Sunday, April 8, 2018

Who is this Thomas? John 20:19-31


This week we are looking at Thomas, poor Thomas, the man who became a colloquialism…and yet the Gospel shows us that all, every one of Christ’s followers had doubted at one time or another. Except maybe the women.

Doubting Thomas how would you like to be stuck with that name and then have it mean something. I mean really mean something: If you look up this phrase in the dictionary, you'll find something like: "one who habitually or instinctively doubts or questions." A "doubting Thomas" is somebody who always lags behind in matters of faith. A "doubting Thomas" always needs more proof, more time. A "doubting Thomas" has some hard time trusting others.

I honestly believe Thomas gets a bum rap here. Was he the first to doubt what others told him? Allow me to throw a quote at you and tell me who it is about “Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him say; ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’” What story is that from. . .. Mathew 14:31 Jesus walking on the water and who falters??? Peter “the rock!” Yes, and he sank like one!

Then again in Luke we hear how the women at the tomb learn of the resurrected Christ and told all they had seen to the Apostles then the book states “but these words seemed to them an idle tale.” It isn’t only Thomas who doubts but they all do. Peter even has to go see for himself the empty tomb.
In Luke when Jesus suddenly appears before the 11 he states “why are you frightened and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see.” And even after that the bible states that “they were disbelieving and still wondering.” In John’s gospel when Jesus appears to the 10 he shows them his feet and hands in order that they may believe it just happens that Thomas wasn’t there with the crowd.

We really do not know much about Thomas. He is listed as one of the 12 in Mathew, Mark, Luke.  But it is in John we see a bit more of Thomas though often we do not pay attention to him.  It is Thomas, who after learning that Lazarus has died, and the apostles complain that heading back towards the city could be dangerous, and Jesus could be killed, makes the statement; “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” (John 11:6-16).

It is Thomas who is strong and zealous who is willing to go all the way with the Lord.  It is Thomas who asks; “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to Abba God except through me. If you had known me, you would have known Abba God also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” (John 14:1-7) without Thomas’ questions we would never had this staple saying of our faith.

Without Thomas’ Statements and Faith, we never could have gotten to this day.  Thomas was devoted, loving follower of Jesus.  He was eager to learn and asked leading questions that gave us “I am the way”.  So is it any surprise that after Jesus’ Death he is broken, and like the others, afraid and confused and he just happened not to be in the room when Jesus appeared, so in his Grief, in his confusion and pain the statement arises.  Until I see for myself I will not believe it.

 I know Thomas.  I see Thomas almost daily.  He is on Facebook, he is on twitter, he walks with the incarcerated, he ministers in Hospitals, he can be very loud in certain groups of marginalized people, and he sits in every pew of every congregation. Poor Thomas has been branded “doubting Thomas” because of one moment.  One moment spoken in grief and confusion.

You may know we have regular visitors to our lawn and, the deer have been visiting for quite some time.  Yet when they are here, when someone notices and announces that a deer is here we all are compelled to see it for ourselves. A deer on a lawn is a common event and yet we must see.  So, who could blame Thomas in the midst of doubt, fear and confusion, when the disciples really had yet to come to understand the scriptures and all Jesus had said, who could blame Thomas for a human response. Joseph Richardson writes:

“The sense I get of Thomas, overall, is not the hard-nosed skeptic, but the passionate, devoted follower, deeply feeling, but like Peter, of so “little faith.” He was ready to follow Jesus to the ends of the earth, to give his all — but at Jesus’s death, he was shattered: all the hopes and dreams he had for the coming kingdom crushed. Dejected and depressed, he wandered away; he was not even hanging out with the other disciples when the resurrected Jesus first appeared. When he heard the news, he no doubt thought the companions delusional. His doubt was deeply rooted in disappointment and loss. How could he bring himself to believe again?”[1]

“Church leader Craig Dykstra once described the feeling of being overwhelmed "by the sheer hugeness or complexity of something. We can't get our arms around it. We can't get it figured out. We are unable to organize it or to bring it under control. We are overwhelmed in a way that makes us feel small, weak and inadequate."[2]

Overwhelmed, this must be how all the disciples were feeling at this time.  We find them all huddled together in this room with the doors locked for fear. They didn’t know if the romans or the church would be coming after them next and if so who would it be.  Would one of them turn in the others just to save their own neck much like Judas just did? They were scared, their leader and teacher who had held them together all those long months was dead and buried, executed like a common criminal, and lying in a tomb.

With Jesus gone so was their sense of direction and purpose.  All they had dreamed of whatever it might had been, whatever vision they had of a future…it wasn’t this. They were left only with an overwhelming sense of failure, loss, and shame, because they knew they had deserted Jesus in his hour of need. Reverend Kathryn Michaels asks; “Were they more disappointed and disillusioned with themselves, or with Jesus, who had raised their hopes so high? It would be hard to "get your arms around" that kind of disappointment, to "organize" the feeling of that kind of loss, to "bring under control" that depth of shame. They must have indeed felt "small, weak and inadequate."”[3]

To make matters worse one of the women is claiming she has seen the lord.  It is that troublesome Mary Magdalene as I said last week; “Mary has seen the Lord! Mary, a woman, who ventures out before dawn.  Mary who walks around independent of any man or any other companions.  Mary who is assuming she can roll back the stone.  Mary who keeps pace running with the men.”  This, in these men’s mind is not credible and yet it is raising questions. Her talk is making them nervous.

So now we have these very same men who went back thinking they have taken the lord, except for the beloved for he saw and believed. In one version Peter just goes home after seeing the empty tomb in John both Peter and the beloved go home after seeing the empty tomb. All this hub bub and confusion and grief and they leave their brothers in that room and they go home… not only is that rather anti climatic it is downright rude!

It is rather Ironic that in this Gospel the men are basically on lock down…afraid to go out…overwhelmed with grief and fear …prisoners of their own emotions and Jesus is resurrected and wandering about free and suddenly he is in the middle of the room or in their midst.  AHHHHH   why doesn’t anyone react this way … I mean knowing the time and place the first assumption would be a spirit!

But here he is Jesus is alive and… what did you do?

The disciples might have been just a little bit afraid that this was not all good news? That Jesus might be understandably angry with them for abandoning him, in Peter's case for even denying Jesus three times as he warmed himself by the fire in the courtyard, while his Lord and Savior was questioned by the religious authorities.

In the Gospel of Mark in the long ending Jesus does rebuke the disciples but not for all that happened up to the crucifixion but for not believing those who reported seeing the resurrected Christ.
“It's frightening enough to see someone who was dead suddenly alive, but what if he had every reason to say, "Where were you when I needed you? What kind of faithful disciples are you, anyway? Why did you run out on me? Peter, you especially, I picked you out to be the leader; how could you have denied me three times?"
But that's not what happened. Not in this Gospel. There were no recriminations, no anger, no condemnation or judgment, not   an understandable expression, or "venting," of disappointment and hurt. Instead, the first words Jesus offered were both greeting and gift: "Peace be with you."”[4]

In the midst of fear, guilt, grief Jesus arrives and offers peace.  There are no trumpets blaring, no hallelujah chorus being sung, no angels alighting everywhere! Just Jesus with a calming spirit offering peace and comfort. Offering true pastoral care.  This isn’t the time of sit down and tell me what you think you did wrong.  This isn’t the time to review all I taught nor to say that  you should have seen this coming.  This isn’t the time to make exciting plans for the next move no, no, no! Jesus comes offering Peace.

He brought peace, the offering of the Holy spirit, for this is Pentecost in John “’Peace to you. As the creator has sent me so I send you.’ And saying this he breathed on them saying receive the holy spirit.”

It is eight days later when they all have gathered together again that we see a repeat of the first scene only with Thomas this time.  Jesus is there, says peace be to you and then we take the thomas journey he is offered his rather gruesome wish , we do not know if he takes Jesus up on the offer “But instead …he leaps beyond the evidence and makes the affirmation to which the Gospel has been leading, all this time : “my lord and my God’ Then, just as we applaud his insight we find ourselves purring in self-satisfaction as we hear the next stage in the story ‘Happy are those who did not see and believed.”  Hey that’s us we are in the story!

It is interesting to see this Pentecost story, Johns Pentecost. “At creation, God breathed life into us humans, a tender, intimate, up-close and personal moment, and here we are again, with Jesus not holding his disciples at arm's length but re-creating this sorry crew of weak disciples, giving them the gift of new life, the gift of grace, and commissioning them to share that gift, that good news, with the world.”[5] just as God breathed life into the mud being and named us human Jesus now breathes the Holy spirit, the life giver herself, giving life and purpose to the disciples.

So who is Thomas really?


Thomas is human, Thomas is all of us.  To Doubt, to ask questions and seek answers strengthens the faith.  It is only through questioning and seeking that we can develop a strong faith. You see “In one sense, Thomas represents the burden of the intellectual: the doubt that comes from thinking and questioning; the demand of the rational mind for concrete, tangible proof.”  Unfortunately, we see the results of blind faith too often.  No questions, no explorations lead to a world where slavery is biblically authorized.  Blind Faith leads to a place where women are unequal and diminished.  Blind faith leads to a place where hatred, cruelty and even murder can be justified.  We see it way too often in this world.  Extremist and literalist make it difficult for us to eliminate prejudice, hatred, and war.

So where is that Peace?  How many times have we just wanted some peace…a piece of peace?  My parents would often ask if they could just get some peace and quiet around here!

“peace is a challenge in every setting of life, in families, communities, the world, and in the church itself. Ironically, we even argue about what it is, and how to achieve it. While my mother undoubtedly longed for some "peace and quiet," the "peace" brought by Jesus not only here, in the locked room of the cowering disciples but throughout his risky and controversial time in ministry, is a challenge as well as a gift. It can come with a price.
Sure, Rome bragged about a "Pax Romana," but that wasn't really peace--it was the silencing and immobilizing of those crushed beneath the heel of their legions' boots so that business could go on as usual, the business of empire, that is. That's not peace as Jesus brought peace, as God desires peace for us. God's peace is nothing less than transformative, and in that transforming, it will upset those in power, those with much to hold on to, and much to gain.”[6]
So introducing Christs concept of Peace, the peace that Jesus taught…doesn’t sound like it’s going to be very peaceful.

“Have you ever seen the Diet Coke and Mentos experiment that is all over the Internet and wondered what makes the reaction work? You might think that there is some ingredient in a Mentos candy that causes a chemical reaction with the soda pop, like the way baking soda reacts with vinegar. But the amazing eruption that takes place when Mentos are dropped into Diet Coke or other brands of diet soda pop is not a chemical reaction at all! Instead it is a physical reaction.”[7]

A Physical reaction…the rough surface of the candy lets the carbon release faster.

I cannot help but think that this is the way of the world.  As we push and become stronger for a better world, more food for the hungry, more money for health care, more services to the poor, more equity among all people, as we seek a better way to be care takers of the planet. There is going to be an eruption.  Actually there is an eruption we are seeing hidden anger and resentment come to the surface.

The other reaction I see is the anger and pain that comes to us as progressive Christians.

Rev. Kathryn Mathews reflects; “I confess that my heart is troubled when I think of the image many of my friends have of the church, and "church people," that is, Christians: they think of us as judgmental, harsh, hypocritical and at best, irrelevant (if not a problem and maybe even a threat). My friends "outside the church," even or especially if they were once "in" the church, seem surprised when I say that I find in the church a place of acceptance and challenge, not judgment, and not just warm, sentimental comfort. That's not the way they imagine or remember it.”[8]

This is the challenge we face, as Christians and as the United Church of Christ.  This can be as overwhelming as those early days of Christianity. we have to get the message out.  We are not the church you grew up with. The words, the welcome we proclaim every Sunday is not just a saying, it is what we believe and act upon.  This world and all that is going on seems overwhelming but each one of us can make a difference. Each one of us are messengers and bringers of Christ’s Peace! Yet we are not alone!

This is a denomination, this is a conference, this is an association, this is a congregation and we are its people.  We work as two and three united to become 60 or 70 united in community that join with 22 other churches to form the Golden gate association.  The Golden Gate Association Joins with 6 other associations to become the northern California/Nevada conference, this in turn joins 38 other conferences around our country to be the United church of Christ.

That is over 5000 churches over a million-people strong! On a local level we make a difference to cots to the people service center to bread for the world to the heifer project to our global ministries. Which means, we this little group of people here make a difference around the world. In each action we take we make Thomas proclamation “My Lord and My God!” we are here, we are your servants and though we may falter or feel overwhelmed or even out right doubt, we will continue to proclaim your name…we will continue to do your good work in this world that all may know an all loving God who loves each of us just as we are and proclaim a just world for all.  amen




[1] http://lonelypilgrim.com/2012/07/03/doubting-thomas-and-the-ends-of-the-earth/
[2] http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_april_8_2018
[3] Ibid
[4] http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_april_8_2018
[5] http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_april_8_2018
[6] Ibid
[7] https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/bring-science-home-coke-mentos/
[8] http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_april_8_2018


Sunday, April 1, 2018

A walk Past an empty Tomb John 20:1-18


A Walk past an empty tomb

Frederick Buechner (pronounced BEEK-ner) is an American writer and theologian. He is the author of more than thirty published books and has been an important source of inspiration and learning for many readers. He has a perspective on Easter I find unique and a great way to start.

The Gospels are far from clear as to just what happened. It began in the dark. The stone had been rolled aside. Matthew alone speaks of an earthquake. In the tomb there were two white-clad figures or possibly just one. Mary Magdalen seems to have gotten there before anybody else. There was a man she thought at first was the gardener. Perhaps Mary the mother of James was with her and another woman named Joanna. One account says Peter came too with one of the other disciples. Elsewhere the suggestion is that there were only the women and that the disciples, who were somewhere else, didn't believe the women's story when they heard it. There was the sound of people running, of voices. Matthew speaks of "fear and great joy." Confusion was everywhere. There is no agreement even as to the role of Jesus himself. Did he appear at the tomb or only later? Where? To whom did he appear? What did he say? What did he do?
The symbol of Easter is the empty tomb. You can't depict or domesticate emptiness. You can't make it into pageants and string it with lights. It doesn't move people to give presents to each other or sing old songs. It ebbs and flows all around us, the Eastertide. Even the great choruses of Handel's Messiah sound a little like a handful of crickets chirping under the moon.
He rose. A few saw him briefly and talked to him. If it is true, there is nothing left to say. If it is not true, there is nothing left to say. For believers and unbelievers both, life has never been the same again. For some, neither has death. What is left now is the emptiness. There are those who, like Magdalen, will never stop searching it till they find his face. [1]

Easter Sunday Morning Starts with this emptiness but leads us to a new place a new way of being in this world and relating to one another.  This is much of what the sunrise service experience is…It is dark… it is silent it is cold… Mary Magdalene approaches the tomb knowing what to expect…In extreme grief ..she knows she will attend to the body of the Lord…alone she will care for the one who the others fled from…alone…the stone is rolled back the tomb is empty !!!!

We teach, preach and believe that Jesus came to turn the whole social order and the world upside down.  He does away with tradition left and right while he walked on this earth and now even in death.
According to Bible archeology website burial custom for the time of Jesus was that it was the;
“women’s task to prepare a dead body for burial. The body was washed, and hair and nails were cut. Then it was gently wiped with a mixture of spices and wrapped in linen strips of various sizes and widths. While this was happening, prayers from the Scriptures were chanted.
The body was wrapped in a shroud but was otherwise uncovered.
Tombs were visited and watched for three days by family members and friends. On the third day after death, the body was examined. This was to make sure that the person was really dead, for accidental burial of someone still alive could happen.
At this stage the body would be treated by the women of the family with oils and perfumes.” [2]
Through this description we can see where the burial of Jesus is still turning things the wrong way out.  First it is Joseph of Arimathea along with Nicodemus who “took Jesus’ body and wrapped it, with spices, in linen clothes.” (John 19:40) This was women’s work according to the tradition of the time and yet we have the men doing it.
Then tradition has it that the romans stood guard over the tomb.  Not the Family but the Government, the ruling class has taken on the role of what would have been for family and friends to do.
Then Mary, while it is not yet light enough to see where one is going heads to the tomb alone.  Women did not travel alone.  Nobody went out before light except those who had the lowest of jobs to sweep the streets, night watch or shepherds. Yet Mary sets of alone her heart heavy with grief. Yet she knows her role and with dread she anticipates caring for a broken body that was Jesus’.  She alone is heading out to care for Jesus but when she arrives there are no guards…the stone is rolled back... the Tomb is empty!!! She must have been filled with confusion, fear panic
Mary runs back to the disciples and then we find Mary right behind the disciples back at the garden.  She is healthy no wonder she thought she could move the tomb stone by herself.
John traditionally holds the two disciples are Peter and the one who Jesus loved ran back to the garden.  The one out races Mary and Peter and sticks his head in the tomb and see the linens lying there and then Peter walks in and sees the face cloth folded and then the other disciple walks in, sees all this and believes.
What did he believe?  The Gospel says they did not yet understand the scripture that he must rise from the dead. He believed Christ had risen.
I often thought this a great leap.  The beloved disciple only had but to look into the tomb and believe.  But what I think this really says is he was paying attention and got what Jesus was teaching all along.  You see with the linens lying there and the face clothe all folded up neatly says this is no robbery.  Who would steal a body and take the time to unwrap it first?  It had to be something else.
Some think the next verse is a little contradictory, but I do not see it as such.  It says they did not yet understand the scripture that Jesus must rise from the dead.  Peter, I assume walked away understanding nothing, as usual.  The beloved disciple believed, he may not have made the scriptural reference yet, but he understood Jesus’ words and sayings.
Of course, the men leave Mary standing there alone, in her grief, unaccompanied again! Left her standing there weeping away…didn’t even offer her a tissue!
Mary sticks her head inside the tomb and there are two angels seated at the head and the foot of where Jesus’ body should be.  Jesus is bracketed by angels.  Angels at his conception, birth and now at his resurrection.  This says that death is not that important.  It is important to us because we identify it with human suffering – yet the resurrection, to me, points past the suffering.  I believe the narration points to that as well. For the Angels ask her “Woman why are you crying?”  She answers; “They have taken my Lord away and I don’t know where they have put him.”  Isn’t that the definition of grief?  I mean when a love one dies we try to rationalize, we try to stand firm in our faith but in that ultimate moment of extreme grief, we are lost. Our loved one is gone and we really do not know where they are.  Mary is us at any moment of loss, confusion and fear…the tomb is empty.  As empty as the hole in our heart when we lose someone we cherish.
Then Jesus repeats the question; “Woman, why are you crying?” I think this is made to emphasize this is not a time of grief, “The life lived is not to be grieved” [3] see my blog spot Sometimes Alleluia November 2015 for that sermon. Then Jesus asks; “who are you looking for?”  That is a strange question to be asking at a grave side.  I mean the question assumes you must be seeking someone living for the dead are easy to find.  But Mary, missing that it is Jesus who is speaking to her, says just tell me where he is, and I’ll get him.  So, Mary is assuming this Gardener is somehow a part of this conspiracy to steal the body of Jesus. Then he says to her, in a tone of voice that only she could recognize, and it melts her heart and opens her eyes…Mary. 
As Christ calls Mary by her name she recognizes him.  How many times in our own lives when we look back we can see God’s hand at play but, when we were in the moment, we could not or refused to see God with us.  I wonder how often Mary looked back on that moment and wondered why she did not recognize Jesus Right away.
Jesus then says do not hold onto me, or another translation would be do not cling to me.  Jesus is saying, do not hold on to me as you once believed for I am something new, something different, and something beyond physical. One interpreter believes this is Jesus saying my Physical body has died and I am now a spiritual being. [4] This is where Jesus moves form man to Christ.  There is a shift in his being and how he is perceived from here on out.  Then he proclaims to Mary “Go to my Brothers and Sisters and tell them I am going to my Abba and your Abba, to my God and your God!” (John 20:19) This is important again because not all of Jesus followers, not all of his disciples were Jewish.  We traditionally think of the disciples as the twelve yet in the books of acts the numbers “range between 70 and 120 to a ‘growing Multitude’”. [5] Like we teach here about the last supper it was women, children, servants, it was those healed by Christ and those who will hear the 12 in their own tongue.  Jesus proclaims one loving accepting parent God for all and in that God, we are all, every one of us, brothers and sisters.
The final Proclamation Mary Makes is “I have seen the Lord”. Remember that quote from a few Sundays ago… “Sir we would see Jesus” Mary has seen the Lord! Mary, a woman, who ventures out before dawn.  Mary who walks around independent of any man or any other companions.  Mary who is assuming she can roll back the stone.  Mary who keeps pace running with the men. Mary is the first to see the Lord and proclaim a resurrected Christ a new Jesus a new way of being in relation to one another in this world. A world where we are called to care for each other no matter who you are or where you are in life’s journey. A world where we as Brothers and Sisters in Christ proudly proclaim for all to hear…You are a part of God’s family!  This is what I hear in today’s Gospel and the message of the resurrection.  May we always get past the empty tomb moment and live in the experience of an all loving God, a true family of humanity, and the blessings that a relationship with Christ can bring into our lives.  Amen.







[1]. Frederick Buechner, Easter, October 13, 2009, accessed March 14, 2016, http://www.frederickbuechner.com/content/easter.
[2]. Elizabeth Fletcher, Tombs, http://www.bible-archaeology.info/tombs.htm.
[3]. Joseph Shore-Goss, The life lived is not to be grieved, November, 2015, http://revjoeshore.blogspot.com/2015/11/the-life-lived-is-not-to-be-grieved.html.
[4]. anonymous, John 20:17, February, 2014, accessed March 14, 2016, http://www.whatjesusreallysaid.com/2014/02/do-not-hold-on-to-me-for-i-have-not-yet.html.
[5]. Nikhilesh Jasuja, Priya mMenon, and Carolyn, Apostle vs Disciple, March 8, 2016, accessed March 14, 2016, http://www.diffen.com/difference/Apostle_vs_Disciple.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

The triumphant ride into Jerusalem Mark 11:1-11


The triumphant ride into Jerusalem!  The grand Procession.  The joy, as we reenact often what for many of us is a fond memory from our own childhood. John Wesley Notes that “‘Hoseanna’ (Lord save us) was a solemn word in frequent use among the Jews.  The Meaning is ‘We sing hosanna to the Son of David. Blessed is he, the Messiah, of the Lord. Save. Thou that art in the highest heavens.’ Our Lord restrained all public tokens of honour from the people till now, lest the envy of his enemies should interrupt his preaching before the time.”[1]
Today we celebrate Jesus’ Triumphant entrance into Jerusalem.  Today is also known as Passion Sunday, which we will honor during the week as we recall the events that led to the torture and execution of Jesus.    So today let us focus, on today!
Marcus Borg with John Dominc Crossan in the book “The Last Week” gives us a beautiful picture of what was happening;
Two Processions entered Jerusalem on a spring day in the year 30…. One was a peasant procession, the other an imperial procession, From the east, Jesus rode a donkey down the Mount of Olives, cheered by his followers. …
On the opposite side of the city, from the west, Pontius Pilate, the roman Governor of Idumea, Judea, and Samaria, entered Jerusalem at the head of a column of imperial cavalry and soldiers.  Jesus’s procession proclaimed the Kingdom of God; Pilate’s proclaimed the power of empire.[2]
Most people do not realize that Pontius Pilate rode into Rome.  He was sent down during the Holidays to make sure there was no trouble.  Yet during this time there had been trouble and Pontius was anticipating it.
Imagine the imperial procession’s arrival in the city. A Visual panopoly of imperial power: cavalry on Horses, foot soldiers, leather armor, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold. Sounds: the marching of feet, the creaking of leather, the clinking of the bridles, the beating of drums. The swirling of dust. The eyes of the silent onlookers, some curios, some awed, some resentful.[3]
This is an intentional display of imperial power much like the army marching in Tiananmen square or rocket launches around north Korea or maybe a military parade in Washington DC.  This is to instill fear and remind people who is in charge. Sometimes it’s a warning to the people, sometimes to other countries. It is also a warning to anyone who may think about offering any kind of resistance that there is a whole army waiting to react.
This display also was to be not just a display of military might but that of Religious authority as well.
According to the theology of rome, the emperor was not simply the ruler of Rome, but the Son of God.  It began with the greatest of emperors, Augustus, who rules Rome form 31 BCE to 14 CE.  His father was the god Apollo, who conceived him in his mother, Atia. Inscriptions refer to him as “son of God,” “lord” and “savior,” one who had brought “peace on earth.”  After his death, he was seen ascending into heaven to take his permanent place among the gods.  His successors continued to bear divine titles, including Tiberius, emperor from 14 to 37 CE and thus the emperor during the time of Jesus’s public activity.  For Rome’s Jewish subjects, Pilate’s procession embodied not only a rival social order, but also a rival theology.[4]
Jesus’s procession, if we look at it as it is written in Mark seems like a very deliberate, planned, political action.  He tells his disciples where to find the colt and just mention that the master needs it and it is understood who and what it is for.  Okay, that is an assumption, but no one questions the disciples after they say that the colt is for the master therefore one can safely say that the owner was probably a follower of Jesus.
People of that time had to be very conscience of the symbolism, the direct contrast Jesus was presenting. Jesus is coming into town riding on a donkey, lowliest of animals.  His army are all peasants and common folk.  They are hailing him as the King, mocking that of Pontius’s entrance.
Jesus’s procession deliberately countered what was happening on the other side of the city. Pilate’s procession embodied the power, glory, and violence of the empire that ruled the world.  Jesus’s procession embodied an alternative vision, the Kingdom of God.[5]
I cannot help but see a direct parallel to what happened around this country yesterday. A movement, a protest, a match up; the powerless against the powerful! The students of Stoneman Douglass High school have started something that, let’s be honest, should have started a long time ago.
On 60 minutes the students were asked “what makes you think you guys could do more? That this could be different?” here is what a student said; “the thing about it is we are the generation that had to be trapped in closets waiting for police to come or waiting for a shooter to walk into our door. We are the people who know what it is like firsthand!” another student states; “we are the mass shooting generation…I was born months after columbine.  I am seventeen years old and we have had seventeen years of mass shootings!” he goes on to say “that stop school violence act they are pushing in DC which is just a bunch of hot air fluff doesn’t use the word gun once its when all these tragedies the one thing that links them all together is the Gun!” [6]  one student points out that they have a gun in their house it is there to protect them in case someone should wish to do them harm but in their house they are taught there is a difference between gun for protection or a rifle for hunting and that of a weapon of war!
“3 days after the shooting Emma Gonzalez accepted an invitation to speak at a rally the five foot two 18 year old had to stand on Boxes to be heard. Her speech was seen millions of times and ignited the passion of students around the country!”[7]
Now I confess I am a huge fan of Emma Gonzalez who said; “we need to understand this isn’t just a mental health issue he would not harmed that many people with a knife!” She said; “That us kids don’t know what we are talking about that we are too young to understand how the government works we call BS!”
When asked why her how she became a symbol? she states I think it was the hair …iconically you think of the picture and you think of the bald girl... I am sorry she is just too cool! When asked about what she thinks of this idea of arming teachers she states “well first of all Stoneman Douglass ran out of paper for like two weeks out of the school year and now all of a sudden they have 4 million dollars for teachers to get trained to arm themselves…really?”[8] she is just so cool.
The students have a donated space for organizing which they are keeping secret because they are receiving death threats!  Death Threats these are students...young people…!
But the thing that breaks my heart was an interview with Emma’s mother “it’s insane you know somebody said please tell Emma we are behind her, which I appreciate but we should have been in front of her, I should have been in front of her, we, all adults should have dealt with this twenty years ago… some adults are, you go girl, but what are we doing?”[9]
What are we doing?
One parent who lost a son pointed out that this generation has their cell phones in their hands all the time, we as adults criticize that but they are use to getting answers right away do you think they are going to wait 6 months or a year for anybody or congress.
The student points out that they need adult help and they gladly accept it but when someone tries to push their agenda upon these kids they say no thank you that is not what this is about!
This is an amazing movement…This is Palm Sunday…These kids are Jesus on a colt riding into Jerusalem!
This isn’t metaphor.  These are young people not old enough to vote…they do not have money of their own to fight the NRA and old school politicians…These young people are riding against Rome. At one time I would ask about todays Gospel reading as you visualize this event could you see yourself in the story.  Would you have been one of the people joyously, celebrating, welcoming the new king into your city.  Believing this man was going to change everything right away.  This man, the one who is always causing trouble, breaking tradition, is in opposition not just to Rome but the religious authorities.  Would you welcome him Knowing that at any moment trouble could break out and you might be caught up it in it?
Well I had the opportunity to walk with the Jesus this Saturday.  I got to walk besides youth who are always causing trouble, breaking tradition, who were standing in opposition not just to the NRA but to government and religious officials who may stand in their way!
So, if you think to yourself yes, I would be there.  I would welcome Jesus to the city.  I would be ready to stand beside him and walk with him no matter where it leads.  I would then say to you, know this…you are part of a great and brave group of people who are ready for a big and dramatic change, and it has started! But remember, with Jesus as soon as trouble started they all turned against him.  They asked for a murderer to be released over him.
So, who are you in this Palm Sunday Story?
Can you picture yourself maybe as the colt?  An innocent creature living in servitude, who is suddenly thrown into this spotlight.  You are given the great honor to carry the Lord and Master into this city.  You alone have been chosen to be blessed and to touch the living Christ.  The excitement of the crowd is energizing and terrifying at the same time and yet.  And yet, when it is all over you go back to what you were doing before no better and no worse for it.  Your life just goes on as it always did.
Maybe, just maybe, you are one of the Roman guards on the far side of the city.  Part of the big corporation.  A Good soldier.  Following orders and doing what you are supposed to do.  Maybe you have heard something about this man about town.  There are rumors and stories.  Oddly enough you are called to stand Guard at an execution and turns out to be this Jesus you have heard so much about, “And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he died, he said, "Surely this man was the Son of God!"(Mark 15:39)
Knowing all this, all this history, all this conflict, knowing what might be, knowing what we might have done in this story, who we might be.  Knowing that all this triumphant celebratory entry into the city will only end on a hill.  Jesus comes. Despite all that.. Jesus comes and Because of all this…All of you…all of us, all of humanity…Jesus comes!
Because there is poverty in the world …Jesus Comes
Because there is Hunger in the world… Jesus Comes
Because there are migrants who are seeking a better life …Jesus comes
Because there are worn torn parts of our world…Jesus comes
Because the planet and all things living upon it are crying out for justice…Jesus comes
Because there are those who need just and equal health care…Jesus comes
Because people need disaster relief in Puerto Rico ...they need food, electricity, roofs…Jesus Comes
Because of Students who want to be safe and see no need for weapons of war to be available in our society…Jesus comes!
Jesus Comes! Jesus Enters the city and there is an open invitation to follow.  But how do we do that?  How do we follow Jesus into Jerusalem? What are we Called to do? How do we prepare to follow Jesus into Jerusalem?
 We are called to accompany those in need on their life journey.  We are called to take action when we see injustice.  We are called to help close the gap where we see people being marginalized. No, we can’t do it all.  We can’t all be expected to literally walk besides those in need. But we can write letters…offer financial support…offer support to organizations and businesses that believe in the same causes we do.
We can boycott business who do not understand how their actions support injustice and call them out. Our cry of Hosanna is we walk in the way of Christ and we are called to act upon that call to the best of our ability. For some that may be offering a prayer, lifting Christs love that is in our heart to another. Offering a smile or a word of encouragement. Standing for a just and peaceful world in our hearts may be all we can do but it is more than enough! And actually offering kindness and prayer is the best place to start!
Amanda Beck writes;

“You may say that these practical instructions amount to being nice to others and being a good person but carry very little spiritual weight. We would all prefer merely to contemplate the mystery of God’s coming near and follow Jesus’ journey with a spiritual devotion to the suffering servant. It is true that many of these instructions don’t seem spiritual in themselves. We must do them, not because of their own spiritual weight, but because our hearts are very small. We clutter them daily with concern for ourselves, misplaced loves, and hurt feelings. We must make room for Jesus in order to welcome him properly. Somehow this practical work done with spiritual attention prepares the way of the Lord as nothing else can. It changes us. It makes room in our hearts that Jesus can fill with the kingdom of heaven. This is the way to make straight the path of the Lord: self-emptying. There is no other way to let Jesus’ message sink in, and there is no other way to follow our Lord than to walk in his footsteps. Jesus’ life was one of self-emptying and service to God and humanity, and so we make our lives in his likeness. If there was ever a week to get this right, this is it. If there was ever a point in the Christian narrative to step out of the way and let the story of divine love continue, this is it.[10]
So, on this day when we gleefully welcome Jesus into Jerusalem with all the knowing and all the anticipation of the spiritual practice of this week.  This is the time to spend spiritually on ourselves.  This is the week to practice spiritual centeredness and forgiveness and seek right living or ways to help make living right, so that we cannot only be spiritually present to each other but to the community around us.
This week can be used to ramp us up for the rest of the year so that we here at United Church of Christ Petaluma may “put our faith into action through our commitment to compassion and justice. So that As individuals and as a congregation, we address need and challenges of inequality in our community and around the world as we seek ways in which we may join others to advance social and environmental justice.”[11][7]

You all are doing a lot individually and collectively as a congregation, but this week, this week is for yourself and God.  This week is about reenergizing ourselves as Christians as we live into our story.  Look for yourself in the story, look for what moves you spiritually this week. Watch for the story as it continues to unfold around you.  Jesus’ walk to good Friday is part of our richest tradition.  It empowers and inspires so that we may be who we are called to be Christ to the world. As we are called to engage the 3 great Loves: Love of Neighbor, Love of Children, and Love of Creation  Amen.


[1] Jenee Woodard, The Abingdon Creative Preaching Annual (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2013), 85.
[2] Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week: The Day-by-day Account of Jesus's final Week in Jerusalem (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006),2.
[3] Ibid., 3.
[4] Ibid
[5] Ibid 5
[6] https://www.cbsnews.com/video/the-students-of-stoneman-douglas-the-crown-prince-of-saudi-arabia/
[7] Ibid
[8] Ibid
[9] Ibid
[10] David Neil Mosser, and Wellman, eds., Abingdon Preaching Annual 2011 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2010), 119.
[11] UCC Petaluma, About us, 2018, accessed march 20, 2018, https://uccpetaluma.org/about-us/.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Let us plant a new seed....John 12:20-33


Today's reading John 12:20-33 sounded like a football call out.

I want to open with this quote…

“One afternoon in the Sabbath school where a lad was asked to repeat what he had learned during the week, he said simply "Sir, we would see Jesus." The teacher was strangely conscience-smitten. He remembered that he had given excellent lessons on the Creation, the Fall, Israel in Egypt, and similar subjects, but had said little about Christ. He looked at the youth who had spoken these words, and then round on the faces of the others. And then instead of using the lesson he had prepared, he talked to the lads earnestly upon the request made so simply and opportunely. He spoke with such yearning for their souls, that the lads listened as never before; and as he spoke he felt that the master’s presence was in their midst.” [1]

The process I use to write my sermons is I read the selected reading about a week, sometimes two, before I sit down to write.  Then when I feel, what I perceive to be the spirit, to be moving in my heart I look to see what other people have said in their sermons, I look to the commentaries and see what the research says and then I pray that when I am done this will all make sense.
Sometimes I have pages and pages of quotes that I love, like the one I started with. Often more pages of quotes than you would care to hear me read. Other times I have a big blank page staring at me…and then I pray again.  Sometimes All the rules I learned in seminary echo back to me especially a quote attributed to Karl Barth that we need to have the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other but, with what the news is these days, I’d rather not.
The first thing we hear in today’s reading is the Greeks wanted to see Jesus.  What I wouldn’t give to see Jesus to just sit at his feet and listen.  What would his words be today?  Would they be any different?  Impossible to know for sure but I suspect not.
So, we have a request to see Jesus. Impossible today and yet a simple request at that time, and yet, evidently this was not a simple request for they went to Philip and then Philip went to Andrew and then they both went to see Jesus.  Now if this was a movie I would imagine the scene would be like “you ask him. I am not going to ask him you ask him, why don’t we both do it…ok together lets’ go….” ah the wise, mature, followers of Christ, sorry but they really are portrayed as a bumbling bunch of everyday people. And I love that because I am a bumbling bunch of everyday people myself!
So, the two tell Jesus there are a couple of Greeks here to see you and how does Jesus react?  Come in?  Sit Down? Relax? Nope!
Professor Christine Wenderoth says:
This passage recounts Jesus' last public dialog in the book of John, and starts us on the heavy, sorrowful journey to the cross.  Jesus himself announces his own death in a sort of take charge way: "The hour has come," he declares, as though he's in on the whole plan and approving of its drift.  "The hour has come for the Son of Man [that would be me] to be glorified." [She goes on to say]
I find Jesus' clairvoyance and bravado to be off-putting, to tell you the truth.  It's a little smug-"I'm off to be glorified, so don't weep for me, Argentina"-smug and invulnerable.  I want my Jesus to be like me--vulnerable, doubting and scared witless.  Even though Jesus says his "soul is troubled," I don't really believe him because in the next breath he says one more time "Father, glorify your name," meaning "Do your worst! Slay me!"[2]
Now she admits she has a bit of attitude problem here and it is showing blatantly in her quote.  Yet in John these “Greek’s” demonstrates a definitive shift in Christ’s teaching and his life.  For John yes this is the beginning of the end, and I wanted to know why?  Who are these Greek’s and how did their appearance trigger something?
In my research I have found nothing unusual about Greeks going to Jerusalem.  Jerusalem was quite the Hellenistic city at its time. “Herod once again turned Jerusalem into a Hellenistic city, including all the constituent elements and institutions of a Polis. He built a large theatre, instituted wrestling tournaments in honor of the Emperor, staged spectacles where men fought wild animals, [24] and encouraged gentile immigration to Jerusalem.” [3] So it was not unusual for tourists to come to town for festivals and to trade their wares.  It also is possible that these are Greek speaking Jewish people who have made pilgrimage for the Passover.
Pastor Bob Deffinbaugh states;
“I believe the mention of the “Greeks” here is the inclusion of the last segment of mankind represented in this chapter. In John 12, we find Jesus, Judas His betrayer, the 12 disciples, the intimate friends of our Lord (including, but not limited to Lazarus, Mary and Martha), those who came from Galilee and other places in Israel, those pilgrims who came from afar to Jerusalem for Passover, the residents of Jerusalem and Judea, those from Jerusalem who witnessed the raising of Lazarus, those who opposed Jesus (chief priests, scribes, Pharisees), and now, at last, the Greeks. To pick up on the words of the Pharisees in verse 19: “Look, the whole world has run off after him.” How right their words would prove to be!” [4]
What he is saying here is that it doesn’t matter if these are Greeks of Jewish heritage or pagan.  It doesn’t matter why they wanted to see Jesus it is the fact that they do.  At that moment the possibility of God’s message for a people, shifts to all people.  In the Johannine context Jesus has an awakening, it is as if he sees all that is before him and the greater message that is for all people, for the world must be proclaimed.
Christ even goes on to try to explain what is about to happen to him in a poetic sense and it is a message proclaimed for all…it is not just a parable. “very truly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24) What is interesting for me about this saying is, we know now, the seed is dormant and doesn’t die when it is fed by fertile ground and watered, it germinates and rises to be fruitful.
Let me say this again a seed, a grain of wheat is dormant, not dead, and it is awakened when fed and watered and nurtured.  This is what it means to be Christian. We cannot sit and be dormant and expect something to come of it.  Recently a church was telling me how they have these wonderful festivals and people from the whole neighborhood come.  They have days of service when they go out and help their neighbors and meet them one on one.  Yet no one new comes to church.
So, is that the point?  Do we do things for others to get them in the door?  I am not saying getting people in the door is a bad thing.  I believe in church festivals and church picnics and services on the beach or on the hill and coffee houses or game nights or movie days or open studio time. However, I cannot help to wonder, by my own analogy, is this just planting the seed?  How are we feeding?  How are we nurturing?
I read a survey recently that was talking about why people left Church…the number one reason people leave church is a change in their life situation.  One third said they believed they were too busy another third said they had moved away from their home church and just were not motivated to go to another.
The rest were just disenchanted with church, they found it hateful, divisive or they perceived their pastor as judgmental or insincere or lacking good preaching abilities, and finally surprising to me, some just were never Christians to begin with.
Less a seed is nurtured, fed and watered it cannot grow.  It must be placed in the ground.
Can anyone guess the most underestimated reason people return to church???   
41% say they were invited back.  How many of you here first came because of a heartfelt invitation?  You see it takes an invite to get someone here and …and it should be an invite from someone they have a connection too.  Do not get me wrong an invite from anyone is good but if it comes from a friend or family member it holds more value.
Now once someone comes in the door this is where the other stuff comes in.  People want a sense of community and to Make a difference.
“Almost a third of the formerly churched mentioned that if they were to return to church, they would want to be part of a local body where they can make a difference. By and large, people within the church are more fulfilled in ministry when they sense that God is using them. And churches with high expectations of their members are more likely to draw people back into the fold. The de-churched may have left due to insincerity, but it’s the high standards and expectations that draw them back. People want to serve and know that they are contributing something significant.” [5]
I know that if it wasn’t for the fact that if it wasn’t for the connection to each other, those long roots many would not be here today.  I know for a fact if not for the love of music and singing there may be some who would not be here today.  The opportunity to reach out to our community on a regular basis through different programs gives people a sense that this is where part of their community is, and it builds upon that concept of making a difference.  We are building community and making a difference when we offer outreach, and yet more is expected of us.
We must feed and nourish people…but how do we do that?  I mean what more can we do?  I know the Seder has many people excited.  That feeds people, spiritually and physically. I know the dinner for six is a great opportunity to build community.  I know people miss it when bible study gets preempted which I can say is rare. The book group is truly engaging in a challenging discourse. I am hoping we have a chance to engage with habitat this summer though I have yet to hear anything definitive. There are a few other programs coming into the light soon.
Okay now here is the thing... You see the question I want to ask right now…right here is what feeds you.  What would you be interested in seeing happen for your ministry, for your spirituality?  You see if we start doing something that YOU like, that YOU want, then you might be enthusiastic enough to invite a friend.
I have spoken of this concept of the seed in other ways before.  I am taking this opportunity to speak of exciting possibilities for us as a congregation but this metaphor of nurturing and feeding works well for the self as well.  This speaks of more than a Sunday spirituality.
I am going to ask some questions you do not need to answer just listen.  Do you have a particular spiritual practice that you find nurturing, or have you made something of your own enjoyment into a spiritual practice?  Do you play and pray?
Do you take timeout for daily scripture or reflection?  Are you seeking more than just a Sunday type of relationship with God? What could we do for you here that you might want to experience participate in?
It is funny, to me, that Christ reiterates the metaphor a bit more harshly and not any easier. “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life!” (John 12:25)
And to quote Christine Wenderoth again; “And so the more I thought about the grain of wheat, and its journey into the dirt, the more I came to realize that for me this is not an attractive vision at all.  I don't want to go into the dirt.  I don't want to die.  I don't want to die, even in the service of truth and justice and the American way.  I don't even want to sacrifice my comfort and serenity, if the truth be told.” [6] She is feeling the uncomfortable truth that The way, as taught and modeled by Christ, is not easy is not comfortable and can be messy and dirty.
Yet for me, what I find even more challenge is this concept that one who loves their life here will lose it.  Ok that’s true we will all lose our life.  Remember it is not a matter of if you should die but when. But Christ says; “those that hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life!” (John 12:25) now that is hard, especially since it is so easy to hear wrong.
If heard wrong, it sounds like we are all going to die but if you hate it here you are going to hate it forever.  But what it says, to me, and let me say this has nothing to do with luxury, rich or poor.  If you are satisfied with the way the world is, if you have no care but for yourself and your own comfort well you lose in the end for that is not what all this is about.
However, no matter who you are or where you are in life’s journey if you find yourself hungry for more knowledge of Christ, if you find yourself not comfortable with the world the way it stands and you want to find a way, the way…too make a difference then, then this is your eternal reward.  You get to continue loving, caring and enjoying being in community.
Now l am not saying the other person goes to a fiery Hell.  I have a hard time with that concept.  I believe they, come into the all loving presence of God, the redeeming Grace and love of God, that is eternal, that changes the spirit, moves it, and that beings existence will no longer be the same.

In the presence of God and God’s love one cannot continue being apathetic.  You are going to lose the apathetic life you once had.
But here and now, we are so blessed because we have a knowledge of Christ and we come together as a community because we need that relationship with each other and with God.  And because we are Children of God we are also called to nurture our lives in God, in Christ, through prayer and spiritual practice.
Then as we do the spiritual work for ourselves we find we are called to invite others to join us and grow our community.  Because there are different paths to God we are called to open our building to other denominations and welcome them as our guests as our mission of hospitality. We welcome groups who are are their own path of healing and awareness. We are also called to serve.  We know, I hope, that service takes many forms from charitable giving, to physical participation in programs, to Prayer.  Of course, I am going to tell you, Prayer in all things and all things should be prayer.
If you are surprised that I have brought this back to prayer…you probably haven’t been paying much attention to many of my sermons.  But I want to add something here.  Prayer in all things and in all things prayer and in all prayer joy, so that all things are joyous!  Especially in this Lenten season. I think we have had 2000 years of hearing how bad people are, how sinful people are, how God is angry, and we need to be miserable to be good Christians.
I really do not want to be invited to THAT party!
In Corpus Christi by Terrence McNally Joshua says “Be awake every moment and give thanks to God the Father for it.  Give back as much-no more!-than you have been given.  Laugh.  Fill your lungs with good air and pray.”[7] Joshua goes on to explain that we are not to fear God but pray smiling and boldly even.
So to day I ask you again envision what you may want to see here to help us nourish you and your spiritual life.  What is going to make you smile in the spirit of Jesus? I pray that we all become a Living, growing seed of the spirit of Christ for each other and the community around us. Amen.

[1] Pastor W. Baxendale, A lesson to Pastors and Teachers, 2002, accessed March 17, 2015, http://biblehub.com/sermons/auth/funcke/a_lesson_to_pastors_and_teachers.htm.
[2] Christine Wenderoth, John 12:20-33, April 1, 2009, accessed March 16, 2015, http://www.lstc.edu/chapel/sermons/?a=sermon&id=119.
[3] wikipedia, Jerusalem during the Second Temple Period, last modified December 19, 2014, accessed March 16, 2015, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jerusalem_during_the_Second_Temple_Period.
[4] Robert Deffinbaugh, The Greeks Seek Jesus (John 12:20-50), August 20, 2004, accessed March 16, 2015, https://bible.org/seriespage/29-greeks-seek-jesus-john-1220-50.
[5] Thom Rainer, Why do people leave and how to bring them back, Medium, accessed March 16, 2015, http://www.churchleaders.com/outreach-missions/outreach-missions-articles/138855-coming-home-why-people-leave-the-church-and-how-to-bring-them-back.html.
[6] Wenderoth, John 12:20-33.
[7] Terrence McNally, Corpus Christi (New York: Dramatists Play Service, 1999), Digital eBook