Thoughts About Re-Opening Churches

I would like to address the fact that many churches across the nation and here in Wisconsin have resumed their regular Sunday morning services. I understand the sentiment. I too would love to see my beloved congregations worshipping in our sanctuaries. I miss our in-person community. But here’s the thing. In both of our congregations, the leadership has been monitoring the suggested protocols for re-opening from The World Health Organization and the CDC, The Wisconsin Council of Churches, The Wisconsin Conference of the United Church of Christ, specifically, Franz Rigert our conference minister. And even from Church Mutual, our insurance company. And the message from all of these organizations is crystal clear, they ALL suggest that we’re not there yet. My friends, we can BE the Church and we can BE in community with each other, even while we’re still apart.

So, as we continue to be separated in body but unified in spirit, let us come before God in this time of prayer and silent reflection.

God of Grace, Christ of Compassion, All-Encompassing Spirit…                                          Justice and Love, and doing the right thing, all seem so complicated. We engage in honest and sincere discussions, ask important questions, and make plans, but it seems like nothing ever changes and the world stays broken.

Silence

But, you’ve given us a picture, Sacred One, a clear, well-defined view of your dream for humanity and creation. In the Bible, we read about the life and love and compassion of Jesus, and we can see that you’ve outlined the steps, that you’ve indicated the colors, and demonstrated the method, to fill our world with compassion and peace and justice. It’s almost like painting by numbers, if only, if only we would follow the instructions.

Silence

Perhaps love and justice are not what’s complicated. Perhaps, it’s our tendency to look inward rather than looking out our across this nation and this world with the eyes of acceptance, with the hearts of compassion, and with hands and feet ready to serve you by loving all our neighbors, the neighbor across the street and the one across the globe.

Silence

So, now we pray for ourselves, dear God, that we may learn to follow you – even when it’s hard, or unpopular, or difficult to understand. And we pray for our world, for justice and peace to emerge from this pandemic and that hope will remain steadfast, that your vision of celebration and of sharing, of respect and caring, may be embraced and lived, in every corner of the earth. We pray today to find the will and courage to “paint by numbers”   Amen & God’s faithful said, Amen.

God’s Here!

Acts 17 & Psalm 139

My message to all of you today is a simple one. God is present with us at all times and in all circumstances. Even when we can’t seem to find God in our midst, God is here! God is present during this current pandemic, God is with us in our isolation, in our times of uncertainty and fear, as well as in our moments of joy and times of celebration. God is present among, around, and within all living things. God is here!

“Now, that’s all fine,” you might say, “I like unicorns and rainbows as much as the next person, but what about those times when God seems distant? In my fear, in my distress, in my grief, in my loneliness, what about those times when I can’t feel God’s presence? Is there something wrong with me? Is there something wrong with my faith?”

Well, as we begin to investigate these questions and attempt to understand this premise of a constant and consistent divine presence, I think we may need to take on a new perspective. What do I mean by a “new perspective”? Well, Marcus Borg, in a devotion called How We Imagine God Matters, helps us out a bit here. Borg tells us that “…the Bible is not God’s story of God. But rather, that the Hebrew Bible is ancient Israel’s story of God, and the New Testament is the early Christian movement’s story of God, especially as revealed in Jesus. How did these two ancient communities see the central character in their story? How did they imagine God, and God’s relationship to the world?”

On one hand,” Borg says, “the Bible often uses personal imagery to speak of God. God is spoken of in personified images. We say that God is like a king, or a parent, or a shepherd, or a potter, to cite a partial list. Now, the sheer number of images points to the fact that they are metaphors. God is not literally any of these, but is like a king, like a parent, like a shepherd, and so forth. But when we take these human-like metaphors literally, we generate a way of seeing God commonly called “supernatural theism.” That is, we see God as someone “out there” who created the universe a long time ago as something separate from Godself. God does occasionally intervene, especially in the more dramatic events reported in the Bible, but most of the time, according to supernatural theism, God is “out there.”

On the other hand, the Bible also describes God’s relationship to the universe as “right here” as well as “more” than right here. This way of imagining God sees the deity as an all-encompassing Spirit: a non-material dimension of reality that surrounds us and indwells everything around us.[I]

Now, our reading for today from the Book of Acts describes God in this way. Paul says that God is “…the one in whom we live and move and have our being.” In other words, God is not somewhere “out there” but rather, God is all around us: we live and move “in God.”

The same can be said for Psalm 139. The Psalmist asks, “Where could I go to get away from your Spirit?” He then imagines journeying through the ancient three-story universe: ascending into the heavens, descending to the depths of death, and traveling to the furthest corners of the earth, and yet, the author concludes, God is always present.

Now, it’s important for us to know that it’s alright to speak of God in personified terms. These images helps us to begin to understand the nature of God in terms that we can wrap our minds around. But we cannot rest there. We must continue to grow in our understanding of God as ever-present. Especially when the storms and struggles and pandemics of life surround us.

I read a devotion this week by Kenneth L. Samuel that helps us to begin to move in that direction. He writes, “Jesus invites us to not only believe in God’s eternal existence [but] to believe in God’s very present-presence. The presence of God in you and among you, right now.” He goes on to say, “The presence of God is expressed in the dedication of health care professionals. And food suppliers. And grocery store workers. And sanitation and cleaning service personnel. The presence of God is expressed in the challenge we all now face to differentiate that which is tangential to life from that which is essential to life. The presence of God is expressed in calls and texts that touch the hearts of friends and loved ones. [And finally] The presence of God is expressed in giving our planet some time to breathe from the relentless assaults of environmental abuse.[ii]

My friends, God is present in all of these ways because in the end God isn’t a person or some distant entity. God is expressed in all of these ways that Kenneth Samuel describes here and more, because God is love. God is wisdom. God is compassion. God is found in generosity, and in kindness, and in respect; God is discovered in blossoming relationships and in long-time partnerships; God is present whenever we reach-out to others, whenever we pray or meditate or reflect on the greater good for all. My friends, God is present when we work for justice, when we love in the name of compassion, and when we seek a lasting peace both within ourselves and among nations.

Beloved, as we continue to be the church, to be community, separated in body but unified in spirit, may we all come to recognize that we do so in the presence of a Loving God who’s here right now and will continue to speak to each of us as we go forward.

Amen & Amen.

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[i] Marcus Borg How We Imagine God Matters (www.beliefnet.com) 2000

[ii] Kenneth L. Samuel Let Not Your Heart Be Troubled (dailydevotional@ucc.org) 5/10/2020

Center of Love

Hear now these words of wisdom from the 12th chapter of Paul’s Epistle to Rome as told by Eugene Peterson in The Message.

Love from the center of who you are; don’t fake it. Run for dear life from evil; hold on for dear life to good. Be good friends who love deeply; practice playing second fiddle. Don’t burn out; keep yourselves fueled and aflame. Be alert servants of the Master, cheerfully expectant. Don’t quit in hard times; pray all the harder. Help needy Christians; be inventive in hospitality. Bless your enemies; no cursing under your breath. Laugh with your happy friends when they’re happy; share tears when they’re down. Get along with each other; don’t be stuck-up. Make friends with nobodies; don’t be the great somebody. Don’t hit back; discover beauty in everyone.

“Love from the center of who you are” and “discover beauty in everyone.” These words from Paul’s message to the Romans have been an important part of my life and ministry. When I was in a particularly challenging situation, I had these very words on a slip of paper under the glass on my desk so I would be reminded of them every day. And believe me, there were days when finding my “center of love” wasn’t an easy task. There were days, when my anger would begin to well-up and I was sure that “vengeance” should have been mine, there were days… well, let’s just say that a glance at Paul’s simple wisdom would calm me down and help me to put things back into perspective.

But putting things into perspective during these difficult times, that seems to be another thing altogether. You see, I’ve noticed during these past weeks of isolation and shut-down that people are becoming even more angry than before. And in this political climate, that’s saying something. But it’s not just politics. I read rants from parents on Facebook about how difficult it is to have their children home all the time. They’re complaining about spending too much time with their spouse and some are even irritated by their dog.

Now, I understand their frustration to a degree. I know they’re worried about the economy, losing their job and subsequently, their health insurance. Fear can easily morph into anger. I get it. But at the same time I don’t. I mean, yes, there are inconveniences caused by having to stay home and being asked to take precautions, like wearing a mask or social distancing, when you have to go out. But from my perspective there are so many bigger things at stake here. Life and death. There are very real issues of injustice; issues that already existed but have been exasperated by this virus. Issues like the very real face of inequality in this nation. People of color, immigrants, undocumented folks, the homeless population; these people are at a greater risk of dying from this disease. And let’s not forget those living in long-term care facilities and nursing homes and the people who care for them. They’re especially vulnerable.

So, the question in my mind is this: How should we respond to these issues? How do we as an “isolated” community of faith actually make a difference?

You know, these are tough questions and there are no easy answers. There just aren’t. But this is where the wisdom of my slip of paper comes into play. “Love from the center of who you are” and “discover beauty in everyone.” These words give us pause and permission to think and then act beyond ourselves. These beautiful words begin to form the foundation of what it means to be a community of faith, a church. Remember, the church isn’t a building. A building can be, and should be, closed during something like a pandemic. But the church, our communities of faith, they’re something more.

Paul, goes on in this passage to describe his vision of what it means to be a community of faith that is “centered in love” He says things like be genuine, choose to do good things over bad things, be humble and be a good friend. He admonishes us to hang in there, stay passionate for justice, a passion that is realized in prayer, outreach to the needy, and this is interesting, he wants us to be “inventive in hospitality.” We should love our enemies; laugh together in times of joy and weep together in times of sorrow. And finally, this one always makes me laugh a little, get along with each other (duh) and whenever possible live in peace with everyone.

You know, there’s an interesting book out there called Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian, by Paul F. Knitter. In this book he uses insights from his study of Buddhism to re-frame Christian community and in this re-framing is similar to what we’ve seen in Paul’s “loving center” vision. Take for example the Buddhist greeting, “Namasté.” Namasté is a way of acknowledging that everyone we meet has all the same goodness that is in us. And when we acknowledge that, it enables us to relate to others with genuine compassion.[i]

So, considering this bit of re-framing, how do we then respond to evil? I mean, if we are challenged to see the good in everyone, how do we treat someone who’s not-so-good in our opinion. Well, I would say, in the same way Jesus did. Jesus knew that only the willingness to respond to hostility with peace, to respond to hatred with forgiveness, could lead to real and lasting redemption. He was calling his followers, both then and now, to follow his pattern of non-violent resistance by embracing those who do evil with mercy and kindness and forgiveness.

It’s the way Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela and countless other black South Africans responded to the white South Africans who had committed unspeakable atrocities against them. That’s what it means for a community of faith to overcome evil with good! That’s what it means to find our center in love, even in the midst of suffering, even under oppression. And then begin to discover a deeper, hidden beauty in every single person, even the person whom society tells you to hate. Because here’s the thing. We can only truly overcome evil, we can only truly find peace, if we can embrace the other with compassion.[ii]

So, my friends, as we continue to be and become community in these unusual and often frightening times, please remember Paul’s vision: Love from the center of who you are and discover the beauty in everyone. If you can do that, it will enable you to take a step back during those difficult moments and gaze upon a wider landscape. These words will allow all of us, as a community, to turn our focus outward, advocating for justice for the most vulnerable and peace among nations. This is our higher goal. This is what it means to be a community who finds it’s center in love.

May it be so. Amen.

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[i] Paul F. Knitter, Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian (One World Publications) 2009

[ii] Knitter, Without Buddha, 188, where he cautions that even the act of calling others “evildoers” can preclude our ability to respond to them in a way that creates justice and peace and freedom.

Joy in the Morning

Fifth Sunday of Easter & Mother’s Day – Psalm 30:2-12

Several years ago, in an unscripted moment, a little girl in Manila asked the visiting Pope Francis why God allows children to suffer. She had just told him in front of a million people that she scrounged food from the garbage and slept outside on a cardboard mat.
Here’s what the Pope did. He enfolded the sobbing child in his arms. Then he admonished everyone to quiet down and pay close attention, he then said, “She has just asked the one question with no answer.”[I]

As the days and weeks and now months of this pandemic continue, and we see our fellow Americans dying, over 70,000 so far, and so many more across the globe, the Pope’s response to this little girl’s question looms large. Why does God allow such suffering?

Well, when the crowd finally settled down, Pope Francis said to the little girl, “We can’t answer you now. Only when we are able to weep about the things you have lived will we understand anything and be able to answer you.” He went on to say that the world needs to weep. “The marginalized weep, the scorned weep, the sick and dying weep – but we who are privileged, we don’t always know how. We must learn.” [ii]

In these awful days of virus-related illness and death, whenever we’re asked why these things happen, let us not be quick to answer. Let us not skip to judgement, either of God or one another. But how can I say something like this during such dark and uncertain times? Well, perhaps because it’s because of the assurance we can receive from word of wisdom and hope like the one we have before us today.

In Psalm 30, David seems to be rejoicing at the end of a trying time. “God, my God,” he said, “I yelled for help and you put me together. You pulled me out of the grave, and gave me another chance at life when I was down-and-out.” He goes on to say, “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”[iii]

Yes, as Francis said, “we must learn to weep.” But, my friends, The Psalmist tells us that it doesn’t end with the weeping or the mourning or the grief. The darkness of this pandemic doesn’t have the last say. “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes in the morning.” There will be life after this time of death. Light will break through the darkness.

But, that being said, I think we have to be careful here. Careful, because to get to the “joy in the morning” part we have to move through, embrace, deal-with, and grieve the dark night of our soul. In other words, we can’t get to the warm-fuzzy without going through the cold-prickly first. A cold-prickly that goes beyond just mourning the dead and learning to exist in a recessive economy. A big part of what we have to come to terms with in this dark night of Covid-19 is the unknown. Our future is unknown. How severe this could get here in Northern Wisconsin, is unknown. When everything will open-up and return to some semblance of normal, is unknown. And like the Pope’s answer to the little girl’s question, there are some deeper theological issues that have no answer.

Maybe think of it like this. All of what we as humans know about God could be represented by a single grain of cosmic dust. What we don’t know about God, the Mysterious, could fill the rest of the universe. “I don’t know” is a perfectly acceptable answer when it comes to trying to wrap our minds around a time of suffering and death of this magnitude.

But then there’s that single grain of cosmic dust; the part we do know. And David, here in Psalm 30, says it in what I think is the best way possible. “…across a lifetime,” he says, “there is only love.” There is only love. My friends, that’s the warm-fuzzy we’ve been seeking. That’s the rainbow after the storm. That’s the joy that comes in the morning! Across the lifetime of our ancestors, across our lifetime, across the lifetime of our children and our grand-children and their grand-children, there will be love because God is love! God is love!

So, let us weep now. Let us weep with the families of those who have died. Let us weep with those who are ill. Let us weep with those suffering financial loss. Let us weep with the marginalized and the outcast, the homeless, and the refugee, and the immigrant. Let us weep for our planet, for the changing climate and the loss of so many species of animal and insect. Let us weep together in the darkness. But tomorrow… tomorrow the sun will rise and we will be called and challenged, in the light of day, to do our part, to be safe for the safety of others, to seek justice for all people, to coexist with all religions and work toward a day with peace will prevail. In the light of day, we can and we will, once again, find our joy!

I’m going to leave you today with an old Ojibway Prayer that goes like this: “Grandfather, Sacred one. Teach us love, compassion, and honor. That we may heal the earth and heal each other.” Let us indwell these ancient words of wisdom as we seek a joyous morning not only for ourselves but for all our neighbors, those across the street and those on the other side of the globe.

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[i] Mary Luti Learn to Weep (www.ucc.org/stillspeaking/devotional.com) 2020

[ii] Ibid. Luti

[iii] Psalm 3:5b New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) Copyright © 1989

Looking Forward

Luke 24:13-35

Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard once said, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”[i] Isn’t it interesting that a statement made over a hundred years ago is still so relevant today. In these frightening and uncertain days, we will only become fully aware of what’s happening to us in retrospect. Yes, we can and must make important decisions in real time, but the full impact of those decisions will not be completely understood until some future date.

So, bearing that in mind, I think it’s imperative that we consider the second part of Kierkegaard’s statement, “[Life] must be lived forward.” Which is the point of the Resurrection account that we have before us today. You see, the two man, as they undertook that long walk home, were looking backwards. They understood their present situation in the context of Jesus’ death. They had no conception or understanding of what possibilities might lay ahead. Their life, in that moment, could only be understood “backwards.”

But, as we all know from our perspective 2,000 years later, that they didn’t remain in their grief. Notice that God didn’t prevent them from wandering, God didn’t prevent their suffering. Suffering and wandering a part of life, everyone’s life, yours, mine, everyone’s. When something bad happens to us it isn’t because we’ve done something to anger a vengeful God, and when something great happens it isn’t because we’re more righteous than anyone else. “[God] makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous.”[ii] And in was in the midst of their darkness, that the Light of God began to walk alongside these two disciples.

Now, you have already heard the story. And incognito Jesus joined two despondent travelers but he only became known to them through teaching and sacrament. The text says he opened the Scriptures to them, what we now call the Old Testament. Now, because he provided a new way of looking at the old teachings, Jesus took their understanding of the Law and replaced it with a forward looking perspective. Jesus expanded their concept of how Scripture might shape their lives. And here’s the goodie! It was with that new life-perspective that that recognized the risen Christ.

Perhaps, in these difficult and unusual times, maybe we too should consider expanding our understanding of faith and life, and relationship, and the meaning of sacrament for our time. I mean, can we find a sense of 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?

Now, 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, if we turn our gaze forward, 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 with each other. Perhaps, if we indwell this forward-looking perspective we might be empowered to continue to love our neighbor through social distancing and by wearing our masks when we cannot stay home. And if we choose to be forward-looking, maybe we would be truly “liberated” by continuing to follow Governor Evers’ stay-at-home order.

One final thought before we move into prayer and communion. God is still God, always. Even in times of unprecedented change, even when we need to adopt a new perspective on life and faith, God is still the God of love and grace and compassion. And the Bible, from any perspective, tells us that God is good and generous and can be counted on, in every age and every circumstance.[iii]

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[i] Katheryn Matthews Breaking Bread (www.ucc.org/samuel) 2020

[ii] Matthew 5:45b (Common English Bible CEB)

[iii] Ibid Matthews

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)

Come Out!

John 11 The Story of the Raising of Lazarus

“God never forces us toward life or love by any threats whatsoever. Yes, God seduces us, but compulsion? Never. Whoever this God is, he or she is utterly free. Love cannot happen any other way. Love flourishes inside freedom and then increases that freedom even more.” [i] I read these words in a devotion by Richard Rohr this past week and I was struck by his underlaying premise. A premise which I believe can be broken down into a couple of simple but poignant statements. First, “God is God, and we’re not God” and the second statement is this, “God is Love and so are we.”

You see, there are many things in this world that are beyond our control. We cannot control the weather or natural disasters or even this on-going pandemic, but, we can control how we respond to adversity. We have the ability to choose to be safe, to be concerned about the health and wellbeing of our neighbor, and we can choose to be generous even in face of this on-going crisis.

Now, this is not to say that God caused this pandemic as some sort of punishment for wrongdoing or as an incentive to change. I don’t think God works that way. Perhaps it’s more like Richard Roar said, “God never bullies us to be loving” but rather that “love is both who we are and who we are still becoming.” It’s like the sunflower seed that becomes its own flower. Like the acorn that becomes the mighty oak. Like the child that grows into an adult. Within each of us, there is what Aristotle call “potentiality.” The potential to be all that we were created to be. And a huge part of reaching that potential, for us as people of faith, is to display the love that God has called us to share.

And here’s the really cool part. It’s a love that reveals itself in the final and full message of the Risen Christ. It’s a love that’s without borders and is beyond time, and yet, it literally fills the space between every atom and finds its voice in the breath of humanity. God literally “breathes” love into each of us and all of creation with the life-breath of the Sacred.

Now, at this point my might be saying, “That’s great philosophy, but how this going to help us in the real world, in a time of real trouble, during a very real pandemic?” Great question, glad you asked.

The story of Lazarus, that we have before us today, is much more than simply a tale of resurrection and it’s more than just a story about the deep, loving friendship between Jesus and Lazarus. Today’s Scripture lesson touches upon the human experience of loss, it brings to light the very nature of grief, and finally, this is a story about restoration. This narrative is also about an audacious hope, the profession of faith, and a familiar, powerful response to the question, “Where have you laid him?” “Come and see.”[ii]

Come and see. I read a powerful example of this by an author identified only as A. Byrne. She shared these words with us today, “[In] mid-February my husband passed away. Ten days later, his sister passed. Grieving has been chipping away for several years as I cared for and watched them suffer. I did not anticipate that grief would arrive with a new face via the coronavirus. For now, I take comfort in the words of Henri Nouwen: “Hope frees us to live in the present, with the deep trust that God will never leave us.” I think what God is asking of me is to trust and take one day at a time. Not always easy, but there it is.”[iii]

You know, there may be any number of things clouding our vision in these troubling days. Perhaps grief or loss, anxiety or financial troubles, perhaps hatred, or resentment, or the isolation caused by this pandemic have put us in our own tomb of despair. But this is where Scripture can comfort us. Along time ago, in a far-off land, Jesus stood outside that tomb and called out, “Lazarus, come out!” And, my friends, God is still speaking to us today, calling us out from our tombs of despair, denial, and death, calling us to new life, right here, right now!

I’m going to leave you now with the words of a longtime friend and colleague who now serves the United Church of Christ in our national office. In a liturgy she wrote for today Elizabeth Dilly writes:

“Come out! Jesus commands, and calls us from the tombs of our existence into the brightness of a new day. Come out, Jesus cries,
and unbinds us from the chains of our past. Come out, Jesus calls,
and entices us into a world filled with grace and possibility.

So. Go out! Go out into a world that needs our life, our breath, our spirit! Go out into a world that needs the Spirit of God, carried on our lips and in our loving arms. Go out into the world to live as God’s resurrected people! Go out and go on the breath of God’s holy wind!”[iv]

 

My dear ones, we cannot physically “go out” in this time of social distancing, these days of isolation. But we can go out in spirit, we have the technology reach-out to the lonely and to each other. We have the resources to lift-up the most vulnerable in our society and we have do have the faith, my friends, to indwell love, to be love, and to share love; God is love and so are we!” God is love, and in these difficult days, so are we!”

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[i] Richard Rohr, Immortal Diamond: The Search for True Self (Jossey Bass: 2013) 176-178.

[ii] Katheryn Matthews Conversations That Unbind Us (www.ucc.org/samuel) 2020

[iii] Ibid Rohr

[iv] Rev. Elizabeth Dilley, Come Out on the Breath of God. (www.ucc.org/worshipways) 2020