Sunday, May 29, 2011

Reflection on Acts 17:22-31

What would you think of God if someone came into your life, watched you from afar for weeks, listened well, felt their way into your struggles and hopes, walked beside you through your daily tasks, learned the language of your life, and then presented God to you using the words and images of your own life? Would you be able to see God’s relationship with you as clearly as if someone had just wiped the fog from the glass of your bathroom mirror? What would you give to have Christ’s love put into the words of your own life? Would you give up all you own to have such a chance? And, with your new understanding, would you care for someone else in the same sort of way so that they too could have the sort of life in Christ that you have?

Unfortunately, I am not so certain that all of us get that sort of tender care and concern for our spiritual development. Often our first encounters with Jesus look a lot like the children’s sermon that Randele and I sat through while in seminary. The pastor invited all of the kids to the front of the church and then asked the simple question, “Why did your parents bring you here today?” Of course, the pastor held a young child in his mind that would wisely answer, “Because at our baptisms our parents promised that they would bring us here so that we might know the unconditional love of God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” The vision of this spiritual honors student floated around in his head while the very real children before him raised their hands. Choosing a young boy, he asked again, “Why did you parents bring you here today?” In an exacerbated tone, the boy answered, “Because kids can’t drive.” Duh! Of course, since kids can’t drive, their parents drove them to church. You could literally see on the pastor's face the vision of his spiritual honor student pop as all of the children mutinously agreed that this was indeed the best and most obvious answer.

Sometimes I think back on that children’s sermon, and I wonder how differently it would have been if the pastor had taken time to simply play with the children of his congregation. Would he have been able to learn and use their own language to tell them about baptism and Jesus. What if he had simply remembered what it was like to take a bath? Would the fleeing dirt in the water have given him an idea as to how he might talk about sin and God’s cleansing grace?

As the Apostle Paul entered Athens, he did something that today we might see as extraordinary because we have such busy lives; he simply walked around and looked and listened. He went through the city and stared at their statues, looked inside their temples, read their plaques, and studied their poets. What Paul noticed as he looked around was a plaque underneath a statue. The dedication read, “to an unknown god.” What Paul saw, was that God was already at work here. What Paul saw was that the Athenians were open to seeing God and God is…they had no preconceptions.

Only after taking the time to learn about who the Athenians were and what they thought and how they lived, did Paul decide to paint a picture of Jesus, the unknown God, who has come down to earth and made himself known.

What would it be like to have Christ’s love put into the words of your own life?

How much joy would a farmer have when the farmer learned that God’s word is like seed that was spread and fell onto good soil? Would he understand and scatter the seed on other farmers?

How much joy would a homemaker have when she learns that life with God is as abundant as yeast that raises the bread so much that it spills out of the pan? Would she understand and spill God’s love on other homemakers?

How much joy would a poor person have when he or she learns that, in God’s kingdom, all of the awards shows would honor them; the poor, the blessed. Would they run into the streets and shout for joy that they have not been forgotten?

Over the years I have learned a lot about living in Jesus and Jesus in me. There is much more to learn I am sure, but one thing that I do know is that, through the Holy Spirit, Jesus walks beside me…not moving too quickly…taking the time to see and listen and learn my language, and then shaping me using words and images and stories that I can understand.

Have you ever considered just walking with someone, learning their language, and seeing what God is up in their lives, and then, using their own words, revealing the unknown God to them? Belief is more than simply accepting and reciting a Creed. It is an actual relationship with Christ. And, relationships require some time to learn each others’ languages before the friendship can grow. So, have you ever considered just walking with someone, so that through a relationship they may gain Jesus’ assurance to all?

Reflection on John 20:19-31

There are a few things that I refuse to do today, and most of them surround Thomas the twin! The first thing that I refuse to do today is to call Thomas by his common nickname: Doubting Thomas. Such a derogatory name makes Thomas sound like a weak of faith, short, and depressed disciple. The name makes him sound like the primary actor in a black and white Zoloft commercial. “Do you find that you cannot believe in the Lord at least four times a week? Do you have chest pains at the sound of his name or troubles trusting in his word? Maybe Zoloft can help.” Cannot you just imagine the image of a modern Thomas sitting silhouette in a window, staring gloomily outside with the bible uselessly collecting dust on the floor nearby?

But, Thomas is not depressed, and I can prove it. When most of the disciples are mopping about, locked in their little tomb of a room in fear of the Judeans (this is the same time when Jesus comes and appears to them) guess who has not holed himself up in a little room and therefore was not there to see Jesus? Thomas, of course. Who knows where Thomas is when Jesus reveals himself, but at least Thomas is out in the world. Unlike his fellow disciples, Thomas is far from depressed.

Nor, is Thomas plagued by the lack of trust in God that his nickname, Doubting Thomas, seems to imply. Thomas does not have a problem trusting in God. He is the one who leads the rest of the disciples to “go and die” with Jesus when Jesus reentered hostile territory in order to raise Lazarus from the dead. Now, that is trust. How could I possibly degrade this courageous soul by dubbing him “Doubting Thomas?”

Of course, there is the part where he refuses to believe that Jesus is risen. But, refusing to believe off hand what someone else has experienced can hardly be considered doubt, it is merely unbelief. Doubt and unbelief are not quite the same. Doubt is a deep, fundamental lack of trust. Unbelief is just that, not being able right now to believe something; a condition caused by lack of evidence. And, the next time you to sit down next to the fireplace and crack open the Greek Bible for a little bit of light reading, if you looked at this story you would see that the Bible never says that Thomas “doubted.” Trusting God was not his problem, but I do think he did have one issue: he did not want to be hurt again.

You can hear it in his words, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” He refuses to simply let himself be hurt like this again. The very person, whose cause Thomas previously would have died for, was gone. Unless, Thomas can have proof, he will not be hurt again! This is not doubt, this is wisdom, and I can understand it.

I can understand it. People get their hopes high all the time, only to have them destroyed in seconds. I knew of a woman who had her hopes set on a man who might deliver her from the poverty stricken houses of her childhood. She did not ever want to find her shelter under a car again in her life. The woman poured her heart and soul and entire life savings into this wonderful man, who promptly took her savings and gambled it away. Guess what, she found herself taking shelter under a car once again. After the man was gone from her life, she was skeptical of future men; as she should have been. She would not be hurt again.

And, Thomas is skeptical, as he should be. You do not just pour your heart and soul into someone again after being hurt like that. Thomas is no fool. You need proof the second time. Thomas needs proof that the Lord really is back. He needs to see and feel with his own eyes and hands.

Unbelief is an underrated virtue. The gift of unbelief…the gift of skepticism…is a gift from God and it allows a person to focus on the truth, rather than simply what others say is the truth.

I refuse to say anything against Thomas this morning because, rather than being the doubting disciple who lacks belief like I have heard so many other preachers spout out of their mouths, I see that Thomas is actually a model disciple of sorts. He did not fear death, nor those who might bring it to him, either before or after Jesus’ crucifixion. In addition, he never simply trusted what anyone said, even those closest to him, preferring to see and feel the truth for himself. Preferring to be close to Christ; preferring to abide in Christ and Christ in him.

And, there is one last thing that makes him a great. It is the one gift from God…ability really…that I hope each of us can take away with us this morning. When Thomas looked and touched, he not only saw Jesus, but he saw God. Thomas is the only person in scripture to look at Jesus and say, “My Lord, and my God.” When Thomas looks around and studies what is in front of him with his skeptical eye, he is able to see God at work in the world.

God is at work in the world; despite the pain and despite the loss. Really, God is there, even in the tornado damage of the south and the fallen houses of Japan and Haiti, and in the streets of Towanda, and even in your own friends and family. It may be difficult, but look hard, God is at work, present with the joyful and suffering alike. May we have the eyes of Thomas to see God, so that we can join in the work God is doing.

Reflection on Matthew 28:1-10

Jesus Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, Alleluia. I once had a pastor who made us say that phrase over and over and over again Easter morning.  "How many times are you going to make us do that today!" I asked myself.

As if he could hear my thoughts, he declared, "We are going to say this until you mean it!"

“Until you mean it,” that is what another pastor said to me during my teenage years…alright he did not say it to “me,” he said it to everyone. But, I felt like he said it to me, and I feared that every time he made us shout that thing the word “dork” would slowly scribble again across my face until I was completely blackened with dorkyness. “Stop Pastor already, you are embarrassing me in front of all of the other Christians who are saying it too at the exact same time.” Alright, I was a teenager so cut me some slack. I was focused on myself and I did care about what I said and did. And, I did not think it was honest to shout something that I did not even understand. Say it until you mean it…what if I did not mean it? What if I did not even know what it meant in the first place? “He is risen indeed.” Who cares?

Well, Mary Magdalene cared for one.

Mary Magdalene comes in and shouts to the disciples that Jesus is risen, and that she has seen him!

For Mary this was not just some embarrassing, ancient, out-of-date church rite. For Mary, the sight of Jesus raised from the dead was the unsealing of a tomb for her life. You have to understand, Mary and all of Jesus followers put their whole lives into his ministry. Mary went as far as putting even her money and trust into Jesus. So, you can see how the execution and death of the one she trusted meant her own death, both emotionally and probably even financially. All of her hopes and dreams were sealed in the tomb with Jesus. And, as we all know, once tombs are sealed, there is no coming back. Her hopes were gone, for good.

Have you even been there? Have you ever had your hopes and dreams buried away in a tomb? Maybe, someone else buried them for you: telling you that you would never be good enough or smart enough.

Tim was convinced that he would never amount to anything. I have to say right out that Tim was a brilliant teenager. He did extremely, extremely well in school. He simply was a genius, and he was kind and caring on top of it all. Now, at this point, I understand that this story makes no sense to you. How can such a great kid feel like he would never amount to anything? Well, Tim’s Uncle, brother, and even his own dad were all in federal penitentiaries for separate murders. As his friend, I knew he was a great person, but when everyone else looked at him, they simple saw someone to be feared. Other people had carved out Tim’s tomb and rolled the stone over the entrance, sealing his dreams inside.

Have you even been there? Have you ever had your hopes and dreams buried away in a tomb? Maybe, unlike Tim, you did it yourself. Maybe, you destroyed your entire life all on your own and you have no one to blame but yourself. It does not matter if you did it or someone else. A tomb is a tomb, and what is put in a tomb never comes out again.

But, what if it did? What if your dreams did come back? What if you opened your mail and found out that you were accepted into the prestigious school MIT on full scholarship, even after they found out about your murderous family? Would you drive around town shouting out of your car window, “I made it…I make it…I made it!” like Tim did?

What if someone gave you another chance at life, even after you completely messed it all up? What if God forgave you for everything, even the unspeakable stuff? Would you run and tell your friends?

What if the one you trusted and in who you put all of your hopes did come back; for you? Would you run and shout to the others who trusted in Him that he was alive! Would you shout, “he is risen indeed?” Because, I am here to tell you, the tomb is not the end. Whether you carved the tomb yourself, or someone else did, the tomb is not the end. Jesus will not let your hopes rot in a tomb. Death cannot hold him down. He is risen indeed, and so are your hopes. What would you shout if Jesus came to you and raised your hopes from the tomb, giving them new life?

Reflection on John 20:1-18

“They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”

That first Easter did not start out joyful. There was no initial shout of Alleluia, nor any reassurance of Jesus’ eternal and unfailing light. No, before that sort of celebration was desperate searching for the Lord, and the pain of losing someone very important.

“They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”

I still hear these words in my office and in the break room at work, though they sound more like, “I once believed, but now I am not so sure.” “Where is God? I do not know where to even begin looking.”

I remember seeing a heart wrenching scene in the hospital. An elderly mother was laying in the hospital bed, crying out, “I’m so alone,” as her daughter sat next to her, holding her hand and looking helplessly into the woman’s eyes. The old woman did not have dementia, she was simply very lonely. The woman confided in me that God had left her, worse, everyone had abandoned her. I looked up at her daughter and she simply stared helplessly. I knew what she was thinking, “I am here mom.”

Sometimes the one you are looking for is standing right in front of you, but you are locked away tight in your own tomb. Mary did not recognize Jesus, supposing him to be the gardener. She was searching, but she could not find. She needed to see, but was unable to open her eyes.

I do not know about you, but I find it hard, if not impossible to open my own eyes. I find it impossible to make myself see God or feel God’s care. Ask any depressed person and they will tell you that you cannot just make yourself quit being depressed. Heck, they cannot even make themselves get up out of the chair. How do you make yourself do something that you do not know how to do. It is like me telling you to just build a jet. Just do it. How? I do not know how, I have forgotten, or maybe I never knew.

I love the resurrection story in John, because it is about more than Jesus’ defeat of death…though that is important. What I love is that Mary does not find Jesus. In fact, she does worse than not find Jesus, she talks right to him and still cannot see him. Why do I love this? Because, when you are struggling in life, and you cannot “just” do anything, you need Jesus to call you by name. And, Jesus does. “Mary!” Jesus said to her. Only when Mary is called by name can “she turn…and said to him in Hebrew ‘Rabbouni!” (which means teacher). She does not search and find Jesus. Jesus searches and finds her.

You do not find, but you are found. Jesus is not yours, but you always belong to Jesus. Death could not hold him down, and neither can you. When Jesus searches, he always finds.