He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.”
When the disciples badger Jesus for a way to pray he responds, “When you pray, pray like this: Lord, you are great. Do what you need to do. Give us some bread. Forgive us, because we are trying to forgive everyone indebted to us. And keep us away from evil.”
The Lord’s Prayer according to Luke is decisively different than the one recorded in the Gospel according to Matthew. It’s shorter, it dispenses with some of the elevated liturgical language, and it cuts right to the heart of the matter.
And, even though Christians say the Lord’s prayer over and over again, we can’t help but scratch our heads with regard to how strange of a prayer it really is. Particularly when we consider how Jesus told the disciples this prayer after they requested something akin to what John gave to his disciples.
John, unlike Jesus, was living by a different paradigm, one in which people could enter what we might call “The Program of Salvation.” There are different stages and expectations of what it means to get from where you are to where you can be. You confess and repent of all your sins, you start engaging in works of piety and social justice, and then you earn your heavenly reward.
In John’s “Program of Salvation,” redemption is all about having the right ethical, religious, moral, and political beliefs in order to make something new happen in the world.
Jesus, on the other hand, sees all things differently. He, himself, is the new thing that happens to, and for, everyone. There’s no “program” to get God to do anything.
Jesus doesn’t come to show the disciples, and us, how to get our lives in order in order to get good with God. Instead, Jesus is God who comes to us.
This, admittedly, can be frustrating for the many of us who would prefer it if Jesus were clearer about what we should and shouldn’t do. And yet, the proclamation of the Good News is, indeed, good news: Jesus saves us because we are in need of saving.
The challenges comes in admitting that we are not like what we ought to be.
The disciples, people like us, we want a program. We want salvation to be laid out nice and clear with regard to what we need to do, and say, and believe. We enjoy trite and memorable zingers of goodness like, be prepared or do a good turn daily. We love the idea of being reasonably good people getting better all the time.
But then Jesus responds to the disciples’ request for a prayer with one that runs against our notions of what it means to be faithful. Because, according to Jesus, to be faithful doesn’t require us to do much of anything. In fact, the only thing we can do, according to the prayer, is forgive.
The Lord’s prayer (Matthew’s and Luke’s) rejects all of our contemporary understandings of what it means to pray. It does not contain giant and lofty ideals that blanket our Sunday morning liturgies. It does not hint at ethical perfection, or dance around moral equivocation. It is just the bare necessities of keeping us together and fed so that we can finally start celebrating the wonderful and wild news that Jesus is for us, no matter what.
And the crowds came together again, so that they could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” And the scribes you came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered. Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” — for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.” Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
This is a difficult passage.
We’re still relatively early in the gospel story: Jesus is baptized by his cousin John in the Jordan. Jesus is tempted in the wilderness for forty days and forty nights. Jesus sets out in the place of Galilee proclaiming the Good News of God, calls disciples, cures the sick, makes some pronouncements about the Law, and word starts spreading. Fast.
So much so that the crowds kept coming together to see, and hear, and experience more of this Jesus to the degree that people couldn’t even eat because there wasn’t enough room. And when Jesus’ family found out, they were less than enthusiastic.
Scripture puts it this way, “They went out to restrain him because they thought he had gone out of his mind.”
Immediately, the scribes come busting in from Jerusalem taking Jesus to task for all of his actions and words and Jesus responds to all their accusations with parables.
“You think I’m wild? You think I have Beelzebul? How can I cast out demons if I am a demon? Kingdoms divided cannot stand, nor can divided houses. You can go on and on all you want but let me tell you, sins are being forgiven, and the only thing you have to do is accept it. If you don’t want any part of forgiveness, no worries, you can blaspheme the Spirit all you want.”
Then Jesus’ mother and brothers came in order to get him in order when Jesus delivers the sting: “Who are my mother and my brothers? Whoever does the will of God is my brother and my sister and my mother.”
I know I’ve preached on this text at least four times and I’ve never really been satisfied with whatever I attempted to say. This is all just so foreign to our ears. Beelzebul? Satan? Demons? We’re respectable Methodists! We don’t talk about such strange things here!
And that’s not even getting into the tricky and rather confounding nature of Jesus’ rejection of the family unit, upon which everything seems to be founded in our society.
This little brief anecdote toward the beginning of the Gospel, the early stages of Jesus’ ministry, is filled to the brim with both conflict and confusion. It forces us, whether we like it or not, to confront the difficulties involved with following Jesus.
And yet, it is still hilariously Good News.
Clashing with religious authorities seems to be Jesus’ cup of tea. Whether it’s eating with the wrong people, or working on the wrong day, or simply saying the wrong things to the wrong people on the wrong day, controversy abounds.
Basically, the people with power didn’t like him.
Whenever they heard Jesus preach about the Kingdom of God, whenever he went about from town to town, the authorities didn’t say, “Oh, he’s so sophisticated. Have you ever heard such an articulate son of a carpenter in all your life?”
No. They said he was out of his mind.
But Jesus wasn’t out of his mind. He wasn’t a stark raving lune. It’s just that the stuff he said sounds incompatible with reality whenever he is heard from the stand point of what the world teaches us to regard as good, right, and proper.
Everywhere he went, Jesus proclaimed and enacted and embodied a very different sort of reality than the one we’ve convinced ourselves we have. Jesus points to a different world that runs completely counter to all of our expectations for life.
That reality is called The Kingdom of God, in which the first are last and the last are first – the weak are strong and the strong are weak – the lowly are lifted up and the mighty are brought down.
Jesus is all about reversal. The psalms talk about it as the hills being made low and the valleys being raised up. And it’s for talk of such things that everyone thought Jesus was out of his mind, his family included.
And perhaps they had a point.
Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd and I am willing to die for my sheep.”
That’s not a plan for a strong business model, but instead its a recipe for disaster.
Jesus says, “I am the fatted calf slaughtered for the celebration of the prodigal’s forgiveness.”
That doesn’t sound like a program for do-goodery, but instead its an undeserved celebration.
Jesus says, “I am the bread of life, and whosoever eats of me will never be hungry.”
Um, Jesus, cannibalism is inadvisable and even if it’s spiritual, you can’t just give yourself away for free…
Consider this Jesus – No seminary education. He never published a book. He lived with his parents until he was thirty years old. He never held a steady job, never owned a home, never saved away for retirement. He was known for going to a lot of parties with twelve unattached men and was regularly accused of disturbing the peace.
No wonder everyone thought he was out of his mind.
And it doesn’t stop there!
Listen to the Lord: You can only grow up by turning and becoming like a child.
You can only win by losing.
You can only receive by giving.
You can only live by dying.
Um… Thanks Jesus, but have you got anything else to offer us?
Blessed are you who are poor. Happy are you who are hungry. Congratulations are in order for those at the very bottom of life.
And this is the Lord to whom we pledge our allegiance!
Do you remember what St. Paul wrote to the church in Philippi? Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.
Paul doesn’t write to the early church about the need to have the best mind, or going off to study all the important subject under the sun. No, he said, “Think like Jesus!”
And what happened to Jesus for thinking like Jesus?
His family tried to restrain him and the religious elites called him into question. Eventually, his disciples abandoned him. And, in the end, we killed him for it.
The crowds were fine with most of what Jesus said and did. Who wouldn’t want to see the hungry filled with good food, or the naked clothed with the finest wares? Who wouldn’t want to see the sick healed and the outcast welcomed back?
But when Jesus started to push into the territory we call the Kingdom of God, people got all sorts of upset.
It’s one thing to talk about raising the lowly, but it’s another thing entirely to talk about bringing down the mighty. It’s one thing to talk about the inauguration of a new reality, but it’s another thing entirely when you start publicly entrusting that kingdom to a bunch of would-be fishermen and tax collectors. It’s one thing to talk about the virtues of forgiveness, it’s another thing entirely when you’re actually asked to forgive the very people who have wronged you.
But “out of mindedness” is rather contagious. At least, it has been in the realm of the church. Get one taste of that body and blood, receive a foretaste of the grace that knows no end, and you can’t really ever go back.
If you think about it, one of the great joys of the Christian faith is that it’s actually quite fun to have our minds messed up by Jesus. We have the great fortune of being freed from the expectations of reality in order to live into a kingdom in which we are no longer defined by what we failed to do and instead are defined by what has been done for us.
The church really is a new understanding of the way things can be.
It might not be easy for us to receive, but the proclamation that those who do the will of God are the family of Jesus is great Good News. It means that water is thicker than blood. That is – we have a solidarity with people beyond our biological connections. Baptism incorporates us into something we would never otherwise have.
It implies a desire to weep with those who weep and to rejoice with those who rejoice. It means that no matter what you’ve done or left undone, the church is a community of people who will always be there for you.
Could there be any better news than that?
But wait, there’s more!
Because the real hilarity behind the Good News in our text is this: we often say that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. And for us humans, that’s probably true. How many of us have endeavored to initiate a diet only to sneak that extra piece of cake when no one was looking? How many of us have set out to live by a strict budget only to go further into debt? How many of us have made internal promises to make the world a better place only to wake up to a world that is seemingly worse than it was the day before?
Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting something to change might be definitionally living outside of our minds.
But what about for God?
God, unlike us, delights in impossible possibilities. The insanity of the Gospel is that, over time, God actually changes us. We are not what we once were because God will not let us stay that way. God, through bread and wine, through water and Spirit, is making all things new.
The liturgy, the practice of week in and week out, using the same words and saying the same prayers, isn’t an act of craziness. It is, instead, a fundamental belief in possibility. It is the habituation and embodiment of things not yet seen. It is, literally, Good News.
Jesus responds to the accusations and the attacks from the crowds, from the religious elites, and even his family by saying that whoever does the will of God is his family. The will of God, the claim that incorporates and institutes the church, is a reign of forgiveness.
And forgiveness might be the craziest thing of all.
Everything about the way we live is a denial of the power of forgiveness. We’ve got our minds stuck in the rut of an eye for an eye. But the only thing that an eye for an eye accomplishes is an entire society of people who cannot see. We’ve got our minds stuck in the rut of believing that we should, and must, view one another through our mistakes, our failures, and our shortcomings. But doing so only leads to walls of division rather than avenues of connection. We’ve got our minds stuck in the rut of assuming that things will largely stay the same. But living as such is what makes things stay the same!
Forgiveness is an entirely different reality constituted by the behavior of the Lord. For, though we deserve it not one bit, God delights in forgiving us. God took each and every one of our sins past, present, and future, nailed them to the cross, and left them there forever.
Living in the light of forgiveness, that is: doing the will of God, is the recognition that our identities are not based on the ways in which we fail.
That’s the joy of Christianity – it is an ever present and unconditional starting afresh and anew in the light of God’s grace rather than the shadow of our mistakes.
So hear the Good News: Christ died for us while we were yet sinners and that proves God’s love toward us. In the name of Jesus Christ you are forgiven! Let us rejoice in the knowledge that Christ has messed up our minds! Amen.
I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified in this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.
I was a kid, not even in middle school, when my family went on a trip to France. We didn’t roam around Paris or wander around Versailles, we didn’t hit up the Louvre or climb to the top of the Eiffel Tower. Instead, we spent the week exploring wine country in Provence and Burgundy.
It was beautiful, the food was incredible, and I remember not really understanding anything that anyone said.
On the penultimate evening of our trip, we traveled to a Chateau situated next to rolling fields filled with grape vines. The vineyard was owned and operated by family friends who insisted that we join them for a meal. My sisters and I were on our best behavior as we received a tour of the massive estate and then I was whisked away to the gigantic wine cave in the basement.
My father was unable to join us on the trip and, as the oldest male guest, it was (apparently) my responsibility to pick out the wine to be consumed with dinner.
Reminder: I was at the tail end of elementary school.
So I wandered the dimly lit halls filled from floor to ceiling with unlabeled bottles of wine, wine that was was grown, fermented, and produced mere feet away from where I was walking.
The further I walked into the crypt the dustier the bottles became and, somehow, I knew those were the bottles that were the most valuable so I tried to find a few near the middle, and without having any other criteria I selected the wine for the evening.
Minutes later, we were seated around a massive dining table and our host, Bruno, pulled the first bottle I selected, swiftly detached the cork, poured a finger’s width in a glass, and presented it to me to taste.
Not only was I required to select our wine, but I had to taste it to make sure I approved of it before it could be served to the rest of the gathered table.
I lifted the glass and spun around the garnet colored liquid as I had seen my parents do before, I brought it to my nose and sniffed, and finally I opened my mouth and took a sip.
I didn’t like it, but I knew well enough to not make a face or say that I didn’t like it. So I forced myself to smile hoping the exercise would finally come to an end when Bruno insisted I then tell him what I tasted.
“It takes like… the earth,” I said.
I quickly glanced over to my mother for a reaction.
She was crestfallen. Here we were, guests in a Chateau, drinking the wine from the nearby fields, and I told Bruno it tasted like dirt.
But before I had a chance to say anything else, a giant smile stretched across Bruno’s face and he declared to all within earshot, “Merci beaucoup! Tres magnifique!”
I had, unwittingly, payed the man a compliment.
“Abide in me as I abide in you,” Jesus says to his disciples on their final evening together before the crucifixion and eventually resurrection. They’ve already feasted on the bread and shared the cup, they’ve already had their feet washed by their Lord, and now it’s time for a brief discourse on what happens next, when all is said and done.
The language of abiding has been common since the very beginning of the church because it is, in a sense, a direct command from the Lord. And throughout the centuries we’ve come up with all sorts of ways to “abide.” Prayer practices, Bible Studies, small groups, Sunday worship, constant communion – they’re all attempts at abiding with the Lord who abides with us.
And why do we abide? We abide because Jesus is the vine and we are his branches. If we want to bear fruit in this world and in this life, then it will only be possible as a result of abiding in the One who abides in us.
Except, how can Jesus really ask the disciples (us included) to abide in him? I mean, consider when he told the disciples about being the true vine… It’s right after this little lecture that Judas will betray the Lord to death, Peter, disciple supreme, will quite literally not abide by denying his Lord when things fall apart, and the rest of the disciples will leave Jesus to die alone.
And yet, it’s these disciples who receive the call to abide.
Perhaps, then, Jesus is able to command this of the disciples, and all of us, because of his promise to abide in us, to never let us go, even though we don’t deserve it one bit.
Consider – The way the gospel story plays out runs against the grain of how we think things are supposed to go. Our life with God does not end at the cross on a certain Friday as we might expect.
In the time called life after Easter it all comes full circle – it ain’t over between us. The Last Supper wasn’t really the last at all – in fact, it was the first! The risen Christ, with holes in his hand and a wound in his side, shows up, again and again, transforming our painful and broken lives by abiding with us.
In steadfast and faithful love, God refuses to leave us or abandon us.
God abides, in us.
And then Jesus says, “Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”
Fruit-bearing, then, seems to be the main point of this adventure we call church. So we establish programs and we make calls for action and we do whatever we think we can to make the world a better place.
But, that’s not the same thing as bearing fruit.
The purpose of church, though rarely discussed, is to meet and be met by God. It is, to use the words of John today, a revealing of how God already abides in us.
Being disciples, then, is not all about the work we have to do or responding to a list of requirements – being a disciple is about resting in Jesus. If anything comes from that, and it will, that’s Good News. But the only thing we are asked to do, is abide.
The goal of the Christian life, of following Jesus who is the way and the truth and the life, who is the vine, is not amassing a set of deeds (good or bad) but simply experiencing our life as the Word made flesh so wonderfully bestows upon us. It is sitting back at the table to which we deserve no invitation, tasting the wine that is the blood of the Lamb, and knowing that it sets us free for true liberty.
Jesus did not come to dwell among us in order to display his own virtuosity.
Sure, he tells us to be perfect as his Father is perfect, but then a few chapters later he goes on and on about how the only One we can ever call good is God alone.
Sure, he gives us some lists of dos and donts but then when the disciples do the things they shouldn’t or they avoid doings the things they should do, how does Jesus respond? Does he kick them out of the kingdom? Does he banish them to an eternity of torment?
No. Jesus abides in them.
Jesus comes to dwell among us in order to bring us home to his Father’s house and to sit us down as guests at the Supper of the Lamb. Jesus desires our contentedness, not our suffering. Jesus offers us the good wine, not sour vinegar.
And salvation, the thing Jesus comes to bring to fruition, it is not just a destination – it is our vocation. That is: salvation is not just something confined to what happens after we die; salvation is our calling here and now.
Life after Easter means today.
And yet, we can’t ignore Jesus’ language with the rest of his vine imagery. It’s all good and fine to talk about Jesus abiding in us, and bearing fruit in response, but Jesus goes on to say, “Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.”
We might imagine the big take away is for us to consider what, or worse: who, needs to be cut off from our lives and then go out with some pruning shears and get to work. Perhaps there’s that one relationship that keeps bringing you down, or you have a bad habit you haven’t been able to kick, or you made a mistake and the guilt just won’t go away.
And then the church says, “Go and get to work! The time has come to cut away all that stands between you and perfection!”
But, that’s not what Jesus says.
You see, according to the teller of the tale, God is the one who does the pruning. God is the di-vinegrower (get it?).
It’s less about us finding what’s wrong within us, or among us, and then going out to get it all fixed and more about relinquishing what we needn’t hold on to, and let God do the work God is here to do.
It’s not about doing all that we can to become the very best versions of ourselves, but instead to consider how God is already working on us because God abides in us.
And maybe, just maybe, one of the things that God is working on, one of the things God is actively pruning, is our foolish belief that we must be able to make it on our own and that we can only trust in our strength alone.
We live in a society that is deeply drunk on the notion of independence and making something of ourselves no matter the cost. And yet, in another place, Jesus rather pointedly asks, “What does it profit someone to gain the whole world and lose their life?”
Part of the Christian witness, something we avoid mentioning to our detriment, is that we cannot make it through this life on our own; we are desperately in need of help from one another and from the Lord.
That’s why, no matter how good of a job we do mucking it all up, God continues to bear fruit through people like us who can bear no fruit on our own.
God, to put it pointedly, works in mysterious ways and, in the end, the wine is offered at the table for a world undeserving.
Hear the Good News: God in Christ arrives in a world, in a vineyard, that cannot bear any fruit on it’s own. It has given itself over to disease, and abuse, and pestilence, and all sorts of other failures. But the di-vinegrower tills the ground, enriches the soil, and plants the seeds that are the Word to bear fruit.
Jesus, God in the flesh, enters into the muck and mire of this life, of this worthless vineyard, and becomes sin for us. We nail him to a tree and kill him. But then God gives him back to us.
The empty tomb is the fruit of resurrection offered freely to people like you and me for no other reason than the fact that God wants a full table at the Supper of the Lamb.
When Jesus comes, with holes in his hands and a wound in his side, he doesn’t come to see if we’re sorry. He knows our repentance isn’t worth all the effort we put into it because we continue to go on sinning no matter how many times we repent. Jesus doesn’t come to count all of our good deeds. He knows our sins will always outweigh our virtues.
And yet Jesus comes back to us, Jesus abides in us, Jesus forgives us, and Jesus offers the fruit of salvation to us.
We do nothing and we deserve nothing.
And yet the invitation still stands. We get to taste the earthy fruit of the vine and know that it is for us. What wondrous Good News. Amen.
While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it in their presence. Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you — that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.”
The women go to the cemetery in the darkness. Lo and behold – Jesus’ tomb is empty! The women have a chance encounter with a man in white and they leave afraid. So afraid, in fact, that they say nothing to anyone.
But then they do, otherwise we wouldn’t be doing what we’re doing right now. They go back to the other disciples with declarations of resurrection, “He is risen! The story isn’t over! This is just the beginning! Everything has been made new!”
And how do the disciples respond? “Ya’ll are crazy – That’s not possible.”
None of the disciples expected the resurrection, despite Jesus telling them it would happen on three separate occasions, despite all the parables that hinge on death being the prerequisite to new life, despite Jesus doing all sorts of things that ran counter to what the world believed possible.
And even when Jesus appears to them, making a way through locked doors, they couldn’t really believe it. All of the post-resurrection appearances, the moments we might call life after Easter, are mixed with fear, doubt, hope, and, of all things, food. And still, they don’t know what to believe.
It’s easy to pick on the disciples – It’s even fun to call out their faithlessness because it often makes us feel better about ourselves. But we can’t really blame the disciples for feeling and experiencing what they felt and experienced.
All of it is rather unbelievable.
Jesus forgives his crucifiers from the cross.
Jesus reaches out to sinners and outcasts for no reason other than the fact that they are sinners and outcasts.
Jesus speaks truth to power knowing full and well what the consequences will be.
Jesus invites gobs of people to join in a revolution of the heart where the needs of others are more important than anything else.
And we killed him for it.
But then he came back.
And not only did he come back, he came back to those who denied him, who betrayed him, and who abandoned him.
The disciples are talking about the craziness they’ve heard from the women who went to the tomb and all of the sudden Jesus himself stands among them. “Peace my friends!” They are terrified, they think it must be a ghost. Jesus says, “What’s wrong with all of you? Look at me. I am flesh and bone.” The disciples come out from hiding behind tables and chairs to take a closer inspection and then Jesus says, “While you’re at it, have you got anything to eat? I’m starving.” And one of the disciples hands Jesus a piece of broiled fish, and Jesus scarfs it down in one bite.
Years ago, a church received a rather large donation from an anonymous source and the community of faith began debating what to do with the money. There were suggestions of adding a new stained glass window behind the altar. Someone mentioned that the roof was looking worse for the wear and it might be time to go ahead and replace yet. The youth wanted new bean bags chairs.
They argued and argued until the oldest woman in the room, seen as a grandmother by just about everyone else – a pillar of the church, slowly rose to her feet and said, “Give me the money. I know what to do with it.”
The next day she took the money to the local homeless shelter and told them to spend the money on feeding the hungry.
The following Sunday she stood among her church family and announced what she had done with the money. At first there was disgruntled shuffling among the pews, a few murmured slights, when finally a man shouted at her: “How could you do that? We could’ve used that money! And you gave it away to other people! You don’t even know if they believe in Jesus!”
To which the woman calmly replied, “Maybe they don’t believe in Jesus, but I do. I do.”
Robert Farrar Capon said that, “Food is the daily sacrament of unnecessary goodness, ordained for a continual remembrance that the world will always be more delicious than it is useful.”
In the gospel stories Jesus is forever sharing meals with other people and, on a few notable occasions, he makes more wine and more food available for others just to keep the celebration going.
And it was Jesus’ table fellowship that most confounded his critics. Whether it was a lunch time sandwich over at Zacchaeus’ house or sharing food with crowds undeserving, Jesus’ willingness to eat and share food with others was a foretaste of both what we experience now and will enjoy at the Supper of the Lamb.
Perhaps that’s why we Methodists are so good at hosting meals – we always make more food than anyone can eat and we send people home with food to last for days!
Why do we share food? Why do we give ourselves over to music that moves us? Why do we spend our time painting, or reading, or daydreaming? We do those things because they’re fun. Pure and simple.
But it’s about more than that too. Half of all the most remarkable things we do in this life, the simple delights of rejoicing in the wonder of creation, they are hidden in the world that longs to come to fruition.
Let me put it this way: For all of the loveliness this world has to offer, it is all temporary and finite. The food is consumed. The bottle sits empty. The record spins at the end without a needle in the groove. On and on.
We, to use the language of scripture, are strangers in a strange land, we live in a time of impermanence. But God has given us good appetites not to consume what the world offers and then toss it away. God has given us appetites to taste goodness and hunger to make it better.
And that’s why we share recipes with friends and family, it’s why we give away books that we love, it’s why we talk forever and ever about movies and TV shows and YouTube videos – we delight in delighting others.
Whenever we love the things we’ve been given, whether it’s broiled fish or a hardback book or a vinyl album or a perfectly knit sweater or tomatoes from the garden, when we love those things for what they are, we catch glimpses and tastes and feelings of what is to come.
The breads and the pastries, the cheeses and the wines, and the singing and the dancing will go into the Supper of the Lamb because we do!
Jesus, just on the other side of resurrection appears to his friends and promptly ingests a fish stick. We could easily brush this aside as a random detail included by Luke, but it is not random – it is a signpost of the delight of resurrection! It is an ever ringing reminder of the goodness God has given to us right now, and will continue to give to us forever and ever.
But even if the reference to seafood on Easter isn’t enough – Jesus compares the Kingdom of Heaven to a whole lot of things, and most of those things have to do with food! Mustard seeds, and grain of wheat, fig trees, leavened bread! He hands over bread and wine on his final evening and says they are body and blood!
Resurrection, believe it or not, is forever inextricably tied up with our food and love of it. It is quite literally by the death of corn, cabbage, and collards that we have lived until today.
Think of bread! It is the great sacrament of life only possible by death.
Unless a seed dies, there is no wheat.
Without wheat being ground and pulverized there is no flour.
Unless carbohydrates are destroyed by yeast there is no rising.
Without the murder of yeast by fire and heat there is no bread.
And without the consumption of bread by the likes of you and me, there is no you and me.
Out of death, life! Resurrection!
The God we worship is the God of transportation and transformation – God is forever delivering people from one place to another, and working in the world to help guide us from who we are to who we can be.
The things of life can do that – there truly are meals, movies, and musicals that change us after consuming them. They can do so because we are in the time called Life After Easter.
Despite the protests of fearful and cynical individuals who decry that we are who we are, and that things are doomed to stay the same, and that it doesn’t do any good to do any good because nothing ever changes – that’s not the proclamation of the Gospel!
We are indeed a sinful people. We do terrible things and terrible things are done to us. Just this week saw yet another innocent black man die at the hands of the police and people all across the country have tribalized themselves, again, putting up walls of division rather than avenues of connection.
We are a people sick and tired – whether we’re sick and tired in our boring and monotonous lives, or we’re sick and tired of all the horrendous things that keep happening no matter how hard we declare that other people need to change.
But life after Easter makes all sorts of things possible that would otherwise be impossible.
We have been treed from the terrible tyranny of sin and death, they no longer have control over us and what we do, even though we keep insisting that they are the most important things in the world. It’s why we retreat to the comfort of our own domains while rejoicing in calls out the specks in other peoples’ eyes. It’s why we implore others to pull themselves up by their bootstraps even when they don’t have any boots to begin with. It’s why we keeping viewing people through the lens of sin rather than the lens of grace.
But here’s the Good News, the really good news of life after Easter – If God can raise a crucified Jesus from the grave, then never again can we be so sure of what is and isn’t possible.
Jesus was dead and forsaken in a tomb, but God refused to leave him there.
In the time called life after Easter, we don’t believe in dejection – we believe in resurrection.
In the time called life after Easter, we aren’t defined by what we’ve failed to do – we are defined by what Jesus has done.
In the time called life after Easter, we can’t stay shackled to the way things were or are- God has set us free for the way things can be. Amen.
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
He boarded the plain, a well dressed 6 foot 8, and hoped for an emergency exit row in which he could stretch out his already too long legs. He was a pastor and professor of theology, and was returning from a conference on the other side of the country and was looking forward to going home.
He loaded his carryon above his head, sighed at the normal sized seat, and reluctantly squeezed himself in. And, of course, on this small plane with only two seat on each side, a man equally as large lumbered down the aisle and sat down right next to him.
The two men fumbled over one another and conversation, as it always does on planes, began awkwardly.
The second man began, “So, what do you do for a living?”
“I’m a preacher.” And just as soon as the words were out of his mouth, his seat partner declared, a little too loudly, “I’m not a believer!”
“That’s fine,” he replied, “Frankly, it doesn’t make much of a difference – Jesus has already gone and done it all for you whether you like it or not.”
The preacher kept his mouth shut after that, and thought about catching some Zs as they made their way to cruising altitude, but the other man started talking. First it was just the usual flying next to a stranger chit chat, but then it turned serious, the man started talking about Vietnam.
He’d been an infantryman, fought in all the awful battles, and now tried to pretend like it never happened.
The man went on and on, talked the entire flight from coast to coast, describing all the terrible things he did for his country and how, when he came back, his country didn’t want him to talk about it. Eventually, he said, “I’ve had a terrible time living with it, living with myself.”
And then the preacher leaned over and said, “Have you confessed all the sins that have been troubling you?”
“What do you mean confessed?! I ain’t confessing!”
“Sure you are, it’s what you’ve been doing the whole flight. And I’ve been commanded by Jesus, that whenever I hear a confession like yours, to hand over the goods and speak a particular word. So, if you have any more burdening you, nows the time to hand them over.”
The man said, “I’m done. That’s the lot of em.”
And suddenly he grabbed the preacher, grabbed him hard like he was about to fall out of the plan and said, “But, I told you – I’m not a believer. I don’t have any faith in me.”
The preacher unbuckled his seat belt and stood up over the man in the sear and declared, “Well, that’s no matter. Jesus says it’s what inside of us that’s wrong with the world. Nobody really has faith inside them – faith alone saves us because it comes from outside of us, from one creature to another. And I’m going to speak faith into you.”
The fasten seat belt sign binged from above and the closest steward came over and ordered the preacher to sit down. But he ignored the command, and instead he placed his hands on the man next to him and said, “In the name of Jesus Christ, I declare the entire forgiveness of all your sins!”
“But, you can’t do that,” the man whispered.
“Oh yes I did, and I must, and I’ll keep doing it over and over again.”
And he did. Only this time he said it louder, loud enough for the whole plane to hear, and the man became a puddle of tears and wept all over himself like a child.
The steward and everyone else on the plane were silent, reverent even, knowing that something strange and holy was happening.
After the plane landed, the man leaned over the preacher and asked to be absolved one more time, as if he couldn’t get enough of the good news, so that preacher did it one more time and the man started to laugh.
He said, “Hell, if what you said it true, then it’s the best news I’ve ever heard. I just can’t believe it. It’s too good to be true. It would take a miracle for me to believe something so crazy good.”
And the preacher laughed too, and said, “Yep, it takes a miracle for all of us. It takes a miracle for every last one of us.”
I’ve told that story from this pulpit before. It bears repeating, like all good stories, because it’s just so good.
Notice, the preacher didn’t just sit back and merely listen to the other man. He didn’t fill the voids of silence with trite drivel like, “I feel your pain,” or, “I know what you’re going through.” The preacher didn’t minimize the badness with talk of duty and responsibility. He didn’t deflect away or even change the subject.
Instead he offered absolution.
He gave the man the Gospel.
On the evening of the first Easter, the disciples were hiding and cowering behind locked doors in the upper room.
For years Jesus had prepared them for this most momentous occasion and it, apparently, didn’t make a beans worth of a difference.
They betrayed him.
They abandoned him.
They denied him.
Consider these would-be disciples. Terrified and alone. Apparently they didn’t really believe Jesus would do all that he said he would do. I mean, he only predicted his passion and resurrection three different times. He only told them parables about the upturning of the cosmos ever chance he got. He only promised that this is exactly what would happen.
And yet, today, whenever we think of the disciples, if we do at all, we usually imagine them as the paragons of morality, faith, and virtue. We see them as those who were willing to leave it all behind to follow Jesus. But here, in this story, they’ve left everything, namely Jesus, behind just to shake in terror.
The disciples are not the perfect Christians we often imagine them to be.
They are, in fact, just like us.
Sinners without a hope in the world, unless the hope of the world comes back from the dead.
And it’s to these fools, these faithless so-called followers, that the risen Christ first appeared on Easter evening!
And not only just Jesus encounter them, he made his way throughout locked doors to find them! He breathed upon them. He commissioned them to get out and to share the Good News.
You and me and everybody else, we are constantly falling short of Jesus’ hopes and expectations. We lock our doors, we turn our gaze away, we put up walls of separation, and Jesus keeps showing up! Walking through our doors, redirecting our attention, and toppling down our walls.
This story of Jesus appear to the disciples falls of the 2nd Sunday of Easter every single year, if we follow the lectionary. It’s like God wants to remind us over and over again right here, just on the other side of the resurrection, that Jesus ain’t done with us yet and we’ve got a job to do.
Jesus is going to get through whatever barriers and locked doors and walls we’ve erected.
Jesus is going to keep showing up to offer us words of grace even when we know we don’t deserve them.
Jesus is going to appear to the sinners and the doubters and everyone in between because that’s what Jesus does.
The beauty of the gospel is that Jesus never ever shied away from sinners and doubters. Even though, in the church, we often ostracize those very people to the margins of the community. Jesus does his best work, frankly his only work, with the kind of people hiding in the upper room.
Listen – Jesus rewrote and reknit the fabric of reality and then told a bunch of losers to spread the word.
I don’t know about you, but that gives me hope. For, it means that even on my worst days, Jesus is still for me. It means that even in the midst of my sins and my questions, Jesus has a word to share. It means that nothing, not life, death, nor angels, rulers, things present, things to come, powers, nor anything else in all creation will ever be able to separate me, you, and anyone else from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
The world is going down the drain, but we’ve got a Savior who works at the bottom of the drain and he’s the only one who can do anything about it.
And what is the anything our savior does?
He forgives the abandoning, denying, and betraying disciples.
He forgives you.
Life after Easter is defined and made possible by Christ’s rather reckless forgiveness. It is reckless because it runs counter to how we believe the world is supposed to work – namely an eye for an eye. The problem with “an eye for an eye” is that it leaves everyone blind.
Jesus, however, offers a bewildering alternative – a life of mercy, peace, and forgiveness.
Whenever we read about life after Easter, those days between the empty tomb and the Ascension, we tend to focus on the disciples and their reactions. Which means we usually do so at the expense of sitting in the strange news that Jesus is raised from the dead only to return to the people who deserve him the least.
Jesus chooses the unworthy ragtag group of would-be disciples that he’d been dragging around for three years as the people through whom he would changed the world.
On Easter, Jesus returns not to the powers that be, but to people like you and me.
And notice: Jesus’ response to the sins of his followers isn’t to berate them, or judge them, or even damn them. He offers them peace, and commands them to do the same for others.
When you think about it, it’s rather confounding how God keeps coming back to us.
Stuck in captivity in Egypt? God shows up in a burning bush.
Lost in exile? God brings the people home.
Dead in sins? God sets us free.
The preacher from the airplane absolution walked through the airport with his seat partner after their holy experience. And right before they made for an awkward goodbye, the preacher handed his card over to the man and said, “You’re likely not going to believe your forgiveness tomorrow or the next day or even next week. When you stop having faith in it, call me and I’ll bear witness to you all over again and I’ll keep doing it until you do trust it.”
The next day the man called the preacher, and he kept calling the preacher every day thereafter just to hear the Gospel. In fact, he called the preacher once a day until the day he died. When later asked why he kept answering the phone, the preacher said, “I wanted the last words he heard in this life to be the first words he would hear from Jesus in the next.”
Hear the Good News: Christ died for us while we were yet sinners, and that proves God’s love toward us. In the name of Jesus Christ you are forgiven.
Believe it or not, it’s true, and Jesus is going to keep showing up to remind you. Amen.
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”
The doors were locked because the disciples were afraid. Jesus broke forth from the chains of death in the morning, but by the evening the disciples were locked up at the house. And John is quick to tell us that they did so for fear of the Jews. Perhaps the disciples were afraid that the fate of crucifixion was coming for them next, or at the least they would be attacked and driven from the city. But nevertheless, the Word become flesh is resurrected and the closest followers of Jesus are hidden in a room.
Were they really afraid of the Jews? Or was there something else that drove them to lock the doors and cower in the corner?
I think that the disciples were certainly afraid of the Jewish leaders, particularly in light of what they had done to Jesus, but I also think the disciples were afraid of the risen Jesus. These disciples, these followers of the Messiah, had all abandoned him at the end, they had denied him, and now he’s back! I would be hiding too.
How often do we fail our friends only to cower in fear as we wait for their response? I know far too many people (myself included) who will ignore that email, text message, or phone call from a particular individual not because of anything he/she did, but because of what we did.
Thanks be to God that Jesus did not leave the disciples hiding in fear behind locked doors. Thanks be to God that the gospel was too important to remain hidden. Thanks be to God that Jesus came in, stood among them, and said, “Peace be with you.”
Do we believe that Jesus could show up in our lives when we are ashamed for something we’ve done? How often do we hide (literally or figuratively) behind locked doors when we have failed our friends or families? What would it look like to live like we believed in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead?
As Easter people we are committed to practicing resurrection here and now in anticipation of our promised resurrection. This means that we cannot take the people around us for granted, it means we cannot stay hidden in shame, it means that we have to be brave and courageous people willing to say “peace be with you” to the people with whom we feel no peace.
A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”
In a few days thousands of United Methodists will gather in Roanoke for Annual Conference. Once a year clergy and lay representatives throughout the state meet for a couple days of holy conferencing in order to prayerfully discern the future of the denomination. Annual Conference provides opportunities for clergy peers to reconnect, lay people to learn about our organizational structure, and helps to reignite the flame of faith in our churches.
The first time I went to Annual Conference was years ago and I was completely overwhelmed. I was a lay delegate for my home church and was supposed to vote on matters of church polity that made very little sense (I didn’t even know what ‘polity’ meant at the time). When I think back on that first conference it felt like a blur and I hope that I voted according to the Lord’s will. However, the one thing I do remember with accuracy was the Statistician’s Report.
Every year the Statistician from the Conference announces our net gain or loss of members over the last 12 months. During my first Annual Conference the Statistician announced that we had grown by ~200 members to which the entire arena erupted with applause. I remember thinking, “200? That’s all? And why is everyone celebrating such a low number for the entire state of Virginia?” I only learned later that it was the first time we had a positive growth in a very long time.
Sometimes when I am sitting at Annual Conference I feel as if the great windstorm is rolling and the waves are beating us down. I listen to report after report pleading for more money, more resources, and more volunteers. I witness people approach the microphones to make comments about other human beings that should have been left in the 1950’s. I meet people from churches that will be closing their doors in the next few years and see the tears welling up in their eyes. I feel like one of the disciples on a boat that is already being swamped.
But then I remember that after the disciples woke Jesus up, he quickly calmed the storm, and then questioned their faith. When we am confronted with the waves of conference we need to remember that Jesus is the one who controls the wind and the sea. When we witness events that make us feel like the ship is sinking, we need to remember that Jesus is the one who walks on water. So long as we keep believing that we control the church, Jesus will keep sleeping in the stern while we run around in fear. We need a change of heart and perspective to remember that Jesus is Lord, not us.
This week, let us pray for the renewal of the church. As delegates gather in Roanoke, let us pray for wisdom and discernment of God’s will rather than our will. And let us all remember that even when the ship of life is being attacked by waves, Jesus is the one who calms the storm, and puts our faith into perspective.
Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures.
Seminary required a lot of reading and writing. Every week our professors would assign readings from book and articles that we would never complete in time in addition to reflective papers on a variety of subjects. At the beginning of each semester you could almost hear the collective groan from the student body with every new syllabus that detailed the amount of work that would be taking place over the coming months.
During my second year I took a class entitled “Greek Exegesis of Mark.” Throughout the semester we would be translating Mark from it’s original language into English and explore the nuances of the grammar. I remember reading the syllabus on the first day and thinking that I was in way over my head. Yet there was one particular requirement on the syllabus that I was really excited about; every week we would be required to read through the gospel of Mark in English.
At the time I realized that I was spending so much time studying God’s Word that I was no longer enjoying and absorbing God’s Word. So each week two of my fellow students and I sat on the steps of Duke Chapel and read the gospel of Mark aloud. Depending on the week we would trade off chapters and until each of us had the chance to read every chapter multiple times.
I read more grammar and theological works on the gospel according to Mark that semester than I care to remember, but none of them compared to the importance of just reading Mark over and over again. There were insights from theologians that I never would have discovered on my own, but spending time in scripture alone every week truly opened up God’s Word in a way I had yet to experience.
After Jesus’ resurrection from the dead he appeared to the disciples and opened their minds to understand the scriptures. For the first time they were able to begin seeing faithful discipleship through the lens of the resurrection (which makes all the difference). Today we can purchase commentaries and books about the bible to help us understand what’s going on in the verses but nothing can compare to spending faithful time with God’s Word alone. It is important to remember that every time we read a book about the bible we are actually reading someone’s opinion and interpretation; we can only create our own understanding and interpretation from the source itself.
This week let us challenge ourselves to read one of the gospels out loud. Mark is the shortest so it can be finished quickly, but they are all worth exploring on their own. The point is this: the more time we spend in the Word the more we will begin to understand.
Praise the Lord! Happy are those who fear the Lord, who greatly delight in his commandments. Their descendants will be mighty in the land; the generation for the upright will be blessed. Wealth and riches are in their houses, and their righteousness endures forever. They rise in darkness as a light for the upright; they are gracious, merciful, and righteous. It is well with those who deal generously and lend, who conduct their affairs with justice. For the righteous will never be moved; they will be remembered forever. They are not afraid of evil tidings; their hearts are firm, secure in the Lord. Their hearts are steady, they will not be afraid; in the end they will look in triumph on their foes. They have distributed freely, they have given to the poor; their righteousness endures forever; their horn is exalted in honor. The wicked see it and are angry; they gnash their teeth and melt away; the desire of the wicked comes to nothing.
Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. After saying farewell to them, he went up on the mountain to pray. When evening came, the boat was out on the sea and he was alone on the land. When he saw that they were straining at the oars against an adverse wind, he came towards them early in the morning, walking on the sea. He intend to pass them by. But when they saw him walking on the sea, they thought it was a ghost and cried out; for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astonished.
Happy are those who fear the Lord. “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
It happened in a small town in a small United Methodist Church. A single mother was struggling to raise her two boys who were the talk of the town. At 10 and 12 years of age, the two brothers were often responsible for any of the “accidents” in town. They regularly vandalized certain buildings, were known for shoplifting candy from the local 7-11, and would ding-dong-ditch any house they could find.
Yet, on Sunday morning, there they were sitting on either side of their mother in church. The boys would politely greet the minister when they walked in, sat quietly, but during the sermon they loved to make farting sounds while the preacher paused in a sermon.
They were trouble.
Now because the mother was raising the boys all alone, many of the people in the community that wanted to do something about the two boys, felt that it wasn’t their place; that mother had enough on her plate.
This type of behavior went on for some time. The boys would continue their antics, driving people crazy, until one day when the mother had had enough.
The pastor at the local United Methodist Church was a young man fresh from seminary; he thought he had it all figured out. For weeks he had wanted to call out those two boys from the pulpit in the middle of a sermon, but he thought better of it, he would look down on that poor mother and let it go.
So it came to pass that the mother called the young minister. “Preacher,” she barked into the telephone, “I want you to strike the fear of God into my boys. This has got to stop.”
“It will be my absolute pleasure,” The preacher replied.
The following Sunday, after worship, the minister invited the two young boys toward his office, leaving one to sit outside while the other sat on the hot seat in the office.
In order to achieve some sort of repentance from the boys, the preacher thought about teaching them that God is always present, and therefore sees everything. This, he hoped, would teach them to behave better.
With the first brother sitting across the office table, the preacher began his lesson. “Where is God?”
“Where is God?!”
The boy began to fidget.
“Where is God!?!”
The lack of response was beginning to irritate the pastor.
“I want you to answer me right now, where is God?!?!”
And with that the boy jumped from his seat and hightailed it out of the office, grabbed his brother, and bolted for the parking lot.
“Whats going on?” The one brother asked the other.
“We’re in real trouble this time. God’s gone missing, and they think we had something to do with it!”
The psalmist writes, “Praise the Lord! Happy are those who fear the Lord, who greatly delight in his commandments.” I have always found this verse a little strange considering the fact that whenever God shows up in the Bible, whenever God humbles himself to speak with one of his creatures, the first thing he usually says is, “Do not be afraid.”
In Mark’s gospel we learn about a time when the disciples got into a boat to go to Bethsaida. After dismissing the crowd, Jesus went up on the mountain to pray, leaving his disciples alone on the boat. When Jesus came down he saw how the disciples were straining against the wind so he did what the Son of God would do, he walked on the water out toward the boat. He intended to pass them by, but when they saw him walking on the water they were utterly terrified, they thought it was a ghost and cried out. But immediately Jesus spoke to them across the water, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased.
Yet, in Psalm 112, we hear about the blessedness of those who fear the Lord. To fear the Lord means that your heart is steady. If our hearts are fixed on evil, we shall become evil. If our hearts are fixed inwardly, we shall become ridiculously selfish. If our hearts are fixed upon things and possessions, we will become overwhelming materialist. All around us, perhaps even some of us, are failing because our minds and hearts are no longer steady, because our hearts are no longer fixed on the right thing.
So the psalmist calls out, blessed are those who fear the Lord. Fear comes to all of us, to the bravest as well as the cowardly. Fear comes to the faithful and to the faithless. Fear can be a good thing, it warns us to keep our eyes peeled for the danger that might lurk just around the corner. Fear teaches us to respect our elders, teachers, and bosses. Fear reminds us of our finitude. However, to be mindful of fear is one thing, to be constantly panic stricken is another.
A good friend of mine, raised in the church and pursuing a call to ministry, was once invited to a spiritual retreat at the cusp of high-school. For a long weekend, hundreds of young Christians would gather together in small groups to talk about the temptations of the world, how to keep the faith, and what it meant to walk with Jesus throughout their teenage years. They would also spend time as a large group worshiping, they would sing along to the contemporary Christian rock band, they would walk forward to receive communion together, and they would all reverently bow their heads to pray.
On the last night of the conference, at the final worship service, at the height of the concluding sermon, the fire alarm went off. The ushers and facilitators rushed everyone out of the building, yelling at the kids to hurry up as they struggled to find their peers. My friend was rushed through one of the hallways, forced around dark corners, until he found himself standing outside in the parking lot.
Spread throughout the area were life boats, and throngs of the young Christians were climbing aboard. My friend, unsure of what was going on, ran forward to the closest boat, grabbed hold of a rope and tried to swing himself on when the fire alarm stopped and a voice cried out over the megaphone: “Take a look around you, there are not enough spaces in the life boats for everyone. Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?”
Fear can be a tool, but it can also warp and manipulate us. My friend refused to enter a church for years after that incident because of the way the people at his retreat attempted to manipulate his faith through fear. That is not the kind of fear that the psalmist calls blessed.
The disciples were on the boat, the wind was against them and they were having problems crossing on to the over side. They were doing their best to follow Jesus’ commands, yet the world was not matching their expectations. They must’ve felt tired and abandoned out there all alone; why had Jesus asked them to do this? Where was he when they really needed him? Somehow, though stricken with overwhelming fear, the disciples saw Jesus walking on the water while calling out, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
When fear was the most appropriate response to the present circumstances, Jesus triumphantly declared, “Do not be afraid.” In the many chaotic moments of our lives, when bashed by the waves of the world, Jesus continues to call out to us, “Do not be afraid.” Christ is there with us on the rocky boats of life’s circumstances, God listens to our prayers, and the Holy Spirit moves through everyone of us to help transform this world into God’s kingdom.
The disciples, the Israelites who sang Psalm 112, and all of us are not called to be motivated by fear, but instead motivated by love. The disciples did not leave everything to follow their God because he had promised them hard days and suffering, though that often comes if we take faith seriously, but instead they were offered a new way of living. Those who do not want to be afraid are those who have decided to see the world through the lens of faith, to be free from the tyranny of the world. People without fear are those who are fully open to the troubles and the needs of their fellow human beings. They, as the psalmist writes, rise in the darkness as a light for the upright, they are gracious, merciful and righteous. Their hearts are secure and firm in the Lord, they will not be afraid because they know the Lord is with them.
Fearing the Lord, as the psalmist writes, means loving the Lord. Loving God enough to realize that God wants to us to love one another, to strive for justice, to celebrate peace, to take faith seriously, but not take ourselves too seriously. Those who cannot sigh with others in the midst of suffering, and laugh a little bit about themselves are the ones who will be controlled by their fear.
There has been plenty of fear used throughout the history of the church, perhaps today more than ever. Churches have become professionals with motivation by fear. If you don’t tithe, if you don’t believe, if you don’t commit to prayer, etc. Right now, what we need more than fear is a little bit of laughter, we need some joy, we need to rediscover the happiness that the church contains for those who want to follow Jesus Christ.
I like to imagine that later in Jesus’ ministry, or perhaps after the resurrection, the disciples would be together joking about the old times. “Do you remember that time Jesus went into the temple and over turned all the tables!? How crazy was that?” “Or when he asked us to go find him a donkey to ride on into Jerusalem? What a character!” “Or what about that time we were all shaking with fear on the boat and Jesus calmed the wind like that *snap* what a night that was.”
Laughter, joy, and excitement must have been a part of the disciples journey through faith.
Thats why I started the sermon with a funny story about two young boys running out of a church. Until we can laugh together about the excitement of faith, then the fear of God will remain what many people get out of church.
Happy are those who fear the Lord, because they realize that God’s love is incredible. We fear God’s love because we recognize that we do not deserve it. We fear God for welcoming us into this journey when we have so little to contribute. We fear God for inviting us into a place to be loved, when we feel unlovable.
We have too often settled for the motivation of fear in church. Can you imagine what the church could look like if instead of gathering to hear about what we must do to change in our lives, we gathered out of joy and excitement and laughter?
Blessed are those who fear the Lord, who greatly delight in his commandments.
Let us all recover that sense of happiness and delight in our faith journeys. Let us be motivated by the good God who calls us by name to laugh, live, and love. Let us rekindle the flame of faith in our lives to be utterly astonished by the God who came to die, and live, for us.