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Tuesday, March 29, 2016

The WOW! of Faith

Easter Sunday
May the joy of the empty tomb, the blessings of the risen Christ, and the wonder of the Easter mystery be with you, that daily renewal in the promise and power of Jesus Christ to transform your days and your nights and remain with you always. Amen.
            Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!
            WOW! Happy Easter! Today is an AMAZING DAY! It truly is the day that the Lord has made! Let us REJOICE and be GLAD in it!
Okay, so I can tell that for some of you, that’s way too much exuberance to be shared, and IN CHURCH of all places, even if it is Easter Sunday!
Excitement in worship is a little uncomfortable for some of us. It’s a little un-Lutheran-like. It’s not very refined or sophisticated. It’s as though the eleventh commandment should be “thou shalt not laugh, clap, cheer, dance, or shout in worship.” Yet, when you think about it, what better place to express over-the-top joy and excitement than in church, and on Easter Sunday no less?!
How did it come to be that so many of us learned that along with folding our hands to pray, bowing our heads and following along in our bulletins, faithfully singing the same songs we have always sung, that church should be all about minding our Ps and Qs and sharing only the most restrained responses to prayers? Today I invite you to let go and let loose with joyful shouts and gleeful alleluias. For Christ is risen! Alleluia! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!
What better place to share an entire range of emotion as we fully engage in the story of our faith and build up our witness to the spectrum of our lives as Jesus followers and witnesses. It is together as community in Christ that we laugh and cry, celebrate and mourn, dance and kneel, bearing witness to the presence of God in the entirety of our human experience, through Jesus.
God loves us as we are – silly, giddy with excitement on a day like today, sometimes serious, sometimes sad or reflective, sometimes doubting or searching. Jesus embraces it all. God gave us a wide range of emotion to help us truly experience life and enjoy our relationships and share our lives with one another.
A full range of emotion has been shared in the Holy Week story we’ve heard about in just this past week, and the last three days, in particular.  
Just a week ago, Jesus was honored and acclaimed as he entered Jerusalem on the back of a colt, an event we recalled on Palm Sunday.
During the course of the past three days, Jesus shared a meal one last time with his disciples, giving them the command to love and to serve, and leaving them with a lasting remembrance in the Lord’s Supper, which he instituted at that Last Supper.
Jesus bore fear and dread to the Garden where he prayed, was arrested, beaten, tried, convicted, sentenced to die. Jesus carried his cross to Golgotha, where he was hung like a common criminal. He was laid in the tomb. And on what we now know of as Easter morning, in came the women, disciples and friends of his. 
Whether you have journeyed through Lent, step by step preparing for this day, or find yourself drawn to the majesty and tradition of Easter alone, the excitement of this day is a shared experience. So it is by Christ’s invitation, and so it has been for thousands of years.
It is an invitation to new and everlasting life through Jesus Christ. This is the WOW of our faith.
The Good News of this day is that it is for everyone. – WOW! Christ came that all might have new life, eternal life, abundant and true life, and Jesus accomplishes this for us all through his resurrection from the dead. FANTASTIC!
Today we feed on the Good News of this resurrection.  And yet, it is news that is met with amazement, and not just a little bit of doubt.
For many of us, the story brings confusion, not clarity. Like the disciples who first heard the claim of the women who excited came to tell them all that has happened, there are times when we wonder, if Jesus really is the incarnation of God, why did he have to die? If he really did die, then how did the resurrection happen? Why does the story at the center of our faith seem so outrageously fanciful?
The Gospel says that when the women came rushing back and went into that room where the disciples were holed up, sharing their story of an open, empty tomb, and talking angels who reminded them of Jesus’ predictions and then shared a message, the disciples did not respond, “WOW!” or “THAT’S AMAZING!” or “ALLELUIA!”
The disciples thought the women’s story was nothing but an idle tale; Made up or imagined by hysterical women. So you could say there is good precedent for our doubt; even the disciples struggled with this story! They didn’t expect it. They didn’t understand it, and wrapped in grief and fear, the witness of the women was easier to deny than to accept.
But something struck Peter. While he had his doubts, they were mitigated by just a smidgen of curiosity or remembrance – and hope. And so Peter made his way to the tomb. In fact, he ran to see for himself just what had occurred. When he saw what he saw, or rather, didn’t see, he ran back to the others in excitement, amazed by what had happened.
The truth is that many of us hang out in that place located between belief and disbelief. As post-enlightenment generations labeled Great, Baby Boomer, X, Y, or Z, faith is a challenge to our sensibilities. As post-Enlightenment Christians, we like our faith to be tangible, practical, and most of all rational. But there is nothing tangible, practical, or rational in the resurrection story, is there?
The resurrection calls us from our old belief in death to new belief in life.
We get death. We see it all around us, in stark images and sorrowful experiences. Resurrection? Not so much. It is not within the scope of our experience on this side of the cross. Like the disciples we remain wrapped in grief and fear – and doubt. And yet, my friends, while Easter is perplexing, and to believe in the resurrection is not easy, today we are invited to do just that.
To believe in the resurrection takes a lot of faith and courage. In the place of the bad news that surrounds us, stories of death and destruction, bombs and terrorists, floods and disease, hunger and drought, to cling to hope takes a lot of faith and courage.
In the midst of our struggles and failures, the bad news we hear and the bad experiences we have, the Easter story invites us to believe that none of that will have the last word, because Jesus indeed broke the bonds of death and overcame the power of the tomb to hold him. Such belief shines new light and new life in the midst of our doubt and fear. It is this kind of new life that causes us to exclaim Alleluia! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!
Easter raises us up above the chaos of our world  because of the sustaining power of God, who brings life out of death and reconciliation out of conflict.
Opening the door to belief in the power of the resurrection and the victory of Jesus over death opens the door to new life for all the world. New life in the power of the resurrection leads to acts of love and reconciliation for the world. Easter marks the beginning of a new creation.
Today, we follow in the footsteps of Peter. We have heard the rumor that Jesus is alive and to see for ourselves; “What if it is true? What if death is real, but not final? What if Jesus truly does have the last word over death? What if Jesus is not merely past but present? What if Jesus were to meet me here? What would life be like then?” Life would be – WOW!
Easter continues far beyond the beautiful music and flowers and prayers of Easter Sunday. It is celebrated every Sunday when we come together as community; it is at work in every instance of healing and forgiveness and reconciliation; we can see it in every sign of new life around us.
As the Body of Christ, we remember and celebrate this mysterious, miraculous resurrection every time we come together at the Eucharistic table, where we meet Jesus once again and are fed with his body and blood – WOW – given and shed for loving and serving and sharing and proclaiming the Good News of resurrection life. PRAISE BE TO GOD!
The only appropriate response to such a gift is an enthusiastic, no-holds-barred, exclamation of WOW! ALLELUIA! AMEN!
It is that exclamation that I hope you can embrace and shout out whenever you come to receive communion. When you hear the words spoken to you, “the body of Christ, given for you,” I hope your response can reflect over-the-top excitement and gratitude for this Easter day - WOW! AWESOME! AMEN! Or PRAISE BE TO GOD! Let this space ring out with your joy and gratitude.
For Christ is risen from the dead! Alleluia! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Stones and Cotton Candy: Reverberations of Our Spirits

Palm Sunday 2016
Luke 19:28-40

        Waving pennants and flags; Shouts of acclamation; Babies crying; children laughing, and chasing each other, and waving. The scene is reminiscent of so many parades I know I have experienced in my life.
Like the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade with its fabulous floats and balloons and a Santa Claus at the very end; the Rose Bowl Parade with so many beautiful displays constructed almost entirely from flowers; the famous ticker-tape parades hailing heroes from across the spectrum of recent history – astronauts and soldiers, presidents and prime ministers, explorers and pioneers, even victorious sports teams and Olympians.
All of those I have enjoyed from the comfort of my very own couch.
But nothing beats the experience of enjoying a parade in person, absorbing the excitement and feeling the reverberation of drumbeats and the clashing cymbals deep within your chest.
Scores of local and home-town parades like the one here in Easton and in other nearby communities just this past Thursday, dotted with familiar faces, regional school bands and local dignitaries provide this experience.
Who doesn’t love a good parade with the crowds, delightful good will, and junk food aplenty – hot dogs and cotton candy anyone? Parades take us out of our everyday, mundane existence and feed us with sight and sound and smell, and pleasure.
Such was the case the day that Jesus entered Jerusalem.
As Jesus entered the city, he was met with waving palms, and many more palms were strewn on the ground before him. People were so excited to see him that everyday folks even removed their cloaks and spread them upon the road over which he would pass.
They were honoring him by providing a carpet on which he could arrive in glory. As we recall the account of Jesus’ triumphal entry, perhaps we hear echoes of John the Baptist’s cry, “prepare the way of the Lord.”
In John’s gospel account of this same story, we hear the shouts of Hosanna as the crowd greets Jesus.
That’s why we heard those hosannas shouted and sung at the very beginning of our worship today - acclamations of hosanna to greet, praise and bless our Lord.
Let us not lose sight of the fact, however, that the original meaning of the word hosanna, from Hebrew and Aramaic sources was a plea for deliverance.
A shout of Hosanna was an appeal to the LORD who is righteous and good; a statement of confidence in God’s ability to save, to rescue, to be or to provide salvation from the grip of the oppressor, to save God’s people from the sting of evil, or the threat of death.
Palm Sunday is about more than a parade. It is about how Jesus lived out his mission to be that savior, to be that rescuer for which the people were crying out.
As Jesus entered the city that day, he sent his disciples into a nearby village before him to find a colt. As he rode along on the young donkey, people heard that he was coming and they stopped what they were doing, and ran to the gates of the city so that they could go before him to spread those branches and cloaks.
These are people under the oppressive control of the Roman Empire. They are a conquered people. Their lives are hard. There is no freedom in sight for them – unless the almighty God would have mercy on them and relieve them of their suffering.
Jesus is a person who has given them a picture of just that  kind of hope. Jesus has taught them about the love of God that is for all people, and has modeled for them of a life with God at its center.
Jesus has told them how much God loves them and Jesus has modeled for them a different kind of like – a life where the lowly are lifted up high and those that are high on themselves are put in their places, far behind and below the poor and the outcast, the oppressed and the suffering, the sick, the blind and the lame.
Jesus has embraced the tax collector and the sinner with forgiveness and love, thus leading them to transformed lives framed by the mercy and love of God.
The shouts and acclamations of that day represent a spontaneous, loud, and boisterous response to Jesus as well as a testimony and plea for liberation for those so long held in chains.
But the thunderous sounds coming from the crowds and the words of the disciples, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” frighten and anger the powers that be. Some of the Pharisees are horrified by what they are seeing and hearing.
This Jesus is simply gaining too much power. Now the disciples are referring to Jesus as king! There can only be one king and he is appointed by Roman power! The Pharisees fear what the response of King Herod might be if he gets wind of this little demonstration.
They appeal to Jesus. “Teacher, tell your disciples to stop.”
It is at this point that Jesus speaks for the first time since entering the city. He answered them “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”
At the crux of the response is the truth that God will use what God will use for the purposes of God. Even stones. And the glory of God will surpass any power on earth to try to subdue it.
We are reminded of earlier scriptures using the imagery of stones. Satan tempts Jesus in the wilderness, telling him to turn stones into bread. 
John the Baptist proclaimed, “Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance, and begin not to say within yourselves, we have Abraham for our father: for I say unto you, That God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham.” [Luke 3:8]
Stones are hard and immovable, but they are made up of atoms which are in constant motion. Just as God can take stones and move them to transform them into bread, or children and followers, God can move the very hardest of hearts.
God, whose Spirit is in constant motion, continues to work in all the stuck and hard places of the world.
Palm branches and shouts of “Hosanna” were reminders to the people that God could do miraculous and amazing things, like bring the dead to life and transform stones into disciples.
God could bring victory and vindication from the deep recesses of oppression—exactly what God’s people living in Jerusalem under Roman authority wanted.
When Jesus rode into Jerusalem, the crowds hoped and believed that the messiah was coming. But Jesus is a different kind of messiah than people were expecting.
        They expected a mighty warrior, who would beat back the armies of Rome and send them packing. But then Jesus comes riding into town not on a mighty war horse, but on the colt of a donkey.
        He comes not with flashing swords and sharpened spears, but with words of condemnation for the powers that oppress and words of mercy for the downtrodden.
The crown that is placed on his head will be one not of gold and jewels, but of thorns. His kingdom is marked by justice, not opulence.
When Jesus rode into Jerusalem that day, he wasn’t just staring down his professed and identified enemies. He was also coming to Jerusalem to disappoint his devotees in colossal fashion.
And, while they were perhaps preparing for an uprising, Jesus was preparing to take up his cross and die. The reality is that Jesus is coming to be exactly the kind of savior and rescuer that the people were proclaiming him to be with their cries of hosanna. They just didn’t know it.
In their short-sightedness, you could say that Jesus was a big disappointment to many in the crowds that day. How quickly they turned on him!
But for those who stayed, for those who made themselves vulnerable by continuing to follow him, the supper they shared at the Passover just a few days later made things a little clearer. Jesus came to serve, not to be served, and his followers would do the same.
Nourished by his body and blood, in a meal he instituted at that supper, Jesus promised he would remain with them and would give them all they needed – the forgiveness of sin and an identity as disciples of Christ.
In the end, Jesus shows us that disappointment doesn’t have to have the last word. In fact, disappointment walked right out of a tomb and shattered the present powers of this world; through his resurrection Jesus would break the bonds of the oppressor, defeat the forces of evil, and take away the sting of death forever.
As the reverberations of the trumpets we hear this morning die away, as the notes of the organ music and choir fades, as we enter into this Holy Week, remember that no matter who you are or where you’ve been, Jesus has fully given his broken body and holy blood for each of us.          
        Jesus grants us redeemed life, so that we can live with him now, even as we await our own day of resurrection. Today, we receive the fullness, boldness, and graciousness of Jesus, gladly, humbly, and gratefully.
For Holy Week has begun, and Jesus will stop at nothing out of love for you, for me, and for the world.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Expect the Unexpected

John 12:1-8
“Expect the unexpected” –that statement might serve us well as a motto for life. Expect the unexpected. But just what does it mean? It’s an oxymoron, isn’t it? Totally contradictory. Because, if you expect something, then by definition, how can it be “unexpected?”
Yet we all know about unexpected things – the chance encounter, the fateful phone call, the serendipity. Some unexpected things are good, some wonderful, some challenging, some downright breathtakingly difficult. Expect the unexpected? How can we do that? For some of us, to live our lives expecting the unexpected might lead to a kind of paralysis – to shutting down all the possibilities of life because of the risks truly living, expecting the unexpected, implies.
And yet it was those words – expect the unexpected – that came to me this week while I was reading this gospel. The words seemed familiar, but I really wondered if I had just made them up, because they also sounded so ridiculous: expect the unexpected?
So, I did what everyone does when they want to know more about something. I “Googled” it. As I typed ‘expect the unexpected” into the Google search engine, just a few hits turned up.
I learned that there really is a definition for the phrase “expect the unexpected.” It’s in the online dictionary connected to that other trusted online source of all information - Wikipedia. According to Wiktionary, to “expect the unexpected means “To not be surprised by an unusual event. Anything could happen, and probably will.” Sounds kind of like another of Murphy’s Laws, doesn’t it?
So, this is what I learned from my computer search: this expression has been around awhile – thousands of years, in fact. Back in about the 5th century BC the Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, “If you do not expect the unexpected, you will not find it, for it is not reached by search or trail.” Truthfully, that makes about as much sense to me as just about anything written by an ancient Greek philosopher.
 But in the last century or so, Oscar Wilde, the late Irish playwright, novelist and poet, quoted this phrase and then tried to qualify it: “To expect the unexpected shows a thoroughly modern intellect.”
Serendipity, chance meetings and love at first sight aside, to expect the unexpected for many of us has come to mean being prepared for the next bit of bad news, to remain alert for signs of oncoming calamity, and perhaps, to be suspicious of the people around us, because we know that we’ve been burned by being unaware or unsuspecting so many times before.
What kinds of unexpected things can catch us unaware?
A child lost too soon, a scary diagnosis or medical outcome; the betrayal of a friend; an accidental injury; the sudden loss of a loved one; the divorce of a child or neighbor; the results of an election; natural disasters.
Sometimes the unexpected thing is the realization that we have been wrong, we have injured others, we have failed to be the people God intends us to be. Even our own conflicted feelings, motivations, and actions can surprise us at times, when we realize through self-examination how immune from sin we are not.
When we read the scriptures, both Old Testament and New, we see how often God has worked in unexpected, and surprising; and through unexpected and surprising people. People like us. People who were flawed and vulnerable. Truth be told, God almost always behaves in ways that are unexpected by the tunnel-vision of the world.
Could the Israelites have ever expected they would be freed from Egypt or that the means of their liberation would be God working through an imperfect prophet named Moses, a series of plagues and a passing angel? Could they ever have expected the Red Sea to part, and only for them; or to be fed by manna which fell from the skies and water that poured out from a rock?
Could barren old women and teenage virgins ever expect to not only bear children, but ones who are sent by God as prophets, kings, and even the Savior of the world? Could the prophets and patriarchs have ever imagined or expected the effect they would have on world history?
Could a devout Pharisee named Saul, the persecutor of a fledgling church of Jesus followers ever have expected that God would not only strike him blind but then restore sight to him, and give him a new vision of the divinity of Jesus Christ; or that his letters would serve the faith of followers of Christ for generations?
Today’s gospel narrative is full of unexpected things too; in fact, most of the actions, and images and scenes depicted here are things which would be unexpected and even shocking at the time.
Unexpected happenings begin earlier in the Gospel of John and are often given the name “signs and wonders” – things like Jesus raising the dead to life, Jesus loving tax collectors and sinners, changing water into wine, and healing, forgiving and transforming the lives of the hopeless.
Not long before the dinner scene from our gospel took place, Jesus does one of those things by raising Lazarus, Jesus’ friend who had been dead for days and was already sealed in a tomb. Not only did Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead, but we are reminded of his restoration as the gospel writer states twice in today’s gospel that not only is Lazarus alive, but he is present in the house that day, gathered together with Jesus and other his friends and at that he even sits at the table – the most unexpected of guests.
If we were following clues to a story, here is clue number one found in the unexpected details in this story – Lazarus, the formerly dead friend is present that day. What do you do about the religious prohibitions regarding contact with the dead when an undead one sits at your table?
Then there is this whole business of Mary, her perfumed oil, and her hair. Clue number two – you wouldn’t anoint a person’s feet unless they were dead. You might anoint a person’s head, but then only if he was a king or priest.
Further, anointing was a mainly socio-political action, performed man – to – man. Women had no part in anointing unless it was in attendance of a dead person’s body. Yet Mary turns this anointing of Jesus into something prophetic, intimate, holy, and wholly unexpected.
Clues three and four also involve Mary; the perfume she used so lavishly was expensive; her actions interpreted as both extravagant and wasteful. Conspicuous consumption by ordinary people was unheard of in that time. Then Mary wiped Jesus’ feet with her hair. Women did not unbind their hair except for a husband. This was an intimate act, done in public, no less. Mary’s is an act of unexpected, reckless beauty, preparing Jesus not for burial but for the walk to his death on the cross.
Five – Jesus is the guest of honor at this dinner, where the expected tone of conversation would be polite and respectful, honoring the gift of the host. Yet Jesus speaks of his death and then argues with one of his disciples at the table.
Number six – one of Jesus’ disciples, Judas would never be expected to raise the stink he does, as a guest at this dinner, as the disciple of this man, nor as one who needs to lie low, since we know, as Jesus himself knows, of his nefarious plans.
As Jesus reclined at the table that day, unexpected things were occurring all around, things his disciples probably reflected on long after his death. In the days ahead, the fragrance of the oil will linger with Mary, and she will likely be reminded of all the places those precious feet had been, and their being pierced in the end. She will likely remember all Jesus had done, and the love he had shared with his friends, his followers, and those he met along his path.
We are reminded through the gospels, through the story of this dinner party, and through the witness of our own lives, that in God we should expect the unexpected. In Jesus, unexpected things abound with, for and through unlikely people and events.
David Lose writes, “people expected the messiah to look like King David; what they got instead was a former carpenter and itinerant preacher. The crowds who welcome Jesus a few verses after these expected Jesus to throw out the Romans; instead he is crucified by them. Even his followers expect his crucifixion to be the end of the story; it turns out to be just the beginning.”
As we near the end of this journey of Lent, expect the unexpected. Through Jesus God does the most unexpected thing of all. In Jesus, sinners receive the unexpected goodness, eternal love and boundless mercy of God. In Jesus, God is bringing us new life not only through the forgiveness of sin but also the invitation to follow, accompany, and serve the mission of God in the world.
Jesus heals through spit and mud and touch and profound acceptance and love. The blind see, the lame walk, and sinners are transformed into saints for the good of the kingdom of God.
The same God who gave Israel kings, and prophets, restored exiled people to life, loves us into an unexpected kind of existence. Here, in the name of Jesus we stand, and embrace the loving and unexpected grace of God toward all people. We are reminded of the pathways of love that bind us to Jesus Christ through our baptism, and to one another as Jesus declared his liberating presence for all people. Through pathways of love as unexpected as a woman sitting on the floor at the feet of her Lord anointing his feet, God calls us all to the table where we are transformed as unexpected blessing for the sake of the kingdom of God.  
What kinds of unexpected things is God doing in your life? In the world? In answers to prayer, spoken aloud and in the silence of sleepless nights? What unexpected places is God showing up today? How is God unexpectedly calling you and me into the richness of kingdom life and service, through the breathless washing and wiping of tears, the cleansing of sin?
Whom might God work through in unexpected ways next? In what way might God be working unexpectedly through you?
As we reflect on the meal in a house in Bethany, we are called to expect the unexpected and in Jesus we are commissioned to perform works of mercy and love in the name of Christ – things like making quilts for refugees, providing food for the hungry, going out and sharing the story of the unexpected and pleasing surprises you have discovered as a child of God.
Heraclitus was right – we do not discover the unexpected through searching for it, it is already here, surprising us, and warming us; it has already claimed us in the name of Jesus Christ, most unexpected gift of all.