Tuesday, April 25, 2017

This Jesus -- Second Sunday of Easter

Acts 2:14a, 22-36
April 23, 2017

            Because I grew up in a different denomination, I did not fully understand the seasons of the church year until I became an adult and a Presbyterian. Before that, all I really celebrated was Christmas, Easter, and we threw a glancing nod at Palm Sunday. The shepherds and the wise men from the East all showed up at the manger on the same night, and while we talked about Jesus dying on the cross for our sins – a lot – I had no idea about Maundy Thursday, Good Friday or Holy Week. When I became a Presbyterian, I went from celebrating only Christmas and Easter to observing Advent, Christmas, Christmastide, Epiphany, Ash Wednesday, Lent, Holy Week, Easter, Eastertide, Pentecost, and Ordinary Time.
When I went to seminary and discovered the wonder that is the Presbyterian Planning Calendar, I was given another gift. Inside this calendar is another calendar with all the church seasons blocked off – not just according to date, but by color!
            There’s a lot of green – that’s Ordinary Time; purple – that’s Advent and Lent – although Alice and I have gone rogue and introduced royal blue for Advent into the mix. Then there’s one lovely splash of red for Pentecost Sunday, and there’s white, for the time we are in right now – Easter.
            This organized, color-coded, symmetrical dream is how I want my life to look. That really is a dream and one not likely to come true. Real life gets messy and refuses to stay neatly boxed on a calendar square. Lines are blurred all over the place! So, if I want my life to be as organized as this church calendar, then why, why am I choosing to preach on this passage from Acts rather than the story that follows Jesus’ resurrection in the gospel of John?!
            That would make more sense. It would follow a more logical pattern. But the designers of the lectionary – the selection of passages assigned to each Sunday – have blurred the lines of Easter by designating passages from the book of Acts to be used between now and Pentecost. And I’m jumping into the confusion and chaos by preaching on them.
            I use the word confusion because the text we have from Acts today and for the next two Sundays is from Peter’s sermon on Pentecost. This is the sermon he preaches after the coming of the Holy Spirit, after tongues of flame rested on his and the other apostles’ heads, after people from all over the Diaspora heard the gospel in their own language, after some people in the crowd accused Peter and the others of being drunk. This is the sermon that Peter preaches after the coming of the Holy Spirit, so why are we reading about it now, today, when we are still in the Easter season?
            Perhaps one downside of following the seasons of the church is that it is easy to think of the events of that season happening only in that season. Our calendar was created to order the church year by following the life of Christ and “the events of salvation history.” But while Jesus of history was born and died and resurrected on particular dates, in the life of faith these events roll into one another. Lines are blurred and crossed all over the place. Through the eyes of faith, Jesus’ birth is never disconnected from his death. Through the eyes of faith, Jesus’ resurrection walks hand-in-hand with the coming of the Holy Spirit.
            Officially, we may be in the Easter, white-coded, block of the church year. The red of Pentecost is still several weeks away, but just as resurrection, new life, is not a one time event, neither is the coming of the Holy Spirit. God’s Spirit whooshed across the chaos and breathed creation into existence. God’s Spirit rushed through that tomb, and soared out into the open with the rolling away of the stone. Jesus’ resurrection from death into new life loosed God’s love and power into the world in a new way. The resurrection of Jesus the Christ and the rush of the Holy Spirit work together. There are no lines between them, keeping one apart from the other. With the resurrection of Jesus, the power of the Holy Spirit was set free in the world in a new way. Peter, also filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, understood this. He did not see Resurrection and Pentecost through the lines of a calendar. He understood these two events as making up the whole of the new thing God was – and is – doing. They were the foundation of God’s working in the world.
            “This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you both see and hear.”
            This Jesus God raised up. Peter’s sermon has multitudes of layers. It is not only a testimony on Peter’s part to the power of God, or to the Jesus that Peter imperfectly followed as a disciple. It is accusatory of the Israelites who handed Jesus over to the authorities. For centuries, that accusation has been used by the Church to justify persecution and atrocities against the Jewish people. In the same breath, Peter also makes it clear that what happened to Jesus was done because of God, because of God’s ultimate plan for Jesus and for the world God created. So there is a difficult tension between the blame placed on the Israelites and between the preordaining by God that Peter seems to be clearly referencing.
            But it is also one Israelite speaking to other Israelites. One commentator wrote that Acts was written for insiders. It was written for the folks who were supposed to already know God, and for those who knew the Scriptures and the prophecies of the Messiah; even if they rejected Jesus as the Messiah. Certainly, Peter seems to be speaking from the assumption that the people listening were ones familiar with the Psalms. They would have been familiar with David’s words about the coming of the Messiah. Peter preached from an assumption that the people in that crowd knew the God of power and might, even if they could not see how God’s power was at work in the raising up of this Jesus.
            There are many layers to this sermon, and my hope is that we will be able to unpack some of those layers over the next few weeks. But for now, for this moment, let us – the insiders, the churchgoers, the ones who have proclaimed faith in God through this Jesus – let us also claim our faith in the power of the Holy Spirit. The Resurrection and Pentecost are only two separate events on the pages of a calendar. In the mysterious workings of God, they are together. This Jesus God raised up was and is the Word in the beginning, the Word made flesh, the Word who continues to blow new life into what is seemingly dead. This Jesus God raised up in power is in relationship with the Holy Spirit who whooshes through the world and through us with that same power. The power of Pentecost is ours today. The resurrection from death to new life happens now.
            It was impossible for this Jesus God raised up to be held by death’s power. Isn’t that the truth we rejoice in on Easter Sunday, and on Christmas morning, and on Pentecost and throughout Epiphany? This Jesus God raised up could not be held by death’s power.
            In verse 26, Peter quotes from Psalm 15. The translation before us is satisfactory.
“Therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced; moreover my flesh will live in hope.”
Yet in the Greek of the Septuagint – the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures – that second phrase reads more like this:
“My flesh has pitched its tent on hope.”
My flesh has pitched its tent on hope. Jesus raised up, God working in the world, the Holy Spirit creating new out of old, life out of death; that is the hope on which we pitch our tents. That is the joy of Easter, the power of Pentecost, the anticipation of Advent, the somber reflection of Lent, the sorrow of Holy Week; that is the theme of the church year, the reason for the liturgical colors, the point of every church season. Our flesh, our minds, our hearts, our souls, our very beings have pitched our tents on hope.
Thanks be to God: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. We have pitched our tents on hope.

Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Resurrection Perspective -- Easter Sunday

Matthew 28:1-10
April 16, 2017

            “Joy to the world! The Lord is come! Let earth receive her King! Let every heart prepare him room, and heaven and nature sing. And heaven and nature sing. And heaven, and heaven and nature sing!”
            When I was in my first church as a solo pastor and preparing for my first Easter Sunday as a solo pastor, I read an article in some homiletics journal about different ways to approach Easter worship. The author suggested that in order to remind your parishioners of the intrinsic connection between Christmas and Easter it was completely appropriate to sing “Joy to the World.” After all, are we not joyful this morning? Should we not be shouting our praises from hilltop to hilltop, and making the valleys echo with the sound of our voices singing out,
“Joy to the world! The Lord is come! Let earth receive her King!”
All this may be true, but a few members of the congregation did not get the memo. And they made sure that I knew that. They were lovely, forgiving people who gave me a lot of room to try new things, but singing a Christmas carol on Easter Sunday was just too much. It was jarring and felt wrong. It shook them up, and they were not prepared for the shaking.
We are not going to sing “Joy to the World” this morning. You won’t hear anymore of it than what I just sang. But even though we are leaving the Christmas carols to Christmas, we cannot avoid the shaking that comes with Easter.
Just as a quake shook the earth at the moment of Jesus’ death, a second quake rocked the earth as the angel descended from heaven and rolled away the stone to the tomb. Sitting on the stone, the angel, with his lighting bright, dazzling appearance, must have been both splendid and terrifying all at the same time. It is easy for me to understand how the soldiers sent to guard the tomb must have fainted away in the face of this awful and awesome angelic presence. Yet, how ironic that in this moment of LIFE, the guards fall down as though dead; they could not bear the shaking.
Surely Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were equally as thrown by the descent of the angel as were the soldiers. But they saw the angel through a different lens, a different perspective. The angel’s descent did not send them into a dead faint. They were not overcome by fear, but seemed to take the angel’s words, “Do not be afraid” to heart. They heard the good news about their Teacher, and understood that the promises of God were now fulfilled. Everything was different. The shaking did not make the women fall. Instead, it gave them swift feet.
We may not be having an earthquake at this moment – although we here in Oklahoma know a little bit about that – but the ground is still shaking and quaking, rocking and rolling beneath our feet. Easter is that earthquake. A seismic event signaled the announcement of an empty tomb, and Easter is a cosmic event that signals that God is not done. God is not done – not done with us, not done with the world. Everything is shaken up. Everything is different and changed and new. Easter is here, He is risen, and the ground beneath our feet is shaking, rolling over and over, because the Lord is come. Joy to the world!
Joy to the world is wonderful, but I don’t think the world knows it is supposed to be joyful. The struggle I have every Easter, and every Christmas for that matter, is that I feel joyful and exuberant in here. I am overflowing with love and hope in here, in this place. But I cannot stay in this place. I have to go out there. And out there is still so broken. There is still so much pain, so much turmoil, so much hatred and hurting and killing and death. There is still so much death. If Easter is the earthquake, shaking the world to its very foundations, spinning even the cosmos into new patterns of glory, then the world seems not to have noticed. Nothing seems to have changed … and yet everything is changed because we are changed. How can we not be changed by that empty tomb? How can we not be changed by the knowledge that this day was and is about God? God resurrected Jesus not for Jesus’ sake alone, but for ours. A colleague once said that he can understand why God would resurrect Jesus, but us? And yet that’s what God did. That is what God is doing, resurrecting us from our old ways of living and being and seeing the world. Resurrection is not just a one-time event; it is a new perspective, a new way of seeing not just the world but the people who inhabit it.
Resurrection is a new perspective. It is like old eyes being made new. Easter may not seem to change anything, but we see differently. Resurrection is not something reserved for the last day or the end of time; it is a new perspective now. We see differently now. We have been given new eyes to see God working in this world, a new heart to feel God’s presence in this world, and new mind to understand God creating and re-creating in this world. We have been given a new perspective, a resurrection perspective.
Yesterday, Brent and I watched a video of a family gathering centered on their grandfather. The grandpa was color blind. The gift his family gave him was a special pair of sunglasses. When he put them on, he saw color for the first time. He saw the green of the grass and the blue of his ball cap. Those lenses gave him the gift of color. They gave him the gift of a new perspective. Easter is a new pair of glasses that allow us to see a glimpse of the world as it was created to be. It gives us new eyes, new lenses, new perspective.
When the women ran from the tomb, filled with both great fear and great joy, they met Jesus, the risen Christ. The New Revised Standard Version we read from translates his first word to the women as “Greetings.” But this is not a great translation. Put it into modern vernacular, and we hear Jesus welcoming the women with ‘Hi there!” But a better translation is “Rejoice.” Jesus meets the women and tells them, “Rejoice!” The women’s response was to fall before him and take his feet. He repeated the angel’s words, “Do not be afraid.”
Rejoice! Do not be afraid. These are the new lenses Easter gives us. These are the frames of our resurrection perspective. Rejoice! Do not be afraid. We know that the world is still caught in darkness. Harm is still done. Danger still lurks. Resurrection does not magically fix that which is broken, waving a wand of wonder over creation. But we are able to see beyond the dark’s long shadows. We are able to see the wholeness lying just beneath the broken places. We are able to see the ongoing presence of the risen Christ. We are able to see God everywhere, in every place, in every person.
Easter shakes the ground we walk on. Because of it we see with new eyes. We see with a new perspective: a resurrection perspective. And now that we see, we are also called to go, to tell others, to share the good news, to witness that we too have seen the Lord!
Rejoice! Do not be afraid. Rejoice! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017


            This morning as I was driving my son to the high school, we were stopped for a moment in front of the elementary school around the corner from our house. The crossing guard, with her bright orange vest and brighter red sign, halted traffic to let a little boy wearing a backpack almost as big as him cross the street. As the flow of traffic began to move again, I noticed his mother still standing at the spot where he left her. I instinctively knew that she would stand there until the doors of the school closed behind him. She would not stop watching until her son was inside and safe. Then I began to cry.
            If my son noticed my tears, he kindly did not say anything. Why did this maternal act by someone I don't know release this intense emotion in me? Because isn’t that what every mother and every father wants for their children? We just want them to be safe. It doesn’t matter who we are, where we live, the appearance of our skin, the religion we adhere to, the creeds we confess, the politics we uphold. We just want our children to be safe. I am a mom of two teenagers; one drives and the other is learning. They are both busy, not just with school and extracurricular activities, but with creating their own lives – lives that are taking them slowly but surely away from me. This is how it is supposed to be. I know that there is so much that I cannot control. I know that I can never fully keep them safe. But for every potential danger I can imagine that might happen, them being attacked by their own government with chemical weapons or being starved to death by famine – I do not and cannot imagine that. Yet it happens to other children. It happened yesterday in Syria, and the famine in parts of Africa grows more intense.
            I am a coward. I cannot look at the pictures of little ones being asphyxiated. I cannot bear to see the pictures of babies so emaciated they cannot cry. But my heart breaks nonetheless. I know that with this terrible attack in Syria yesterday that there will be much posturing by politicians and others about the evils of Islam. This latest atrocity will become new fodder for those who seek a 21st century religious crusade. Yet it seems to me that inhumanity begins at home. The truth is the least of these, the poor and the vulnerable, are not safe and never will be as long as those in power, regardless of religion, see other humans as disposable and as pawns in their ongoing game of dominance and political wins.
            But here’s the thing, I believe that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Does that mean that the God I worship just took on a human shell? I don’t think so. I don’t believe it. I believe that God became flesh because God values flesh. God values these frail, fragile bodies of ours. Whatever you may believe or not believe, the man Jesus spoke hard truths to the powerful, and loved the people who were most marginalized in his society and context. He called the powerful out for their hypocrisy and their willingness to exploit those who had no voice. And his righteous ire was aimed at the religious leaders first. Well I’m one of them. I’m a religious leader, and this morning I feel his indignation most acutely. I have remained silent in the face of power.
            I love my two sweet children so dearly. I would do anything for them. But those babies in Syria are also my children. The children here who are hungry and afraid are my children. They are our children. How can I claim to be a person of faith and not feel that? I cannot. If my heart were not breaking wide open with grief at the suffering of the world’s children, then something would be wrong with me. I do not know what to do to help. This is an attempt to write through my deep sense of helplessness. I just know that I cannot remain silent. I cannot remain silent, because like every parent I just want our children to be safe.  

Monday, April 3, 2017

The Living Starts Now -- Fifth Sunday in Lent

Ezekiel 37:1-14 
April 2, 2017

            It must have been so quiet, this valley of death. No sound; no terrible squawks from birds of prey or grunts from stalking predators come to feed. Nothing left to feed upon. It must have been so quiet, this valley of death. No whisper of wind or breath of breeze. There were just bones; dry, dead, whitewashed bones, growing whiter still in the glare and heat of the relentless sun.
            Brought by God’s hand, God’s Spirit, Ezekiel stood in that valley, in the midst of those dry bones and stared into the burning silence. God’s question broke the quiet,
            “Mortal, can these bones live?”
            Ezekiel understood that was up to God. He responded,
            “O Lord, God, you know.”
            God did know. God does know. God commanded Ezekiel to prophesy to those dry, dead bones. Prophesy to those dry bones, and tell them to hear the Word of the Lord. Tell those dead, dry bones that the Lord will give them breath again and they shall live. Prophesy to those dry bones that the Lord will knit them together with sinew, cover them with flesh, fill them with breath and they shall live.
            Ezekiel prophesied. He preached to the dead, dry bones. He spoke God’s Word, and even before every word had left his lips, the bones began to shake and move. It must have been a powerful noise. The dead silence of the valley replaced with a deafening din of rattling bones resurrecting, reconnecting, rejoining one to another.
            Just as God said, the bones became skeletons and the skeletons took on flesh and shape and form. But still there was no life in those bones. There was no breath in those bones.
            So God commanded Ezekiel to prophesy to the breath. Prophesy to the ruah, the same breath, wind, spirit that in the beginning God breathed on that formlessness and void, that chaos, and called creation into being. Prophesy to the breath, call the breath to come from the four winds and breathe on these bones, these slain bones. Fill them with breath so that they might live.
            Ezekiel prophesied to the breath and the ruah, and the breath flooded the valley and filled the bones with its life, and people, living, breathing people, stood in that valley. Dry bones lived. Dead bones lived. People, children of God, lived again in that valley of death now valley of the living.
            “Mortal, can these bones live?”
            These were not just any dry, dead bones brought to life. The Lord told Ezekiel that this valley of dry bones was Israel; Israel, the children of God who had turned away from God again and again. This valley of dry bones was Israel; the people of God who had been defeated by the Babylonians, seen Jerusalem reduced to smoking ruins, and had been exiled, scattered north, south, east and west. Many must have been killed in the process. And those that were not physically dead were dead in their hearts and souls. You see this valley of death that the Lord brought Ezekiel to see was not just about death, it was about despair. Israel felt cut off from God. They were lost. They despaired.
            But as surely as those dry, dead bones were brought back to life, created again as children of God, then Israel would be brought back to life, resurrected from death into new life.
            It might seem strange that two weeks before Easter, the Day of Resurrection, we are reading and hearing stories about resurrection. They are not stories about Jesus being resurrected, true, but they are still stories of resurrection; of life resurrected from what was dead. The bones in that valley were really, really dead. Lazarus had been in the tomb four days. He too was really, really dead. Yet in both stories, the dead lived. And in two weeks we will hear again the stories of Jesus being crucified, really, really dead, and living again.
            So why talk about resurrection now? Why not wait until Easter? I think we, perhaps unwittingly, reserve resurrection for Easter Sunday. Yet, it is clear from these two passages and from so many others that we find in scripture, that new life happened at any time and in any place. New life happens at any time and in any place. I believe this. This is the good news of the gospel that I proclaim and preach. I write about it. I talk about it. The problem is, though, that I’m not very good about living it.
            I think about new life in future terms. The resurrection will happen at the last day. When I die I will be reunited with the people I have loved who have gone before me. I may wish that dead bones could be brought back to life right now, as they did in Ezekiel’s vision, but I know that sometime in the future, I will see those dead bones live again.
            But dry, dead bones are not just what are left of a physical body. There have been times in my life when I have felt, emotionally, spiritually, mentally, as dry and dead as those bones in that valley. There have been times when I have been so lost, so despairing, that I may as well have been nothing more than a skeleton in some desert. God told Ezekiel that those dead bones were more than just forgotten skeletons too. They were the children of Israel. They were the Israelites who were alive, but not living. They were filled with breath, but not with the Spirit of God. They were walking and talking, but were dead to hope because of despair.
            Yet God will not let our despair win. God will not let our dry, dead bones stay that way. We may look at those dead bones and see nothing more than that. But God looked at those bones and saw life. We may look at ourselves, our lives, our church, and see only dead bones. But God sees more. God sees life.
            And that new life is happening now. Resurrection is not limited to one day of the year. Resurrection is happening now, starting now. The living, the new living, is starting now. New life happens, new life starts, when we are able to look at our lives and this world with hope. It happens when we trust that God is acting in our lives, whether we see that action or not. New life happens when we let go of despair – that thing which surely makes us dead before we die – and  remember the One who called us into being. The living starts now when we remember that we are being shaped and formed and re-created by the Spirit again and again and again.
            God can breathe new life into dry, dead bones. God can breathe new life into us, into hearts and souls that may feel dry and dead as well. God can breathe new life into our congregation. When we believe that, when we trust God, when we give into hopefulness and let go of despair, we can live new lives. Right now. This moment. We are resurrected – not in two weeks, but right now. The living, our living, starts now.
            Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.