Family

Ephesians 1:3-12 (NRSV)

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, 10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. 11 In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, 12 so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory.

It’s all about family with God.  We are all beloved children of God.  Blessed, chosen, destined, bestowed, lavished. The main theme of Ephesians is the Church, which is the body of Christ and it should be a family no matter what.  With family you can be your best self or your worst self, but they still have to let you in!

“Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it a family: Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one.” —Jane Howard

Family is your people.  Your tribe.  The ones in your corner.  Even more so, the body of Christ, the Church, is your family on super strength with super powered vitamins because it has Jesus as our core unifier.

Verses 3-14 are all a single sentence in the original Greek and in that sentence Paul uses seven action verbs to help us discover everything that God has done to give us an identity as God’s children. Blessed (v. 3), Chosen (v. 4), Destined (v. 5), Bestowed (v. 6), Lavished (v. 7), Made known (v. 9) and Gather up (v. 10).   Each of those verbs are designed to be the markers of being one of God’s beloved children.

One of the church’s most limiting and debilitating myths is that “holiness” pertains exclusively to individuals — as though holiness were the product of a solitary spiritual journey. Listen again to the words of thanksgiving and blessing the writer uses in the text “… he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love” (v.4). Who did God choose to be “in Christ”? Individuals yes, but individuals in community. We are called to be a holy church, a holy apostolic church functioning as Christ’s bodily presence here on earth, a HOLY FAMILY.
A holy, apostolic church exhibits three clear-cut values that keep the body healthy and growing in holiness: It must make disciples; it must mark disciples; it must mature disciples.

This is why once a disciple is made, the church must mark the members of its community. A marked disciple bears the “marks” of a living body of Christ.  In Greek these are known as didache-diakonia, koinonia, martyria, and kerygma. First, are we a teaching-serving community of disciples? Second, are we a fellowshipping community? Third are we a bread-breaking and broken-body community? Fourth are we a praying community?  It’s all about relationship and community!

Making and marking disciples for participation in the holy community of the church is still not enough. Jesus called his followers, making them disciples. He then journeyed with them all over the countryside, teaching them, fellowshipping with them, breaking bread with them and praying with them. All these activities were forward looking, pointing towards the creation of mature disciples, able to stand firm in the faith.

The body of Christ looks forward to the future and meets the challenges of sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ to an ever-changing, always-longing world. But for those already feeling insecure about the ground they stand on, the future looks like a scary place. Mature disciples, well-grounded in the bedrock of a holy community, don’t need to stand fearfully rooted to one spot. We can be an active body of love, mercy, truth and justice.  Mature disciples know that the shape and the face of the church can change, as long as at the heart of this holy family is Jesus.

Mike and I went to the Goodbye Road Tour in Savannah on Tuesday night.  It was headlined by “Johnnyswim” and “Drew Holcomb & the Neighbors” with special guests “Penny & Sparrow.”

In the wake of the racially charged events at Charlottesville, the loss of rock icon Tom Petty (who was a huge influence on Drew Holcomb), and the heartbreaking attack upon an audience of music fans at the Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas; Johnnyswim, Drew Holcomb, and the guys of Penny & Sparrow wrote and recorded the EP “Goodbye Road.”*

They began the show by saying, “We don’t care how you voted, we don’t care about what you think on this or that, you’re family here.  The family that sings together, stays together.”   

In an interview Holcomb says of the husband-and-wife team behind Johnnyswim, “One of the things I’ve always loved about Abner and Amanda’s writing, is that it dives into the dark parts of humanity, but still comes out of that darkness with hope and light. When we were recording these songs, it was a hard moment. There was a lot happening in the world, and we felt a mutual sorrow about it, but we also shared the belief that sorrow didn’t have to be the entirety of the story.”

“It was three days after the political rallies in Charlottesville,” Abner remembers. “When we wrote ‘Ring the Bells,’ we were all sitting in the same room, thinking, ‘Enough is enough. We want to scream something into the world, but how do we make it productive?’ In that moment of agony and tension — the very moment you’re tempted to be hopeless — you can choose to give in to those dark feelings or rise above them. ‘Ring the Bells’ is our productive shout.”

They had us sing the simple word, “Family” throughout the show.  I’m speaking for myself, it had a huge impact on me, we shared this collective experience, this shared belief, this shared hope and isn’t that what family is at its heart?

They ended the show with Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” and the family of God, our family of misfits and radicals and sometimes semi-complacent Christ followers, won’t back down.  I had tears streaming down my face, standing in my family, the body of Christ, the Church, that Ephesians writes so eloquently about.  It reminds me of Lauren Daigle song “O Lord” when she writes “I will stand my ground where hope can be found.”  I will stand my ground where hope can be found.  We are making, marking and maturing disciples and we have the solid ground of Christ to stand on.  We don’t have to stand alone.  We can stand TOGETHER.  In our family.  God’s family.  And trust me, from Lauren Daigle’s own lips: “O’Lord O’Lord I know You hear my cry//Your love is lifting me above all the lies//No matter what I face This I know in time//You’ll take all that is wrong and make it right.”  God’s got this.  Even when it seems darkest, God will SHOW up.  Jesus will leave the 99 and come to our rescue.  The Holy Spirit will always make a way.  It may not look like what we want it to, it may have us walk through sludge and muck, it may not be on our time table, but God is going to do a MIGHTY thing in and through us.  We just have to be obedient to God’s call on our lives.  We need to be obedient to God’s mark on our lives.  We need to have the spiritual maturity to roll with the punches and keep our forbearance, tenacity and integrity.

The force that binds us together is stronger than the force that drives us apart.

You are not forgotten.

You are not alone.

David Ogden Stiers says“Family means no one gets left behind or forgotten.” No one gets left behind or forgotten.  NO ONE. We are family and a strong, growing family at that!  And that’s what’s great about family, there’s always room for one more at the table…

***That ends the sermon.  Church pay attention – the audience was multi-generational and they were singing every word with feeling and passion.  We started listening to this album over spring break.  Actually, my husband Mike became obsessed with it.  He said they are singing what we’ve been feeling.  I surprised him for his birthday and our 16th wedding anniversary with a trip to see them live in concert in Savannah.  It was truly an emotional, uplifting, Holy Spirit experience.  We were coming together, young and old, all colors, as a family.  We were so encouraged and I’ll wager everybody was encouraged who was there.  There is a Christian culture humming here.  And Church, we need to listen.  I felt the Holy Spirit moving us to a place of solidarity and I’ve taken that with me in all the places, with all the people, and with all the the news, everywhere … the family that sings together, stays together.  Amen!

 

Jimmy Kimmel Live – Goodbye Road

Jimmy Kimmel Live – Ring the Bells

Some of “Won’t Back Down”

 

Some of “Ring the Bell”

A Mustard Seed Faith

Mark 4:26-34

26 He also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, 27 and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. 28 The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. 29 But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”

30 He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? 31 It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 32 yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

33 With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; 34 he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.

Look at these giant seeds.

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But look at these tiny mustard seeds.  For the life of me, I can’t just pick up one!

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It’s amazing Jesus uses this tiny example to emphasize faith and he uses it again in another story.

Matthew 17:18-20

18 And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him, and the boy was cured instantly. 19 Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast it out?” 20 He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.”

Luke 17:5-6

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.

I love stories.  I grew up a United Methodist preacher’s kid and what I liked best of my dad’s sermons were his stories.  So I’m going to tell you one of my stories.  I’m the oldest of three and the only girl.  We were senior, sophomore and freshman in high school and we’re super close.  My mom went back to get her master’s in guidance when my youngest brother went to kindergarten.  My parents emphasized to us that they are both equal heirs in the kingdom and have always lifted up the priesthood of all believers.  My mom, even in retirement, is as much a minister as my dad.  All my life, I’ve wanted to be a teacher.  I was obsessed with Jo, Meg, Amy, and Beth from Little Women and Anne with an “E” from Anne of Green Gables.  I would create class rolls with names from books and mark them “absent” or “present.”  I took Teacher Cadet my senior year of high school and went to Winthrop University to be a high school English teacher.  It combined my love of reading, creativity, problem solving how I would get each student excited about Chaucer or King Lear.  I didn’t care that much for grammar, but I loved teaching til they understood and the light bulb went off.

In college, I got involved in campus ministry at WNW – Wesley (UMC/Methodist) Newman (Catholic) Westminster (PCUSA/Presbyterian).  Campus ministry opened my eyes to all of the many ways the Gospel can be lived out.  John Wesley, the founder of Methodism had emphasized in his teachings: personal piety and social holiness.  Personal piety – personal quiet times/devotions, prayer, studying the word individually and in groups, worship.  Social holiness – we would do homeless sleep outs in boxes on Winthrop’s lawn, panhandling the next day on one of the busiest streets in Rock Hill, volunteering at CROP Walk raising money for the hungry all over the world in particular the young girls that walk on average 10 kilometers a day for clean water, writing letters to Amnesty International on behalf of prisoners.

Tuesday’s Child Learning Center was a ministry of WNW that was an afterschool care program for homeless and at-risk kids.  My husband Mike and I were co-student coordinators and learned firsthand how we dealt with stress and parenting!  When we went on my first international mission trip to Nicaragua, we were digging latrines because Hurricane Mitch had moved all of the people around Lake Managua to a cow pasture they called Nueva Vida, New Life.  We saw lots of UN tarps and metal they had scavenged.  We were divided up two by two to dig and I was paired with a girl from the University of South Carolina who spoke Spanish.  That came in handy when on the first day, I puked in the family’s yard.  The missionaries gave me a bucket and a peanut butter jar of electrolytes and sent me to the bunk room.  The only book I had in my bag was one that my mom had suggested and given to me, it was Elisabeth Elliot’s These Strange Ashes about her first years as a missionary.  I read that book cover to cover and you know what, the Bible she had created in that specific language of that tribe,  all the hours of work she had poured into it, got washed away in a river, that made me feel better, because I knew the rest of her story.  How she went on to minister and bring her 3 year old daughter Valerie to the very tribe in Ecuador that had killed her husband Jim Elliot.  Fast forward at least 40 years and I’m reading this book feeling pretty down and out, but then I discover that one of my heroines in the faith felt down and out and discouraged too, I had hope that I could do this missionary thing after all.  It was a mustard seed faith. One that blossomed over time like the first passage from Mark!  When Mike Jeter made me get up off the bed and handed me some 7 Up, it settled my stomach (Have you ever drunk straight electrolytes????  Yuck!) and he kept me laughing with his antics and stories.  I always treasured that first trip to Nicaragua and what it taught me and I continued as a student and as a campus minister helping my students have their own “ah ha” experiences.

Fast forward again to the summer between my junior year and senior year, I was going to England on a study abroad trip and Mike and I had just started dating.  It was pre-9-11 so he walked me to the gate.  As I was about to get on the plane, he told me he loved me for the first time.  Our kids, don’t like to hear the lovey dovey kissy kissy stuff, so none of that!

I, being the international traveler that I am (twice to Nicaragua – hardly!), had the brilliant idea that I wanted to travel to Scotland the two weeks before I was due at school.  Lo and behold, I get food poisoning from the airline food.  When I land at Gatwick I bought a Eurorail pass and got some Burger King French fries that I proceeded to puke on the train. (I’ve mentioned puke twice already in this sermon.  Don’t worry that’s not a frequent occurrence.)  I turn around in Heathrow, go back to Gatwick, and make reservations for a hotel.   I proceeded to find the hotel lugging my many bags through to the Paddington train stop.  I have a scrapbook that documents this trip including the picture on the hotel wall that I looked at for days on end.  My only life line was a red phone booth in front of the hotel.  I drug my sick carcass out there to call my parents and Mike.  Many, many, many times.   I realized right away when I try to get some food that sprite is lemonade and our television channels and shows are WAY, WAY better than theirs.  The hotel didn’t have air conditioning so I probably was hallucinating frequently.  I had packed lots of cold weather clothes because I was traveling to Scotland and London was hot as blue blazes, so I ventured out and found a Gap.  I tried on one skirt and passed out in the dressing room, so I thought I would take myself to the nearest hospital but couldn’t seem to hail a taxi.  Much to my relief, a priest walked up to me and showed me how. I was standing on the wrong side of the road.  Duh.

When I got to the emergency room I spent 6 and a half blissful hours in the air conditioning watching Wimbledon and seeing all the ins and outs of a London ER which was much more exciting than tv show!  Wimbledon always brings a heatwave according to the announcers and that’s when John McEnroe breaks in and makes a crack it being July 4th and us gaining our independence, I was thinking let ME have my independence from this place.  I’ve loved John McEnroe ever since!

Why am I telling you these stories?  Because in that red phone booth my mom told me to read the book of Ezekiel.  It’s a 48 chapter book.  I’m thinking in my head, “Mom, you’re daughter has food poisoning from what feels like the other side of the world and you’re telling her to read the book of Ezekiel?”  In that sweltering room, with nothing more to do, I flipped around in Ezekiel, reading passages here and there.  Then I landed on Ezekiel 37, it reads, “The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.” So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone…. 14 I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.”

It became so clear that I was called to this awesome and scary thing called ministry.  I had been stripped away from all the “stuff” in my life, all of the busy-ness, and from my usual always whirling mind in my sickness, in a continent by myself, alone, afraid and crying out to God to draw near as only God can.  I had only a mustard seed of faith and God was ever present and ever faithful.  At the time, I was going more than full throttle, and in thinking about this over the past week, God had to make me pause so that I couldn’t stuff another thing in there.  You know when you make yourself busy doing the Lord’s work?  I was working multiple jobs, I was part of multiple organizations, my grandfathers had died the semester before, and I would have these brief, but critical Jesus injections, you know the ones that keep you running, but I had not actually stopped.  And paused. And discerned.  And processed.  I had gone to Exploration the Fall before where Tex Sample said, “Accepting a call to the ministry is a lot like throwing up, when you do it, you’ll feel a lot better.”  Well, I did it, and felt a lot better.  I could use all of my love of stories, creativity, and teaching in ministry.  I could use my love of personal piety balanced with social holiness for the glory of God.  I could move the mountains if I had mustard seed faith and God will give me the words to speak to the dry bones in Christ who strengthens me.

Not only did my call to ministry happen in England, I found out that <Spoiler Alert> Mike and I were meant to be together.  Remember when he said he loved me before I got on the plane, I meant it then when I answered him, but I really meant it in the days to come as God worked within my heart.  You see my dad had always been the pastor.  I believed very much in women in ministry, but I knew firsthand, what a call to ministry means for a family.  How could the Mom be there for both her kids and her congregation?  You have to have a willing companion and a true partner.  We joked growing up that when my mom started playing Steven Curtis Chapman’s For the Sake of the Call or Michael W. Smith’s Friends are Friends Forever, we knew we were moving.  God was giving me all sorts of nudges during my time there both within me and for all the world to see.  The pinnacle was seeing a familiar episode of Friends that happened to be on Nick at Nite on Friday.  You know how I said at the time British television was horrible, the only good thing, was the American re-runs. My family always likened me as Monica and Mike as Chandler, because I kept my room very neat and could always tell if my brothers had been in there and Mike was the sweet jokester and lo and behold, I remember sitting in a hotel room with my mom and grandmother watching the episode of Chandler asking Monica to marry him.  I hadn’t had the mustard seed faith to trust that God could work things out both in my family life and in ministry life.  I’m a natural control freak and doubter and I have to say honestly didn’t believe it could work out that I could have a call to ministry and my family.  Mike says that’s crazy, but that’s what fear does to you – it says, you can’t do something and you believe it.  Fear says you’re not enough when God says you are more than enough by God’s grace and mercy!

Fast forward over the past 17 years and we have been on the greatest mountaintops and walked the darkest valleys. Our faith has been tested, tried and pushed to the limit.  Sometimes in reference to God will never give you more than you can handle, I wish God didn’t trust us so much.  We found this in a store at Montreat on spring break.

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It couldn’t have come at a better time. All things are possible.  ALL things are possible.  Do you hear that?  ALL things are possible.  If we say to a mountain move then it will move.  If we say to a mulberry tree, go jump in the lake, it will.  If we take the time to listen to what God is speaking for us today and if we tap into that Holy Spirit power, we can change the world.  Who knows what we could do with just a little bit of faith?  Faith moves mountains.  In your deepest heart, in your relationships, in your work place, in your neighborhoods, in our world if we have a mustard seed faith, what would it mean?  God could blow our minds.  As we share together, you’ve heard some of my story, I want to know your stories of mustard seed faith.  I want to know the battles you’re facing and the dragons your slaying.  I want to know what brings you joy and hope.  I want us to share together and be community with one another so that we can live out the faith for all the world to see and know the greatest story ever told – the Gospel of Jesus Christ – how the great God of the universe came to us Emmanuel and walked and lived among us and told these stories about common everyday things like mustard seeds.

Taking God to the Bank

Hear now the Word of God from the book of Genesis chapter 15 verses 1 through 12 and 17 and 18.

“After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, ‘Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.’  But Abram said, ‘O Lord God what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?  And Abram said, ‘You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.’  But the word of the Lord came to him, ‘This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.’  He brought him outside and said, ‘Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are about to count them.’  Then he said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’  And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.

Then he said to him, ‘I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.’  But he said, ‘O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?’  He said to him, ‘Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.’  He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two.  And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.

As the sun was going down a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him….When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces.  On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, ‘To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Raphaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites.’”

This is the Word of God, for the people of God.  Thanks be to God for it.

There are many things in life that are uncertainties, and for some of us our bank account is one of them.  How many of us balance our checkbooks anymore?  I know that I do online banking, trusting that the bank will keep their promise and is keeping track of what I’m spending, and I just check and make sure we’re not bouncing.  But there are times I wonder – hmmm…..can I trust what’s in my account?  Do I really know what’s in there?  Will they keep their word?  Call it the paranoid in me, I sometimes have doubts.  Especially in the middle of the night, when all of those worries creep in.  If you can identify with this, you know something of what Abram felt as he struggled to believe in God’s promise in the midst of his doubts.

Before we dig into the story wondering about trust and promises, what was going on with Abram before this happened?  Well, you know the story of Abram, later called Abraham.  In chapter 11 of the book of Genesis we move from looking at the world as a whole and its various acts of disobedience, to following the story of Abram.  In chapters 11 and 12, God called Abram, saying “Go from your country, and your kindred and your father’s house to the land I will show you.  I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.  I will bless those who bless you, and who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”[1]  Wow.  Leave all that you have known and go to this new land that God will show you and God will make you, who has no children, a great nation.  That was pretty unbelievable.  You’re 75 years old, with no children, and God tells you go and I’ll make you into a great nation.  Yeah right.  But what does the text say “Abram left, just as the Lord had told him.”  So Abram begins this new journey.  He steps out in faith.  They really should make a movie like The Ten Commandments a la Charlton Heston about the story of Abraham because of the large scope of it all.

In chapter 13 God again makes a promise to Abram.  “Raise your eyes now and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward; for all the land that you see I will give to you and to your offspring forever.  I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth; so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your offspring also can be counted.  Rise up, walk through the length and breadth of the land, for I will give it to you.”  So again, God promises Abram two very big things – the land and the offspring to inhabit it.  Not just a handful of offspring, but descendants like the dust of the earth never to be fully counted, because who in the world could count the dust?  I wouldn’t want to begin to count even the dust in our house.  So yes, again, God had promised this childless man not only land but descendants as numerous as dust.

Right before we met Abram in today’s passage there had been a battle and to make a long story short, with God’s help, Abram won.  When you win, you take the loot.  Our family plays the game of Risk a lot, and in that game, when you win a battle, you take that person’s land.  The goal in the game is world domination.  Just like in anything else – if you win, you get the reward.  Abram realized that God was the one who had delivered his enemies into his hand and after giving the priest ten percent of all the spoils, he didn’t take anything else for himself.  That was a whole heck of a lot to turn down, but God had been faithful to Abram delivering him from Egypt and helping him win this battle, and he didn’t want to owe anyone anything, he and his allegiance belonged only to God. Since he gave God credit for the victory, the spoils weren’t his. His refusal was a sign of faith.

This is where we are in our text today.  Abram has just turned down this handsome reward and God comes to him in a vision and says, “Do not be afraid, Abram.  I am your shield, your very great reward.”  God says look I’ve got your back, I’ve got you covered.  You may have given up that loot, like in The Goonies, “the rich stuff,” but I’ve got an even greater reward for you.

What does Abram do?  He, a little on the angry, maybe even on the sarcastic side of things, asks what can you give me when I’m childless and everything I have will go to a servant in my house.  What can you give me?  Doesn’t that sound like a question you hear today all too often.  What can you give me?  The Message says it this way, “God, Master, what use are your gifts as long as I’m childless…?”[2]  What use are your gifts?  That’s a pretty straightforward and forthright question.  What good is all this stuff if I can’t take it with me and I can’t leave it to my children?  Abram has heard God promise to make him this great nation, and he’s heard God say he’ll make his descendants as many as the dust of the earth, but yet, he hasn’t seen anything yet.  It’s a show me the money kind of moment.  He’s tired of the talk; he wants to see some action.  Don’t we get like that sometimes?  We’ve been given this promise, this word from God, and it seems that nothing is happening or that our prayers are going unanswered.  Sometimes we start to worry if God’s taking a break or if we’ve misunderstood God’s will.  In our fast-paced society, we often want things right NOW, and if they don’t come fast enough, we begin to think they’re not coming.  We get discouraged.  Abram had some of these same fears and questions.

What did God say to Abram, even before he began to ask his questions?  “Do not be afraid Abram.”  God cuts at the core of his fear.  See in Abram’s day, being childless was a big deal.  Some thought it was a sign of judgment or wickedness and as it is today, your children are who hopefully care for you as you get older, so Abram’s concern was not unfounded.  God knew Abram’s thoughts and he gave him the proof he needed.  God knows us, and God knows where we are and what we’re feeling even before we articulate it.  God is a big God, and a gracious God and God doesn’t slink away from our questions, God doesn’t hide or back down from them, God doesn’t smite him down for questioning and God doesn’t get angry at his doubt – God reassures him.  In the movie Jerry Maguire, Tom Cruise’s character, a sports agent, has just made a huge stand professionally and he’s trying to rally all of his sports clients around him.  Cuba Gooding’s character, a pro football player is who he calls first.  Over and over again he reassures him that he is on his side, looking out for his best interests and working hard for him.  And the classic scene shows Cuba yelling back and forth into the phone “Show me the money.”  With Cruise responding emphatically assuring him as he yells into the phone, “I will show you the money!” He puts everything he has into it at the loss of all else.  He assures him and puts his fears at ease.  He steps up to the plate.  God does the same thing.  God meets Abram where he is, and answers him.

God says that Abram’s heir won’t be this servant, but a child of his own from his own body.  God doesn’t give a general speech about keeping God’s promise, but God addresses Abram’s actual fears, the doubts and worries he has about his own specific situation – having an heir or a legacy to pass on.  After he answers his doubt, God provides him with another image, another symbol just like the dust in his earlier promise.  He says, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them, so shall your descendants be.”  Again, he gives him something so huge that it can’t even be counted.  Can you imagine it?  If you were Abram in the days, weeks, and years to come as you go through your every day life, in the daytime seeing the dust and in the nighttime seeing the stars and thinking about this promise that God made you, this crazy and unlikely reality that God has promised you, would you believe it?  Would you keep the faith?  Does Abram have concrete evidence that this will happen, that God will keep God’s word?  Not really.  But we have heard how God had called him and had provided for him, and how God continues to make the promise.  We have heard how God answered his fears.  And because of these things, through God, as our Covenant Keeper, Abram believed. Verse 6 says, “And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.”  Through his faith, Abram was made right with God.

There is a story about Hudson Taylor, the great missionary to China, going to a bank in England and opening up an account for the China Inland Mission.  As he was filling out the application he came to a question asking him for his assets, or in other words what you got.  Taylor wrote in the blank, “ten pounds and the promises of God.”[3]  You can take God to the bank!  If you know the story of Taylor and the China Inland Mission and all of the great, faithful work that they did, you know the foundation for his life was God’s promise:  That God has begun a good work and would bring it to completion; faith that God would keep God’s covenant.  When you have received God’s promise, it is something you can take to the bank.

Abram had seen God at work in his life and as unlikely as the promise sounded, he believed.  He trusted that he could stand on those promises.  And what about those words, “reckoned it to him as righteousness?”  Paul would later allude to this verse in Romans 4 and Galations 3 when he begins talking about justification by faith.  He uses Abram as an example to the early church saying that through his faith Abram was set in right relationship with God, not by anything that he earned or worked, but just by his belief.  What Paul was trying to communicate was that it is the same with us.  We’ve seen all the ways that God has worked in our lives, just as Abram saw, and just like Abram, all we have to do is believe to be reckoned as righteous, or counted as good even though we obviously don’t deserve it.  We believe that God loved us and drew us to God even when we didn’t know it and that by grace God gives us the opportunity to believe.  Through this faith and belief, we are saved.

In verse 7, God again reminds Abram of who God is, the God who has brought him to this place, and the promise.  Here Abram goes again questioning God, “How am I to know that I shall possess this land?”  Although in verse 6 it says that he believed, he is now asking for some sort of sign.  Just like us, sometimes even when we do believe, we have questions and doubts.  Again, God answers him.  God provides the assurance that he needs both in word and deed.  God makes God’s self vulnerable by making a cutting covenant with Abram.  I know it sounds a little gross, but this is where we get our saying of “cutting a deal with someone.”   The way it works is that you walk between the animals sealing your agreement and if you break the agreement then your fate is that of the animals.  Covenants are serious, being cut in half is serious.  These are not just promises, but something far more-weighty and binding.  Marriage is one of these things, where it’s not just a promise made between two people, but it is a pledge, an oath that should not be taken lightly. It’s a covenant.

God’s covenant with Abram isn’t quite like a marriage where there is an equal partnership in the covenant-making. This is a special kind of covenant, a royal covenant, where a king rewards a servant for loyalty and faithful service.  All of the responsibility and pressure is on the king to uphold the covenant because he is the one of greater stature.[4]  In other words because of God’s love for us and God’s knowledge of our human limitations, God puts God’s self on the line, knowing that this is not an equal partnership, but that the majority of the risk is God’s.  In the form of a smoking fire pot and flaming torch, God covenanted with Abram to fulfill both of his promises – to give him all of this land and to give him descendants to inhabit it.

What an amazing God we serve, that God has staked God’s own life on this promise.  This is not a promise that Abram initiated, but it is a unilateral decision and covenant made by God.  It is not something we have to do or initiate, but it is part of the nature of God.  That’s the important point.  God’s promise is certain not because of anything that we have done, but because of who God is.  Yes, Abram has been faithful, but so has God and so God will be.  God is not a distant God who watches from afar, but God is a present God who has entered into the fray with humanity.  God seeks relationship with us and has covenanted with each of us in the greatest of all sacrifices on the cross.  God doesn’t pull back or go half way, but as in popular games of Texas Hold ‘em, God goes all in.  God, Emmanuel, became one of us.  God is a personal God that seeks us, that woos us, that draws us to God’s self.  On the cross God provided the greatest sign and gave us the opportunity to join in the greatest covenant.

What is our response?  Our response is that of Abram’s, to believe.  To have faith in the God of the universe that covenants to be in relationship with you and with me, sinners redeemed by the love and grace of Jesus Christ.  To trust God’s promises – promises to never leave nor forsake us, promises to give us abundant life, promises to walk with us, both assuring us and answering our questions and fears, but also calling us to grow and trust and respond in faith.

An old man and woman were driving down the road, with the man behind the steering wheel and his wife of many years sitting next to the passenger-side door. They came up behind a car in front of them that had a very young couple riding side by side, almost looking like a two-headed monster because they were sitting so close together. The woman looked over at her husband and pointed at the young couple in front of them and asked, “Why don’t we do that anymore?” He slowly looked over at her and replied, “I haven’t moved.”[5] There have been times, like Abram, we have moved back and forth sometimes trusting, sometimes doubting and questioning God’s provision for us. At times we’ve even gotten out of the car, but God hasn’t moved.

In closing, one of my favorite hymns, perhaps because of the words, perhaps because of the gusto, is “Standing on the Promises.”  Listen here to the second verse, “Standing on the promises that cannot fail, when the howling storms of doubt and fear assail, by the living Word of God I shall prevail, standing on the promises of God.  Standing, standing, standing on the promises of God my Savior, standing, standing, I’m standing on the promises of God.”[6]  You can stand on and trust the promises of God.  God’s a sure thing.  Bank on it!

[1] Genesis 12:1-3, All scripture references unless otherwise noted are from The New Oxford Annotated Bible – New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

[2] Eugene H. Peterson, The Message:  The Bible in Contemporary Language (Colorado Springs:  Navpress, 2002), 39.

[3] Patrick Mead,“Standing on the Promises of God,” www.sermoncentral.com, February 20, 2006.

[4] David J. A. Clines, “Genesis-Esther,” HarperCollins Bible Commentary  (San Francisco:  HarperCollins, 2000), 93.

[5] King Duncan, King’s Treasury of Dynamic Humor (Knoxville: Seven Worlds Press, 1990), 173.

[6] The United Methodist Hymnal:  Book of United Methodist Worship (Nashville:  The United Methodist Publishing House, 2002), 374.

Seeing is Believing – “Doubting” Thomas

John 20:19-31 (NRSV)

19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

I think this story is a testimony to the difficulty of faith – how hard it is to believe.  Merriam-Webster defines faith as a “firm belief in something for which there is no proof.”  Belief.  I think of the words from the Apostle’s Creed, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth and so on…”  or from the praise song – “I believe in Jesus…I believe he is the son of God…that he died and he rose again…that he gave himself for me…”  All week as I’ve thought about this text, the old Steven Curtis Chapman song has rolled around in my head, “I do, I do, I do, I do believe, I know, I know, I know, I know it’s true, Lord, I believe in you.”  Firm belief – faith – is not only foundational, but transformational.  It can be life-changing as we mentally and verbally declare – this is what we believe.  This is who we are.  So what about the disciples – where was their belief, their faith?

The doors are locked in fear.  The disciples are meeting together not just behind closed doors, but locked doors.  Their fear is apparent.  As Jesus was betrayed, they scattered like ants and that initial fear has only been heightened as they believe that their friend, their leader, their rabbi has been crucified.

But wait, prior to this, didn’t Peter and John see the empty tomb and the discarded clothes of Jesus?  Haven’t we heard “Up from the Grave He Arose” and “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” and celebrated the Resurrection with all of the Alleluia’s?  Didn’t Mary Magdalene see and speak with Jesus and then proclaim to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord!”?  It seems that Thomas has gotten a bad rap.  As much preachers like to use “Doubting Thomas” in our sermon illustrations, he wasn’t the only one that needed to see to believe.  They too needed a personal encounter or experience with the Risen Lord.

Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”  I like that he just sort of appeared.  It doesn’t say exactly what the disciples were doing – maybe freaking out or worrying over what they would do next or what would happen to them – but all of a sudden, there was Jesus – Jesus that had been crucified and buried, Jesus that they had deserted, Jesus that they loved and had followed, saying, “Peace be with you.”

He doesn’t say, “Dude, where were you guys?” or “I told you so,” but peace.  Peace.  He showed them his hands and side to prove to them that he wasn’t a ghost, that he was the same Jesus they had known, had eaten with, walked with, learned from, the same Jesus that had been crucified just three days earlier.  The text says, “Then,” “Then” they rejoiced when they saw the Lord.  Not until he showed them did they rejoice.  Seeing was believing.

Again Jesus says, “Peace be with you.”  And then he does an amazing thing – he empowers the disciples and gives them authority.  Not only does he react in compassion to their doubt, but he ordains them to bringing the Good News to the world.  “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  They have seen the journey that Jesus has taken – the ups and the downs and especially the persecution.  But he doesn’t ask them to walk this path alone – he gives them the Holy Spirit.  Actually it says, he breathed on them – just like God breathed life into Adam – He breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

The disciple’s faith, their firm belief, was restored.  They thought they would never see him again, and in he walks into the room.  They witnessed in person the Risen and Resurrected Lord.  They had a personal encounter with Jesus.

What does it take for us to believe?  The Gospel of John shows us that faith comes in different ways and with differing intensities to different people. It doesn’t all come in the same neatly wrapped package.  In verse 8 of this same chapter, the beloved disciple believes upon seeing the empty tomb. In verse 16, Mary believes when the Lord calls her name. The disciples here in verse 20 rejoice when they see his hand and side.  And then here comes Thomas.

He had missed out on the action, the unbelievable good news.  They had seen the Lord with their own eyes – but he had not.

Whether out of reaction to all of them seeing and now believing and a little bit of FOMO (fear of missing out) or whether he just needs tangible proof, he takes it a step further.  He not only wants to see Jesus to believe, but he says that he wants to put his finger in the mark of the nails and his hand in his side.  That’s a pretty hardcore and definitive statement.

You see why he’s called Doubting Thomas?  He’s been singled out throughout the ages as someone with inferior faith because he actually expressed his doubt in the resurrection. He made his reservations known out-loud.  He used his outside voice not just wondering in his head. He absolutely refused to say that he understood what he didn’t understand, or that he believed what he didn’t.   He was honest and blunt.  As I said earlier – it’s not that the other disciples immediately believed or that they weren’t scared as well, but Thomas is the one who remains firm – No, I’m not going to believe unless…  And because of that he is the poster child for skepticism. Even those that don’t know the story, have heard of a “Doubting Thomas.”  His name is so synonymous with doubt that if you look in a Webster’s Dictionary you’ll find it in two places: under “d” for doubt and under “t” for Thomas. According to Webster the definition for a “doubting Thomas” is a habitually doubtful person.

But contrary to his bad press in Webster’s, he had not always doubted.  Thomas had believed in the Lord.  In verse 16 of John chapter 11 as Jesus prepared to go to Jerusalem, Thomas says, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”  He had believed and he had followed, but his worst fears had been realized – in his mind, Jesus was dead and that was irreversible.  Any normal person would have that same reaction – because no one previously had been resurrected and no one ever since.  Thomas was speaking out of his grief, out of his fear, out of his anger, out of his despair.

Virginia was 19 years old and pregnant when she went to live with her 15th set of foster parents. Her case file read like a textbook example of neglect, abuse and bureaucratic failure. She sat silently in a chair, hands neatly clasped, staring into her lap. The foster parents, whose three children were in school, had been apprised of Virginia’s story and promised that this placement would be “temporary.” (Temporary was the story of Virginia’s life.)

Finally, the foster mother said, “Are you frightened, Virginia?”

“Kinda,” she replied without looking up. Then, “I’ve been in lots of homes.”

“Well,” the sympathetic woman tried to reassure the bewildered young mother-to-be, “Let’s hope this time turns out for the best.”

Virginia’s reply is one of those statements that sticks to your soul — it was flat, without change of tone and without Virginia even looking up, “Hurts too much to hope.”

Can you imagine?

Thomas could.  It hurt too much for him to hope.  In his mind, dead is dead.  His Lord was dead.  Jesus was dead.  It hurt too much to hope.

In some ways, it seems that Thomas has become a scapegoat – not only for a society who does not prize doubt, but certainty and confidence, but also a scapegoat for the church.  Somehow doubt has come to be seen as wrong, or that it is somehow less than faithful to need a sign, or a touch, or a vision, or a personal encounter.  We get the impression that we are not allowed to ask the hard questions without being labeled a cynic, or a skeptic, or a “liberal.” Since when are questions bad? Since when is it wrong to admit that we don’t understand everything? Since when is it wrong to ask God these things? Read the account of Job, the Prophets or the Psalms. All are filled with uncertainties, complaints, and questions of God. Even Jesus while hanging on the cross cried out to God, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”  Thomas is just one in a long line of faithful people who have raised their voices to ask the hard yet faithful questions.  If one is asking God questions or seeking answers from God, there has to be some kind of faith that God exists and can respond.  When we cry out to God, know that God will answer.  Maybe not immediately or in some of the ways that we want or desire, but God always promises to work things together for good for those that love God.  Our God is a big God and can withstand our doubts, can withstand our fears and can withstand all that we throw at God, and “God with us” will respond.  Jesus doesn’t throw the book at Thomas because of his doubts.  He doesn’t say – welp, you missed out on seeing me, you’re permanently stuck in your unbelief.

A week later, this time the doors are shut, but not locked and Jesus comes and stands among them again saying, “Peace be with you.”  Part of me wonders if he leads off with the “Peace be with you” each time because it’s still probably pretty shocking to see him alive and in their midst.  Immediately he says to Thomas – do it.  Do what you need to do to remove your doubt and believe.  “Do not doubt but believe.”

Thomas’s need to grasp, to touch for proof evaporates as he sees Jesus and he responds, “My Lord and my God!”  Thomas’ fears were removed – he was given all that he needed.

Reminding me very much of Thomas, Paul Tillich writes, “The old faith must die, eaten away by doubts, but only so that a new and deeper faith may be born.”

In France, they grow a lot of grapes, but in France they do not water the grapevines. In California there’s lots of irrigation, but not in France. The French believe that it’s better to have a bad harvest one year than to lose vines due to drought. If you don’t water your vines the roots of those vines go deep, deep, deep into the earth until they touch groundwater and become invulnerable to drought. The harvest may not be great one year but the vines will return the next year.

When we say I believe, when we have a real and personal encounter with our Risen Lord, we sink the roots of our faith deeper and deeper, so deep that these roots of our faith can handle the droughts. The times we feel God is silent.  We don’t know what kind of harsh weather our lives will face; we don’t know the twists and turns awaiting us on this journey, but we trust in the deep, eternal well of God’s faithfulness because we have seen and know. We send our roots deep into the waters of life with God, not because God removes all of our obstacles, all of the storms, but because God walks with us through them.

Jesus knows our doubts just as he knew Thomas’s.  He knows our hearts and if we but ask him he is faithful and true and will answer our doubts.  The Bible says, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened to you – if we seek the Risen Lord, we will find him.  These encounters come in a variety of ways, they meet us where we are and speak to us in ways that only God can.

Father John Dear in Blessed are the Nonviolent, writes,

“In the summer of 1982, a few months before I entered the Jesuit order, I visited the Holy Land to walk in the footsteps of Jesus.

On the day I left the United States, Israel invaded Lebanon. When I stepped off the plane in Jerusalem, soldiers carrying machine guns searched me. I had unwittingly walked into a full-scale war.

I visited the “Chapel of the Beatitudes,” a small, eight-sided stone church that stands on a hill overlooking the sea. I remember sitting there one afternoon, carefully reading the familiar words inscribed on the chapel walls:

Blessed are the poor. Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed are the pure in heart. Blessed are the peacemakers. Blessed are those persecuted for the sake of justice, for Jesus. Love your enemies. Be as compassionate as God.

I walked onto the balcony and surveyed the magnificent Sea of Galilee. It suddenly dawned on me: I think Jesus is serious.

I turned to the sky and called out to God, “Are you trying to tell me something? Do you want me to hunger and thirst for justice? Do you want me to be a peacemaker? Do you want me to love even my enemies?

“All right,” I declared, “I’ll work for peace and justice for the rest of my life — but on one condition: if you give me a sign!”
Immediately, two Israeli jets swooped down at me from the sky above the Sea of Galilee. They roared over me, causing a sonic boom. Moments later, they dropped bombs along the Lebanon border.
Trembling, I made two decisions in that moment. I would devote the rest of my life to working for peace and justice. And I would never ask God for another sign.”

We serve a show and tell God.  I bet that if we thought about it, each of us would have stories to share about the ways that Jesus has met us where we are.  The signs and wonders, the little God things, the assurances, the encounters that strengthen our faith, that help us to believe when we’re down or all seems lost whether it be a word from a friend, that special passage we flip to in God’s Word, or the song that happens to come on the radio when we need to hear it most.  “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”  Blessed are you – who have not physically witnessed the Risen Lord – have not physically seen the nail prints and the scars, but who have come to believe, to know this Jesus.

The text says that this story was written “so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”  God knows our need for a first-hand encounter. That is why God came to us in the person of Jesus, Emmanuel – God with us.  Jesus does not shrug away from our doubts and questions.  He wants us, he longs for us to believe.  God searches and finds us even when we don’t want to be or don’t think we need to be found.  Jesus breaks through the door of our hearts breathing his Spirit over us literally blowing away our mountains of doubt.  May we let Jesus speak to our hearts, just as he spoke to Thomas.  May Jesus take away our doubts.  Ask and you shall receive, seek and ye shall find.

It doesn’t end there though – After the Lord breaks into our hearts and we have declared “my Lord and my God,” there is a life that proceeds from that point. God calls us out of our locked rooms into the world.  The disciples knew – they had seen and believed, but they could not believe for Thomas.  We can’t believe for our friends and family.  Thomas had to make the decision for himself.  They didn’t ridicule him for his disbelief or kick him out of the fold.  May we also – welcome those that are seeking, that are questioning, those that have never heard the Good News or who have a Christianity that’s contorted beyond recognition. May they see Jesus Christ alive in our hearts and lives. The ways we love each other; the ways we respond to those in need; the ways we strive to live as Christ followers – the hands and feet of Christ.  May we go forth knowing in our hearts that we serve the Risen Lord and may we let that light, that truth be known to the world!  Thomas believed; may we believe also!

Unlock your Heart with Jesus

John 20:1-18

20 Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples returned to their homes.  11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12 and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14 When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” 18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

A week ago, we celebrated Palm Sunday where Jesus rode on a colt or donkey to shouts of “Hosanna” and the waving of palm branches as he celebrated the Passover in Jerusalem.  Then he flipped over tables in the temple and called the religious leaders to task.  We know that he gathered with his disciples on Passover to wash their feet and to gather with them to break bread and drink wine, as he said these strange words about the bread representing his body that is broken open and the wine being his blood covering all of our sins.  We believe the familiar story of him praying in the Garden of Gethsemane asking God to take this cup from me.  Judas betraying him, Peter denying him, his disciples scattered and scared.  We believe that on Good Friday Jesus suffered death on a cross beside two thieves.  The sky turned black, the earth shook, and the curtain in the temple ripped.  He died and was placed in a tomb where he was for 3 days.

That’s where our passage starts today.  You may be thinking, Narcie why this review of Holy Week?  The Easter story is familiar to many of us.  It’s a story in all 4 of the Gospels:  Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  They all give different details, depending on their perspective, but that to me, is what makes it more true.  If they all said the same thing, I, being a natural doubter, would be even more skeptical.  I think that’s what makes the Bible great – all of these different people, sharing their stories, creating this arch of God’s redemption of the world.  Several years ago in The New York Times Sunday Review, the Swedish writer Henning Mankell wrote that “a truer nomination for our species than Homo sapiens might be Homo narrans, the storytelling person.” Mankell’s argument was not that the biologists are wrong or that we are not thinking creatures but rather that we are also — and maybe even primarily — storytelling creatures.  We make sense of the world and our place in it through story. Story is how we create meaning, how we interpret reality, and how we come to know who we are and why we are.  Stories have a way of weaving into our psyche as nothing else does.

Our passage is from the book of John.  John is the one who has all of the “I Am’s.”  I am the bread of life.  I am the good shepherd.  I am the true vine.  It has zero parables and no Passover meal or Lord’s Supper.  It’s the only Gospel that has the foot washing instead.  John was the only one of the disciples who was with Mary and the other women the day that Jesus died on the cross.  He was the one to whom Jesus, as he was hanging on the cross, entrusted his mother Mary.  He has a peculiar way of telling a story, a more personal way.  Like with the foot washing.  He had Jesus bowing before each disciple and washing their feet and saying, “I have set for you an example that you should do as I have done for you.”  He’s the only one of the Gospels that has Mary interacting with whom she supposed was the gardener, but the reader knows he’s actually Jesus.  The Gospels all explain the transformation of the Resurrected Jesus in different ways, so we get the idea that he is like himself and yet unlike himself.  When he calls out her name, “Mary!”  The text says, “She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher).”  She recognized him as she heard his voice and he called out her name.  John’s is the only Gospel which weaves in this personal touch.  I think it’s important to recognize, there was never a pivotal moment in Jesus’ earthly ministry that John wasn’t an eye witness.  The Transfiguration.  The Garden of Gethsemane.  The Crucifixion.  And also in this Gospel account, the Resurrection.  He was called the one whom Jesus loved and he wrote the most personal Gospel account.  I don’t think that’s a coincidence.  He was writing not only about his Rabbi and Savior but his friend, and that makes for a very good story.

What were your favorite books growing up?  My favorites were Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, Catch-22 and biographies of Dolly Madison, Queen Elizabeth, Abigail Adams and Julia Ward Howe, and my Mom’s old Betty Cavannah books.  Don’t worry I liked more modern stories too – like Nancy Drew, the Babysitters Club, and Sweet Valley High.  Have any of you read The Secret Garden?  It’s a story of Mary Lennox, who is a sickly and unloved 10-year-old girl, born in India to wealthy British parents who never wanted her. She is cared for by servants, who allow her to become a spoiled.  After a cholera epidemic kills her parents and the servants, Mary is sent England to live with Archibald Craven; an uncle whom she has never met, at his isolated house, Misselthwaite Manor.  At first, Mary is as rude and sour as ever. She dislikes her new home, the people living in it, and most of all, the bleak moor on which it sits. However, a good-natured maid named Martha Sowerby tells Mary about the late Mrs. Craven, who would spend hours in a private walled garden growing roses. Mrs. Craven died after an accident in the garden, and the devastated Mr. Craven locked the garden and buried the key. Mary becomes interested in finding the secret garden herself, and her ill manners begin to soften as a result. Soon she comes to enjoy the company of Martha, the gardener Ben Weatherstaff, and a friendly bird that she calls Robin.

“Are things stirring down below in the dark in that garden where he lives?” Mary inquired.

“What garden?” grunted Weatherstaff, becoming surly again.

“The one where the old rose-trees are.” She could not help asking, because she wanted so much to know. “Are all the flowers dead, or do some of them come again in the summer? Are there ever any roses?”

“Ask him,” said Ben Weatherstaff, hunching his shoulders toward the robin. “He’s the only one as knows. No one else has seen inside it for ten year’.”

Mary was shocked by how long the garden, this now secret garden, had gone without someone tending it.  She grew fond of the robin who had been the garden’s sole visitor and would watch it closely.  One day, as the robin hopped about under them she saw him hop over a small pile of freshly turned up earth. He stopped on it to look for a worm. The earth had been turned up because a dog had been trying to dig up a mole and he had scratched quite a deep hole.

Mary looked and saw something almost buried in the newly-turned soil. It was like a ring of rusty iron or brass, and when the robin flew up into a tree nearby she put out her hand and picked the ring up. It was more than a ring, however; it was an old key which looked as if it had been buried a long time.

Mistress Mary stood up and looked at it with an almost frightened face as it hung from her finger.

“Perhaps it has been buried for ten years,” she said in a whisper. “Perhaps it is the key to the garden!”

What happens when she unlocks the door to the Secret Garden?  Not only does the garden experience resurrection, but she does.  A sad, unloved, lonely little girl was loved for who she was, with all of her baggage, in a very personal way. As she spends time in the garden, she begins to be an agent of resurrection.  She got some of God’s Resurrection dust on her, the pollen of new life, sprinkling down from heaven to make all things new.

See Jesus wants to set us free.  Jesus hands us the keys to unlock the gardens of our hearts.  As it says in Isaiah 43:1-3, “But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel:  Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;  I have called you by name, you are mine.  When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.  For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.”  Jesus calls each of us by name, just like Mary, and hands us the key to our salvation.  All we have to do is turn the lock.

What’s holding you back from taking the key that Jesus is handing you?  Jesus broke free from the shackles of sin and conquered death so that we may have eternal life if we put our hope and trust in him.  What do you need to break free from?  Perfection?  Doubt?  Fear? Loneliness?  What does the Enemy whisper to you when you’re feeling weak or vulnerable?  What are you clinging to?  Pride? Sloth? Envy? Lust? Wrath? Gluttony?  Greed? What?  Think of it as Spring cleaning.  We treat our sins like old familiar sweatshirts, old comfy shoes.  That may fit more snuggly now but they’re familiar.  Throw them out!  They have no hold over you now.  Lay down the pride, perfection, lust, lies at the foot of the cross and LEAVE IT THERE.  When you feel the tug to put them on again, ask Jesus to come and meet you in that moment and ask him to give you the strength not to fall back into the old ways and repent.

As Lutheran Priest, Nadia Bolz-Weber, writes, “That’s the thing about tombs. Sometimes we don’t even know we are in them, until the light breaks from on high. But I know we all have them.

I wonder what it is for you. Is there something buried? Thought to be dead? Something that you have left for dead? What in your life might have been in such darkness that any kind of dawn would feel sudden and unexpected causing you to shield your eyes?

Sometimes tombs are about how we treat things in our life as though they represent the end. This relationship is over. This life of faith has ended. That time of happiness will never return. There’s a big stone covering that thing I used to feel or I used to love or I used to be and anyway, it’s started to smell of rot. That part of me is totally dead, period. End of sentence. But as great African American preachers often say — “where we put a period … God puts a comma.”

Having a God of resurrection means that the story is seldom over when we think it is.”

That’s the thing about serving a God of Resurrection – God is in the business of making all things new.  Frances Hodgson Burnett, writes in The Secret Garden, “At first people refuse to believe that a strange new thing can be done, then they begin to hope it can be done, then they see it can be done–then it is done and all the world wonders why it was not done centuries ago.”  To believe a new thing can be done, you have to trust and have faith in the One who is bringing the change.  Did you hear what I said?  To believe a new thing can be done, you have to trust and have faith in the One who is bringing the change.

Let’s try a little experiment. Close your eyes and empty your mind of every other thought. Okay, now, picture God.

You can open your eyes now. What was the first image that came to mind?

I’ll bet, for most of us, it was an old man with a white beard.

Now let me ask you this. In your mental image, was God smiling?

My guess is, some of you pictured God without a smile. “Stern” might be a good word to describe the visage of the Almighty.

Now, one further question: in your mind’s eye, was God holding anything? If you answered, “a thunderbolt,” congratulations — you’ve just selected most people’s all-time favorite accessory to the divine wardrobe.

Why is it so many of us picture the Lord of heaven and earth as a grumpy old man packing a loaded thunderbolt? We imagine God that way, even though we know better. Sure, God can get angry. There’s ample evidence of that in the Bible. Yet the Bible also teaches that “God is love” — and that God “so loved the world” that we have received as a gift “God’s only son,” that we might “not perish, but have everlasting life.”

Why is it, then, that we so quickly forget these passages, ie. most of what Jesus says, and elevate to such high prominence those dealing with God’s wrath and destruction?  If we only see God as old man punishing us and keeping a record of wrongs, that’s not a full picture of God at all.  I serve Emmanuel, God with us, One who walks with us through life journeys showing us the way, the truth, and the life.  I serve a Savior that wants our resting states or defaults to be love and grace, not hatred and judgment.  As it says in Matthew 19:26, “”With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”  The God I serve sent God’s only son, Jesus, to break the chains of sin and death, to unlock the doors of our hearts so we are free to dream the big dreams God has in store for us.  The God that I serve, says in Romans 8:38-39, “38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  Jesus seeks to unlock and banish our doubts, fears, hesitations, self-harm, woundings, and says to each of us, you are free indeed.  If you’re still doubting God’s love for you or are you are wondering how to find God, Jeremiah 29:11-13 says, “11For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. 12Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. 13When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart.”  God wants to give us hope and a future.  God wants us to unlock the door to freedom from sin and death, freedom from all the things that shackle us and weigh us down, freedom to live the life we were meant to have in Jesus!

Knowing Jesus is like that.  It sneaks up on you.  You may be curious about this Jesus guy.  You may be intrigued.  But he’s the real deal and once you know that, you can’t help but spread that Good News!  You’re part of this massive letter to all of humanity that shouts from the rooftops God loves you, you were fearfully and wonderfully made, Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us, came to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to set us free from the things that bind us and want to choke the life right out of us.  He defeated death, conquered the grave, and gave us eternal life.  Spirit of Truth guide and lead us in discovering what holds us back and rebuking that power over us. As Hebrews 4:16 says, “Let us . . . approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”

God goes to some outrageous lengths to share love, shouldn’t we do the same for people?  Remember the eggs in the children’s sermon.  That was and is the biggest, “Surprise!!” the world has ever seen.  Wouldn’t it be a different world if we actually lived like Easter people?  To not only talk the talk, but actually walk the walk in the ways that our Rabbi Jesus taught us.  To give a hurting world the resurrection hope that is real and tangible and sustaining, not withered like two-week old Easter lilies.  Like we mean it!  Like we believe it!

Some of my favorite words to read at a Celebration of Life are these words of grace.  “Jesus said, I am the resurrection and I am life.

Those who believe in me, even though they die, yet shall they live,

and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.

I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last.

I died, and behold I am alive for evermore,

and I hold the keys of hell and death.

Because I live, you shall live also.”

Friends, if we turn the key to the gardens of our hearts, if we trust Emmanuel, God with us, with our salvation, then we too, have the hope of resurrection and we get to actively participate in the greatest story ever told!

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It’s time to turn the key to our hearts and SHARE the key (pun intended!) with the world, so we can together dream the big dreams that God has in store for each of us!

Carrying our Ebenezers Into the World

MATTHEW 28:1-10

28 After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

Any time an angel appears to someone the first words out of their mouths are, “Do not be afraid.”  What a sight they must be!  All of the Gospel accounts put in different details to their particular accounts.  Some have two angels, some have one, they have different conversations, they have different ordering of things, but they all have one critical thing in common – an empty tomb.  The stone was rolled away.  He is Risen!  He is Risen Indeed!  In my thinking, the Gospels being so different is evidence they are true stories – to indicate the points of view and the particular audiences they were each writing on behalf.  The one we just read has an earthquake, an angel descending from heaven, and the stone rolled away by the angel.  What does the text say about the guards?  The guards “shook and became like dead men.” Ha!  Again, they must be a sight to behold!  The message the angel relayed to the women made them run “quickly with fear and great joy” as they ran to tell the disciples and Jesus, the Risen One, confirmed the angels message on their way.

What a turn of events!  You may have come to this Easter sunrise service bleary-eyed and numb.  There’s not enough coffee in the world to have me wake up like this every morning – mission trip flights and Easter sunrise is my limit.  Don’t you see the women at the tomb were the same way.  Unlike the disciples, except for John, they had watched the crucifixion.  They had lived and were eye witnesses to Good Friday.  They had mourned on Holy Saturday.  Their Savior, their light in the world, their Rabbi, was gone.  They were grieving and numb as they walked to the tomb that day to bring the funeral spices.  Bleary-eyed just like you and me this Easter sunrise service.  Did you know that some states are outlawing those roadside crosses and those flowers you see along the roadways?  We drive by and with a mere glance, we know that something happened here.

Joyce Keeler knows the pain of losing a loved one in a tragic automobile accident. Nearly 30 years ago, her son lost his life on a rural road in Delaware. For Joyce, driving by the site of the accident is still too painful. She avoids it, even all these years later.

Instead, Joyce goes to the Delaware Highway Memorial Garden at the Smyrna Rest Area near her home. Among the trees, shrubs and flowering plants, is a pathway lined with memorial bricks that bear the names of those who have lost their lives on the roads of Delaware. In the center of the garden is a pond with goldfish, frogs, water lilies and a gurgling waterfall. Tucked amid the busyness of nearby highways U.S. 13 and Delaware 1, it’s a peaceful place to remember and reflect. To honor the memory of her son, Joyce sits quietly near the brick that bears his name.

Patrick Bowers, whose 21-year-old son died in a crash in 2008, also frequents the Delaware Highway Memorial Garden. “It’s not morbid or gloomy, not like a feeling you can get at a cemetery,” he says. “It’s a garden like someone would do in their backyard.”

Delaware is one of several states providing alternatives to roadside memorials because traffic safety officers worry they are a dangerous distraction to drivers, and put those who maintain them in harm’s way. In most states, descansos, what they call the memorial sites, are illegal, but officials rarely enforce those laws. When we lived in Florida they used signs to mark the site of a crash. Others have adopted laws limiting the time a memorial is allowed to remain on the side of the road. Still others offer to plant memorial trees at the sites of fatal accidents.

Joyce Keeler much prefers the garden over the roadside memorial.  “Things like that get old, and the flowers fade,” she says. “But this will never go away.”

The very same instinct that drives people to the site of a crash may have carried Mary Magdalene, a close disciple of Jesus, and another Mary, identified a few verses earlier as the mother of James and Joseph, to the tomb early in the morning.

They came not with a handmade cross and flowers, but with oils and spices.

They came not to set up a roadside memorial, but to care for the body of the one they followed, the one who loved and accepted them when no one else did.

They came prepared to do the only thing they could think of to honor the memory of Jesus.

Another Mary, was grieving the loss of her son.  Who could know the agony she endured from Friday to Sunday morning? Even the care she received from the “beloved disciple,” John, her son’s best friend, could not alleviate the sadness and despair.  It’s not likely, that she ever went back to the place where he died. Not much chance she wanted to sit by a cross, like some mothers might do today. The cross on this hill was the instrument of her son’s most cruel and painful death. She’d been there to witness it. Where would she go to remember?

Did she want to erect a memorial?

Did she want some place she could visit and just think about her son?

Did she want to erect a pillar of stones in his memory in his hometown, Nazareth, or in Bethlehem where he was born?

Did she want to post a sign at the site of some of his most famous miracles?

Did she want to turn the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus into a shrine or museum in his honor?

Surely, the thought crossed her mind: “How can I remember my son? How can we all remember him?”

Her people, after all, had a strong tradition of building memorials or Ebenezer’s. If you pay attention to hymns in church, there is one Hebrew term you will remember singing. It’s in the second stanza of… “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” The stanza reads:

Here I raise my Ebenezer,
Hither by Thy help I’m come;
And I hope, by Thy good pleasure,
Safely to arrive at home.

“Ebenezer.” A Hebrew word.  Hear the word and your first thought is of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and the most famous “Ebenezer” in all of literature: Ebenezer Scrooge.

The prophet Samuel took a stone, set it up and named it Ebenezer.   1 Samuel 7:12 memorably says: “Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Jeshanah, and named it Ebenezer; for he said, ‘Thus far the LORD has helped us.'” Samuel set up a memorial stone. “Ebenezer” literally means “stone of help.” It was a stone set to commemorate the help the people of Israel perceived had been given them by God in defeating the Philistines when they got back the ark of the covenant. … The Scots Bible translator, James Moffatt, translates it literally: “Samuel took a stone … naming it Helpstone.”

What do all 4 Gospel accounts have in common?  An empty tomb!  Jesus is ALIVE!  Death has been defeated. Love wins.  Our God is the God of help. This is the refrain that breathes through the Bible. The Great God of the Universe, our God has gave us the greatest Ebenezer of all – Jesus – our Cornerstone, as it says in our Psalm this morning.  Our Cornerstone is the greatest Ebenezer that the world has ever known!  The one they thought was in the grave is instead on the move. He’s still calling them to follow him as he now calls to us to follow him.

May we do so.  May we be Resurrection people!  May we embody the love of Christ to all the world.  May we not be afraid to share our Ebenezer’s, the times that God’s helped us on our faith journeys and share them with the world.  I ask that you come as you feel led to get one of these stones, symbolizing the stone that was rolled away.   Symbolizing the Great Ebenezer that God sent us in Jesus, our Ultimate Help.  Symbolizing our Cornerstone in Christ.  I’ll also challenge you to take another stone.  Tell someone in the weeks ahead about Jesus.  Share a story of how he helped you.  Tell a story of how he saved you.  It may be awkward, you may stammer and stutter a bit, but what a blessing, and a Help you would be to someone who doesn’t know our Risen Savior.  We’re Easter people after all!  We are called to share this Good News of the empty tomb!  Jesus is Alive!

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Palm Sunday – The One

Matthew 21:1-11 (NRSV)

21 When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,

“Tell the daughter of Zion,
Look, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd[b] spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,

“Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

10 When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” 11 The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

My mom gives Enoch and Evy all kinds of Christian books.  They have many “my first Bibles,” pre-school Bibles, and “big kids” Bibles.  We actually have two copies of My Very First Easter Story. 

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Oh, though it’s only 2 pages, Enoch and Evy filled in the details.  Evy said it was all about friendship.  Enoch said that it was a horse (some versions say this).  Evy said they had laid the palm branches and cloaks down because they didn’t want Jesus to walk in the mud.

You see, all of the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) have this story.  They included different details but the same overarching story.

I have chosen to stick with the Palm Sunday text.  You see the lectionary texts for today give us the options of choosing the Palm text and the Passion text.  I normally do some mixture of the two, however, I wanted to be intentional about sticking to the text and journeying through this week with Jesus.

The hesitancy of pastors is that if people only attend on Sundays, you get the celebration of Palm Sunday back to back with the Alleluias of Easter.  High point.  Even higher point.

You miss why in just 5 days the same people that shouted “Hosanna” and waved palm branches, shouted “Crucify him!  Crucify him!”  You miss Jesus ticking off the Pharisees in the temple when he turned over the tables and called them a brood of vipers.  You miss them plotting to kill him.  You miss Jesus’ teaching the disciples you have to be last to be first as they witnessed him washing their and their friends’ feet.  Their Rabbi that they had followed for three years, getting all of his radical dust on them, as he continually flipped the script.  Doing what is always least expected.  Who else would have people waving palm branches praising him and wanting to kill him less than a week later?

He was the One they had waited for.  He was the One whom the prophets foretold.  He is the One Herod was so afraid of that he slaughtered all of those innocent children.  He was the One who preached in his hometown and they said, “Who is this kid?  Is he Joseph’s boy?”  He was the One who called Peter, James and John just a bunch of fishermen and said they were the best of the best of the best as he asked them to be his disciples.  He was the One who cast out demons, healed the paralytic and the hemorrhaging woman, called Lazarus forth FROM THE GRAVE.  He was the One even the wind and the waves obeyed.  He was the One.  Not just Neo from the Matrix or Frodo from the Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, but THE ONE.  And the people were PUMPED until … they realized he wasn’t a political or military conqueror.  He was not going to ride in on a float and wave and provide good sound bites.  He was not going to incite a revolt among people groups.  He was not going to be boxed in to a certain tradition.  He was not going to maintain the status quo or social norms.  He came to flip the script.  He came to set ALL people free.  He came to set us free from BOTH sin and death.  He came to set us free from all of the burdens and shackles of this world.

I spent the week talking to Donal Hook about salvation.  He was recounting what Harry said two weeks ago about Jesus wiping the slate clean and I said that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love and we’re all worthy, enough, and chosen.  He said he was like the man saying, “Help my unbelief!” I appreciated his honesty as I relate to the man and the words as well! Remember the story.  It’s immediately after the transfiguration and the disciples are in a tizzy.  In Mark 9:19-24 he says to the disciples, “19 “You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him to me.” 20 And they brought the boy to him. When the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. 21 Jesus asked the father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. 22 It has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; but if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.” 23 Jesus said to him, “If you are able!—All things can be done for the one who believes.”  24 Immediately the father of the child cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!” I believe; help my unbelief.  We had many discussions over the past week and a half.  Most of the time it boiled down to me saying, that’s what’s so amazing about grace!  We have faith that God’s grace is real and ever abundant to cover anything we throw at God. I brought up singing “Amazing Grace” on Sunday night when I visited him, but I was too embarrassed to sing in front of his family, some of whom I had just met, with my off-key voice, but  I ended up singing it on Tuesday with his son Michael and Michael’s wife Marlene and that became our theme song over the last couple of days.  That and Psalm 23.  I frequently have Psalm 23 rolling around in my head as I pray.  It epitomizes to me the fullness of life.  God making us lie down in green pastures, anointing our heads with oil, and as I said to Donal and praying with he and his family, Jesus is the One who walks with us even through the darkest valley of the shadow of death.  Don joined the great cloud of witnesses yesterday and he is at peace and at rest.

You skip right over that lonesome and dark valley when you go from the triumphant entry of Palm Sunday to the glory of Easter and Resurrection.  You don’t get the dark days in between of doubt, fear, frustration, anger.  You don’t get the Garden of Gethsemane and Jesus asking God to take this cup from him.  You don’t see, hear, or feel his pain as he’s betrayed, denied, beaten, stripped, crucified.  You don’t get the agony and anguish or the simple humanity of it all, the muck and mire.  He was the Human One.  Not a super hero that could leap over buildings.  He took on the form of a baby, both fully divine and fully human.  He felt everything we feel and even when he was on that cross he was thinking of us as he says, “Father, forgive them because they don’t know what they’re doing.

If you don’t journey towards the cross, you miss out on the struggle and the deep pain of what it means to have an Emmanuel – God with us – even on the darkest night of our souls.  To have a savior who suffers right along with us.  Who knows the full extent of our pain and then some…

I encourage you to read the stories this week and meditate on them.  I encourage you to walk this journey towards the cross.  On Thursday we’ll gather here with Isle of Palms UMC for a joint Maundy Thursday service where we’ll celebrate Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples.  On Friday we’ll have our Good Friday Tenebrae service.  If you’ve never been to a Tenebrae service, I encourage you to do so.  The word “tenebrae” comes from the Latin meaning “darkness.” The Tenebrae is an ancient Christian Good Friday service that makes use of gradually diminishing light through the extinguishing of candles as scriptures are read of that encompass the entire fullness of Holy Week.  This increasing darkness symbolizes the approaching darkness of Jesus’ death and of the hopelessness in the world without God. The service concludes in darkness and worshipers then leave in silence to ponder the impact of Christ’s death and await the coming Resurrection.  As Bob Goff, author of Love Does says, “Darkness fell.   His friends scattered.  All hope seemed lost.  But heaven just started counting to three.”

I invite us to count to three together as a faith community as One body.  We rejoice with one another.  We weep with one another.  We share in the mountaintops and the darkest of the darkest valleys and that is why it’s so special to have shared in this Holy meal together these past Sundays of Lent.  We have gathered bread, sustenance, strength to face together whatever life throws at us.   When we feel like giving up, when we need a helping hand or an encouraging word, we are there for one another with Jesus ever in our midst.  We live, move and breathe in Christ, our Rabbi, our One with us.  The One who calls each of us worthy, enough, beloved by God.  The One we celebrate when we celebrate this Holy Sacrament of Communion….