Sunday’s sermon: City Dog, Country Frog meditation

City Dog Country Frog
City Dog, Country Frog by Mo Willems

Texts used – 1 John 4:7-21 and 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

For Memorial Day weekend, I decided to do something a little bit different. We broke the book City Dog, Country Frog by Mo Willems into two sections. Part I is “Spring” and “Summer.” Part II is “Fall,” “Winter,” and “Spring Again.”

First, we read the Scripture reading from 1 John (above). Then we read Part I of the story, follow by this meditation on the relational nature of faith.

  • “On Connectedness and Faith” – City Dog, Country Frog[1], pt. 1
    • Friends, we are human beings. No matter what circumstances in life brought us here – no matter our past, our present, our futures. No matter what differences or similarities exist between us. We are human beings, each and every one of us, and human beings were created to be relational beings.
      • Scientific evidence – research done by Matthew Lieberman who contends that as humans, our need to connect is as fundamental as our need for the basic elements of life like food, water, and air[2]
        • “Across many studies of mammals, from the smallest rodents all the way to us humans, the data suggests that we are profoundly shaped by our social environment and that we suffer greatly when our social bonds are threatened or severed. …  We may not like the fact that we are wired such that our well-being depends on our connections with others, but the facts are the facts.”
        • “The things that cause us to feel pain are things that are evolutionary recognized as threats to our survival and the existence of social pain is a sign that evolution has treated social connection like a necessity, not a luxury.”
      • Heard sad, horrifying stories of children who have been found neglected and abused – children who have been denied basic human contact and interactions in one way or another, children who’s emotional and mental development have been stunted because of their lack of human interaction → We were created to be connected to one another.
    • Turn to Scripture on this: It’s all over the place in the Bible!
      • Right there in the beginning:
        • God creates human beings together: God created humanity in God’s own image, in the divine image God created them, male and female God created them.[3]
        • And even from that very beginning, God was in relationship with those beings – talking with Adam and Eve, walking in the garden with them. Beyond creation, God is constantly in contact with humans – through the covenants with Abraham and Noah and Moses and Israel, through the words of the prophets, through the poetry of the psalms, and in the physical presence of Jesus Christ … Emmanuel … God With Us.
    • Physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually … we were meant to be in relationship with one another – to connect to other human beings in meaningful and profound ways.
      • Doesn’t mean every interaction needs to be serious – we need the fun, silly interactions just as much as we need the compassionate, comforting ones
      • Scripture reading from 1 Jn this morning reminds us that all those interactions must stem from the same place: a place of love
        • Dear friends, if God loved us this way, we also ought to love each other. No one has ever seen God. If we love each other, God remains in us and his love is made perfect in us.[4]
        • It’s a powerful, powerful thing to love someone and to know that they love you in return. It doesn’t matter if it’s romantic love, love from a family member (parents, children, grandparents, siblings, or a 3rd cousin twice removed!), love from a friend. When someone loves you, it affects you. It affects how to interact with that person, to be sure, but it also affects how you go about being in this world. It cannot be denied that the people we love and the people who love us mold and shape us.
          • See that in the story: Country Frog teaches City Dog his games, and in turn, City Dog teaches Country Frog his games → And they both play and have fun together and develop that special bond.
            • Dear friends, let’s love each other, because love is from God, and everyone who loves is born from God and knows God.[5]

Hymn: We Are Your People

Next, we read the Scripture reading from 1 Thessalonians (above). Then we read Part II of the story, follow by this meditation on grief and faith.

  • “On Loss and Faith” – City Dog, Country Frog, pt. 2
    • When we lose someone that we love, it affects us in every way imaginable … and plenty of ways we would never have imagined.
      • Obviously emotionally – sadness, frustration, loneliness, anger
      • Physically – grieving can cause physical pain (headaches, chest pains, heart palpitations, etc.) because the part of the brain that processes physical pain also processes emotional pain[6]
      • Spiritually – sometimes the loss of a loved one can alter our relationship with God
        • Maybe question God, rage at God, blame God (esp. if that loss was unexpected/abrupt)
        • Lean more heavily on God – seek solace, comfort, reassurance
          • Reassurance that our loved one is now in God’s presence
          • Reassurance that we will see our loved ones again someday
          • Today’s Scripture reading: Brothers and sisters, we want you to know about people who have died so that you won’t mourn like others who don’t have any hope. Since we believe that Jesus died and rose, so we also believe that God will bring with him those who have died in Jesus.[7] → Hope can be a tenuous thing to hang onto in the face of loss, but it is truly our best and brightest source of peace in turbulent times. We have hope exactly because of that connectedness we were talking about earlier.
            • Hope in our connections with each other – the knowledge and reassurance that others will remember our loved ones, too à that they will live on in the stories and pictures and memories that we share
              • Sort of like the end of the book when City Dog meets Country Chipmunk: “What are you doing?” asked Country Chipmunk. “Waiting for a friend,” replied City Dog sadly. Then he smiled a froggy smile and said … “But you’ll[8]
            • Hope in our connection with God – an eternal hope in God’s promises of grace and salvation → that there is more beyond this life
              • Joy and peace in God’s Kingdom
              • Chance to see our loved ones again
    • This is Memorial Day weekend – a weekend to honor those who have given their lives for this country, those who have made the ultimate sacrifice. And Memorial Day weekend has also become a weekend to remember those whom we have loved and lost.
      • Flowers/wreaths on their graves at the cemetery → taking flowers with Peter’s mom
      • So we’re going to take a little bit of time this morning to play our own Country Frog remembering games – a time to share memories of loved ones that we have lost with each other. Take a few minutes to gather with the people around you and share.
      • Friends, hear the Good News: This is how the love of God is revealed to us: God has sent his only Son into the world so that we can live through him. This is love: it is not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son as the sacrifice that deals with our sins.[9] … Since we believe that Jesus died and rose, so we also believe that God will bring with him those who have died in Jesus.[10] Amen.

Hymn: Giver of Life, Where’er They Be

[1] Mo Willems. City Dog, Country Frog. (New York, NY: Hyperion Books for Children), 2010.

[2] Gareth Cook. “Why We Are Wired to Connect: Scientist Matthew Lieberman uncovers the neuroscience of human connections—and the broad implications for how we live our lives” in Scientific American, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-we-are-wired-to-connect/. Written Oct. 22, 2013, accessed May 28, 2017.

[3] Gen 1:27.

[4] 1 Jn 4:11-12.

[5] 1 Jn 4:7.

[6] Jon Kelly. “How does grief cause physical pain?” in BBC News Magazine, http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-36213249. Posted May 6, 2016, accessed May 28, 2017.

[7] 1 Thess 4:13-14.

[8] Willems, 52-56.

[9] 1 Jn 4:9-10.

[10] 1 Thess 4:14.

Sunday’s sermon: Rejecting Rejection

rejection

Texts used – Psalm 27 and 1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11

  • Dick Rowe[1] … a name that will forever live in infamy.
    • Senior A&R (artists and repertoire) man for Decca Records – “talent spotter,” as some have described the position
      • Find talent
      • Oversee recording process
      • Assist with marketing/promotion
    • Reportedly one of the most important music producers in Great Britain in the 1950s and 1960s
      • Signed incredible groups like The Rolling Stones and the Moody Blues as well as soloists like Tom Jones
    • But Dick Rowe will forever be known, not primarily for the bands that he did sign, but for the one band that he rejected – a quartet of young, shaggy-haired boys from Liverpool who were calling themselves The Beatles.
      • Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein paid Decca Records for an hour-long audition (enough time for 15 songs!)
      • Rowe’s reported response upon hearing the demo tape: “Not to mince words, Mr. Epstein, but we don’t like your boys’ sound. Guitar groups are on their way out.”
        • Words anyone would regret
        • To be fair, words that Rowe denied all his life
        • But whether he actually said those words or not, it cannot be refuted that Dick Rowe rejected the highest grossing, most popular, and most influential rock group of all time. … Ouch.
  • But Rowe certainly isn’t the only famously foolish rejection in history.
    • Literary publishing world
      • More than a dozen publishers turned down The Diary of Anne Frank with comments like, “The girl doesn’t, it seems to me, have a special perception or feeling which would lift that book above the ‘curiosity’ level.”[2]
        • Currently published in 60 different languages with more than 30 million copies sold
      • 15 different publishers rejected a single mother named Joanne when she brought them a humble manuscript entitled Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
        • Currently published in 67 different languages with more than 400 million copies of books sold
        • Franchise (books, movies, video games, amusement parks, etc.) worth $25 billion making J.K. Rowling first billionaire author
    • World of patents and inventions → many examples, to be sure, but one in particular
      • William Orton
        • President of Western Union in 1876
        • Refused to pay $100,000 for a patent for a silly little contraption peddled by a man named Alexander Graham Bell
        • Response to the idea of the telephone: “After careful consideration, while it is a very interesting novelty, we have come to the conclusion that it has no commercial possibilities.”
        • 2 yrs. later – admitted that being able to purchase the same patent for $25 million would be a bargain
  • Friends, as we well know, the world is full of rejections. We’ve all had our fair share. “Thank you for your interest in the position, but we’ve decided to go with another candidate.” “Thank you for your hard work, but we’ve chosen to promote someone else instead.” “Thank you for a great evening, but I just don’t think this relationship is going to work out.” Thank you, but … thank you, but … thank you, but. Each rejection stings, no matter whether it’s business-related or personal. But what about rejections because of our faith?
    • Quote from Why Christian? Conference last year: Faith is risking rejection by the world.
    • Jesus talked time and time again about how those who followed him would be rejected by the world and how they needed to reject even family and loved ones to follow
    • Plethora of examples scattered throughout both OT and NT of those who suffered rejection for God’s sake
      • “Fathers of the faith” – Abraham, Jacob, Moses
      • Prophets
      • Early church disciples (Peter, Paul, Stephen, etc.)
    • Heck, today’s New Testament reading basically screams it at us – text: Dear friends, don’t be surprised about the fiery trials that have come among you to test you. These are not strange happenings. Instead, rejoice as you share Christ’s suffering. You share his suffering now so that you may also have overwhelming joy when his glory is revealed. If you are mocked because of Christ’s name, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory—indeed, the Spirit of God—rests on you.[3]
      • “the fiery trials that have come among you to test you” – Gr. “test” = same word that shows up in Mt when Jesus gives the disciples the Lord’s Prayer → When we pray, “Lead me not into temptation,” this is that word. “The fiery trials that have come among you to test you … to tempt you … to try you … to entice you to stray.” This is some serious stuff that Peter is talking about. These are those moments when the choices we make for our faith are not the popular choices upheld by society.
        • Becoming more prevalent in an increasingly secular society
        • Choosing to come to church on Sunday morning → “Wouldn’t you rather just sleep in?”
        • Choosing to give money and time to the church → “Are you sure you can’t do more good somewhere else?”
        • Choosing to stand with those who society has pushed to the margins
          • Correcting other’s misinformation
          • Calling out prejudice when you see it
          • Defending someone being hassled for being different
          • Speaking up when it would be so much easier to stay quiet
  • All of these are ways that we choose faith over what is easiest, what is most comfortable, what is most popular. And that’s hard to do, especially when we’re already feeling tired or stretched too thin by the busyness of our day-to-day lives. So when we’re already feeling depleted, where can we find the strength to make those decisions in the face of the rejection that we know awaits?
    • Solidarity in numbers – 1 Pet: Be clearheaded. Keep alert. Your accuser, the devil, is on the prowl like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith. Do so in the knowledge that your fellow believers are enduring the same suffering throughout the world.[4] → There is power in numbers, friends. This is the basis of our faith – why we gather together for worship and fellowship, so that we can be strengthened in our faith together, so that we can lift each other up and encourage each other when the need arises.
    • Ps: The LORD is my light and my salvation. Should I fear anyone? The LORD is a fortress protecting my life. Should I be frightened of anything? When evildoers come at me trying to eat me up— it’s they, my foes and my enemies, who stumble and fall! If an army camps against me, my heart won’t be afraid. If war comes up against me, I will continue to trust in this.[5] → We find strength in God, knowing that God hears our prayers – our pleas for strength, for help, for reassurance, for courage. God hears our prayers and walks with us in the midst of whatever trials we’re facing. Because when we are doing that work for our faith – being present, being generous, being an advocate for someone else – we are doing the work that God has called us to do as Christians.
      • Micah: He has told you, human one, what is good and what the LORD requires from you: to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God.[6]
      • Speaks to other part of Anna Keating’s quote from Why Christian?: Faith is risking rejection (by the world), but faith is also about rejecting rejection – things like judgment, prejudice, and exclusion. → All of those things that people try to use as separators – as labels and categories that create an “us” and a “them” – are things that we are called to reject. All of those things that tell people they are not enough for the love of God. All of those things that tell people they are not enough for the grace of a Savior. All of those things that tell people they are not enough for the spark of the Holy Spirit. We are called to reject those things.
        • Hate
        • Fear
        • Misinformation
        • All of the “isms” and the phobias – racism, sexism, classism, ageism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, Islamophobia, etc.
        • These are all ways that the world rejects God’s own beloved children. But we are called to reject those rejections, to stand firm in the love of God and our call to share that love and God’s incredible light of hope and welcome with all no matter what darkness rages against us.
          • Sojourner Truth: I will not allow my life’s light to be determined by the darkness around me.
  • You know, ultimately, here’s the thing about rejection and faith: We are all imperfect beings. We all make mistakes. We all lose our way sometimes. We all make snap judgments and ill-informed decisions. We all have reason to cry out to God as the psalmist does: LORD, listen to my voice when I cry out— have mercy on me and answer me! Come, my heart says, seek God’s face. LORD, I do seek your face! Please don’t hide it from me! Don’t push your servant aside angrily— you have been my help! God who saves me, don’t neglect me! Don’t leave me all alone![7] So none of us are making our way in this world perfectly. We’re slogging through. We’re stumbling through. We’re limping through. We’re scraping our way through by the skin of our teeth.
    • Rest of the world = focused on perfection → advertising industry makes billions of dollars every year (roughly $200 billion dollars last year!!) trying to tell you how your life can be more perfect
      • Right clothes
      • Right car
      • Right look
      • Right house
    • But this is God’s house. This is a place of safety. This is a place of persistent hope. This is a place of extravagant and radical welcome. Isms have no place here. Lines of separation have no place here. This is a place where grace is enacted and rejection is rejected.
      • Hope in the LORD! Be strong! Let your heart take courage! Hope in the LORD!

[1] “Dick Rowe.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dick_Rowe, accessed May 21, 2017.

[2] Brian Viner. “The man who rejected the Beatles” in The Independent, http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/news/the-man-who-rejected-the-beatles-6782008.html. Written Feb. 12, 2012, accessed May 21, 2017.

[3] 1 Pet 4:12-14.

[4] 1 Pet 5:8-9.

[5] Ps 27:1-3.

[6] Mic 6:8.

[7] Ps 27:7-9.

Sunday’s sermon: Wherever Two or Three Are Gathered

Christian community

Text used – Luke 24:13-35

  • The Walk to Emmaus – a passage that is chock full of meaning and nuance and lessons and insight into our relationship with God, with Christ, and with one another. For a lot of pastors, this is a favorite passage to preach on because there are so many layers of meaning through which we can dig.
    • Passage can teach us about how to walk with Christ
    • Passage can teach us about communion – about breaking bread and encountering the risen Christ at the table
    • Passage can teach us about opening our eyes and hearts to what (and who) may be right in front of us, especially when we least expect it
      • For that matter, it can teach us about God upending and resoundingly surpassing our expectations
    • Passage can teach us about the way that Christ continues to act in us – to “warm our hearts” – as we walk beside our Savior
    • As you can imagine, this was a topic of discussion on a few of my Facebook message boards this week, and the messages that people were describing were as different and varied as the pastors preaching them. So I started thinking about where we are as a community right now – what we’re going through, what we’re facing, the crossroad at which we find ourselves. And the thread that emerged from this story for me this morning – in this particular time, in this particular place – was a message of being in Christian community.
  • Certainly no shortage of examples of Christian community given by Jesus
    • Mt: “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: You must love your neighbor as you love yourself.”[1]
    • Mk: [Jesus’] mother and brothers arrived. They stood outside and sent word to him, calling for him. A crowd was seated around him, and those sent to him said, “Look, your mother, brothers, and sisters are outside looking for you.” He replied, “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?” Looking around at those seated around him in a circle, he said, “Look, here are my mother and my brothers. Whoever does God’s will is my brother, sister, and mother.”[2]
    • Jn: “This is my commandment: love each other just as I have loved you. No one has greater love than to give up one’s life for one’s friends.”[3]
    • Again, Mt: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I’m there with them.”[4]
    • Not to mentions examples that he set
      • Eating with wide variety – rich people like Zaccheus, sinners, women, Pharisees, tax collectors → Way more types of people than the disciples themselves felt comfortable with!
      • Welcoming “the wrong people” into his presence → lepers, an unclean woman who had been bleeding for more than a decade, Samaritans, children
      • Even going so far as to heal the servant of one of the Roman oppressors![5]
        • Roman centurion had a servant who was dying → centurion sent some local Jewish leaders to ask Jesus for help → at his request, Jewish leaders tell Jesus that centurion doesn’t even feel worthy for Jesus to visit his home but that his faith is so strong that he knows all Jesus has to do is speak and his servant will be healed (no presence necessary)
        • Lk: [Jesus] was impressed with the centurion. He turned to the crowd following him and said, “I tell you, even in Israel I haven’t found faith like this.”[6]
    • And all that community stuff was all well and good … while Jesus was still with the disciples – teaching them, leading them, dazzling them with his ability to heal the sick and calm storms, shocking them with his audacious in-your-face approach to the Pharisees’ challenges and verbal traps. When Jesus was still with them, they could move mountains! When Jesus was still with them, they could conquer the world! When Jesus was still with them, they could take on those horrible Roman oppressors because they had the Mighty Messiah, Savior of the People of Israel, Son of God at their side!!
  • But then Jesus was arrested. Then Jesus was put on trial. Then Jesus was found guilty. Then Jesus was tortured and humiliated. Then Jesus was hung on a cross like a common criminal – literally between two common criminals, in fact! And then a few of the women in their group started coming up with some crazy story about an angel and Jesus’ tomb being empty and the once-mighty-now-fallen-Messiah actually being resurrected. … And that was the last straw. That’s where the two disciples from our Scripture story this morning just had to draw the line. It was time to cut their losses, time to get the heck out of Dodge. So before things got any worse – any sadder, any stranger, any more dangerous – they packed up their stuff and left Jerusalem.
    • Back to old lives – family, friends, hometowns, occupations (probably fishermen)
    • Back to what they knew, what was safe
    • Back to “the way it used to be” because they were uncertain and afraid of what lay ahead and because they didn’t know what else to do → This Jesus thing was over. It was time to get back to “real life.”
    • Can imagine them plodding down that 7-mile stretch of road together
      • Dusty, hot, and dry
      • Dragging their weary and dirty feet
      • Alternating between talking about all of the things that they’d been through (past 3 yrs, past week) but also walking in silence
        • Silence thick with memories
        • Silence rough and jagged with broken hopes and shattered dreams
        • Silence heavy with sorrow, disappointment, grief
        • Silence burning with frustration and resentment: Why had they let themselves be swept up by that Jesus guy? Why did he have to go and let himself be captured like that? Why did such a great story have to have such a brutal, terrible ending? What was the blasted point?!
        • Scholar: Though Luke spends only a sentence on the conversation between the disciples before a stranger joins them, we know that this conversation can last a lifetime.[7]
    • And in the midst of all of this, these two disciples are approached by a stranger – a stranger who has apparently been living under a rock [PAUSE] because he doesn’t seem to know anything about the events that have rocked their entire world over the last few days. – text: He said to them, “What are you talking about as you walk along?” They stopped, their faces downcast. The one named Cleopas replied, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who is unaware of the things that have taken place there over the last few days?”[8] → And so as they continue to walk together – in this little ragtag community that they’ve formed – they talk together. They talk about all the things that have been, the disciples describing the events of the past days. And they talk about things both past and to come, the Incognito Jesus “interpret[ing] for them all the things written about himself in all the scriptures, starting with Moses and going through all the Prophets.”[9]
      • Important lesson in this interaction: OPENNESS → They talked about everything, including the most recent, most horrible things that they’ve been through. Yes, this was Jesus that the disciples were talking to as they walked along that road to Emmaus, but they didn’t know that. And still, they were real. They were honest with each other and even with this newest member of their community. They were genuine – in their struggles, in their learning, in their need, in their broken places. And that is how the strongest relationships are forged.
        • This congregation = in a place of uncertainty → What does the future hold for us? Where are we going? Who are we as Christians? As Presbyterians? As Oronoco-ans? To figure that out together, we’re going to need to be open with one another: about hopes and dreams, about ideas, about struggles, about our needs and our broken places.
  • They actually spend so much time talking and sharing and listening to each other – the disciples and their new, unknown friend – that they suddenly find themselves at Emmaus.
    • Jesus’ actions when they reach their destination are interesting – text: When they came to Emmaus, he acted as if he was going on ahead. But they urged him, saying, “Stay with us. It’s nearly evening, and the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them.[10] → Jesus’ little charade: “Who, me? Where am I going? Well, I’m just gonna keep on walking. You folks have a good night now. It sure was swell meeting you. What? Stay? No, I couldn’t possible. I don’t wanna impose. … Well, gosh, if you insist.”
      • Have to wonder if Jesus was anything like a Minnesotan – how many times did the disciples need to invite him before he said “yes”? Three times, perhaps?
      • We have to wonder why Jesus put on this little show. Was he testing the disciples? Was he giving them the opportunity to extend that radical hospitality that he had so desperately tried to model for them? Was it to keep up his disguise so they wouldn’t suspect his true identity too soon?
        • Only time in all the Scriptures that this Gr. word “pretend” is used → makes this a moment of distinctiveness and mystery in the text – something to remember: Jesus pretended.
        • I don’t think there was any malice in Jesus’ pretending here. I don’t think he was putting on this show to try to trip the disciples up or make them look dumb or make them work for their own personal resurrection appearance. I think that Jesus may just have been having a little fun with them – drawing out the charade.
    • Lesson to learn here: HUMOR/IMAGINATION → We have a lot of work ahead of us, and at times it may feel daunting. It may feel intimidating. It may feel scary. It may feel exhausting. Those are the times when we have to remind each other that our God is a God of creativity and joy, kind of like we did with Holy Humor Sunday last week. Our God is a God who laughs and creates and pretends with all the joy and commitment to character of a child. That humor and that sense of imagination and wonderment and fun are things that this congregation is really good at! And they are things that we can’t lose sight of in the weeks and months and years ahead.
  • Lk text: After he took his seat at the table with them, he took the bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Their eyes were opened and they recognized him, but he disappeared from their sight. They said to each other, “Weren’t our hearts on fire when he spoke to us along the road and when he explained the scriptures for us?” They got up right then and returned to Jerusalem. They found the eleven and their companions gathered together.[11] → Friends, this passage is all about community.
    • Disciples start off in community → met by Jesus on the road
    • Travel in community
    • Find a place to stay in community
    • Share a meal together in community
    • Encounter the risen Christ in community
    • And when they’ve had that miraculous, eye-opening, strangely-heart-warming encounter, what do the disciples do? They rush back to their larger community – the rest of the disciples – to share their experience. They hurried back along those same hot, dusty, dangerous 7 miles of road that they had just spent all day walking because they couldn’t wait to share their experience with their friends, their brothers and sisters in faith, the family that had been forged and so radically tested over the past 3 years and especially the past 7 days. Because that’s the power of a community of faith.
      • There to mourn with you and celebrate with you
      • There to listen as you share your greatest joys and sorrows, ready to lift you up with a smile, a giant bear hug, or a prayer
      • There to remind you to be open, to be imaginative, to have fun, and to have faith … because God knows sometimes we need a reminder.
      • To put it simply, the power of the community of faith is that it’s there … period. Whether you’re walking or skipping or dragging your feet, it’s there. Whether you’re sharing your story or learning about someone else’s, it’s there. Whether your eyes are wide open or you need help to see, it’s there. When you’re being challenged, when you’re being tested, when you understand and when you don’t, it’s there. Wherever two or three, twelve or thirteen, twenty-two or twenty-three or a hundred and three are gathered, the risen Christ is there in community. Alleluia! Amen.

[1] Mt 22:37-39.

[2] Mk 3:31-35.

[3] Jn 15:12-13.

[4] Mt 18:20.

[5] Lk 7:1-9.

[6] Lk 7:9.

[7] Cynthia A. Jarvis. “Third Sunday of Lent – Luke 24:13-35, Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year A, vol. 2. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 421.

[8] Lk 24:17-18.

[9] Lk 24:27.

[10] Lk 24:28-29.

[11] Lk 24:30-33.

Easter sermon: How Do We Go?

Easter 2017

Texts used – Jeremiah 31:1-6 and Matthew 28:1-10

  • “Get ready! We’re going up to Zion to the LORD our God!” … “Don’t be afraid!” … “With great fear and excitement, they hurried away from the tomb.” Hallelujah! Today we celebrate Easter! After 40 days in the wilderness of Lent – 40 days of self-examination and repentance, 40 days of serious soul-searching and working on our relationships with each other and with God, 40 days of drawing nearer and nearer to the cross and the crucifixion – we have come to find the tomb empty, the graveclothes cast aside, and the angel proclaiming the good news: “He isn’t here, because he’s been raised from the dead, just as he said. … He’s been raised from the dead. He’s going on ahead of you to Galilee. You will see him there.”[1] Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!
    • Like Mary Magdalene and the “other Mary,” like the disciples, like Christian throughout the centuries, we are called to carry this good news in our hearts and on our lips as we leave this place today – as we head out into the world. But how are we supposed to do that? How are we supposed to share the good news with a world that feels increasingly secular, increasingly over-scheduled, and increasingly disinterested? How are we to share the good news of Christ’s resurrection and what that means with a world that feels increasingly intimidating when it comes to sharing something as personal, something as potentially-polarizing, something as touchy as our faith?
      • Come up with all sorts of reasons we can’t/don’t
        • It’s not popular to talk about faith.
        • It’s not comfortable to talk about faith.
        • If somebody asks me questions, I don’t feel like I know enough or am prepared enough to answer them.
        • I don’t want to be ridiculed for my faith.
        • I don’t want to offend someone else with my faith.
        • My faith is too personal to talk about.
        • Faith is just too hard to talk about.
  • But what did our Scripture readings say this morning? “Get ready! Don’t be afraid! With great fear and excitement, they hurried away from the tomb!” Friends, these are words of action. These are words of encouragement. These are words meant to light a fire – a Holy Spirit, Divine Disturber, God-at-work-in-the-world sort of fire – beneath us and get us out into the world. It’s not about changing the story itself – making the story of God easier or less radical. It’s a radical story of radical love – love so strong, so sure, so unconditional that it suffered on the cross, was crucified, died, was buried, and then rose again from the grave! The story we tell is the whole point. It’s about changing our role in that story – from passive observer to active participant. It’s about changing how we go.
      • No more timidity
      • No more fear
      • No more discomfort
      • Go ready
      • Go confident
      • Go with eager and excited
  • Now, I know not all of you are probably up on the PBS Kids’ shows scene these days. Lucky for you, thanks to two little boys, I am.
    • PBS has always had great and enriching kids’ programming[2]
      • Classics: Sesame Street and Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood
      • 90’s staples: Ghostwriter and Where in the World is Carmen San Diego?
      • Current hits: Wild Kratts (learning about animals), Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood (animated Mr. Roger’s spin-off), and, one of the boys’ current favorites, Super Why!
    • Let me tell you a little bit about Super Why. It’s an animated show featuring 4 main characters who solve their day-to-day problems by reading classic stories and applying the morals from those stories to their lives.
      • E.g. – story of Goldilocks and the three bears teaches them to clean up the messes they leave behind
      • Focus of the show: teaching kids about reading → reaches all stages of learning to read
        • Alphabet
        • Spelling/letter sounds
        • Rhyming words
        • Reading
      • Toward the end of every episode, the Super Readers hit a snag in the story – something negative that they need to change in order to solve the problem, something that’s part of the original story but, with one simple word change, can unlock the whole solution.
        • E.g. – Goldilocks → change “Goldilocks sleeps in the three bears’ house” to “Goldilocks jumps in the three bears’ house” so they can wake Goldilocks up and talk to her about cleaning up the mess she’s made
        • Friends, that is what we need to do – zap the lethargy, the reticence, the fear, the insecurity, whatever’s holding us back from declaring this incredible news of Christ’s resurrection out of our portion of the story – to allow ourselves to be changed. Today, as we join the women and the dumbfounded centurion guards and the heralding angel at the mouth of the empty tomb, we need to let that good news zap out whatever is keeping us from proclaiming our faith and replace it with boldness and confidence in the glory and grace of Christ’s resurrection. We need to figure out how to leave the tomb with our stories changed.
  • 1st SET OF CHARACTERS AT THE TOMB: Roman centurions – those left to guard to tomb, to ensure that Jesus’ followers wouldn’t steal his body and stage a resurrection
    • Men posted outside the sealed tomb at the urging of the Pharisees, ordered there by Pilate, governor of Judea
    • Little did the Pharisees know that it wasn’t staging a resurrection that they needed to worry about. They needed to be a little bit more concerned with the real thing.
    • Scripture: After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to look at the tomb. 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. Now his face was like lightning and his clothes as white as snow. The guards were so terrified of him that they shook with fear and became like dead men.[3] → “The guards were so terrified of him that they shook with fear and became like dead men.” Think about it. These men – these guards – literally found themselves petrified with fear. They had been guarding the tomb for three whole days, maintaining the status quo, possibly expecting some sort of threat or challenge from outside the tomb but certainly not expecting any such thing from the dead body sealed up behind the giant stone!
      • Sometimes the stance that we take when it comes to faith
        • So set in our preconceived notions
        • So confident in the “expected/acceptable” outcome
        • So cemented in our ways
        • So sure that “the way things are” is the way they always have to be
        • So closed to the idea of anything out of the ordinary
        • We let our presuppositions guide our belief instead of letting our belief open our eyes to the potential all around us. We let our assumptions close our hearts and minds to new paths and new possibilities. We let our fear freeze us in place, incapacitating both our words and our actions and rendering us only a spectator in our own journeys of faith.
        • Forget that our God is a God who can move mountains … a God who speaks in fire and wind and silence and even a betrayer’s kiss … a God of second and third and seven-times-seventy-seventh chances … a God who, simply by existing, blows all our expectations and presuppositions out of the water … a God who, after three days, can rise from the grave to bring us the gift of grace
    • And yet, we hear the calls from our Scripture readings this morning: “Get ready! We’re going up to Zion to the LORD our God!” … “Don’t be afraid!” … “With great fear and excitement, they hurried away from the tomb.”
  • 2nd SET OF CHARACTERS AT THE TOMB: the women – “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary”
    • Unlike the rest of the disciples who had fled upon Jesus’ arrest and stayed away throughout his trial, sentencing, and crucifixion, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there with Jesus through it all. They wept at the foot of his cross. They watched his body taken down. They prepared him for burial. And they watched that stone seal his tomb – heard and felt the finality of the crash as it was rolled into place, forever separating them from their beloved teacher and friend … or so they thought.
    • Had come to the tomb that morning to mourn
    • Certainly never expected what they found
      • Startling encounter #1 angel – text: The angel said to the women, “Don’t be afraid. I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He isn’t here, because he’s been raised from the dead, just as he said. Come, see the place where they laid him. Now hurry, go and tell his disciples, ‘He’s been raised from the dead. He’s going on ahead of you to Galilee. You will see him there.’ I’ve given the message to you.” With great fear and excitement, they hurried away from the tomb and ran to tell his disciples.[4] → “With great fear and excitement, they hurried away from the tomb and ran to tell his disciples.” That part is really important because it acknowledges that the women still had their fear. They were still uncertain. They were still anxious. They surely still had a million questions and yet only one answer … one that didn’t even make sense: Christ is risen! They still had their fear, but unlike the petrified Roman centurions, that wasn’t all they had. They also had excitement – they had joy and eagerness and enthusiasm. They had good news to share! And for the first time in three wretched, fear-filled, tear-soaked days, they had hope. A wild hope. A crazy hope. A completely unexplainable yet wholly essential hope: Christ is risen!
      • Startling encounter #2 – text: With great fear and excitement, they hurried away from the tomb and ran to tell his disciples. But Jesus met them and greeted them. They came and grabbed his feet and worshipped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Go and tell my brothers that I am going into Galilee. They will see me there.”[5] → Suddenly, they are no longer going just on the word of some random angel sitting on a tombstone. Not only have they heard the good news that Christ is risen, but they had seen him, touched him, spoken to him, worshipped him. And so they go with confidence. They go with assurance. They go with their hearts overflowing with joy and peace. They go with their experience of the risen Lord.
        • Ways that we experience the risen Christ in our lives = just as pivotal, just as inspirational, just as encouraging in our journeys of faith → And it’s just as important that we share those encounters with others so that they can hear the good news as it continues to bring joy and unconditional love and hope to a weary and frightened and broken world.
      • Don’t feel like you have the words? Let Scripture guide you – word of God through prophet Jeremiah from this morning: I have loved you with a love that lasts forever. And so with unfailing love, I have drawn you to myself. Again, I will build you up, and you will be rebuilt. … Again, you will play your tambourines and dance with joy. … “Get ready! We’re going up to Zion to the LORD our God!”[6] → Friends, this is the good news. Throughout the centuries, it is news that has not changed. God loves you with an unfailing love – a love that could not be quashed by death or tombs or stones. And through that love that bridged even the most unknowable gap – the gap from death into life – God has drawn you to Godself, not because you deserve it. Not because you’ve earned it. Not because you’ve said the right thing or because you know the code word and the secret handshake. But simply because God loves you too much to let you go.
        • Loves you enough to build and rebuild you on the days you’re feeling broken down
        • Loves you enough to teach you to dance again in joy when you have forgotten the steps
        • Loves you enough to cover you in grace just because
        • Friends, this is the good news of the gospel yesterday, today, and every day. So how will we go out to share that good news? Hallelujah! Amen.

[1] Mt 28:6, 7.

[2] http://www.pbskids.org.

[3] Mt 28:1-4.

[4] Mt 28:5-8.

[5] Mt 28:8-10.

[6] Jer 31:3-6.

Sunday’s sermon: Celebrate and Wait

celebrate and wait

Texts used – Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29 and Matthew 21:1-11

  • “Hurry up! Hurry up! Hurry up!” … Aaaaaaand … Wait. This is a phenomenon with which we are all familiar in our lives, right?
    • Sometimes feels like our days are filled with “hurry up and wait” scenarios
      • Doctor’s office → hurry up and get there, hurry up and fill out the forms, hurry up and get back to the exam room … and wait (and wait and wait) for the doctor.
      • Application of any kind (job, college, mortgage, etc.) → hurry up and fill out the form, hurry up and submit the application … and wait (and wait and wait) to hear whether you’ve been accepted or not.
      • Buying a house! → hurry up and check the market, hurry up and see the house(s), hurry up and put in an offer … and wait (and wait and wait) through the rest of the process (home inspections, appraisals, underwriting, negotiation of terms, etc.).
      • Lifecycle of a farmer
        • Hurry up and plant the crop … wait (and wait and wait) for it to grow
        • Hurry up and harvest the crop … wait (and wait and wait) throughout the winter until the ground thaws and the weather warms up enough in the spring
        • Just to do it all over again.
      • Sometime, if you haven’t heard the story already, you’ll have to ask Peter about his “hurry up and wait” deployment story. Suffice it to say it involved him and a group of other National Guard members pointlessly cooling their heels in an Army camp in Mississippi which ended up extending his deployment by a few months while the higher-ups tried to figure out exactly which unit he and the rest of these guys were supposed to be deploying with. “Hurry up and wait” at its grandest.
    • It feels like so much of our lives nowadays gets caught up in cycles of “hurry up and wait” – cycles of frantic and sometimes chaotic activity followed by a period of stillness or passivity. → somewhat similar to cycles of boot camp experiences
      • Frantic, sometimes chaotic energy of the boot camp experience itself – throw your whole self into the changes
        • New activities
        • New routines
        • New information
        • New mindset
      • And suddenly, before you know it, you find the boot camp experience over. And you’re celebrating and rejoicing because you’ve made it through this mind-bogglingly difficult thing! You’ve finished the task! You’ve conquered the seemingly-impossible! You are awesome! … Now what???
        • Instead of “hurry up and wait” → “celebrate … and wait” scenario
  • “Celebrate and wait” = pretty apt scenario for Holy Week as it lies before us
    • Whirlwind of activity and emotion all jam-packed into one week
    • Theological rollercoaster → from the highs of Jesus’ triumphal entry today to the loop that Jesus’ throws the disciples during the Last Supper (“this is my body broken for you”? “this is my blood shed for you?”) to the screaming low of the crucifixion on Good Friday, back up to the high of the resurrection on Easter morning
    • Today, with the crowds that welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem, we celebrate. We rejoice. We shout our “hosannas” and our “blesseds” and our “praise Gods.” And yet we know that this celebration is not the end of the story. We celebrate … and yet, we also wait in mournful anticipation of what is to come.
  • Certainly hit that “celebration” mark with OT text this morning
    • CELEBRATION!: Give thanks to the LORD because he is good, because his faithful love lasts forever. Let Israel say it: “God’s faithful love lasts forever!” … Open the gates of righteousness for me so I can come in and give thanks to the LORD![1]
    • CELEBRATION!: I thank you because you answered me, because you were my saving help. … This has happened because of the LORD; it is astounding in our sight! This is the day the LORD acted; we will rejoice and celebrate in it![2]
    • CELEBRATION!: You are my God—I will give thanks to you! You are my God—I will lift you up high! Give thanks to the LORD because he is good, because his faithful love lasts forever.[3]
    • You can hear the exuberance. You can hear the rejoicing. You can hear the adoration and worship exuding from every syllable and phrase. This is a passage of light and glory and triumph. This is a passage of celebration!
      • Feels a lot like the triumph at the end of a boot camp experience
        • BOOT CAMP: “Yes, we’ve slogged through the insanely hard stuff. Yes, we’ve fought hard to keep from giving up. Yes, we’ve been broken down. But we’ve come back better, stronger, more confident in ourselves and our abilities. We have been built back up, and we are better for it!”
        • SCRIPTURE: I thank you because you answered me, because you were my saving help. … LORD, please save us! LORD, please let us succeed! … This is the day the LORD acted; we will rejoice and celebrate in it![4] → Even in the midst of the rejoicing and the celebrating, our psalm for this morning recognizes struggle. It recognizes the hard parts of life. It recognizes that we are in no way capable of doing this “being a human” thing on our own, and it cries out to God for help. “Lord, please save us! Lord, please let us succeed!”
          • Now, I don’t know about you, but I have a little bit of trouble with the word “succeed” here. It feels uncomfortable to me. It feels exclusive to me – a little too “prosperity gospel,” a little too “Doctrine of Discovery,” a little too separationist. So I had to look that word up. → “succeed” = powerful, effective, strong
            • “Lord, please let us thrive!”
            • “Lord, please let us be effective!” → Isn’t this our prayer during and after a boot camp experience? Isn’t that why we go through it in the first place – to be our most powerful, strong, effective selves?
  • So there’s all that celebration in our psalm for this morning, but there’s also a hint that the work is far from complete – a hint at the “wait” part of the equation, too. – text: The stone rejected by the builders is now the main foundation stone.[5]
    • Implies “more to come” → something to wait for
      • Saw that stone passed over
      • Saw that stone rejected
      • Saw that stone tossed aside in haste to find the “right one”
      • BUT that stone will be set in a place of such prominence, such significance, such importance
    • Also implies staying power → The foundation stone is not a stone that gets moved … you know … ever. So the idea of being a foundation stone requires deep, dedicated, long-term commitment, not just a fleeting, half-hearted investment – some short-term, “hurry up” sort of quick fix.
      • Commitment that God made to humanity over and over again
        • Creation
        • Covenants with Abraham, Noah, Moses, Jacob
        • Birth of God’s own son, the Messiah
      • Commitment that Jesus made – commitment that we get to walk through this week as we make our way through Holy Week
        • Commitment to the celebration of today
        • Commitment to the intimacy of the Last Supper
        • Commitment to the horror of Good Friday
        • Commitment to the desolation of those three days of waiting
        • Commitment to what is to come
          • Empty tomb
          • Discarded graveclothes
          • Resurrection
  • I have to tell you all that Holy Week is my favorite time of the church calendar year exactly because of this tension that we live into all week long – exactly because of the “hurry up, celebrate, and wait” of it all. We talk about how Jesus was both God and human, and this is a week in which we get to experience both aspects of the Messiah in such close and stark contrast.
    • The week begins with the celebrate – with songs that are joyful-sounding and triumphant! It begins with the story of a parade and a jubilant crowd clamoring to get closer to their beloved Jesus.
      • Think about both sides of this celebration
        • Crowd side:
          • Excited
          • Emboldened
          • Upbeat
          • Maybe even a little star-struck
          • Hear this in text: Now a large crowd spread their clothes on the road. Others cut palm branches off the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds in front of him and behind him shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” And when Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up. “Who is this?” they asked.[6] → crowd is jubilant because they expect this Jesus – this Son of David – to lead them in armed rebellion against Roman oppression
            • Expecting a physical salvation – swift, immediate, literal → expecting a “hurry up” sort of Messiah
        • Jesus’ side: full of knowledge and understanding
          • Understanding the situation
          • Understanding the human condition – our fickleness and the ease with which we are sometimes swayed to support something/someone one day and doubt it, beleaguer it, forsake it, (dare I say crucify it?) the next
          • Knowledge – knowing what is to come
    • Perfect illustration from movie version of Jesus Christ Superstar: filming the triumphal entry and the exuberance and celebration of the crowd, jarring moment of suspension
      • Screen freezes like someone’s pressed pause
      • Song continues in a suddenly ominous-sounding minor key
      • Voices of the crowdspeople singing become momentarily menacing → from “Hey JC, JC, won’t you smile at me?” to “Hey JC, JC would you die for me?”
      • It’s a moment that basically plays on a continual loop in my brain during Holy Week because it so perfectly illustrates the tension that we all hold in our minds and in our hearts during the services this week. Because we have the luxury of knowing the whole story. Like Jesus that day, we know what is coming, and it does indeed make us pause and reflect and contemplate and question.
  • But even with that knowledge, we raise our celebratory “hosannas” with the crowd this morning.
    • Celebrate what this Lenten journey has been – a journey of challenge and change, a journey of discernment and discovery, a journey of brokenness and blessing
    • Celebrate the hard work that has gone into this Lenten journey
    • Celebrate that this journey is almost complete
    • But the thing about boot camp is that, once you’ve finished celebrating that you’ve survived such an arduous experience, you need to start living changed. Falling back into old habits and patterns of behavior will lead you right back to where you were before you started boot camp, and it will all have been in vain. The hard work of not just acknowledging the changes that need to be made but implementing them lies ahead. And so we celebrate knowing that the true work – the work of redemption; the work of grace; the work of God’s Kingdom; the work of the cross; the holy and intentional work that Jesus started; that long-term, foundational, deep and dedicated, cornerstone kind of work – that work is still out there waiting to be done. So we celebrate knowing that this is not actually the end of anything … just the beginning of something wholly different. Amen.

[1] Ps 118:1-2, 19.

[2] Ps 118: 21, 23-24.

[3] Ps 118: 28-29.

[4] Ps 118:21, 25, 24.

[5] Ps 118:22.

[6] Mt 21:8-10.

Sunday’s sermon: Dead Ends and Dramatic Comebacks

dead end sign

Texts used – Ezekiel 37:1-14 (read in the context of the sermon) and Romans 8:6-11

  • Last Sunday marked the 3rd annual Philadelphia Love Run – a half marathon in the City of Brotherly Love that was started as a gathering for those who simply love Philly and those who just love running so much they can’t contain themselves.
    • Description from the race website: “It is time to ‘get your run on’ because this is going to be the most fun you’ve had running a half marathon in a long time! … From the great perks to the finish line festival … this is the race that loves you back!”[1]
    • Sounds like a good time, right?! Okay … maybe not the running 13.1 miles part, but the support and the party sound pretty good, right? But there was a really incredible moment[2] toward the end of this year’s Philadelphia Love Run.
      • Just feet from the finish – woman started to struggle → And I’m not talking about just slowing to a jog or even walking. I’m not even talking about that thing that runners do when they’re tired – you know, when they put their hands on their head so they can open up their chest cavities and get in more air. This woman was really
        • Seemed like her legs just stopped working
          • Couldn’t move forward
          • Couldn’t coordinate with each other
          • Couldn’t hold her up anymore
          • She literally could not go another step. Her body just. Wouldn’t. Do it.
    • Now, anyone who’s run a marathon or a half marathon talks about the various physical and emotional phases of such an endurance race. – include things like:
      • Anxiousness/nervousness (before starting)
      • Confidence at the starting line → “I’ve totally got this!!”
        • Partly mob mentality – “We’re all in this together.”
      • “Runner’s High” → “I feel great! I am awesome! I am rocking this race! When I get to the finish line, I’m just going to do this all over again!”
      • INEVITABLY: hit The Wall → that point when all your excitement and enthusiasm melt away and you suddenly realize that you’re just running … and running … and running … and running … and you’re out of breath and you’re sore and you could still be in bed right now!
        • More often than not it’s a mental wall
        • BUT woman at the end of the Philadelphia Love Run had hit this wall physically → her struggle was a physical manifestation of a very real and very unrelenting challenge
          • Lots of names for it: hit the wall, plateau, dead end
          • No matter what we call it, it was a road block – something in the way of her realizing her goal of finishing that half marathon.
  • Throughout Lent – talking about Lent as boot camp for the soul
    • Boot camp as a means to effect serious and drastic change
    • Boot camp as a way to step up into a new phase of our lives and ourselves
    • Necessity of hydration – of being replenished and renewed in midst of a boot camp experience
    • How boot camp experiences reveal more in us than we may have even though possible
    • That’s all pretty positive – pretty encouraging. Today, we’re going to talk about that inevitable moment in a boot camp experience when we hit the wall – when we feel so depleted, so challenged, so exhausted (physically, emotionally, spiritually) that we cannot go on. Because as much as we hate those times and what they do to our spirits, we cannot ignore the reality that they exist.
  • Actually going to start with a story that we didn’t read this morning – part of the lectionary but not one of the Scripture readings that I chose → today’s Gospel reading = story of Lazarus’ death/resurrection[3]
    • Found in John’s gospel
    • Lazarus = brother of Martha and Mary, friend of Jesus’
    • Lazarus falls ill
    • Sisters send word to their friend, Jesus: “Lord, the one whom you love is ill.” → reading between the lines: Their expectation is that Jesus, their friend, the great Teacher and healer, will fly to the side of his beloved friend and heal him posthaste.
    • BUT Jesus doesn’t immediately run to Lazarus’ aid à instead:
      • Downplays Lazarus’ illness with his disciples
      • Stays a few more days where he is
      • Drags his feet on returning
    • By the time Jesus returns to Lazarus’ home, Lazarus is dead
      • Not even recently → It’s not like Jesus just missed him by a few hours. Jesus enters the scene to find that Lazarus has already been in his tomb for 4 whole days!
    • Martha and Mary are (understandably) distraught – Martha (always the one ready to speak her mind) to Jesus: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died. Even now I know that whatever you ask God, God will give you.”
      • Accusation
      • Challenge
      • Raw and real plea: Bring my brother back!
    • As Jesus makes his way to Lazarus’ tomb → sees Mary’s and Martha’s distress, sees all the other mourners, sees the distress of his disciples, and was “deeply disturbed and troubled,” even to the point of Jesus himself beginning to weep
    • Scripture story includes some of the side conversations of the mourners: “He healed the eyes of the man born blind. Couldn’t he have kept Lazarus from dying?” → Friends, I’m bringing up this story this morning because it shows us that even Jesus had his moments of challenge, his moments of despair, his moments of feeling at a loss – like he’d hit the wall. In some of the things that Jesus says to his disciples before he even sets out for Lazarus’ house, Scripture makes it clear that Jesus wanted to use this as a “teachable moment” – as one of the signs scattered throughout the book of John that he was indeed the Messiah come to set all people free. But knowing that in his head and encountering all that “teachable” pain and grief with his own eyes and his own heart were two different things.
      • Whenever you hit that wall …
      • Whenever you feel at a loss …
      • Whenever you are struggling under the weight of all that you carry …
      • Know … believe … that Jesus has been there, too. Jesus knows how hard it is, how uncomfortable it is, how painful it is.
  • OT reading begins as another story of depletion and desolation this morning
    • READ Ezek 37:1-3
      • A valley full of bones
      • Dry, dry bones
      • He asked me, “Human one, can these bones live again?” And I said, “Lord God, only you know.”[4] → LOTS of discussion among scholars about how this could be read
        • Sense of being overwhelmed
        • Sense of frustration
        • Sense of wholehearted trust
        • No matter how we read it, we cannot deny that in this vision, Ezekiel finds himself face-to-face with a staggering scene of depletion and challenge and apparent dead ends.
  • But the good news is that that desolation – those dry bones, that feeling of being utterly overwhelmed, that plateau, that dead end – that is not the end of the story. Once upon a time it was … but then Jesus came.
    • Came to bring healing
    • Came to bring grace
    • Came to bring new life
      • End of Lazarus’ story: Jesus calls out to Lazarus in his tomb, “Lazarus, come out!” And the dead man came out, his feet bound and his hands tied, and his face covered with a cloth. And Jesus said to them, “Untie him and let him go.”[5] → New energy. Resurrection. New life. All at the call of Jesus.
      • Renewal and resurrection in the rest of Ezekiel’s story, too
        • READ Ezek 37:4-14
        • This is one of my favorite stories in the whole Bible because of the imagery in it. Imagine this scene: a valley full of dry bones – lifeless and dusty, broken and disconnected, bleached by the sun and smoothed by the desert sand. But then the Word of God comes.
          • Great noise – quaking and rumbling, rattling and clattering → bones coming together
          • Out of nowhere
            • Sinews wrapping around bones
            • Flesh covering sinew
            • Skin covering flesh
          • And finally … BREATH → And not just any breath, but the breath of God Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth, Alpha and Omega, I AM THAT I AM. The breath of the Most Holy One. [INHALE … EXHALE] – text: I will put my breath in you, and you will live. I will plant you on your fertile land, and you will know that I am the Lord. I’ve spoken, and I will do it. This is what the Lord says.[6]
    • Goes along with Paul’s declaration in Rom – text: If Christ is in you, the Spirit is your life because of God’s righteousness, but the body is dead because of sin. If the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead lives in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your human bodies also, through his Spirit that lives in you.[7]
  • Sometimes we can find the strength inside ourselves to get through those plateaus … to overcome the walls that we hit … to circumvent the dead ends and find a new way. But sometimes we need help.
    • Purpose of faith → God is always there to breathe new life into us again
      • New energy
      • New hope
      • New imagination
      • New purpose
      • New faith
    • Purpose of community → Sometimes, we get to be that boost, that reminder, that re-invigoration for one another.
      • Woman running the Philadelphia Love Run half marathon à other runners around her stopped to help
        • At first, took her hands and helped her along
        • Supported her under her arms
        • Encouraged her by pointing out how close they were to the finish
        • But when she still just couldn’t do it – when her body hit that dead end that was just too much to overcome – do you know what they did? They picked her up and carried her. They kept on running, but they carried her with them – physically, to be sure, but I can guarantee you that support and that relief was more than skin deep. They carried a few more yards, put her down just before the finish line, and helped her cross it on her own. And that, my friends, is what the kin-dom of God is all about.
          • I will put my breath in you, and you will live. I will plant you on your fertile land, and you will know that I am the Lord. I’ve spoken, and I will do it. This is what the Lord says.

CHARGE & BENEDICTION: Being a child of the 90s, I was listening to music while I was working on my sermon, and this song popped up. So today’s charge and benediction are brought to you by Savage Garden: 

 

[1] “For Runners” section, http://www.cgiracing.com/theloverun/EVENT-INFO/FOR-RUNNERS. Accessed Apr. 1, 2017.

[2] “Watch: Exhausted half marathon runner helped to finish line” from Dallas News, http://www.dallasnews.com/news/us-news/2017/03/27/watchexhausted-half-marathon-runner-helped-finish-line. Posted Mar. 27, 2017, accessed Apr. 1, 2017.

[3] Jn 11:1-45.

[4] Ezek 37:3.

[5] Jn 11:43-44.

[6] Ezek 37:14.

[7] Rom 8:10-11.

Sunday’s sermon: More Than Meets the Eye

more than meets the eye
artwork by Maurizio Nannucci

Texts used – 1 Samuel 16:1-13 and Ephesians 5:8-14

  • I have to remind you all of something before we start this morning. Once a year, I spend a couple of days holed up in my office, and I plan the sermons for the following 12-18 months.
    • Pick Scriptures
    • Plan various series
    • Jot down a main idea or two
    • Sometimes even get so far as a sermon title
    • For a whole year
    • I’m reminding you about this little yearly practice of mine because as you listen to the sermon this morning, I want you to keep in mind that these Scriptures and this basic theme were chosen months ago … way back in Nov. … funny God moment. Trust me.
  • Now, 1991 was a magical year for one reason and one reason only: Disney. That was the year that Disney released the animated version of Beauty and the Beast.[1]
    • Especially appropriate seeing as the live-action version[2] just came out
      • SIDE NOTE: If you haven’t gone to see that movie yet, you need to. Seriously. It’s amazing … whether you saw the animated version 26 years ago or not. 
    • When the animated Beauty and the Beast came out, I was 7 years old. I vividly remember going to see it in a theater in Lake Placid, New York with my mom and my grandma.
      • First movie I remember seeing in a movie theater
      • Magical theater
      • Magical movie → All of the characters are more than what they appear to be at first glance.
        • Belle à more than your stereotypical, helpless, daydreaming Disney princess
          • Smart
          • Spirited
          • Courageous
          • And she’s a HUGE reader!!! What’s not to love?!
        • Living inanimate objects (talking clock, candelabra, teapot and cup, etc.)
        • And, of course, there’s the Beast – a rude and arrogant prince turned into a horrible beast by an enchantress as a way to try to teach him a lesson about the power of kindness and love.
        • Idea of there being more below the surface than what meets the eye, of course, inspires Belle to get to know the Beast, to eventually fall in love with him, and to break the spell
    • Seeing that movie is one of my favorite childhood memories, and it’s a perfect illustration for what we’re talking about today: uncovering hidden potential, diamonds in the rough, having faith in there being more than meets the eye.
      • Lenten series about boot camp for the soul → time of challenging, intense personal work
        • On our relationship with God
        • On our relationships with one another
        • On our own journeys of faith
        • We’ve talked about how hard – how grueling and demanding and taxing boot camp experiences can be.
          • Tough on the body
          • Tough on the spirit
        • And most people who decide to put themselves through an experience like that do so believing that they can come out better on the other side – that there’s something inside them waiting to be unleashed, something that is stronger … greater … more valuable just waiting to break out of whatever shell its hiding in.
    • Faith has to have that element of belief, too
      • Belief in a strength greater than what we feel we have
      • Belief in a cause greater than ourselves
      • Belief in that we are more than we are capable of
        • That God can save us
        • That God can use us
        • That God can make us new
        • That by the grace of God in Christ Jesus, we are indeed more than meets the eye.
  • Paul’s essential message in Eph passage
    • CONTEXT FOR EPH:
      • Speaks powerfully and poetically of Paul’s vision for the church
        • Unity
        • Community
        • Reconciliation
        • New life in Christ
      • Intro from New Oxford Annotated Bible: “The church must recognize both Christ as its Lord and exemplar and its own exalted status as a spirit-filled community that brings the power and presence of God to the world.”[3] → hear this in first verse that we read today – text: You were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord, so live your life as children of light.[4]
        • Call to action
        • Call to faith
        • (Maybe not necessarily in that order)
    • Throughout this Lenten season, as we’ve talked about boot camp for the soul and how we can grow in our faith, we’ve talked some about change – about how boot camp experiences are specifically meant to change us and about how sometimes that change is a hard, hard thing. And one of the hardest things about that change is the uncertainty.
      • Don’t know where exactly we’re going
      • Don’t know exactly what the end is going to look like
      • Don’t know what opportunities will arise out of our boot camp transformations
      • We know that something – something new and different – is coming, but we do not and cannot know what that is … and that scares us. [PAUSE] Hmmm … do you remember when I told you to keep in mind that these Scriptures and this basic theme were chosen months ago … way back in Nov. … and that this was a funny God moment. Hmmm … does this seem eerily appropriate to anyone else? “For such a time as this,” huh?
    • Eph text also addresses that tension between what used to be/what is and what can be – tension that motivates us to want to be more than meets the eye – text: Therefore, test everything to see what’s pleasing to the Lord, and don’t participate in the unfruitful actions of darkness. Instead, you should reveal the truth about them.[5] → “Test everything” – what we do, what we cherish, what we say, what we believe – that is our call: to test everything about who we are and how we “do” faith, both as individuals and as a community, so that we can continue to live as children of light.
      • Lent = all about that testing
      • Boot camp = all about that testing
      • Testing reveals undiscovered potential buried underneath all the fears, all the uncertainties, all the worries, all the doubts … But only if we have the courage to test it in the first place, and to refuse to “participate in the unfruitful actions of darkness.” Only if, in learning how to say a stronger and more faithful ‘yes’ to God, we also learn how to say ‘no’ to the things that hold us back.
        • Presumptions
        • Prejudices
        • Pre-conceived notions
        • Last 7 words of the church: “That’s the way we’ve always done things”
  • That’s what our Old Testament story is all about this morning. → story of prophet Samuel finding a new king for the people of Israel
    • Story where we picked it up today sort of hits the ground running, so BACKGROUND:
      • Samuel = prophet
      • Time when people of Israel were demanding a human king instead of series of judges that had been governing people up to that point
      • Previously, God had directed Samuel to appoint first king: Saul
        • Saul started off as a good king → did what God wanted, listened to Samuel/took his advice, continued to worship God
        • But this blissful state of ruling the people and serving God faithfully didn’t last for Israel’s leader.
          • Began to ignore Samuel’s advice about engaging with other nations
          • Began to make rash, cruel decisions involving his army and war
            • Didn’t consult Samuel
            • Didn’t consult God
    • Today’s Scripture: God directs Samuel to find a new king for Israelites
      • Obviously a tricky deal → Saul hasn’t died. Saul hasn’t abdicated the throne of his own choosing. Saul is technically still the king. He still very much wants to be king and very much enjoys being king. And yet God is telling Samuel to go find and anoint a different
        • Hear Samuel’s hesitation in beginning of this morning’s Scripture story – both grief over Saul’s failure and fear that Saul, upon hearing about being replaced, will fly into a rage and kill him for this betrayal → So God – the Lord Almighty, the Creator of Heaven and Earth – God actually comes up with a sneaky plan to help Samuel find a new king and keep Saul in the dark. – text: “Take a heifer with you,” the LORD replied, “and say, ‘I have come to make a sacrifice to the LORD.’ 3 Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will make clear to you what you should do. You will anoint for me the person I point out to you.”[6]
    • So Samuel takes the heifer and goes to find a new king.
      • Comes across a man named Jesse, just as God said he would
      • Meets what he thinks are all of Jesse’s sons – strong, handsome, grown men that over and over again make Samuel think, “Surely, that must be the guy!” “Surely, that must be the guy!” “C’mon God, surely, THAT must be the guy!” → God’s response: But the LORD said to Samuel, “Have no regard for his appearance or stature, because I haven’t selected him. God doesn’t look at things like humans do. Humans see only what is visible to the eyes, but the LORD sees into the heart.”[7]
        • (Nerds of the world, rejoice!!)
    • Samuel goes through all seven of Jesse’s oldest sons this way → Not to heap too many Disney references in one sermon, but this Bible scene always makes me think of the end of Cinderella when the prince is trying to find his mysterious princess and tries the glass slipper on one woman after another. “Is this the one?” “Nope.” “Could she be the one?” “Nope.”
    • Finally, Samuel asks Jesse if there could possibly be anyone else – someone that he might have overlooked. And Jesse remembers his youngest son, David, the scrawny little guy hanging out with the sheep. – text: Then Samuel asked Jesse, “Is that all of your boys?” “There is still the youngest one,” Jesse answered, “but he’s out keeping the sheep.” “Send for him,” Samuel told Jesse, “because we can’t proceed until he gets here.” So Jesse sent and brought him in. He was reddish brown, had beautiful eyes, and was good-looking. The LORD said, “That’s the one. Go anoint him.” So Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him right there in front of his brothers. The LORD’s spirit came over David from that point forward.[8]
      • David becomes one of the greatest kings in Israel’s history
      • God saw that in David before he even saw it in himself
      • Remember Paul’s words from Ephesians this morning? – text: You were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord, so live your life as children of light. 9 Light produces fruit that consists of every sort of goodness, justice, and truth. … But everything exposed to the light is revealed by the light. 14 Everything that is revealed by the light is light. Therefore, it says, Wake up, sleeper! Get up from the dead, and Christ will shine on you. → Wake up to your own potential! Wake up to your own worth! Wake up to what incredible, powerful, beautiful, God-given gifts are inside you just waiting to be discovered! God knows you. God loves you. And God has a purpose for you – a purpose for which God has specially and specifically equipped you. You are more than meets the eye.
        • Goes along with what we say as part of every invitation to communion: No matter who you are … no matter where you come from this morning … no matter what you bring with you à All those external things that others judge don’t matter because God sees what’s in your heart. God sees the light in you, and that’s what matters.
  • One last thing for us and who we are here and now in this place: David had hidden potential. David was a diamond in the rough. As the Lord looked not at David’s appearance but at his heart, God saw that there was more to David than met the eye. More than his age. More than his size. More than his inexperience. More than his meager beginnings. God looked at his heart and saw that there were great things in him. … Friends, that is this church! There is hidden potential here – more than meets the eye. We are more than our age, more than our size, more than our meager beginnings. I truly believe that God has great things in store for this little white church on the hill.

[1] Beauty and the Beast (animated), released by Walt Disney Pictures November 22, 1991.

[2] Beauty and the Beast (live-action), released by Walt Disney Pictures March 17, 2017.

[3] “The Letter of Paul to the Ephesians: Introduction” in The New Oxford Annotated Bible, 3rd edition: New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha. (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2001), 320.

[4] Eph 5:8.

[5] Eph 5:10-11.

[6] 1 Sam 16:2b-3.

[7] 1 Sam 16:7.

[8] 1 Sam 16:11-13.