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Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Jelly Beans, Tootsie Rolls, and Easter

Matthew 28:1-10 Easter Sunday

Christ is Risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our risen and victorious Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.
          A friend of mine, also a pastor, relayed a conversation that she had with two three-year-old friends when she was visiting them just last week. Always the teacher, my friend thought spending some time looking through an illustrated children’s bible would offer the perfect opportunity to talk about Easter. So she began reading the resurrection story to the children. And, as children will, they listened carefully for a little while, and then began asking questions – you know, the way only children, especially three year olds, can do. The conversation went something like this:
"Why is Jesus wearing a dress?” “Do you think the Easter bunny will bring me purple jelly beans?"
My friend patiently answered “I am sure he will bring you jelly beans. But, remember, Easter isn't about the bunny. It's about Jesus.”
"But will they be purple?" her little friend persisted.
“Yes,” my friend responded. “I’m sure there will be some purple ones in there…but the important thing about Easter isn't the bunny or the candy…Easter is about how much Jesus loves you and me and the whole world.”
"Okay, but, HOW MANY purple jelly beans will the Easter Bunny bring?"
My friend tried to redirect them,“Girls, I think there will probably be plenty of purple jellybeans.” She looked at them, “But do you know how much Jesus loves you?”
“But …” they began.
“Will he bring me tootsie rolls, too?”
For three year olds, Easter bunnies, purple jelly beans and tootsie rolls are more than enough to make Easter a day of celebration, with or without Jesus. For adults, the details may be different, but the distractions still exist. Easter flowers, spectacular music and beautiful hymns, fancy dinners, and spiffy new clothes make today a day to celebrate. But, you do know, don’t you, how very much Jesus loves you? That there really is more to this day? 
Whether we are three, or thirty, or, well – older than that, our very being hungers this day to know and experience the Easter story that lies beyond jellybeans, tootsie rolls, pretty plants, lovely music and new Spring clothes. Like the two Marys in our gospel text today, like the other disciples, we have all experienced dark nights of the soul, moments of great disappointment and grief, fear, or confusion and despair, where we, too, want to know, need to know, that there’s more to this day than the little details that all add up to make Easter special. We want to know, need to know and experience the truth of the resurrection. We want to know, need to know, that even after the sweets are consumed, the flowers wilt, the last notes of the beautiful music we hear today fade, there is something more in this Easter for us. Something radically life-changing, something hope-producing, and joyful, bound together by the love of Jesus and the truth of this gospel. 
Sooner or later, my friend’s three year old buddies will experience these dark nights and dark days, and they will need more than bunnies and jellybeans. They will need to know what Easter is all about. Sooner or later, we all have that need, to know that our faith has not been in vain.

·         Perhaps it will be when they are bullied at school or work and feel all alone;
·         Or maybe it will happen when they are betrayed or harshly, unfairly judged by a so-called “friend” or their heart is broken by the one who pledges to be faithful until death;
·         It could happen on a day when they hear the report from the doctor, “it’s not just a cold after all”
·         Or perhaps when they’re feeding their beloved, aging mother, who no longer recognizes them.
·         Perhaps that dark day occurred for you when you came to grips with the addiction that torments you or when I acknowledged the many bridges I have burned and the pain I have caused, and I yearn for the forgiveness I fear never will come.
·         Perhaps it will be the day our best friend dies, or we come face to face with unspeakable evil or loss.
Whatever our story or circumstance, our need for this day is real and it is deep. Despite the reality of death all around us – the death of dreams, the death of relationships, and of course, physical death, it is because of this day that we dare not only to hope but to be joyful. It is because of Easter, and God’s radical resurrection redirection, that we can be confident in our present and our future, and know that both are bound together in Christ’s eternal presence and love.
Today is a day that is not simply about beautiful flowers, though we certainly love them; nor is it about the beautiful music, the trumpet fanfare and shouted alleluias, though we sure do appreciate them. It is not simply a day about bunnies and jellybeans and tootsie rolls. It is about how in the midst of a mighty earthquake, God rolled the stone from the tomb, and revealed the divine mystery – that in Christ, death and the grave are defeated. This day is about God surprising and astounding us in the resurrection of Jesus – the real bodily resurrection of our Savior. And on this Easter day, we acknowledge that while there is great joy and relief in the victory of our Lord, each one of us experiences this mystery of faith differently. Christ has died, Christ is risen and Christ will come again. These are not empty words, but words that contain in them the fullness of our faith. That God, who raised Christ from the dead is not done with us yet.
Today is a day that contains in it the dawn of a new reality. It is a reality that transcends time, reason and rationale. It shakes us up and it makes us new. It gives us hope and it asks of us our participation in this magnificent story. It begs us to share our faith. It commands us to pay attention.
Some of us see faith in brilliant white light like the shining light that reflected off the angel’s clothing at the tomb; for others faith is more subtle,  given to us at our baptism. Some of us have experienced radical, transformational moments of “born again” reality; for others Christ has been such a real and constant presence throughout our lives, that we can’t think of a moment when things changed and our faith became real. Christ has simply always been there. For some of us, believing is as unsettling as the earthquake that revealed the miraculously empty tomb; for others, it radiates with the reassuring warmth of the sun.
My friends, no matter which of these descriptions fits how faith in Christ has come to you, the truth is that Jesus’ resurrection makes all of us new! And for that reason, we are bid, like the Marys, to go and tell what God has done. The women’s lingering fear is overcome by their joy – they run! They run to tell the disciples this glorious good news of the resurrection! They run to tell the disciples of the empty tomb and the words of the angel. “Do not be afraid; He is not here; he has been raised from the dead.” 
Brothers and Sisters, our Easter surprise is that God, who has made all things new, who has brought life out of death, and hope out of despair, has great things in store for each and every one of us. Just as Christ’s presence in our lives looks different for each of us, so does this new life that comes to us through God’s grace.
New life sometimes looks like reconciliation between family members. Sometimes, new  life might look like me admitting that I’m wrong, or not mentioning that I’m right. New may look like helping our neighbors, even when we’re convinced that they’ve created their own disaster to begin with.
New life looks like every fresh start and every act of forgiveness, and sometimes new looks like people of faith letting go of past hurts, hang-ups, and conflict in order for a church to receive the resurrected life and mission our God is calling us to. New may look like unshakeable faith in the promise of resurrection, even as we watch loved ones die. Often, new is what we never see coming…the thing we didn’t even know to hope for, that ends up being exactly what we need.
New life happens to each of us, and is the reason we celebrate this day. Beyond the jelly beans and tootsie rolls, Easter is about God, in Jesus, coming near to us, reaching down into our everyday humanity and pulling us out of our graves, making us new, time and time again. The Good News of this day is that we are loved so much by God that God has swept us up into God’s own story of death and life, and life after death. We stand here as Easter people,  even as we shout, Alleluia! Christ is risen! Alleluia! And the people of God shout, Amen!

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Here's Mud in Your Eye

John 9:1-41 March 30, 2014
          When is the last time you found your life really disrupted? Have you had to re-imagine what your day, or week, or even your entire future might look like changed, due to circumstances outside of your control? Can you name a time when you needed to reassess the validity of what you had always assumed to be true, or determine what was fundamentally, truly, even important in life, when your previously formed expectations were turned upside-down?
Perhaps it happened on a day you had a flat tire on your way to an  important meeting, or were driving home from a long trip and just when you were within reach of home, discovered that the Bay Bridge was closed? Maybe it happened when you received a surprising diagnosis or some devastating news. Sometimes disruptions happen over time; occasionally they occur in the blink of an eye. Either way, they can be life changing, transformational, and they provide opportunities to recognize God’s grace in the midst all of life’s experiences; perhaps most powerfully, in the surprising events which intrude into our everyday existence.
In our text today, Jesus confounds his disciples, the Pharisees, and many others through this miracle of sight to a man who was born blind, a man who has no name, a man who doesn’t know who Jesus is, and doesn’t even ask for healing… Jesus intrudes on this man’s life as he does on ours…with disruptive, transformational, miraculous grace that changes everything.
Dr. John Van Nuys, a minister from Indiana, writes about an experience of grace he received while in Africa, even though he didn’t understand it at the time. It is an experience which he ties beautifully to this text. 
“When I was in Congo,” he writes, “one of the hardest graces ….. to accept was the lavish hospitality of our Congolese hosts. Oftentimes, very malnourished church people made sure we ate our fill. Impoverished villages gave us material gifts that were their very best. People insisted on washing our clothes for us – and even ironed them with flat irons filled with coals from their fire. But what really stunned us ….. was that our hosts insisted on not only washing, but also ironing our underwear. That seemed beyond hospitality to me.....and I tried repeatedly to tell our hosts that they did not have to do that. But [they] would have nothing of that. With a smile, they simply insisted: No. And they went right on ironing.
Van Nuys continues, “It was years later that I learned why. In Congo, when you hang clothes on the line to dry, there is an exotic, rainforest insect … that takes advantage of those warm, wet clothes. It lands on drying laundry and deposits its eggs there. When the eggs hatch, the larvae, which are largely invisible to the human eye, crawl from the clothes to the person who is wearing them, burrowing into their skin which causes very itchy, painful lesions. The Congolese are used to such annoyances—which, I am told, are a lot like our chiggers. But to make sure that we tenderfoots ….. did not suffer that discomfort, everything was ironed for us. Underwear included. We were never told why. We never understood why. We just received what was strangely, graciously given.”
Dr. Van Nuys says “I think most of God’s gifts are like that. By grace, we receive something that we really don’t understand all that much—if at all. Initially, we are really not too sure about it, and it sometimes takes a lot of time to understand the fullness of the gift. Like the blind man who receives his sight by having Jesus put dirt and spit on his eyes. I think if I had been that man, I would have said, "Thank you for this miracle, [Lord] but can you do this without the spit? Can’t I have a more ‘common-sense miracle’; a more sanitary miracle without something like your spit having to be a part of it?"
Many times God’s miracles are very plain and straightforward; at other times they come through unexpected, even shocking events and means. Like mud made from spit and soil. Van Nuys writes, “Sometimes God’s gifts come in very strange ways that don’t even begin to make sense to us. Like ironed underwear or a dirt-and-spit poultice. Mostly, we expect God’s miracles to be packaged and packed with Hollywood special effects that instantaneously make our lives clearly better. But many times God’s miracles, God’s gifts, come in plain, brown paper bags without a lot of fanfare. Many times God’s miracles only work on the installment plan: They don’t make our lives completely and understandably better all at once. Sometimes God’s gifts are time-released miracles that take time to unfold: They incrementally make our lives better as we put our cooperative efforts into working with God to make God’s gift our miraculous reality.”
Sometimes it is only through the lens of the “what if” that we truly comprehend the miracles in our lives for what they truly are.
For the Pharisees and for many of us, when tragedy befalls us, when disease strikes, when life doesn’t go as we think it should, it initiates a cycle of questioning of sin at its core. For instance, someone is diagnosed with lung cancer and the first question you hear asked – “but did they smoke?” Or there is a car accident – and we wonder, “whose fault was it?” Or a child is born with disabilities – and we question, “was it something the mother did? Ate? Drank? Was it environmental?” Or first response is to question what caused this thing to happen – who did what to bring it about? And so the cycle begins.
This story is no different, and in the mind-set of first century Palestine, the first question most people would have asked in any event was, “Whose fault is it?” For in their worldview disaster and disease were the cost of angering God. Even for the disciples. Why is this man blind? There has to be someone to blame.
Yet the point of this story is not about fault at all, but about how, in the midst of our anguish, our deepest need, our ongoing crises, God’s divine love, mercy, and grace can transform anyone in any situation. Even to giving a man sight through the ordinary substances of dirt and spit. It’s about how Jesus is able to take our illness and disability, our messes, our hurts, and our deficiencies, and using the most improbable methods possible, at the right time and in the right place, he can make us whole and fit us for the work of discipleship and worship.
"Healing of the Blind Man" (1871); Carl Bloch. 
The blind man in our text today became a disciple who worshiped and adored Jesus. He demonstrated his thanksgiving for this extraordinary gift. Though born blind, he saw more clearly than any of the sighted people around him, that God’s gift is at work through Jesus, who transformed him. The true gift this man received was faith – and he gives the only appropriate response possible – he testifies to who Jesus is, and he worships him. He doesn’t understand what happened, he simply does what Jesus asked, and believed.
Even today, Jesus is in the business of miracles. He takes ordinary people, and through water, Word, bread, and wine equips us to be his disciples. He invites us to the table of grace and there he heals us, strengthens us, and grants us forgiveness, transforming us in truth and light.
We are invited to the table, where Jesus tells us, eat, drink, and remember – and we do, even though we don’t understand how this bread and wine becomes body and blood, even though we don’t get how God’s love is made manifest at this table. Though we’re not always sure how this simple action can bring us to eternal life, can change us into agents of God’s grace, can bring us the healing for which we desperately yearn, we come.
At the table, God takes our humble gifts and multiples our meager offerings in ways that can’t be explained rationally. At the table, God blesses us to be God’s hands and feet in service, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, sheltering the homeless, loving the addicted, forgiving those who hurt us, and opening our eyes to the rich mission field around us.
God sends us out to testify to the good news, not as sinners but as redeemed, beloved children of God; disciples and newly sighted for mission and ministry in God’s name. Amen.