Sunday, April 29, 2012

Shepherd or Sheep Dog?

John 10:11-18
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them.The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep.I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”

One Sunday a young minister was talking to the kids in his congregation during the children’s sermon about the 23rd Psalm. He told the children about sheep, that they weren't very smart animals and needed lots of guidance, and that a shepherd's job was to stay close to the sheep, protect them from wild animals and keep them from wandering off and doing dumb things that would get them hurt or killed. He pointed to the little children in the room and said that they were the sheep and needed lots of guidance.

Then the minister put his hands out to the side, palms up in a dramatic gesture, and with raised eyebrows said to the children, "If you are the sheep then who is the shepherd?" He was obviously indicating himself. A silence of a few seconds followed. Then a young visitor said, "Jesus: Jesus is the shepherd." The young minister, obviously caught by surprise, said to the young visitor, "Well then, who am I?" The visitor frowned thoughtfully and then said with a shrug, "I guess you must be a sheep dog."

I admit that some days in my ministry I felt more like a sheep dog. While shepherds seem to be this idyllic symbol of peacefulness, confidence and authority—and the typical metaphor for a pastor, I most often felt more like that sheep dog—running around in circles, barking my head off, trying to protect my sheep. But, do you know any shepherds? Really? If you think about, the whole idea of shepherding doesn’t have much significance for me. For us city dwellers the image of a good shepherd has been replaced by other kinds of folk who protect us from things that might harm us in our daily lives. For instance, my credit card company will inform me if unusual purchases are charged to my VISA and Mastercard account. When I traveled to Brazil for a mission trip several years ago I used my credit cards quite extensively to take advantage of the fluctuating exchange rate. Someone actually called me from the company asking if I was indeed in Brazil at the time of the purchases! Now that is protection!

Other shepherd-like folk who look out for me include the garage where I take my car for servicing. I trust them to keep my car in tip top shape. Many times they’ve identified potential problems that needed to be corrected before they became serious issues. My doctor and dentist schedule me for regular check ups and inquire about my health. My bank automatically transfers money from my savings to checking account when my balance goes below zero, protecting me from potentially bouncing checks and incurring overdraft fees. And when you think really hard about all of the things we have in our lives to protect us from disaster, you don’t always need a real person to take care of you. The smoke alarm in my house will go off at the slightest hint of something burning—especially when I have to cook dinner!

The anti-spam software in my email program will quarantine any virus, and redirects all unsolicited messages to a spam folder. We have those little lights that show up in the dashboards of our cars when the oil or gas is low, when the engine needs checked, or when our seat belt is unfastened. We have a security alarm system at the church and in some of our homes, notifying us of any intruders. Even my cell phone has an alarm to protect me from missing any important meetings. Wow! We are really, really protected in our lives—whether by people or by technology. Who needs a good shepherd? Right?

Well, in the midst of all of these devices and people who exist to protect us, often from our own negligence—we still worry. Don’t we?

Time magazine recently conducted a poll in conjunction with the National Institute of Health over a six-year period. They reported that the No. 1 problem in America is anxiety. More than 13 million Americans are afflicted by it, and anxiety, not drugs, is the No. 1 cause of suicide in America. Why is everybody so worried about stuff? I know we all have a worry machine inside of us that seems to drive us, but why is everybody so upset? We have the best of everything in this country, but there are a still lot of things that produce anxiety.

A few years ago one Sunday night I was watching 60 minutes and they had a report about a nuclear waste facility in Eastern Washington state that was so old and falling apart that over 1 million gallons of waste has already leached into the ground water. This cloud of extremely toxic waste was making its way to the Columbia River—and if that happened, millions of people who get their water from this river would have to be evacuated until a clean-up could occur. Just one cup full of this nuclear waste could kill an entire restaurant full of people. It was a potential disaster just waiting to happen, and no one in congress seemed to be doing much about it. Apparently, there just wasn’t any money available to correct the problem because it would cost billions of dollars. As soon as I heard the report I called my sister who lives about an hour north of Seattle and told her about the nuclear waste facility. “Oh that is on the eastern side of the state,” she told me. “We don’t even get our water from the Columbia River.” “But aren’t you worried about it?” I asked. “Well, yeah!” she said? “But what can I do?” My worry turned into her worry. And then we both freaked out about it. The fact is, we all have a worry machine inside of us. Worry is thinking that has turned toxic. Worry is the imagination used to picture the worst. Worry is interest we pay on trouble before it appears. I am a world-class worrier. It's a family affliction.

But if you think about all the worrying we do, you have to admit that at its core, worry is atheistic. When we spend our time stewing and grinding about issues around us, we forget that God can take care of our issues. When we worry, we doubt God's ability, God’s influence, and God’s presence. We think God is not capable of knowing about us and is not concerned about us. People have said to me, "I am worried sick about this." That is a true statement because worry does make us sick. As a student of metaphysics I understand that there is a close relationship between mind, body and spirit. The root of the word worry in the Greek is "to choke or strangle." It does choke us down and strangle us. What happens when we worry? It only changes the worrier; it does not change what we are worrying about.

So what can we do about all this worrying? Our scripture text has some interesting suggestions. First of all, we must remember that Jesus said, "I am the Good Shepherd.” He notes that there are two kinds of shepherds: the good shepherd, who owns the sheep and takes care of them when the wolves come and scatter the flock, and the hired hand shepherd, who is only contracted to take care of the sheep and runs away when wolves attack the flock. The good shepherd stays and never abandons his sheep. The point that Jesus is making is that in doing God’s work, he will not abandon us. You may not understand all that God is doing. But the Scripture is there to remind us that underneath us are God’s caring arms. And if we understand Jesus as our model for Christian care, then we of course should also protect others when they are endangered. Our mandate is to protect each other.

Watching my grandmother’s response to this mandate was an incredible lesson for me. I had always considered my grandmother to be the most caring, compassionate, protecting mother hen/shepherd sheep dog I’ve ever met. When my Uncle was critically ill and near death from complications from a life of drug abuse and bad choices, my grandmother would not leave his side. Even in the midst of her exhaustion and grief, she sat with him until the end; making sure he was comfortable, speaking words of love to him even though he was incoherent, caressing his face and holding his hand. She was protecting him from the fear of death. She was such a good shepherd, and a sheep dog protector. I also think of Sherry and her constant care of her father and mother through his illness and surgery. My partner Wayne has been at his mother’s side every day since his father’s death on January 4th earlier this year. And think of yourselves; as parents and grandparents, and aunts and uncles of little ones and older ones for whom you care. You are good shepherds. And now imagine God, doing the very same for you.

The fact is, sometimes we also have to be sheepdogs; protecting others from influences that might endanger them, sometimes protecting them from themselves. And you are sheepdogs for each other and this community. The service you do for this community will often protect people from situations or environments that can destroy them. You do this everytime you feed the hungry, shelter the homeless and care for the poor. Our mandate is to protect each other, just as God protects and cares for us. And when you think of it that way, what’s all the worry about? (Excerpts from Rev. Dr. William Self’s sermon, "Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear" from April 10, 2005– www.

I just returned from a business trip to Memphis, and as I was thinking about preaching on this text I couldn't help but imagine; if Jesus were a rock and roll superstar he just might have sung something like this:

You ain't nothing but a sheep dog; barking all the time.
You ain't nothing but a sheep dog; barking all the time.
You gotta protect my children and make them friends of mine.

You ain't nothing but a sheep dog; praying all the time.
You ain't nothing but a sheep dog; praying all the time.
So go pray for my children and make them friends of mine.

Now sing it with me!

We ain't nothing but a sheep dog; serving all the time.
We ain't nothing but a sheep dog; serving all the time.
We'll serve God's children and make them friends of mine.

Now make some noise as you sing it!

We ain't nothing but sheep dogs; saving all the time.
We ain't nothing but sheep dogs; saving all the time.
We'll save God's children and make them friends of mine!

Well thank ya; thank ya very much!

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Smoking Gun

John 20:19-31
19When 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.”20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”24But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.25So 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.” 26A 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.”27Then 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.”28Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”29Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”30Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.31But 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 will never forget the first time I saw it. It was January 2004 and I can’t remember the last time I was so excited to see something I had always heard about. It towers over the beautiful and picturesque city of Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. If you happen to arrive there first thing in the morning with the mist still clinging to the mountain, you just might think you were seeing an Easter apparition of your own.

Rio's famous statue of Christ the Redeemer, standing tall, arms outstretched on Corcovado Mountain, is 98 feet high, and weighs 1145 tons. The distance between Christ's fingertips is 91 feet and is the largest statue of Jesus in the world. It is a monument that commands attention and it is not much wonder that millions of people a year travel to see it. This Jesus is an impressive sight, and I was finally standing at its massive pedestal, looking up.

With arms stretched wide, the massive-robed body appears to descend from the sky revealing a square face that resembles a devout, untroubled, if slightly demented looking, Antonio Banderas.

I began my last semester of seminary in the beautiful country of Brazil for my mandatory transcultural experience. I had already visited a lot of different countries and cultures, but had yet been to South America.

When our tour bus finally arrived at the top of the mountain and we could take in the majestic figure up close and personal, many faces in our group were appropriately reverent with awe. Only one member of our party was not impressed. One of the more conservative seminary students in our tour group took one look at the statue and saw the trouble at once. "No nail holes," he said. Jesus' outstretched arms were uncut. No nails had pierced him. No thorns had scratched his brow. The face was serene and glorious and devoid of suffering, without a doubt.

"It ain't my Jesus," said the student. "My Jesus was crucified."

One of the things you notice when you try to wade through the strange resurrection stories in Matthew, Luke and John is that the Jesus who is portrayed as risen is really different. All of these stories go to great pains to say that it was not a ghost the disciples saw but the body of their old friend and crucified Messiah.

Problem is: there are huge inconsistencies in the stories. The various descriptions of the Jesus whom people meet after the resurrection just don't jive. It really isn’t the same old Jesus, the stories all say, but a Jesus who seems to transcend bodily limitations even while he seems to have a body. So, he drifts through walls, appears and disappears, is sometimes unrecognizable, and sometimes eerily familiar. He invites those he knew to touch him but also says that he is beyond such things. He chews and eats fish and apparently enjoys a beachfront barbecue. The point that Matthew, Luke and John wants us to get; is that Jesus definitely died, but he's still got a body, still is a body. Easter was the visitation not of the ghost of Jesus past but the living presence of a man everyone knew. Nevertheless, there was something different about him, something that defied explanation. The people who experienced Jesus alive again had no frames of reference, no categories of language with which to describe or explain what was happening to them.

Seeing ghosts these days is not an abnormal occurrence. A few years ago I read an account of former president George W. Bush’s supernatural sightings. He was awakened one night by George Washington's ghost roaming around in the White House. Bush drew the courage to approach him and asked, 'George, what is the best thing I could do to help the country?' 'Set an honest and honorable example, just as I did,' advised Washington. Unbelievably the very next night, the ghost of Thomas Jefferson moved through the darkened halls as well. 'Tom, what is the best thing I could do to help the country?' Bush asked. 'Cut taxes and reduce the size of government,' advised Tom. Bush didn't sleep well the next night when he saw another figure moving in the shadows. It was Abraham Lincoln's ghost. 'Abe, what is the best thing I could do to help the country?' George W. asked. Lincoln replied, 'Go to the theater.'  

Now, I usually don’t make presidential jokes. The fact is I just couldn’t think of anyone else in politics these days to joke about. Well, back to our story. These people, both women and men, who experienced Jesus alive again, had no frame of reference, no categories of language with which to describe or explain what they were seeing. All they knew for sure was that one standing before them was the same crucified Jesus. And I believe that is the whole point of the story about poor Thomas. The text is surprisingly complex and almost brutal. "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my fingers in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe," says Thomas. And just why was Thomas so hesitant to believe what others had already witnessed? Why did he need proof?

Twelve days after graduating from high school I enlisted in the Air Force as a Russian translator. My first assignment after language school was West Berlin, Germany. I arrived in 1983, six years before the Berlin wall came down. My job was intercepting and translating Soviet aircraft communications—a crypto-linguistic spy. To those of us on the front lines of the intelligence war, the idea of East and West Berlin reintegrating as one city was a dream, as well as for many Berliners.

But in order for this to happen, we all knew that Communism had to fall. The idea of that happening seemed more impossible than bulldozing the concrete wall that separated the city of Berlin. I left Berlin in 1986, just a few years before it did happen, and no one expected it to happen so soon—not the armed forces, not the German government or its citizens, and least of all me.  But on November 9, 1989 the first section of the wall was removed—and with it the political barriers that had separated the German people for almost 40 years. Everyone agreed that we wouldn’t see an end to these division in our lifetime. Why did we doubt that we would see the unification of Germany within a generation? Many of us couldn’t believe it, because that would mean peace would have to win over partition. And peace just didn’t seem imaginable at that time and place.

In our text, Jesus appears to the disciples with that same promise. "Peace" he greets them, indicating that he is glad to see them. But with Thomas he is less than genial. The literal Greek translation of the words is not as soft as most versions imply. It is rough. "Take your finger, here are my hands; take your fist, jam it in my side. Don't be faithless, but be faithful!" What Thomas could not imagine was that the one who had endured so much could come back bearing the marks of his suffering; testifying to the power of resurrection over death. Thomas saw for himself the nail holes, a spear hole, bruises, scratches and dried blood. Jesus was not a pretty sight. He was a resurrected sight. The resurrected Jesus was evidence of what God is always willing to do; bring hope back into the places of our lives that feel like death. The point of the Thomas story is not, it seems to me, the necessity of believing without seeing, but the necessity of accepting the fact that God will make Godself known to us; as God really is. Not a God that is above all of our suffering, but a God who bears the marks of our suffering. We often want a Jesus without scars. We want to worship an unruffled Christ, a majestic, serene-looking Jesus who is somehow beyond it all. We want to picture Jesus as a winner, able to conquer every adversity, on top of the world, looking down on us. So we smooth over the cuts and bruises, making Jesus look, . . ., well, like a statue. We want all our experiences of worship to be "hours of power". We want to hear "success" stories in church, about people who "made it" as a result of their faith, not about people who got crucified because of it.

And that’s why the story of Doubting Thomas is real and transforming for me. When Jesus came back the first time after his death, Thomas wasn't there. All the other disciples had a physical experience of Jesus' resurrection. And when they all gathered to talk about it and express their joy at the evidence of Jesus overcoming death, Thomas couldn't believe it. He demanded proof. He needed a smoking gun…just like the disciples had been given. And when Jesus came back again, he said to Thomas. “Touch my wounds. Put your fingers in my hands and feel where the nails were hammered into me—and where the sword was pierced into my side.  Touch the wounds that were given to me because I was rejected. Feel the hole in my side that injustice, and bigotry, and hatred and prejudice and homophobia put there. And know that I came back…for you.” Jesus came back for Thomas. He came back to give Thomas the proof that he needed to believe—the smoking gun.

That same Jesus comes back for you too; every time you have doubts that God cares. In every moment you feel abandoned, worthless, criticized for who you are, when you’ve been a victim of abuse, neglect or wronged in deed. In every situation where your hopes and dreams are taken from you, whenever you are separated from your identity as one of God’s special creations; Jesus will come back for you. Sometimes He comes to us in the warm stone of a majestic statue or in the cold concrete of a broken down wall. 

So don’t be afraid or anxious about the future. Be encouraged that your influence and good works and legacy will live on. That’s the smoking gun. That’s the proof of your resurrection. That’s the good news. Thanks be to God!

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Tomb Raider or Resurrection?

Mark 16:1-8
And when the sabbath was past, Mary Mag'dalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salo'me, bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week they went to the tomb when the sun had risen. And they were saying to one another, "Who will roll away the stone for us from the door of the tomb?" And looking up, they saw that the stone was rolled back; --it was very large. And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe; and they were amazed. And he said to them, "Do not be amazed; you seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen, he is not here; see the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you." And they went out and fled from the tomb; for trembling and astonishment had come upon them; and they said nothing to any one, for they were afraid.

Well, here we are; finally. It’s Easter Sunday; undoubtedly the most important day of our Christian faith. Easter is the event that ends our Lenten journey and completes the gospel story. It is the relief we have been waiting for since Ash Wednesday, and brings us hope after being faced with the cross of death on Good Friday. And look at you, all gussied up wearing your Easter best, shiny and new, like you just stepped out of the Sears catalog. I must say that I am impressed. Turn to someone next to you and say, “My, you look good!” Today is quite the day for us Christians.

But I must say I am also a bit perplexed. The Easter story, as told in the Gospel of Mark, is quite a mystery to me. It’s a mystery because, unlike the Easter narratives in the other two synoptic gospels, the author of the gospel of Mark tells an unfinished story. It concludes rather abruptly. It is a story without an ending. It’s like a soft boiled Easter egg. When you crack it open, it reveals a runny, uncooked center that you wouldn’t think of swallowing. For me, today’s Easter message is a little hard to swallow.

Now you must be thinking, “What? Did I hear the preacher right? What is he saying? Has he gone bonkers? We all know the message of Easter. Even kids know how this story ends. My goodness, we just sang about it! Jesus is alive; risen from the grave! Death has no victory. Trumpets sound! Angels sing! Hallelujah! But is that the real ending? Well, before you get your Easter bonnet in a twist, let me explain.

If we read very closely, we have to admit that the gospel of Mark’s telling of the Easter story ends without Jesus being seen. We enter the story following the death of Jesus on the cross after he has been laid in a grave carved out from a rock. Three women journey to the tomb at dawn; Mary, the mother of Jesus, and a couple of her friends, Mary of Magdala and Salome. They come to anoint the body of Jesus, for it had been removed and placed in the grave without being properly wrapped in the traditional burial spices. These women were on a mission to make sure things were done right. Thank goodness for women. Amen?

As they walk to the tomb they are concerned about the stone that had been placed over the entrance. Who would roll it away for them? They could not do it without assistance. And how else would they have access to the body? And when the women arrive, they find, to their amazement, that the stone has been rolled back and Jesus’ body is missing. They are shocked to discover that someone has raided the tomb; perhaps this young man, dressed in white, who is sitting at the side of the grave. This unnamed stranger is bearer of news about this Jesus of Nazareth who has been crucified; "He has been raised; he is not here,” he says.

If you are looking for resurrection appearances, if you are looking for closure of the Jesus' story, you will not find them in Mark. For many biblical scholars agree that verse 8 marks the end of this gospel. There are in fact several different versions of the Gospel of Mark. There are short versions, ending at verse 8, and longer versions which go on to verse 20. Even though most of our Bibles include verses 9-20, which does record 3 subsequent sightings of Jesus, they differ so much in literary style from the rest of the gospel that scholars agree they cannot have been part of the original text. These additional 12 verses which make up the longer ending were clearly added to the original text. The oldest and most reliable manuscripts of Mark end at verse 8 with an empty tomb and the word that Jesus is not here.

Now listen closely, I am clueing you into a bit of information that has been disregarded or intentionally hidden from the majority of Christian civilization. We have, in effect, a real Davinci Code dilemma on our hands. The earliest ancient writing of this text, the oldest version of the Easter story, records no historical account of Jesus appearing after his death. All we get from Mark’s gospel is an empty tomb and the news that the Jesus we are looking for is somewhere else. Apart from a resurrection narrative, the empty tomb means nothing. All it means is that there is no corpse. In other words, Mark is not trying to substantiate the resurrection of Jesus as historical fact. For this is not the message of Mark. Jesus is not there means Jesus no longer exists within a conventional frame of reference. "He has been raised." The message is a dramatic conclusion to the tragic story in which Jesus had been betrayed, abandoned and murdered. Yet within that tragedy lays a great mystery. Jesus is not here. He is somewhere else.

Now when this information was revealed to me in seminary, my first thought was…What? Are you kidding me? Is that really it? Are you telling me that my entire faith, not to mention my call to ministry, might be based on a sham? Had I invested my entire life in an Easter story that may have never happened? What about the usually ending I knew and loved? What about the later appearances of Jesus on the road to Emmaus? What about the conversation between Mary and Jesus at the tomb found in the other Gospels?  What about the triumph of resurrection over death? What about the nice, tidy, upbeat ending that Easter is supposed to represent? It’s like watching one of those Hollywood movies that end with a disappointing cliffhanger…the hero is dead and all hope is lost. To be continued….

But I ask you, is this ending so unlike the way we experience the mystery of God in real life? If you think about it, there are so many stories in our popular culture that end without really ending. Movies do it all of the time, especially when the studio hopes to make a sequel. The ends of these movies purposefully leave something yet to be resolved, in an effort to create an audience for the next money-making installment of Nightmare on Elm Street, part 9, or perhaps Batman Returns, Yet Again. And you can be sure, that because of the enormous success of Titanic someone will attempt to make the sequel, Titanic II. I think we can all agree that sequels are usually terrible.

Does Mark’s gospel story promise us a sequel? Mark does suggest there is more to the story. "But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you." The second part of the text makes clear that what had happened before the crucifixion; the unbelief of the disciples and Peter’s denial are not the end of the story either. God never gave up on the disciples, although they had scattered after the crucifixion. And God never gives up on us; always responding to our unbelief with forgiveness and restitution. Even in the midst of failure, we can always choose to begin again. And that’s where we will meet Jesus. Not in some resurrection appearance, but back in Galilee, back in the places where Jesus did his work. For Galilee was not the site for magical appearances in Mark, it was the place where Jesus announced the realm of God. It was the place where he encountered opposition, disloyalty, rejection and defeat. And it was there that Jesus confronted the opposition to his ministry. It was in Galilee that he persisted, triumphed, and overcame, in spite of the odds. There you will see him; the tomb raider says.

So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone. 
And wouldn't you have been afraid? Wouldn't I? That last verse of Mark sets in motion the mystery of our Christian experience. It dispels the myth that Jesus will always faithfully do what needs to be done and that the predictions of Jesus will always find some sort of closure. They will not. The original Gospel text ends abruptly with no resurrection appearance to anyone and the last group of faithful followers are too afraid to say anything to anyone.

And that is precisely where Mark seems to leave us - waiting for the mystery to unfold and the remaining story untold. But what if it is you and I who are responsible for completing this mystery? What if we are the ones given pen and paper to continue writing the Easter story? And what if we did what the disciples were told to do, go back into the Galilee of our daily lives, that place where we encounter opposition, disloyalty, rejection and defeat, to live our own lives just as honestly, just as lovingly, just as courageously, and just as humanly as Jesus lived his. What if that is where we will see Jesus? What if that is where we will meet him?

The mystery of the tomb, it seems to me, is the stunning reminder that Jesus isn't here. He is always out there ahead of us. He always was and he always will be. If we are truly intent on following him, there will always be some further desert to cross, some new challenge to meet, some new enemy to love, some new attachment to forsake, some new boundary to cross, some new sin to confess. The realm of God is not a destination where, once we have arrived, we can rest in satisfaction. Resurrection is not something we believe in, but is something that we live. It is about living the way Jesus always lived. Becoming more fully and completely human, no matter what the defeats and tragedies of our lives threaten to do to us. That was the way of Jesus.

Our Easter stories are still being written, for they begin like Jesus’ began; by trusting that God's realm is present here and now. By praying that God’s kingdom will come and that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Our Easter stories are written as we celebrate life when there is sorrow in death. Our Easter stories unfold as we create communities out of ruins. Our Easter stories are strengthened as we defend the weak and challenge hypocrisy wherever we find it. Our Easter stories are liberated as we confront some restrictive code of conduct in favor of an ever-expansive view of God’s creation and humanity’s possibility. You are the Easter story. You are the mystery that no longer lives entombed. Yes my friends, like Jesus, you must raid your own tomb of despair and death so that your own resurrection story can be told.

Seeing our lives as Easter stories is more than a powerful metaphor. It is how we experience our live in Christ. By embracing your story and your role in it, you can live more purposefully the kind of life that will give your own story meaning. What is our good news today? What is the emotional experience of the Easter message? It’s sitting right in front of me, in personal stories of faith that include grief and amazement, sorrow and joy, fear and hope. You, my friend, are the mystery of God in flesh. You are the Easter story. Amen! (Excerpts from Barry J. Robinson’s sermon, “Jesus Isn’t Here” from April 20,

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Communion as Hospitality

In 1989 I took a vacation that I don’t think I will ever forget. It was to the Island of Maui in late November. If you’ve ever been to any of the Hawaiian Islands, I’m sure you will agree that they are paradise on earth. But it’s not just the great weather, the ocean views, and the beautiful beaches. The tourist activities are incredible. I decided not to bore you with posting the 800 pictures I took. But some of the highlights of my trip were snorkeling above the reefs; touring the pineapple fields; hiking up to the top of the volcano; and one of my most memorable activities, waterfall jumping.

But Hawaii is also the picture of hospitality. And the highlight of my trip was the traditional event that every Hawaiian tourist must experience. The Luau. It is, in fact, at the very center of the Hawaiian custom. But did you know this was not always so?

Believe it or not, in ancient Hawaii, men and woman had to eat their meals apart. Commoners and women of all ranks were also forbidden by the ancient Hawaiian religion to eat certain delicacies. This was all changed in 1819 by King Kamehameha II. Can you say that with me? Kam-e-ha-meh-a. King Kamehameha abolished the traditional religious practices and put on a huge feast. This feast where the King ate with women was the symbolic act which ended the Hawaiian religious taboos, and the luau was born.

The favorite dish at these feasts is what gave the luau its name. Young and tender leaves of the taro plant were combined with chicken, baked in coconut milk and called luau. The traditional luau feast was eaten on the floor. Bowls filled with poi, a staple of the Hawaiian diet made from pounded taro root, and platters of meat were set out and dry foods like sweet potatoes, salt, dried fish or meat covered in leaves were laid out on top of mats made of ti leaves. Utensils were never used at a luau, instead everything was eaten with the fingers.

These royal luaus tended to be big. One of the largest ever was hosted by Kamehameha III in 1847. The list of foods prepared included 271 hogs, 482 large calabashes of poi, 3,125 salt fish, 1,820 fresh fish, 2,245 coconuts, 4,000 taro plants and numerous other delicacies. Hawaiians used to thrown these feasts as celebrations for special occasions such as the launch of a new canoe.

Luaus today are not as big as those hosted by Hawaiian royalty in the 1800s, but they are a lot of fun and feature the same traditional foods… and of course, utensils are now allowed. Today, these types of luaus are still held, for example one to celebrate the first birthday of an infant. 
Your participation at a luau makes you ohana, or family.
It is the greatest Hawaiian symbol of welcome and hospitality. (source:

Now to us folk who live on the mainland, hospitality can also conjure up other images; white tablecloths, candles and RSVP invitations. A backyard barbecue, Christmas open house, a cup of coffee with a neighbor. The whole idea has fallen on hard times. Budy schedules, working mothers, the disappearance of servants, and the rise of a highly mobile population has combined to make genuine hospitality seem a thing of the past. We wistfully think of the “good old days” when neighbors dropped by or when company for supper was a regular occurance. Was hospitality just a passing fad, now obsolete, its usefullness over?

In our scripture text this morning, Jesus must not of thought so. He apparently was facing the same decrease in hospitality as he gathered his disciples around him for their last meal together. In the Old Testament the stories of hospitality are rich and numerous. In the lives of Semitic peoples, hospitality was not an option in life, but a moral obligation. The harshness of the desert life made nomadic people sensitive to the needs of those who appeared at their tents seeking food and shelter. And it wasn’t just among the Hebrew people, many followers of pagan religions also considered it a duty.

Yet in the New Testement hospitality has a different flavor. Inns and hostels that sprang up along Roman roads offered placed to say, which lessoned the importance of private accommodations. The strong sense of community was breaking down and with it the practice of hospitality. Even though the Romans like to throw their own lavish banquets, it was not their custom to offer hospitality to wandering strangers. By the second century of the Common Era, hospitality had become something of a burden. The result was that people had to be reminded to show hospitality. And as it became less impromptu, it began to require rules. Invitations became more formal. Banquets, weddings, social occasions; all required an etiquette. It was to this reality that Jesus addressed his disciples on his last evening with them, and he was reminding them of the importance of hospitality from their ancient scriptures, the Torah.

You see, Old Testament hospitality was not just about offering food and shelter to strangers, it was also marked by sacrifice. Killing an animal was regarded as a sacrificial act. Therefore when meat was eaten on festal occasions it carried sacred significance. In these sacrificial meals, the people and their God came together at the same table to partake of the same holy food. Eating together resulted in being drawn together, in a renewal of the covenant bond. Hospitality became an expression of the covenantal relationship with God and other human beings. The guest if accepted into the family community and receives food, not only for the body but for the soul. Through fellowship, story sharing, and being welcomed, the guest goes forth renewed and restored.

Through our hospitality, it is possible to imitate God’s loving care. Both the Old and New Testaments stress that the primary recipient of hospitality is to be the stranger. However, strangers are not necessarily those different in culture, race, or socioeconomic status. They may be members of our family, or friends or neighbors who have become alienated from us. When we offer hospitality to anyone “estranged” from us, some curious and unexpected results occur. To offer hospitality to a stranger is to welcome something new, unfamiliar, and unknown into our life. Strangers have stories to tell which we have never heard before, stories which can redirect our seeing and stimulate our imagination. Hospitality to the stranger gives us a chance to see our own lives afresh. Genuine hospitality to the stranger calls us to do the following:

1) Value the strangeness of the stranger, accepting their differences without fear, annoyance or distrust. The guest is not someone for whom we are doing a favor, but one who is honoring us.

2) See yourself through the eyes of the stranger and either be affirmed or be willing to learn and change because of what has been revealed to you about yourself.

3) Recognize that we are strangers too. God’s faithful people have always been “exiles and strangers on the earth.” Abraham, himself, was a wandering Aramean. Even Jesus had no permanent place to lay his head at night. We to, are but travelers on a journey to somewhere yet discovered.

4) Bring about reconciliation and renewal for the one who is alien or lost. You just might be the one person in someone’s live that can offer them the healing they’ve desired.

5) Finally, you extend hospitality to God by showing lovingkindness to those in need. Jesus said, “When you show it to one you’d normally show the last, you show to me.” (source: Breaking Bread: The Spiritual Significance of Food, Sara Covin Juengst (1992: Westminster/John Knox Press).

I invite you to consider some recipes for action, as we go and practice hospitality to each other and to strangers. The communion table is the place that we gather on a monthly basis to practice this covenant between each other and God. But this sacred symbol of hospitality doesn’t happen just here. It happens every moment that we share in an experience of giving and welcoming. Think of everything that you do for another as an act of hospitality. That’s why we don’t put restrictions on who can or can’t receive communion in this church. Although some might say you have to believe the same way, or have at least been baptized first, I don’t think that’s what Jesus intended to happen. He even extended hospitality to Judas, the one that, according to some texts, betrayed him. Jesus never turned anyone away, and neither should we. For it is in the moment that we embrace the stranger, we embrace God.

Later we will take communion together and engage in a Hawaiian Luau, the feast of hospitality. My challenge to you is this; as you partake of communion and enjoy our Hawaiian Luau after the service, reflect on the words of Jesus as he said; Remember Me. We remember Christ when we look around the table of hospitality and discover who is missing; and invite them to join us. For when we do this, we embody the Hawaiian understanding of ohana…we are the family of God. Aloha!

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Rainbow Christians

* John 3:14-21 - And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

Most of us see things every day, from the moment we get up in the morning until we go to sleep at night. We look at everything around us using light. We appreciate kids' crayon drawings, fine oil paintings, swirling computer graphics, gorgeous sunsets, a blue sky, shooting stars and rainbows. We rely on mirrors to make ourselves presentable, and sparkling gemstones to show affection. But did you ever stop to think that when we see any of these things, we are not directly connected to it? We are, in fact, seeing light—light that has reflected from objects far or near to us and reached our eyes. Light is all our eyes can really see.

Now I am no scientist, and I certainly don’t completely comprehend the phenomenon that is light. But there are some interesting insights into light that can shed some “light” on the subject. So here’s your very short science lesson. Light is actually electromagnetic radiation with a wavelength that is sometimes visible to the eye. Although there are many dimensions of light, we only see a fraction of its spectrum. This is called visible light, and is seen in the colors of our prism this morning. There are three basic dimensions of light.

They are: Intensity, which is how we perceive the brightness of light, Frequency (or wavelength), which we perceive as the colors and Polarization (or angle of vibration), which is not perceivable by humans under ordinary circumstances.

We perceive the brightness, colors and the vibration of light through its properties of both particles and waves. From the time of the ancient Greeks, people have thought of light as a stream of tiny particles called photons. We don’t normally see these photons, but that is because they are too small or moving too fast. If we could see them with the naked eye, they probably look like something from Star Trek. If you are a Trekkie you might know what a photon torpedo is!

It’s easier to understand the experience of light through its second property called waves. It’s also helpful to think of light as a wave that we can see in the water. One key point to keep in mind about the water wave is that it is not made up of water: it is made up of energy traveling through the water. If a wave moves across a pool from left to right, this does not mean that the water on the left side of the pool is moving to the right side of the pool. The water has actually stayed about where it was. It is the wave that has moved. When you dive into a pool you make a wave, because you are putting your energy into the water. The energy travels through the water in the form of the wave.

All waves are traveling energy, and they are usually moving through some medium, such as water. Light waves are a little more complicated, for they don’t need a medium to travel through. They can even travel through a vacuum. A light wave consists of energy in the form of electric and magnetic fields.

Light waves are waves of energy. The amount of energy in a light wave is related to its frequency: High frequency light has high energy; low frequency light has low energy. Thus gamma rays have the most energy, and radio waves have the least.

Of visible light, violet has the most energy and red the least. Any light that you see is made up of a collection of one or more of these photons circulating through space as electromagnetic waves. If you look around you right now, there is probably a light source in the room producing photons, and objects in the room that reflect those photons. Your eyes absorb some of the photons flowing through the room, and that is how you see. (

Whew! I feel like I am back in science class. So what does this all have to do with our Gospel text this morning? I thought by talking about the scientific properties of light, we might be able to make sense of the theological aspects of light in scripture. Is it possible? Is there a connection? If we believe that God is the creator of all things, then the presumption is, yes. We can begin to understand God when we embrace science, and the reality of our cosmos. So let me set the context for enlightening our scripture with science.

This week's text is at the tale end of the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. You might remember the character of Nicodemus. He is presented to us as a leading member of the religious hierarchy in Jerusalem, something like a professor of theology or a religious judge who has come to see Jesus in the middle of the night to discuss things. Now many of us know the story of Nicodemus quite well. And it’s from this dialogue that we get a quote from Jesus that has become the very core, the crux, if you will, of the Christian experience. Of course I’m referring to John 3:16.

I put it on the screen for you in the translation of the Message so we can refer to it. Why did Jesus say this? What exactly did he mean?Nicodemus apparently comes to Jesus because he appears to be troubled by what Jesus has been saying and doing. He wants to question him, get into a debate. Nicodemus wants some sign that Jesus really is from God and that the things he is saying and doing are true. Yet nothing Jesus seems to say is getting through to Nicodemus. And Jesus continues to frame his discussion in metaphors that perhaps Nicodemus might understand. He likens the Spirit of God to the wind. That in order to make sense of God you must be born from above. Jesus tells him, you're going to have to decide whether or not you want to debate what I am about or start living the way I lived. The people who live life like I am do so in the light, where everything they do and are can be seen. The people who don't are the people who stick to the shadows. It is the way it is, says Jesus. Those who hate the light always have something to hide. Those who love the light are not afraid of being seen for who and what they are.

Now we know from other passages in John’s gospel that he was writing to a Jewish Christian sect that still maintained its primary identity within larger Judaism. At the time John wrote these words, these Jewish Christians were being persecuted and expelled from the only religious home they had ever known, the synagogue. The message that John was conveying through Jesus was not about Jew versus Christian. It was about the kind of discrimination and persecution that goes on within religious communities. He's talking about the kind of evil that gets perpetrated by religious people against their own kind. In fact, even today we know what kinds of cruel things religious people are capable of doing to each other.

The story of Jesus and Nicodemus is not a story about private religious experience. It's about the radical protest Christ was and is against the evil we do to one another in the name of religion. Jesus is saying if you are going to trust God, then you have to be prepared to step fully into the light. You must embrace the light of God who loves the whole world—especially those who don’t believe the same as you do. Neither Jesus nor John was interested in establishing a belief system to be the cornerstone for acceptance or rejection by God. They were more concerned about how we might recognize the spectrum of God’s love and embrace for all humanity? What are God’s true colors?

And now, perhaps our scientific understanding of light can inform us. Remember the three dimensions of light—intensity, frequency and polarization—so too is our experience of God multi-dimensional.

The first dimension is intensity; or how we see the brightness of God. And the best place to experience it is in a community of faith. Nicodemus comes to Jesus as one whose experience of God has been nurtured and supported by a community of believers. One of the unfortunate consequences of reading John 3:16 literally has been an excessive, almost exclusive focus on individual salvation. The central question becomes am I saved? Have I experienced personal salvation? Do I know Jesus as my Lord and Savior? But, for people like Nicodemus, whose faith was formed by the Hebrew Scriptures, the role of a community of believers was primary in his faith development. The songs we sing together on Sunday morning, the prayers we offer, the support we give and receive, the study and reflection of our sacred texts; all reflect the importance of our faith community in our spiritual formation. When we play hooking from our community of faith because of other commitments, or because we’d rather use our Sundays for some kind of recreation…we are cutting ourselves off from one of God's primary tools for inviting us into a deeper and more intimate encounter with God.

We also understand that in light is the dimension of frequency—or that which we see as color vibration—the visible light of God’s love. Service and caring for and about others, is the second dimension of faith when we encounter God. Nicodemus is quite clear the reason he comes knocking on Jesus door at night is that through Jesus healing the sick, feeding the hungry, and caring for those in need, they have experienced the presence of God. "No one can do the things you do apart from the presence of God", says Nicodemus. When we participate in the work of justice, caring for others, providing education to our community, and witnessing to God’s inclusive welcome we are shining the light of God’s grace to our world. For Nicodemus it was the acts of caring and compassion of Jesus, which further opened his heart to God's presence.

And finally our faith has a dimension of polarization—not in the divisive sense, but in the way that our light vibrates energy into the dark places through our openness to the guiding of God's Spirit. The question faced by Nicodemus and anyone seeking to grow in faith is, are you willing to let go of your certainties about who God is? Are you willing to experience God in new ways? Are you ready to step out on a journey with God without the comfort of knowing exactly where it will lead you? Jesus is inviting Nicodemus; and Jesus is inviting you and me to let the Light of God be our guide, to be reborn as waves and particles in God’s kingdom of light. Are we prepared to trust God enough to live without absolute certainty about whom God is?

When Jesus comes knocking on our door, it is an invitation to grow in faith through the guidance of the Spirit. It is the way in which we come to experience God’s true colors—the rainbow of God’s love shining in dark places.

(Excerpts from Barry J. Robinson’s sermon “Stepping Into the Light” for March 30, 2003 –