Wednesday, April 29, 2015

"Advent, Away to Me . . . "

     Before we begin today, I have to point out straightaway that most of the sermon illustrations I get to use on Good Shepherd Sunday are not my own.  The Rev. Leander Harding accepted a call to the seminary I attended, in part to help lift the liturgical flavor of the seminary.  Leander came from a very high Anglo-Catholic parish.  That he ended up at Trinity for a time is evidence again of God’s providence in our lives.  Trinity sometimes made Virginia, the former “low evangelical seminary,” appear high Anglo-Catholic.  While Leander was more liked/griped about for his liturgy, none could argue with his pastoral sensibilities.  Well, one could argue, but he would gently lead one around to his way of thinking.  Leander used to credit, in no small part, his first parish.  He was very well read and studied all kinds of counseling materials.  But one of the formative experiences of his personal ministry Leander was the time he spent as a bi-vocational priest in far Northern Maine.  At that little parish, Leander served as pastor.  His “other” job, though, was that of a shepherd.

     I see the looks of astonishment.  Yes, you heard right.  Leander was a pastor of a church and a shepherd of a flock.  You might say it gave him a unique perspective on some of the stories in Scripture.  It certainly gave him tons of sermon illustrations.  In the course of instruction and conversation and, later, advice, many of those illustrations were shared with his students.  This week, a couple colleagues were not thrilled to be facing another Good Shepherd Sunday.  How many ways can you say Jesus is a shepherd and we are sheep and offend our parishioners?  As we got to chatting a bit, I realized that Leander was right yet again in his Facebook post this week.  Many pastors try to be hopelessly romantic as they wax poetically about an activity that is closely linked to blood and death.  The Scriptures, as so many of my professors taught, are very earthy, very real.  Our translations try to remove some of the offensive or disgusting language often associated with the Hebrew or Greek.  More difficult for us, because most of us are no longer associated with the agrarian heritage of our country, we do not even get the slightest sense of what is really being taught in some of our readings.  Certainly the idea of the Good Shepherd means way more than we ever would have conceived.  I know I would not have, had I not had a chance to listen to Leander’s stories as he trained me and other men and women for pastoral ministry.  Wrapped up in Leander’s discussions of disease, poison, the stubbornness of sheep, and other examples point out why our Lord used that metaphor to describe Himself. 

     I caught some fun comments this morning.  For the first time, my sermon has a title in the Order of Worship.  I was complimented and told how glad people were that I was “finally catching up.”  Some of my predecessors named their sermons before they preached and included those titles in the Order of Worship.  You all have figured out I am a bit backwards.  I tend to preach the sermon and then struggle for a title as I rattle my brain and write it down on the Monday and Tuesday after I give it.  This may well be the one exception to that way of doing things, but hopefully you will understand why in a couple minutes . . . .

     Anybody here ever shepherd a flock of sheep?  No?  I’m shocked.  Let’s try this way . . . anybody here like to watch those sheep dog competitions on television?  Ah, I hear we have some who have seen them live.  Wow!  Even in New Zealand, Scotland, and Ireland!  Maybe you should preach Good Shepherd Sunday next year . . . If I told you that "Away to Me” was related to the sheepdog, would it mean anything to those of you who have watched them on television or those who have seen the dogs at work in person?  No?  I know many of us here today might think that the shepherd’s crook is the most valuable piece of equipment for a shepherd.  You have seen bishops walk with them.  The curved end can be used to pull or lift a sheep back to the shepherd, and the straight end can be used to force the sheep along their way.  The straight end can also be used to whack a predator, such as a wolf or coyote, and protect the sheep.  If we base the worth of an item on its cost relative to other things, a shepherd’s crook is not the most valuable piece of equipment for shepherding.  If fact, the crook is relatively inexpensive.

     Know something that is expensive?  Yes, the land.  Yes, the flock.  No, what I was more focused on was the sheep dog.  I see the nods.  Those of you who have watched shepherds realize the value of a good dog.  As with any living creature, there are degrees of excellence.  I learned from Leander that a dog who can master certain commands are way more valuable than others.  In fact, he claimed that among his colleagues in shepherding, a red ribbon dog was a fondest desire.  Up in Canada, and I suppose along the border where there is intermingling of the populations, they give champions red ribbons.  In the good ole’ US of A, we call them blue ribbons.  One of the distinctions between a champion dog and a good dog is its ability to master some very difficult commands.  Among the most difficult of those commands for a dog to master is “away to me.”

     Basically, “away to me” tells the dog to go find the sheep and bring them to the shepherd.  The dog will obey this command like you might expect.  It heads out to the furthest sheep and then guides the flock back to the shepherd.  The dog will make a generally crescent patrol, complete with growls and nips as necessary, and so herd the flock back to the shepherd.  Dogs that can keep this command are a rare breed, indeed.  The dog must be intelligent; the shepherd must be a good trainer and have time to invest in the training of the dog.  Those of you who have struggled teaching spot to sit or roll over or shake can only dream of the ability to teach a dog to do this.  As you might imagine, such a dog is the dream of many a shepherd.

     The dog that could keep the “away to me” command was even more valuable in Leander’s neck of the woods.  Those of you who have travelled in Maine or New Brunswick might have noticed those rocky islands just off the coast of the mainland.  These islands might range from the size of a boulder to a few acres.  Shepherds love to have friends that own these rocky islands because they can put the sheep there in the summer months and not have to worry about too much.  There are no predators or these islands.  The water naturally fences in the sheep.  Except for the occasional trip to the island to make sure the sheep are doing well, have not been poached by other humans, and for shearing, it is really a nice way to tend one’s sheep.  We might say it is a bit less labor intensive, though it is no less worrisome (that is for another day).  Imagine now how valuable a dog that can keep the “away to me” command really is.  When you go to the island for shearing, you let the dog do all the work of bringing the sheep to you.  It is much quicker than going and getting them yourself!  You tell the dog “away to me,” and the dog fetches your sheep for the shearing.  It is pretty idyllic, is it not?

     There is a problem with such a way of shepherding, though, and I think it beautifully captures our life in Christ on many different levels.  Sheep are stubborn animals.  Some people think they are stupid, but it is only because they are not familiar with sheep.  Like any other animal, a sheep gets in its mind what it wants and works to accomplish it.  No matter how hard the shepherd works, no matter how hard the dogs work, sheep will do what they want to do.  Occasionally, when on those islands, a sheep may decide that Portugal is a great place to visit.  You and I may think they are stupid because there is an ocean between them and Portugal, because they are wearing wool sweaters and trying to swim, because that water is so cold it probably requires a wool sweater, and because the island already has everything they need.  Why would a sheep head for Portugal?  Maybe the same reason we set our faces away from God and rush headlong into sin?

     I told you that Fr. Leander worked hard to get a red ribbon sheep dog.  If memory serves, he tried to train them rather than purchase one.  Anyway, wouldn’t you know, on his first trip to the island with a dog that obeyed “away to me,” he had a sheep start swimming to Portugal.  At first, Leander said, it is not that big of deal.  He told the dog “away to me,” and the dog happily and obediently headed out in the surf to bring the sheep home.  In very quick order, both were in over their heads, so there is a sheep sheep-peddling and a dog-paddling, the former with its face set to Portugal and the latter determined that it will not escape.  Remember earlier how I mentioned that the dogs have growls and nips and other “tools” at their disposal to guide the sheep?  When the dog and sheep are in the surf, many of those tools are unavailable.  You can relate.  It’s hard to growl louder than the surf.  It’s hard to nip at the sheep when most of it is underwater.  The dogs will, though, try and bite and grab the wool of the sheep in their teeth.  You will see a dog with a craned neck heading for shore and a ship bound and determined to escape the dog and keep heading out to see.  Eventually, it dawns on the shepherd that a tough call has to be made.  Does the shepherd let the dog expend itself, to the point of death, trying to save the stubborn sheep?  Does the shepherd call the dog to heel and let the sheep swim to its eventually drowning and death?  Letting the sheep go has real consequence to the shepherd.  That sheep that is about to be lost represents an investment of lots of time and care.  The dog represents even more, especially the dog that has mastered “away to me.”  There are shepherds who supplement their income by training sheep dogs.

     Place yourself in Fr. Leander’s place.  You have tried hard to train dogs.  You finally have one.  But you are a shepherd.  The reason for the training, the reason for everything you do work related is the sheep.  You are present for their birthing.  You feed them.  You water them.  You shear them.  Everything that you have is based on your ability to nurture your sheep.  Eventually, they are sold and butchered.  Letting one go is like one of us giving up a portion of our paychecks without a fight.  What do you do?

     Leander shared with us, in relating this stories and others like it, some of the depths of meaning in Scripture.  We often miss it because we are disconnected from that society in which these examples were given.  But our disconnectedness neither makes them any less true nor their ability to teach us about God’s heart for us any less potent.  We prayed today that our Good Shepherd knows us and calls us by name.  We read about the difference between the good shepherd and the hired hand.  Perhaps, in this modern parable or modern illustration, you understand some of what God has been trying to teach you in your faith walk with Him.

     For example, at one point, all of us were like stubborn sheep.  All of us.  Our Lord intended nothing but good for us and we rejected it.  Even today, we sometimes turn away from Him or His ways because we think we know better, just like that stubborn sheep headed toward Portugal.  And just as that sheep never really considered the consequences of its actions, often we fail to do the same.  That sheep made a choice that will, if left with no intervention, cost it its life.  Left to its own desire, that sheep head to Portugal will drown or get eaten by sharks.  With the weight of wet wool and the distance, it really has no chance at the life it seeks.  Similarly, our selfish choices lead to our deaths.  We know this.  Sin equals death, does it not?  We may think ourselves better educated and smarter than sheep, but I sometimes wonder.  As a guy why he cheated on his wife, or a wife why she cheated on her husband, and it is clear they were thinking only of one thing at the time.  The thought of STD’s/STI’s, unplanned pregnancies, the dissolution of the “permanent” relationship, or even the breaking up of their family was not in their thinking.  Outside the moment of their desire, though, each could have told anyone the possible consequences of infidelity.  We know it, right?  But now there are websites dedicated to adultery.  Adultery is low hanging fruit.  Take any sin that you willingly commit and ask yourself the likely consequences.  Will those consequences convince you from acting on that sin?  Probably not.  Like sheep we are stubborn and determined to go astray.  God may intend good things for us, but how often do we think we know better?

     Yet, we are all here, gathered together on a foggy, cool Sunday morning in central Tennessee.  Why?  If we are the stubborn sheep headed toward Portugal, how did we all end up here?  At various times in our lives, God has sent sheep dogs after us, each under the command of “Away to Me.”  There have been people in our lives--family, friends, neighbors, strangers, teachers, preachers—people who left the safety of the Good Shepherd and worked to brings us back into the flock, back to His presence.  Our faith, as John reminds us this morning, is not something to be professed by words only.  Our faith is meant to instruct and to inform our lives, to cause us to action that reflects His love for all the sheep.  How better can we reflect that love than by bringing them to the Good Shepherd?

     But think of the transformation and training necessary to get us to that point.  If, at one point in our lives, we were all sheep stubbornly headed our own way, now we have been transformed into red ribbon sheep dogs.  We know that the point of our existence is to draw others into His saving embrace.  As hard as it is to teach dogs tricks, and old dogs new tricks especially, how hard is it for shepherds to teach sheep how to be sheep dogs?  We never hear of that.  Ever!  Yet our Lord, our Good Shepherd, takes stubborn sheep and transforms them, by His grace, into a sheep dog that works as the Master intends.  Our primary desire, our driving impetus, ought to be the longing to bring everyone we know and meet to Christ.  It really is that simply.

     Brothers and sisters, think back on who you were before He got a hold of you.  Would the you of that day recognize the faith of the you today?  Would the you of that day ever imagine himself or herself working to bring others to the Good Shepherd?  Would the you of that day ever consider laying down his or her life for the good of the sheep, certain that the Good Shepherd would not only redeem but glorify such a death?  And yet, sitting here this dreary day, I daresay almost all of us would do whatever He asked.  Let’s face it.  Look around you.  Not everyone decided to get out of bed this dark and damp morning to worship the Lord.  But you did.  You heard the voice, you accepted the grace and the training, and you brought yourself here to remember and celebrate what Christ has done in your life.  You may not have thought yourself a sheep dog, you may not have thought of yourself as a sheep.  But you heard the call and felt the tug and responded to His offer of love.

     When Jesus reminds us that He is the Good Shepherd, He is not waxing romantically.  I have shared only one story of Fr. Leander’s this morning, but think how it really relates to the Gospel of Luke the morning.  The shepherd wants only to care for the sheep, to provide the flock with food and water and security.  The sheep are stubborn.  They may know the shepherd’s voice and the bark of the dog, but they still determine to do their own thing and reject the shepherd’s care.  To better care for his or her sheep, a shepherd trains dogs to help.  Dogs can make noise altering the shepherd that something is out there, or the dog can even fight predators to save the sheep.  Think of that training.  Think of the effort, the expenditure of energy, and the emotional toll.  How would you respond to a lost sheep, a sheep headed for Portugal?  Think of where you were and where you are.  Think of the training that God has brought into your life.  Think of the discipling.  And think of the grace.  Have you any more doubt that the Good Shepherd knows you by name?

     At some levels, of course, metaphors and allegories and images break down.  We are, after all, trying to grasp God.  This image breaks down, but perhaps in ways you have never truly considered.  When confronted with that decision of risking a valuable dog and possibly saving a valuable sheep or saving the dog and certainly losing the valuable sheep, Fr. Leander found himself in quite the quandary.  He no more wanted to lose the sheep than his dog.  Yes, he had invested much in the dog, but he had invested much in the sheep.  In fact, the dog was an investment in the sheep.  As he stood on that shore and had to make a difficult call, you and I are reminded that our Lord faces no such difficult task.

     We do not talk much of really laying down our lives for others in the western Church.  The residual Christianity that pervades society still makes our possibility for dying for our faith a bit more remote.  Sure, we hear about teachers protecting students, loved ones protecting family members, and other great stories.  More often than not, though, the press covering those events tries to ignore the faith element at play in those events.  It is easy, in such a comfortable existence, to forget that the world has rejected the Light, its Creator, and chosen, instead, to live in darkness.  Sometimes, though, our Lord calls for His dogs to lay down their lives for the sheep.  Sometimes our Lord calls for His dogs to expend their last breath trying to fulfill His command of “Away to Me.”  Unlike our human shepherd, who can do nothing to thwart death, our Lord has conquered death.  Even better, He has promised that all who accept His call, all who come to His voice, will be redeemed and glorified in Him.  Not even death can prevent that outcome now!  Brothers and sisters, if you ever hear His command, “Away to Me,” even in the face of certain death, remember His promise.  Remember His power.  Most of all, remember the love He bears for you and all His lost sheep.  Know that you can expend every last bit of whatever He commands of you, even to your last breath, and still you will share in His Resurrection and His glory.  The Good Shepherd has invested too much of His own blood, His own sweat, and too much His own tears in your salvation ever to fail you.  He has laid down His life for you and picked it up again, that you might know He truly is the Good Shepherd.  All He asks of you in return is that you share that Gospel news with all those other stubborn sheep heading headlong into danger and death, that they might hear His voice in your life, turn to Him, and be saved!



Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Go and do likewise . . .

     I suppose this week I will be both preaching and laying a bit of foundation for some upcoming new things at Advent.  Our Gospel lesson in Luke certainly lends itself to both.  What is happening?  The Apostles and disciples are trying to figure out the Resurrection of Jesus?  Are we dreaming?  Is He a ghost?  Have we lost our minds?  You can well imagine how you would have been at that time, too.  Remember, we are the descendants, spiritually speaking if not genealogically speaking, of those who saw Jesus raised from the dead.  As astonished as we might have been at the parting of the Red Sea, the casting out of demons, the healing of lepers, or the restoration of sight to the blind, the idea of the dead coming back to life would have blown our minds, too!  So, as they are struggling with the meaning of this event, Jesus appears amongst them, teaching them and us about its significance.

     First, Jesus has a real body.  It is a real body that can be touched, felt, and seen.  It is a solid body that still retains the marks of His Crucifixion.  For those of you who expect to be raised as some ethereal spirit, floating on clouds playing a harp, Jesus’ Resurrection indicates to us that we will have real bodies.  Why?  He is the first fruit of the Resurrection!  If you and I are the second and third fruits, our bodies should be like His.

     To be sure, His body is similar but different than what the Apostles experienced in their travels with Him.  He is able to hide His identity from those who knew Him best as He encounters them outside His tomb or on the road to Emmaus.  He is able to travel vast distances almost immediately.  He can enter through locked or even shut doors.  But some similarities, though, remain.  He can eat.  He drinks water.  Notice He does not drink wine from the Cup of Joy until His kingdom is established forever.  He can lay hands upon and touch those in His presence.  He seems even to breathe, or at least exhale when it comes to bestowing the Holy Spirit upon those in His presence.

     This eating and drinking also serves another purpose.  It was axiomatic in the Ancient Near East, as it is today on shows like Ghost Hunters, that ghosts are incorporeal.  They cannot eat or drink.  So, when Jesus asks for a piece of fish or bread or a drink of water in the Gospel stories, that is His testimony against the rumors that He was a ghost, that He was a figment of their imaginations, that He was the shared experience of a mass hallucination.  Those who encountered the Risen Jesus ate with Him!  Those who encountered the Risen Jesus drank with Him!  Those who encountered the Risen Jesus touched the marks of His wounds!

     As shocked or awed as we might be at any miracle in the Bible, this is The Miracle which distinguishes our faith from all the other thoughts, ideas, religions, and spiritualities of the world.  Like you, I watched all those specials on television in the lead up to Easter.  Pundit after pundit, “expert” after “expert,” gave all kinds of excuses for why Jesus could not have come back from the dead.  He must not have really died.  His disciples likely stole His body.  My favorite, The Apostles and disciples came up with this idea as a way to gain prestige, power, and wealth.  LOL  As if Peter, John, Mark, James, Mary, Martha, and all the others were suddenly elevated socially, financially, or in power because they said they had seen the Lord.  Their testimony earned many of them death and derision.  There was no powerful Church of which they could seize control.  All they seized was the scorn, the plotting, the persecuting, and their own death at the hands of the Roman Empire.

     Wonderful philosophies and religions populated the ANE, great Rabbis had taught wonderful wisdom, but nobody claimed to be raised from the dead.  It was so far outside the human experience it is no wonder that people scoffed at the idea.  The intelligentsia of the day mocked the Christians.  The political powers of the day laughed at them even as they used them to cover their own failures.  The religious elite derided them for the very notion that a god could love people or die for them, let alone be brought back to life.  Those events might happen in mythology, but never in real life!

     The Resurrection, for us, is the cornerstone of our faith.  If it is not true, then Paul is right, we are to be most pitied.  We have been giving of our time, our talents, and our treasures for something pretend.  If the Resurrection is not true, we should be pitied as fools.  How many people have sacrificed their lives believing in its truth?  How many people have sold all their possessions and headed to leprosariums, to orphanages, to AIDS clinics, to foreign lands in service of a lie?  How many?  What causes people to have the confidence to face even death, trusting that God will redeem them or their situation?  The Resurrection.  If God can conquer death, all our other troubles pale by comparison.

     And make no mistake, this is a challenging claim to accept.  Some of you sitting here today may believe that the Resurrection was a spiritual thing or a hallucination.  You may not yet be sure what to make of it.  You are not alone.  Peter, James, John, Thomas, Mary, Martha, Mary and countless others did not believe until they saw, until they touched.  One thing none of us can deny, they sure acted as if they believed in His Resurrection.  Look at Peter today in Acts.  Less than a couple weeks ago, Peter was denying that he knew Jesus, even as Jesus faced His accusers before the Sanhedrin.  Like the others, Peter was hiding in a locked room.  He was still in a shut room.  But His encounters with the Resurrected Jesus changed him forever.  That same coward of Maundy Thursday healed a cripple on the steps of the Temple in Jerusalem in the name of Jesus!  For that horrible crime he was hauled before that same group that condemned his master.  How does he react?  Does he cower?  Does he deny his Master now?  No, he proclaims the Gospel of Christ crucified and Resurrected.  Better still, Peter tells them all that they sinned against God by putting God’s Anointed to death.  And what can they do, if they realize their sin?  Repent and turn to God, that their sins might be forgiven through the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ!  Who speaks that boldly for an idea?  Who gains that kind of courage for a philosophy?  This is no momentary courage either.  What Peter experienced transformed his view of God, of life, of everything!  What, but the Resurrection explains that amazing change?  What but the Resurrection explains his eventual willingness to go to Rome, to preach the Gospel, and to die there, crucified upside down?

     If Jesus’ Resurrection is true, there are some amazing implications.  Would God raise a liar, a blasphemer, a sinful man from the dead and so honor him?  Of course not!  Only His Anointed, His new Adam, His Beloved Son is worthy of such an honor.  But if Jesus was really raised from the dead, then all that He taught must be true!  That’s one of the reasons why we call the Resurrection the capstone or cornerstone of the faith.  Everything else in His teaching hangs upon the truth of His raised Body.  And this gets me to the foundation we will be laying here.

     After eating and showing them His wounds, what does Jesus do?  He teaches them.  These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.  If we were reading from one of those red-letter Bibles, these words would be in red because they are Jesus’ words.  And Jesus, as He was for those three years or so worth of ministry among them, continues to teach.  What does He tell us is this passage?  That the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms spoke of Him.  What you and I call the Old Testament, Jesus says speaks of Him.  Next time you are at home, look at your Bible.  Mark the page between the Old and New Testaments.  Notice how much is written in the Old Testament.  That leads me back, of course, to the second important point of Luke’s Gospel for us this morning.

     Why do we study the Old Testament?  Why should preachers preach on the Old Testament?  Because it contains roughly 2/3 of the total revelation that God gave us.  Put in a different way, 2/3 of the character and life of Jesus is told to us in the Old Testament.  Ever hear that nonsense that the God of the Old Testament is a God of wrath; the God of the New Testament is a God of love or justice or some other attribute?  Could such pithy statements be more wrong?  Here’s Jesus, raised from the dead, teaching His disciples that the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms speak of Him.  It makes sense, though, when we think about it.  Does God show lots of mercy in the Old Testament?   You bet.  Does God show lots of wrath in the New Testament?  Maybe we should ask the Guy who was scourged, mocked, beaten, and crucified for us about His perspective on the loss of God’s wrath in the New Testament.  But we do not study the Old Testament, preachers ought not preach the Old Testament, without the focusing lens of the Cross and Resurrection of our Lord Christ.  If we try to read the Old Testament absent that lens, we may well miss the very lesson intended by God.  We may, you might say, get focused on the wrong thing.

     Great, Brian, it makes sense for His disciples to study that stuff, but how can we?  He’s not among us.  We cannot see His wounds; we cannot watch Him eat.  True enough.  Jesus is not present with us as He was with His disciples.  Does that mean we are consigned to grope in ignorance when we study the Old Testament?  Of course not.  The same Jesus who demonstrated to His Apostles and disciples that He was raised from the dead, the same Jesus who taught that the Old Testament was about Him is the same Jesus who promised that He would be with us forever, even unto the end of the age.  Yes, those of us who believe without seeing are blessed, but that does not mean He is not with us.  In fact, when we pray before Bible studies, what do we ask?  Don’t we ask Him to be present with us or to send His Holy Spirit among us so that we might understand His word better?  And where two or three are gathered in His name, where does He tell us He will be?  In the midst of them!  Do you think He is lying?  God raised Him from the dead, so He must be telling the truth!  And so we study the Old Testament, alongside the New, expecting Jesus to be in the midst of us, teaching us as He did those first disciples, opening our minds to understand the Scriptures properly.

     Both the Resurrection and the teachings of and about Jesus give us our assignment and the third focus from Luke this morning.  You are witnesses of these things.  Brothers and sisters, why are you here today?  Is it because you just love to drive around Nashville and Brentwood in torrential downpours?  Is it because you are getting too much rest and needed an activity to fill in your schedule?  Is it because you haven’t had enough church potlucks yet in your lifetime?  Is it because you are convinced that your pastor’s body must reflect the Resurrected body we are all promised?  Why are you all laughing?  In all seriousness, though, my guess is, if we went around the room and allowed each other to answer that question, all of us are here because somebody in our lives testified to the truth of the Resurrection and invited us to come as a consequence of that accepted testimony.  Maybe it was a loving mother or father, who incarnated the role of the nurturing mother or Loving Father in your lives.  Maybe it was a joyful aunt or uncle who lived as if they were simply passing through this land.  Maybe for you it was a friend, a co-worker, a workout partner, a bridge partner, someone who simply lived their life as if they believed these words of Jesus, as if the Resurrection of Jesus, was true.  Maybe it was a stranger, maybe it was someone on television, maybe you were out driving around and saw three signs telling you to go to church.  And you wanted that Peace, that Joy, that Hope that Christians are promised and that Peace, that Joy, and that Hope by which they are called to live their lives.

     Brothers and sisters, you and I and all who gather each and every day throughout the world and even throughout time to worship and praise God for the saving work He has done in our lives are called to be heralds of the Resurrection in the lives of those who have not yet accepted His loving embrace.  How we testify to that Resurrection differs from denomination to denomination, parish to parish, individual to individual.  But make no mistake: we are all commanded to witness to His Resurrection.  It is not an optional opportunity.  It is, to use the example from earlier, a red-letter-command by Jesus.  Jesus has shared with each one of us this incredible treasure, this Truth which philosophers have sought, this Wisdom that sages have sought, this Love which spiritualists have sought throughout history and commanded us not to hoard it, but to share that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in His name to all nations.  You may not be called to preach to the Sanhedrin as did your brother Peter, you may not be called to anoint His feet as did a sister so long ago, but you are called to witness to those in your life.  You see, just as someone shared His love with you; you are called to be sharing His love with someone who comes after you.  You do not need theological training; you are not disqualified from the command because of your profession or heritage or even the past sins in your life; all you need is a love of Lord Christ and a willing and obedient heart.

     In my first few months here at Advent, a number of you have approached me about your fear of witnessing to Christ.  I get it.  We are planted in an area where some of our brothers and sisters are a bit more “in the face” of non-Christians (and even Christians of the wrong denomination).  I get it.  I am here to remind you this morning, though, that you are no less prepared and no less equipped than any of the fishermen He called, any of the women He accepted as disciples, the blind to whom He gave sight, the cripples to whom He gave the ability to walk, the Samaritan woman to whom He asked for water and to whom He offered Living Water.  There is no “perfect time” to share His love.  Moments of despair and mourning, moments of joy and celebration, moments of anxiety and peace provide an opportunity to witness to His Resurrection, to His forgiveness, and to the Hope He offers.  I know a few of you were recently nearly overcome by the idea that Jesus went to the Cross for each one of us, that had we been the only ones in the world, still He would have died for us.  As amazing as that sounds, consider this, He has chosen you to be His witness.  In the courtroom of public opinion, Lord Jesus has asked you to testify as to who He is and what He has done.  You and I have a role to play in the building of His kingdom.  You and I are called to witness to those not yet in the kingdom one person at a time, one individual at a time.  It may sound crazy to others; heck, it may sound crazy in our own ears.  But in His infinite wisdom, that is how He has chosen to spread His news and His love.  As crazy as it sounds, look at where that message has gone.  It spread from Jerusalem to the Mediterranean to the rest of the world all the way down to you and me.  It has crossed oceans, language and culture barriers, social strata, and who knows what else.  And now, now it falls to us, in the company of the Holy Spirit, to witness to His Resurrection in our lives, at work or school, at play, in health or sickness, at church or out in the world.  All He asks of us in return is that we lend our voices, our lives, our testimonies, that others might share in His redeeming grace.




Tuesday, April 14, 2015

How are we known?

     Naturally, a few weeks ago, I expected to be preaching on “Doubting Thomas,” reminding you that Thomas is no different than most of us and certainly does not deserve his moniker, seeing as how he is the one who encouraged the other disciples to follow Jesus to Jerusalem and die there with Him.  But a strange thing happened along the way.  Last Thursday, Judy brought an Order of Worship from a parish she had visited, and she was very much taken in by the prayer.  She should have been; it was one of our Collects for unity.  But we got to talking about whether it might be appropriate for our use at Advent, given the discussions of our Vestry retreat.  You will pray that prayer in a bit, and you will be able to judge for yourself.

     Between Judy and my discussion was a feast we call Easter.  Those of you who made it to church last week may have noticed we had a visitor or three.  Many of those who came apologized to me afterwards for not having attended earlier.  Many introduced themselves as Adventers, but lamented that life had gotten in the way of their spiritual life.  All, by the way, were blown away by the other-worldliness of the choir last week.  Brothers and sisters of the choir, you all do good work week in and week out.  Last week, however, was spectacular.  A bunch of people asked me if I thought the heavenly choir would be better.  Those who attend infrequently may or may not remember my sermon and may or may not be serious in the desire to attend more regularly this summer.  But they will all remember that music for some time to come.  Thank you.

     The Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter celebrations are important to us because they remind us of the love God bore for us in the work and person of Jesus Christ and of the life we are called to live in light of His testimony and work of incredible power among us.  The short version of that new call on our life is that we are called to be an Easter people.  If Jesus was raised from the dead, then how should you and I be living?

     One of the treasures of the Bible hidden by our lectionary editors is the book of Acts.  I say hidden because we read very little from it during the course of the three year cycle.  Most years, we only read from the book of Acts during our celebration of the Feast of Pentecost.  It makes sense, of course, Acts begins with the Ascension of Jesus and Pentecost.  In year B, this year, Acts supplants the Old Testament readings during the Easter season.  Why is this disappointing?  Acts is the longest book of the New Testament.  Better still, It testifies to the life of those who witnessed the Resurrection and those first people who believed in their testimony.  We have an Archbishop of Canterbury and a Pope calling upon their respective churches, and their personal view on ecumenism, arising out of churches’ reclaiming their heritage from the book of Acts.  It is in the book of Acts that we see the Church as a place for healing.  It is in the book of Acts that we see God using those who truly believed in the Resurrection of Jesus to accomplish amazing things in His name.  It is in the book of Acts that we see another characteristic of the early Church today.

     When I was in seminary, I was privileged to eat a few meals with a number of notables in the Episcopal Church and Anglican Communion.  My bishop had caused a ripple or two around the church and the Communion by supporting the redefinition of marriage and by allowing me to attend Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry.  In everyone’s mind, the two were incompatible, antithetical.  Trinity was insistent that we seek Jesus in the Scriptures and test our thoughts, our experiences, and our feelings against God’s word.  Generally speaking, bishops who supported the redefinition of marriage would not allow their ordinands to go to Trinity.  What made the bishop’s position even more unique was his refusal to release me to a call outside the diocese of Iowa.  So, when people came to visit, I had a number of people who wanted to meet me and get a measure of my bishop, or at least my perspective of his measure.  More often than not, we would eat in the lunchroom at seminary and talk.

      One of those conversations that really hit me was with a gentleman by the name of George Gallup.  You are right, as far as I know, there was no Archbishop or bishop Gallup.  George was businessman who happened to be Anglican/Episcopalian and on our Board of Trustees.  George’s business was the collecting of information.  Gallup polls are probably world famous.  And I see by the nods you have all heard of them.  During a conversation, George shared with me some disturbing news.  It was either he or one of his competitors had commissioned a poll to examine how non-Christians perceived Christians.  What disturbed him as a faithful Christian and me, as a soon-to-be Christian clergy, was that we were viewed overwhelmingly negatively by those outside our parish walls.  Words like “Arrogant,” “judgmental,” “boring,” and “hypocritical” come to mind from that conversation.  In fact, almost three quarters of respondents in that survey overwhelmingly identified us in very negative ways.  Very negative.  Our lunchtime conversation turned on that question of how the Church had lost its joy, its playfulness, and its respect among those not a part.  That conversation, no doubt, played a part in my wardrobe decision.  Yes, I take God’s Word seriously.  Yes, I believe it is true, even the things that I cannot yet explain.  But I call you and others to a feast, I call you and others to The Feast in His name.  I don’t wear black because the colors are a small testimony that we can be a joyful people even as we are serious about our faith and our callings.  For better or for worse, my colored shirts have provoked a couple hundred conversations among people who are not part of the church and not a few with those not a part of our church.

     Now, I say it may have been one of George’s competitors who collected the information because I came across a book around five years ago that was based on a three-year Barna research product.  It was entitled something along the lines like “What the New Generation Thinks of Christianity.” The time frame of the research overlaps, so George could have been pondering this survey.  The guy who wrote the book was a member of that research team that collected information for three years.  In this book, he shared that our society had an incredibly negative view about people of his faith.  90% or more saw Christians as antihomosexual; 80% or more saw Christians as hypocritical and judgmental; 70% or more saw us as insensitive, boring, and in other such negative tones.  It wasn’t until the ninth or tenth adjective that the next generation had something positive to say about Christians.  Think about that for a second.  If I asked you to describe yourself, would words like judgmental, arrogant, and hypocritical come to your mind first?  What if we asked our neighbors, our co-workers, our friends, our family members outside the Church how they saw us, would their description match your own of yourself?  Or, do you think, they might think you are the special one and not see you as they overwhelmingly see Christians?

     Such descriptions and attitudes contradict the Church from early Acts.  Everyone who believed was of one heart and soul.  Their job seems to have been two-fold.  They navigated that tension that exists in the Church.  They ministered to the needs of one another even as they gave their testimony to the Resurrection of the Lord Jesus.  One of the difficulties we face is drawing others into our Lord’s embrace even as we minister to and care for one another.  Last week is a perfect example.  I was told by several regular attendees that the service would have been perfect had I sung the liturgy.  Yes, it was a high, festival day.  Yes, it would have been a great day to sing the liturgy.  But, aside from my joyful noise bringing the music experience way back down to earth for everyone last week, the sung liturgy would have made the experience that much more challenging for those who do not come.  For every “I wish you would have sung” I got last week, I got a “thank you for not making us sing.”  What was the right answer?  Honoring God and celebrating the Resurrection with a sung liturgy?  Or making the liturgy more accessible to others?  I don’t know.  I struggle with questions like that.

     Did the early Church?  At times it seems as if they did, but at other times it seems as if they did not.  In our reading today, we are told that all who believed forsook private ownership of all property.  Now, before the capitalists among us get their hackles up and think I am going to preach communism this morning, relax.  God does not say that private property is a bad thing here or anywhere else in the Bible.  In fact, He is quite adamant that we have things as stewards for Him in most places.  The people in the early Church, being of one heart and soul, decided not to claim private ownership.  If someone needed something, proceeds of sales were used to supply the need.  It was a thankful response to the Resurrection and loving response to their brothers and sisters in Christ.  How counter-cultural was that living testimony!  How counter-cultural would it be today?

     How good are we at meeting the needs of others within and without?  Is there a reason that outsiders look in on the modern Church and describe us so negatively?  And I am not just talking about financial needs, although those are often the easiest to see and the easiest to see met.  What about companionship?  That requires tremendous gift of time.  Sometimes all our brothers and sisters need are a shoulder to cry on, a friend to remind them their circumstances do not signify abandonment by God.  Maybe they are recovering from illness and need a meal or three, transportation to a doctor or therapist, help cleaning their home.  Maybe they are homeless and need a warm place to sleep, a couple good meals, access to medical care, and maybe access to mental health care.  Maybe they suffer from addiction and need and need to hear they are loved, that there is help available.  Imagine if the Church got back to being about the care of its members and preaching with power the testimony of the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus.  What would be the impact on individual communities?  Cities?  Nations?  The world?

     And what of those not yet a member of His Church?  How do we serve them?  How do we incarnate the love of Christ in their lives?  In a few weeks we will remind ourselves that we were all given gifts by the Holy Spirit to serve this body, the Church of the Advent, to His honor and His glory.  Are we using them?  Do people, when they hear of or think upon Advent, begin to recount all the things that we are doing which testify to our collective belief that He is risen indeed?  Our we reknowned for our care of widows, of orphans, of slaves, of survivors of domestic violence, of shoddy medical access, of those who slip between the cracks of the government’s safety net, of those in our prisons, of those who are new to our country?  Are we a church that takes our faith so seriously but is joyfully emboldened to help those outside our parish but within our diocese, our country, or our Communion, knowing that in serving them, we serve Him and advance His kingdom?  I see the squirms.

     The truth is, brothers and sisters, how we care for one another and how we care for strangers is some of the best testimony that you and I can give to the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus.  I can stand before you and speak in passionate and eloquent terms, but if, as a parish, we are miserly with our resources, our time, and even our talents, the world rightly judges us as hypocritical and, more often than not, turns away from our Lord’s saving embrace.  What if we were that island of hope and joy in the middle of the world’s concerns?  What if we were known for how we visited one another when ill or shut-in?  What if we were known for how we cared for those most hurting among us?  What if we were, to use the words of Pope Francis today, an oasis of the Living Water that brings life to the world?  Would the world be repulsed?  Or would the world maybe want to share in that Peace and Joy we possess?  We already know the answer.

     A few decades after this event in Acts, one of the emperors decided to confiscate the property of any who followed this “Way” of a son of a Judean carpenter.  He decided to strip citizenship from any Roman citizen who was determined to be a Christian.  We cannot begin to understand the worth of Roman citizenship in the ANE, but ask an immigrant to this country what American citizenship means to them and we might begin to get an idea.  Anyway, in the midst of this particular Persecution, the emperor Julian included in his edict that the Christians were doing precisely what the state ought to be doing for those who lived under its umbrella.  Think about that for a second.  A persecuting emperor acknowledged that his enemies were doing the job that his government should be doing!  That would be like modern atheists or Imam’s, as they were ridiculing us or condemning us, said that we were doing their job better than they!  Can you imagine a Fatwa that said Christians cared for poor Muslims better than Muslims?  Can you imagine a treatise that said these idiots who worship a spaghetti god sure act as if their God is real?  Is there higher praise than when an enemy praises us?  What made his edict even more lamentable was the statement that the neediest in Rome would be forced to look in vain to the state to meet the needs now that he was eradicating the Galileans. 

     In March, the Vestry and I gathered in the annual retreat.  We spent some time imagining how we wished church worked, but in particular, we spent some time imagining how Advent worked?  Who are we?  How do people describe us?  Do they even know who we are?  As part of the fruit of that discussion, most of the Vestry and I will take part in a series of classes on Gifts & Talents taught by Dick and Ron.  Before we can begin to lead the parish properly, we need to understand where God is leading us, calling us, individually.  In turn, it will be our job to help you hear that same still, small whisper in your life.  Over time, I have no doubt we will hear God’s voice and discern His will for us here on the county line.  In the meantime, I have some homework for you.  In the Holy Cow you claimed to want a teacher; well, teachers come with homework assignments.

     Your first assignment is to ask questions, be quiet, and listen.  Think back to that wonderful service last week.  Remember how transported you felt, how alive you felt giving thanks to God for the Resurrection of His Son our Lord?  Now, look around.  I know it is low Sunday and we good little Episcopalians use Low Sunday as a training day for Episcopal vacation.  But look around and ask yourself the questions: Who is missing and why?  What is more important than day in and day out, week in and week out, month in and month out, year in and year out, giving thanks to God for the gift of His Son Jesus Christ our Lord?  Who in your life missed out on that wonderful service last week that you fear may miss that eternal worship to which we are called.  Almost as important, who that attended last week was absent this week and why?  Then here comes the hard part.  Go to your friends, your co-workers, your family, your neighbors, your golfing buddies, your bridge partners and ask them what they think of Christians.  Ask them what it is about God that turns them off.  And then listen.  Consider well what they say.  Ask God to hold your tongue that you might here His conviction in their voice.  Ask them, in the end, what they think of you.  If the “they” are Christians, then the “they” are you.  Ask them why they find you arrogant, judgmental, somber, and whatever other description they want to use.  Don’t defend yourself.  Pray to God for the strength to be silent before the shearers and listen.

     Make no mistake, brothers and sisters, the homework I give you is hard.  We do not like critical evaluations in our society.  But consider: we have the greatest news in the world to proclaim, that Christ has come into the world, died for our sins, and been raised from the dead.  Better still, He calls us as heralds of His eternal kingdom.  We get to issue invitations to the greatest wedding Feast that will ever occur.  And that feast will never end.  Even better, cool people like us will be the guests.  We will be there talking and singing and celebrating with the Lord who loves us so.  If we as a parish really accepted all that, really believed all that, last Sunday’s worship would be the norm.  Every time we gathered, every time we came together to thank God for the saving work He has done in our lives, our service would be like last week’s.  We would be, for a few minutes of our day, see that veil thinned just a bit and His kingdom breaking in.  We would be reminded that we will be at a table that extends beyond space and time, at a table that has other cool guests such as our spiritual heroes and heroines, at a table that has even those who invited us and those whom we invited, at a table with even better music than last week as “background noise.”  And terms like “low Sunday” and “Episcopal vacation” would fade from memory like the dry grass.  Why not find out what keeps others from sharing that joy that is within you?  Who knows?  Maybe in your conversations your flame had become an ember and that all you needed was a reminder of why you clung to His promise in the first place.  Maybe, maybe if we all intentionally engage in such critical evaluation, we might discover HIs calling on our lives and on our parish.  Maybe, if we respond faithfully to that call, people here in our community will speak of us as did Rome, an enemy, of our brothers and sisters, and find themselves drawn to our heart and our soul, the Lord Christ.


Tuesday, April 7, 2015

On loose threads and tapestries . . . on our stories and His story!

     My mind has been on loose threads and cloths these last few days.  It began last week in a discussion I had with the women of the Fellowship Committee and ECW.  I cannot remember how we ended up on the subject, but I confessed to cross-stitching and needlepointing, and they started talking about the kneelers that had never been finished.  Don’t freak out gentlemen, I had a piano teacher who recommended it as a way to keep my fingers more nimble despite the breaks and stoves from playing football.  The discussion of fabrics continued a bit with my daughter Amanda and I discussing Hesiod.  She was introduced to Hesiod fairly recently, more on that in a moment, and so we chatted a bit about the cosmology of the Greeks according to Hesiod.  Then yesterday I found myself taking my oldest daughter Sarah shopping for her Easter dress.  I joked on Facebook yesterday that there is no greater love than this, that a dad takes his daughter dress shopping, much to the amusement to many of the ladies here at Advent and sympathy of most of the men!  The liturgies of Holy Week, as many of you have commented, are beautiful services on their own; woven together, however, they create a wonderful blend of the public and private nature of worship, capture the horror and joy of the fact that God’s Son walked this path to save us, and place these events in their historical context and setting.  Those liturgies rightly end with the Vigil, where we remind ourselves that the stories of the Bible all point to the story that we read this week: that God’s Anointed will die for His people and rise from the dead on the third day.  Lastly, of course, there was the reading from John.  John ties up so many threads that it is hard not to preach a long sermon fully explaining each and every one of them so that you will see them clearly, too.  Yes, threads and weavings have been much on my mind these last few days, as they should be.

     One of the polemics of the Gospel narrative, and there are many, is the idea that humans and gods are trapped in fate.  I shared a name a few minutes ago, Hesiod, who was an ancient Greek poet.  Hesiod is among those early writers who give us a sense of how the ancient Greeks perceived the world.  In particular, there were three powerful sisters to whom humans and the gods were subject.  I know we like to think that Zeus was the most powerful god, but even he was subject to the will and design of these three ladies.  Their names were Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos.  Collectively, they were known in antiquity as the Fates.  I won’t bore you with their confused lineage or other interesting details other than to say that these three ladies were responsible for this wonderful tapestry we call life.  Threads in this tapestry represented individual lives.  Clotho spun the threads, Lachesis weaved the threads into the great tapestry, and Atropos determined the length of each thread/life.  Whatever these ladies decided was the course of the world.  Gods, for all their power in the ANE cosmology, were subject to the Fates.  Zeus was more of a divine CEO, carrying out their design, than a creating or determining force.  If the Fates decreed a human died, the human died.  If the Fates decided that a god died, the god died.  Humans and gods could argue or bargain with them, but the ladies usually stuck to their plans (and threatened your thread with Atropos’ scissors if you argued too passionately!).

     From my perspective, what made their work truly interesting was their need to deal with uppity gods and uppity human beings.  The Fates control was such that, if a human being or god acted as if he or she had free will, the action could put a kink or knot in the Tapestry.  A significant portion of their work seems have been spent correcting the mistakes of others.  If a god whom they had decreed should live happened to die an untimely death, they simply stretched out the thread causing the god to come back to life.  If a human being did something that messed up their beautiful work, they might cut the kink (kill the upstart), stretch the thread to pull the knot (reward the individual with a longer life), or take another action to keep harmony in the tapestry.  Imagine a world where you believe your fate has been sealed and that they best you could hope for was not to draw the attention of the gods to yourself.  That is the world in which our Lord appeared, but the threads He used created a more beautiful, more vibrant tapestry than humans could ever have hoped.

     If you want to see what I mean, turn back to your Order of Worship and the reading from John.  Where is the scene set?  A garden.  Now, think long and hard, when the Bible begins and human beings are introduced, where are we?  A garden.  Now here’s the real tricky question, if we fast forward to Revelation 21 and 22, where are we promised that we will be forever?  That’s right, back in the Garden.  Woven throughout Scripture is this thread of the garden.  Adam and Even sinned, so they were kicked out of the garden.  Now, here is Jesus of Nazareth dying on a cross for our sins and being resurrected, and we are told in the garden.  What was a rueful loss becomes a source of joy and hope!  Adam and Eve must have left the garden with regret and sorrow, but Mary must run from it exploding with joy and hope.

     Let’s look deeper.  Who gets the message first?  Everyone answered Mary Magdalene because that is how our translation reads.  What if I told you that in the original text Jesus uses the Hebrew Miriam instead of the Greek Maria.  Would that mean anything to you?  Can anyone think of another Miriam?  I know we have all been watching the History Channel and CNN and learning how the Old Testament was patriarchal and misogynistic and that women were chattel, but can you think of another Miriam?  Who is described as the first prophetess?  Who saw Pharaoh’s daughter pull her brother from the Nile and arrange for their mother to nurse the princess’ newfound child?  Yes.  Her name was Miriam, Moses’ older sister.  One of the images we are given about Jesus is that He will lead God’s people from their bondage to sin just as Moses did God’s people from their bondage to Egypt.  Here’s Jesus using Mary’s Hebrew name and recalling for just a moment, that same idea.  A Miriam will be the herald who declares that God has freed His people, again!

     Look even closer.  Jesus has taught in this Gospel that He knows His sheep and His sheep know His voice.  When Mary first sees the man standing in the garden, does she recognize Him?  No, she thinks He is the gardener.  In truth, Jesus is The Gardener, but that is not the revelation intended here.  How does she recognize Him?  He calls her by name?  She hears His voice and knows Him.  And immediately her confusion and profound sadness and disappoint are turn into surpassing joy and thanksgiving.  Something in His Body is different, make no mistake about that.  He can travel vast differences instantaneously.  He can enter locked rooms.  But He is still Jesus.  His friends will see the wounds.  His friends will eat and drink with Him before He ascends to the Father.  But His voice?  His voice is that of The Shepherd.  When He calls to Mary, she knows Him!  Just like He promised. . .

     Look still deeper.  How does she address Him?  Women were not allowed to go study under rabbis.  In this aspect the shows have been very accurate this week.  Only men were allowed to go and study under the rabbi’s in Israel.  Of course, Jesus has always been an equal opportunity educator.  Mary and Martha comes to mind, as does this scene with Mary Magdalene.  Mary hears her Master’s voice and she responds by calling Him “Rabbi.”  For Him to accept the title from her is to accept that she was a disciple, an unheard of practice in the ANE!  But that is precisely how He responds.  And, pulling a thread from another teaching, one of Jesus’ promises is that His people will know His teaching.  He will dwell among them and they will be His people and He will be their God.  And the people will not have to seek God, because they will know where He is.  And the people will not have to be taught about God, because He will have taught them and imprinted Himself on the eyes, ears, hearts, and minds!

     Lots of loose threads are ties up in our reading this week.  No doubt you are beginning to wonder whether I am going to touch them all.  I’m not, but I am.  One of the polemics against the cultural understanding of time, of course, is that God acts in history and bends it to His purposes.  It is an idea that often finds a home in our own culture.  The idea that God can intervene in history is incomprehensible to some.  They tease us for worshipping Spaghetti-Monsters and other such nonsense.  But consider your own experiences with God.  Each of us gathered here today, no matter how tenuous our attachment to our faith might be, has probably been drawn in by some miracle.  Were I to take the time and ask you, and you trusted me and those around you, everyone present today would likely have a miracle which speaks to a deep longing within your heart.  Why else would you be stuck indoors on such a beautiful day!  Some of us might like the idea of the parting of the Red Sea.  Others may like the idea of manna and quail and water in the wilderness.  Maybe some of us long to know that the Lord can stop the moon or sun in their courses.  Maybe some of us were drawn in by the Incarnational miracles.  Perhaps we like the healings of disease, the casting out of demons, the control of the weather, or the calling of those dead back to life.  Each of us has a miracle or two which sings to us, which tells us that God can accomplish for us that longing we most want in our hearts.

     In many ways, God is the master weaver.  God takes events and bends their outcomes to His will and His purposes.  Unlike Zeus and the other gods who bowed to the control of fate, God proclaims Himself the Master of this world, the Creator of all that is, seen and unseen.  When His purposes require a miracle, an act of power, He acts.  More amazingly, though, God seems to be incredibly adept at using human beings in this wonderful tapestry He is creating.

     When I was learning to cross stitch and then needlepoint, I received countless clucks of approval from older women and then tons of advice.  To keep your threads from bunching up, use beeswax.  To keep your threads from knotting, make sure you are always pulling the exact same way in the exact same direction.  Their advice may have been pretty good.  But nothing ever really eliminated all my issues.  Sometimes the thread just kinked; at other times it snapped; at other times it frayed.  I could be taking all the care in the world and still these things would happen and frustrate the heck out of me.  And even when nothing like that happened, still the whole piece did not look like it should in my mind’s eye.  Looking at the backside of my work was rather disappointing.  The back was where the tie-offs were.  The back was where some of the knots were hidden.  The backs were where the colors crossed the boundaries and sort of made everything look like a mess.  It was only when I held up the front that the picture truly began to take shape.  It was only when those tie offs, frays, and kinks were consigned to the other side that I could begin to see, truly to see, the art I was creating.

     The amazing thing about God’s tapestry, though, is that He uses people like you and like me to create His beautiful work.  Jesus takes the “loose threads” of this world and creates the most majestic of tapestries.  Mary Magdalene was possessed before she met Jesus.  Peter, poor Peter, is there an Apostle with higher highs and lower lows of faith?  And what of Paul in his letter this morning?  He reminds us that he is least fit to be called an Apostle because He actively persecuted, he actively sought to undermine the will of God, in his duties before he met the Risen Lord on the way to Damascus!  Miriam in the Old Testament, for all her wonderful efforts, found herself on the wrong side of a fight with God and Moses.  Sarah?  She believed enough to follow her husband, just not enough to think a 100 year-old woman could have a baby.  David?  For all his heart for God, he committed a few nasty sins.  If He can save men and women like them, He can surely save men and women like me and like you!

     One of the reminders of John’s Gospel is that God can take anyone, ANY SINGLE PERSON, and use their faith and obedience to His glory and, in the end, save them.  It is an amazing offer of hope.  No matter what sins we have committed, no matter how many bad decisions we have made, God not only can use us, He wants to use us as heralds of His in-breaking kingdom!  So often we buy into the siren-song of the world.  We begin to believe that we have made too many wrong choices, that we have strayed too far from Him for too long, that we have put off and put off a decision we know we should have made.  In weaving terms, we have frayed our threads, we have knotted our threads, we have kinked our threads, and we have dragged our threads through all kinds of muck and mud, discoloring them, making them unsuitable for any real use.

     Yet the God Incarnate, Man divine stands there in the garden this morning calling to each of us as He did Mary nearly two millennia ago.  Jesus is always reaching out that hand of invitation, offering that embrace of true love, to you and to me.  We need only to accept His offer.  We need only to call Him Lord, and He takes care of the rest.  Our threads are restored to their vibrant colors, more beautiful than any thread in any dress or tie we see here today!  Our kinks and knots are smoothed by His mercy and forgiveness, that we might be worked into His wonderful tapestry of redemption and salvation.  Even better, we become part of The Story, His Story, and promised a share in His eternal kingdom for our willingness to submit our lives to His call and to let Him use us to reach others with this amazing, Gospel news.  We are given new robes!  We become the Mary’s and Peter’s and John’s for others, inviting them to come and see.  Best of all, not even death can keep His story and His plans for all who call Him Lord from being fulfilled!  His power to redeem, as we are reminded again this morning, cannot be thwarted!  His power to save cannot be subdued!  And one day, one glorious day in the future, we who call Him Lord will hear His voice and answer His call to us, just as did Mary this morning.

     Brothers and sisters, the voice that calls to you from the garden this morning is no “figment of your imagination.”  It is not the result of some “mass hysteria.”  It is none other than our Lord Christ, graciously pursuing you, graciously reminding you, that all He did, all He suffered, He suffered for you.  Now, He asks only that you join Him.  Lend your voice to the throng, lend your thread to His Tapestry, lend your story to His story, that others in the world might be drawn into His saving embrace through your witness . . . The Lord is Risen.  Alleluia!