Wednesday, September 9, 2015

September 6 Sermon

Mark 7:31-37
Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”

So, the miracle stories are difficult. For one thing, they can sometimes make us feel bad about our own lives, our own faith, when we or someone we love isn’t receiving the healing we hope for, that we pray for. And that can make you feel pretty terrible about yourself, make you question your faith.
But not only this, because, of course, in the context of our modern understanding of science, the healing stories, the miracle stories just don’t make much sense. How is it that somebody, even the son of God, defy the laws of physics to heal people, especially when it’s not like we see this kind of thing every day. Sure, we see healing, sometimes healing that deserves a description like “miraculous,” but nobody’s doing the thing Jesus did, picking up somebody’s ear that got cut off and putting it back on with a wave of the hand. Certainly, nobody is doing what Jesus did in the scripture this morning, putting their fingers in the ears of people who are deaf and then suddenly everything’s hunky-dory and the clouds open and everybody’s fine.
It just doesn’t happen like that. That’s not how life works, and of course not. We are modern people, thank you very much, and we understand science, and we understand medicine, and so I do not suggest you walk up to random people and put your fingers in their ears, certainly not that you spit and touch somebody else’s tongue. It won’t heal them and it will likely get you clocked.
And yet, here’s this story, and it worked. It worked. Jesus stuck his fingers in this guy’s ears and touched his tongue and suddenly, the guy could hear, had the ability to speak, though he’d never done so before. It’s like Jesus had somehow programmed language into him, magically, had opened his ears, magically, and not only that, but Jesus says what sounds like a magic word, “Ephphatha,” and it is at the sound of that word, almost like an abra-cadabra, the man is healed.
 But here’s the thing. Jesus doesn’t say abra-cadabra. He isn’t a magician. He’s God. Jesus says, “Ephphatha,” which means, “be opened.” That’s not a magic word at all. It’s a command, an important signal to those around him, and a signal to us, of who Jesus is. Jesus is one who opens. We worship a God who opens.
You may be familiar with the tagline of the United Methodist Church. In fact it is on the mugs we give away to newcomers; if you are new, I hope you will pick one up in the back. The tagline says that in the United Methodist Church, we have open hearts, open minds, and open doors. I pray that this is true, that even when it isn’t quite true all the time, because we’re all growing in faith, that it’s becoming increasingly true. But we don’t do these things just because they make for good commercials or because they look appealing on a coffee mug. We pray that we embody the idea of open minds, open hearts, and open doors because we worship a God who opens.
We see this aspect of God’s character in the healing stories in the Gospels. You know, in many ways, I suspect that we understand the whole business of healing in the Bible backwards. So often, we look at the healing stories and think, isn’t God good to heal, but why aren’t we being healed too? Just this week I heard from an old friend, she’s not yet 40, and diagnosed with end-stage cancer. She doesn’t smoke, she doesn’t drink, she doesn’t lay in the sun, and yet she’s looking at death head on. And you encounter that sort of thing, and you think, why no healing for her? She’s faithful. She goes to church. She’s going to die.
Or you look at this tragic situation in Europe, the refugee crisis, and you think, the world is broken. It’s irrevocably broken, when seventy-one people fleeing war in Syria suffocate to death on a truck, when young children, refugees from war and violence, slip from their parents’ arms in the choppy waters of the Mediterranean Sea, their bodies washed ashore like driftwood. And there’s no good answers for why God allows this sort of thing to happen, at least apart from our own complicity in it, but you look at the state of things and you’re liable to want to just pull the covers over your head and never get out of the bed.
But while I don’t have answers for that sort of thing, I do think there’s another way to look at it, which is that it’s not so much that Jesus went around fixing things two thousand years ago and then quit, but that Jesus spent his time on earth, in part, offering signs that he was who he said he was, that he was God’s own son, and that instead of, you know, writing it in the sky or turning a pumpkin into a carriage or whatever, he chose to engage in acts of compassion, of healing, of openness to new people and places, because Jesus is compassionate. God is compassionate. In other words, it’s not that Jesus used to heal but doesn’t anymore. It’s that Jesus chose to use his time one earth in ways that led to healing, and don’t you think that as much as we are able, we ought to do the same thing?
And this is well and good as far as a strategy for going forward, but it can sometimes be little comfort when everything just seems so closed, when the doors seem to close in front of your nose, one by one, when your hope shuts down, when it seems like you are out of options. To be a human and to live in the modern world is to constantly encounter, “no,” to have doors shut in your face, to reach a dead end, time and time again, as if the whole world really ought to have a “closed” sign on its front window, not accepting applications, no more appointments available, not enough time, not enough money, not enough possibility.
And the church isn’t immune from this feeling! So often, in church life, we run up against situations where there aren’t enough volunteers to do the thing we think needs to be done, not enough money for this important new program, not enough energy to change. I’ll tell you right now, if you think that being part of a church is going to make everything in your life seem wonderful, you’ve got another thing coming. You see, the problem is that the church is made of people, and if it weren’t for that one fact, we’d be better off, but here we are, trying to make things work the best we can.
It’s enough to make everything seem closed sometimes, but my friends, we worship a God who opens. I imagine what it must have been like to have been the man taken to Jesus to be healed. Mostly I bet he was embarrassed, that his friends and family were making such a fuss over him, because it’s not like anything was going to change. He was deaf, he’d always been deaf, and you don’t just all of a sudden stop being deaf. He may have lived two thousand years ago, but just because he didn’t have modern physics at his disposal didn’t mean he was unintelligent. He was just deaf.
So when his friends and family insisted on bringing him to Jesus, I am sure he wasn’t so sure about the whole thing. I’ve not dealt with a significant disability in my own life, but I do know that folks who do have such a disability struggle with others’ treating them as if they are less than, as if there is something fundamentally less about them just because of that disability. All of this, I imagine, was going through the man’s head as he sat there and let this rabbi do the magic thing and wave his hands and put his fingers in his ears, because then, at the very least at least, the rest of the people would leave him alone.
Only, something happened. Something was opened, and I don’t just mean the man’s ears. I mean his heart. I mean his life, for he was able to relate in new ways to new people, all because of Jesus. Here he was stuck, closed off from the world, and with a word, he was opened, for we worship a God who opens.
These are the things that happen when we are open, when, in the name of Christ, we do that work of opening. I want you to know, I am regularly brought to tears by those who walk through the open doors of this very church building on Sunday mornings and who sit down and are mobbed by people welcoming them to church. If what we are talking about is the miracle of the open ears, then I think there’s a certain miracle of the open doors happening here at North Decatur, people finding a place in church when they’ve not ever considered that to be possible. We have people here, today, who have been rejected by other congregations, other pastors, who are finding a home: not a perfect one, not a completed one, but a home. We have people here, today, who have discovered within church the idea that they are children of God, which is something they never considered. We have people here, today, who never even really thought much about church at all, but who have been so welcomed that they have realized, or they are starting to realize, the power of a life lived in the direction of faithfulness. We may be modern people, but don’t tell me there are no miracles these days, because I’ve seen the power of open doors.
I have also seen the power of open minds, not that anybody expects to find them in church. I am proud that this congregation is one that takes science seriously. We have a number of scientists in this congregation, people who take seriously that tension between science and faith but who don’t get stuck there, and instead live out that tension by offering their lives in the service of being thoughtful people of faith, and my God, the world needs more thoughtful people of faith. And when you have open doors, and you bring new people in, you’ve got to have open minds, because new people all share one thing in common: they are new! They bring new ideas, new lifestyles, new perspectives, and their newness doesn’t mean that they don’t hold faithful perspectives! The miracle of open doors leads to the miracle of open minds when we are willing to listen to our sisters and brothers who are new and different and instead of saying, welcome to this wonderful place, now conform to everything we already do, we are willing to say, welcome, we were waiting for you, tell us who you are and how you understand God. My Lord, in church of all places, that can happen. And it does happen. It happens every time you shake a hand and really listen, and we are better for it, for there is a miracle in that kind of moment, in that kind of relationship.
And it is one miracle that leads to another, the miracle of open hearts, so that you aren’t just welcoming new people and then opening your mind to what they believe, but you are opening your heart to who and what they are. I was saying to somebody again this week, I’ve said this to you before, but I continue to be amazed that so many in this church say of new things and new ideas that let’s try it! If it doesn’t work, we’ll try something else. I was telling this person that line and she said what a miracle! For so often in church people just say, “well, this is the way we’ve always done it!”  And she’s right, that is often what is said, but it is the opposite of having an open heart, and yet here we are, hearts open, open to new experiences, new people, new understandings of God, and I am here to tell you that God can use that! And if you are willing to bring your open heart, to really offer it, miraculous things can happen, God can open even more new possibilities to you, for we worship a God who opens.

And finally, there’s one more open thing we celebrate here. It’s not in our little tagline of open hearts, open minds, open doors, but it should be. It’s the open table. It’s the open invitation to all people--even to you--that the feast we celebrate this day, this sacrament, this holy mystery in which God gives God’s own self to us, again, this table is open to you. There’s nobody, not even you, who’s not welcome. There’s nobody, not even you, who isn’t invited because there’s nobody, not even you, who’s worthy to partake. And this is the promise of grace, that we worship a God who opens, such that nothing you’ve ever done can shut the door to salvation. No soubt, no past mistake, nothing can stand in the way. So when the time comes, I hope you will, too, for the table is set, and like everything God does, the invitation is open, wide open, and thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, August 3, 2015

August 2 Sermon: I Believe in the Holy Spirit

John 14:25-26
”I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.

1 Samuel 10:1-6

Samuel took a vial of oil and poured it on his head, and kissed him; he said, “The Lord has anointed you ruler over his people Israel. You shall reign over the people of the Lord and you will save them from the hand of their enemies all around. Now this shall be the sign to you that the Lord has anointed you ruler over his heritage: When you depart from me today you will meet two men by Rachel’s tomb in the territory of Benjamin at Zelzah; they will say to you, ‘The donkeys that you went to seek are found, and now your father has stopped worrying about them and is worrying about you, saying: What shall I do about my son?’ Then you shall go on from there further and come to the oak of Tabor; three men going up to God at Bethel will meet you there, one carrying three kids, another carrying three loaves of bread, and another carrying a skin of wine. They will greet you and give you two loaves of bread, which you shall accept from them. After that you shall come to Gibeath-elohim, at the place where the Philistine garrison is; there, as you come to the town, you will meet a band of prophets coming down from the shrine with harp, tambourine, flute, and lyre playing in front of them; they will be in a prophetic frenzy. Then the spirit of the Lord will possess you, and you will be in a prophetic frenzy along with them and be turned into a different person.
I believe in the Holy Spirit. Six little words, small words, really, but what remarkable power is held within them. When we talk about God as Father, I know what that means. When we talk about God as son, I know what that means. But God as Holy Spirit is more difficult to talk about, more nebulous, smokier, more airy. I don’t know what you picture when you picture God the Father Almighty, maybe the old guy with the beard, maybe your own father, maybe something else. And the same with Jesus, there are a remarkable variety of images of Christ out there.
But the Holy Spirit. I mean, how do you describe the Holy Spirit? I guess there’s a reason that in the book of Acts, as the apostles receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, it is represented as tongues of fire which appear above their heads. I like that—nobody knows how to talk about the Holy Spirit so they depict it as something that is so hot as to set even the air on fire.
The most classical understanding of the Holy Spirit is that of breath, the thing that fills your body, and it’s funny, you may know, most of the Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew, and the New Testament in Greek, and there is one main word for the Holy Spirit in each of those languages. It is ruach in Hebrew and pneuma in Greek. And the reason that’s funny is that there are a whole lot of ways you can translate that word into English. So whenever the Bible talks about a breeze, or a breath, or storm-force winds, or the soul of a person, or even the presence of God, it tends to use these two words exclusively, and you start to understand the trouble with translating the Bible, let alone coming up with a single image for the Holy Spirit. Whenever the Bible talks about breath, for instance, it’s a judgment call for whoever is doing the translating to say, well, we think here it means breath, but here it means Spirit, and here it means wind, and so that’s a fallible process, a human process.
But in some ways I sort of like the nebulousness of it, because when we talk about the breath of life, for instance, we’re not just talking about the literal air that is coming in and out of your mouth. We’re talking about something deeper, the essence of what it means to be human, and it is that very essence that blurs the line between the secular and the sacred, the human and the divine, such that even secular things, like, oh, I don’t know, television monitors, can be made sacred tools for invoking the presence of God. You cannot live without that spark, that breath of life, and so the air that goes in and out of your mouth is not something you can totally separate from the work of God. God animates you, gives you life, and we can talk all day long about neurons and synapses and cells and muscles and tendons and skin, but without that breath, that spark of life, they are just tools, just bone and tissue. It is life that gives them meaning, that gives you meaning, that makes you human. And so it is that the holy breath, the holy spirit, is such a meaningful concept.
It is likewise the case that of the three persons of the Trinity, though we may not know how to speak of it, it is the Holy Spirit with which we have the most experience. Whether you realize it or not, it is the case that the Holy Spirit works through your own life. It goes with you everywhere you go, and it was with you even before you knew it was there, even when you feel as if you are totally alone in the world. This is not to say that God controls every movement in your body, every thing that happens in the world. That’s not true. But it is to say that the Holy Spirit works through your life, that it is a mystery, nudging us towards greater holiness, greater relationship with God and one another, greater justice for our neighbors, around the corner and around the world.
This is all well and good, but it makes the Holy Spirit hard to talk about. I am someone who likes metaphors, so the idea of God as Father is helpful, because I know that the essence of God is greater than my understanding of that word, but it gives me some connection. But this Spirit business, that’s a struggle. I don’t have a good metaphor for what a Spirit is, other than movies, I guess, and I will admit that I am trying really hard not to bring Ghostbusters into the equation.
We just don’t have a good conception of what the Spirit is, and I would suggest to you that this is ok, for our inability to define the Holy Spirit does justice to the fact that God is bigger than our words, than our attempts to define who God is and how God works.
And this is precisely the role of the Holy Spirit: to create, to breathe into, to give birth to things to new things, so of course we don’t know how to talk about it properly; there aren’t words yet to describe those things that the spirit will do. I don’t mean to get too sci-fi on you on the day that we have the screens in worship for the first time, but I am reminded that the universe is constantly expanding, all the time getting bigger, and so there aren’t even words for all the new things that God is creating, and the minute we come up with words for them, there are even new things, because that expansion happens quicker than we can name, and this is what the Holy spirit does: it throws us into Holy Chaos, sometimes, because we worship a God who is doing new things, who creates, who conceives of new things. I find this helpful when the church grows, or when the world changes so quickly that I have trouble wrapping my head around all of it. Just because it changes quickly doesn’t mean it isn’t of God. In fact, there’s something to be said for not understanding all that is going on in the world, because God is bigger than our understanding.
You will remember that just a few weeks ago we were talking about the part of the Creed that reminds us that Christ was conceived by the Holy Spirit, this new thing, this savior, and this is what the Spirit does, it creates new things, a way out of no way, does things so remarkable we don’t even know how to talk about it. And now that we are this far into the creed I think it is helpful to remember that in many ways, we were conceived by this spirit, too, for the Holy Spirit is constantly giving birth to new expressions of the divine, new manifestations of the image of God, that same image you were made in, that I was made in.
The writer Barbara Brown Taylor has said that in the way she understands the Father and the Son to have certain elements of male-ness to them, she has come to see the Spirit as fundamentally feminine, and I like that, for in this conception, in this creation, there is a certain birthing that happens. I don’t mean that giving birth is all there is to being feminine, of course, but I do mean to suggest that the Spirit gives birth, constantly creates new things, such that we read in scripture, in the book of Isaiah, that God says, “behold I am doing a new thing!” That is the work of the spirit! So often we fear that which is new and yet these are the things God is creating, God is birthing!
You will understand that for obvious reasons, I am thinking a lot these days about the Holy Spirit as that which gives birth. There is something terrifying about this whole process, never mind that Stacey and I have done it before. Even so, there are new things, new possibilities, new dangers, so much newness it can make your head spin. And yet it is that newness we look forward to, that discovery, that relationship building. In fact, we were in the ultrasound room last Monday and I was looking at this thing, this little human-looking thing with the beating heart, this person-in-formation, and I had the strangest thought. This thing, this little thing, is more likely than not going to end up taking care of me when I can no longer care for myself. And that’s scary, but it is also holy, and exciting. Just because new things are scary doesn’t mean they are not holy.
It is no wonder that when things change, we get scared. For as much as preparing for a new person brings about a certain fear, at least we have the nesting and the showers and the doctor’s visits. When God gives birth, all bets are off!
I wonder what a baby shower for the Holy Spirit would look like. Maybe like what we will do here next week, blessing school supplies that you purchase and bring for the kids living at Hagar’s House. Maybe it looks like what we are doing this week, blessing new technology, and like we do every week, giving thanks to God, making an offering, praying together for God’s continued presence in the world.
But even more than this, I wonder what it means to believe, to really believe in the Holy Spirit. Before he is taken up into Heaven, as we heard in this morning’s scripture lesson, Jesus says he’ll send the Holy Spirit to continue to inspire his disciples, to care for them, to comfort them, to be God’s presence in the world once he is gone. And then he goes. And we’re left with the Holy Spirit, and whereas I can point to the things Jesus said and did, chapter and verse, the Holy Spirit has been working for thousands of years, even after they quit writing the Bible, and who knows what it will do next?
So when we declare, I believe in the Holy Spirit, that’s a pretty big deal. It’s a pretty significant declaration, because what we are saying is that we believe, together, that God isn’t done yet. We are declaring that we believe in a God who can and who often does do just about anything, provided it is in the service of love, of care, of justice, of God’s purposes in the world. Maybe you’ve heard that God moves in mysterious ways. I’d say it this way: God moves in mischievous ways! God gives birth to new things, even before we are ready to admit that they are of God.
And yet, while it can be scary, what holiness comes about! What incredible things we experience, what incredible things we invite when we stand together and say, I believe in the Holy Spirit, when we are open to the winds of the Spirit. What we are saying is, I believe in the God who births new possibilities, such that it is never too late, we are never too old, too young, too poor, too rich, never too stuck to experience new birth, the birth of new things from the Holy Spirit.
Let me share just two examples of what this looks like, this work of the Holy Spirit. I am reading a fascinating book my college roommate emailed me about a couple of weeks ago, I would commend it to you. It is called “Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion.” It is written by Father Gergory Boyle, a Jesuit Priest who was sent to pastor the Delores Mission Church, one of the poorest parishes in Los Angeles, California. He writes that if Los Angeles is the gang capital of America, the community surrounding Delores Mission was the gang capital of Los Angeles. There were eight—eight—active gangs in the area. So Boyle and the church started to care for the gang members, because nobody else was doing so, and they realized that the thing that was driving kids into gang violence was the lack of jobs, so they found ways to employ the gang members in little projects like construction and graffiti removal.
 In 1992, during the Los Angeles Riots, Boyle gave a newspaper interview in which he said that he thought the reason that the riots had not completely exploded in his neighborhood, despite it being the poorest community in Los Angeles, was that the church he served had “strategically employed gang members who finally had a stake in keeping the projects from igniting.”
Through either an incredible coincidence or the work of the Holy Spirit, I will let you decide, a movie producer who was looking for ways to help happened to see the interview and called him and offered to throw a boatload of money at whatever would make a difference. Well, Father Boyle said, there’s an old bakery across the street from the church, he could buy that and they could start teaching rival gang members to run it. So they did. They called it the Homeboy Bakery. Only the Holy Spirit would urge somebody to do something so ridiculous as combat gang violence by opening a bakery, but that’s precisely how the Spirit gives birth.
Well, 23 years later, Homeboy Industries runs multiple bakeries, a restaurant, a silk-screening shop, and more. It serves over 10,000 gang members every year, giving them job training, legal services, tattoo removal, and mentoring. I want you to know that I am not a big book highlighter, but I marked something here I want to read to you. Boyle says this: “When enemies work with one another, a valuable ‘disconnect’ is created on the streets. It forces a fellow active gang member to ask the employed homie, ‘How can you work with that guy?’ Answering that question,” he says, “will be awkward, clumsy, and always require courage, but the question itself jostles the status quo.”
That’s the Holy Spirit, giving birth, not just 20 years ago, but every time a gang member walks through their doors. That’s what the work of the Spirit looks like.

Now that’s the first example of how the Spirit works, and it may seem overwhelming, like too big an example to be relevant to you and your life, so let me share just one more example. The second example is you. It is you. Sure, we are all different, but without exception, each of you did the same heroic thing this morning. You woke up, you lay in bed under the weight of all the things that might keep you there, the stress, the worry, the problems at work, the issues with your family, all of that, and rather than being buried underneath the baggage of your life, you climbed your way through. You got up, you got dressed, you hopefully took a shower, and, my God, you came to church. You came to church. All that you could be doing right now, the bills you could be paying, the work projects you could be finishing, and you came to church. If that’s not proof of the power of the Holy Spirit, if you, by your very presence here, are not proof of the power of the Holy Spirit, I don’t know what is. It’s enough of a miracle to make me think that between the Holy Spirit and the people of God, almost anything is possible, and thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, July 27, 2015

July 26 Sermon: He Ascended into Heaven. He Sitteth at the Right Hand of God the Father Almighty. From Thence He Shall Come to Judge the Quick and the Dead.

To hear a version of this sermon as preached, click here.

Acts 1:1-9
In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

July 19 Sermon: On the Third Day, He Rose from the Dead

(To listen to a version of this sermon as preached, click here.)

Mark 16:1-6
When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?”When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him.

The third day, he rose from the dead. The central event in all of human history happened in the middle of the night, in a tomb, in the dark, with nobody around, nobody to say much of anything about it, and even now, it’s not an easy thing to talk about. I remember listening to one of my preaching professors in seminary, Gail O’Day, who is now the president of the divinity school at Wake Forest, as she told the story of one sermon she’d graded, as the student tried to explain the resurrection, tried to find a way to use the words of a sermon to give the Resurrection the weight it deserved. He compared Jesus, she said, to a box of oreos. Here is what he said in the sermon:
It was raining, as I put on my rain boots and got in the car to go to the grocery store one afternoon about 3 o clock. I walked in the store and walked straight to the cookie aisle, as I had a hankering for some double stuff oreos. Not the regular ones, mind you, double stuff. As I approached the aisle, he continued, I noticed that there was a conspicuous hole where the double stuff oreos were supposed to be. They had the regular oreos, plenty of them. They had the watermelon ones—did you know there were watermelon oreos?—which of course they had those because who wants to buy watermelon oreos? And yet in the middle of all the different kinds of oreos, there was a hole, a place where the special, sacred double stuff oreos had been but were not anymore. Just like the women who watched the crucifixion, I was crushed.
And I want to the manager, he said, because I wanted these cookies, I needed them, and the manager said, I am sorry, but we are all out of double stuff oreos. They are gone. But I can give you a rain check, if you like, so that you can come back and find, that in that hole, that tomb-like hole in which you couldn’t find what you were looking for, you will find the double-stuff oreos you are looking for. And I asked him, so, how long do you think it will be before I can come back and you will have double stuff oreos? And he said, oh, come back in three days.
Let’s just say that that sermon didn’t get an A. I hope this one does better, though I want to acknowledge that when we talk about the Resurrection, we are talking about something that really defies logic. I mean, here’s your assignment: explain to me, in twenty minutes or less and using your own understanding of science and the universe, how somebody who died can come back to life three days later? I mean, without saying, oh, he was just in a coma, or whatever, which is silly, how can you explain it? You really can’t. And it is important, also, to acknowledge what the Creed does not say, which is that God somehow brought Jesus back to life. Jesus was raised all on his own, thank you very much, not reanimated like Frankenstein’s monster, not undead like a zombie, be he was dead and then he was alive, and it goes against everything we know to be true.
And that’s why it matters. That’s why it is so important. Jesus does this one thing that can’t be done, which is that he dies and then he is not dead. And in that action, in that one moment, the whole world is split apart, not in a destructive way, in fact, quite the opposite. The world opens up and love pours out, for death has been defeated, what was once the last word no longer is, for we discover in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, as the theologian Frederick Buechner says, that the worst thing ever to happen to you will not be the last. In the Resurrection, he says, what’s lost is nothing to what’s found, and all the death there ever was, set next to life, would scarcely fill a cup.
And isn’t it wonderful? Isn’t it wonderful. We celebrate the Resurrection each Sunday, and never as poignantly as at Easter, and we fill our baskets and hide our eggs and make the ham salad . . . and then we go about our business. I get it. The lead-up to Easter is a lot, and so when you get there, once Easter rolls around, it can wear you out! There’s a reason, after all, that the most attended Sunday of the year, Easter, is followed by what is typically the least attended Sunday of the year. When I was an associate pastor at a large church, we used to call the Sunday after Easter “National Associate Pastor Sunday.” That has the convenient acronym of NAPS, which is what the senior pastor was definitely doing that morning and what the congregation probably was doing, too.
But here’s the thing. I don’t think that Jesus was raised on the third day so that we could celebrate it and then move on. Like, I don’t think God would go to the trouble of disrupting the laws of physics and splitting time in two just so we could see what happens when you put marshmallow Peeps in the microwave, though if you haven’t tried it . . ..
I think God went to the trouble of being raised so we could be raised, too. And what is more, I think God went to the trouble of being raised on the third day so that we could have hope that is bigger than death, so that yes, we have hope of Heaven, but not simply this, for the implications of the Resurrection are much bigger than what happens when we die. Dead people don’t need hope. The rest of us do, and so it is the case that this defeat of death matters for our lives now, for the way we live and serve God now, for the way we do church now.
And so I guess I get the post-Easter slump in some ways, but in a very real way, if the Resurrection is the most important thing, then shouldn’t the Sunday after Easter be even bigger than Easter? Shouldn’t that Sunday be huge? In the wake of the Resurrection shouldn’t everything be different, I mean everything?
But then that National Associate Pastor Sunday rolls around and we’re just so tired, you know, so we take the week off, even the pastor goes out of town for some R&R, and it’s not long before we drift into familiar patterns, act like nothing has changed, fall into the same old ways of cheap grace and call on God only when we’re in a bind, or feel like we’re up against a wall, or we need to find a parking space or whatever.
I’m just wondering, what if we took the Resurrection seriously? What if we were willing to try really believing that when we speak, each week in the Apostle’s Creed, that on the third day Jesus rose from the dead, that we actually meant it? What would change? Think about the events of your life, the things that plague you, the things that frustrate you, the things that you go about your day doing. How would those things change if you viewed them through this lens, this reality of Jesus’s Resurrection, the promise of eternal life? What if we, together, decided that we really believe this stuff?
This is obviously not as easy as it sounds, as we already all profess to believe it, but it’s another thing to live it. I sometimes get asked about my own faith, about what it is that most shakes my faith, that makes me doubt the most. And I think people are looking for some sort of watershed event in my own life, a loss, a tragedy, something like that. But you know what makes me doubt the most? It’s not any of those things. The thing that makes me doubt the most is people who call themselves super religious and then, functionally, live as if nothing is different. We all know people like this—they’ve got the t-shirts with Bible verses and the faith-inspired jewelry and the little fish on the back of their car that says “truth” eating the fish with feet that says “Darwin.” None of these things bother me. What bothers me is when people—many of whom wear these shirts and display this fish—when these people come to church, or they don’t even bother, and they get in their enormous vehicle that guzzles fossil fuel like it belongs in a twelve step program for cars with drinking problems, and they proceed to peel out of the church parking lot and cut off anybody and everybody who gets in their way, and they pass the hungry guy on the sidewalk and nearly run over the poor woman crossing the street while balancing piles of groceries, all the while sporting a bumper sticker that says “Honk if you love Jesus.”
If this is you, and I hope it isn’t, let me suggest that Jesus has very little to do with the reason most people are honking at you.
And yet if I am honest, it is probably true that this caricature bears more resemblance to my own life than I would like to admit. I do believe in the Resurrection, I really, really do, but I don’t always act like it. I don’t always act like death has been defeated, such that the one thing in the world stronger than fear is the kind of love showed by Jesus on the cross. I don’t always live such that people who look at me can see that love written across my face. I sometimes get so stuck on my own life, my own stuff, that it seems like death has won, evil has won, and there’s nothing to do but look out for number one. I will own that.
But you know the biggest reason I think I get stuck on all that stuff? You know the biggest reason I think people come to church and worship God and then go about their business as if little has changed? I don’t think it’s because everybody is a terrible hypocrite or anything like that. I think the thing that keeps us from living into our heritage as children of God it is that the gift of love that was made manifest in the Resurrection, that defeat of death, that breakthrough of grace, I think it is quite simply so overwhelming we don’t know what to do with it.
Even the people we hold up as sterling examples of faith, of responding to the gift of the Resurrection, even those examples feel overwhelming. I don’t know why preachers do that sort of thing, you know, tell this passionate and moving story about the multimillionaire who sold everything he had and gave every dime to the poor. If I hear one more story about how wonderful Mother Teresa was and how we should all be like her, I’m going to roll my eyes so far back in my head they may get stuck there forever. I am glad the world had Mother Teresa. I know God is pleased, too. But these kinds of stories are so foreign, so overwhelming, that they can render you totally immobile. I am no multimillionaire. I am certainly no Mother Teresa.
The thing is, people don’t get to a place where they lead radically transformed lives because they hear a sermon. They get to a place where they do that sort of thing because they have experienced the God of Resurrection, the God who proves that love is greater than fear.
And so these kinds of stories, like the Resurrection itself, are so overwhelming that I don’t know what to do with them. And yet I am reminded that it was Mother Teresa, of all people, who said that small things done with great love can change the world. Small things done with great love can change the world. This, too, is the promise of the Resurrection, that God can use the smallest thing, the widow’s mite, the child’s gift, the smallest thing can be used to breathe hope into the world.
After all, the Resurrection started small. There was no trumpet, no Hallelujah Chorus. It was the middle of the night, pitch dark, no one around but Jesus and the angel—or whatever it was—that helped him move the stone. Nobody even noticed anything was different until well after sunrise, when Mary Magdalene, and Mary the Mother of James and Salome, these three women arrived at the tomb in order to anoint Jesus’s body with spices and found that there was nothing to anoint. The tomb was empty. Death had been defeated, and nobody had even thought to put out a press release.
It started small, and look what happened. A single act which inspired a cadre of misfit believers to form the Christian church, of all things, to withstand generations of abuse and torture, to reach out and welcome new people into the community of faith, to ride the waves formed by the ebb and flow of the centuries, and here we are, the beneficiaries of that act, of that small, revolutionary act, which happened in the stillness of night with no one around.
I can’t defeat death. I’m lucky to get out of the house in the morning with both of my shoes tied, and not together. But I can do small things with great love.
Since I started the sermon with a story about Oreos, I should probably end with one, too, especially considering the middle was so sweet. I was reminded of a story this week, a couple of you actually posted it on Facebook, about Alpharetta First United Methodist Church, one of our sister churches in the North Georgia Conference. Don Martin, the senior pastor of that congregation, happened to be seated next to a soldier on an airplane, as the soldier made his way back home after 18 months in Iraq. Don asked him, “What did you miss most during your time overseas?” and the soldier, without hesitation, said, “Oreos. Double Stuf!”
Now, of course, you can’t do justice to the Resurrection with a cookie, any more than a rain check to be redeemed in three days is anything like three days in the ground. But since that conversation, six years ago, Alpharetta First has partnered with a number of other churches, and this year alone, just three weeks ago, in fact, they blessed and shipped over five-and-a-half tons of Oreos to men and women serving in the armed forces overseas who craved a taste of home. We were reminded again this week of the unspeakable danger these folks face, and so what a gift that they were reminded, because of a church of all places, that they are loved. And, when you get down to brass tacks, the reason that the soldiers received that reminder is that a bunch of people in Georgia believed in the Resurrection.
I don’t mean to suggest that you can give somebody a cookie and be on your way and have properly honored the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. But what you can do is act like you believe it is true. What you can do is sow hope: serve the homeless like some of our folks are doing today, break bread with strangers like others will do this week, welcome new people into the life of faith like you do every Sunday.

What you can do is take that gift of grace we have received because of the Resurrection, and find little ways to share it in the world, ways that start small and then before long add up to five and a half tons and then some, so that the greatest event in the history of the world doesn’t stay in history, but bursts forth every day from your heart and from your life. You can do that, and thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, July 13, 2015

July 12 Sermon: "Was Crucified, Dead, and Buried. He Descended Into Hell."

(To hear a version of this sermon as preached, click here.)
Matthew 27:33-60
And when they came to a place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull), they offered him wine to drink, mixed with gall; but when he tasted it, he would not drink it. And when they had crucified him, they divided his clothes among themselves by casting lots; then they sat down there and kept watch over him. Over his head they put the charge against him, which read, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.” Then two bandits were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left.Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, “You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” In the same way the chief priests also, along with the scribes and elders, were mocking him, saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, ‘I am God’s Son.’” The bandits who were crucified with him also taunted him in the same way. From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “This man is calling for Elijah.” At once one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink. But the others said, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.”
Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many. Now when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”Many women were also there, looking on from a distance; they had followed Jesus from Galilee and had provided for him. Among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.
When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who was also a disciple of Jesus. He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus; then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. So Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock. He then rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb and went away.
Well, we joke in the church sometimes that what it means to be Methodist is muddy enough that it seems like a fair middle ground between Catholic and Baptist, so we have a lot of mixed marriages in this church, one person grew up Catholic and the other Baptist or some similar tradition, and I am imagining that when we say the Apostle’s Creed, as we have been doing for the last several weeks, that the former Baptists among us have been saying to themselves, what on earth is this? It’s not in the Bible, and we didn’t grow up saying it, so why do it now? And the Catholics among us are saying, what about the part where Jesus descends into Hell? In many traditions, including the Roman Catholic tradition, it is common to say that Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried, and descended into Hell.
And the answer to the first question is that this stuff is in the Bible. The ancient writers of the Creed took this list of things that we affirm together from different parts of scripture, including the bit about Jesus descending into Hell. That comes from the book of Ephesians, where the author says that after he died, Jesus descended to the lower parts of the earth, which in old English language, is translated as Hell. And the author of 1 Peter says that Jesus was put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, which is almost as good a description of what hell is as trying to get a live human on the phone with the Dekalb County Water Department or turning left on North Decatur Road out of our church parking lot.
The reason, just so you know, that we don’t say this part in the United Methodist Church, is that it is actually not original to the Creed. It’s Biblical, the descent to Hell, but I was not included in the Creed until somewhere between the fourth and the eighth centuries, so John Wesley, the founder of our tradition, decided not to include it, but I would submit to you today that the descent into Hell is an idea worth exploring, and so I want to do that this morning.
You know, with all that has been going on in the world lately, I have been very intrigued by this idea that even Jesus died, that he was crucified, that he died, that he was buried where he lay for three days. I will acknowledge that in the midst of such great societal change in such a little time, the ground feels a little unsteady these days, my knees feel a little weak, and it’s enough to wear you out if you let it. I was talking to somebody this week about this passage and I finally looked at him and said, “Good grief, three days with nothing to do! That doesn’t sound like Hell—that sounds like Heaven!”
And yet in our understanding, during those three days, Jesus was quite busy, walking through hell, and for as much as the church doesn’t like talking about hell, doesn’t do such a great job of nuance so we usually leave it alone, for all of that, there are days that I wish we hadn’t decided, as a church, to take out the bit about Jesus descending into Hell from the Apostle’s Creed, because my Lord, when I’m walking through Hell, it does my heart good to know Jesus did it, too.
Do you know what I mean? With all the change we’ve seen in the world, with all the unsteadiness we’ve felt, don’t you take solace in the fact that Jesus walked through Hell, that nothing that happens to us is worse than what happened to God, that through his descent, Jesus went to the one place we all assume God doesn’t go, so that when the writer of the Psalm says that even when I make my bed in Hell, O God, you are there, what he means is that God is with us even when we’re walking through hell, too? I don’t know about you, but I have spent more hours, more time, walking through hell than I would like to admit. It is not easy, and yet, we are promised, that when we walk through Hell, God is with us.
And I find myself moved, moved, by this connection between experiencing death and walking through Hell, because as those of us who have experienced great loss know, you can’t take the journey through grief without walking straight through hell. You can’t go around it. You can’t go over it. You’ve got to go through it.
I think about this passage in the apostle’s creed whenever I am with someone who is preparing for death, or whenever I am with a family who has experienced a loss. We have a tendency, when we’re talking about death in the church, to skip right over it, to say, sure, death, oh, but Heaven! How wonderful! And it is, it will be! But death, well, we don’t like to talk about death. We skip straight past it. We don’t do such a great job talking about what it means to have a good death.
And this isn’t a new dilemma. Death is not an easy thing to think about, let alone to talk about. In fact, the reason that the business about Jesus dying is included in the creed at all is that in the days and years after his death, there was great controversy about this point, about the idea that Jesus died, because people just couldn’t bear the thought that their precious savior died, that the little Lord Jesus, the savior of the world, would die, let alone be killed as an enemy of the state. So there was this idea, this heresy, called Docetism, that started to become popular in the centuries after Jesus, and the idea was this: If Jesus really was divine, if he really was God, then he couldn’t have been human. And in some ways, intellectually, it does makes sense, because when you start to think about what we actually believe, which is that Jesus was fully human and divine, and you do the math there, you end up with one plus one equals one, and this is what we believe, but you can understand how the Docetists struggled with this.
And so, they said, if Jesus was divine, he couldn’t have been human, and if he wasn’t human, then he couldn’t have had a human body, and if he couldn’t have had a human body, then he couldn’t have suffered, and if he couldn’t have suffered, then he couldn’t have died.
This wasn’t the majority view in those first Centuries after Christ, not by any means, but the further you get from an event, the more people take liberties with it. I wonder sometimes how the Virgin Mary herself would have described the birth of Jesus, in light of the songs we sing about that night, silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright, little Lord Jesus no crying he makes. It’s silly. I wonder what she would think about all that, and I don’t want to be too sacrilegious here, but part of me thinks that rather than this sweet, sacred scene, the birth of Jesus was more about Mary laying in a pile of hay, screaming at Joseph to find the nurse and get her an epidural!
The further you get, the more liberties people take, and this is what happened with the Docetists. In fact, it is why the Creed came together in the first place, to preserve, not to lock out, but to preserve, to say, here is what we know about who God is and how God works and so let us crystalize that understanding into a Creed, to remind us, to remind the coming centuries of the being and work of God in the world. And one of the big reasons they felt it necessary to do so was that people started to say, oh, God couldn’t have died. There’s no way God could have died.
You get why it’s hard to talk about, particularly when you’re talking about God, but when you’re talking about anybody really. Nobody wants to talk about death, let alone face it. You’d think that in the Christian church, we’d do this better than most, but that’s not true. I was reading something just the other day that mycolleague, Mark LaRocca-Pitts, wrote about dying as a Christian. Mark’s a hospice chaplain, to which I say more power to you, because that’s just not an environment I could thrive in. It’s not that I am scared of death. It’s just that it’s not something I like to think about all the time: you know, dying.
And Mark says that the thing about Christians is that you’d think we’d all face death with the same steely resolve, that we’d be good at dying, but you’d be wrong. In fact, in his experience, as someone who has seen many, many people die, you really can’t tell what a person’s religion is as he or she experiences death, not in the moment of death, not in the time before it. We believe in Heaven, as Christians, and so you’d think we’d all be ready to go when the time comes. And, he says, that’s not the case.
The problem, he says, is that the Christian church doesn’t do a good enough job talking about death. We talk about Heaven plenty, but we don’t do a good job talking about death, what happens at death, why it is part of life, and then finding ways to live that understanding out.
Here’s what that means. As Christians, of course, we are called to sacrifice for the sake of others, to lay down our lives for others. That doesn’t mean you belong on a cross. It means that you serve others, put the needs of others above yourself, work for the betterment of the world even when that work involves your own walk through Hell. This is what it means to be a Christian. Self-sacrifice, laying your life down for others can come in many forms, but each time we do one of these things, each time we lay our lives down for someone else, in a very real way, we are practicing for death.
Heaven is for real, and it is important, but if we really want to make peace with death, we’ve got to follow the example of Jesus, for as Mark says, “a faith that believes in a good afterlife can certainly help someone die well, but it must be a faith based on a life lived for the sake of others, of a life that has died to itself repeatedly and then seen new life spring from that sacrifice repeatedly. Having seen this in life, one can have faith they will see it again in death.”
In other words, believing in Heaven is important. But believing it in your head isn’t enough. You’ve got to believe it in your heart, and you’ve got to believe it with the actions of your life.
Friends, this is powerful stuff. It means that death isn’t to be feared, not when we’ve spent our whole loves preparing for it, spent our lives following the example of Jesus who laid down his own life that we may have it, and more abundantly.
And so it seems to me that by being scared of death, by not being willing to talk about it at all, we are doing the very opposite of the thing we purport to do by talking so much about Heaven. But that kind of focus often leads to refusing to talk about death at all, and when we do talk about it, talking as if it is something bad, something not of God, and that’s just not true.
In fact, death is of God because God has done it; God has died! And through death, God has redeemed death, made it just as much a part of life as breathing and being born. God has made it holy.
In fact, we learn in scripture and through the words of the Apostle’s Creed, that Christ walked through Hell—walked through hell—after death, so that there’s absolutely nowhere you can go that God is not, walked through hell so that this great idea we have of separation from God doesn’t make sense anymore, because God has bridged that gap, God has busted straight through the gates of hell, and so you should know this: when you are walking through hell, and you will, if you aren’t already in the middle of that journey today—when you are walking through hell, Jesus is walking with you. When it seems as if you are in the very worst moment of your life, God is with you.

I’m not talking about a cute poem about footprints on the sand, and it was then that I carried you. I’m talking Winston Churchill, who said, “when you are walking through hell, keep walking,” only, in this case, you don’t have to do it alone, for God is with you. When you are on that road, you are never alone. There are always two sets of feet—no, many, many sets of feet—because the path you are walking is one that Christ has led many people through, and if it feels like it’s a path that doesn’t end, let me encourage you to come back next week, because while it is true that we worship a savior who was conceived by the holy spirit, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried and, my God, who descended into Hell, just wait til you find out what happened on the third day. It will blow your mind. Amen.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

July 5 Sermon: Was Crucified, Dead, and Buried

Romans 8: 10 – 17

But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you. So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh— for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.
“The Strange Gift of Suffering”
We are going through the Apostle’s Creed this summer, piece by piece, and spending a Sunday on every single phrase in the Creed, as we explore together what it is we believe, what we hold in common, what we hold dear. And it’s one of the most curious things about the Creed that when it talks about Jesus, this in-breaking of God into the world, this fully human, fully divine savior, the one whose birth we celebrate at Christmas and whose resurrection we celebrate at Easter . . . when we look at his life, as it is expressed in the creed, we go from “he was conceived by the holy spirit and born of the Virgin Mary” . . . to “he suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified dead and buried.” The New Testament scholar in me sort of says, “wait, whaaaat?”
It’s like you don’t even need the rest of the Gospels, which are pages and pages of things Jesus taught and did between those two phrases, you know, the first moments of his life and the last two weeks of it! And none of it is reflected in the creed, this historic affirmation of faith, this most historic affirmation of faith.
It makes you wonder why Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John bothered at all to tell the story of Jesus, if, in its collective wisdom, the church has decided we can go straight form the birth to the days just before the death.
It is as if those early church fathers who crafted the creed quickly forgot that Jesus says things that are very radical, like “sell everything you own and give the money to the poor, and feed the hungry and clothe the naked and give drink to the thirsty and shelter to the homeless,” and you start to understand that it’s a lot easier to focus on the cross, on Jesus’s death, than it is to take seriously, to wrestle with the radical events and teachings that come out of his life. Yet in some ways, the Creed would seem to do that. It would seem to cut out, to take an exact-o knife and cut out everything but the first and last page of each of the four Gospels, and you’d go from being born to suffering, just like that.
But then, in many ways, life is like that. I remember listening to Emmaline howl in the moments after she was born. We go from birth to suffering very quickly in this life! And when I run up against suffering in my own life, or in the life of others, I start to become awfully glad it is present there in the creed! Friends, I will tell you, as I go about the work of Christ, as I seek to be a participant in that work, there are few things I encounter more than suffering. Oh, how we need a word on suffering. Oh, how we, God’s people on earth, need some words, some trustworthy guidance on the concept of suffering.
It may not be the most pleasant thing to talk about, but then, pleasant things are easy to talk about. Happiness, eh, I never met anybody who struggled with the fact that they had too much happiness. Or contentedness. Nobody’s ever come into my office and plopped down on a chair and said, pastor, I am just simply too content. Please help me.
But suffering . . . suffering is something else altogether. In fact, I would venture to say, that in ministry, in my role as a pastor, there is nothing in which I engage in more, than dealing with suffering. For it is the time in people’s lives in which they most need a word, most need guidance, most need God.
I hope you don’t hear me complaining about this. I really don’t mean to. I find it to be one of the most meaningful parts of my life, one of the highest privilege I know if, that I am invited into people’s lives, in these holy, difficult moments, in which what they are experiencing doesn’t match that which they hope for in their own lives. We call that suffering. And it can wreck you. It can make you feel like somebody has grabbed you by your feet and started shaking you until everything falls out of your pockets and, ultimately, out of your heart.
This is what suffering does. It blinds us to everything else. It brings us to our knees. It makes us ask difficult questions about God, about who God is and how God works and how we are called to respond to the suffering in our lives and, in particular, the suffering in the lives of others.  And for as much as we try to avoid suffering, it can be a teacher. It can be quite a teacher.
You may know this if you are a student of comparative religion, but suffering is not one of those concepts that Christians have such a great track record with. We do a terrible job talking about suffering, especially compared to our sisters and brothers of other faith traditions. We want a reason for everything, and we have this tendency to say that because God is in control, all things that happen, even suffering, are God’s will. And it’s just not true. Some of our most meaningful revelations about suffering have actually come from other religions. Jewish theologians, in the days and years after the Holocaust, said, wait a minute, no, what has happened to us is beyond any meaningful rationalization. This is not God testing us. It is simply life. How profound. And so the proper response is not to get stuck on why, or in trying to avoid suffering altogether, but to work for a world in which love will win, in which good will win, and this seems to me to be an entirely reasonable response to suffering.
Or you look at those in the Buddhist faith, who view life as suffering, and have built their entire system of belief around the concept of suffering, around making peace with it, moving past it by working for greater understanding in their lives and the world. You don’t have to buy the whole cow to realize that there’s truth in that.
It seems that other religions deal with this better than we do, and yet I don’t understand why that is, because all you have to do is look to the life of Jesus to understand suffering. Here’s a guy who lived in occupied Palestine, who was greeted as a political messiah by a people hopeful he’d bring a sword and deliver them from their oppressors, in a day in which healing was rare if it happened at all, and of all the things we affirm together as people of faith, we remember that he suffered under Pontius Pilate, the provincial governor who ruled that part of the world with an iron fist and with, what, today, you’d call an itchy trigger finger.
Incidentally, Pontius Pilate is one of the ways we can identify the story of Jesus historically, as we know from accounts other than scripture that Pilate was a real person, and while he ended up with a reputation for having an unwillingness to treat people with different religious beliefs well, he never went after Jesus as such. He tried every way he knew to spare him, saying, “I find no fault in him,” but knowing that in order to keep his political power, he had to give into the crowds that were shouting “Crucify him, Crucify him!” And for this, the Creeds enshrine him as Public Enemy # 1, the only human mentioned in the Creed besides the Virgin Mary, full of Grace, and certainly not nearly in such glowing terms.
But getting caught up on Pilate isn’t the point, because the point of the creed isn’t humans. It’s God. And so we learn, in very specific, historical terms, that Jesus suffered, that God incarnate suffered and knows what it is like to suffer. And so when we suffer, when we experience suffering that blinds us to everything else, it is not that we are somehow far from God but in many ways, we are actually closer to God, we are right with God, for God knows what it is like to suffer.
Now, I want to pause and make sure we aren’t getting into dangerous territory, because it isn’t a far jump in some ways to get from where we are, which is that God understands suffering and suffers with us, to the idea, completely untrue, that God causes suffering. You see that a lot when somebody watches their enemies suffer, as in, you know, God must have wanted this to happen. But when we suffer, you know, not me! There’s no way God wanted this for me! So we need to be careful how we talk about suffering, because God doesn’t cause it. God didn’t cause the Holocaust. God doesn’t make people die, doesn’t make people suffer. That’s a lie. Don’t believe it. Just because God suffers along with you doesn’t mean that God causes you to suffer.
And it is likewise not true that when you are suffering, that God desires that you keep suffering, for this, too, is bad theology and it has led to all sorts of awful things: oppression, staying in an abusive relationship, that sort of thing. Just because God suffers along with you doesn’t mean that God wants you to suffer.
Even with that said, we still have this weird thing about suffering, like it’s the worst thing there is, like it is to be avoided at all costs, as if suffering was evidence that God has turned against you, and it sounds crazy to say, but we believe it! There is this idea—and I will tell you, in my experience this is a uniquely American idea—that anything that involves suffering is bad, as if suffering itself is the opposite of God, and that’s just not true, for we affirm every week, in churches all over the world, that even Christ suffered under Pontius Pilate.
I am reminded of the Roman Catholic writer Thomas Merton, one of my favorites, who was a student of Buddhism before his conversion to Catholicism, and ultimately, his entry into a monastery. Through the events of his life, he was one who understood suffering more than most. And he said this: “The more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer, because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you, in proportion to your fear of being hurt. The one who does most to avoid suffering is, in the end, the one who suffers most.”
These are difficult words. And yet they ring true for me. I don’t like to suffer. I mean, does anybody? I try to avoid suffering whenever I can, thank you very much. It’s why I have to psych myself up before going on a mission trip, if I am honest. I mean, those experiences are rich and exciting, but I know when I am headed to Haiti, or rural Appalachia, or what have you, that I’m going to encounter suffering, might even have a little bit of suffering rub off on me, and I’d just rather live my life blissfully unaware that that sort of thing exists in this day and age, in this modern world in which I have a refrigerator and a thermostat and a Sleep-number bed! And yet if I didn’t go, I would miss out on the strange gift of suffering, for it is quite a teacher.
I have the same feeling of needing to psych myself up before going to a funeral. In a way, going to funerals is one of the most counter-cultural things we do, for when we go, we are willingly walking into a place of suffering, and in the church there’s joy, too, but as I have discovered, even when the person’s lived to be 98, nearly two lifetimes worth of life, there’s still suffering. And so when I have the occasion to go to a funeral that I’m not officiating, I often have to think long and hard before I decide to go. It’s not easy, making the decision to walk into that kind of situation.
In fact, I want you to know I have had the hardest time finishing writing this sermon. Maybe that’s why it is a little longer, because I have been stalling, because as I put it together it became clear to me that the sermon was moving toward an inevitable conclusion involving a story I’d rather not remember, that being the funeral of my friend Christopher, who died on January 2 of this year at the age of 40.
I think about Christopher whenever I think about suffering, because for the last few years of his life, he served as a therapist who counseled other pastors, so he heard stories of great suffering, great loss. But I also think about Christopher when I think about suffering because Christopher was one who suffered himself, who suffered from depression, who suffered through bipolar disorder, and whose suffering ultimately led him to take his own life.
Christopher was a pastor, and we served on staff together at one time, became the kind of friends who drove one another crazy and then could sit for an hour discussing some silliness just so that we had an excuse to spend the time. And when he died, I felt a lot of things, as tends to happen in these circumstances, but I did not feel surprised. Suffering, particularly suffering in the form of depression and mental illness, is an insidious thing. It is not to be avoided at all costs, but neither is it to be taken lightly.
And when they announced the day for the funeral, I wasn’t sure I could go. I didn’t have anything on my calendar; I just didn’t think I could. I didn’t think I was strong enough. And we went, of course, but I dreaded it all week, just felt total dread.
I wish I could tell you that the service was happy and everything was great and I felt redeemed by the whole deal. It was many things, but it was not happy. Christopher left behind 2 kids and a wife and many, many devastated friends.
And yet the reason I feel compelled to share this story is not to draw out sympathy, but to note one dynamic of suffering I think is particularly apropos to this morning’s scripture lesson. The apostle Paul writes that we suffer with Christ so that we may be glorified in Christ. Let me tell you what I think this means.
One of the traditions at funerals for United Methodist clergy is that when a pastor dies, oftentimes fellow clergy will wear robes for the service, will put on robes and white stoles as symbols of the Resurrection, and for this funeral, because Christopher loved exquisite vestments, loved the symbology of the church, his fellow clergy were invited to wear their finest vestments, of all colors and fabrics. I wore a red stole, a symbol of the Holy Spirit. It was, in fact, the very stole that Christopher had been given at his ordination. When I was appointed to this church, he gave it to me.
I don’t remember much of what was said at his funeral. Oh, I remember some things: his daughters, the story of the prodigal son my friend Dana read and preached from. What I do remember was the sea of clergy, dressed to the nines, so many that the church had to block off its fellowship hall just so we could all have room to get dressed. We milled about before the service, not knowing what to say, having no words to make sense of such a tragedy other than to call out the name of God.
I don’t remember much of what was said. What I do remember is that sense of solidarity, that sense that though we suffered together – no – because we suffered together, we were being saved together, we were bearing witness to the great power of love, the kind of love that grabs hold of your heart and refuses to let go.
You might say that of all things, that day, it was suffering that led to our salvation,
For when we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

In the name of the one who suffered under Pontius Pilate, Amen, and Amen.

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