Breaking Chains

Luke 24:50-53 Ascension Sunday, 2019

Every Thanksgiving weekend for the past 18 years, Arapaho and Cheyenne youth in Colorado have led a 180-mile relay from the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site to Denver. This annual event opens with a sunrise ceremony honoring the indigenous people who lost their lives at that infamous massacre. Now, if you’re unaware of this historical event, the Sand Creek Massacre was brutal assault carried out by the United States Army under the command of Colonel John Chivington on Nov. 29, 1864 in which over 200 Native American men, women, and children lost their lives.

And while the Sand Creek massacre has been the subject of numerous books, much less attention has been paid to two heroes of this terrible event: Captain Silas Soule and Lt. Joseph Cramer. Now, these men were heroes not because of what they did but rather, because of what they didn’t do! You see, Soule and Cramer rejected the violence and genocide by disobeying their orders that day. They did so by personally refusing to take part in the murder of innocent people and by ordering the men under their command to stand down. The article I read didn’t go into detail about what happened to them, but one can only assume that there were consequences for their actions.[i]

Now, today’s text, as I said before, describes the Ascension, Christ’s departure from the disciples, and his return to God. But the interesting thing here, to me anyway, is the reaction of the disciples. The text tells us that they were “overwhelmed by joy.” What? For the past four weeks we’ve seen his followers grieving, lost, confused at least until they recognized the Risen Christ in their midst; but overwhelmed with joy at his departure? What’s going on here?

Well, a couple of things actually. First, it’s sometimes reasonable, wise even, to break old patterns. Take Soule and Cramer for example. The dominate narrative of the conquest of the West was that the invaders were civilized, and the indigenous people were savages. But Soule and Cramer were able to see through that false narrative and, despite the consequences, took the appropriate action. In a very real way, by breaking the chain of command, they were symbolically breaking chains of ignorance and oppression. Now, the massacre was carried out in spite of their efforts, but perhaps it was the first glimmer of reason in an otherwise dark and utterly merciless time in our history.

Now, as we look at the disciples, and their unexpected response to Jesus’ departure, like Soule and Cramer, there is a reasonableness in breaking the old pattern. The old pattern was to follow Jesus, an itinerant rabbi from Nazareth, listen to his teachings and respond to his example. Right? But that only worked for a while. God incarnate, God in bodily form could only be with them for so long. So, in order to mature in their faith, the disciples needed to begin to find joy, along with praise and worship the text tells us, in an unseen God, an ascended God, a God present in Spirit rather than in the flesh.

And the same is true for us. When we proclaim our faith in God as Spirit, we are participating in the present Reign of God in the here and now. We experience, not the absence of the Divine, but a very real and life transforming manifestation of God. The marvel of all this is that if the Spirit of God is walking with us, then there is no place on our journey that God is not there to greet us, heal us, redeem us, or transform us.

Which leads to the second reason to be “overwhelmed by joy” today: Wisdom. There was a certain amount of wisdom, reason one might call it, displayed by Soule and Cramer and reason played a significant role in the disciples newly found pattern of faith as well. And today, as we look at what it means to the be the Church of the 21st century, I believe that reason must inform our faith as well.

You know, one of my favorite platitudes goes like this, “God gave us reason for a reason.” One example of using reason to challenge old patterns can be found in the history of the United Church of Christ. Specifically, in our decision to no longer blindly follow creeds or doctrines. Now, please don’t misunderstand me here, there is value in doctrine. Doctrines, in a Christian context, are commonly held understandings about the core beliefs of the Church. A good example of this is the doctrine of the incarnation. It’s a pretty basic Christian belief that God was bodily present and is now Spiritually present in the world. The problem with doctrine, however, is when it becomes dogmatic. By dogma I mean using my interpretation of doctrine to judge someone else’s concept of God. That’s why in the United Church of Christ we value a diverse theological understanding and a variety of practices of worship. We choose to be theologically inclusive rather than exclusive.

But what about the creeds? Again, in the United Church of Christ, we choose to honor all the creeds as inspired by God and historically important, and this includes our own Statement of Faith. But the old pattern, the chain that was broken here, was using something like the Apostles’ Creed as a litmus test of one’s faith. Instead, we would prefer to hear “testimonies of faith.” In other words, tell me where you’ve encountered God in the world today? Do you see what I’m driving at here? Faith isn’t monolithic. Each person’s experience of God is different, thus, each of our perspectives on life and faith and the divinity vary. And it’s this diversity of thought and belief that adds to the richness and texture of our church.

It’s kind of like sewing a quilt. I mean, what if every block of the quit was solid white? It would be a pretty boring quilt, wouldn’t it? It would still be a quilt, but, I think, it would lack the ability to spark the interest or the passion of the beholder. Well, in the United Church of Christ we’ve chosen to put together the most colorful quilt we could possibility put sew. A quilt that welcomes people of all colors, ages, nationalities, and lifestyles. It’s a quilt that includes people from all sorts of religious backgrounds or no religious background at all. It’s a quilt that is big enough to include blocks from a diversity of contexts and a variety of cultures. And, my friends, it’s a quilt that big enough to include you, and your life experiences, and your beliefs about God. And this colorful quilt would have never been possible if our fore-bearers had not summoned the courage, perhaps even disobeyed an order or two, to do what was right. If we they had not broken the chains that bound the Church to exclusivism, both culturally and as a denomination, then the quilt we have today would be pretty bland, uninspiring.

But it’s not bland and we’re not uninspired! My friends, as we go forth from this place today, reassured by the presence of God through the Spirit and refreshed by the sacrament, my prayer is that we will be reinvigorated in our passion to welcome all people and to serve God; that we will summon our courage to do what is right, breaking the chains that bind humanity: the chains of oppression, the chains of marginalization, the chains of hate-filled rhetoric that lead to violence against people of color, the LGBTQ community, immigrants and refugees, or our brothers and sisters from other religions. And finally, my hope for all of us, as individuals and as a community of faith, is that in our efforts to loosen the bonds of oppression, we will find, and embrace, an ever-deepening connection with the Source of our faith and learning.

This is hope for all of you. This is my prayer! Amen and the people of God said, Amen.

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[i] Billy J. Stratton, Remembering the U.S. Soldiers Who Refused Orders to Murder Native Americans at Sand Creek. In “The Conversation” (www.sojo.net) 2017

 

Disciples Together

Luke 24:36-49 – Memorial Day Weekend

I read about a man this week who had not seen his family in over 20 years. There had been conflict in the family and decided to leave home and never return. More than 20 years later he had a change of heart and decided to reconcile with his family. He gathered up all his emotional courage and returned home. Now, upon seeing the man at the door, his mother and sisters responded much like the early followers of Jesus when he appeared out of nowhere; startled and fearful. I mean you can understand their reaction, right? This mother and her daughters had not expected to ever see the man again. Their minds must have been reeling. Was it really him? Could he really be back? But finally, their fear gave way to joy, the joy that this son and brother was alive and had returned to them. Throughout their visit the mother and sisters would say to him, “We can’t believe it’s you,” and would touch him and hug him for a sense of verification that it was really him.

Now, in a very real way, that’s how it was with the disciples and Jesus. They had seen Jesus crucified. Many of them had abandoned him in that hour while some had stayed and heard his last breath. Those who had remained removed him from the cross, they felt the cold numbness of his stiff dead body. They had laid him in the tomb and closed it shut. But whether they had remained or left, all of them were grieving. And yet, like the man who returned to his mother and sisters after a 20-year absence, here he was standing before them, flesh and bone, alive and in their presence![I]

But the crux of this story, the brass tacks if you will, comes when we combine the shock and fear and the eventual realization of resurrection, with Jesus’ greeting: “Peace be with you.” Jesus offers these frightened disciples a personal, embodied, unbelievable, incarnational sense of peace. Have you ever felt that way? Have you ever felt connected to God, so in-tune with the divine rhythm, that you actually embodied a sense of inner peace?

Barbara Brown Taylor offered a sermon on this text in which she beautifully describes this embodied experience of Jesus, and the way he drew their attention to his hands and his feet. She poetically recalls the ways the hands and feet of Jesus had been important in his ministry, healing people, breaking bread, traveling around with the good news. Now, wounded and bruised, those same hands and feet were proof to the disciples that, in her words, “…that he had gone through the danger and not around it.”

Through the danger, and not around it. I think we spend a great deal of time and energy trying to find a way around difficult situations, rather than trying to live through them. And who could blame us? Who wants to experience pain or danger, or come face to face with the suffering of other people, or the suffering of the earth? And yet, Taylor says, we bear hope for the world because of the commission Jesus gave the disciples and the whole church all those years ago. We are the Body, and the Image, of the Risen Christ in the world today, “Not our pretty faces and not our sincere eyes but our hands and feet,” she writes, “what we have done with them and where we have gone with them.”[ii]

Our hands and our feet. We are, my friends, the hands and feet of God’s peace in the world today. Far too often I hear Christian media, and I hear in pastoral circles, the articulation of a faith that’s solely based in morality, duty, or a denunciation of the “other” whoever the current “other” may be. The use rules and doctrine build walls that obscure their vision of the poor and the suffering. That’s the “finding a way around danger” that Taylor was talking about. But if we are to take seriously the teaching of Christ and go through the danger, then we must take this idea of being God’s hands and feet, and I would add, God’s heart and voice, seriously as well.

How? Well, we are the hands and feet of peace when we welcome the stranger, when we open our home to the refugee and our heart to the immigrant. We are the hands and feet of peace when we practice justice and promote equality among all people and when we seek to preserve and restore the beauty of nature. We are the hands and feet of peace when we visit the lonely, feed the hungry, house the homeless, or lift-up the downtrodden. We are God’s voice of peace whenever we speak words of kindness and we are God’s heart of peace whenever we participate in acts of compassion.

My friends, “Jesus came to knock down walls and widen the circle of inclusion, rather than draw strict theological and moral lines. It’s not that Jesus had no standards, [of course he did] But his mission was focused on opening God’s [realm] to more and more people.”[iii] And he did that, and continues to do that, by offering the unconditional sense of peace to all people.

You know, a wise friend once told me that there cannot truly be world peace until all people, or at least a vast majority of them, are able to find an inner peace. You see, when we’re out there being God’s hands and feet of peace, it’s not only the other, the one we’re serving, who’s receiving the Peace of Christ, we’re gaining a sense of peace as well. Because peace, inner peace and the ever-widening circles of peace that come as a result of finding inner peace, begin with transformation. The Dalai Lama once said, “Although attempting to bring about world peace through the internal transformation of individuals is difficult, it is the only way.”[iv] Although it’s difficult, it’s the only way.

My blessing for each of you, as we depart this place today, is this: “May the Peace of God surround you; may the Peace of Christ uphold you; and may the Peace of the Spirit be within you, now, and forever from now. Amen and the people of God said, Amen.

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[i] Minerva Carcano The Good News is for Everyone. (www.Day1.org) 1997.

[ii] Barbara Brown Taylor quoted in Love Means Showing Up by Katheryn Matthews (www.ucc.org/samuel) 2018

[iii] Henry G Brinton, “A Welcoming Table,” ON Scripture, Odyssey Networks, 2012.

[iv] H.H. the Dalai Lama in Peace is Every Step by Thich Nhat Hanb (Bantam Books, 1991)

Imagine

Luke 24 The Walk to Emmaus

They say misery loves company. I think that’s true. In the hospital nursery it’s called “social crying.” One baby starts crying and all the rest follow suit. In the workplace, one person complains, and all the others join in. Yes, there’s more than a grain of truth to the old adage: “misery loves company.”

In the narrative that we have before us today, two disciples shuffle along, keeping each other company, miserable company, but company, nevertheless. They’re immersed in their sadness, they had left everything behind to follow Jesus and now, he was dead. All was lost and they were headed home. Who can blame them for feeling hopeless? But, at the same time, their grief had blinded them, at least temporarily, to the hope of resurrection. Their loss was all they were willing to embrace. “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel,” they said. But their faith was foiled by what they considered to be an insufficient evidence of Resurrection.[I]

This is the first point-of-contact with our world that we see in this text; this idea of an “insufficient evidence of resurrection.” What does that mean? Well, I believe in order to get-at the meaning here, we need to ask ourselves a simple question: What does resurrection mean to me? Well, maybe it’s not that simple of a question after all. I mean, is resurrection only an old story about the physical resuscitation of an iterate Rabbi who was executed because he dared challenge the powers-that-be? Or is resurrection something more.

Something more. In ancient Celtic Christianity they often referred to God as “the more.” I like that. I like it because it alludes to the mysterious nature of God of which we can know only bits and pieces. And resurrection is one of these pieces. A piece that by its very nature indicates the presence of God. A Presence that we have come to understand as within, around, and through all of life; even when, maybe especially when, life is difficult. So, resurrection then, is about taking those places in our lives and places in the world around us, those dark and painful, isolating places; it’s about taking those Emmaus Road, misery-loves-company moments, and exposing them to the healing and light and life of the Spirit. How do I know this? I know because in my own life I have experienced Christ; not as some distant event in the past, or some dusty old doctrine, but as a real, Living Presence. A Presence, an Energy, a Consciousness, that is both beyond words and yet as real as the very breath I draw.

And, as you already know, this is where our two Emmaus Road travelers ended up as well. At first, they didn’t recognize Jesus and perhaps they might even have passed right by him if not for a culturally defined expectation to provide hospitality. That’s the second point-of-contact with our world: hospitality. It was the custom, the tradition of people in that day and age to provide hospitality to anyone who darkened their door. And these disciples displayed that expectation of hospitality by not only walking with the stranger but inviting him to share in a meal and stay the night.

Now, as you know, the expectation of hospitality in our time is very different. But I would argue not completely absent. I co-lead a mission trip a number of years ago to the Appalachian Mountain region of North Carolina. Now, we didn’t know what our work detail would be until we arrived. It turned out that our task was to replace a leaky roof on an old house. Luckily, it was a fairly flat roof, so it wasn’t overly difficult for this group of teen-aged kids to move around and work. That is, except for one young girl in particular. Hanna. Hanna was terrified of heights and no matter how much encouragement or coxing she received, scaling that ladder was out-of-the-question. So, as you might imagine, Hanna found herself disconnected from the rest of the group. Yes, she was our ground support, gofer if you will, but that occupied very little of her time. But you know what? Hanna made the best of it. You see, the residents of the house included two little boys and as the week progressed, Hanna filled her day with imaginative ways of befriending them. She playing with them, read to them; Hanna made them feel special, wanted. And this was confirmed on the very last day, when saying our goodbyes, one of the little boys came up to Hanna and whispered something in her ear. Later, as we were on our way home, someone asked Hanna, “What did he whisper?” To which, Hanna shyly smiled, and said, “I love you.”

I shared this story with you today for a couple of reasons. First, I believe Hanna demonstrated what hospitality should look like in our world. She met those two boys right where they were at and she showed them unconditional love. And for the rest of us, it doesn’t matter if we’re listening to a friend vent, or working at the food pantry, or visiting a lonely person, or helping out at the Humane Society; if we can connect with people on a personal level, without hesitation or judgment, and if we can show that person the unconditional love that we have experienced from our creator; then we are practicing hospitality.

That’s the first lesson from Hanna, and the second is this: Hanna was imaginative in her hospitality. When faced with a situation in which she could have pouted or done nothing, she chose to think beyond the pale, coming up with a constructive way to serve in that context. And its imagination that brings us to the third and final point of contact between the Emmaus Road experience way back then and our experience of the Risen Christ here in our time. In the narrative, in spite of their misery-loves-company attitude, and over and above the expectation of hospitality, there must have been some vague memory emerge when Jesus blessed and broke the bread for their meal. Because it was in that moment that they came to understand the true power of resurrection. It was in what we call the sacrament, that “the More” became real to them.

Isn’t that interesting? Jesus only became known through teaching and sacrament. But perhaps we sometimes try to limit what qualifies as teaching or sacrament. Maybe we should consider expanding the concept of teaching and the meaning of sacrament for our time. I mean, is there sacrament, a sacred space or time, beyond the communion table or the baptismal font? Can Divine Wisdom come from many places, many people, from a diverse collection of religious or philosophical texts; might God be revealed through everyday conversations, with everyday people, in our everyday context? Can God come-to-life in new and imaginative ways?

I don’t know the answers to all of these questions, but I think it would be a worthwhile task to explore them. And maybe, just maybe, if we begin to explore and experience teaching and sacrament in a new way, maybe we will begin to imagine a world where all people live in peace and practice justice; a world where there is no place for greed or hunger or homelessness; maybe we could even imagine a time when all people choose to coexist with nature and each other.

And all of this brings us back around, full circle, to the words of John Lennon; words that I echo still today. “You may say that I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope someday you’ll join us, and the world will be as one.”

May it be so, for you and for me.

Amen and the people of God said, Amen.

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[i] Alyce McKenzie Saying No to Mrs. Bidemeier (www.patheos.com)2014

Life -Giving Acts

John 21:1-19     Mother’s Day

Today is Mother’s Day. A day set-aside to honor our mothers. Happy Mother’s Day to all the moms out there! But, in recent years, I’ve started expanding this celebration to include aunts, grandmas, or any woman who has stepped-up to nurture young people along the way. I started this because it’s become apparent to me that the configuration, the very definition of what it means to “be a family” family has changed, evolved. The “basic family unit” doesn’t always consist of a mom, a dad, 2.3 children, and a golden retriever. In many cases, family doesn’t have anything to do with blood relationships at all. Rather, family often consists of people there for each other through thick and thin. It’s not my place to judge this reality, simply to recognize it and honor it.

So, it’s with this expanded understanding of family that we celebrate Mother’s Day, and, interestingly enough, this broad definition of family also makes its way into the story that we have before us today. This resurrection appearance narrative from the end of John’s Gospel is commonly called the “Breakfast by the Sea.” And, as I indicated before, there’s a whole lot more going here than just breakfast.

First the obvious. Peter denied even knowing Jesus three times in the fear and darkness of Good Friday. But here, in the light of morning, in this intimate seaside setting, Peter is forgiven with a three-fold assurance of restoration. But notice something here, after each reassertion of the question comes a call to action: “Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep.” Peter’s charge is to put his love for Jesus into swift, concrete action.

That’s the obvious connection to the rest of John’s narrative, but there’s also a less obvious, more subtle, sub-text as well. This threefold act of forgiveness and subsequent charge to feed and tend humanity isn’t disconnected from the previous story. Let’s look at the sequence of events that led up to Peter’s conversation with Jesus. The disciples had gone back to their livelihood, fishing. Jesus appeared on the beach, but they didn’t recognize him. He gave them a command to “cast their nets into deeper water” and when they complied, the disciples witnessed a miracle of abundance. They recognized Jesus in that moment. He then immediately served them a breakfast of fish and bread.

Lets’ see. Where have we seen a miracle of abundance using fish and loves before? Yep. The feeding of the 5,000. We’re also reminded in our context of communion, right? But it goes even deeper than that! We, like the disciples of old, often miss Jesus in our midst. After we leave worship we go back to our livelihood, we go back to our beach, even when we’ve had a life-changing, perspective-altering experience of the divine, at some point, we must go back to our routine. And you know what, that’s alright.

The deeper lesson here, however, is to incorporate our experience of the divine, our moments of recognition, into our everyday lives. How? By symbolically casting our nets into deeper waters; by loving all of God’s people and by tending the blessing of this beautiful creation. A love, as I said before, that’s expressed through action. How do we know this? Because both of the Greek words interpreted as “love” in today’s text are verbs. Agape, God’s unconditional love, and Phillios, humanity’s love for one another, are both actions words. So, Peter literally says, “Yes Love, you know that I am loving you.” To which Jesus responds in essence, “then go and love my lambs in the same way.” This is important! It’s important because this is our charge as people of faith. We are called and challenged both as individuals and as a community to seek out and incorporate new and innovate ways to love. Which brings us back around, full circle, to this idea of an expanded definition of family.

You know, I was given a glimpse this week of this very thing from a most unexpected source. Manny. I was in the kitchen doing something and Manny was in the living room playing Fortnite with his friends. I think need to pause here for a little explanation before I go on. If you’ve been to our house, you know that the kitchen and the living room are really the same room, so it was easy to hear what he was saying. And when I say playing Fortnite with his friends, you need to understand that he was on his Nintendo Switch with headphones on so he could communicate with the other players. Okay. So, here I am in the kitchen/living room, when I hear Manny say, “Don’t shoot my family!” Now, to a non-gamer like me, that was a little bit disturbing and demanded an explanation. Well, it turns out that Becky and I were not under threat, but rather that Manny considered his friends from school, who were on his team, family.

Isn’t that interesting? The configuration of family can come in countless ways. On the shore of the Tiberius Sea, over two thousand years ago, Jesus served his family breakfast. Not his mother or his brothers, but those who had been with him on the journey. He then sent them out with a charge to treat, dare I say “consider,” all of his lambs, all of his sheep, all of humanity as family.

I mean, what if I were to expand my definition of family to include all of you. That’s not a huge stretch of the imagination. Traditionally, church folks have referred to each other as sister or brother. But what about those beyond our congregation? What if I were to consider a Catholic priest as my brother? Or a Jewish Rabbi? Or a Muslim Imam? Might my perspective on the world change, dare I say for the better? What if I were to consider a woman who’s struggling to feed her four children, four children from four different, broken relationships as my sister? Might I then have more compassion for her situation? What if I were to consider a veteran living on the streets because his untreated PTSD as my brother? Might I then find my voice and demand change? What if I were to consider a lonely woman living out her days lost in the confusion of dementia as my grandmother? Might I be moved to visit her? What if I were to consider all those innocent children being “detained” on our Southern border as my own children? Might I then be moved to demand justice?

Do you see what I’m driving at here? When we consider another person, any person, as family, we’re far less likely to write them off, or to ignore their suffering, or to hate them because their different.

My friends, Jesus is saying to each of us, “do you love me?” And when we love our neighbor, when we love the least of God’s lambs, and when we find a way to love those who society considers unlovable, to forgive as we have been forgiven, and when we act to demonstrate that love; we are answering the call with a resounding, “Yes Lord, you know that I love you.”

This is my prayer for all of us.

Happy Mother’s Day and Amen.