Unbelievable

Luke 24.1-12

But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stopping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened. 

Ah, the beautiful and confounding day we call Easter. All of the Bible, all of the church, all of Christianity hinges on this day: Easter, Resurrection, out of death into life. If this story were not in scripture, we would’ve thrown out our Bibles away a long time ago. If the Bible does not tell us this story, it tells us nothing.

Easter is the one day when the hopes and fears of all the years are made manifest in the here and now. Today we are the church, and we have people who are firmly rooted in their faith, we have people who are filled with doubts, and we have people scratching their heads with questions. 

So, what should I say to all of you today? How might I meet each of you where you are and provide words of wonder, and challenge, and grace?

All that we’ve said, and all that we will say, today is found in these three words: He Is Risen!

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The tomb was empty and the body was gone.

All four gospels report the beginning of a strange and new reality. 

It is a wondrous and beautiful declaration, and yet, in a sense, this is the most difficult day of the year for Christians because it is impossible to talk about the resurrection.

The resurrection is impossible to talk about because it utterly baffles us. It was, and still is, something completely un-looked for, without precedent, something that stuns and shatters our conceptions of everything even all these years later.

It was on the first day of the week, a Sunday, when the women arrived at the empty tomb. 

Have you ever had to bury someone?

If you haven’t, you will. You will come to know the deafening clasp of death. You will come to understand the grief and pain of entering into a new world without someone in it. You will come to know death in a thousand different ways: the deaf of a friendship, or a job, or health, or happiness.

It will feel like every bit of your hope has been buried in that tomb.

Which maybe gets us a bit closer to how the women were feeling when they walked to the grave at early dawn. We are compelled to get near to them on their journey because even though we know how the story ends, sometimes we cannot quite see how unprepared they were, and all us are, for the Good News.

On Monday I got to the office here at church and decided that I had waited far too long to change the letters on our church marquee. For the last month or it contained the simple message: All are welcome at this church. But with Easter approaching, the time had come to display the times for our Easter worship services.

So, I wrote out the message on a little notepad, just to make sure it would fit on the sign, and then I pulled out all the necessary letters and, rather than carrying all the equipment down the hill, I decided to throw it all into the back of my car and then I drove across the lawn down to the corner.

It took about 10 minutes to pull the old letters out and replace them with the new message. I stood back from the sign to make sure it was all even and level, and then I got back in my car to drive across the lawn toward the parking lot. 

And, right as I passed by that window, a police cruiser flew down our long driveway and turned on his red and blues.

It took me longer than I’d like to admit to realize that I was getting pulled over inside of our own parking lot.

I promptly put the car in park and stepped out of the vehicle and the officer approached quickly and demanded to know what I had been doing on the lawn.

“Were you vandalizing the church property?”

“No,” I calmly replied, “I’m the pastor.”

“Really?” He said incredulously.

That’s when I looked down and realized that I was wearing jeans and a tee-shirt. 

I told him that I was changing out the letters for the church sign, and I even pulled a few of the letters out of the car to prove my case.

“Well, what does the sign say now?”

I couldn’t tell if he was genuinely interested, or if he was going to go down and look at it to make sure I wasn’t lying.

So I told him that I put up the times for our Easter services.

For a moment he didn’t say anything. He kept looking back between me and his cruiser, and then, out of nowhere, he said, “Do you really believe all that?”

“All of what?”

“Easter, resurrection, the dead brought back to life. Do you really believe all that?”

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The women go to the graveyard in grief. They felt the same way many of us feel when we are surrounded by tombstones. Some of us go to graveyards to lay down flowers as a sign of love upon the grave of those now dead. Some of us go to find connections with those who came before us. Some of us go because cemeteries feel spooky and we like the idea of the hair standing up on the back of our necks. Some of us go without even knowing why.

But absolutely no one goes to visit a grave because they expect someone to rise out of it.

Luke, in his gospel story, wants us to know that this new reality was totally inconceivable. The women are perplexed by the empty tomb and brought down to the ground in the presence of the angelic messengers. 

And there is this powerfully pregnant pause while the women bow in silence. 

That silence contains all of their questions, and our own. How is this possible? What does it mean? 

And then the messengers cut through the silence with the question to end all questions: Why do you look for the living among the dead?

Easter is a terrifyingly wonderful reminder that God’s ways are not our ways. God constantly subverts what we expect and even what we believe precisely because God’s ways are not of our own making. They are totally other.

Why do you look for the living among the dead? 

That question continues to burn in our minds and souls all these centuries later because we know the question is also meant for us! 

We too want to tend the corpses of long dead ideas. 

We cling to former visions of ourselves and our churches and our institutions as if the most important thing would be for them to return to what they once we. 

We grasp our loved ones too tightly refusing to let them change. 

We choose to stay with what is dead because is is safe.

But the question remains! Why are we looking for the living among the dead? God is doing a new thing!

And notice: the women do not remain at the tomb to ask their own lingering questions. They are content with the news that God has done something strange, and they break the silence by returning to the disciples to share what had happened. 

And how do these dedicated disciples respond to the Good News?

They don’t believe it.

To them this whole transformation of the cosmos is crazy – and they are the ones who had been following Jesus for years, they had heard all the stories and seen all the miracles, and yet even they were unprepared for the first Easter. 

Throughout the history of the church we have often equated faith and belief with what it means to be Christian. We lay out these doctrines and principles and so long as you abide by them, so long as you believe that they are true, then you are in. 

One of the problems with that kind of Christianity, which is to say with Christianity period, is that it places all of the power in our hands. We become the arbiters of our own salvation. Moreover, we have used the doctrine of belief to exclude those who do not believe.

All of us here today came of age in world in which we were, and are, told again and again that everything is up to us. We are a people of potential and so long as we work hard, and make all the right choices, and believe in all of the right things, then life will be perfect.

The resurrection of Jesus is completely contrary to that way of being. It is completely contrary because we have nothing to do with it. Jesus wasn’t waiting in the grave until there was the right amount of belief in the world before he broke free from the chains of Sin and Death. Jesus wasn’t biding his time waiting for his would-be followers to engage in systems of perfect morality before offering them the gift of salvation. 

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The women returned to the disciples to tell them the good news and the disciples did not believe them. The story seemed an idle tale, and they went about their business.

But Peter, ever eager Peter, had to see for himself. He had to go to the tomb to see with his own eyes what had been told to him. And when we looked into the empty tomb he saw the linen clothes by themselves and he went home amazed at all that he had seen and heard. 

That might be the message of Easter for us today: Not look at the empty tomb and believe. But look at the tomb and be amazed!

The police officer stood there in the parking lot with his question about belief hanging in the air.

I said, “Yeah, I do believe it. All of it. Otherwise all of this would be in vain.”

And he left. 

I do believe, but the story is pretty unbelievable. I can’t prove the resurrection. I can’t make you or anyone else believe anything.

But I see resurrection everyday.

I see it when we gather at the table in anticipation of what God can do through ordinary things like bread and the cup.

I see resurrection when we open up this old book every week knowing that Jesus still speaks to us anew.

I see resurrection in the church, this church, through a whole bunch of people who can’t agree on anything but know that through Christ’s victory over death the world has been turned upside down. 

I see resurrection in the people who come looking for forgiveness and actually receive it.

I see resurrection in the crazy gift of grace offered freely to people like you and me who deserve it not at all.

The Good News is that Jesus Christ was resurrected from the dead.

But the even better news is the fact that Jesus was raised from the dead whether we believe it or not. Amen. 

Devotional – Matthew 28.16-17

Matthew 28.16-17

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted.

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Doubt has been with the church since the very beginning. Even after the resurrection while the disciples were worshipping Jesus on the mountain in Galilee there was doubt. This is a particularly interesting note in scripture considering the fact that doubt is so ridiculed and berated in parts of the church today.

In some so-called “prosperity gospel” churches if someone gets sick or loses a job the rest of the church blames the occurrence on the doubt of the individual. In other churches you might hear a sermon that makes it plainly obvious that doubting the Lord is a sign of weakness and it needs to be dismissed from the mind (or the heart). And still yet in some churches the “d” word is never mentioned because of it’s supposed negativity.

But doubt was with the disciples from the beginning! How else could a group of finite human beings respond to the infinite wonder and grace and mercy of God made manifest in the flesh?

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Doubt is not the opposite of faith. In fact, doubt is often the prerequisite and part of the cyclical nature of faith.

Two summers ago I took a group of people from the church on a mission trip to War, West Virginia and while we were there serving the needs of the community one of our members expressed doubt in God’s love and compassion when confronting the destitute poverty of the people in the community. One afternoon, while working on the floor of a house, he said, “It’s hard to believe in a God who could let something like this happen.” At that precise moment the homeowner walked around the corner laughing and said, “Honey, you are the proof that God is not done with us yet!”

Oftentimes when we are in the midst of doubt, whether a particular event has led us to begin questioning the Lord or it comes out of nowhere, it usually takes another person to show us back to The Way. In West Virginia is took a poverty-stricken homeowner to show my friend what the grace of God really looks like. When I begin questioning aspects of the kingdom or scripture or any number of things it usually takes a word or phrase from our hymnal to knock me back into the reality of God’s reign. For some people they need a friend or relative to reach out and ask to pray together. For others it takes something close to a miracle to show how God still rules this world and is the author of our salvation.

Regardless of what we doubt, or even if we doubt, the Good News is that God is not done with us yet!

Let’s Talk About Doubt – Sermon on Isaiah 7.10-16

Isaiah 7.10-16

Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test. Then Isaiah said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.”

 

What a strange promise. The Lord will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. The promise sounds nice and sweet, after all its part of a lot of the hymns we sign during this time of year. We read these verses and our minds immediately jump to the manger scene with Mary and Joseph carefully cradling the baby Jesus with the animals remaining perfectly quiet and still. But this promise is made to a particular person in a particular moment, and that’s what makes it strange.

At the time of Isaiah’s proclamation, forces were gathering and attempting to attack and invade Jerusalem. The King, Ahaz, is deeply afraid. And it is in the midst of his fear that God offers the King a sign, any sign that he wants, let it deep as hell or high as heaven. God offers Ahaz any sign he wants so that the king will remember to trust the Lord. Ahaz, appearing quite faithful, says he will not put the Lord to the test (the same thing Jesus says during the temptations in the wilderness), but the Lord ignores Ahaz and proclaims the coming sign nonetheless.

So it is while King Ahaz is shaking in his boots, while troops are gathering at the gates, that he receives a sign of God’s promised presence: A young woman will bear a son named Emmanuel.

Now, let’s be real for a moment: God’s promise of a baby is weird. And it’s rather ambiguous. God does not say, “I will destroy the invading forces with terrible violence” nor does the Lord promise that Ahaz will survive. Instead, God says that a baby is coming to save the world.

I don’t know about you, but Christmas, to me, always seems full of happy go lucky faith without any doubt or questions. Lights are hung up on all the houses, people tune their radios to the Christmas stations, and parents want their children to behave themselves in the Christmas pageants.

But doubts and questions are there, perhaps just barely below the surface of the façade we wear around during these weeks we call Advent.

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Do we doubt? Are we allowed to? What happens to us if we do? More than a few of us will be sitting in the pews on Christmas Eve singing Joy to World and celebrating the Christ-child while we’re really wondering what it means to believe.

King Ahaz doubted. While surrounded by enemies, and offered a miracle by God, he insists on not putting God to the test. This might sound really faithful, but God offers something incredible and Ahaz turns it down. His pious response is more a dismissal of the Lord being able to actually help.

Moses doubted. When the Lord asked him to go and deliver the people from the tyranny of Egypt, Moses quickly listed off the excuses for why he shouldn’t be the one to go.

Jeremiah doubted. When the Lord called him to be a prophet to God’s people his response was quick, “I am only a boy! Surely I can’t speak on your behalf”

Jonah doubted. When the Lord commanded him to travel to Nineveh he traveled in the opposite direction in order to avoid what he had been asked to do.

Zechariah doubted. When the Lord spoke to him and told him that his wife was going to become pregnant he did not believe the Lord could perform such a miracle.

John Wesley doubted. You know, the guy in the stained glass window right there. He was asked to go travel to a strange place called Georgia and preach the Good News but he did not have faith. And when he told his superiors about it, they said, “Preach faith until you have it; and then, because you have it, you will preach faith.”

Even Jesus doubted, though only for a moment. When he found himself all alone and nailed to the hard wood of the cross, he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Sometimes we feel like if we have doubts it is the complete opposite of having faith. In fact, many leave the church whenever that first doubt starts to creep in and they begin to wonder about the truth and promises of God’s Word.

I know more people than I can count who, at some point, were devout and faithful followers of Jesus Christ. And all it took was a little dose of the dirty word for their faithfulness to crumble. Was there really a virgin birth? Did Jesus really walk on water and feed the 5,000 and bring sight to the blind? Does God really care about our individual lives? Did God really raise Jesus from the dead?

Their entire discipleship hinged on the answer to one of those questions, and when they could not find an answer that was satisfying, they left.

I have friends from seminary who felt called to the ministry but have since left the church because a professor told them something like, “Moses didn’t write the first five books of the bible.” Or “Paul did not write the epistle to the Hebrews.” Or “Some of the psalms attributed to David were not written by David.”

            Doubt is such a dirty word. For a long time it has been shunned from the church and treated like a mortal sin. It has been seen as a weakness. But doubting is often a sign that our faith has a pulse, that it is alive and well and exploring and searching.

            Doubt and faith are not opposites.

            You can’t really have one without the other.

We’re now going to try something a little different, something a little strange, and frankly it might not work. But I’m going to leave this pulpit and come down to you and we’re going to talk about our doubts. Now the point of this is not for you to say something like, “I have trouble believing the virgin birth” and then have me completely remove your doubts with some sort of speech. No, the point of this is for us to be vulnerable and intentional with one another, for us to connect as a community of faith around the fact that we have doubts, but that God is big enough to handle our doubts.

So, what are your doubts?

This week, as I was scrolling through the seemingly endless cycle of news from around the world, I read about Russia’s apparent involvement in the democratic election cycle of the United States, and I read about Apple’s struggle to provide Bluetooth compatible headphones in time for Christmas consumers, and I read and read and read.

But then I saw a picture that still haunts me. In the image, a man and a woman are walking through the city Aleppo, Syria. The woman’s face is covered and her husband is cradling their baby in his arms, while holding up an IV bag that’s running down into the bundle of swaddling clothes.

            I’ll admit that what I should have been struck by most was the violence in the background and the terror in their posture, but what struck me the most was how much it reminded me of Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus.

A man carries a child with an IV drip as he flees deeper into the remaining rebel-held areas of Aleppo, Syria December 12, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

Over 250,000 people have died in Syria as a result of their civil war, most of them innocent civilians. And while we fret over the incoming president-elect and whether or not consumer goods will arrive on time, modern Marys and jaded Josephs are doing everything they can to protect their babies.

And it makes me doubt. I read the statistics, I see the photos, and I want to know where God is in the midst of all this. How can the God who knows us by name and has counted the hairs on our heads rest easy while innocent men, women, and children are dying at a rate we can barely fathom?

And while this is happening across the world, Christians in our country are worried about Muslims and are seriously considering instituting a registration of all Muslims. And do you know what’s happening in Aleppo? Christians and Muslims are serving shoulder to shoulder pulling children from rubble, consolidating food and resources to share with as many as possible, and are the remaining sources of light in a city under the shadow of death.

I doubt God’s presence in the midst of something as terrible as what’s happening in Aleppo, but then I have hope when I read about Christians and Muslims working together to bring joy to people who feel no joy.

And so I live in this tension between faith and doubt. We all do. We vacillate between the two like a frenetic sphere in a pinball machine. We doubt and we trust. We break down under the tyranny of violence and are built back up by the very nature of love. We weep for the world and its destructive desires, and are comforted by the God who came down to take on our flesh. We lift up our clenched fists in frustration to the sky, and we hear God speak in the still small voice: “Lo, I am with you always.”

Faith and doubt; you can’t have one without the over. Amen.

 

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With A Little Help From My Friends

John 20.19-29

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 them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his said, I will not believe.” A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

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Before I became your pastor, I was a pulpit-filler. If a pastor became sick, or was otherwise unavailable to preach, I was tapped on to come up with something to say from the pulpit. A phone call would arrive in the middle of a week, or even on Sunday morning, and I would have to whip something together right quick. For years I took the ”undesirable” Sundays: Memorial Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving Sunday, and the Sunday after Easter; those Sundays when the regular pastor needed a break.

Every time I was tasked with preaching was an opportunity to grow in my faith while attempting to articular the faith for others.

When I was in college I got the phone call one week to preach for a Sunday evening service. I was fairly familiar with the context because I played the drums for the church every week, but this time they wanted me to come out from behind the drum set to proclaim God’s Word.

At the time I was living with a couple of roommates, but of course none of them went to church. Week after week they would rib me for waking up early on Sunday morning, they would jokingly mock me with questions about God’s presence, and they made sure I knew they thought there were better things I could be doing with my time.

So I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to get them to church.

It was on a Sunday night, so they couldn’t complain about sleeping in. We would be playing contemporary Christian rock songs, so they couldn’t complain about the music. And I was supposed to preach, so they couldn’t complain about it being archaic or a waste of time (I hoped).

I casually invited them to worship while we were having dinner one night; I shared that I was the preacher and that it would be a relatively short sermon, and I made sure to mention that it would really mean a lot to me if they would come.

Under the weight of my communal invitation and guilt, they all came to church that night and sat together in a pew near the back.

The service went well; the music balance was good, and the sermon was short and to the point, and then we moved to the communion table. Our resident pastor began talking about how whenever Jesus gathered with his friends he would breathe new life into them through his words and his presence. And on his final night he took bread, broke it, gave it to his friends and said, “Take. Eat. This is my body.” And then he took the cup and shared it with his friends saying: “Take. Drink. This is my blood.

One by one every person in the sanctuary gathered in the center aisle and started walking forward for communion. The pastor stood next to me holding the bread, and I stood next to her holding the cup and for each person that came forward we said, “The body of Christ given for you.” Or: “The blood of Christ shed for you.” Hands were outstretched penitently while people feasted on the Lord, and then the end of the line came forward, with my roommates.

Unsure of what was actually taking place, they stood up like everybody else and came forward without knowing what to do next. As they stood in front of us, and in front of the whole congregation, the pastor’s eyes darted back and forth between myself, and the ragtag roommates standing in front of us. Her eyes screamed, “Do something!”

So I did what anyone in my position would do. I whispered to my friends as quickly as possible: “I know this will sound weird… But you need to take a piece of bread, dip it in the grape juice, and eat it. Don’t worry I’ll explain it to you later.” And with that they all feasted on the body and blood of our Lord, and returned to their pews confused and bewildered.

On the day of Jesus’ resurrection, after appearing to Mary Magdalene and calling her by name, Jesus appeared before the disciples. They were locked away in a room full of fear and trembling when Jesus said, “Peace be with you.” Perhaps they were afraid of being crucified like he was by the Jews, or they were afraid of how the crowds would taunt them when they came out of hiding, or they were afraid of seeing their risen friend in their midst. But Jesus found it fitting to speak words of peace in the midst of their terror.

And immediately Jesus outlined what they were supposed to do: “Go. As the Father sent me, now I send you.” With his proclamation, Jesus empowered his friends to proclaim the Good News for everyone to hear.

But Thomas, one of the disciples, was not there to experience the resurrected Jesus. The disciples tried to explain what they had seen, heard, felt, and experienced. Yet, their eyes and fingers were not enough for Thomas. He did not trust his friends. He wanted to see and touch Jesus for himself.

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Sure enough, a week passed, and Jesus showed up again before the disciples and Thomas. Again Jesus greeted them by saying, “Peace be with you.” And he told Thomas to feel the scars on his hands and side, but before Thomas could even reach out he declared, “My Lord and my God!” And thus Jesus concluded the moment by saying, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.

Thomas gets a pretty bad rap. Every year we follow Easter Sunday with this reading about doubting Thomas. He is the one disciple who gets a qualifier in front of his name. We don’t refer to eager Peter, or betraying Judas, but we do say doubting Thomas. For years pastors like me have used this Sunday and this story to call people like you to learn from the example of Thomas, to not doubt the Lord, to believe without seeing.

But the real problem with Thomas is not his lack of faith in the Lord, but his lack of faith in his friends. For three years he had traveled with this ragtag group of disciples, shoulder-to-shoulder they had watching Jesus perform countless miracles, and now when they tell him the Gospel, he does not believe them.

After the episode of my friends confusedly attending worship and receiving communion, I avoided the topic of church. I knew they had a strange experience through their lack of addressing the service in any way shape or form, and they stopped mocking me for going to church. At the time, I thought they thought I was nuts.

A few weeks passed and the topic of faith was still avoided like the plague until one morning I walked down the stairs and discovered one of my roommates crying on the couch. He had just received a phone call from a long time friend of ours whose father had died. The man was a staple in our community, regularly coached little league sports, and was another father figure for most of us. And when my roommate received the news, it devastated him.

I slowly made my way across the room and sat down next to him. For the longest time neither of us spoke. Finally my roommate looked up from his tears and he said, “I want you to pray for me.

I sat shocked. I didn’t know what to say. But he continued: “You know I don’t know much about God or church. But I know it’s important to you. When you were standing up before us in church I could tell that you really believed. I don’t know what I believe. And I can’t describe it, but I really feel like you need to pray for me.”

So I did.

When Thomas heard the news of the risen Lord through his friends, he didn’t believe them. Even though they were some of the people he should’ve trusted the most, he refused to accept their words.

When my friend felt the sting of death and loss, he didn’t know what to believe. But, for better or worse, he trusted me. Even though he had every reason to be suspicious and weirded out by what he had experienced in worship, he believed in God’s presence through prayer.

Thomas’ kind of radical suspicion of his friends still takes place in our lives today. We view church as a private thing, something we do on the weekends and don’t need to bring up during the week. We might know people in our lives that are suffering or are alone, but we assume that God will send them to us when they’re ready.

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If we want to be faithful followers of Jesus, then me must stop distrusting our friends and neighbors. At the very least, we should stop questioning motives or thinking the worst in others when they express a difference of opinion.

To be faithful followers of Jesus requires a willingness to be sent by God to people who do not know God. It requires us to be vulnerable and uncomfortable while inviting others to discover God’s love in a place like this. It requires us to be the agents of belief for people who have not yet seen.

All of us are here because we are the product of someone influencing our faithfulness. Whether a parent or a friend or even a stranger, we were once invited to discover God through the power of church.

Friends, I promise you that the days of people showing up to church because a church is in their neighborhood are long gone. Today, people discover God’s presence, they begin to believe what they see and see what they believe when people like us are brave enough to invite them to church.

Because, for us, this table is the closest we can get to the presence of Christ. In the bread and the cup God invites us into the upper room when Christ shared the meal with his friends. When we feast on his body and blood we receive the grace necessary to be Christ’s body in the world.

This thing we call communion, whether at the table or just gathering in worship, has transformed my life. If you’re here in church, it’s probably changed your life too. So, may the God of grace and glory give us the courage to invite others to be transformed as well. Amen.

Questions: I Believe; Help My Unbelief! – Sermon on Mark 9.14-24 & Ephesians 2.8-9

Mark 9.14-24

When they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and some scribes arguing with them. When the whole crowd saw him, they were immediately overcome with awe, and they ran forward to greet him. He asked them, “What are you arguing about with them?” Someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought you my son; he has a spirit that makes him unable to speak; and whenever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid; and I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they could not do so.” He answered them, “You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him to me.” And they brought the boy to him. When the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about foaming at the mouth. Jesus asked the father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. It has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; but if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.” Jesus said to him, “If you are able! — All things can be done for the one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!”

Ephesians 2.8-9

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast.

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Today we begin the first part of our sermon series on “Questions.” After requesting responses from all of you regarding your questions about God, Faith, and the Church, we have come to the time where I attempt to faithfully respond to those questions. Today we are talking about faith, being saved, and doubt. So, here we go…

In 1962 one of the greatest theological minds of the 20th century visited the United States on a lecture tour. Karl Barth was a product of Western Theology who actively spoke against the Nazi regime rejecting their un-Christian allegiance to Adolf Hitler. His writing and influence spread throughout the world to a degree beyond his expectation.

So during the early 1960’s Barth found himself in his later years, touring around the American landscape lecturing to young, and old, Christians about the importance of God being God.

Karl Barth is my theological hero – his books line my shelves and I believe he put forth a remarkable understanding of scripture.

Karl Barth

Karl Barth

However, Barth is remarkably difficult to understand and was very longwinded in his writing. He was once approached by a young theologian declaring, “Professor Barth, you’re my hero! I’ve read everything you’ve ever written!” To which Barth replied, “Son, I haven’t even read everything I’ve written.”

Karl Barth, intellectual and as difficult to understand as any theologian I’ve ever read, lectured at Princeton, the University of Chicago, and Union Theological Seminary. After one such lecture, no doubt filled with theologisms beyond the capacity of comprehension, a young man bravely decided to ask a question.

Now, at the time, evangelical theology was beginning to take off in the United States. Churches pushed for “personal relationships with Jesus Christ.” Altar calls were all the rage. And everyone wanted to know when you got saved.

The young man, with his hand shaking in the air, waited to ask his question. I imagine that Barth was getting tired of answering the foolish questions from the audience but decided to offer one final answer. “Son, what is your question?”

“Well professor Barth, I was wondering, when were you saved?”

The young man, obviously caught up with the personal stories of individuals who accepted Jesus Christ in their hearts, moments where folk learned that they were saved, wanted to know when Barth had discovered this momentous occasion in his own life.

After responding to questions about the ineffability of God, the diminishing role of the third member of the Trinity, and the self unveiling to humanity of the God who cannot be discovered by humanity simply through its own intuition, Barth was finally asked a question with a simple answer.

“Hmm, when was I saved? Oh yes, thats easy, it was… 2,000 years ago on the cross.”

“How will I know when I’m saved?” A question I have heard time and time again. When will I know, with assurance, that heaven is my everlasting reward? How will I be able to tell that I have been saved and what happens if I ever have doubts later on, will I still go to heaven?

In many churches, being “saved” is equated with a moment when an individual accepts Jesus Christ as their “personal Lord and Savior.” We look at it as a check-off list, an accomplishment to be met in order to go to heaven. A time when they let their old self die, in order to be clothed in Christ forevermore. This often takes form in an altar call, that moment after the sermon when a preacher stands right where I am, calling out to the congregation, calling out for those who feel the call of God on their lives to come forward during the final hymn to give their lives to Jesus Christ. Sometimes it takes place in baptism, when water is used to cleanse a child or an adult from their broken ways and save them. Sometimes it takes place in the bread and wine of communion, nourishing someone’s faith in a way previously unexperienced.

In many places, being “saved” like this is worth celebrating as a rebirth, a reawakening of the soul, a definitive shift in the life of a Christian. Some of my friends celebrate their “saved” birthday every year with a cake and presents. And even though some of those people are dear to me, and even though I can trace back to a moment in my life where I committed my life to Christ, I still wonder about what it really means to be saved.

This is what I do know: The saving of anyone is something which is not within our power, but only of God. No one can be saved – by virtue of what he/she can do. Everyone can be saved — by virtue of what God can do.

After coming down from the transfiguration on the mountaintop, Jesus met back up with the disciples only to be surprised to see them arguing with scribes. Upon arrival the crowd surrounded him overcome with awe. Someone from the group stepped forward, “Teacher, I brought you my son; he has a spirit that makes him unable to speak, it makes him seize up and crash to the ground. I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they were unable.” Jesus then responded to everyone present, “You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring the boy to me.”

So the crowd brought the boy forward but he immediately began to convulse when in the presence of the Lord and he rolled on the floor foaming at the mouth. Jesus asked the father, “How long has this been happening to him?” “Its been happening since childhood,” the father responded, “but if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.”

Jesus then responded, “If you are able! — All things can be done for the one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!”

unbelief

I believe; help my unbelief! The father’s reply demonstrates for us the nature of faith. It seems so paradoxical and contradictory, yet, how often has that father’s cry been the prayer on our lips? The father has shown a bit of faith by approaching Jesus in the first place, yet the move stemmed from desperation rather than confidence; “if you can do anything” shows his doubt and his faith at the same moment. The father holds his disbelief and faith in tandem with one another.

Haven’t we all had moments where, like the father, we can hold both our faith and disbelief at the same time? Periods in our life where we know that God loves us, yet our doubts begin to percolate at the same time. Perhaps confronted with a disappointment we call out to God  begging to know his ways, wondering if he’s even listening at all, yet we still call out to God. Like the father we take our burdens to God, we have enough faith to go that far, faith the size of a mustard seed, but then we struggle and limp along unsure of what God can do.

Prayer does not work like magic. Prayer is not a manipulation of God to get what we want. God does not simply grant all of our requests when we kneel and bow before him. That puts far too much power on our side of the equation. Like “knowing” we are saved because “we” have accepted Christ, it puts the burden on us to accomplish something that we cannot do on our own. If salvation can be decided on our acceptance of Christ as Lord, then God would never have had to come in the form of flesh, die on the cross, and then be raised from the dead. Prayer is more like wrestling alone in the middle of the night with a God who refuses to let go.

God is the one who saves us through Jesus Christ, God is the one who healed that father’s son through Jesus Christ. Prayer and accepting Christ is not magic, yet we are always called to pray, like that father, for more faith. We pray for more faith as trust in God’s love, grace, and power so that God in Christ can work his healing power and presence through Christ in our lives.

The story of the man bringing his son to Christ is powerful for all of us gathered here, because like that father we are fallen people incapable to saving ourselves and our loved ones. This story offers us a great glimpse of God’s glory: All things are possible to those who believe. But even greater than that is the fact that beyond our faith or prayers, God is the source of healing and salvation in our lives. Jesus is the one who calls us to brings our burdens to him, we are not left alone to try and save ourselves.

So, how do we know when we are saved? What does it mean to be saved? Are we allowed to doubt?

I like Barth’s answer to that young man, “I was saved 2,000 years ago on the cross.” I like his answer because its true and it puts the power of salvation back on God’s side of the equation. We cannot save ourselves by virtue of our own devices, but it is only God who can save us. Yet, there is something remarkably powerful about accepting Christ at the same time. Barth’s response is appropriate, but it still misses a fundamental element of what it means to follow Christ.

If being “saved” can be compartmentalized to that moment on a cross 2,000 years ago, then there is little need for us to follow Jesus in the present. Without a commitment to change our lives in accordance with the kingdom, discipleship falls to pieces. When we come to know Jesus Christ in our hearts, when we have that moment, whether its at the altar during one of our favorite hymns, or in the water of baptism, perhaps in the wine and bread of communion, its not so much they we are accepting God, but more the fact that for the first time we are realizing that God has had us the whole time. 

Faith, at its purest and deepest form, is not about “letting God into your heart” but discovering that God has been there the whole time. Being saved is not about making a choice to become a Christian, but a willingness to let God be the Lord of our lives, and not the other way around. Doubts are not something to be feared and dismissed, but to be embraced and wrestled with. Even after John Wesley felt the assurance of God’s love in his life when his heart was strangely warmed, his doubts crept back in within days.

Faith is that great dance between us and God, faith is knowing and unknowing, faith is being able to cry out “I believe; help my unbelief!”

Thats exactly why we need elements of worship such as baptism and communion. We need patterns and practices that remind us of that great event where Christ died and was risen, that incredible moment where we were saved, but we also need food and habits for our faith journeys. We need to know that we have been saved by grace through faith, not by our own doing, but by the gift of God. Yet at the same time we have to hold the mystery of salvation like the father did, we have to recognize that we continually need Christ to be the one from whom all blessings flow, we need Christ to hear our prayers and grow our faith, we need Christ to be our Lord, not just in the past but in every moment of our lives. You have been saved, and are continuing to be saved everyday.

I believe; help my unbelief!” is our confession of faith in the God who continues to breathe new life and new faith into all of us.

In a few moments we will celebrate the two great sacraments of our church. Hattie Myles Markham will be brought forth to the water to be baptized in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. She will be incorporated into God’s kingdom through the redemptive power of the trinity. And likewise all of us will then be invited to feast at Christ’s table letting the bread and the wine nourish our souls.

Here we find the gospel, in baptism and communion we find the good news of God in the world. No matter what you do, God will never love you any more, and no matter what you do God will never love you any less. God so loved the world that he gave his only son so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but have eternal life. Nothing can ever separate you from the love of God in Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ mounted the hard wood of the cross to save you and me from having to try and save ourselves. Salvation is here. Thanks be to God.

Amen.

Greatness – Sermon on Luke 1.5-23

Luke 1.5-23

In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order off Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years. Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn their hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” Zechariah said to the angel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.” Meanwhile the people were waiting for Zechariah, and wondered at his delay in the sanctuary. When he did come out, he could not speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He kept motioning to them and remained unable to speak. When his time of service was ended, he went to his home.

 

“Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for you prayer has been heard.”

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And so it came to pass in the days when King Herod ruled Judea, that a priest named Zechariah had his life turned upside down. Now Herod was a terrible king, responsible for countless atrocities, murders, and high levels of corruption. A man with frightening power ruled over a land and a people with such chaos that he dominated the attention of the masses. During his rule, a nobody priest married to a woman named Elizabeth, made his way through life.

Zechariah belonged to the priestly order of Abijah and was regularly responsible for activities around the Temple in Jerusalem. Though Zechariah and Elizabeth lived righteous lives, they had no children and were getting on in years.

One day, a day like any other, Zechariah made his way to the temple in order to perform his regular duties. As was the custom, lots were cast to decide who would enter the sanctuary and offer incense to the Most High God. While countless people gathered outside the walls, Zechariah made his way in to perform a simple task that had been done for as long as he could remember.

This is where the story gets interesting.

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While standing within the closed room, an angel of the Lord appeared to Zechariah. We receive no description of this heavenly messenger in the biblical narrative, but the sight was enough to overwhelm and terrify Zechariah. Let your imaginations conjure up the confrontation with an angel to the degree that you would cower in fear and trembling.

Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayers have been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will be filled with joy and gladness and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. Take care to make sure that he never drinks wine or other strong substances, even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. In time, he will turn the people of Israel back to the Lord their God. He will make ready a people prepared for the Lord.

And how does Zechariah react to this momentous declaration? How does he respond to the heavenly messenger carrying news of great joy?

“How will I know this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.”

It’s moments like these in the scriptures that I wish I could jump into the story and smack some sense into the lives of the people experiencing the glory of God. How will you know this is so Zechariah? You fool! Don’t you know that with God all things are possible? Have you forgotten how he delivered your people from slavery and captivity in Egypt through the Red Sea to the Holy Land? Have you forgotten how the Lord provided a ram in the bushes for Abraham to sacrifice instead of his son? Have you forgotten how David was able to triumph over Goliath because the Lord was with him? Moreover, have you forgotten how many barren women the Lord has provided for? Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Hannah. Come on Zechariah, have a little faith. 

The angel responds to Zechariah: I am Gabriel and I stand in the presence of God. I was sent to bring you this good news, but now, because you did not believe my words, you will become mute and unable to speak until these things occur.

So Zechariah made his way out of the temple, stood before the crowds unable to speak, and eventually returned home.

Of course, thats not the end of the story, but we’ll save that for later.

What are we to make of this remarkable episode recorded at the beginning of the Gospel according to St. Luke?

God is at work here in ways familiar to us from the Old Testament: the story contains a casting of lots to make a decision, there is a vision in God’s holy Temple, a divine being appears to pass along a message, there is a promised sign, and a childless couple is given new life.

It is clear that God works in and through the normal avenues of life in the believing and faithful community. The community of faith can fall under the temptation to make God into whatever they desire for worship, but there is an important conviction present at the beginning of this New Testament: the stories of Israel are important, vital, and necessary for understanding how to be used for God’s purposes in the world.

Though this is a story from the past, doesn’t it sound familiar? Just as it is today, some horrible and frightening situation has gripped the people, a power reigns from above in order to control a community. Evil has taken root at the center of life and dominates the attention of the populace. This past week marked the one year anniversary of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary school and another shooting took place at a school in Colorado. You need only turn on the news or read a newspaper to be reminded how much fear and violence demands ALL of our attention.

However, in spite of all this fear and damage in the world, just as during the time of Herod, there is another sort of person, quiet, removed, and yet, more important than the powers that rule, men and women who are the core of society and give it the depth of its reality. Then and always there were and are the humble and brilliant men and women in whom the strength of the present and promise of the future lie.

Gabriel tells Zechariah that his son, John, will be great in the sight of the Lord. Sadly, according to the ways of the world, greatness has had its definition confused and reshaped. We have been told that greatness is measured in terms of selfishness rather than service, in terms of material rather than spiritual wealth, in terms of instant gratification rather than hard work and perseverance. But greatness as God sees it, the greatness that John will live into, is about being linked with the eternal purposes of redemption, about being an obedient instrument of God’s peace, and helping others to know and feel love in their lives.

But notice: the greater John will become for God, the more hostility he will arouse in those around him. Doing the will of the Lord, reaching out in love according to discipleship sends ripples through the fabric of what the world deems as “greatness.”

John is to be like the prophets from old: in light of their direct contact and experience of the divine, they drew the messages which burned within them like fire and would not rest until the decrees of God were delivered.

In every age we need the passion of people on fire for God to shout out in prophetic fervor. Our lives are so often filled with the dry wood of dull possibilities that desperately need to be rekindled by the divine spark that often comes through the words and actions of the prophets. We need to have our lives turned around and back to God in order to discover the passion that is waiting for us in our discipleship. The communion between God and the prophet allows for a divine condition to be present and the purposes of God can be realized in the world.

I love the juxtaposition of the story of Zechariah in the temple with Gabriel. It is precisely at the moment when John is being prepared to speak for God, Zechariah is struck mute for his unbelief. The typical, traditional, and tired voice of the priest, is being replaced by the fervent, fantastic, and faithful voice of the prophet.

 

Worship is at the center of the story. I’ve read it countless times, and heard it discussed and preached on during numerous advent services, but something fresh and new struck me this week about Zechariah’s encounter. I wondered: why was he so surprised and scared? Think about it for just a moment; Zechariah was a priest, well-versed in the stories from old about how God interacted with God’s people, a man who often found himself in the holiest of places performing the works of the Lord. What did he think would happen to him inside that holy space?

Being overwhelmed by the presence of an angel in the sanctuary of the temple is like going to McDonalds, ordering a Big Mac, and being surprised to discover beef between the bread… I mean this is how God works! God shows up, confronts us in the midst of a moment, and calls us to something. It does not need to be grand, and more often than not it occurs in the small silence in a moment we least suspect, but for Zechariah it came in a big way. He was in God’s holy temple confronted by an angelic messenger bringing the good news. So why was he so surprised? And more importantly, why did he doubt the validity of the message?

Our expectations about worship have major impacts on the way we live our lives.

What we believe shapes how we behave.

What to we think will happen to us when we gather in this space? Are we prepared to be confronted by the God who called John to greatness? Are we willing to let God dwell in our hearts and change the way we live in the world? Are we ready to take up our own crosses to follow Jesus. Are we prepared for God to show up in our lives in ways that we cannot expect or anticipate?

Unless we recognize the definitive need for real experiences and methods of discipleship which wake the whole depth of our experience, then what we do in worship will remain, as it did for Zechariah, thin and lacking. Until we prepare ourselves to be surprised by God’s desire to find us where we are, then this holy place will remain, as it did for Zechariah, boring and repetitive. Until we dare to step out into new forms of life and love, hearing the word of the Lord, and letting it become incarnate in the ways we live our lives, then faith will remain, as it did for Zechariah, dwindling and fruitless.

eucharist

What do we expect will happen when we gather together at Christ’s table? Are we repetitively entering the holy space to burn incense unaware that we are meeting God in all of his holiness? Or are we excited and nervous about the prospect of being welcomed to a table that we have no right to join? Are we so rooted in our habitual worship that we can no longer remember why we join at this table? Or are we prepared to be called forth toward greatness in the world through the redemptive and life-giving properties of God’s presence at his table?

Just as it happened with Zechariah, a heavenly voice might be trying to break out into the world. Perhaps God’s good news is striving to strike forth through the closed circle of our expectations of church, faith, and discipleship. Important for us this morning is to remember that God is always on the move, reaching out to find us and change our lives, that there is always a new message for those with ears to hear. The great need for us is to realize, as Zechariah eventually did, to not be caught up in the limited imagination of what God can do in the world which assumes that the present must always be governed by the past.

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Nine months after Zechariah was struck mute in the temple by Gabriel, his wife Elizabeth gave birth to a baby boy. When it came time to name the child, the family wanted to name him Zechariah after his father, but Elizabeth insisted that it was to be John, and after Zechariah confirmed this with writing on a tablet his mouth was freed. The plague of his disbelief had been wiped away by the miracle of his son’s birth. Now filled with the Holy Spirit Zechariah spoke these great words to his infant son: And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.

This is one of the many places that God confronts us in our lives. Through the bread and the wine let us all be moved to live lives worthy of the greatness that God is calling us toward.

Amen.