We are ALL on the same TEAM.

Preached at Bethany UMC on World Communion Sunday

To listen to audio – https://soundcloud.com/bethanyumcsc/october-7-2018-sanctuary?in=bethanyumcsc/sets/2018-sanctuary

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Mark 9:38-41 (NRSV)

38 John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” 39 But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. 40 Whoever is not against us is for us. 41 For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.

The disciples were complaining to Jesus about a person who was not in the card-carrying club of the Disciples, Inc. casting out demons in Jesus name.  The Message puts it this way: “We stopped him because he wasn’t in our group.

The disciples clearly had already developed an “us versus them” mentality. Perhaps we’re no different. When you’re a member of an exclusive club, whether somebody is “one of us” or not is terribly important. One thing any of the ultra-elite clubs has in common is elitism. John wanted to make sure that non-disciples weren’t casting out demons. Most people might think that getting rid of a demon is a good thing. But apparently not John.

What’s even more comical, or disturbing, is that this incident comes on the heel of the “Who is the greatest?” argument that the disciples had been having. They didn’t get it then, and it is clear that in today’s text, they still don’t get it.

John’s confusion could have been well-intended. He had already witnessed and participated in things with Jesus that nobody had ever seen before. It would have been easy to understand the God-given power behind miracles as something reserved for Jesus alone and those sent by him. Jesus doesn’t have the same reaction.  Jesus takes on a decidedly inclusive and unthreatened response to privilege. He realizes that the work of God isn’t for the few elitist members of Disciples, Inc. — after all, he chose teenagers, fishermen, and tax collectors as his Twelve in the first place. Jesus has a larger cosmic perspective, an all-encompassing world view and when the fields are ready for harvest, it’s all hands on deck.

What can we learn from Jesus’ response to John? Surely there aren’t any parallels in our churches today, right? Is the church the most elite club in the world? Is there a dress code?  Like Mike’s first time at the country club where they made him wear a suit jacket? Are we guilty if giving the side eye, if people are sitting in our pew?  What if people genuinely want to connect with God and be used by God in a meaningful way, but we are accidentally standing in the way?  That’s something to think about.

We don’t get details about the “someone” of verse 38, but John said that he was not ekolouthei — literally meaning “not following us” or “not a disciple.” Somehow someone not yet known as a follower of Christ had gotten wind that demons could be cast out in the name of Christ. We don’t know anything else about the story of “someone,” but isn’t it possible that serving God — even with potentially impure motive (and we don’t know that was the case here) — caused him to believe in the power of Christ as the Messiah?  If you cast a demon out of a person using the name of Jesus, wouldn’t that have an affect on you?

Jesus was concerned with something so much larger than just one demon’s being cast out. He wanted to ensure that his future church would never feel like an elite club. Instead of being exclusivist, he wanted her to be as inclusive as possible.

So how do we turn our churches into the least elitest places of our culture? When we do this, we will truly “bear the name of Christ” (v. 41), and neither church insider nor outsider will need to feel that he is “not one of us.”  The church is a place where all are welcome.  Both Clemson fans or South Carolina fans.  Both Ohio State fans and Penn State fans.

We are ALL on the same team.

That may be hard for some of us to hear and understand.  We in our self-righteous anger thinking that we’re the only RIGHT way.  ALL “sides” are guilty of this.  I know many faithful Christians who are Republicans and I know many faithful Christians who are Democrats.  Jesus calls us to be united under his leading, his direction, as HIS FOLLOWERS.  When we’re getting ready to demonize the other, we need to check ourselves in the Spirit.    We may get rebuked by Jesus as the disciples did.  The harvest is ripe and the laborers are few.  So what if they don’t look like us or speak like us or dress like us if they’re preaching Jesus and it brings about Christ’s transformation that only he can do…great.  I can’t busy myself policing other people’s behavior if I’m to do what Christ is calling me to do.

In the 1996 movie Phenomenon, John Travolta plays George Malley, an ordinary man who sees a bright light descend from the sky and discovers he now has super-intelligence and telekinesis.  I’ve always loved what he says about the apple.  “You know, if we were to put this apple down, and leave it, it would be spoiled and gone in a few days. But, if we were to take a bite of it like this,” he then takes a bite of the apple as he continues, “it would become part of us, and we could take it with us, forever.”  I’ve always wanted us to treat communion that way.  With only a bite of bread and a dip of juice, we can be changed people.  And we can take that with us, forever.  If we take the words seriously, we can be changed with this meal.  Even us judgmental disciples.  As I said last week, Jesus is always working on us, pruning us, shaping us, molding us.  If we think of this like we are ingesting Jesus and his likeness will pour out of us, what would that be like for us personally and in our communities, and by very extension, our worlds?

While he was President, Lincoln attended church almost every Sunday at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, where Dr. Phineas Gurley was the pastor. Lincoln’s presence caused such a commotion that Dr. Gurley gave Lincoln a key to his private study just off the platform, and Lincoln would often slip in and listen to the message in the Pastor’s study. After one particularly eloquent, moving sermon, Lincoln was leaving and his assistant, John Hay remarked, “Mr. President, wasn’t that a great sermon?” Lincoln thought for a moment and said, “It was a good sermon, but it was not a great sermon.” His assistant asked, “Why do you say that, Mr. President?” Lincoln said, “Well, the speaker was eloquent and the content was excellent, but it wasn’t a great sermon, because Dr. Gurley forgot one important matter. He did not ask us to do something great for God.”

I’m going to ask you to do something great for God today.  I want you to take this meal and live like changed people, a living testimony for all the world to see.  In an increasing non-church culture, you may be the only witness the world ever sees of the grace and love of Jesus.  Live it.  Rest in God. Show people Jesus.

Walk by Faith.

We left two magazines at the store, they’re part of my ritual of self-care, so I went back to pick them up.  Mike had just gotten back from fixing a bass pedal and he asked how I was.  My heart is cloudy and rainy like the sky in Summerville this afternoon and as I listened to Needtobreathe’s Difference Maker from their Wastelands album.  The jumbled thoughts from the Judicial Council decision and our divisive political climate where weighing heavy on me.  As I preach Children’s Sabbath on Sunday, I’m struck by the theme “Walk by Faith.”   I didn’t know who to call, to express my grief, looking for hope, so I began talking to Jesus, as the tears began to fall.

I wish there weren’t “winners” and “losers.”  I wish we didn’t demonize the “other” side.  I wish we could listen and not be planning our counter-attack in our head.  I know, love and respect some clergy that will leave the UMC if the Traditional plan passes at General Conference and I know, love and respect some that will leave if the One Church Plan passes at General Conference, not to mention the people in the pew.  I also know, that God will still be God, and some of my blog readers and most of my friends don’t much care what happens in our denomination.  (smile)  But earlier, I turned on the news…….I have no words, much less for an explanation for my 9 and 11 year old who are full of questions.

As I was mulling these things over in the car I realized, I need to “Walk by Faith.”  I don’t know how to navigate the denomination divide/political climate/interpersonal relationships with all kinds of the land mines out there!  But I know Who makes crooked lines straight.  I know someone that says He’s the way, the truth and the life.  I know that I will ask the Holy Spirit to guide and lead me in the coming months of navigation.  The Devil is alive, y’all.  Evil is real.  He seeks to disrupt.  He seeks to divide.  And isn’t he having a field day in our lives today??!!  Progressive.  Conservative.  Moderate.  Libertarian.  Liberal.  Evangelical.  Democrat.  Anarchist.  Republican.  And everyone in between.

We all need Jesus.

I need thee, O I need thee, every hour I need thee; O bless me now, my Savior, I come to thee.

We all need hope.  We all need the light.  We all need to seek the good in the world.  We all need Jesus.  When the world is at it’s darkest, when all hope seems lost, we TRUST and MOVE and have our very BEING in the One who commands even the wind and the waves with a Word.

My prayer as we continue to be bombarded by all sorts of “stuff” is that we rest on the Almighty love and grace of God.  We trust Jesus to shield us and He seeks to work all things for our good.  Remembering as we go on the twists and turns of this journey who we are and Whose we are.  Holy Spirit come down and heal our hearts.  Give us the ears to listen and the words to speak.  Give us your boldness to speak up.  Blow peace where you will, igniting, uniting, and sometimes dividing when we do more harm than good.  Give us your wisdom and discernment and shine your all-encompassing light on every thought and situation. Help us to seek to be followers of Jesus who walk in the way that leads to life.  We walk by faith, not be sight.  Please give us Your vision for Your kingdom come.  Amen.

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God chooses us just as we are.

Matthew 4:18-22

18 As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. 19And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ 20Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. 22Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.

Have you ever heard of “call stories?”  They are the stories of ordinary people that are used by God for a purpose.  The first scripture is one of the most famous call stories because Jesus took uneducated fishermen and called them to fish for people.   God chooses us as we are and as we lean into that we are called to be disciples who draw others to Jesus.

The fisherman left everything, nets and all.  They left family and friends.  They left everything that was familiar to them:  from their day to day routines to their favorite corner store or coffee shop.

How many of you were born before 1992?  Mike had the kids and I watch Sneakers this week and it was made in 1992.  He said he and his brothers watched it over and over again.  Have any of you heard Steven Curtis Chapman song For the Sake of the Call?  It came out in 1992 and my brothers and I knew as United Methodist preacher’s kids, when my mom played it, we were about to move!  That and Michael W. Smith’s song, Friends are Friends Forever.

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(Don’t you love the mullet!)
Nobody stood and applauded them
So they knew from the start
This road would not lead to fame
All they really knew for sure
Was Jesus had called to them
He said “come follow Me” and they came
With reckless abandon, they came

Empty nets lying there at the water’s edge
Told a story that few could believe
And none could explain
How some crazy fishermen agreed to go where Jesus led
With no thought to what they would gain
For Jesus had called them by name
And they answered…

We will abandon it all for the sake of the call
No other reason at all but the sake of the call
Wholly devoted to live and to die

We knew what my mom was getting at.  If God called our family to another church, we had to obey.  If you obey Jesus when he calls, life is going to be an adventure.  Has anyone ever seen Running Wild with Bear Grylls?*  I love that show.  The concept came after he first had Will Farrell join him in his first survival show.  In it, celebrities go on adventures with him and he teaches them survival lessons along the way.  It’s always a journey from point A to point B.  The celebrity doesn’t know the path and they balk when there’s heights or they have to eat something to survive like grubs or crickets or a squirrel or there’s only a small space between rocks and they’re claustrophobic.  He leads and they follow.  Sure they pitch fits along the way, sure they threaten to not go on…but in their fears is where I most see their humanity.  They’re real people at those moments and they obviously don’t care about what the camera is making them look like.  We’ve seen insights into some of the why’s and how’s of their fears and when they conquer them, it is a beautiful thing.   I used to think of the disciples much like Bear Grylls, rugged, with an adventurous, live on the edge spirit.  But they weren’t like that at the beginning of their trek with Jesus.  They were probably very much like these celebrities, albeit the celebrities have the right kind of gear.  Does God equip us with the right kind of gear for the road, no matter what road?

Did the four fishermen that Jesus called take their fishing nets with them?  Nope!  They didn’t know where the journey would take them.  They couldn’t carry luggage loaded onto a baggage cart.  As we talked about last week, we each have figurative baggage.  Most of us carry “stuff” and sometimes it’s like a security blanket.  That we hold onto.  We carry it with us wherever we go and we’re afraid to lay it down because it’s ours – the familiar and the comfortable.  Some of us like the prodigal have gotten so used to the pigs and the mud that we are stuck there and even those that are closest to us don’t know the full extent of our hurts.  The words that were used against us when we were younger that we’ve never told anyone.  The awkwardness of not feeling comfortable even in your own skin.  The voices in our heads of who society or our “friends” or what social media tells us we should be.  I dislike the way trolls can hide behind screens and say you’re too fat, you’re too skinny, you’re not smart/pretty/kind…..enough.  Jesus doesn’t want us drinking the haterade.  Jesus is asking you to go on a great adventure and you have to lay down your baggage, sometimes daily.  Guilt. Shame. Pride. Doubt. Fear. Self-Loathing.  Superhuman expectations.  The pressure we put on ourselves to measure up to this person or that person.  Lay it all down.  Take it off your shoulders.  Stop rolling that luggage around and repent.  Ask for forgiveness.  Let it all go.  If you pick it back up, repeat and ask the Holy Spirit to block you or your behavior from picking it back up.  Use a breath prayer.  Every time something comes into your mind or you revert into old familiar patterns of behavior, say “Lord Jesus take this from me” or “Lord in your mercy” or “My help is in You alone Lord” or “Not my will, but Yours.”

My son Enoch when he was in kindergarten got a color for every day for his behavior.  The colors were blue for an exceptional day, green for a good day, yellow for a one warning day, orange for a two warning day, and red if he had to go to the principal’s office.  He would stress out and worry over his color every day knowing that we expected mostly green days, but Enoch was a rambunctious and inquisitive child, so inevitably we were happy with the yellow days.  He would always get stressed out and upset if the teacher moved his color and that would affect his behavior as well.  He was in this cycle because he didn’t want to disappoint us.  I would explain to him that every day is a brand new day.  I would often quote the line in Anne of Green Gables, “Isn’t it nice to think that tomorrow is a new day with no mistakes in it yet?”  Leave the mistakes of today and don’t carry them with you to tomorrow.  I will go farther still.  Leave the mistakes of all the yesterdays in the past.  Ask for forgiveness and then do 180 degree turn.  That’s what repentance is.  I saw a bumper sticker a long time ago that said, “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.” Let there be no doubt in your mind that Jesus scatters your sins and my sins from the east to the west and we are free.  Romans 8:14-16 says, “14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.15 For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16 it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” Let the mean thing that someone said about you go.  Let all of the expectations that the world has placed on you go.  Let all of the hatred and demonizing the other go.  You don’t have time for that.  You have a world to love.  If you let it, hate will blacken your heart.  As Yoda says, “Fear is the path to the dark side.  Fear leads to anger.  Anger leads to hate.  Hate leads to suffering.”  I love this quote from Marianne Williamson about fear.  “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.  Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.  It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.  We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?  Actually, who are you not to be.  You are a child of God.  Your playing small does not serve the world.  There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.  We are all meant to shine, as children do.  We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.  It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone.  And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.  As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

Our second scripture for today, John 15, is all about abiding in Christ and loving one another as we abide in Christ. Abide or meno in Greek means to stay, remain, accept, obey and heed.  Have you heard of the resting state on an MRI?  Resting state is a method of functional brain imaging that can be used to evaluate regional interactions that occur when a subject is not performing an explicit task.  In other words resting in the love and grace of God should be how we go through life.  If we rest in God’s love, it’s easier to show others God’s love.  John 15:16-18 says, “16 You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17 I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another. 18 “If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you.” 

We did not choose God, but God chose us that we may bear fruit in the world.  God seeks to be in right relationship with all of God’s children.  God’s prevenient grace, that grace that goes before we even realize it, is offered to everyone.  If we abide in God’s mercy in our resting state then it will be that much simpler to live into the full matrix of human life.  God says it won’t be easy, the world will hate us, just like it did him, but that’s all right.  If you speak the truth in love, some people won’t like that.  A word of caution here, if you are a truth teller, make sure you’re abiding in Christ, make sure you’re resting in the love of God, because you don’t want to do harm for harm’s sake.  You see the enemy wants to only steal, kill, and destroy, and he will use you to attack.  He doesn’t like when we tune into the Shepherd’s voice, when we listen to the voice of truth, our Savior’s voice.  That voice that tells us we’re somebody.

Remember my earlier rhetorical question about God equipping us for the road ahead?  God does and God will.  If you abide in the true vine and live to follow God’s heart and leading, God will give you everything you need.  You may be thinking that’s impossible.  Muhammad Ali said, “Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It’s an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It’s a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing.” With God all things are possible.  With God all things ARE possible.  Amen?

“A seminary professor was vacationing with his wife in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. One morning they were eating breakfast in a little restaurant, hoping to enjoy a quiet, family meal. While waiting for their food, they noticed a distinguished looking, white-haired man moving from table to table, visiting with the guests. The professor leaned over and whispered to his wife, “I hope he doesn’t come over here.”

But sure enough, the man came over to their table.  “Where are you folks from?” he asked in a friendly voice. “Oklahoma,” they answered. “Great to have you here in Tennessee,” the stranger said. “What do you do for a living?” “I teach at a seminary,” he replied. “Oh, so you teach preachers how to preach, do you? Well, I’ve got a really good story for you.” And with that, the gentleman pulled up a chair and sat down. The professor groaned and thought to himself, “Great. Just what I need — another preacher story!”

The man started, “See that mountain over there?” He pointed out the restaurant window. “Not far from the base of that mountain, there was a boy born to an unwed mother. He had a hard time growing up because every place he went, he was always asked the same question: “Who’s your father?’ The whole town looked for a family resemblance, whether the boy was at school, in the grocery store or the drug store, people would ask the same question: “Who do you belong to?”  He would hide at recess and lunch time from other students. He would avoid going into stores because that question hurt him too much. When he was about 12 years old, a new preacher came to his church. He would always go in late and slip out early to avoid hearing the dreaded question. But one day, the new preacher said the benediction so fast, he got caught and had to walk out with the crowd. Just about the time he got to the back door, the new preacher, not knowing anything about him, put his hand on his shoulder and asked him, ‘Son, who’s your dad?’ The whole church got deathly quiet. He could feel every eye in the church looking at him. Now everyone would finally know the answer to the question of who his father was.  The new preacher, though, sensed the situation around him and using discernment that only the Holy Spirit could give, said the following to the scared and nervous boy: ‘Wait a minute! I know who you are. I see the family resemblance now. You are a child of God.’ With that, he patted the boy on his shoulder and said, ‘Boy, you’ve got a great inheritance — go and claim it.’ With that, the boy smiled for the first time in a long time and walked out the door a changed person. He was never the same again. Whenever anybody asked him who his father was, he’d just tell them, ‘I’m a child of God.’

The distinguished gentleman got up from the table and said, “Isn’t that a great story?” The professor responded that it really was a great story. As the man turned to leave, he said, “You know, if that new preacher hadn’t told me that I was one of God’s children, I probably would never have amounted to anything!” And he walked away.

The seminary professor and his wife were stunned. He called the waitress over and asked, “Do you know that man who was just sitting at our table?” The waitress grinned and said, “Of course. Everybody here knows him. That’s Ben Hooper. He’s the former governor of Tennessee!”

ben-hooper

Lo and behold, on one of our trips to Nashville, right across from a Cracker Barrel in Tennessee was a marker to Ben Hooper.  God actively pursues us.  God reaches for us.  God chooses us.  All we have to do is lay down our fears, baggage, and mistakes and trust in God’s abundant grace.  All we have to is follow where Jesus leads like the disciples that we are and abide in the true vine, that’s what the world is crying out for.  Something that’s real, and solid as a rock.  Something that could make fishermen leave their nets and go fish for people.  Something that neither moth nor rust will destroy.  “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.” 

(There’s a lot of calling out to God and bleeps but it’s funny.)

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!

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. 

IMG_7704

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….

At the Feet of the Rabbi – Matthew 6

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

 Concerning Almsgiving

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Concerning Prayer

“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Concerning Fasting

16 “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Concerning Treasures

19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20 but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

This is the Ash Wednesday text every lectionary year, probably because it talks about not being showy in one’s faith.  Lenten practices can sometimes be that way.  If you’re talking always about what you’re giving up or you’re talking about the day your fasting or you’re talking about the entire day of prayer, you’ve gotten your reward of those around you, those that you’re bragging to.  Our rabbi is teaching us to do things privately, not with pomp and circumstance.  He’s warning us of getting big heads playing I’m more religious than you are.

It’s not about that.  We don’t volunteer at the Lowcountry Orphan Relief or on work days in Nichols or Sellers or go to Ecuador to get pictures made, though it seems at times like we do, it’s because we want to give what we can or do what we can as we are able because that’s what Jesus calls us to do.  Simple as that.  The Message translation of the Bible seems to get at that idea.  Matthew chapter 6 is titled “The World is a Stage.”  Though I was an English major, I never fancied myself an actress.  Jesus wants us to be real and authentic in our faith.  He doesn’t want a full-fledged Broadway Show, an Oscar winning performance of Saint Narcie and yet the very action is not the thing that gets us into trouble, it’s being pious with the intention of looking down on others.  John Wesley said this, “The thing which is here forbidden, is not barely the doing good in the sight of men; this circumstance alone, that others see what we do, makes the action neither worse nor better; but the doing it before men, “to be seen of them,” with this view from this intention only.”

In his notes, Wesley writes, “In the foregoing chapter our Lord particularly described the nature of inward holiness. In this he describes that purity of intention without which none of our outward actions are holy. This chapter contains four parts, The right intention and manner of giving alms, ver.1 – 4. The right intention, manner, form, and prerequisites of prayer, ver.5 – 15. The right intention, and manner of fasting, ver.16 – 18. The necessity of a pure intention in all things, unmixed either with the desire of riches, or worldly care, and fear of want, ver.19 – 34.”  Let’s get to what our Rabbi was getting at.

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

My grandfather was a man like that.  One time my grandmother let slip that he had paid for the carpet all throughout the Greeleyville UMC parsonage.  He helped lots of people, quietly and unobtrusively.

I’ll read you a story by Woody McKay, Jr. called “The Secret Benefactor.”

http://www.chickensoup.com/book-story/41639/the-secret-benefactor

Continuing in Chapter 6, “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

“Pray then in this way:

Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
10     Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
11     Give us this day our daily bread.
12     And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13     And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one.

14 For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; 15 but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”

Our Rabbi Jesus teaches us how to pray and gives us a model or example. The Jewish Encyclopedia notes both the practice of a Rabbi teaching the disciples a prayer, and the language of this prayer, place Jesus in the context of others rabbis of his time.   “From the Talmudic parallels (Tosef., Ber. iii. 7; Ber. 16b-17a, 29b; Yer. Ber. iv. 7d) it may be learned that it was customary for prominent masters to recite brief prayers of their own in addition to the regular prayers.”  The Lord’s Prayer as it is now commonly referred to is the world’s most famous prayer of all time.  We would say it in the locker room before basketball games, we said it at the bedside of my grandfather after he died, and I remembered it even after my second brain surgery robbed me of my speech.  Its powerful words could be a whole sermon itself.

Madeleine L’Engle writes this about prayer.

In prayer the stilled voice learns
To hold its peace, to listen with the heart
To silence that is joy, is adoration.
The self is shattered, all words torn apart
In this strange patterned time of contemplation
That, in time, breaks time, breaks words, breaks me
And then, in silence, leaves me healed and mended.

16 “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Announcement in a church bulletin for a national Prayer and Fasting Conference: “The cost for attending the Fasting & Prayer Conference includes meals.”  Martha Moore-Keish, a Presbyterian minister, writes, “Our culture does not know what to do with Ash Wednesday. We do a pretty good job with the feasting right before Ash Wednesday, mind you — more and more people even outside of New Orleans celebrate Mardi Gras with beads and floats, and more and more people devour pancakes and waffles at Shrove Tuesday celebrations. Any excuse for a feast is welcome! But what to do with the depressingly titled Ash Wednesday? A few years ago I saw a restaurant sign that summed up our cultural uncertainty about this date on the Christian calendar: “Ash Wednesday Seafood Buffet: All You Can Eat!” …

The paradox of Ash Wednesday, and of Lent, is that we take on particular disciplines — fasting, prayer, service — in order to repent and conform ourselves more closely to the life and death of Christ, all the while recognizing that Christ has already come to us before we sought him. This is the paradox of the baptized life. We have been joined to Christ once, but we spend the rest of our lives trying to live into that union.

Turning to Christ means turning also to all our neighbors who suffer. According to Isaiah, fasting and praying that brings us to act on behalf of these neighbors is the fast that is acceptable to God.”

19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20 but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Sister Wendy Beckett in The Mystery of Love: Saints in Art through the Centuries  writes, “When I was young, I longed to be a saint. What was I longing for? I think it was for certainty that my life had been, in the most profound sense, a “success” — that great and glorious success that is sanctity. We revere the saints. We imitate them. Theirs is the true and lasting glory. Very clearly, this desire is, unconsciously, as worldly as that of the writer who wants to write a masterpiece or the politician who yearns to be prime minister or president. None of these ambitions has the least to do with what Jesus preached — that lowliness, that love for last place, that readiness to die and be forgotten … . To be concerned with oneself in any way, to watch one’s growth in “holiness” or “prayer,” to be spiritually ambitious, all this Jesus earnestly sets his face against.”

We’re not holy because we know we store up crowns in heaven.  There is not a giant sticker chart for who says the longest prayers or who fasts the most.  We’re holy because Jesus is holy and he calls us to be holy, little by little, step by step.

There’s an old story about a man from the city who was out driving one day, in the country. The signs on the road weren’t very good, and he got lost. So he stopped at a farmhouse to ask directions. “Can you tell me how far it is to the town of Mill Pond?” he asked.

“Well,” said the old farmer, “the way you’re goin’ it’s about 24,996 miles. But if you turn around, it’s about four.”

And therein lies a lesson. If we want to follow our Rabbi we have to repent.  We have to turn around and see him for who he really is — our Rabbi, the example to follow, but more than that we learned last week in the Transfiguration that he is the Great God of the Universe come down in the form of a baby, our Emmanuel, wading through the muck and mire of our sin and reaching down into the mess of our lives to set our feet on solid ground.  Amen?  Our Rabbi Jesus, first proclaimed the Good News with the Beatitudes and that we are to be salt and light in the world and then expounded on the “real stuff,” when the rubber meets the road and when the ship hits the sand.  Real, practical life applications that are certainly not easy to practice but God gives us the grace, strength and courage to go out into the world and our very own hearts to practice what we preach, not in ostentatious ways, but with humility, standing our ground but shirking from the spotlight.  Wesley treated the commandments of the Sermon on the Mount and other passages as “covered promises.” That is, they are commands that we can obey because God provides the grace to empower us to fulfill what is required.  It’s God’s grace freely given.  As we go through the confession of Communion hear the words anew and afresh, search your hearts, see if anything has taken root there – bitterness, fear, anger, doubt, hatred, judgment –  but hear the rest of it as well.  Hear the Good News, “Christ died for us while we were sinners.  That proves God’s love for us.  In the name of Jesus Christ you are forgiven.”  Then hear God, our Creator, Jesus, our Redeemer, and the Holy Spirit’s mighty works in the Great Thanksgiving.  We’re going to practice Communion every Sunday of Lent.  I invite you to pray the words…

God works wonders from dust…

As we face our own mortality, it can be scary…ominous even.  But I think we need it.   In this crazy, busy culture we need 40 days to contemplate, pray, and take a step out of the routine.  It is in Ash Wednesday that we are called upon to pause and reflect.  “Remember you are dust and to dust you will return.” Mary Oliver says about this life “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”  Ash Wednesday gives us the chance to question our priorities, our motivations, and our own sinfulness.  Dust to dust.

Here’s an old, cute story:

A little boy came home from Sunday school and went into his room to change his clothes. When he emerged he asked his mother, “Is it true we come from dust?”

“Yes, sweetie,” replied his mother, a knowledgeable and deeply religious woman. “That’s absolutely right.”

“Is it true that when we die we go back to the dust?”

“Yes, dear, that’s right. Why all these questions?”

The little boy ran into his room and came out all excited.

“Mom, I just looked under my bed and there’s someone either coming or going!”

It doesn’t have to be scary.  There’s beauty in that the great God of the universe breathed us into life and then because he defeated sin and death, they no longer bind us, even if when we return to dust.  We know that we’re going to return to dust sooner or later.  It’s how we live our lives that matters.  I like how Nadia Bolz-Weber, Lutheran priest, explains Ash Wednesday, “If our lives were a long piece of fabric with our baptism on one end and our funeral on another, and us not knowing what the distance is between the two, well then Ash Wednesday is a time when that fabric is pinched in the middle and then held up so that our baptism in the past and our funeral in the future meet. With these ashes, it is as though the water and words from our baptism plus the earth and words from our funerals have come from the future to meet us here today. And in that meeting we are reminded of the promises of God. Promises which outlast our piety, outlast our efforts in self-improvement, outlast our earthly bodies and the limits of time.”  Promises that tell us if we run fast enough, we just might outrun death.  Say no to the fancy, shiny, new, plastic things of this world and hold tight to the true promises of God.

You see Lent is a time in which we’re seeing our own mortality clearly in our failings, in our sins, but that only points us still more to the One who never fails us and scatters our sins from the east to the west.  Ann Voskamp says this about  giving things up for Lent, “I can’t seem to follow through in giving up for Lent. Which makes me want to just give up Lent.  Which makes me question Who I am following.  Which may precisely be the point of Lent.”  If you’re following Jesus that is the only thing that matters.  Hear me again, if you’re following Jesus that’s the ONLY thing that matters.  If you put your trust in yourself, in your own goodness, or in your ability to exercise self-control than you’re bound for disappointment, however, Jesus will never disappoint.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t try to give up something or add spiritual practices like a daily quiet time or writing things that you are thankful for or fasting one day a week.  Those are all great additions.  Giving things up like chocolate, caffeine, or social media is meant to symbolize when Jesus was tempted in the wilderness for 40 days.  Adding things is just what we need before Easter and maybe they will turn into habits.  Just by being intentional this Lenten season, you are practicing a “Holy Lent.”

Jo Ann Staebler in her book “Soul Fast,” says, “In the deep stillness of prayer my soul fasts.  Fasting, at its heart, is turning away from what keeps me from God.  Two things I must leave:  the walls I build around the space that was made to be God’s dwelling; the absurdities I keep in that space, so jealously hoarded.  Taking down the wall that protects the false self I have been building, all these years…risking exposure, emptiness, loneliness.  The fast is silence, ocean-deep and prolonged.  Shard by shard, the wall begins to fall.  Inch by inch, the space clears, and Love lights the shadows.  I come unprotected, and learn that God alone is safety.  I come unaccompanied, and find that Christ alone is Friend.  I come hungry, and receive the only food that satisfies.  In letting go is abundance.  In emptying I am filled.  This is not denial, but freedom.  Fast is feast.”

It doesn’t matter to me what you do, I just want you to be intentional in this Lenten ritual.  As most things in life, what you put into it, is what you’ll get out of it.  It’s only a tool, a ritual, to draw us closer to Jesus when *WE’RE* deep in the wilderness of life.

Hear these powerful words from the artist and poet, Jan Richardson, in her poem “Blessing the Dust,”

All those days
you felt like dust,
like dirt,
as if all you had to do
was turn your face
toward the wind
and be scattered
to the four corners or swept away
by the smallest breath
as insubstantial—

did you not know
what the Holy One
can do with dust?

This is the day
we freely say
we are scorched.

This is the hour
we are marked
by what has made it
through the burning.

This is the moment
we ask for the blessing
that lives within
the ancient ashes,
that makes its home
inside the soil of
this sacred earth.

So let us be marked
not for sorrow.
And let us be marked
not for shame.
Let us be marked
not for false humility
or for thinking
we are less
than we are

but for claiming
what God can do
within the dust,
within the dirt,
within the stuff
of which the world
is made
and the stars that blaze
in our bones
and the galaxies that spiral
inside the smudge
we bear.

God can work wonders from dust.  God made you in your mother’s womb.  Psalm 8:3-4 says, “When I look up at your skies, at what your fingers made — the moon and the stars that you set firmly in place — what are human beings that you think about them . . . that you pay attention to them?”

God can do mighty things through us.  Our Rabbi Jesus can lead us to do some crazy, awesome things as we follow his teachings.  The Holy Spirit can fan the fire to make diamonds out of dust.  God can take your one, wild and precious life and work wonders out of it.

I will say while putting ashes on your forehead.

“God can work wonders with dust.

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return. Amen.”

 

  •  I read many commentaries, blogs, articles to gather these quotes including this one not directly quoted:  http://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2015/2/18/ash-wednesday-meditation.