Pentecost is the birthday of the Church. According to Luke, on the Festival of Pentecost, fifty days after Easter, the Holy Spirit descended upon the first followers of Jesus. The church was sent to be Christ’s body in the world. As we celebrate today, on this joyful day, it is also an opportunity to consider our call to be God’s people in the world.
Apparently, over these years I’ve become famous/infamous among you for my midwest stories. Fine, in these last days, I repent. Today’s sermon: LA Stories! My call to be Christian was definitively shaped here in Los Angeles.
In the Spring of 1992 I had just moved to Los Angeles. I was a database programmer and systems analyst, working in an Orange County office, while living in Redondo Beach. Yes, my LA experience was about traffic and the 405 from the start. On one terrible day that spring it was much, much worse. Following the acquittal of four white police officers who had beaten a black man, Rodney King, the city erupted in anger. That day, I drove home early because a curfew was being imposed on much of the county that evening. A populace like Los Angeles only functions when everyone doesn’t try to do the same thing at the same time. On that day we did. All people were gathered in one place as I “drove” inch by inch on the 405. National Guard vehicles zoomed down the shoulders of what was otherwise a ten lane parking lot. I had plenty of time to behold a city in flames, dark clouds billowing over south central Los Angles.
I was a classic rock fan in those days. Jim Lad was a local radio personality. He tried to help keep the peace that afternoon by playing music of his generation. John Lennon, "Let it Be." That moment is seared into my memory. “I want to make a difference,” I thought to myself, or maybe it was the Spirit who thought it into me. Maybe it was just the Beetles, but that moment was one step in my call to ordained ministry, my part in this diverse tapestry of people called church. This is who we are all called to be as church: the people God, gathered by Christ, sent by the Spirit to make a difference in a hurting world.
In those days I was attending a Presbyterian church close by. In hindsight, it was more white Evangelical than Presbyterian — now don’t get sassy, we have plenty of Methodist churches just like that too. One post-riot effort was a city wide volunteer cleanup. Rodney King himself, put the best words to it, pleading with the city: “Can’t we all just get along?” Several weeks later, late to the game, my church managed to try.
By then, most of the work was done, but we did locate a yet untouched lot, hauled ourselves into a sixteen passenger church van, and moved some burnt wood and rubbish around for a couple hours. Then, of course, we circled up and prayed. We prayed visibly and loudly. The lot was well chosen for that, right off a major intersection. Yes, we were Christians, the holy apostolic church making a difference, out of our pews, outside of our zip code, pushed beyond our comfort zones. We had checked off all the church “you should be doing” boxes you could want. I believe our leader was a student at Fuller Seminary. Conservative or liberal it wouldn’t have mattered. We are fed the same stuff. Yes, there we were, the church circled up in the Spirit, gathered around our living Lord. Or were we?
I was mortified. To this day I take Jesus’ teaching in Matthew to heart that outside of our places of worship, we should pray in private to avoid the temptation of prideful faith. Yet, it was more than that, there was something in that moment deeply wrong. I didn’t have words or understanding yet for what that wrong was.
Exegesis/Opening the Scriptures (1)
In our tradition, there is no better analysis of what goes wrong in our humanity than the opening chapters of the book of Genesis. These ancient texts are not stories about how things came to be; they are stories about how things always are. We are created in the image of God and given astonishing freedom and dignity, each and every one of us is sacred. Yet, there is this warning: “Sin is always lurking at your door and you must master it.”
With God given freedom, so God commands responsibility. Adam and Eve fail the test of personal responsibility: neither admit responsibility for what they’ve done. The result is the experience of shame, which was not God’s intention for us. Then there is Cain. Cain kills his brother, Abel. He fails the test of moral responsibility: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The answer is of course, yes, yes you are.
Next, the story of Noah and the great flood. The earth is a violent mess. We’ll start over, God says. Noah is given grace enough to save his family and as many creatures of the earth as he can. But Noah takes his grace and fails the test of collective responsibility. He doesn’t help rebuild society when the flood is over. He’s saved his kin so he unloads the Ark, thanks his God, and plants a vineyard, apparently living out his latter days as a drunkard.
Freedom, grace, and the drama of human responsibility: do we have enough now to decipher my problem with the church? Let’s try something easier first. The pandemic question: “Why should I wear a mask? I'm free to do what I want.” A second is like it: “Why should I get vaccinated?” Well, because we are called to personal responsibility, we are one another’s keeper, and we have collective responsibility to our church, to our society, and to our world to rebuild and tend to the health of the planet. So yes, remarkably helpful; but my happy post-riot Jesus prayer circle passed all those tests too, at least superficially. Now what?
The Bible predicts another kind of human behavior in a tower called Babel. Given the opportunity — meaning: power — we seek to create a universal culture in place of a universal God. We have a tendency to gather all people into one “city” or one language and impose our way of being on others. At the top of the great ziggurat of ancient Babylon was a chamber to be occupied by God. When humanity gives birth to an “ism,” we build a tower of culture, put one particular image of ourselves at the top and rank all those lower as lesser. Colonial racism puts the white male at the top; rationalism puts secular reason at the top; fundamentalism puts certainty at the top; gendered homophobia puts reproductive sex at the top. We impose a uniformity of the powerful on God’s given diversity. And every once in a while God comes down, laughs, and throws the whole thing to the ground, which is exactly where we are supposed to be, because that’s where our God, our universal God walks in the cool of the evening breeze, hidden beneath the particularity of each and every human soul.
Now, I think we may have some traction for my church quandary. The church, when it’s people are of the majority, has a tendency to imagine a universal savior as someone not unlike themselves. That church, however liberal or progressive it imagines itself to be, can never dismantle racism or any ‘ism, because they are part of the problem. My church, gathered that day in south central Los Angeles, however well meaning, was circling an image of Jesus who was our cultural ideal: white, straight, masculine, strong, self made, emotionally objective yet compassionate — and if a gospel had been discovered that secretly revealed our Lord had a quiet loving wife at home, two and half kids and played the guitar on youth retreats, there would have been little objection. This is of course, NOT who Jesus was or is. We can’t put our own image there. That spot it already taken. Jesus was a first century Jew — not a Christian — a Jew of ancient Palestine who spoke Aramaic, grew up and died in poverty and was absolutely nothing like me or you.
The church, empowered by the Spirit, is called to be the people gathered around the broken and risen body of that particular Jesus. And if we truly become that Christ’s church rather than my culture’s church, who might we become? We might just behold the world and the church as it truly is: an astonishing, kaleidoscopic multiplicity of life and beauty, languages and cultures. We might in fact be able to make a difference in this glorious, yet hurting creation.
When I first moved to Los Angles there was an altar to the universal Christian America to which I paid homage at least twice a month. In my Midwestern English the word is: “the mall.” It was amazing to me that here in Southern California you could buy any product at any time, as soon as it was available. In Torrance there was a mall that had at one point become the largest in the country. It had been two malls, actually. The tower builders realized they could join the two together by building across Carson boulevard. So joined, it was massive. There were even two of many stores. Hungry for a Cinnabon? No problem, there is one in each wing. The shirt you want isn’t in your size? Try the second Macy’s, just past the middle food court.
It was also a culture in deep decay. The building was all cinder block, concrete, 1970’s ugly. No natural light. A whole wing of the structure was closing, slowly, store by store. Now, this isn’t a perfect metaphor so don’t press it too far, but that whole building has now been remodeled. Light everywhere, skylights, multi-ethnic food courts, and bathed in that light one can behold the true beauty of Southern California, the multiplicity of faces and languages, the diversity of its people.
I wonder if our American Christianity could be so transformed, by returning our real, particular Jesus to the center. In the Spirit of that Christ and our universal God, our gathering would be a celebration of human dignity in the light of all of our differences. One day I remember I tried to count all the people there, more languages in one place than I had heard my entire life. There were Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Pontus and Asia, Egypt and Arabia and visitors from Rome, more than a few from Iowa, Illinois and Ohio, a couple of Oklahomans, Jews and proselytes, and one frightened white boy from Missouri … and today, joining them, are four new Christians, each unique and beautiful as God made them. What a people Pentecost will make of us! Let us together make a difference for the good in this hurting world. And to God alone will be the glory, now and forever. Amen.
(1) See Jonathan Sacks, Covenant & Conversation: Genesis the Book of Beginnings, and Dignity of Difference: How to avoid the Clash of Civilizations; Willie James Jenkins, After Whiteness: and Education in Belonging.
In a broken and fearful world. the Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing, to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior, to unmask idolatries in Church and culture, to hear the voices of peoples long silenced, and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace. In gratitude to God, empowered by the Spirit, we strive to serve Christ in our daily tasks and to live holy and joyful lives, even as we watch for God’s new heaven and new earth, praying, “Come, Lord Jesus!” (From Brief Statement of Faith, PCUSA)
Those elegant words are a section from the PCUSA’s Brief Statement of Faith, written in 1983 when the two largest Presbyterian denominations at the time united. I had the privilege of studying that text with the late Dr. Jack Stotts who had served as President of two Presbyterian seminaries and was moderator of the committee formed to write that text. The phrase “To hear the voices of peoples long silenced,” held a particularly important place in his memory. As he began to recount the story, the voice of the then long retired, deeply esteemed theologian began to crack. The unexpected emotion startled us to full attention.
Dr. Stotts recounted a moment in the final stages of the committee’s work. A Native American representative, who had been silent throughout the long deliberative process, asked to speak. With firm, but quiet dignity he said, “The way you have conducted your work has silenced my voice.“ It was clearly a moment of deep personal regret in Dr. Stott’s telling. In other words, the very process, the pattern and cultural norms, the committee had used to do the work had defeated its intent: to be an inclusive statement of faith in a moment of unity. Unaware of the other, the dominant culture failed to hear that there were others present. That was the origin of the phrase in the completed text: in a fearful and broken world, the Spirit gives us courage to “hear the voices of peoples long silenced.”
We have experienced a cultural moment, where black lives, marginalized by the dominant culture, have risen to speak. At the same time, I have also heard white Christians, who have had a passion for racial and social justice for decades lament the fact that in spite of so much felt work, a great deal has not changed. This is a large social/political question, of course, but this is also a United Methodist question. It is a personal question. Two years ago our Annual Conference celebrated a Queer Lives Matter, moment, if you will. I had the privilege of speaking. I was surprised, however, in that moment at other voices, black, Native American, LatinX, women, Asian and Pacific Island peoples, who also plead to be heard in our work toward equality. I should not have been surprised. That has given me pause these last months. There is so much left undone in spite of decades of work. Why? My guess, is that same issue exists within each and every church, and just perhaps, within each and every person.
I am convinced that there are underlying ways of working and thinking, that if left unexamined, will continue to silence the voices of people yet to be heard. My piece last week on binary thinking, comes from this line of questioning. Binary thinking easily silences a voice, simply because we disagree in part. We even dehumanize one another on the way to convincing ourselves we are right. It is a problem raging in our politics in the moment. However, I’m going to just leave the question with you today. What ways of thinking and working are present in our way of being that defeat the good we intend even in the midst of our doing of justice and kindness?
— Peace, Pastor Mark
Image: History of Los Angeles, detail of one section
Artist unidentified, early 21st century
In the wake of this week's tragic violence, I returned to a moment in Exodus we passed over Sunday. I had not thought through it carefully before. In one of the countless ironies of the Bible, God’s deliverance of Israel from Pharaoh's cruelty begins with the heroic efforts of women. The Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah let the children live. The Hebrew mother of Moses and Pharaoh’s daughter behold a child and do what is right. Each do what is right, in their moment, unaware of the far reaching impact of their actions. Small acts of goodness decisively bend the arc of human history toward justice. In that there is much hope. That is a good reading of the text; however, it is Pharaoh’s daughter that gives me pause.
I typically note these details and move on, leaving Pharaoh’s daughter behind; but her presence has always felt to me as a piece that didn’t quite fit. Egypt is the enemy; Israel becomes our focus now. We will cheer God’s victory as the Egyptian army falls, horse and rider, into the sea. I didn’t look into a deeper meaning until this week; a Jewish commentator I read, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, opened my eyes to the subtly of the text. If you insert the real names of hated powers into this story, she is Hitler’s daughter, Stalin’s child, bin Laden’s beloved. We are then confronted with the truth that any despised people we name is capable of goodness too. Certainly the Egyptians are not all evil, even the court of Pharaoh. It is a difficult revelation; now we will need to morn Pharaoh’s army when they are drowned. The scripture in this detail: a heroine in the wrong place, calls us to confront our binary, all or nothing thinking.
Binary thinking begins innocently, it is common to us all; it is deeply rooted in our mammalian ancestors’ instinct for stranger danger in the wilderness. Yet, in our humanity, no people, or family, no single person in their beginning is all good or all evil. This binary thinking or dualism is one of the false patterns which undergirds human prejudice; dehumanizing the other, it ends in violence. Dismantling the scourge of racism requires thinking more carefully about the way we think. This is a challenging task, indeed.
In her book, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, Robin J. D’Angelo helps identify, brings to light, social structures and patterns that undergird systemic racism. She devotes Chapter Five to the good/bad binary. Our tendency is to not accept that good people participate in a racist structure. At least our culture has bent enough toward justice that most of us agree that to be racist is bad. A good person could not be racist. Therefore if we perceive ourselves as good, confronting the systemic racism that we participate in is a deep disruption of identity. In self defense we become reactive, sometimes aggressively, and refuse to see. This is a helpful observation, particularly when D’Angelo asserts that we must look to identify the “underlying systems of meaning” that support our self-justifications. The chapter, however, leaves the matter there. I would suggest this kind of thinking is not simply about racism, it is everywhere among us. This is only one of a number of patterns that must be disrupted. To dismantle racism we must dismantle the false, binary pattern which so easily dehumanizes the other.
To dismantle racism requires looking very deeply at a pattern that we replicate innocently everyday. We ask ourselves why has so little changed in our work toward racism and social justice? Why does prejudice, systemic or personal, persist? My theory is that we don’t dig deeply enough, or personally enough. The behavior can be as present in a church meeting as is it is in our reaction to the news. We underestimate, as Wesley would say, our capacity for self deception. For example, how often have you discounted the totality of a speaker or author or preacher, because of an offensive personality trait or a fact misplaced, a style of writing that we think not to our taste? Perhaps you haven’t, but I certainly have. It takes a great deal of discipline to halt in that moment of flat binary rejection and say: I may not agree with that, but I may yet learn from her. The person before us is a child of God who has a claim on my actions. I really do believe it involves a change that profound. Can we behold the other and see the good in one different from ourselves without flatly dismissing them? What good can come from Nazareth? ... quite a lot as it turns out.
In the aftermath of September 11th 2001, it became common to speak of that era in binary language, it was Muslim extremism versus the free democratic west. In her study of Hindu and Muslim tensions in India — The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India’s Future, Martha Nausbam, brings the matter closer to home.“The real clash of civilizations” is not “out there,” between admirable Western and Muslim zealots. It is here within each person, as we oscillate between self-protective aggression and the ability to live in the world with others.” “Our task is to see in difference, a nation’s richness rather than its purity.”
We have come a long way now from Pharaoh’s daughter, but my suggestion is that before we dismiss anyone, any person or opinion different from our selves, we pause and recognize the clash within ourselves. Let us pause and remember her. Pause, behold the child before us. Pause, in the moment of binary thinking and recognize that person cannot be all bad. Given our capacity for self deception it is quite unlikely that I am entirely in the right. That doesn’t make me or you any less worthy of the love already given by the source of all. That pause does in fact have the power to change the world. Let us observe it and teach it to our children. Now, on with the story. This week Exodus 3:1-15.
-- Pastor Mark Sturgess
Nausbaum as cited in Walter Brueggemann, Tenacious Solidarity: Biblical Provocations on Race, Reliiogn, Climate and the Economy, p 172. Nausbaum's book is a fascinating study on its own as well. Recommended reading.
“He has told you, oh mortal, what is good: what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.” Micah 6:8
What is good. The heart of my work is to equip you with the interpretive tools you need to live your faith in a complex world. Living our faith is always challenging. These last months, especially so. The pandemic wilderness has laid bare our deepest wounds as persons and as a society. In the aftermath of George Floyd’s death we see a country rife with racism, bitter partisanship and violence; we have also seen an extraordinary capacity for what is good.
I know that most of us, either in social media or personal conversation, have witnessed a debate play out whether or not affirming Black Lives Matter is an offense to the fact all lives matter. I think I can be helpful to you in this. Biblically this is nonsense. If in their distress we cannot affirm unequivocally to black Americans that Black Lives Matter, period, there is little hope for a kind of justice where all lives matter, equally. This truth is embedded in the narratives of Scripture itself. A failure to do this deep work within our faith will result in shallow action and reaction, not systemic change. So, bear with me. This will take more words than a tweet, but it will be a quicker read than Plato’s Republic. I promise.
Justice. Racism as we know it is not addressed in scripture. Racism is a much later development of the colonialist empires of Christian Europe from the 15th century onward. Perhaps, the deeply rooted resentment between ancient Jews and Samaritans is close enough an example in kind. When one of Jesus’ fellow Jews asks what he needed to do to be in good stead with God, Jesus responds,“What do our scriptures say?” His answer is a good one. The heart of Torah is love of God and neighbor. There is little debate on that, then and now. That is the right answer. Anyone with sense, though, knows that neighbor love is the tricky bit, depending on who your neighbor is.
Seeking to get himself off that hook, our questioner pushes further: “Who then is my neighbor?” In response, Jesus tells him a story about the apparent victim of a robbery left to die on the side of a dangerous road — this was a common ruse for an ambush in that place. Two faithful Jews pass him by — the point being, that any one of us under those conditions might have done the same and be justified. The hero, of course, is a Samaritan. The hated Samaritan is the one with the courage and empathetic heart to help the man who turns out to be very real and suffering. Now, go and do likewise. End of parable. In context the parable is pushed even further, for by the end of the gospel itself, Jesus is the one laying brutalized on the side of a cross, suffocated beneath the knee of Roman justice.
The parable of the Good Samaritan is one of the most famous texts in our tradition. Out of familiarity, we often miss the bite of it. John Wesley did not. Here is Wesley’s note on the parable for his methodists: “Go and do thou in like manner—Let us go and do likewise, regarding every [person] as our neighbor who needs our assistance. Let us renounce that bigotry ... which would contract our hearts, into an insensibility for all the human race, but a small number whose sentiments and practice are so much our own, that our love to them is but self-love reflected.”
Our tendency, when left to our own devices, is to shrink our neighborhoods to the people most like ourselves. This is bigotry. Again, from Wesley, “And this commandment we have from ... both God and Christ; that he who [loves] God, love(s) ... Every one ... purely because he is the child and bears the image of God. Bigotry is properly the want of this pure and universal love. A bigot only loves those who embrace his opinions ... he loves them for that, and not for Christ’s sake.” So there you have it: All lives matter.
Each and every life is sacred. This is, of course, the very first affirmation in the Bible: God created all humanity in God’s image. “And God said that it was exceedingly good.” As dramatically affirmed in the Bible's opening credits (Genesis 1-11), equality of all in God’s sight is a fact never in jeopardy in Scripture. We are created to live freely without shame; we are to live in harmony as stewards of an astonishing diverse and fruitful world; we are forbidden from using that freedom to harm others. We are due equal treatment under this law. This is justice. However, the first eleven chapters of Genesis are also archetypical stories about how badly we get this wrong. As it has been said, the point of these stories isn’t that they happened once a long time ago, it is that they happen all the time.
Oh Mortal. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (Covenant and Conversation: Genesis) has helped me see these texts as a sophisticated drama about the failure of human responsibility in God's all- lives-matter world. Adam and Eve fail the test of personal responsibility: neither take responsibility for what they’ve done. The result is the experience of shame. Cain, kills his brother, Abel. He fails the test of moral responsibility: “Am I my brother’s keeper.” The answer of course is yes you are.
Next, the story of Noah and the flood. It is commonly misread. The first experience of human identity is tribalism (Sacks). We love those who are related to us, of our kind, but we fear and ultimately are violent toward the stranger. The earth is a violent mess. We’ll start over, God says. With one faithful tribe. Noah is given grace enough to save his family and as many creatures of the earth as he can. But Noah fails the test of collective responsibility. He doesn’t help remake society when the flood is over. He unloads the Ark, thanks his God, and plants a vineyard for himself, apparently living out his latter days as a drunkard.
Finally, the last act in this drama of responsibility: humanity discovers the power of technology and common purpose (Genesis 11:1-9). All humanity gathers into one place and one language. We think the solution is to be one people of a single identity, uniform, the same. There will be no limit to what we can do. Come let us make a name for ourselves, and build a tower into the heavens, lest we be scattered over the earth. Sacks points out that the only other place in scripture that the formula “Come let us ... verb, or" occurs at the beginning of Exodus. Pharaoh sees that the people of Israel are numerous enough to be a threat, he says, “Come let us deal with them or they will become” This is a text about tribalism’s opposite: empire. Neither leads humanity to Justice, just the opposite. Here we fail the responsibility of mortal humility. Empires live with the idea of universal justice too. They bend all into this universal image, mistaking it for God’s image.
Now, thank you for sticking with me this far, because here is the reward for close reading: this is how racism begins. Christian Europeans imagined any one whose skin color or culture was different than their own was less than; they enslaved native peoples or killed them in order to tame the world to their common purpose. And until we take responsibility for our own actions, for the moral responsibility that comes with freedom, for the collective responsibility that comes with grace, in humble recognition of the beauty of God's diverse creation, we will continue to do the same. Sin lurks at our door, we must master it.
So then Justice, all lives matter, equally. This is not in dispute. However, it is not enough, not sufficient to make human life humane. And here the curtain rises on the grand narrative of the Bible. The whole of the rest, the entire scope and tenor of it, is the story of a God of Justice who teaches the world to love kindness in order to save it, one chosen people, one beloved person, one act of kindness at a time. God enters into our suffering and calls us to love.
Love Kindness. The defining characteristic of God in scripture is not justice, although God is just. God is above all things, in the Old Testament and New, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love (in Hebrew: hesed; variously in Greek, but Christians commonly speak of this loving as agape).
Of course, in a just society ALL lives matter, but that is not enough as we have seen. To Justice, the Bible appends the call to love kindness. It is a great mystery, but our faith is witness to a God who steps into creation to suffer this loving with us, for us (Emmanuel). This loving isn't emotional, though it begins in empathy with the suffering. It is an action, an act of kindness toward the stranger or friend for no other reason than they are in need and loved by God and worthy of being loved (as are each and every one of us). From Abraham to Jesus, God loves the world toward justice. All lives matter, but when black lives cry out for justice, our hearts must be called to that other essential capacity which is loving kindness. Hearing another's cry, beholding another's need and acting selflessly to comfort them: this isn't justice, because it is in the moment not universal it is particular, preferential, it is honoring the blessed uniqueness and infinite value of the person before us.
The Bible understands that humans in power will always attempt to create a justice favorable to themselves; it is why we are commanded to this other thing, the thing which Jesus and Paul finally imagine is the only quality of life worth living. Jesus enfleshed this loving in our living. When the afflicted cry out, we are called to love: to say first to black Americans, Black Lives Matter, without qualification. It is this act alone that has the power to mend the world. If one cannot do that, we can never find our way to Justice. This is the wisdom of the Bible. This is where God walks. That is what is in the book our President held in his hand before St. John's Church.
Walking Humbly. In the 1960's, Stephen Carter was an 11 year old black boy who moved into a white neighborhood in Washington. When he and his brothers sat on their front porch after moving in, those white neighbors who walked by didn’t smile or give any sign of welcome or acknowledgement. Stephen became afraid that all the terrible stories he heard about blacks living among whites were true. Then a remarkable thing happened; well actually, one kind thing. Their white neighbor across the street, came home, noticed them, smiled and went inside. She came out some time later with a plate of cheese and jelly sandwiches and crossed the street to welcome them. That moment, he wrote changed his life. Her name was Sara Kestbaum. She was Jewish. She knew her scriptures. She knew what was good.
As an adult, writing decades later, Stephen Carter said, “Nothing in contemporary secular conversation calls us to give up anything truly valuable for anybody else … Only religion offers a sacred language of sacrifice-selflessness-awe that enables believers to treat their fellow citizens as fellow passengers. But even if religion is the engine of civility, it has too few serious practitioners, which is why those who are truly moved by it to love their fellow human beings are so special. I learned that truth in 1966, and, to this day, I can close my eyes and feel my tongue on the smooth, slick sweetness of the cream cheese and jelly sandwiches that I gobbled on that summer afternoon when I discovered how a single act of genuine and unassuming civility can change a life for ever.” (1)
What more has the Lord asked of you, O mortal, but to do justice, to love kindness and walk humbly with your God.
(1) Stephen Carter, Civility (New York: Basic Books, 1999), pp 61-63, as cited in by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, To Heal a Fractured World (London: Shocken Books, 2005). Cited above, for the analysis of Genesis 1-11, Jonathan Sacks, Covenant & Conversation: A Weekly Reading of the Jewish Bible, Genesis: The Book of Beginnings (Jerusalem: Maggid Books, 2009), pp 49-63).
Genesis 37 - 45 (sel.) God’s faithfulness is hidden in the mystery of providence
Joseph, being seventeen years old, was shepherding the flock with his brothers … 3 Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he had made him a long robe with sleeves.[a] 4 But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him.
[a Traditional rendering (compare Gk): a coat of many colors; Meaning of Heb uncertain]
12 Now his brothers went to pasture their father’s flock near Shechem. 13 And Israel said to Joseph, “Are not your brothers pasturing the flock at Shechem? Come, I will send you to them.” He answered, “Here I am.” 14 So he said to him, “Go now, see if it is well with your brothers and with the flock; and bring word back to me.” So he sent him from the valley of Hebron. …. So Joseph went after his brothers, and found them at Dothan. 18 They saw him from a distance, and before he came near to them, they conspired to kill him. 19 They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer. 20 Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams.” 21 But when Reuben heard it, he delivered him out of their hands, saying, “Let us not take his life.” 22 Reuben said to them, “Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but lay no hand on him”—that he might rescue him out of their hand and restore him to his father. 23 So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the long robe with sleevesb that he wore; 24 and they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it. 25 Then they sat down to eat; and looking up they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, with their camels carrying gum, balm, and resin, on their way to carry it down to Egypt. 26 Then Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? 27 Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and not lay our hands on him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” And his brothers agreed. 28 When some Midianite traders passed by, they drew Joseph up, lifting him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver. And they took Joseph to Egypt.
Many years later, Jospeh has found favor in the court of the Pharaoh of Egypt and is governor of the land. In a time of famine his brothers (not knowing it is Joseph) have gone to Egypt seeking help. After much drama they are reunited …
4 Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come closer to me.” And they came closer. He said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. 5 And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. 6 For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. 7 God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. 8 So it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. 9 Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, ‘Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me, do not delay. 10 You shall settle in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children’s children, as well as your flocks, your herds, and all that you have.
Romans 8:18-28 God’s faithfulness is ever-present hope in the midst of suffering
18 I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; 20 for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; 23 and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. 26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. 27 And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirits intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. 28 We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.
One of the things I learned as a musician is that one begins by imitating the masters. The following sermon has evolved over the years as such an example. The late Fred Craddock was one of the most acclaimed American preachers of the 20th century. This sermon takes its form and inspiration from one of his sermons.
We don’t study the bible only to look into the witness of the past for truth; we study the bible to look through it into our present with new vision. I hope that is what you hear me trying to do each week. It is not easy. The ways of God are not obvious.
I confess, as well, that I don’t believe that everything happens for a reason, especially bad things. I wouldn't begin to suggest that this pandemic is the work of God. I don’t believe that Bible says that either; but the Bible does suggest God has more of a hand in encouraging our lives than we know. Some of you are better readers of your bible and your lives than I. I have heard stories, moving stories of coincidences that you connect to God’s unseen hand: random happenings that led you to this church or to that fateful first date. Just a coincidence? Of course.
It was just a coincidence that a caravan of merchants passed by at the moment Joseph’s brothers were working out how to kill him. Joseph was the favorite son of Jacob. Dad had given him a fancy coat with long sleeves, unsuitable for real work. The coat of many colors is an older translation — sometimes ancient Hebrew itself is ambiguous; the point is that this isn’t a coat for field work. Jacob was that annoying favorite son who passed along every bad thing his brothers did on to dad. He was the informant in the family. After some debate his brothers decided to be done with it and tossed him in a pit; but, at just that moment, a caravan of traders passed by on their way to Egypt. “Let’s at least get some money out of this.” A coincidence? Sure it was.
In the moment, the text doesn’t mention God at all. This is interesting. To this point the Bible has not been embarrassed about God talk. In the beginning God said and it was so. The command to Adam and Eve was unambiguous, “Don’t eat that!” To Abraham and Sarah, “Go!” and they went. The Joseph story is different. It is realistic. We don’t hear God talking to us like that today. If we do it is a whispered hope, easily mistaken for something else. The story of Joseph is one long sustained piece of writing, filled with coincidences, where the word God is rarely spoken. Yet the entire future of ancient promises hang by a thread at every turn.
There are other coincidences in the bible. I heard Fred Craddock preach on this once. He gave the example of Rufus and Alexander’s father, Simon of Cyrene. Simon of Cyrene just happened to be in Jerusalem on a certain Passover. He was crossing along the side of the road at the very moment a Galilean on the way to be executed fell beneath the weight of the cross he was carrying. A solider looked to the side, saw Simon, and pulled him out of the crowd to carry Jesus’ cross to Golgotha. A coincidence? Of course it was.
Stranger things have happened without calling them an act of God. They happen all the time. When I was in seminary, a couple of times a year I would drive from Austin Texas to Kansas City to visit my family. It was a long day’s drive: up the middle of Oklahoma; hang a right at Oklahoma City; over to the lower corner of Missouri; then up to I-70. (On the map the shortest way from Texas to Missouri looks to be through Arkansas — take my word for it, there is no short-cut through Arkansas). At the six hour mark or so, I pulled into McDonalds — a famous McDonalds as far as Oklahomans are concerned — Double arches over the interstate. The largest McDonalds in the world they brag.
As I unbuckled and opened the door, another car pulled to the left beside me. I thought the car looked familiar. The man getting out of the car looked even more familiar. He looked at me in the same odd way I was looking at him. It was my brother! We had pulled into the same McDonalds, at precisely the same moment, into the exact same spot in a gigantic parking lot in the middle of Oklahoma. He was returning from a business trip. Was that a coincidence? Of course it was!
On his next trip my brother stopped there again and bought two souvenir shot glasses and gave one to me for Christmas. Neither of us have played the lottery since. We figure that we spent all our luck on that moment. It was only an unlikely occurrence to me until a far more significant moment several years later. It was an extremely difficult time, filled with feelings of personal failure and regret. I was packing. On the back of a forgotten shelf I discovered one dusty souvenir glass from the largest McDonalds in the world. You see, in that moment, that glass and that event became a symbol of something else: family, an unexpected blessing, the hidden grace of God made visible as surely as I write this today. A coincidence? Sure.
If you are patient with me, for just a moment, I will try to say it differently. It was a coincidence that God intended for the good. Joseph will say something similar after the long sequence of events in Genesis plays out. I paraphrase: “Even though you intended me harm, God intended it for the good in order to preserve a numerous people.” Whoever wrote the final version of the Joseph tale was wiser about life than I am. Some scholars think that the text belongs to a generation of enlightened faithful for whom the God talk of their ancestors was embarrassing. The author answers with a story that is modest in God talk, but pregnant with hope.
Joseph spoke more than he knew. The twelve of them and their wives, will multiply into the people we call Israel, and from their lineage will come Joseph and Mary, and the one we call Jesus, whose cross Simon of Cyrene was enlisted to carry along the way. From that old heavy cross and Christ’s broken life, forgiveness and love will flow into our history and set in motion a cascade of random occurrences that extend to this very day to you reading or hearing these words.
If you spend a little time at it, I am sure that you can point to some random circumstance in your life that might also be seen as grace, the faithfulness of God. It’s about looking at your life differently. Yes, our lives do evolve out of cascades of random events, but these occurrences might also be the work of whatever it is that we gesture at with the word God. I’m not above saying both are true, well let me just say it. Both are true. To the old debate about free will or predestination. I say yes. Serendipities are happy, random coincidences, but they may also be the work of God when they shape our lives toward the good.
I was on vacation, back in my 20’s and my roommates picked out a new apartment without me. I was angry; I wasn’t happy about it, but we moved. At the time I was a fine Presbyterian, but the big Methodist church across the street had good music and it was close. Dr. David Wilson was choir director at that church. He invited me to sing in a community chorus he conducted in Long Beach. Every Tuesday, for years, long before I thought of being a preacher, let alone a Methodist, I rehearsed in the Los Altos lounge. A room we will shortly rededicate as Heritage Hall. Serendipity.
I bet you have a story too. You found Los Altos on the Internet and decided to give us a try. You were going through a difficult season in life and friend invited you. You moved into town and had the wrong time for the first church you tried, and found the next service at Los Altos. One for mother's day: a friend invited you to a dance one night and along the way you met someone with whom you would spend your life with. Now, was that really just a coincidence?
-- Pastor Mark Sturgess
It has been a while since I shared an extended reflection. The last week or so has not been as theologically productive for me as the weeks before. Like you, I am contending with the fatigue and stress of such a dramatic change in day to day life. We owe ourselves the grace to admit this is difficult terrain. It is a dark valley, but God is with us (Psalm 23).
I have shared with a number of people my deep gratitude for the cards and good wishes I received after the passing of my father. In a time of disorientation and disconnection it is small signs of kindness that make grace visible and give us strength. The grace of God -- or whatever it is we gesture at with the word God -- is always here. It is, at times, obscured by that which is not graceful. The social isolation that we are all experiencing is one of the most painful things in life which obscures grace and discourages hope. As Wesley said, there is no religion, but social religion.
We call those experiences which open our soul in the present moment to the presence of God, sacraments. From last Sunday’s scripture: “It was then that their eyes were opened and they recognized him” (Luke 24:31). Two disciples were lost, hopeless, isolated. In a moment of compassion they issued an invitation of kindness, “It is getting late, join us for dinner.” Throughout their long walk the Living One was present but obscured; it was only when they invited a hungry traveler to share a meal with them that their eyes were opened. The dinner became sacrament: an act that made visible the reality of God with us and for us. It changed their lives, as it does ours when we do the same.
I would like to take a moment with you to reflect on a sacramental spiritual dimension of faith that is important to me. I hope it might be of help to you too. The formal Sacraments of gathering together physically for the Lord’s Supper or Baptism are not available to us at the moment. Neither is the simple invitation to share one another’s company in person. This does not mean that God is more distant. By no means. The heart of scripture (in both Judaic and Christian reading) is the witness that God is with us. A sacramental life celebrates the mystery of God’s presence in midst of the common stuff of human life. In fellowship with this Spirit we can be with each other in other ways.
The church tradition we inherit defines sacrament as the outward and visible sign of an invisible and spiritual grace. I hope from what I’ve said so far that you might begin to think about an experience of God in common life that is more commonplace than simply Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. In Baptism and the Lord’s Supper we speak of the “elements” of the sacrament. The elements of our formal Sacraments are among the most basic human needs: water, food, cup. In our rituals, this stuff of common life becomes deeply meaningful, layered with the Christian story in order that our eyes may be opened to the presence of God’s grace in the moment.
This sounds mysterious. It is. It is also common — our lives are enfolded within an astounding surplus of meaning if we slow down enough to notice. The sympathy cards I received are an example. The cards began their lives as paper: a human creation taken from God’s gift of the earth. From paper, either by personal craft or industry they became greeting cards, just as wheat or non-gluten grain is crafted into bread for a feast. As yet these elements are meaningless, other than as a sign of God’s abundant earth and human ingenuity —- gifts that should not be taken for granted. Next, however, they were selected and signed with thoughtful personal intent. Now, this common stuff of the earth is no longer simply paper or greeting card; their substance hasn’t changed, of course, but they have changed, indeed. To the giver and the gifted they are infused with deep meaning. In a simple signature or written note, stamp and the act of mailing they have become something other than they were before. They now sit on my desk as symbols which open my eyes to the presence of kindness, a remarkable gift in times of loneliness. They are sacraments with a small “s”; but deeply powerful ones nonetheless. They make kindness visible.
I’m using the word “symbol” here in a technical sense. When reflecting on human ritual, we speak of symbol as a thing that participates in the reality that it re-presents. I know ... it is a fancy definition. My favorite teaching example of this is an often repeated scene on Friday night in Trader Joe’s.
With some regularity, shopping in the twilight of the work week I have watched a person swing into a store dressed from work to pick out flowers, sometimes wine or chocolate too. It is poignant for me, as I am often lonely, now, at this moment in a week. I have learned to appreciate the serendipity of witnessing it with deep gratitude, for I have been on the receiving and the giving end myself. Those memories make me smile, grateful for the joys I have known. I like to imagine the story that is playing out: are the flowers a first date, an apology, or a simple act of kindness for a friend or dinner host? Will the gift be received?
As the flowers are bought and the gift given, something about them has been truly changed; simple dead plant matter becomes a symbol of much more. They are now elements, symbols of a sacrament that makes love known. They in fact become love made visible, while yet remaining simply flowers. Perhaps some moment decades later after one of the lovers has been lost, a book will be pulled from the shelves and petals pressed and dried from a moment so long ago will fall from its pages. Yes, those flowers are only dead roses, but they are also a reminder of love that is as least as real than the matter itself. In precisely the same way, the body of Christ, the church gathered and the bread and cup that is shared, remain, of course, just a collection of human beings, bread and fruit of the vine; but they, we, have been changed in the ritual nonetheless. Though our formal gathering must be set aside, for a time, I am confident that you have in your homes, simple things, keepsakes, memories of little value to others, but to you they are everything. If you give them thought, they are the outward and visible signs of extraordinary blessing. My father began many of his table prayers with a quote from scripture, “O God, source of every good and perfect gift, we give you thanks.”
I encourage you in the days ahead, when you are feeling lost and alone to consider your keepsakes and symbols of your memory as sacraments of the God of every blessing who is, even now, closer to you than your own breath. And better yet you, yourself, through an encouraging email, or a simple phone call or note, can become a sacrament of God’s presence for someone else.
Our faith in this pandemic is a time for encouragement and nothing else. It is not the time for suggestion or criticism; we often think we are helping when we communicate to those we love or work with what we think they should be doing. It is rarely if ever true. Grace is communicated through acts of kindness and encouragement — then silence, not suggestion. It is remarkable, when we do that, that which we thought was important is resolved or rendered meaningless along the way. Graceful people of Christ’s perfect love have taught me this. I am still learning the discipline myself.
So, friends, be at peace. The Lord is near. Consider well the gifts or symbols of God’s blessing you have around you, and in whatever way you can, extend an encouraging word to one another. For it is said they will know we are Christians by our love. We are the sacrament. You are the symbol. Be a blessing. It is for this purpose the church was made. Thank you, so very much, for the gift of serving you.
— Peace, Pastor Mark
Jesus Appears to the Disciples
(Lk 24:36–43; 1 Cor 15:5)
19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the authorities , Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
Jesus and Thomas
24 But Thomas (who was called the Twinc), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “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.” 26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
The Purpose of This Book
30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may come to believed that Jesus is the Messiah,e the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
 in the text: Jews; see discussion below.
c Gk Didymus
d Other ancient authorities read may continue to believe
e Or the Christ
The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989), Jn 20:19–31.
Thoughts on John 20:19-31
Rather than a sermon tomorrow and the next few Sundays, I will offer several brief reflections on the scripture for the day (as assigned in the Revised Common Lectionary). The comments are intended to generate faithful questions and convåersation. In our Sunday worship group via Zoom, I will be sharing these thoughts and we will discuss them together. Whether or not you join the conversation on Sunday, they should prove helpful in your own reading and study at home.
When I began my career, I was bit of a purist with respect to reading scripture in worship. Even today, I cringe when I hear United Methodist clergy read The Message by Eugene Peterson from the place of preaching. The Message isn’t Scripture; it is a paraphrase of Scripture — a good one — but an interpretation at some distance from the text itself. An earlier example, that I grew up with, was The Living Bible which is also a freely rendered paraphrase (Note, when pressed, this opens another can of worms, as every translation, even a word for word one, is an interpretation).
[Aside: there are commonly two types of translations properly read in worship — these are also typically done by a community of scholars working toward consensus, not an individual (though remarkably good translations are available by individual scholars). These are ‘word for word’ translations from the best texts available in the original languages — KJV, RSV, NRSV — and ‘thought for thought’ — NIV, Good News, The New Living Bible. Single author paraphrases are freely adapted from translations of the original languages. Modern mainstream translations, in particular the NRSV, take care to use gender inclusive language when that is appropriate. For example: “brothers and sisters in Christ,” instead of only “brothers.” Translations from the evangelical Christian tradition (namely the NIV, ESV, and others) take pains to keep traditional Christian readings where the original Hebrew may be ambiguous or carry multiple meanings.
In the course of my career, I have become aware how public reading of the Bible, when done from positions of authority, can do and has done immense harm. In my opinion, texts that could be read as antisemitic, derogatory, or any text that could be taken as advocating violence should not be read in public worship. Criticisms of “Jews,” Pharisees and other groups in the New Testament, are rightly turned inward toward our own faith practices. As one of my teachers said, “You will read the NT rightly, if wherever you see the word Pharisee, insert Presbyterian!” (he was speaking to graduating Presbyterians). We must remember that nearly every follower of Jesus we meet in the NT including its first hearers were members of Judaism. And of course, Jesus was Jewish!
The Gospel of John is a human text. All writing is inevitably shaped — biased — by the limitations, world view, hurts and hopes of its authors. No text is innocent. Most modern scholars agree that at least part of the community to whom this gospel is addressed, including its author(s), had experienced a schism with their fellow jews over their beliefs about Jesus and had been banned from their local synagogue. This wound is fresh in the text at its writing and their resentment is bitter. Should we take this as gospel? No. I believe that we must hold even the text of the bible to account for the gospel of Jesus Christ as our knowledge of the human condition advances. John Wesley would have never criticized or altered the text of Scripture; he would, however, have only consented to an interpretation of it that built up the double love of God and every creature that has breath (which he declared was the intention, ‘scope and tenor’ of the whole).
What questions does this raise for you about scripture, bible translations, or reading the Bible in public worship?
On antisemitism in the New Testament and the Revised Common Lectionary:
The deep tradition of the church — guided by the 4th gospel especially — understands the Word of God to be a living reality, not the dead letter on the page. Jesus Christ of Scripture is the Word made flesh (see John 1).
From the United Methodist Book of Worship: “Our worship in both its diversity and its unity is an encounter with the living God through the risen Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.”
What does this statement about worship mean to you? In today’s text, how are the disciples encountering the Living Word of God? What is the result? Where or who is the living Word of God in our world today? How do we meet it? How do we know we have met the Word of God and not our own happy feelings or opinions?
Matthew 27:62 The next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, [faith leaders] gathered before Pilate 63 and said, “Sir, we remember what that impostor said while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ 64 Therefore command the tomb to be made secure until the third day; otherwise his disciples may go and steal him away, and tell the people, ‘He has been raised from the dead,’ and the last deception would be worse than the first.” 65 Pilate said to them, “You have a guard of soldiers; go, make it as secure as you can.” 66 So they went with the guard and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone.
28 After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2 And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4 For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. 5 But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 6 He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. 7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” 8 So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9 Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
I have a secret. Easter annoys me a little. I’m not a fan of the early morning. I don’t like surprises (okay, maybe that’s not a secret). So we have Easter. Big Surprise. At Dawn. It’s a problem.
I read today before what is typical for Easter, because I like that Holy Saturday scene in Matthew. By now, Pilate is tired of this whole business. Some folks come to him worried that Jesus hasn’t been buried well enough. Pilate snaps: “Why don’t you go check. You have guards. Make the tomb as secure as you can.”
It may be that this moment in Matthew is a foil for a kind of locked down believing. You see, it is faith leaders who are really worried about the outcome of Jesus’ story. It is people like me who want Pilate to be sure that there is no surprise in the morning. Frankly, I do like my world to be controllable and predictable. Who doesn’t? That’s why preaching Easter during a pandemic is tricky: we are looking to faith to center ourselves and give us a sense of security and purpose. I am there with you today; let us make it as secure as we can!
In one my favorite Easter sermons, however, Frederick Buechner accuses preachers and pew sitters all over the world of doing just that: securing ourselves against the power of a miracle. “Oh, the resurrection is really just a spiritual metaphor, a metaphor for saying that Jesus’ life lives on in us.” “The resurrection is a symbol of the renewal of life like, butterflies emerging from their cocoons, tulips blooming after a long winter.” All nice. It will preach — I’ve done it myself a time or two. The trouble is that it has nothing whatsoever to do with what the bible says about Resurrection.
The bible doesn’t pretend that Easter is explainable or even believable. There is no metaphor for it. No one saw it happen. Jesus was dead. Three days in a tomb dead. The disciples themselves were are as good as dead; wandering on their own, they won’t last for long. But three days later, on Sunday morning a surprise, the breaking dawn of an impossible possibility. The tomb is empty.
In the days ahead the disciples will meet their Risen Lord; it will change their lives and ours forever. You are reading or hearing this message because of what happened to them so long age. There is an unbroken line from their experience and to you today. All we are told in Scripture is that it is true. And now you have a choice to make on his great gettin’ up morning: put your trust in Easter, or go make your world as comfortable and secure as you can. It is probably best to put off letting Easter loose until after this lockdown is over.
Easter is beyond surprising; it is ludicrous. I am not going to pretend otherwise. I certainly don’t want you to be comfortable with the idea of Resurrection. To accept it would mean that your world is not what you have been led to believe. An empty tomb at the center of our being would mean that ultimately reality is beyond our control and beyond our power to fully comprehend. At the center is mystery and eternal life.
Worse yet, trusting Easter would require you to rethink your life.To join your story to the resurrection of a poor, shamed Rabbi who ate with outcasts and hung from a cross as a loser among thieves, would mean that power, privilege and success, have nothing whatsoever to do with life, Living with a capital L. Secure your life against Easter as best you can. Where’s the duct tape? I want be sure that tomb is sealed up tightly.
And we haven’t yet faced the biggest obstacle to resurrection faith. In order to make it to Easter we must look death squarely in the eye. The power of death over this world, today, is overwhelmingly persuasive: virus, disease, hatred, prejudice, suffering, injustice. There are some tulips that will never bloom, and all it takes are the tears of a single suffering child to devastate hope. The question before us is will we let that fear defeat us.
Shortly before Easter in 2010, an Earthquake in Haiti killed over 233,000 people. During the lightless and terrifying night after the quake, alongside cries of help, there were other voices. Six Methodist aid workers were trapped beneath the rubble. With each breath a struggle, someone began to sing. I’ve got peace like a river. I’ve got peace like a river. And like good Methodists, others joined. I’ve got peace like a river in my soul. I’ve got joy like a fountain ... A tomb became a church. Life was the victor, at least for a moment. When I am afraid, I sing that song.
Friends, choose life. Life eternal with a capital L. This is the core of what I have come to believe: death may be the loudest voice in our world, but it is not the most defiant, and it never, ever the last word. The last Word is God’s. On Good Friday we remember that old story of love’s defeat by human hands. It is repeated, in kind, every day; but, today we hear something surprising. Though as delicate as gossamer and as vulnerable as a child’s tears, God’s love for us is persistent, unthinkable. There is no power that can defeat it. Whatever else I may or may not believe, I firmly trust that there is nothing, nothing in life and or in death or in all creation that can separate you from love of God, in Christ Jesus our Lord. That is enough. It is enough to give me courage. It is more than enough to face this day.
Christ is Risen. Alleluia. There is something we know that the powers of the hatred and death do not. Though painfully vulnerable — to our eyes, defeated — the love of God is raising creation in the midst of us. In every moment calling humanity to life … to love Eternal. I can’t explain it. I can’t give you the evidence. Like the existence of black holes in the universe, or an empty tomb at center of our faith, all I can do is point to the places in the world where I behold it, though I do not understand.
Just a few hours after the devastation of the 2010 earthquake, in the darkness of the first powerless night, Haitian Christians gathered in the streets and began to sing. This year, I hear that song in their voices, from Italians reaching out with music to support one another across balconies of isolation; in locked down spirits cheering doctors, nurses and essential workers as their shifts change. In the midst of darkness, a song sung since the first morning of world is heard: Alleluia! alleluia! For some reporters it was unbelievable. In that Haitian night, Anderson Cooper was incredulous: how could they sing and dance at a time like that. Unbelievable, unless …
Unless there is a surprise on Easter morning. The Spirit of God, present in us — vulnerable and delicate to be sure — will not be silenced. In such moments the veil between heaven and earth is lifted, and the one who does not will suffering and evil is revealed, standing defiantly in the midst of it to save us. Light shines in the darkness and the darkness will never, ever overcome it. Christ is risen. Alleluia! Alleluia!
Each of one us will die one day, that is not in question. There may be a corner of our hearts dead already, just waiting for someone or something to reach in and call it to life. This can happen no matter how old your, no matter how spent you feel. Open your hearts to the impossible possibility that there is power in the world that can accomplish in you far more than you can ask or imagine. The question before us today is have we lived? Let us make our lives count for the good.
As we spend these weeks in social isolation, we have some time to reflect on that question. I have been. We are called to walk in the morning light of God’s limitless compassion for the world. On this great gettin’ up morning. You have a choice to make. Make your life as secure as can; or you can throw your soul, your life, your all, into the triumphant dawn of God’s undefeatable love for the world. I have my own doubts to be sure, but in the midst of them, as best I can, I have decided to choose life. Christ is risen. Alleluia. Alleluia. Amen.
-- Pastor Mark Sturgess
I do not pretend today to offer you something adequate to the church’s celebration of Good Friday, Holy Week or Easter. Those worship services are among the most rich and personally rewarding for me on the Christian calendar. We are — or at least I am — going to use the Christian freedom God has given us, at great cost in Christ, and forgive ourselves for that. On this Good Friday we punt, stay safely at home or socially distant, as we pray for those who labor and suffer.
Christian worship is a community act, not a performance or consumer product. I recall complaining to one of my seminary professors that our chapel worship was boring. He, rightly replied, “Mark, worship is not about you.” It’s center isn’t what I get out of it, but rather, what, together, we bring before God. At the foot of the cross, Christ created a new community of compassion for the world which later will be called the church. Perhaps this is a good place to begin today: at least we can say this, today we are all living in the shadow of a cross of immense human suffering.
This Good Friday let us pray: Lord, we pray for those who keep us fed and governed; for those who risk their lives to care for the sick and keep us safe; for those who mourn the dead; for all of us who are afraid; for those who labor through this long night. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.
John 19:25 Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26 When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” 27 Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home. 28 After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), “I am thirsty.” 29 A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. 30 When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.
This is a remarkable, human moment recorded in John. Here, Jesus gives the care of his mother over to his most beloved friend and disciple. In his last breath, Jesus creates the new community of Christ’s family: he gives his spirit. Like so many double meanings in this text, this breath is both, literally, Jesus' last breath and the giving of the Holy Spirit: the advocate promised, the one who brings comfort and speaks through the words of Scripture: “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” Here in John’s gospel, within the shadow of great human suffering is pentecost, the church is born, empowered to be an intimate family of God’s love for the world ... for God so loved the world.
It is becoming clearer to me each day, that we are witnessing a transformative moment in our culture and church, church local and church global. Los Altos UMC has in some sense been a community divided by memory. A part of the church remembers legendary pastors and music making and they have also experienced deep institutional and personal trauma; another segment of the church is new; without this memory, they have a different experience of vitality. Much of my challenge in the last four years has been learning to lead this complex entity. It occurs to me that this pandemic is the end of the church we knew. As we begin to gather again, in whatever ways that looks like, we will be a new community, a community united by the common trauma of this pandemic of human suffering. Perhaps, now have an opportunity to become something new together, renewed by the Spirit of God’s great compassion for the world.
On the cross Jesus is thirsty. The world reborn will be one thirsty for the compassion that God has given us to offer. For the first time, in my memory, we will be a planet united by a common trauma that all humanity shares. With Gods help, we will also will be a church reborn in God’s love for the world. Jesus bowed his head, looked at us, and gave. Lord, give us the Spirit that is yours.
On this Good Friday let us pray: O Lord we thank you for the gift of your Spirit, we thank you for one another, for the blessing of being your church. May we in the shadow of human suffering, learn together to be a healing people for the world’s great need. Lord, remember us, when you come into your Kingdom. Amen.
-- Pastor Mark Sturgess
Today is the end of my rope in this gospel: the raising of Lazarus ... four days rotting in the tomb Lazarus. I’m fond of the King James Version here. “Take ye, away the stone!” Martha replies, “But Lord, he stinketh.” “Now you will see the glory of God. Lazarus, come forth!” He does, grave clothes and all. Mummy style. “Unbind him and let him go.” Lazarus is free and I am lost. It is not a miracle that I comprehend. I can’t imagine being at table with Lazarus for the rest of this gospel: risen from the dead, four days decomposed. I also can’t get over the fact that Jesus could have stopped this whole charade before it got started.
Everyone in this text knows that Jesus could have saved Lazarus while he was sick. After all, Jesus healed a random beggar, blind from birth. Mary and Martha send for Jesus. Jesus replies, “No, it is for the glory of God.” Jesus returns to his meal. “Lazarus is dead.” “Now let’s go.” This passage doesn’t help me to believe. It makes me angry. This isn’t glory; it is a journey into darkness. Today many are sick. Many have died and there is much darkness that threatens us all.
Jesus loved his friend Lazarus the texts says. Mary and Martha love their brother. I have always imagined Mary and Martha angry confronting Jesus. Anger is a part of grief. Martha wants to have a little talk with her friend before he gets to the funeral home. Mary repeats the same words later: “Lord if you had been here, my brother, would not have died.” Those are the sort of words uttered in the heat of emotion that you later wish you could take back.
I want to pause here, for a moment, and point out an important fact about love. It is not possible to love without suffering, at least on this side of the last day. To love someone means, in part, to be subject to their suffering. It means to open our hearts to the sinking of their hearts. It means to sit beside them when they weep. And yes, sometimes it means to walk away to protect ourselves: our self whom we are also called to love as a sacred gift of God. One can choose not to love, I suppose; but if God is love, as this gospel and the whole of the Bible seem to imply, then God is not omnipotent, God is vulnerable, vulnerable to us.
Jesus arrives and sees everyone weeping. It is the moment when many of us cry at a funeral or visitation. I have seen it many times. A family member greets a friend just arriving as she enters to the door. The narrow viewing room is lined with chairs; a few of them now are filled and gentle music is playing in the background; the lilies and roses and air-conditioning not quite mask the sharp chemical smell of embalming. It is such a long walk from that door to the casket. “Lord, come and see.” Jesus wept.
It is interesting to me, that this verse, lies at the very center of this long chapter. The revelation of the divine presence in Jesus occurs before this verse, nearer to the beginning. This verse now sits within it, like a wounded lamb embedded in the throne of God. We have been assured, much more directly than in the other gospels that Jesus is the presence of God with us. Almost literally in John, Jesus is Easter walking around the open pages of Scripture. “I am the resurrection and I am life. Those who believe in me, even though they die will live, and everyone who lives and believe in me will never die.”
I find it to be an odd twist in this story, that after we place our trust in Jesus, we are led back into darkness. We would prefer faith that dwells in the light. A faith that is Easter only. Largely this has been the faith of the church in Christian history, a faith in the church triumphant. It is not the faith of the Bible, Old Testament or New. In both testaments God suffers because God chooses to love ... and love is vulnerable. When the church has been in a position of power, our God has been unmoving and omnipotent, and our love masquerades as certainty, victory, and control.
Douglas John Hall has said: “As it has turns out, a faith that is accessible only in the night is not the religion that the world wants. But if darkness is indeed humanity's real situation, then a religion that leads us away from it into realms of light is nothing but a deception. The only light worth having is light that illuminates the darkness.” The church that follows its God is a church that lives in solidarity with the suffering of the world. God choses not to be God without the cross. Jesus wept.
Following this God is not easy. I’m not sure I want to. My experience in these texts these last four weeks is of being relentlessly pursued by Jesus, God’s light-giving Word. Wherever you are on your journey in faith, know that God is after you, relentlessly pursuing you, calling you to new life, whether you want it or not. Francis Thompson, a 19th century poet, describes the experience of being chased by God in his poem, The Hound of Heaven: “I fled Him, down the nights and down the days; I fled Him, down the arches of the years; I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways of my own mind; and in the midst of tears I hid from Him.” Lazarus has found a way to escape; he is sealed behind the stone cold door of a tomb.
If you have been following John closely, we have been hunted by the living God on every page. Nicodemus hid in the shadows; he was almost a believer, but afraid of what the world might think of him. Jesus called him to be born from above, to step into the light of life. The Samaritan woman at the well, to avoid the ridicule of her peers sought water at a time of day when she knew she could be alone; Jesus met her and gave her the eternal water of God’s acceptance. The blind beggar was minding his own business, not asking to be healed or for the consequences; Jesus made him whole.
Now. Lazarus. Lazarus, finally finds an escape from the relentless pursuit of God. He’s dead, four days in the grave. Dead to Life. Hiding from the hurt of the world, hiding from the demands of loving. Whatever else it may be. This is spiritual death. Locked away from God. All of us have been there. Friends, not even the grave itself can stop Jesus from finding you. This is the promise of the gospel. Come out of your tomb and live. The Christ is that force in the world before whom you are called to life in all it’s fullness. On the last day surely, but just as surely today. Now. Awake your souls! Dead bones live! Be light for the world!
Each of us will die one day. And I know in the face of this pandemic that is our deepest fear. But that’s not the point of today’s text for me: the question before me today is have I lived? Have we made our lives count for the good? New every morning is your love, great God of light. Jesus is that presence in the world before whom we are called to life, life in service to God’s steadfast loving of the world. Surrender to it. Lazarus, come forth!
Whoever you are, wherever you are on your journey in faith today, no matter what you have done, no matter what you have left undone, no matter what private burden you carry. Jesus is here, calling you to come out of that tomb of self loathing to new life. When I was young, it bothered me that Lazarus for the rest of this gospel would live with the signs of his death on his hands, his feet. Then, Jesus called me out of my death to new life. At 43, I came out as a fully alive human being well past the age our glamorous culture values. When I did, my friends can tell you, I looked like a wasted away man. Skin and bones. On the other side of this pandemic the church will look different; our world will be forever changed. My well washed hands already look like 50 year old sandpaper. Friends, don’t worry about your scars, your imperfections, your age. For heaven’s sake, Lazarus was four days decomposed. Can these bones live? In the presence of a Lord like this who can keep them in the grave!
-- Pastor Mark