Norm

On this All Saints Day, I am remembering Norm Ellington. Norm changed the trajectory of my faith and spiritual journey. Below is an excerpt from a paper I wrote about him for a seminary class seven years ago.

In the summer of 1967 my family moved two thousand miles from the white, middle class neighborhood, school, and church in Salem I had known for four-years. I recall asking my parents as we approached our new home, “Why are there so many black people in St. Louis?”  I was about to have some of my first experiences with race during a turbulent time in this country in a city with deep racial rifts. I walked to a predominantly African American public school during the week and on Sundays attended a new Disciples of Christ church within walking distance of my family’s new home. It was at this church that I met Norm.

“Why are there so many black people in St. Louis?”

Norman Ellington was an African-American man to whom my younger brother and I gravitated before church and between Sunday School and worship.  Norm put up with our silly jokes, our brotherly rivalry, and our incessant questions and comments. Without becoming pedantic, Norm took advantage of teachable moments to mentor our understanding of Christianity in a broken world in which racial hostility and violence was never far from our doorstep. Living in an urban renewal, intentionally mixed-race, mixed-income rental community near some of the most dilapidated slums in St. Louis, I was faced at eight-years old with processing what was happening around me. Fortunately, I had Norm to help me do that processing.

I recall his patient explanations about what it meant to be black in late 1960s St. Louis and what it meant to be a Christian during those violent times. When I was being bullied daily by an African American classmate, being called “honky” and other epithets for whites, it was Norm who helped me perceive what was happening through a Christian lens. When my best friend’s African American father was shot and killed on the job by a mentally ill man, it was Norm who helped me to understand that Jay’s father had been doing God’s work striving to help poor blacks and whites find employment despite the risks to his personal safety which was created by society-wide racial tensions.

“I learned the importance of a Christian faith of action that does not shy away from the truth of racism and poverty.”

[Norm] reminded me that Jesus was never afraid to go where those who were in need lived and struggled. When my mother was the victim of harsh language and hateful words from the Black Panthers, I listened as Norm counseled her with love and compassion while helping her to understand the deep pain that was a part of the black experience in the late 1960s.  In my interactions with Norm as well as those I overheard him have with family and other church members, I learned the importance of a Christian faith of action that does not shy away from the truth of racism and poverty. I learned that as someone born with light skin, I benefit from systemic racism.

As our church heeded the call of Christ to go where the “least of these” live Norm also helped me to see the Holy Spirit manifest in our work. For example, he helped me to understand the power of Christian love when the suspiciousness turned to joy on the face of the African American children I played with prior to our church’s movie night on a vacant lot. Norm explained to me that when whites showed up in this particular neighborhood, even though I only lived a few blocks away, that the experience was rarely positive for the poor, African-Americans who lived in the crumbling buildings. He helped me understand the importance of blacks and whites getting to know one another.

“…when whites showed up in this particular neighborhood, even though I only lived a few blocks away, …the experience was rarely positive for the poor, African-Americans who lived in the crumbling buildings.”

Norm was never my Sunday School teacher, my pastor, or my youth leader. He was my friend who, using Jesus as our reference point, helped me to interpret both my positive and negative experiences in such a way that racism spared me its harshest sting—internalized hatred of the other.

 

 

An Open Letter to My Community

We’ve gone from the horror of the images out of Paris to a week of anti-refugee talk from media and politicians that is not only distasteful but contrary to the teachings of the biblical witness.

Sadly, we’ve been down this road before. Our immigrant-founded nation is filled with historical periods of fear and disdain of the newcomer. From fear of the Irish to the rejection of Jewish immigrants in the 1930s we too often reject our neighbors in need.

Giving in to fear has also created a context in which we blame Syrian refugees, victims of the same terrorist group as those in Paris. At a time when Syrian refugees need us the most, instead of loving our neighbor, we choose to fear them.

Our human inclination to be fearful is not new. There is a reason “do not be afraid” is such a common phrase in both testaments of the Bible. Like our ancient forebears, we need to be reminded to live into the people God dreams we can be.

When asked, “what is the greatest commandment?”, Jesus replied, “…you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this, You will love your neighbor as yourself. No other commandment is greater than these.” (Mark 12:29b-31 CEB)

Jesus named these two because loving God and neighbor are foundational. We show our love for God in our love for others. When we share items with our local Food Pantry, we show love for God. Similarly when we show compassion for Syrian refugees we show love for God.

Our stories of faith are brimming with commands to be hospitable to our neighbors. Immigrants, strangers, and aliens are frequently named as those who are worthy of our loving embrace. Whether we approach the Bible literally, as some do, or critically, as I do, hospitality for strangers is an expectation of the divine.

The most disturbing aspect of the hateful rhetoric spewed toward Muslims, Syrian refugees, and others is that too many of the speakers claim Christianity as their faith. It can be argued, given our history, that hospitality for the stranger is not an American value. However, claiming the Christian faith and not welcoming the stranger takes mental and spiritual gymnastics that are inconsistent with the biblical narrative.

The best of Condon is about compassion and love for our neighbors in need. As we move into Thanksgiving week and the Advent season that precedes Christmas, the writer of Deuteronomy reminds the faithful, God “…loves immigrants… That means you must also love immigrants because you were immigrants in Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10:16-19 CEB)

Let us love our neighbors as ourselves by opening hearts to Syrian refugees. In so doing we will share our love of God.

Between Here & There

Between Here & There

Photo by Neil Moralee. Creative Commons License, Some Rights Reserved.https://www.flickr.com/photos/neilmoralee/9034449643/
Photo by Neil Moralee. Creative Commons License CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/
Between here and there, I chewed gum and sipped my iced tea. Between there and here, I listened to an audiobook before streaming music on my smartphone.

Nearly here, I exited the freeway.

The hybrid engine shifted to electric as I slowed. Adjusting the volume of my music, I read the cardboard sign as I came to a stop. I looked at the man holding the sign. His beard was more brown and black than my red but it featured the same expanding grey.

I reached over to the passenger seat for my wallet. Having broken my twenty as I came across the toll bridge, a ten, four singles, and a five occupied my wallet. I clasped the five and handed it to the man saying, “Bless you.”

That was when I saw a human being.

“Thank you, God bless you,” he responded with appropriate courtesy. Then he looked at the bill and exclaimed with excitement, “Wow! Thank you! God bless you!”

Given the joy in his voice, I wondered for a moment if I’d handed him a fifty but I never carry that much cash.

Between here and there, I was reminded of the sin of economic injustice wrought by the myths of rugged individualism and making capitalism an idol. On the corner of there and here, Jesus sported a scruffy beard and held up a cardboard sign.

Does God Play Favorites?

Does God Play Favorites?
Is is a Rodent Apartment or Swiss Cheese? Photo by Tim Graves
Is is a Rodent Apartment or Swiss Cheese? Photo by Tim Graves

When I saw it, I thought apartment building. When she saw it, she thought Swiss cheese.

Climbing the ridge I paused at the tree stump and exclaimed internally, Rodent Apartments! Moments later my hiking companion came up from behind and exclaimed audibly, “Swiss Cheese!” 

So, who was right? Were either of us right?

In my thinking, I noted the multiple holes. I proceeded to think about which creatures might be using this old stump. Then, I overlaid my conception of a place with multiple residences to describe it as Rodent Apartments. Of course, I did this in seconds.

She? I suspect she reacted to the visual appearance of the stump. In her mind, she then went through objects with multiple holes. Donuts, nope not quite. Golf course, not so much. Finally, her mind arrived at Swiss cheese. She, too, did this in microseconds.

Each of our descriptions use pre-existing understandings of the world around us. Each of us lay previous learnings on top of a new experience.

We all do this. A lot.

We use our own frame of reference to describe and understand things we encounter. The words and pictures and thought patterns we use when we do this reflect as much about us as the object or event. In other words, how we describe and understand things reflects who we are. It’s true of tree stumps, of our politics, and of the Bible.

***

The Bible.

There is no such thing as a fully objective reading of scripture. We can mitigate the risks of eisegesis. Eisegesis is the fancy term for reading our own ideas or desires into the Bible rather than allowing the meanings of the text to be drawn out.

That is, we impose our ideas on the Bible instead of letting it speak to us. 

We can lessen but never eliminate these personal and cultural biases from our understanding of the text. This is one of the reasons it is helpful to read scripture together in diverse community. Each of us hear slightly different things.

By bouncing thoughts off of one another we can more accurately hear the voices of our ancient kindred describing how they understood God.  We also — and most importantly — can more accurately perceive God’s still speaking voice and dream for our lives in the twenty-first century.

***

I tell you this because too often our personal history and our preconceived ideas block us from the power, the depth and the radicalism of God’s dream for humanity.

Our life experiences change what we think the Bible says regardless of what meaning was intended by the original writers. The only way around this is to build our own self- and cultural awareness within diverse community.

***

Consider, as people of relative means, when we hear Luke’s report of Jesus preaching,

Sell your possessions and give to those in need. Make for yourselves wallets that don’t wear out—a treasure in heaven that never runs out. No thief comes near there, and no moth destroys. Luke 12:33 CEB

As people of relative means, when we hear Jesus preach this, we tend to view it as a suggestion or as hyperbole because it demands a lot of us. It demands that we live differently than our culture and capitalism tell us to live. And, so, we interpret away our obligation.

Sometimes, we talk about spiritual poverty and pretend that Jesus was more concerned about how you and I feel about God than about physically feeding the poor or economic injustices in our world.

OR.

OR we say it is unrealistic and surely SURELY God doesn’t expect us to give up everything, not really. Sometimes we act like Jesus said, “clean out your kitchen cabinets and give the canned goods to the poor.”

Not bad to share food but not exactly what Jesus said.

OR.

OR we just dismiss it because, well, because we don’t want our faith to inconvenience us.

We can intellectualize away passages like this if we are not poor. However, it is more than just being able to intellectualize passages away. We actually hear what Jesus is saying differently because of our relative wealth.

Imagine if you can, how this same event sounds if you’re impoverished. Imagine you work three jobs and still keep falling behind on your bills.

Imagine that people look down their noses at you on the street.

Imagine your body is growing old before its time because you’ve lived most of your life without adequate health care and it’s hard to take a sick day even now because it means losing pay.

Hear how Jesus’ words might sound if you were poor. Listen as the poor person I described. I’m reading from Matthew’s version of the event this time.

Jesus said, “If you want to be complete, go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor. Then you will have treasure in heaven. And come follow me.”  Matthew 19:21 CEB

I don’t know about you but I hear Jesus affirm God’s favor for the poor.

And this is just one passage. Depending upon how narrowly or widely you define the terms, the Bible either addresses the needs of the poor and needy three hundred times or over two-thousand times. Either number is significant.

Either number is far, far above the number of times the Bible talks about, oh I dunno, homosexuality or abortion (zero) or unfaithfulness in marriage. The significance of the number is true no matter how widely we define our terms to do the counting of references.

If the biblical witness reflects the experiences of our ancient kindred with God, than God is deeply concerned about economic injustice in human society.That is, if our claim that the Bible is a collection of the stories, experiences, and theologies of our ancient forebears and that God speaks through the scripture, shouldn’t one of our chief concerns as Christians be the poor?

Theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez calls the Bible’s sheer numerical and thematic concern for the poor God’s “preferential option for the poor.” Says Gutiérrez:

But the poor person does not exist as an inescapable fact of destiny. His or her existence is not politically neutral, and it is not ethically innocent. The poor are a by-product of the system in which we live and for which we are responsible.

***

Does God play favorites? The short answer is yes. Jesus didn’t make this stuff up himself, though he clearly taught and preached it.  God’s concern for the poor is embedded in Jesus’ lived Judaism. It was ingrained in his day to day faith.

Recall that as a good Jew, Jesus’ own Bible was roughly our Old Testament. Not only would Jesus have known what we number as Psalm 113, scholar James L. Mays points out that as a traditional psalm sung at Passover,

The psalm would have been the first sung by Jesus and the disciples in the celebration of their last supper… (Psalms: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching by James L. Mays, Kindle loc. 7104)

Listen again to the first two verses:

Praise the Lord!

    You who serve the Lord—praise!
    Praise the Lord’s name!

Let the Lord’s name be blessed
    from now until forever from now!

Psalm 113:1-2 CEB

As you may recall, the Book of Psalms is a collection of writings and songs. More than any other book of our Bible it directly reflects the words of the people in relationship with God.

This particular psalm is a praise hymn that, along with 114, would be sung at the start of Passover. Notice how as this hymn progresses, the writer not only calls the people to worship but also gives reasons for doing so.

The LORD is high over all the nations;
God’s glory is higher than the skies!
Who could possibly
compare to the LORD our God? Psalm 113:4-5a CEB

Then in this hymn of praise, God’s particular concern for the poor is restated. Imagine as you hear this, Jesus and his disciples singing this on that last night of Jesus’ life.

God lifts up the poor from the dirt
and raises up the needy
from the garbage pile
to seat them with leaders—
with the leaders of his own people Psalm 113:7-8 CEB

As they sang it, they would have appreciated the poetry in the language in ways which we lose in English. The Hebrew verb yashav which is repeated in verses five, eight, and nine

suggest[s] that when God condescends from on high to raise up the lowly, God is exchanging some part of God’s nature and character with the humans that God is saving. (Beverly Roberts Gaventa & David Petersen, Eds., New Interpreters Bible (One Volume) Commentary, p. 341)

Jesus and his disciples understood God’s “preferential option for the poor” and reflected it not only in their teaching and healing and other daily actions but in their liturgical practices.

***

Does God Play Favorites? Yes.

It makes me squirm as it should you. It means that my wealth is a hindrance to my faith. It means that I ought to be doing more to unravel the sinful tapestry of our economic system, the one that keeps too many citizens of our world in poverty.

It means Jesus was serious.

We are called to live with less — to give away our possessions — and share with the poor. We’re called to follow the teachings of Jesus, to mimic his life by living like and among those without. In so doing, the poor, the needy, and the oppressed will be lifted up.

Jesus was serious. God is serious. It’s time that the church get serious about fundamental social change that benefits the oppressed and impoverished.

This is our great sin. This is our great hypocrisy. We sing songs of praise but too often leave out the verses that talk about how God comes down from on high to lift up those in need. We gloss over or forget that we are called to be God’s hands and feet in the world.

We keep waiting for God to fix the church or lift up the poor or end all manner of sins in the world but fail to respond to God’s beckoning voice calling us to be God’s hands and feet in the world.

We ignore what it means for God to play favorites for the poor and oppressed while we ignore the the teachings of Jesus calling us to let go of our wealth and dismantle the systems of oppression under which poor people are trapped.

We fail to do what the prophet Micah tells us God requires of us,

“to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with [our] God.” (Micah 6:8b CEB)

Sometimes we fail because our wealth and preconceived ideas keep us from hearing God’s still challenging voice. Sometimes we fail because we don’t like what Jesus teaches or what our ancient kindred heard God saying.

Often, it is just too much for us — me included — to admit that God favors the very people who we feel uncomfortable among. And, so, we alleviate our guilt by alleviating the symptoms.

But God calls us to radicalism.

Jesus teaches a new social order in which the poor are lifted from the dirt and the needy are raised from the garbage pile and seated among the leaders, the very leaders of God’s own people. (Psalm 113:7-8 CEB)

In the words of Gustavo Guitiérrez,

the poverty of the poor is not a call to generous relief action, but a demand that we go and build a different social order.

Does God play favorites? Yes, yes God does. The difficult question is the next one: what are we going to do about it?

Are we prepared to align our interests, our favorites with God’s priorities?  As individuals and as community, as church, are we prepared to embrace the radicalism of the faith we profess?

Amen.

___

This sermon was preached at the Condon (Oregon) United Church of Christ on Sunday, July 5, 2015.

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Enough Culpability to Go Around

Enough Culpability to Go Around

When I was trying on pacifism in my formative years, my peers would begin the classic argumentative questioning. “Would you kill if someone threatened your sister?” “Would you kill if it was the only way to save your own life?”

The goal — if there was an articulated goal in my society of children and teens — was to prove pacifism flawed because it was impossible to practice.

As a mature pacifist I know that given the right circumstances I could be driven to violence against another. Though I understand the harming of others to be out of bounds, I understand violent urges. I am human.

None of this negates my belief that pacifism is consistent with the teachings of Jesus and the interconnected divinity of creation. Harming another ultimately harms self.

***

Anytime we resort to violence, in the language of my faith, we sin. Violence, harming of another, is a tragedy and a failure because it breaks relationship. The perpetrator of violence is not the only one at fault. Typically there is plenty of sin to go around.

Context matters. When basic rights and needs are denied, when people are oppressed, and their call for relief and change go unheeded, the likelihood of physical violence increases.

When people go unheard, the ones who fail to listen and respond are at least as culpable as those who are driven to violence. My dog can accurately be called sweet and loving. However, if I were to taunt him, fail to meet his basic needs, and abuse him, couldn’t he be pushed to the limits of friendliness and lash out?

***

Now is the time for whites to accept our culpability in the pattern of police killings of blacks. Now is the time for us to stop tsk tsk-ing about property damage when our sisters and brothers are being killed!

We must listen to and believe our oppressed kindred and follow them in insisting on change. Despite what our media tell us, this is not about property damage. It is about the  taking of lives.

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Make, Dunk, Teach, & Doubt

Make, Dunk, Teach, & Doubt

I reject the connotation that make is about forcing my faith upon others. I don’t see any biblical evidence for it. In my reading of the gospels and epistles, I don’t perceive guilt, fear, or harassment as tools for spreading the Good News of abundant love. Watch or read Make, Dunk, Teach, & Doubt and the discussion that followed below.

*

It’s that word that always gets me. Make. Make sounds so very aggressive.

Therefore, go and make disciples Matthew 28:19a CEB

It doesn’t always bother me. Make a lasagna, Yum. Make love, a normal part of human relationships. Make a cup of tea, sophisticated and Brit. Make the bed, not fun but practical. Make a deck, can I point you to my house?

None of these uses bother me. So why do I bristle at that phrase?

Therefore, go and make disciples Matthew 28:19a CEB

I think I bristle at it because of the way I’ve seen, “Go and make disciples” too often play out. Evangelism — which really simply means to share the Good News — has for some become about forcing a particular point of view upon others.

I have experienced this firsthand when other Christians have shown up on my doorstep. I’ve experienced it when I was told, in this very building by someone from another church, that neither I nor the United Church of Christ meets their narrow definition of Christian.

You don’t get to be fifty something as I am without having been accosted once or twice or twenty times by zealous Christians over the years. This is especially true if you’ve spent anytime, as I have, in the Bible Belt.

[show video]

So this is the way I choose to think about it.

I reject the connotation that make is about forcing my faith upon others. I don’t see any biblical evidence for it. In my reading of the gospels and epistles, I don’t perceive guilt, fear, or harassment as tools for spreading the Good News of abundant love.

Make, strictly speaking, is not about forcing anything on anyone. Though some of our Christian brothers and sisters seem to do that, intentionally or unintentionally, I do not hear Jesus calling us to force feed a particular set of doctrines or dogmas that way.

It certainly doesn’t seem to me to be a very effective way of helping others perceive and practice the love that Jesus manifest in his life.

What I do hear Jesus telling his disciples, and by extension us, is to be the extravagant love throughout the world.

Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations…baptizing them…[and] teaching them Matthew 28:19a, 20a CEB

There are three key phrases here: make disciples; baptize them; and teach them. Let me touch on each of these one at a time.

First, Make. We are to make disciples…not force people into our way of thinking but befriend and love them. Like the phrase make friends [pause] make disciples is about building relationship with others.

Relationship by its very nature implies a certain give and take. It implies loving respect and compassion.

Jesus tells the eleven to make disciples of all the nations, that means everyone. All the nations is a wider mission than we’ve even seen in Jesus’ earthly life.

Second, Baptize. Jesus calls us to baptize others in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28: 19b CEB).

If we take this literally we need to dunk people in a whole lot of water. Real water. Wet water. Not just sprinkles.

Consider, however, that baptism is about the love of God coming over us.

Baptism is about a metaphorical re-birth. I like to think about the baptism here being a baptism not in literal water but in extravagant love. I think of it as a baptism into the loving ways of God.

Third, Teach. We are to teach about Jesus. We are to share what we’ve learned. This also, I think, implies that we are to listen and learn from one another.

Perhaps it is because I’m a former teacher but I wonder if this is the most critical word in all of this passage. Looking back over Jesus’ ministry, his most effective disciple making came from teaching folks about how to live as God calls.

***

So, now let’s look at a fourth key word in our reading from Matthew describing the risen Lord’s encounter with the eleven disciples on the mountaintop.

When they saw him, they worshipped him, but some doubted. Matthew 28: 17 CEB

Even some of the eleven doubted. This tells me that we can continue to make friends, to make disciples, to baptize one another in love, and teach and learn in the midst of our own doubt.

Doubt is an essential part of faith and right here, even after the resurrection, Matthew tells us that some of the eleven doubted. In the words of theologian Frederick Buechner,

“…If you don’t have doubts you’re either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants-in-the-pants of faith. They keep it alive and moving.” (Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC)

I don’t know about you but I find this reassuring. I can doubt while I build relationships with others. I can doubt while I tell others the stories of my faith and my own personal journey.

I can doubt whether I have the whole truth, while I listen to the stories of others’ spiritual journeys.

Together as one human family — as all the nations — we can learn what it means to baptize one another in the divine love that Jesus manifest in his life.

The Good News is we aren’t alone. We have one another and as the risen Jesus reminds us at the very end of Matthew,

Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age.” Matthew 28:20 CEB

Amen.

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This sermon and discussion took place at the Condon United Church of Christ on Sunday morning, April 12, 2015.

Just Such a Time for Resurrections

Just Such a Time for Resurrections

We find the resurrection not in selfishness or worry about personal salvation but in doing and risking for others. We find the Good News not when we exclude others but when we seek to include and love with extravagance! Read or watch the entire message below.

The story of his ministry begins in Galilee…

At that time Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan River so that John would baptize him. 16 When Jesus was baptized, he immediately came up out of the water. Heaven was opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God coming down like a dove and resting on him. 17 A voice from heaven said, “This is my Son whom I dearly love; I find happiness in him.” Matthew 3:13-17 CEB

***

The clouds hung low. It was an accurate sign, a symbol of how she felt. There was too much to do and when she tried to take time away, the phone would ring or the text would beep or someone would stop by to say hello, or complain, or share things she “should be aware of.”

It was supposed to be a day off. It was supposed to be a sabbath to replenish her soul…

The clouds hung low as she left the laptop, landline, and office walls that closed in around her. It was late to start out on a hike this time of the year especially on a day when the clouds hung so very low to the earth.

She left anyway.

She prayed that her spirit would be resurrected on the trail.

***

The clouds hung low over the Jews in the Persian empire. It was an accurate reflection of the grief that Mordecai, Esther’s uncle, felt.

The vindictive, petty, and self-important Haman had seen fit to manipulate the king into ordering the extermination of all the Jews in the empire. (A good Jew, Mordecai had refused to bow down before anyone but God. This riled Haman and led to the evil order of destruction.)

The clouds hung low as Mordecai donned sackcloth and ashes and grieved outside the palace gate.

He lamented to God in his prayers. He yearned for a resurrection that would save the Jewish people within the Persian empire.

***

The waving palms and blue skies of last week were a distant memory. Dark clouds hung over the disciples following the brutal death of Jesus on the cross.

Having denied Jesus, Peter and the other men who were his disciples were in hiding.

But the women who had been with Jesus all along, watched the horror from a distance. At the moment of his death a powerful earthquake opened the graves of many holy people and they were raised from death.

After his death, instead of hiding, the women left their worries behind so that they could be near the tomb.

Though the clouds hung low I imagine the graves that opened at the moment of Jesus’ death gave the women hope as they prayed for a resurrection for Jesus.

***

So often in our lives we find ourselves on Good Friday. The clouds hang low in our lives and we doubt that they will ever lift.

Our bodies that in our twenties we thought would never abandon us, show signs of permanent wear. We worry with each ache and pain if this is the new normal.

When a dear friend falls, we are shaken by an earthquake as powerful as the one upon Jesus’ death. We’re reminded of our vulnerability and mortality.

We look at the lack of civility in our world. The shouted opinions on social media and in Washington coupled with closed ears make us wonder if we’ve degenerated too far.

The values that have evolved in our culture that are so different than how we were taught cause us to wonder. Were we that wrong? Is the world that wrong? Can I change and grow and keep up?

When we see mothers and fathers sobbing on national television because their children —  young men of color — were gunned down and their bodies left on hot pavement for hours our hearts rip as surely as the temple curtain upon Jesus’ death.

When our children in this country and Kenya, are not even safe in their schools and nothing seems to change because we’re too busy yelling at one another instead of working together, the tears fall from our eyes as surely as the blood of Jesus oozed from the holes in his body on the cross.

We look around us in this sanctuary, with the Good Shepherd glass hovering over us, and we wonder why others — young and old — do not find the meaning here that we do?

The dark clouds hover low in the sky and we pray for a resurrection.

Like Mordecai, we lament, crying out to God. Where do we find the resurrection? How do we know when we are about to witness a resurrection?

What do we do in just such a time as this?

***

Queen Esther and Mordecai, the uncle who raised her, faced one of those times. The entire Jewish population was at risk of being exterminated millennia before Hitler was ever born.

The disciples, the women and men, who followed Jesus faced one of those times after the cross. Good Friday and Saturday were times of confusion and fear. Denial. Hiding. Fear. Probably depression and panic. These were the clouds that hung near the earth.

Sometimes it is difficult to feel hopeful or to perceive God’s desire for our lives. We can pray, we can meditate, and we can rack our brains trying to discern God’s will for us and still we are confused.

Then sometimes there are those moments like there was for Esther and like there was for the faithful women who refused to hide.

That is Good News!

God is still speaking even in our time. God is still calling to us, offering the Good News of resurrection. Death never NEVER gets the last word. Love wins. Always.

The question is, are we listening? The question is do we trust in the resurrection?

[pause]

Faced with the destruction of his people, Mordecai turns to his niece Queen Esther. Esther has been concealing her identity as a Jewish woman from even the King.

God speaks to Esther through Mordecai:

But who knows? Maybe it was for a moment like this that you came to be part of the royal family.” Esther 4:14b CEB

And she listens. She perceives the still speaking voice in the words of her uncle. Esther risks her own life for the salvation of the Jewish people in the empire!

Then, even though it’s against the law, I will go to the king; and if I am to die, then die I will.” Esther 4:16b CEB

Esther focuses on the divine claim upon her life. She strives first for the realm of God rather than her own personal well-being.

My friends, that is faith in God! That is trusting in the Good News! That is divine resurrection in action!

Because she listened for God, because she took a leap of faith when she was unsure how things would turn out, God was able to co-create with her just such a time for a resurrection.

Like Esther, the women who refused to hide with the eleven men — the twelve minus Judas — opened their whole selves to the revelation of God.

In Matthew’s version of the story, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary go to the tomb not with spices to anoint a dead body but to be near Jesus.

Mary Magdalene and the other Mary have been paying attention to the teachings of Jesus. There are those moments in our lives when God breaks in if we but listen.

Instead of huddling in fear as the eleven men did, the Marys do not let fear or depression or panic keep them from hiking the trail placed before them.

They are not disappointed:

Look, there was a great earthquake, for an angel from the Lord came down from heaven. Coming to the stone, he rolled it away and sat on it…But the angel said to the women, “Don’t be afraid. I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 6 He isn’t here, because he’s been raised from the dead, just as he said. Come, see the place where they laid him. Matthew 28:2, 5-6 CEB

Because the Marys listened for God, because they took a leap of faith when they were unsure whether they would be safe in public, God was able to use them in just such a time as this.

Now hurry, go and tell his disciples, ‘He’s been raised from the dead.”…With great fear and excitement, they hurried away from the tomb and ran to tell his disciples. 9 But Jesus met them and greeted them. Matthew 28:7a, 8a-9 CEB

My friends, that is faith in God! That is trusting in the Good News! That is divine resurrection in action!

***

When we risk our own well-being, our sense of security…

When we risk the status quo so that God might co-create something new in our broken and fragmented world, we are living as God intends.

One of the great sins of our Christian faith is our overemphasis on personal salvation. That overemphasis leads us to selfishness and failure to take risks for others.

It was selfishness — Rome’s fear that Jesus’ teachings and actions could lead to their loss of power — that led to the crucifixion.

We find the resurrection not in selfishness or worry about personal salvation but in doing and risking for others.

We find the Good News not when we exclude others but when we seek to include and love with extravagance!

Notice that the first thing Jesus does after his resurrection is send the disciples back to Galilee, where it all began?

The Good News is that the story is not over. It’s as if Jesus is saying, “We’re gonna start all over again, only this time you’re gonna do the heavy lifting.”

***

The clouds hung low. It was an accurate sign, a symbol of how she felt. There was too much to do and when she tried to take time away, the phone would ring or the text would beep or someone would stop by to say hello, or complain, or share things she “should be aware of.”

It was supposed to be a day off. It was supposed to be a sabbath to replenish her soul. [trail off…]

The clouds hung low as she left the laptop, landline, and office walls that closed in around her. It was late to start out on a hike this time of the year especially on a day when the clouds hung so very low to the earth.

She left anyway.

She prayed that her spirit would be resurrected on the trail.

As she trudged upward, the low hanging clouds obscured her view and her hope. Her angst and worry became despair.

Good Friday wrapped around her.

From noon until three in the afternoon the whole earth was dark. 46 At about three Jesus cried out with a loud shout, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani,” which means, “My God, my God, why have you left me?” Matthew 27:45-46 CEB

In her troubles, each step became a lament to God. Each step became a brutally honest emotion. And each footfall was heard by the same God who heard Jesus’ cries on the cross.

My God, my God, why have you left me? Matthew 27:46b CEB

Reaching a clearing, Heaven was opened to her and she saw the Spirit of God revealed through a break in the clouds. The mountain glistened in the sunlight.

She dropped to her knees in awe that the creator saw fit to love her. As tears were released from her eyes, she praised the One whose love is for everyone.

As she returned to the trailhead, she felt refreshed by the holy spirit of God that had washed over her.

The Good News of the resurrection was for her, too. The Good News is that the resurrection is for you and for me.

Praise be to the bountiful love that in the end will always overcome the low hanging clouds that encircle us. Praise be to the extravagant love that overcomes even death.

***

The story begins again in Galilee…

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshipped him, but some doubted. 18 Jesus came near and spoke to them, “I’ve received all authority in heaven and on earth.

Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20  teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you.

Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age.” Matthew 28:16-20 CEB

The story begins again in Galilee… only this time, it is our job to be the Good News of infinite love.

You are God’s beloved!
As are you!

Open your hearts, your minds, and listen. God is still speaking! We live in just such a time for resurrections!

Amen.

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This sermon was delivered at the Condon United Church of Christ on Easter Sunday, April 5, 2015 by Tim Graves. The text for the sermon was Esther 4:14-17 and Matthew 28:1-10. Scripture quotations come from the Common English Bible, copyright 2011.

Related

Did A Dead Man Really Return to Life? April 7, 2012

The Essence

The Essence
Photo by Tim Graves. Creative Commons License BY-NC-ND 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/us/
Photo by Tim Graves. Creative Commons License BY-NC-ND 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/us/

Resurrection is a truth. We see its evidence as clearly in nature as in our ancient texts. The loving divinity that fuels our existence always trumps death. This is the essence of the Good News of Easter.

 

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Related

Did a Dead Man Really Return to Life? April 7, 2012