Sunday, April 29, 2018

Arise let us go from this place - John 15:1-8

Last week, the Gospel of John provided the image of a good shepherd to describe the close, caring relationship between God and Jesus, and between Jesus and us. Perhaps we're not herders of sheep, or at least not all of us, but we get the idea of what John is talking about.

First of all, the shepherd image is familiar to us from the much-loved and often-memorized Psalm 23, which we read last week; "The Lord is my shepherd." And, from childhood, we've seen many paintings of Jesus with a little lamb over his shoulders, the flock grazing peacefully around him. Ok it was a little white Jesus with the perfectly clean cloak tending to sheep and children.  How come Jesus never appears disheveled or dirty and yet he worked with mud, traveled all over the country side, got on his hands and knees to wash feet.  This is the miracle that is never spoken of.

Of course, Understanding ourselves as little lambs, enfolded in God's care, is reassuring, and reassurance was what the disciples and the early Christian community needed, especially John's community. Just as the disciples must have been bewildered by some of the things Jesus was saying, and anxious about the negative response of religious and political leaders, so the early Christians a generation later, kicked out of the temple, their religious home, also needed a word of tender reassurance from the risen Christ, telling them that they weren't alone or abandoned.

In this week's reading, John uses the image of a vine and its branches, to help--and challenge--that early community, and ours today, in order to claim our close relationship with Jesus. In Jesus' time, people would have been familiar with the vine metaphor; it appears in the Hebrew Scriptures several times to describe Israel. Around here the image is all but too vivid, yet even if contemporary Christians in other parts have never tended a vineyard, most of us have seen a grapevine at one time or another even if just a photo.
Looking closely, we see the many entwined branches, winding their way around one another in intricate patterns of tight curls that make it impossible to tell where one branch starts or another one ends. This image is replicated in earthen ware, stained glass windows, on wine glasses …we have seen this image of vine and branch and grapes everywhere. This is not just intricate; it's intimate, and the vine shares with its branches the nutrients that sustain it, the life force of the whole plant. Even closer than the shepherd there on the hillside, this vine is one with it’s branches.
Father Nicholas King points out that “This passage starts off with the powerful image of Jesus as the Vine; the image has a double point to it. First, the believer is invited to belong to Jesus but, second, the pruning associated with this belonging is an uncomfortable activity, although we may reflect that it is more comfortable than ‘being thrown into the fire and burnt’.” (page 2046)
This reminded me of something I saw on Facebook from Bishop Yvette Flunder
First I guess I should fill you in on who she is…Bishop Yvette Flunder, Rev. Dr. Yvette A. Flunder is an unapologetic disciple and proponent of the radically inclusive love of Jesus Christ, who has raised her voice for justice from the church house to the White House and steps of the Supreme Court.
Yvette is a native San Franciscan and third generation preacher with roots in the Church of God in Christ. Bishop Flunder is an ordained minister of the United Church of Christ and holds both masters and doctorate degrees in Ministry from the Pacific School of Religion and the San Francisco Theological Seminary, respectively. In 2003, she was appointed Presiding Bishop of The Fellowship of Affirming Ministries, a multi-denominational coalition of over 56 churches and faith-based organizations from all over the world.
Bishop Flunder is an active voice for the Religion Council of the Human Rights Campaign, as well as for the National Black Justice Coalition. Bishop Flunder is a highly sought after preacher and religious educator as evidenced by her having spoken at divinity schools nationwide including those at Duke, Yale , Drew, and the New York Theological Seminary. She is the author of Where the Edge Gathers: A Theology of Homiletic Radical Inclusion, published by Pilgrim Press. In addition to her memorable sermons, Bishop Flunder is also known for her beautiful singing voice, made famous through her gospel recordings with Walter Hawkins and the Family, the City of Refuge Choir and Chanticleer.
That said she asked this question on April 21Facebook… “I have 2 questions that I would love to hear honest answers to...
Would you love or serve God differently were you to find hell non-existent?
Could you welcome people into a deeper relationship with God without the threat of hell?
You know the whole concept of being thrown into the fire and burnt…  this question had over 168 commenters and shares so far the very first response was “NO” plain and simple…ok
The next response came; “Leilani Webb Bishop, I would still serve God if hell was nonexistent. Honestly, I chose God because He chose me, I didn’t choose Him because of hell, I chose Him because I could live with Him! I serve a master who isn’t petty, who doesn’t pose harm or the thought of harm, but a master, who loved me enough long before I made it here to this planet to die for me! He loves me and that means life to me, my life! I would still witness God to the masses! Blessings”
Darrell Ferrell Melton 1) No 2) I already do! My journey to salvation had more to do with a personal hell. God saved me from my self-destruction. When seeking salvation as an adult, hell wasn't my reason....”
“Rebecca Voelkel This is one of those moments when I am keenly aware of the differences within Christian tradition. I have simply never believed in Hell, nor the threat of damnation. I know it is a weapon used by many in our tradition, but it has never been part of my theology, my worship practice, nor how I was raised. I am so deeply grateful to you, Bishop Pearson and others who are able to speak into the parts of our community who have been so wounded by the threats of hellfire. But my motivation and hope in the gospel is all about the extravagant love of God and call to authenticity and liberation- personally and in transforming systems of oppression. Love you, Bishop!”
And I will share one final quote from Rev. Dr. “Durrell Watkins If someone were to convince me that hell was real (especially for not holding certain opinions/beliefs), I would STOP worshipping God. 1. How good could that God’s heaven be? 2. If ppl are excluded from heaven for any reason then the overwhelming grief of those who made it would keep it from being heavenly. 3. If belief is required for eternal security then grace is a lie...belief just becomes the currency with which we purchase salvation. 4. If god created a hell and doomed ppl to it for any reason such a god would be tyrannical, and tyrants must be resisted at all costs.
I don’t need the threat of hell to be a person of faith. In fact, such a threat would hinder belief in a truly loving, good god (for me)”[1]
I enjoyed the dynamics of this discussion and I think it points to an important part of todays Gospel reading. In the United church of Christ, we proclaim that we don’t take the bible literally, but we do take it seriously.  This is one of those moments. 
I do not believe for one moment that there is anyone burning in hell…that said I do believe that when we get to heaven our hearts and minds (so to speak) are so open to understanding all that we have done and haven’t done through the lense of the great I am, the greatest of all love, pure love that the only thing that could be possibly more profound than our own remorse would be the grace ,  the abundant love and all loving forgiveness of God.
That is not a free pass.  I pray my missed marks; my transgressions are few and small enough that the grief of full divine comprehension is surpassed by the joy of reunion with the source of all love. The key here is Love.  Johns whole Gospel is about how to love. This passage is about Love.
You see this little passage is about the community.  The community working together shall bear much fruit.  It is not I am divine and single, individual you are de branch… Gail R. O'Day finds the "anonymity" in this metaphor "stark." John isn't interested, she says, in "distinctions in appearance, character, or gifts."
O'Day contrasts John and Paul's writings, with Paul using the differences between the members of the body to define "what it means to be a body." On the other hand, John, instead of highlighting our individual gifts and roles, "challenges contemporary Western understandings of personality, individualism, and self-expression." For John, O'Day writes, "The mark of the faithful community is how it loves, not who are its members" (John, The New Interpreter's Bible).
We often hear that word, "love," in John's writings. Love is at the heart of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Love is the way we live in community and the way we relate to each other. Our recent readings from John have been having us tread in the warm waters of love. "Love" can be a state of being, a way one operates in the world by living through and living out love. This is the word abide as it appears in today’s Gospel.  Fred Craddock understandably calls it "the central verb" in the passage and emphasizes its importance in the entire Gospel of John (Preaching through the Christian Year B).
Sometimes hearing this from another translation allows it to land more fully on the heart …
The Vine and the Branches
15 1-3 “I am the Real Vine and my Father is the Farmer. He cuts off every branch of me that doesn’t bear grapes. And every branch that is grape-bearing he prunes back so it will bear even more. You are already pruned back by the message I have spoken.

4 “Live in me. Make your home in me just as I do in you. In the same way that a branch can’t bear grapes by itself but only by being joined to the vine, you can’t bear fruit unless you are joined with me.

5-8 “I am the Vine, you are the branches. When you’re joined with me and I with you, the relation intimate and organic, the harvest is sure to be abundant.
Eugene Peterson, the Author of the message, renders "abide" in verse 4 a little differently, but with the same meaning, as Jesus teaches his followers, "Live in me. Make your home in me just as I do in you" (The Message). Just as we need the air to breathe, so we need food and nourishment to live. We need shelter and community; we need a home.  Christ is that home.  The home that is a safe place, a warm place, a place that every home should be…The early Christians, who had in a very real sense lost their spiritual homes and perhaps, along with them, their family ties and their physical homes, were undoubtedly comforted by this thought.
Now what do we do with this love we are living into? That we are making our home?  What is it we are called to do?  It would be good to just sit here and abide in Christ’s love. Wouldn’t it be good to be stagnant on a branch and just let love grow and do nothing with it.  Wouldn’t it be just SOOO comfortable sort of like staying in a warm bed on a cool foggy morning?
Yet the fruit of the vine must be used other wise it withers and dies on the vine.
So here is an interesting note this discourse is part of a long farewell speech.  Jesus has just finished supper. Judas has left, and Jesus has predicted Peter will deny him and then this speech starts. He explains the comforter to come.  It’s a good two paragraphs and then the last sentence answers the question I asked.  Just before Jesus starts this discussion of abiding in love he says;
“Arise let us go from here…”
The I am the vine you are the branch is given on the move.  The speech is not given in a stagnant moment but a vibrant active moment.  We are learning of the love we  are called to abide in, but we are on the move.
Charles Cousar doesn't skip over the significance of that last verse in chapter 14 or its connection to what follows: "Jesus' words are a call to get moving." Jesus is speaking to his followers, a community whose witness and service (perhaps it would be better to say "witness of service") expresses a "distinctiveness from the world" that provokes "distrust and hatred (15:18-19)" (Texts for Preaching Year B).

In a way, there's a tension here: the word "abide" could suggest "planted" (like a vine, perhaps?), in place, rooted, fixed. But Jesus' command to "rise up" puts us in motion, in mission, in works that bear witness and bear fruit at the same time. Sarah Henrich is helpful here: "Bearing fruit does not create disciples," she writes; "bearing fruit reveals disciples. Both of these activities are dependent on abiding in Jesus, the real vine" (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 2).
This is a call to each of us as individuals but more importantly to the church as a community. This is written to a community in exile seeking revitalization.  This is written to us today as we seek out our own revitalization. we find words that are front and center for a church that seeks new life: connectedness, permanency, vitality. I love the image of green plants for church vitality, and we can associate the image of bearing fruit with growth, usefulness, and nourishment.
This calls for us putting aside our own individuality and to work for the community.  Work as a congregation to stand against the powers that be at play in the world today.  One commentator asks “What would happen if our congregations spent less time talking and worrying and working on our survival and more time on putting ourselves in the line of fire, as Paul, Anthony, Francis (and Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, Archbishop Romero and the four American churchwomen murdered in El Salvador, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer) and the rest did?[2]
There is a little video on you tube call the UCC’s to do list…It says
Do all the Good you can…
By all the means that you can…
In all the ways that you can…
In all the places that you can…
At all the times that you can...
To all the people that you can…
As long as ever you can…
Rinse and repeat….[3]
What does this mean to us?  How do we abide in love? As a congregation that loves and cares for each other you are good…You got that down now…. How do we renew or make new connections out in the community?  Are their non-profits that we can partner with more boldly?  Are their places where we used to be visible that we feel called to be visible again? Or is there something new you may feel called too?
Arise let us go form here abiding in Christs love and take that out into the world.

[1] yvette flunder, Yvette Flunder facebook page, accessed April 25, 2018,
[2] Kathryn Matthews, Sermon Seeds, accessed April 25, 2018,
[3] United Church of Christ, The UCC Lesson for today, March 1, 2018, accessed April 25, 2018,

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Jesus the Ideal Shepherd - Earth day Sunday - John 10:11-18

Who remembers Timmy and lassie and the well?

 Little Timmy Martin wasn’t Lassie’s original owner on CBS. That was Jeff Miller, played by child star Tommy Rettig in the show’s first three seasons. But when Rettig was able to get out of his TV contract, in 1957, he was replaced by the younger, cuter, equally accident-prone Timmy. Jon Provost, who played the role, titled his 2007 memoir Timmy’s in the Well—but in the book, he points out what might seem unbelievable to us now: Timmy never once, in the show’s 571 episodes, fell in a well!

Now, Timmy did manage to fall in the following (a partial list): two lakes, a gap between two railroad cars, two abandoned mines, quicksand, and a badger hole. Damn, that kid spent a lot of time falling into things. But he seemed to have no problem with wells. His great-uncle Petrie did fall into a well once, in season 4’s “The Crow”, and his adoptive dad Paul almost fell in a well in season 10’s “The Crow,” but Timmy seems to have avoided the family curse regarding groundwater. Not Lassie herself, however! Embarrassingly, the usually sure-footed collie fell into a well in the season 17 two-parter “For the Love of Lassie.” “What’s that, Timmy? Lassie fell down a well? You’re kidding me! Get the camera, this is going to be our Christmas card photo this year.”

“I am the ideal shepherd. The Ideal shepherd lays down his life on behalf of his sheep”
Really, I am sorry I do not believe this for one minute.  Yes, I believe Jesus is the Shepherd, but I believe Jesus goes way beyond any ideal that one may have of any shepherd.  I mean at most a Shepherd’s job is to hold the flock together.  If one goes wondering astray to bring it back into the fold. If wolves showed up, the shepherd’s job is to make noise to scare them away.

I went looking for any dying shepherd story and well I only find one…this one.

 I wonder why?  Today is Good Shepherd Sunday.  Interpreted in the spirit of Johns Gospel, in the spirit of Love this is an all welcoming all-inclusive day.  Unfortunately, some have chosen to take this Parable, as literal and out of context and use it to diminish and or exclude those of other faiths. 

This is the story of the Blind man, this is the context of Jesus speaking to the blind man and then to Pharisees.  This is a parable or as close to one as John gets. The Harper Collins study bible says this;

This is the closest thing to a parable of the Gospel of John. It seems to present a highly realistic picture of Palestinian sheepherding in ancient times, and hints at a plotline.  The “Parable” focuses first on the gate, and then on the shepherd.  For another possible parabolic image sheepfold, an enclosure, often with stone walls, where several shepherds could bring their flocks for safety at night. [1]

So, this is where I break from a restrictive reading. I believe if we read this text in the context of Johns Gospel it leads to a unique place.  Let’s recall the opening of Johns Gospel;

In the Beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Him and without Him not one thing came into being. (John 1: 1-4)

Through the opening words of Johns Gospel and todays text I see a place where we can honor all faith and all people and all of creation.  For if everything came into being through Christ then all, each one of us are of Christ. “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold, I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.” The is always room for the other sheep, those of other flocks.

Heck we have our differences.  Lord knows there are other flocks.  There are differences among ourselves as UCC, among Christians as people who follow Christ, and as a world made up of “4,200 religions. According to some estimates, there are roughly 4,200 religions in the world. The word religion is sometimes used interchangeably with "faith" or "belief system", but religion differs from private belief in that it has a public aspect.” [2] There is a belief of the Golden rule, a thread of ultimate truth that runs throughs most religions. Dr. Ernest Holmes wrote in 1948;

We should waste no time in futile arguments as to what religion or spiritual outlook is right or wrong, but gladly accept the evidence of anyone’s prayer and faith as a demonstration of that person’s belief. Too much time is lost in arguing whether or not one’s philosophy is the only correct one, her religion the only true one, his method of procedure the only effective one. Let us leave these arguments to the contentions of smaller minds and try to find the thread of Truth running through all systems. Let us build on the affirmative and forget the negative. [3]

Do not panic, I am not negating Christianity.  You are in the right place, the right pew, you are where you need to be and where you are called to be just as I am. What is it we are called to? We are called to love all and so it runs through the faiths and practices of many in the world.

Sikhism says; “Be not estranged from one another for god dwells in every heart” (SRI GURU Granth) Sahib

Zoroastrianism; “Human nature is good only when it does not do unto Another whatever is not good for its own self” (Dadistan I Dink 94:5)

Islam; “No one is a believer until you desire for another that which you desire for yourself.” (Sunnah)

Judaism; “What is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor That is the entire Torah the rest is commentary go and learn” (Rabbi Hillel to Shammai Talmud Shabbat 31 A)

Jainism; “In happiness and Suffering in joy and grief regard all creatures as you would your own self.” (Lord Mahivir 24th Tirthankara)

Bahai; “Blessed are those who prefer others before themselves” (Bahai’u’llah Tablets of Baha’ uallah 71)

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you (Luke 6:13)

What I am saying is that this Gospel reading and Johns Gospel points to a Christ Larger and broader than we really understand. “In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God! And all things came into being through him” (John 1:1-2) well that kind of puts away any chance we have at diminishing any one! That also puts all creation on a level playing field.

This is a cosmic Christ a Christ bigger than any one faith or religion; Richard Rohr explains it this way;

Understanding the Cosmic Christ can change the way we relate to creation, to other religions, to other people, to ourselves, and to God. Knowing and experiencing the Cosmic Christ can bring about a major shift in consciousness. Like Saul’s experience on the road to Damascus (see Acts 9), you won’t be the same after encountering the Risen Christ. [4]

Christianity is just beginning to understand and learn of this.  Yet if we flow with the Cosmic Christ that all things are created through, we can understand and accept Jesus as a shepherd for all. “I am the good shepherd I know my own and my own know me”. Richard Rohr goes on to explain;

“The Cosmic Christ is Divine Presence pervading all of creation since the very beginning. My father Francis of Assisi intuited this presence and lived his life in awareness of it. Later, John Duns Scotus (1266-1308) put this intuition into philosophical form. For Duns Scotus, the Christ Mystery was the blueprint of reality from the very start (John 1:1). Teilhard de Chardin brought this insight into our modern world. God’s first “idea” was to become manifest—to pour out divine, infinite love into finite, visible forms. The “Big Bang” is now our scientific name for that first idea; and “Christ” is our theological name. Both are about love and beauty exploding outward in all directions. Creation is indeed the Body of God! What else could it be, when you think of it? [5]

I repeat “I am the Good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me…I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.” (John 10:15-16) If I have gone too far for you, tell me so, it is okay.  If I have not gone far enough, challenge me.  But I truly believe this Gospel message today is one of inclusion. The same inclusion we proclaim daily that “no matter who you are or where you are on life’s Journey you are welcome here.  It is also why we proclaim this is an open table it.  This table belongs to no one and everyone for it is Gods table if you are a child of God you are welcome here.

Our challenge as Christians is to be the welcoming table at all times.  We are called to be hospitable first and then to go further. Jesus is the gate through which many shepherds have gone, Jesus is the word through which all creation comes.  Now we just have to honor that in each and everything and everyone.

This includes but is not limited to care for the earth itself. Now I know if I mention climate change some believe in it and some do not. However, what if I put it this way. The Gospel calls for a climate change.  A change in the way we treat each other and the way we treat, care and respect the earth.

Frederica Helmiere teaches eco-theology at Seattle University, and environmental writing at the University of Washington. She holds a Master of Arts in Religion from Yale Divinity School and a Master of Environmental Science from Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. Freddie and her husband serve a new church start in South Seattle called Valley & Mountain, a spiritual community rooted in deep listening, radical hospitality and creative liberation
 Here is what she had to say about earth day…

Today is Earth Day – the 48th Earth Day since its beginning in 1970. On this day we honor creation and recognize its groaning. In one sense it is strange that we devote just a single day per year to reflect upon our home – the tapestry of life that allows us to breathe, eat and function. One day only to praise and marvel at the unfathomable complexity and splendor of life on this earth, and one day only to mourn and repent what we now recognize as the large-scale deterioration of every single system that supports life on this earth, while the other 364 days of the year we condone business as usual in un-creating these complex life systems that God has placed on this earth. We do indeed walk through a valley in the shadow of death.

In a 2010 Pew survey, Americans were asked whether religion influenced their thinking on tougher laws and regulations to protect the environment. Around 5 percent said yes.

That is sad for our churches and faith leaders. The created world is a revelation of God’s power and gracious presence, a table that God has prepared before us. It is green pastures and still waters but it is also a finely tuned atmosphere and complex network of biodiversity; it is interrelated earth systems that allow life to flourish. This sacred quality of creation demands sharing and moderation, antidotes for our excessive consumption and waste that end up harming the poor most of all. Rich people and countries contribute most to changes in Earth’s climate, resulting in catastrophic events like droughts and superstorms, whose victims are the poorest and most vulnerable, largely in Africa and parts of Asia.

Serving as a good shepherd of creation means accepting these painful truths, hearing the groaning voices. In the gospel reading today, we can compare those in power as the hired hands. “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.” Perhaps Christ was a bit exasperated with the religious leaders at the time he said this, but it may be just as true today’s many climate scientists, scholars, community and faith leaders are today. Especially with the quote “Climate” of today’s administration.

We are called, not just to believe, not just to honor creation and hear its groaning, but to act in response. A humorous headline from the satirical newspaper The Onion reads, “‘How Bad for the Environment Can Throwing Away One Plastic Bottle Be?’ 30 Million People Wonder.” This tongue-in-cheek jab draws attention to a sentiment that surely many of us feel: I am only one person – what difference can I make? But the truth is that we are never just one, we are never alone. And we must act, alongside our brothers and sisters and church community, because God calls us to be engaged, fruitful humans on this earth.

There are many simple changes we can make in our own practices from using bamboo instead of plastic ware. Recycling what we can. Changing out our light bulbs. Composting. Planting trees. Eating all of our food and eating foods that cause less waste.

And so, as we reflect this day on God’s creation around us and the work that lies before us, we know that in this task we are not alone. We know that God walks with us, that the incarnate Cosmic Christ joins the earth in groaning, and that there is a way out of this dark valley if we can allow ourselves to be led by the trustworthy voice of the Good Shepherd.

May we be equipped to distinguish and heed this voice, one that guides, cajoles, urges us to follow the paths of goodness and mercy. May we recognize the goodness of the earth’s complex, beautiful systems and feel mercy for those who suffer disproportionately from the effects of environmental degradation.

And may we have ears to hear the voice of the earth, one that has been speaking all along and desperately needs our attention.[1]

[1] general, ed., The HarperCollins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version, Including the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books, ed. student (San Francisco, Calif: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006).
[2] wikipedia, List of religions and spiritual traditions, April 27, 2017, accessed May 2, 2017,
[3] Barry Ebert, Teaching our Children Well, 2015, accessed April 2, 2017,
[4] Richard Rohr, e-mail message to, October 22, 2017.  Richard Rohrs daily Meditation.
[5] Ibid.


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

[3] Ibid
[6] Ibid

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,
[2]. Elizabeth Fletcher, Tombs,
[3]. Joseph Shore-Goss, The life lived is not to be grieved, November, 2015,
[4]. anonymous, John 20:17, February, 2014, accessed March 14, 2016,
[5]. Nikhilesh Jasuja, Priya mMenon, and Carolyn, Apostle vs Disciple, March 8, 2016, accessed March 14, 2016,