Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Reflection on John 20:19-31

It took a week.

A follower of Jesus expressed his deep desire to encounter his Lord, the living God, in the same way that the other disciples were privileged to encounter Jesus, and it took a week.

For someone who is struggling with their faith, sometimes even a week seems like an entire lifetime.

Where was Jesus that he could not just show up right away when Thomas returned from whatever he was doing and joined the other disciples in their little hiding space in the upper room? Why the wait? Why make him wait Jesus? Why make us wait Jesus?

Easter, with its loud music, proclamations of “He is risen,” and bright colors is great and all, but for some of us, it is not something in which we can easily participate.

Though our neighbors seem to be sharing their love for the risen Lord, some others of us feel like it is all a little too fake. We feel like we are somehow removed from the situation, in a different room even, like we have missed something; like we have missed someone.

For some us, it is as if Jesus appeared to our faithful neighbors in their times of struggle and fear, but we somehow missed the big event. Our neighbors run up to us and say, “We have seen the Lord,” but their words are too few and are not convincing.

"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," faithful Thomas cries out on our behalf.

“Faithful,” you may ask? “I always thought he was doubting Thomas,” you say.

But, do not forget, that it was Thomas who was the one who encouraged the other disciples to follow Jesus back to Judea to heal Lazarus even though they feared they would all die on the journey because of the trouble they had stirred previously.

Thomas was the one who outright asked Jesus to know the way to the Father when Jesus implied that they already knew the way.

Thomas is the one who sticks out his neck in the face of confusion and danger to follow Jesus. He is the one who is out and about and is not holed up in a tiny upper room out of fear of the Judeans who may or may not be searching to kill the followers of the crucified one. Thomas is the courageous, faithful one.

So, why is he forced to wait during this time of loss and struggle after Jesus’ death?

“Just trust in Jesus,” I was once told on a very doubt filled day of my life. “Just trust in Jesus.” Like you can just do that. Like you can just up and decide, “Oh, I guess it’s time to trust Jesus and be faithful.”

This just is not something you can force yourself to do. Others can say to you, “I have seen the Lord,” but unless you get to experience the scars in his hands and the wound in his side…unless you have an encounter with the divine yourself, all of the words trying to convince you will always come up dry.

That is just the truth.

You cannot get water from a stone unless God is there to make it happen. You just cannot.

God made Thomas wait. And, sometimes, God makes us wait. That is just a truth of life. And, in that time of waiting, we may struggle to believe.

Why a week? Why did he have to wait a week? Why could not Jesus just show up right away and alleviate all the pain and struggle? Why a week?

Maybe, John, the gospel writer, is trying to give those of us with a dry faith a hint of where we might find some of that living water.

It was the first day of the week when the disciples met together. The first day of the week; that would be Sunday.

The disciples were gathered together on Sunday, and there the risen Lord met them with words of promise and forgiveness.

On Sunday, even 2000 years later, the people gather, the Word of God is proclaimed, the bread is broken, and Jesus shows up.

This all happens on Sunday.

Thomas was not there that first Sunday. He missed out. In all of his working, and his wandering, and his searching away from the others who had experienced Jesus in the upper room, he missed the Lord. He simply was not there on that first Sunday.

Far from being a sermon about how you must show up to church on Sunday mornings, as if it were a life and death sort of divine Law, rather, I would like to point out that John is gently implying that it is in the gathered faith community where Jesus is present. Matthew, the gospel writer, puts it this way, “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there am I.”

Therefore, it was during the next gathering of the disciples, one week later, that Jesus finally showed up, showed Thomas his hands and his side, and Thomas was finally able to confess with a whole heart, “My Lord, my God.” It was in the gathering of believers that Jesus came to his beloved Thomas…a week later.

I know, I know. Some of you have been coming to the gathering of believers for a very long time, and still struggle to proclaim “My Lord, my God.” I know.

But, do not give up. Your neighbor has a little bit of Thomas in them too. I promise. Faith ebbs and flows like the waters of the ocean. Sometimes it is inspired and rises tall in a great wave, and sometimes it subsides and meets the sand below. But, that is OK. That is the way of faith.

Keep coming, to gather together with other believers and to hear the promises of Jesus.

Your wait will come to an end. Each and every Sunday we come to hear God’s word which was written so that we may continue to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing we may have life in his name.

Be patient, Jesus will come. Brothers and sisters of Thomas, Jesus will come.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Reflection on Matthew 28:1-10

(Note: Imagine the end of the sermon as a continual call and response to the congregation.)
As Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were going to the tomb, a great earthquake shook the entire scene. This was the second earthquake in just a few days.

The first shook the moment Jesus gave up his last breath. That earthquake was so powerful that it even split the curtain that separated the Holy of Hollies (the residing place of God in the Jerusalem temple) and the courtyard in which the people worshiped and gave sacrifice.

The foundations of the world were shaken by the death and resurrection of Jesus, and so too were the foundations of our lives shaken.

If you have ever experienced an earthquake, you know already know what a bazaar experience to can be.

For those who have not, let me explain. No matter how hard you try, you cannot escape from an earthquake.

With the building shaking, you deem it wise to run outside, away from the potential for ceilings and walls to come down and crush your body. But, what you realize when you run outside is that the ground does not feel any safer than the inside of the building.

As you gaze across the landscape, you realize what you had always thought was solid ground is, in fact, simply particles of dust lying on a trembling plate. The ground moves in waves like a brown ocean and heaves up into the air like a child bouncing a pie tin of sand on his knees.

The shaking, if it lasts long enough, can make boulders rise to the top like gold rising out of the dust in the pan of an old prospector. The ground liquefaction can raise coffins straight out of the ground.

In fact, we read in the bible of the tombs being broken open and the bodies of the faithful rising from the dead during the earthquake that was spawned by Jesus’ last breath.

There is something about Jesus that disrupts the foundations of the world and shakes up all that we assume to be true.

So, what are the truths of the world that seem impenetrable?

How about the powerful getting their way? Insurance companies and their investors always seem to win in the end and leave the everyday guy or girl broke. The rich seem to have more of a pull in the decisions that governments take than any of us. Bombs force the hands of those who battle with guns. And, even a paid ticket on an airline is no promise that you will stay on your plane un-wounded and un-bloodied for your flight.

The powerful get their way. That is a rock solid reality.

What other truths are impenetrable?

How about the fact that when you are in a hurry and cannot spare even a moment of time, that is when you lock your keys in your house, or in your car, or even lose them in your refrigerator. Really, it can happen.

The worst, most time consuming thing will always occur when you have the least amount of time to deal with it. That is a rock solid reality.

How about death? Death and taxes (which you better be getting done very soon I might remind you) are impenetrable realities. Death especially. It is possible to cheat on your taxes and get away with it, but I have not seen a single person escape the reality of stress, suffering, and eventual death.

Just as sure as the sun comes up, so does the darkness of death eventually take hold.

And, all of that can lead to dark nights where we stare into the black emptiness, our minds buzzing and spiraling down into a well of hopelessness. “Sometimes no matter how hard you try, you just can’t win,” you think. The powerful will take your spot on the plane, you will then be locked out of your car, home, and refrigerator, and you will starve to death right in your front lawn. That pretty much sums up life, and you resign to the inevitable.

But here is the thing; when the ground quakes you see things you never saw before. You see that those things that you always thought were rock solid truths are just dust shaking up and down on a plate. What you thought were the foundations of reality, are false, flimsy sorts of ground. The real foundation is found below.

When the earth quakes below Mary Magdalene and the other Mary’s feet, Jesus’ tomb opens wide and reveals the true foundation of the world where suffering, pain, and death are not the last word.

Those are not so rock solid after-all.

“Jesus is not here, for he has been raised,” the angel announces. “Just as he said,” the angel continues.

“Just as he said.” We’ve heard it all before after-all on previous Easters.

We know that suffering, pain, and death are not the last word. We have heard before that the darkness of life is not the true foundation of reality. Rather, Jesus, the giver of new life is the foundation of all reality. “He has been raised!” is the last world inscribed on the bedrock.

The possibility of new life…eternal life is the true foundation that lies solid underneath the dust of death that God simple blows away.

We have heard it before, many times, but we forget because sometimes the darkness is just so dark.

That is why we are hear this fine Easter morning brothers and sisters. That is why we cry out, “Alleluia, Jesus Christ is risen. He is risen indeed! Alleluia!” We shout it to the heavens because in God’s created world, if it is spoken aloud, it is so.

To those who feel pushed down by the powerful we shout out, “Alleluia, Jesus Christ is risen. He is risen indeed! Alleluia!”

To those who feel like their destinies are not their own to control we shout out, “Alleluia, Jesus Christ is risen. He is risen indeed! Alleluia!”

To those who have been excluded, rejected, and treated less than a child of God we shout out, “Alleluia, Jesus Christ is risen. He is risen indeed! Alleluia!”

To those who seek peace, but the bombs fall from the sky and they are helpless to catch them before they explode we shout out, “Alleluia, Jesus Christ is risen. He is risen indeed! Alleluia!”

To the person who has lost their purpose because the grips of death have taken love of their life away we shout out, “Alleluia, Jesus Christ is risen. He is risen indeed! Alleluia!”

To the child whose innocence has been taken away because they are forced to deal with the harsh realities of damaged adults we shout out, “Alleluia, Jesus Christ is risen. He is risen indeed! Alleluia!”

To those who are poor in spirit, poor in faith, and just plain poor…who cannot raise themselves out of the miry clay we shout out, “Alleluia, Jesus Christ is risen. He is risen indeed! Alleluia!”

Because, he is not in the tomb any longer brothers and sisters. The foundations of the world have been shaken, and what we find at the core of the world is not death but life; new life that breaks open our tombs and gives us a fresh start.

Today, you have a fresh start brothers and sisters. The world is not the same as it was yesterday. The resurrections has shaken and blown away the dirt of death from yesterday.

And, what we see revealed under the dust is the heart of God. God's heart gives new life, new love, and forgiveness.

So, take a step on that newly settled soil. Take a step forward on the good soil of the Lord. Take a step forward into a new world, until you see Jesus waiting for you in Galilee or Towanda, or Wysox, or Hawaii…Hey, I figure why not try to find Jesus in Hawaii?

Walk into your new life, meet Jesus in that new life, and follow in the loving ways Jesus desires you to go, because “Alleluia, Jesus Christ is risen. He is risen indeed! Alleluia!”

Reflection of John 20:1-18

In the beginning, there was a garden.  It was a garden filled with good things like fruit of every kind.  There were clear waters that fed the garden and springs rose up to water every living plant.  

A man and a woman were fashioned from the clay of the earth and they were given the garden to enjoy.  They were given the garden of the Lord, and it was all good.   

Well, it was all good for a little bit, and we all know that it went downhill from there.  It all spiraled down into sin and rebellion, but we are not going to talk about the serpent and the temptation to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil this morning.  No, all that I want you to see is that gardens are planted at the beginning of stories.  

Consider that your own garden is the beginning of a new story for your summer.  As you care for the tender seedlings this time of year, you can already taste the freshness of the tomatoes, and feel the crisp crunch of the carrots in your mouth.  The cucumbers are already foretelling their refreshing juice in the mouth, and the tender lettuce that is already starting to pop up in our tiny, plastic greenhouses already tempt us to have a tiny salad.  They may only be an inch out of the soul in their tiny plastic trays, but the garden is already writing a new story for a new year.

And, a garden is where Mary finds herself.  In John’s gospel, Jesus is not buried in a typical cemetery with in a newly carved tomb.  Rather, he is buried in a garden.  He is buried in a place, not where stories end, but where stories begin. 

After hearing her name spoken aloud, Mary recognizes the risen Lord, and starts a new life with her teacher.   

It is not the same as the old life.  She is not allowed to keep clinging onto him and holding onto that last, bodily vestige of the former life with her savior.  Rather, Jesus instructs her to let go so that he may ascend to the Father, and her new life filled with the Spirit of Jesus may begin.

Letting go.  Letting go of the old in particular is not an easy thing to do.  The old is just so…well…nice, and familiar.  And, though the old may even tell a story with some pain and suffering, at least the old way of life is well known.  

Had it been her choice, I’m sure Mary would still be clinging onto that last vestige of Jesus today.  But, she was not given the choice to do so.   

She was in a garden after-all, and gardens are not about what grew last year.  Gardens are about what will grow this year and bear goodness for others to eat.  Gardens are found in the beginning of stories.  Mary’s life of sharing the good news of Jesus is just about to start.

It is Easter, and we have a new garden, and it is the beginning of a new story for you as well.  Jesus has brought you into a new story.  He has redeemed you and forgiven you, and your old story has faded into the dust.  There is new love, and new possibilities sprouting out of the ground in the new garden in which Jesus has placed you.  The old has died, and the new has arrived.

So, what are you waiting for?  Run from here!  Run from here!  Run bearing the good news of old lives no longer controlling your destiny.  

Run, bearing the good news of Jesus Christ who has put your old life to death and raised you up to a new life of love and peace.  

Run from here with joy in your heart because gardens are always the beginning of a new story.  Start your new story bearing the heart of Jesus’ grace today.  Run along…run along with the resurrected Jesus in your heart.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Reflection on John 11:1-45

“I can’t believe God did this to me!” the man shouted loudly after I asked to enter the hospital room.

That was my introduction to the Jewish faith.

As a young, chaplain who had never talked to a Jewish person before, I proceeded to the room with fear, not knowing what a Christian could possibly say to a Jewish man who had suffered the crippling trauma of a car accident. And, as I entered the door, every single fear that I had run through my head came true with his instantaneous shouting. As he screamed, “I can’t believe God did this to me!” I searched for an easy way to exit the room again.

I considered the excuse of suddenly needing to use the toilet.

Apparently, seeing the fearful look of an untrained, innocent clergy toddler on my face, the man laughed a huge laugh and said, “Nah, I was just kidding. Come on in.”

Not only was that my introduction to the Jewish faith, it was also my introduction to Jewish humor.

The rest of the visit went much better. I made certain his rabbi or cantor had been to visit. I made certain his family were aware of his situation. And, I did the one thing we were trained to do for anyone, no matter what their religion: to simply sit and listen, keeping my mouth shut.

As he talked through his struggles, he circled back to his first shout.

“You know, I really am mad at God. Things were going great for me for the first time in my life. My job was great, my girlfriend was perfect, I had just bought that nice car, I had just lost a bunch of weight and was sporting a great look, and now look at me."

The guy held a terrible resemblance to his former self.

"God can be a jerk, you know?”

I did not know what to say on response to that, so I said nothing.

“You know, in the Jewish religion, it’s OK to be mad at God. Too often you Christians will say, ‘Don’t worry God will make it all better.’ Maybe that is true, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be mad about it. Thank you for not telling me that everything will be just fine,” he smiled.

As he talked, I thought about Mary and Martha on that day when Jesus arrived too late to be of any help, or so they thought.

When their brother Lazarus was sick, Mary and Martha had sent for Jesus to come and give Lazarus some healing.

Jesus chose not to come.

Hear that again. Someone was in pain. Two people believed in Jesus and believed that Jesus could do something about that pain. Even with all of that, Jesus chose not to come.

He had his reasons of course. We, who can read the end of the story realize that, but the women did not know the end of the story and they were furious and hurt.

As Jesus entered the scene they shouted at him, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

This was not Jewish humor, this was Jewish anger. They were angry at God. They were angry at Jesus for not showing up. They were angry, and guess what Jesus did about it?

He wept.

When you are in pain, so is Jesus.

When you feel forgotten, Jesus understand what that is all about. And, though God may have other, bigger plans like an amazing resuscitation from the dead of a dead brother, that does not mean you are simply a pawn in a bigger scheme.

You are a real soul, with real pain, and Jesus does not back away trying to defend himself. Rather, he weeps.

He shares the pain. He takes on the pain. He carries it to the cross, where it too will die allowing space for new life to come on the third day...or the fourth day...or the whatever day.

When I talked to my chaplaincy supervisor about my experience with the Jewish man, she told me, “One of the greatest strengths of the Jewish faith is that they view God as strong enough to bear your anger and pain. In the Jewish faith, God has broad shoulders.”

And, as I search the scriptures, I find that not only does God have broad shoulders, but God has empathizing ones as well. Far from getting mad at our anger or upset at our pain, Jesus joins in shedding tears for our pain.

Of course, Jesus does not stop there. When the time is right, Jesus walks with tear-filled eyes and orders the tomb of darkness and death be opened so that the fresh air and bright light of new life might enter in.

Jesus walks to the tomb so that Lazarus might be returned to those who love him, and that he might be unbound from the strips of cloth that encase his arms and his legs.

Jesus fulfills the promise that he made to Martha, "I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live.”

In Jesus we do find life again. Jesus does not stop at the weeping. He is able, as Psalm 30 proclaims, to transform our weeping into dancing. He is able to bring us from death into life.

And, that is where we are different than Jesus. As disciples of Jesus, we are not able to bring people out of their pain and darkness. That becomes painfully real for anyone who has ever tried.

We are not the divine light in the darkness. We are not the way, the truth, and the life. We are not the saviors of anybody’s world, but we are able to point to the one who is, Jesus Christ.

Not only can we point to Jesus, but when Jesus is taking longer than expected we are free to share in people's anger and tears.

“I am through with this faith stuff,” another man yelled at me, pain dripping from his eyes. Even after working with a faith-based marriage counselor, this guy's wife literally walked out of his life and the life of his children with a slam of a car door. Unfortunately, it was the door of another man’s car. She drove off into her own dark, self-made sunset.

“I tried all of this faith stuff with her, and it did nothing. If Jesus was present in those meetings, he should have done something! I’m done with faith. I'm done with Jesus!”

He broke into uncontrollable sobs right there in the office of my internship church. I could not help it. As I listened to his heart-breaking story, I could not help but cry with him. So, there we were, two grown men crying, alone.

Thinking back to my Jewish friend, and thinking about Mary and Martha I looked at him and made one simple suggestion. “Rather than leaving your faith, how about you just allow yourself to be angry with God. This whole situation is not fair, and God needs to hear it. Rather than leaving your relationship with Jesus, just be mad at him for a while. It’s OK. Really. A Jewish man once told me God was a jerk. Guess what? No lightning struck him from the clouds. God’s shoulders are big enough to take your abuse.”

And, so he did.

He continued to come to the church and prayed with us. One Sunday he whispered to me after worship, "Don't be alarmed, but during the prayers I kind of swore at God."

And, as he shared his pain with me, one more someone was standing between us: Jesus. Jesus stood with us, tears in his eyes, waiting for the right time to bring new life. And, he did. The man and his children were, indeed, given their resurrection at the right time, in God’s time.

But, in the meantime, it was OK to be angry.