Earth Day Reimagined

Third Sunday of Easter: Frustration and Hope

The LORD is merciful and righteous; our God is compassionate. The LORD protects simple folk; God saves me whenever I am brought down. I tell myself, You can be at peace again, because God has been good to you. You, God, have delivered me from death, my eyes from tears and my foot from stumbling, so I’ll walk before the LORD in the land of the living. Psalm 116:5-9 Common English Bible (CEB)

As I read this passage from the Book of Psalms, I was struck by the line, “The LORD protects simple folk.” I think I was so struck by that line because sometimes in our pursuit of all that is lofty and holy, in the race to discover the right philosophy or the proper theology, we forget that God protects “simple folk” like you and me.

Now, the term “simple folk” could be taken as derogatory. Sometimes simple is equated with a lack of education or wit. But I don’t think that was the intent of the author here. Instead, I think he was attempting to illustrate that God is not only on the side of the rich and powerful but that God is also protects the average Joe, like you and me.

So, what if we were to expand this understanding of simple folk beyond just this passage and remember that God is the God of all people and all of creation, even the birds of the air and the weeds of the field. God is the God of the simple. And it’s within this simplicity that we find a deeper meaning of how to follow Christ.

I mean, Jesus never asked us to recite a creed or to seek power, fame, or wealth. He never said step on the head of your neighbor or exploit the poor in order to get ahead. Of course not. But what Jesus did command us, in the simplicity of his message, was to be a loving people. He said things like, “love God, love your neighbor as yourself, love your enemy,” and finally, we are to “love one another as God has loved us.”

I can think of no better way to overcome our frustration as the days of sheltering in place continue. Love one another by refusing to put your neighbor in danger. Love one another by keeping in touch by phone or from a distance, especially those who are alone during this time. Love one another by continuing to give to the food pantry, by continuing the work of peace and justice by supporting our church both prayerfully and fiscally. Love one another, especially on this Earth Day weekend, by using your voice and vote to promote policy change, both locally and nationally, because even when this pandemic is over, the existential threat of climate change will still be a danger to all of us.

In his book Cathedral on Fire, Brooks Berndt says, “The sheer enormity of the climate crisis combined with the empire-sized forces that brought us to this moment can instill a paralyzing sense of powerlessness. Yet, Jesus’ ministry points to one of the gifts that churches bring to the climate movement: a new reality, a reality defined by liberating values and practices. In the face of odds that seem overwhelming, churches provide a relational web of sustenance and support. Bonds are formed. Needs are met. A common purpose is shared. This is the stuff of tangible hope.”[i]

While Brooks was speaking about the climate crisis here, I think these words of hope and the role of the church can also be applied to this on-going pandemic. “This is the stuff of tangible hope.” It’s a hope that’s propagated within and among a group of people who love one another in the same way God as loved, and continues to love, each of them. It’s a love that expands beyond the frustration of the times, and it’s a love that transcends borders, ethnicity or race, it transcends social standing or past mistakes; this love, the love of Christ’s followers for one another, their neighbor, their enemy, will in the end, transcend these days of isolation and fear. And I don’t know about you, but the simplicity of this message and the love for one another that I have already witnessed on the ground by our congregations, that gives me cause to hope. I tell myself, the Psalmist writes, You can be at peace again, because God has been good to you. …So, I’ll walk before God in the land of the living. Amen and Amen.

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[i] Brooks Berndt Cathedral on Fire: A Church Handbook for the Climate Crisis (Cleveland: United Church of Christ, 2020) pg.24

Repaired by Hope

John 20:1-18 Easter Message

There’s an old story about a man who was in a terrible accident and he was comatose for 30 years! He finally woke up and was amazed at all the changes in the world. The Internet. Technology. All the advances in medicine and science. He started reading book after book about all the changes in the world. A few months later he had an appointment with his doctor, and he said, “All these changes in the world are amazing!” And the doctor said, “Yes, absolutely. So many wonderful things have happened in the world.” And then the man said, “Of course, I still believe that the greatest miracle ever is the resurrection of Jesus Christ on Easter morning.” That’s when the doctor said, “I guess you haven’t got to the part about the Cubs winning the World Series!” [i]

Well, the Cubs not-withstanding, I agree with the man . . . nothing surpasses the message that Christ the Lord is Risen! But the truth of it, the relevance of it, the great heartbeat of it, well, that’s up to us alive.

What do I mean? Well, I believe with all of my being that the Love of God is alive and well in the world today. And it’s because the Spirit of God journeys with us that we can face these troubling days, that we can endure this time of isolation, and that even as we mourn the loss of so many people to the Covid19 pandemic, we can find hope.

My friends, we can have hope, when can share hope, we can rely on hope, because God is with us. But there’s a challenge of being in the presence of the Risen and Living God and the challenge is this: it’s not something we can keep for ourselves. The grace and the blessings and the love that we’ve known in our lives, even in our darkest hours, is something we need to share with others.

Why? Well, as we gather virtually today, I would invite each of us to consider the things we admire most about Jesus. What was it about this wandering Rabbi, this first-century prophet, that has captivated the imagination of millions and millions of people across the centuries?

First, he was a person of profound compassion, bringing good news to the poor and healing to the brokenhearted. He reached out to everyone who had been wounded by life, including those who had been wounded by organized religion. He transcended ethnicity, race, religion, gender, and status in society. And instead of judgment, he brought understanding. Instead of revenge, he brought forgiveness. And in the face of power, he brought courage for justice and fairness and respect for all people. Most of all, he brought a profound sense of hope, believing that betrayal and violence do not have the last word. Nor do our personal disappointments or heartaches. As long as love beats inside the human heart, then a new humanity is possible. That’s the Easter message we celebrate today.[ii]

It’s a message of grace and faith and love. My friends, our Easter message today is one that proclaims the veritas of Spring in the midst of lifelessness, healing where there was once, only suffering, and the light of hope penetrating the darkness. Our Easter message for today is one of life over death.

Now, as I considered this understanding of Jesus and Easter this week, I came across a wonderful set of 7 affirmations from a UCC congregation in Los Angles. 7 Affirmations we would all do well to consider on the Easter Sunday.

  1. We affirm that the gospel of Christ calls us to speak to our times, as it did to all our Christian ancestors.
  2. We affirm that God’s love shines equally on all people, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, ethnic background, or religion.
  3. We affirm all creation is God’s handiwork, and that we are called to respect, protect, and nurture it. Not exploit it.
  4. We embrace the diversity of our state and nation, and seek respect for women, refugees and immigrants, different nationalities, minority groups, the poor, and the disadvantaged in our society.
  5. We resist those who use hate, anger, and intimidation to divide us, and who use speech, disinformation, and actions to demean others.
  6. We resolve to make our church a safe space for all people of good will and to welcome them with dignity, respect, and compassion.
  7. We commit ourselves to make our church a vibrant place for ideas, a faith informed not only by Scripture, but by reason, experience, scholarship, and scientific knowledge.[iii]

You know, there’s so much brokenness in the world. A brokenness that’s not limited to “them.” Everyone, including you and me, carries something broken inside our soul. But what if we could live-into these 7 affirmations? What if they became our mantra? Would we not display to even a greater degree those qualities that we admired in Jesus? Might some of the brokenness of the world and within our own beings, be repaired? Repaired by hope.

My friends, God is alive, and God is still speaking in the world today, even when it’s beyond our capacity to understand. And it’s in the presence of God that we are being repaired by hope each and every day.

I invite you now to hear a story of life over death, a story being repaired by hope, I invite you to hear once again, the story of Easter!

Early in the morning of the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. She ran to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they’ve put him.” Peter and the other disciple left to go to the tomb. They were running together, but the other disciple ran faster than Peter and was the first to arrive at the tomb. Bending down to take a look, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he didn’t go in. Following him, Simon Peter entered the tomb and saw the linen cloths lying there. He also saw the face cloth that had been on Jesus’ head. It wasn’t with the other clothes but was folded up in its own place. Then the other disciple, the one who arrived at the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. They didn’t yet understand the scripture that Jesus must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to the place where they were staying. Mary stood outside near the tomb, crying. As she cried, she bent down to look into the tomb. She saw two angels dressed in white, seated where the body of Jesus had been, one at the head and one at the foot. The angels asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”

She replied, “They have taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they’ve put him.” As soon as she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she didn’t know it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who are you looking for?” Thinking he was the gardener, she replied, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.” Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabbouni” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Don’t hold on to me, for I haven’t yet gone up to my Father. Go to my brothers and sisters and tell them, ‘I’m going up to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene left and announced to the disciples, “I’ve seen the Lord.” Then she told them what he said to her.[iv]

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[i] Scott Colgazier. Easter? It’s Up to You! (www.progressivechristanity.org) 2017

[ii] Ibid Colgazier

[iii] Adapted Statement of Faith, First Congregational Church, Los Angles California, 2017.

[iv] John 20:1-18 Common English Bible (CEB)

When In Doubt, Doubt

John 20:19-28

Today, as the season of Easter continues, we begin a series of narratives about the appearances of Jesus after the Resurrection. But, as you probably already know, these “stories” and more importantly, their purpose, vary greatly from gospel to gospel.

What do I mean? Well, consider that Mark ended his masterpiece of a gospel with a cliffhanger. We might even call it “a resurrection with question marks.”[i] You see, in the original text of Mark, there were no resurrection appearances, only a handful of frightened woman returning home. Now, “Luke, Matthew and John, writing generations later, embellished the story, adding multiple appearances and new miracles by the risen Jesus. I don’t know, maybe they had better intel than Mark. Maybe they created fiction for a people craving hope. Or maybe they had a lived experience of a Christ who kept showing up, shaping and saving their lives.”[ii]

But here’s the good news for us as we continue to endure the isolation and unknown of this pandemic: a double-thousand years later, we pick up these four stories, and as we consider them within each context, we are invited to discover our own sense of resurrection. My friends, the original Easter story has never ended. Resurrection isn’t limited to history but instead it goes on, in endless song, above the earth’s lamentations. Resurrection isn’t an ending, but rather, it’s only the beginning.

Now, the strange new world we’re living in may lead us to believe that resurrection is only a thing of the past. I’ve heard time and again across these past weeks, that this pandemic is the end of days. And I realize that a narrow view of the situation may seem that way. This disease may seem like the end of the story. The reality is that we will not all be raised from our sickbeds or our tombs. Some of us will lose our jobs or the businesses we have spent a lifetime building. Marriages that might have made it otherwise, absurdly pressured by quarantine, will end in divorce. And maybe worst of all, some of our loved ones or some of our neighbors may lose their lives just as some of our fellow citizens of this nation and this world, have already lost theirs. We mourn each and every one of these losses and offer prayers of hope and healing for their families and their friends.

But here’s the thing. After all of these endings, there will be new beginnings; some of them visible, tellable, others beyond the veil of earthly life. My friends, Easter is not a history lesson with a tidy ending, but an invitation to look past death in all its disguises. The problem with a lamentation proclaiming the end of days is that it doesn’t allow for resurrection. Yes, you may sometimes have to endure a year of Good Fridays, but in time, Easter will always arrive. It is as inevitable as a sunrise after the long night.[iii]

And it’s with this understanding of the on-going-ness of Easter that we encounter Thomas today. Thomas the disciple. Thomas famously dubbed “Doubting Thomas.” But is this a fair or even accurate portrayal of Thomas? And if it is, what is it about doubt that frightens so?

I mean, in the text, Jesus doesn’t seem to be afraid or even put-off by Thomas’ need to see for himself. Actually, Jesus is rather matter-of-fact towards Thomas. He walks right in, bids him peace, and says, “Here Thomas. Put your hand here and touch there.” It’s as if Thomas’s doubt is the most natural thing in the world. In fact, the word for faith and the word for doubt come from the same Greek root. It’s as if they’re two sides of the same coin. It’s as if you can’t have one without the other. If your faith doesn’t have any doubt mixed in with it, it’s not really faith, it’s certainty.[iv]

And therein lays the problem. The most frightening words in the language of the Christian faith are “God’s will is…” Why? Because to claim to know God’s will, to be certain about the nature of God, is nothing more than hubris. And as you already know, we are challenged by Scriptures to practice humility, the opposite of hubris. We are invited to dwell in the Mystery of God. Because, you see, certainty is an end in and of itself. Certainty doesn’t allow for growth or discovery, or the expansion of the mind or faith; certainty doesn’t allow for new relationships to form. Certainty stands in the way of the gracious God-given invitation to contemplate our doubts, and own them, which then frees us to begin to discover our own sense of resurrection.

You know, Frederick Buechner once said, “Whether your faith is that there is a God or that there is not a God, if you don’t have any doubts, you are either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.”[v]

I read about one theologian who tells his students that knowing God is not like knowing whether you’re hungry. It’s more like music. “Like the knowledge of music,” he says, “the knowledge of God is something that can never be fully attained. It’s a knowledge which always leads to a kind of unknowing.”[vi]

I would like to leave you with one final thought today. In her book Leaving Church, Barbara Brown Taylor talks about people who would come to her because they had trouble believing. Some believed “less than they thought they should about Jesus. They were not troubled by the idea that he may have had two human parents instead of one, or that his real presence with his disciples after his death might have been more metaphysical than physical… For others, the issue was that they believed more than Jesus. Having beheld his glory, they found themselves running into God’s glory all over the place, including places where Christian doctrine said it should not be.” In the midst of these conversations, and her own questions, she said, “I realized just how little interest I had in defending Christian beliefs. The parts of the Christian story that had drawn me into the Church were not the believing parts but the beholding parts. ‘Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy. Behold the Lamb of God. Behold, I stand at the door and knock…’ Christian faith seemed to depend on beholding things that were clearly beyond belief.”[vii]

Thomas, I’m convinced, was a beholder. But what was it that Thomas beheld? Was it, Jesus’ eyes, piercing and deep? His face, open and available? The way Jesus walked into the room, gently but with authority? These are the features we’d normally look at to recognize a person. But no, Thomas wanted to see the wounds, the nail holes, the pierced side. He wanted to witness the epicenters of pain.

If like Thomas you’re feeling doubt about discovering your sense of resurrection, whether life will really win out over death, then it’s time for you to look into the wounded places in the world. You need to be in touch with people who are wounded, people who are down and out, people who are poor, people whom the world has forgotten or despised or rejected. You need to be in these places because at one time or another we’re all the ones who are wounded. And it’s in these wounds that we will finally find the Living Jesus.[viii]

My friends, as you turn off your device today and go back to your exile, my prayer for all of you is this: When in doubt, doubt. If you’re suffering, seek healing. If you’re struggling with fear, that you will let your faith shine through the darkness. And when you feel like you’re at the end of your rope, that you will pray to discover your sense of resurrection.

May it be so for you and for me. You’re all in my prayers. Amen and Amen.

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[i] Molly Baskette This Is Not the End (www.ucc.org/stillspeaking) 2020

[ii] Ibid. Baskette

[iii] Ibid. Baskette

[iv] MaryAnn McKibben Dana “Doubt Your Faith, Have Faith in Your Doubt” (www.asermonforeverysunday.com) 2017

[v] Ibid. McKibben

[vi] Michael DeLashmutt, quote from the Christian Century.

[vii] Barbara Brown Taylor, Leaving Church, p. 110.

[viii] Ibid. McKibben.

 

Palm Sunday

Matthew 21:1-11

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.[I]

This is of course The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost. And I began with this poem today because this concept of diverging roads looms large in this text and in the world today. Let me explain. In our Palm Sunday story from Matthew today, we see Jesus entering Jerusalem from the east. Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, however, suggest there was also another parade that day. There was a Roman procession entering from the west, a military parade, featuring the governor Pontius Pilate.

Now, the comparison of these two processions would have set up quite a contrast. One came as an expression of empire and military occupation whose goal was to make sure Israel’s oppressed masses didn’t find deliverance. It approached the city with mighty horses, weapons and helmets gleaming in the sun, proclaiming the power of empire. But the eastbound procession was quite different. Jesus came in on a donkey, the humblest form of transportation (after walking I suppose) And the crowds, the crowds were spreading cloaks and laying branches on the road in front of him, all the while calling out, “Hosanna, Hosanna in the highest heaven.” The west road was about spreading fear. But the Traveler from the east, he came proclaiming the peaceful reign of God.[ii]

Now, historically speaking, these two competing parades are well documented. We know they both took place. But theologically speaking there’s another road I’d like you to consider today. The one less traveled as it were and that road is the road to Emmaus.

You remember the story. Jesus appeared mysteriously to a couple of disillusioned disciples on the road to Emmaus. The disciples thought he was just another pilgrim heading home. As they were traveling along, these two disciples tell the incognito Jesus of their shattered hopes and dreams. A dream of liberation from Rome and a hope that rested on the shoulders of the great prophet whom they thought would redeem Israel.

Remember now, the concept of redemption for those disciples, and for many other Jews including Judas Iscariot, meant that a conquering, sword-wielding Messiah would come and lead them to freedom. They wanted a warrior messiah. So, you can understand why their hopes and dreams had been crushed by the death of Jesus.

But, that’s when it happened. Jesus, still a stranger to the disciples, proceeded to explain to them that their expectation for a Messiah had been accomplished through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. But they still hadn’t identified him at this point. Upon arriving in Emmaus, however, the disciples invited the stranger into their home to share a meal and stay the night. Jesus agreed. And when it was time for supper, he took the bread, gave thanks, broke it and gave it to them. It was in that moment, that they recognized the Risen and Living Christ.

So, here we are. We have three roads, three journeys, each containing a distinct message. Pilate’s message was “might makes right” and he could back up his claim with the mightiest military force on earth. But Christ’s message was a little different. Maybe we could say his message was, “right makes might.”

You see, as he mounted the donkey that day and as he began to move into Jerusalem, he knew what lie ahead. He knew he was headed toward the cross, toward his execution, toward his death. But he went anyway because he knew it was the right thing to do.

But the story doesn’t end there. It doesn’t end at the cross nor does it end in the tomb. Remember, the third road, the road to Emmaus. Now, this narrative has often been viewed as a message of faith or as a reflection of the sacrament. Others have lifted-up the hospitality of the two men and used them as an example of how to offer a wide welcome in our communities and churches today. All these applications are correct. But I think it goes deeper than that, especially considering the parade of palms.

You see, on the road to Emmaus Jesus was moving outward, away from Jerusalem, symbolically moving away from the cross of death and toward the resurrection of life. So, this story is finally about taking the good news out there taking out a message of hospitality, and sacrament, and faith.

Do you see what I’m driving at here? The road to Emmaus is the completion of the palm laden, triumphal journey into Jerusalem. It’s a completion of Christ’s journey in this world, but not ours. Our journey continues. It continues as we attempt to live-into our covenant with God and as we live-out our faith by enduring these troubling times, by remaining in the service to our neighbor, and by propagating community in spite of our isolation.

As we figuratively “hit the road” today, we can ask ourselves a couple of key questions that may facilitate our journey. As a congregation, what palm leaves have we spread? In other words, during the “quote/unquote” normal times and during this period of global upheaval how have we made a difference in our community and in the world? And on a more individual level, on a more Spiritual level, where have you seen Jesus? At a stop along the road? In the sacred, healing bread of communion? In the giving or receiving of hospitality? Perhaps by being there, if only on the phone, with someone who’s frightened, or grieving, or alone?

My friends, as we once again move into Holy Week, my prayer for all of us is that we will come full circle and complete our Lenten journey, by encountering the Risen and Living Christ on whatever road lays ahead. Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.

May it be so for you and for me. Amen.

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[i] Robert Frost. The Road Not Taken. (found at http://www.poetryfoundation.org)

[ii] John Crossan & Marcus Borg. Eclipsing Empire: Paul, Rome, and the Kingdom of God. (Living the Questions DVD Series, 2010)