for us. Whether we know it or not, or can even begin to understand it or not, we are here this morning because we have been sought, we have been called, and we have been summoned. We are here because God has reached in, grabbed us, and led us here. We are here because God has pursued us. God is even now persuading, prodding and pulling us.

And I believe that the purpose of our worship is to condition us to pay attention to this, to admonish us to look over our shoulder, to help us to notice those little coincidences in our lives and those strange happenings.

For they may be a part of God’s continuing attempts to wrap God’s loving arms around us.

And these things, these coincidences, these strange happenings can occur anytime and in any place. As Jesus told Nicodemus, “The Spirit of God, like the wind, blows where it will”—whether or not we’re ready for it, looking for it, or even want it.

So, it would behoove us to stay alert, look, listen, always pay attention.

I believe the woman in our scripture lesson this morning teaches us how to pay such attention.

That fact alone teaches us something about the way God works. In the male-dominated society in which Jesus lived, especially in the area of faith and religion, Jesus uses a woman to teach us theology. Talk about the spirit of God blowing where it will!

In Jesus’ day, mainline Jewish rabbis simply did not speak to women about faith. However, Jesus was anything buy mainline. But one who always, very radically and counter-culturally, valued women and men equally.

Which brings us to another surprise. She was not only a woman; she was a Samaritan woman. And we know what Jews thought of Samaritans. They were known as pagans and foreigners. They were victims of racism, xenophobia, and bigotry.

Here, the radical words of the Apostle Paul are being fleshed out: “there is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, but all are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28).

During her conversation with Jesus (which, by the way, is the longest recorded conversation that Jesus ever had with anyone), we also discover that she carries the stigma of divorce, as she has been remarried several times.

And, of course, she is astounded that this man, a Jew, talks to her, a Samaritan. In her eyes, she’s the wrong gender, wrong race, wrong religion. Yet, Jesus meets her where she is. Jesus initiates a conversation with her. Jesus reaches out to her. Jesus engages her.

And of all places, at a well!

It is important to understand that she isn’t there for Sunday School. She isn’t there for the 8am or the 10:15 worship service. She’s not even there for CWF. She is there doing the most ordinary of everyday tasks. She’s simply drawing water.

So, the first thing this woman teaches us is that God speaks to us, God reaches out to us, and God engages us when we least expect it, where we least expect it, and how we least expect it. God comes to us, unexpectedly, undeservedly in the most ordinary of ways.

Jesus then begins to teach her about something called living water and then tells her that he knows all about her; all of her failures, all of her disappointments, all of her grief which has been so much a part of her life.

She then runs all the way back home to tell everyone, “Come! See a man who has told me everything. He can’t be the Messiah. Can he?”[i]

Willimon has said: “She—Samaritan, woman, husbandless—thus becomes the precursor, the very first of all of us later preachers. She was the first to run to tell everyone about Jesus.”

And all she meant to do that day was to go out and get a bucket of water!

And here is the amazing part. She didn’t all of a sudden understand everything about who Jesus. She didn’t run back home singing the Gloria Patri and reciting the Lord’s Prayer. She merely left her encounter with Jesus with a simple, but very profound question: “He can’t be the Messiah. Can he?”

“He can’t be the Messiah. Can he?”  Do you hear it?  Listen again, “He can’t be the Messiah. Can he?

No, it’s not the words of some religious fundamentalist who has it all figured out. It’s more like the words of a innocent child. “He can’t be the Messiah, can he?”

Fifteen or so years ago, during the weeks leading up to Christmas, when my children would misbehave or fuss, when they were not looking, I remember making a fist and knocking on a wall or under the table.

Carson and Sara would immediately stop their fussing and ask, “Who is that? Someone’s knocking on the door.”

I’d get up, go to the door, open it, look around, and of course, not seeing anyone, I would shut the door and say: “It must have been Santa Claus! Don’t you know that this time of year he’s always watching?”

Sara Beth would say, “Nah uh! That wasn’t Santa Claus!” But a of second of silence later, she’d ask, “Was it?”

Can’t you hear it?  Like an innocent child, full of surprise and wonder and an unbridled hope, the woman at the well said: “He can’t be the Messiah. Can he?”

Do you hear it?

With Willimon, I hear a playful openness, a light flickering in the dark, a wonderful willingness to consider that God was larger than her presuppositions of God. I hear a courageous willingness to be shocked, surprised, and intruded upon. I hear a thirst for something to quench a longing soul.

I believe this is the problem with us grown-ups, especially we modern, mainline, mainstream church-goers. We simply say: “That can’t be the Messiah…period!

There is no openness to the possible potential that it might be, may be, could be, probably is.

We are so smart. We have things so figured out, we never question, “Can it? Was it? Is it?”

Even when we are at church, in a Bible Study or in worship, there is no real expectation that Jesus Christ, the Messiah and Savior of the world might actually show up.

To be honest with you, last Sunday, I was almost dreading coming to church. I was thinking: “Daylight Savings Time, Spring Break. Very few people are going to be at church today. And nothing good is really going to happen this Sunday.” I was also feeling a little disheartened that I had to make an announcement regarding our supplemental giving drive. Asking for more money makes me feel like I have perhaps failed at something.

The point is, last Sunday, when it came to church, I wasn’t feeling it.

But then, to my surprise, four people came forward during our final hymn asking to formally join the mission of our church to bless this community and world. One even offered to bless my family by taking us out to lunch after the service. And then, later in the week, I received a phone call with the news that someone believed in our church’s mission enough to make a sizable donation to be used anyway we believe God may be leading us.

And here it is, just one week later, and there’s this renewed, restored, replenished fullness in my soul. There’s this recommitment to share the love and grace of Christ with all people.

Now, I am aware many would say that those events were merely coincidences. Perhaps. However, as I have studied our scripture this week, like a light flickering in the dark, my heart has become open to the providential possibility that God was somehow involved. And the fullness that I feel in my soul is from this wonderful willingness to be shocked, surprised, and intruded upon by none other than the Messiah and Savior of the world, Jesus Christ himself.

Thinking on the words of the woman in our scripture this morning, I cannot help but to think: “It can’t be the Messiah. Can it?”

Can it possibly be that, here in this place last week, Jesus Christ was actually present? Could it be that he was coming to me through ordinary people, unexpectedly, undeservedly, bringing living water that quenches the deepest thirst of my soul.

Jesus, through this Samaritan woman, at the well, answers that question: “Yes, I am the Messiah. I am more alive and more present and more at work in this world than you ever thought possible. I am everywhere offering the wonder of living water, and those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I give will become a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”

One of the greatest things about being a pastor is sharing not only times of immense joy with a congregation, like childbirth with the Weibling family this week, but also sharing times of immense sorrow, like with Charlie Heller last week.

I look around this room and see people here who have experienced much sorrow, so much in this past year. I am certain that even getting up this morning and getting to this place was an arduous task for you. Some of you have recently lost a parent, a sibling, a spouse. Some of you have lost a child. You all have lost dear friends. Some of you have been diagnosed with cancer. Some have had to make the difficult decision to place a loved one in a nursing home. Some are grieving broken relationships, broken dreams, broken lives.

And people, including me, look at you and are amazed. We say, “We don’t know how you are making it.”

And yet, somehow, some mysterious way, you are making it. At the very least, something or someone has given you the sustenance to make it to this place this morning to possibly hear a hopeful word.

I look at you with the wonder of a wide-eyed child. And I think of the wonder of that woman from Samaria, and I ask, “It can’t be the Messiah…can it? Can it?

 

Commissioning and Benediction

Now, let’s go and get out on the road

to encounter ordinary people doing the most ordinary of things.

They may be dining at a restaurant, shopping for groceries, exercising at the gym, learning in a classroom, waiting to see the doctor.

They may be the server in a restaurant, the clerk at the store,

the trainer at the gym, the teacher in the classroom, the nurse, the doctor.

Their gender, their race, their religion—it doesn’t matter.

They may be a victim of prejudice or a beneficiary of privilege.

Meet them where they are. Engage them. Listen to them. Bless them.

And may the eternal well of God’s love be found in our encounters.

May the grace of Christ shine brightly through us.

And may the Spirit be with us on every hill, every plain, and in every valley.

[i] If my memory is correct, the words of this sermon were originally inspired and gleaned from a sermon written by William Willimon, possibly entitled, Look over Your Shoulder, in 2005.

Too Smart for Our Own Good

The Shack

John 3:1-17 NRSV

In today’s gospel lesson a very knowledgeable and prominent leader of Israel comes to Jesus seeking to discover who Jesus is and what Jesus is all about. Poised and confident, the educated and sophisticated Nicodemus begins his conversation with Jesus: “Now, we know that you are…”

He begins his conversation from the same place that most of us mature, experienced, long-time students of Sunday School often begin our conversations about God: from the things we know, the things we have figured out… or think we think we have figured out:

“Now we know that you are…”

And it’s from there that the conversation gets all confused, confounded and convoluted. Jesus begins talking to Nicodemus about birth, but poor Nicodemus thinks Jesus is talking about literal, physical birth. Jesus starts talking about the Spirit, but poor Nicodemus thinks Jesus is talking about the wind.

I think it is very interesting that Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night. Because in just a few moments with Jesus, we learn that when it comes to God, when it comes to this mystery that we call faith, Nicodemus is in the dark in more ways than one. Nicodemus comes to Jesus confident and assured, but by the time Jesus gets finished with him, Nicodemus is astounded and dumbfounded, mumbling, “Uh, how can this be?”

Nicodemus has a problem.  And perhaps Nicodemus’ problem is in the very way he came to Jesus in the first place: “Now we know that…”

And maybe that is precisely our problem: “Now we know that…”

Our problem is that we know. And I suppose we can’t help it. After all, we are modern, some say we are even post modern folks who know a lot!

We live in what they call the information age. If there’s something we don’t know, we can just Google it or YouTube it, and in a few simple clicks of a mouse, we know. With WebMD and Wikipedia, there is hardly anything that we cannot understand or easily explain.

Perhaps this is why we try to approach God the way we do. We believe God is to be understood and easily explained.

It is no wonder those on the outside of the church often accuse those of us who are on the inside of the church of being “know-it-alls” when it comes to religion.  They believe that we think we have God all figured out. There are some that think that the reason we are here this morning is because we are God-experts.

And maybe that is why some  they are not here with us this morning.

One day, I was introduced to someone who knew that I was a pastor. I think he wanted to shock me when shook my hand and said, rather proudly, “Well, I’m an agnostic.” Which means that he did not know what he believed about God.

I think I shocked him when I responded, “Well, I have my moments when I am an agnostic too.”

I then said: “If people were honest they would admit: Some people are agnostic all of the time, and all are agnostic some of the time.”

The reality is that what we should be doing here, in this place every Sunday morning, is acknowledging together how little we really know and how much we have to learn, instead of coming here to have everything we think we know about God reaffirmed.

We gather ourselves together to acknowledge the great truth, that when it comes to the mystery that is God, we are all, as God told Mack in the movie The Shack, “idiots.”

“If the shoe fits,” She said.

The truth is that the God we worship is much larger than our imaginations. God is bigger and more alive than we can ever possibly comprehend.

I believe this is one of the reasons some preachers are telling their congregations to avoid the movie The Shack (a movie by the way I highly recommend) And there are many reasons: like maybe Jesus as a Middle Eastern man, if you can imagine that; also, God’s love for humanity compelling Her desire to redeem all people.

But perhaps they are most upset by the way the movie may cause some to question everything they thought they knew about God. Many preachers can not handle God saying to Mack: “I am not who you think I am” and “You misunderstand the mystery.”

But to me, that sounds a little like Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus (John 3:1-17).

Like Nicodemus, we think we know who God is, how God acts and what God desires. But after we truly encounter the Divine, we might learn that we are, well, idiots.

I heard one preacher you say, “If you want to know something about Jesus, don’t watch The Shack, instead watch the more biblical movie, The Son of God.

But, a few years ago, I remember walking out of the showing of The Son of God when it ended feeling disappointed. For I do not believe there is anyway anyone can capture the essence of who Jesus is and present it in a one-hundred and forty-minute cinematic presentation. I told someone that I have been preaching about God is for over thirty years, and I have not even begun to scratch the surface of who God is!

United Methodist Bishop William Willimon, commenting on how some reduce God to something we can easily understand, said: “You can’t define this God, put this God in your pocket, or on a leash and drag God around with you. Life with this God is an adventure, a journey, a leap into the unknown, an expectation that, among even the most regular attendees among us, there will be surprises, jolts, shocks.”[1]

How often have we gathered around this table confident that we know exactly what is going on?

Catholics, and some Episcopalians are all so mysterious, always insisting on calling it Holy Communion or the Holy Eucharist.

Some of us, though, prefer to simply call it “Supper.” Some believe that something mysterious takes place as they eat this meal. They call it transubstantiation. We only believe it is a dry little cracker and tiny sip of grape juice and an act of remembrance that is confined to our limited and finite minds.

But what if there is more going on here this morning than we can see, touch or taste or even remember?

When we gather around the Lord’s Table, what if there is more going on here than meets the senses? What if there is some mysterious communion or a very holy fellowship happening here?

Sharing what we merely call a “supper,” what if we are surprised to discover that we are somehow invited to join the same fellowship that is mysteriously and inexplicably enjoyed between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit?

In and around this table, what if there is something afoot, something happening— something moving, inviting, healing; something strengthening, loving, forgiving; something saving, calling, challenging, commissioning?

We thought that we have come to remember a life, a death and a resurrection, but I believe we could leave having been caught up in that life and death and transformed by that resurrection.

As Willimon has said, “For, that is our God at our God’s best. That night as Nicodemus talked with Jesus, he began with what he knew. And he ended with questions about what he did not know. He arrived fairly confident that he had a good grasp of, [a good hold on] who Jesus was; [he left surprised,] having been encountered and held by the mysterious, majestic Holy Spirit of God in the flesh.”[2]

This morning, when we awoke, we thought we knew what we were doing. We thought we were going to get up, get dressed and simply go to church, sing a few hymns, have the Lord’s Supper, listen to a choir sing and a sermon preached. Then we would leave, get some lunch and come back home unmoved and unchanged, to watch a little more basketball.

However, when got here, we realized that we did not know it all.

We were shocked when a song spoke to us.

We were surprised when a small wafer and tiny cup filled us.

We were jolted when a word challenged us.

We were startled when someone that we did not even know looked at us and blessed us.

And we were amazed when God, the Creator-of-All-that-Is, somehow, someway that we do not understand, called us by name and told us that She is especially fond of us.

And we were absolutely astounded as Christ himself came and wrapped his arms around us as the Holy Spirit breathed new life into us.

[1]Quote and interpretation of Nicodemus’ first words to Jesus “We know” came from William H. Willimon, We Know (PR 34/2; Inver Grove Heights Minnesota: Logos Productions, Inc., 2006), 49.

[2] Ibid.

When Monday Morning Comes

grinchmonday

Matthew 4:1-11 NRSV

Do you remember the Israelites?  After they were affirmed by God in the presence of God through Moses and the Exodus, they found themselves in the wilderness for forty years struggling with evil and searching for a God who seemed to be non-existent.

Do you remember Moses?  After he was affirmed by God in the presence of God as the leader of God’s chosen people as he led the Israelites out of Egypt, he found himself in the wilderness on Mount Sinai for forty days struggling with evil and searching for a God who seemed to be non-existent.

Do you remember Elijah?  After he was affirmed by God in the presence of God on the top of Mount Carmel, he found himself in the wilderness for forty days struggling, searching for a God who seemed to be non-existent.

Today, and every Sunday, we come to this place, hopefully we are also affirmed by God in the presence of God. We are affirmed as we sing the songs of faith and say the prayers of faith. We are affirmed as we gather around a communion table, as we listen to the Word of God through music and word, and as we commune with our sisters and brothers in Christ.

Together, we sense with our hearts, hear with our ears, and see with our eyes the very presence of God. As we come together in this place and make commitments and recommitments to God, we are empowered by the Spirit of God, and we are affirmed.

However, like the Israelites, like Moses, and like Elijah, Monday morning comes. Your alarm goes off way to early. You drag yourself to the kitchen only to discover that you are out of coffee. You go and wake the children so they can get ready for school. Whining and complaining ensue.

Arguments over what to wear and what’s for breakfast follow. You drop the kids off at school. It’s not even 9 am and you are exhausted. You need coffee. But at this point you are so strained and stressed, you think: “a glass or maybe a bottle of wine would be better!”

You make it to work, and it’s just that, it’s work. Same old mess day after day, week after week. At work, there are all kinds of trials, temptations. This is where you are most aware that you are not the person you need to be, the person you could be, the person you should be.

On the way home from work, the check engine light comes on in the car that you paid a fortune in repairs the previous month.

At home there is still arguing, but now it’s over homework and video games. Then the phone rings in the middle of the chaos and news is received that a close relative has bust been diagnosed with cancer.

One day— affirmed by God in the presence of God. The next day— hurled into the wilderness, struggling with all kinds of evil, into a place where God seems to be non-existent.

The good news is that God, the Creator of all that is, understands. The good news is that the Source of it all empathizes. The good news of the gospel is that God has experienced this world as we often experience it through the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

One day, Jesus was affirmed by God in the presence of God like none other. Matthew writes that at Jesus’ baptism, the heavens which were thought by many to have been closed, were “suddenly opened,” and the Spirit of God descended upon Jesus “like a dove.” Then there was this voice from heaven: “This is my Son the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

One day affirmed by God in the presence of God, but then, without warning, Monday morning came. Jesus is led immediately into the wilderness for forty days and forty nights. After being affirmed by God in the presence of God, Jesus is immediately led into a place where God seemed to be non-existent, where he experiences all kinds of temptation: physical, material, spiritual.

At one time, when I was much younger, much more naïve, much less experienced in this world, this passage of scripture used to trouble me. For what kind of God would affirm their child one day and then lead him into the wilderness the next day, where there are trials, temptations, dangers, and sufferings?  What kind of God would lead us into temptation?

Well, since becoming more experienced in life, earning some of these gray hairs, I no longer struggle with these questions. Because, the reality is that God does not have to lead us into a wilderness or into temptation. We are already there. We are there because we are human, and life itself is a wilderness. We encounter suffering, evil, and temptation everyday of our lives, not because God gives it to us, but because we are earthly creatures living in a fragmented world.

Like you and me, Jesus found himself as a human being in the wilderness, into a place where God seemed to be non-existent, into a place of great temptation. One day, Jesus is affirmed by God in the presence of God. The next day he finds himself in a seemingly God-forsaken wilderness.

But Matthew says, and here’s the really good news, good news that we can miss if we are not careful: Jesus was not alone in that wilderness.  It’s just one short sentence, but it is a beautiful sentence: “And the angels waited on him.”

I love the way Mark tells the entire story of Jesus’ temptation in just two simple verses:

“And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him” (Mark 1:12-13).

The gospel writers tell us that angels, representing God’s divine providence and presence waited on Jesus. Struggle and trial and temptation are present in the wilderness, but the Gospels declare: “So is God!” Throughout Jesus’ forty days and nights, God was not absent! God was with Jesus, ministering to him, serving him, waiting on him.

I believe this says something about how we sometimes encounter the presence of God. Oftentimes, the discovery of a divine presence or a holy providence comes during times struggle and testing. So, in an amazing and ironic kind of way, we can thank God for our troubles. Because without such struggling, without human suffering, we may never know this inexplicable yet undeniable grace.

I believe this also says something about the danger of pride. I believe we are sometimes tempted to believe that we can make it through our wilderness alone, on our own power. We are tempted to believe that physical power, financial power or even our own spiritual power can see us through our Monday mornings.

We must be able to humbly recognize that come Monday, we need another power. If the Son of God needed angels to wait on him in his wilderness, how much more do we need angels? How much more do we need God’s abiding presence? How much more do we need the church? How much more do we need one another? How much more do we need those who have been called to be God’s transforming agents in this world, who are, even now, sitting all around us?

It’s Sunday morning.  Gathered here, in the presence of God, we are loved, and we are affirmed. The heavens are open. God’s Spirit fills this room, and God is speaking to our hearts.

In a few moments, we will receive the bread and the cup, and we will know beyond a shadow of a doubt that we are loved with a grace that is greater than our sin. We will pray. We will sing a hymn. And we will make commitments and our re-commitments. During the Benediction you will hear the wonderful words: “You and you and you and you are God’s beloved children, with whom God is well pleased.”

Yes, it is Sunday morning, and here in the very presence of God, we are affirmed.

But we can be certain of this:  Monday morning is coming. For some of us Monday morning may come this Sunday afternoon. As sure as we are here, it is coming. But always remember…

Remember the Israelites.  They found God and the promised land.

Remember Moses. He found God and the Ten Commandments.

Remember Elijah. He found God in a still, small voice.

Remember Jesus.  The son of God found God through angels who waited on him.

And as children of God, as sons and daughters of God, so can we.

No, so will we.  Because when I look around this room, you know what I see?

I see angels.