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Archive for April, 2011

Jesus Appears to Thomas, 1990 (13)

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Why does the risen Lord still bear the marks of the wounds?  And why do they comfort us?  Here is a sermon that attempts to answer those questions.

Emmanuel Forever!
A Sermon on Luke 24:36-48 and John 20:19-31

Wouldn’t a resurrection body by definition be better than new?  If I were the one raising Jesus from the dead, I’d give him a body that was better than new.  I’d fill in all the tissue that was chewed up by nail and thorn, and I’d knit the great gash in his side back together.  I’d wash away all the dried blood and smooth away every mark of the whip.  I’d cover all the wounds with skin like a newborn baby’s.  Then I’d ease away all the soreness and stiffness.  I would put all Jesus’ wounds into the past.  I would give Jesus a body that was perfectly whole in every way.  A body that can go through walls should by definition be perfectly whole.

But the God who did raise Jesus from the dead had other ideas.  When the risen Lord appeared among his followers on Easter evening, he greeted them with a reassuring word of peace.  But then Jesus pushed back his clothes, and there all those wounds were, still deep, and still red.  He insisted that his followers see and touch.

Yep, that certainly did confirm that Jesus was the same one who had died on Friday.  Yep, the wounds were in the right place.  This wasn’t an imposter.  But why couldn’t Jesus experience complete relief in the resurrection?  To know it was him and to know he wasn’t a ghost, wouldn’t it have been enough for his followers just to see his face and touch whole, unwounded flesh?  Wouldn’t it be enough just to see him eat the fish they offered?  Why wasn’t the pain and the woundedness finished when Jesus drew his last breath on Friday?  It would have been such a blessing to get the pain over with then.

But many do not receive that blessing.  Their pain is not over with in a matter of hours or days.  (more…)

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Easter and Pentecost mark two movements in God’s great work of resurrection.  Here is the story of St. Cyprian’s Episcopal Church, a small congregation in Oxford, North Carolina that is experiencing resurrection.  The congregation’s junior warden describes the first phone call he received from their now-vicar as the “craziest Holy Spirit moment.”  How apt!  When God’s foolishness is greater than human wisdom, you’ve got to expect crazy Holy Spirit moments. 

This story comes from Faith and Leadership, a great web site from Duke Divinity School.  In the sidebar you can click on another article about a model the Episcopal Church is using for leadership in small churches.  Read St. Cyprian’s story and be inspired for Easter and Pentecost!

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Tilted Sunrisephoto © 2009 Yogendra Joshi | more info (via: Wylio)
 

Once you start looking through the lens of Easter, everything looks tilted God-ward.  Blessings to you all as we approach Easter again.

A Seismic Shift
A Sermon on Matthew 27:50-28:20
Easter—The Resurrection of the Lord

“Okay,” Pilate agreed with the chief priests and Pharisees.  “Take a guard.  Go and make the tomb as secure as you know how.”  Something had stirred up their fears.  They realized that Jesus might be even more dangerous to them dead than alive!  Was this an afterthought, or did the Good Friday earthquake shake them up as it had the executioners?

Something certainly had shaken them up.  On Saturday the religious leaders hurried to see Pontius Pilate.  Notice: it was the Sabbath, and it was unlawful to visit Pilate on the Sabbath, and unlawful at any time to go into his house.  Their anxiety was so great that they were willing to break the very Sabbath law that they condemned Jesus for breaking.  “Jesus may be dead,” they told Pilate, “but he said he would be raised to life three days later.  His disciples might go steal his body, then spread a rumor that he has been raised.  This lie would be even worse than the first one.  That tomb’s got to stay shut,” they insisted.  “You’ve got to make sure that nobody and no thing opens it!”  In other words, they needed that tomb to be earthquake proof.

I recently learned that the apocryphal Gospel of Peter, one of the New Testament era books that didn’t make it into the Bible, pictures the sealing of the tomb.  It says that the religious authorities all joined the guards in keeping watch over the tomb, and that they put not just one, but seven seals on it.  Seven—the perfect number—and it was like multiple locks on a door: deadbolts, chains, sliding bars, like multiple barriers to keep somebody out, or else keep somebody else in.  All eyes were on that tomb.

As Sunday dawned there was nothing Mary Magdalene and the other Mary could do but look.  They were helpless.  Matthew highlights their helplessness because he says not a word about them bringing spices and ointments to anoint Jesus’ body.  He says they just came to look.  Look.  Remember.  Cry.  Maybe start finding a way to move on.

It had been beautiful while it lasted: the dream of the kingdom of heaven.  Healing. Hope.  Life as God intended.  Why did Jesus have to die?  Why did he have to be crushed?  Seems like the world is always tilted in favor of the powerful.  The ones with the money win.  The ones with the weapons win.  They always seem to get what they want.  Dreamers like Jesus are a threat to people’s empires.  The lowly don’t want to stay in their place when a dreamer like Jesus catches their imaginations.  Dreamers threaten stability.  Dreamers are troublemakers.  They must die.  This world seems inevitably slanted, skewed, shifted towards darkness, towards pain, sickness, death.  Sometimes it seems that only the darkness is really real.  Light is a temporary illusion.  Death always wins.

Nobody was going to open that grave that Sunday morning, and especially not these empty-handed women.  But they could look and remember.  Suddenly the ground started rocking and shifting beneath their feet.  Another earthquake, a big one on the Richter scale!  And at that moment, God’s shining angel descended, rolled back the stone, and sat on it like a conqueror.  The guards trembled with terror, fainted dead away.  The shocked women were also frightened, but they kept their wits about them, and heard the angel say what angels always say when they bring God’s message:  “Don’t be afraid.”  “Don’t be afraid,” he said.  “I know you’re looking for Jesus who was crucified.  He’s not here.  He has been raised just as he said.  Come see where he lay.  Go quickly now, and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from death and now he is going to Galilee ahead of you.  There you will see him.’”  Afraid and joyful at the same time, they hurried off.

Matthew wants us to understand that the death and resurrection of Jesus was an earthquaking, earthshaking event.  It was a seismic shift.  The very ground those women stood on tilted in the other direction.  (more…)

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Judas' regret

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If you don’t plan to preach on John 13 for Maundy Thursday, here is an alternative from Matthew 26 and 27 on the haunting story of Judas.

Hand Over the Rope
A Sermon for Maundy Thursday
Based on Matthew 26:14-32 and Matthew 27:3-10

Suddenly it all came clear.  Judas’ plan had gone horribly awry!  He had only intended to push Jesus to act.  A confrontation with the authorities, reasoned Judas, would prompt Jesus to quit waiting around and launch the new kingdom of Israel.  But now Jesus was condemned to die for sins he never committed, and the blood was all over Judas’ hands.

The guilt was crushing.  Judas could scarcely breathe.  “Hurry…must hurry!  Must stop this thing,” he said to himself over and over.  He clutched a small pouch.  The thirty pieces of silver inside burned his hand.

When Judas reached the chief priests and elders, he pushed his way in.  “Jesus is innocent!” he cried.  “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.”

“What do we care about that?” they answered.  “That’s your business.”

Jesus had never had a chance!  The authorities had never been interested in conferring with Jesus.  They had no intention of giving serious consideration to anything he had to say.  The priests and elders only wanted to destroy Jesus, and Judas had played right into their hands.

Judas couldn’t get rid of the blood money fast enough. He hurled the coins into the temple and hurried away.  Would someone find them and perhaps use them for good?

No hope!  No hope!  The words pounded in his head.  No way to turn back the clock.  There was no way to make it right, no way to make up for his sin even partially.  Judas’ sin condemned him.  Guilty.  Guilty forever!  Sick with despair, Judas found a piece of rope, secured one end, looped the other around his neck, and jumped.

I once read of a congregation that built a small prayer chapel and placed twelve chairs in it, one for each of the apostles.  The chair marked “Judas” became well worn because it was the most often used.  Through the ages many Christians have recognized themselves in Judas for their own betrayals of Christ.  And many have responded to their guilt in the same way, punishing themselves, condemning themselves.

A few have done so quite literally.  In the Middle Ages, for example, it was common to see groups of people whipping themselves and each other, hoping that this punishment would make God take away the Black Death plague.

Most now, though, punish themselves with emotional ropes and whips.  Endlessly rehearsing regrets for wrongs, real, and some just imagined.  Picking at the scabs on the sore places in their memories.  Confessing again and again.  Piling good work upon good work, hoping God will relent.

None of these self-imposed remedies offers more than temporary relief.  The guilt always comes back.  We have sinned, we have betrayed the innocent blood of Christ, and we can’t do a thing to fix it.

If only Judas hadn’t found that piece of rope.  If only he had paused long enough to think, to reflect on three years spent with Jesus, to pray.  That might have made the difference.

If only Judas had paused to remember what just happened at that Last Supper.  Jesus had obviously been aware of Judas’ scheme.  But instead of turning Judas away from the table, Jesus still welcomed him.  Jesus had given all the disciples the bread, with the words, “This is my body.”  He had offered them all—even Judas—the cup, with the words, “This cup is my blood, poured out for many for the forgiveness of sin.”  What was about to happen to Jesus was for their forgiveness—all of them!  “All of you drink this,” Jesus insisted.

Then he pointed out that they would all, every last one, betray him.  Every last one of those disciples would soon be in great need of the cup of forgiveness.  Guilty, one and all!

Eleven disciples waited, turned back to Jesus, and did eventually drink the cup of forgiveness.  But not Judas.  He hurried to the gallows.  He missed the point of Jesus’ life.  He missed the meaning of the cross.  He ignored the invitation to the table, the invitation that still stands.

“Come, everybody, drink the cup of forgiveness,” Jesus insists.  “Take this cup of my blood in your hands, drink, and you will be clean!”

Come, people of God!  Come, all who see yourself in Judas’s chair.  Hand over your ropes and whips.  Stop the punishment.  Stop the condemnation.  Hand over your regrets to Jesus, and if you find yourself pulling them back, hand them over to him again.  Don’t go to the gallows!  Come to the table!

Take Jesus’ cup of forgiveness into your hands and drink it.  Take the cup of salvation into your hands and drink it.  Hold it.  Cherish it.  Drink it.  All of you!

“Do this in remembrance of me!”

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The Raising of Lazarus

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As we prepare once again to address the pain of the world, and the pain of our congregations, here is a sermon on John 11, the gospel lesson for Lent 5A.

Unbind Him!  Let Him Go!
A Sermon on Exodus 2:23-3:10; John 11:17-44

The pain was deep.  Mary fell at Jesus’ feet and sobbed her heart out.  The illness had been bad enough.  If only Jesus had gotten here sooner!  Mary was wrapped in grief as surely as Lazarus was wrapped in burial bindings.

At the sight of her pain, Jesus was deeply distressed.  Mary, Martha and Lazarus were his friends.  It was sorrow and concern, yes, but it was also anger.  The Greek word used there lets us know he was both sorrowful and angry.  Jesus was angry when he saw what sickness and death had done to this family.  “Where have you laid Lazarus?” he asked.  “Lord, come and see,” they answered.  And then Jesus started to cry.  Jesus saw their predicament.  He heard their cries.  He knew how much it hurt.  He knew.

Centuries before, God had been every bit as touched by the pain of the Israelites in bondage in Egypt.  God heard their cries.  God saw their suffering.  And God knew.  How he knew.  The Hebrew word there is yadah, and it means much more than knowing a fact in your head.  It means deep knowing, deep understanding.

God still sees, and God still hears, and God still knows.  God knows what bondage does to people, where governments now use the same kind of terror tactics that the Egyptian Pharaohs used.  Where hunger and disease stunt children’s bodies and minds if they survive at all.  Where sickness and profound physical or mental infirmity make people prisoners inside their bodies.  Where addiction keeps people stuck in self-destruction and despair.  Where anxiety paralyzes people so thoroughly they can’t see what’s possible for them anymore.  A good future just doesn’t seem possible.

Oh yes, God knows what binding does to people.  It does just what footbinding used to do to women and girls in China.   Tiny feet were thought to be pretty.  And so, at about age three, all of a little girl’s toes except the big toe were broken and folded under the foot.  Then the big toe and heel were forced as close together as possible, and the feet were bound in tight wrappings.  This held the feet in this position and to stop them from growing.  It caused intense pain and deformity, death in some cases.  The result: feet that were only three or four inches long and so bent that women walked on the big toe and the heel, which were squashed together.  Simply walking was a big struggle.

Binding, bondage causes pain and deformity.  Even if we are blessed to be spared most forms of bondage, there are two forms that spare no one: sin and death.  Sin is much more than disobeying a rule.  It is much more than simply choosing to do the wrong thing.  It is much more subtle and powerful than that.  Sin sneaks in even when we do all we can to do the right thing.  We do our very best, and we still find that there was some hurtful result.  And we are caught in webs of injustices, as when we realize that some benefit we enjoy is at the price of some poor person’s pain in another part of the world, or even in this country.  Paul called it the law of sin at work in us.  We are prisoners of the law of sin.  We are prisoners of the law of death.  No wonder the book of Revelation pictures humanity at the mercy of a dragon and two terrible beasts! (more…)

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Generations Together in Church

I came across two blog posts with excellent food for thought for all who are asking questions like, “How can we get more young people in the church?”  The first is How to Get Young People in Church by Laura Blackwood Pickrel at Gathering Voices, the blog of The Thoughtful Christian website.  Her post points to another entitled How to Get More Young People in Church in which The Rt. Rev. Kirk G. Smith, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona yields his blog space to a young adult, Tamie Fields Harkins.

Both offer great advice, such as this: Do notice and love the young people who are already at your church (and stop saying things like, “We’ve only got X-number of young people in our church.”)–Pickrel.

And this:  Be genuine. Do not under any circumstances try to be trendy or hip, if you are not already intrinsically trendy or hip. If you are a 90-year-old woman who enjoys crocheting and listens to Beethoven, by God be proud of it.–Smith.

Good advice for churches in general.  Don’t get fixated on numbers.  Don’t forget to appreciate the people you already have.  Don’t try to be somebody you’re not.

Listen up, small church!  Indeed: listen up, church at large!

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