Monday, June 19, 2017

What is your answer . . . What is our answer?

     Happy Father’s Day.  Those looking at the readings probably thought I would preach on the Old Testament today.  After all, it has been almost three months since I was able to give an Old Testament sermon and Genesis 18 is the only reading about fatherhood today, right?
     As background to our passage, let me remind you of some of the setting and some of the significant details.  Those who suffered through the Genesis Bible study can read the catechesis in the back of the BCP.  What?  You don’t think I have not done that during boring or repeated sermons myself?
     The first thing we need to remember is that this story takes place in about the 24th year of a 25 year unveiling of the covenant.  24 years prior to this reading, Sarah and Abraham responded to God’s call on their lives by leaving Ur and heading southwest some 500 miles—on foot.  In that time, God has continued to unfold His covenant plans for them.  First, there was the promise of an heir.  Then it was the promise of an heir that was of Abraham’s issue.  Now they both learn, in their late 90’s, that the heir will be a child who belongs to both of them.  Spread amongst that unveiling are lots of little stories.  Despite her age, Sarah seems to be a hottie.  Kings want her for their harems.  There is a risk about the land with Lot, and then further risk when Abraham leads his men into battle against five kings in order to free Lot.  Sometimes, because Sarah and Abraham do not have all the information, they make decisions which seem reasonable but actually prove to be an obstacle to God’s planned covenant.  They adopt a son, as was the cultural practice.  Sarah gives her handmaid to her husband to have a child.  In short, there are lots and lots of obstacles to God’s plan for this couple and their family, some of which are self-inflicted.  And we get only the highlights and lowlights.
     Imagine if I asked you to write a narrative about your life the last couple decades and confine it to only 6-8 chapters.  What would you include?  What would you exclude?  Now pretend that I wanted you only writing about your faith walk with the Lord.  How would that change what you shared?  Would you focus only on the blessings?  Would you maybe share how you believed and acted in one way only to learn that God had a better plan for you?  How would you choose what to share?  And what of your day to day “ordinary” life?  Would you expect us to think you had no ordinary days over a 24 year period?  Of course not!  That’s what we have from the life of Sarah and Abraham.  Of course, they had help.  God caused the important parts of their walk with Him to be recorded and preserved for our benefit.
     Because last week was Trinity Sunday, we did not get to read what happened right before our story today.  The prior section was all about circumcision.  I’m sorry, gentlemen.  I know it’s Father’s Day.  I know the last thing you wanted to think about today was adult circumcision.  But that lets us understand why Abraham and his retinue are reclining under the tree.  God has used circumcision as an outward sign of the inward and invisible grace present in Abraham and his family.  The outward mark is the circumcision.  The inward grace is that this family has been chosen by God to be a blessing to the world!  One insignificant family will be the means by which God’s redeeming love will be made known to all.  The seed of that covenant will be our Lord Christ, but there will be lots to do in the interim.  Abraham and the fellas do not really want to be working.  Things hurt.  And in that warm climate in the sun, sweat is a bit too common.  How many of us like getting salt in our paper cuts or hangnails?  Just think of sweating after circumcision!
     Look at the location.  It is a place called Mamre.  You probably know nothing about Mamre.  Mamre was important for at least three reasons.  Josephus, the famous Jewish-Roman historian, records that some thought the tree at Mamre was as old as the world.  The tree was really a terebinth—more of a big branchy shrub than what you and I consider a tree in Middle Tennessee.  This was the biggest anyone had ever seen, so they assumed it was the oldest.  That caused some sacred value to be assigned to the place.  Mamre is also the place where Abraham built the altar to the Lord after the renewal of the covenant.  Not only was Abraham given a renewed and further revealed covenant in this place; he built an altar of thanksgiving for that renewal and the outward mark of that inner grace that cause us men to squirm!  It is that history that caused some Jews to want the Temple of the Lord to be built in Mamre rather than Jerusalem.  Obviously, Jerusalem won.  David and Solomon, however, had to contend with this “secular” and historical significance when building the Temple in Jerusalem rather than this location.  We don’t hear lots about those fights, but you can imagine them in your minds.  And Mamre will become the burial location for Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac.  Imagine the cultural draw to build the Temple in this place!  I share all this with you this morning to give you some sense of the background the Jews would have known when they encountered this story.  In some ways, the terebinth of Mamre was a precursor to the burning bush!
     Now to our story.  In the middle of the heat of the day, we are told, three strangers appear travelling.  Those of us who have travelled understand that cultures in warm environments often task a break during the noonday sun.  Going back three thousand years or so, we can easily understand why some people would not risk the heat of the day to travel.  It was simply too dangerous, especially when one lacked the caravan goods like water!  Yet three men come strolling by Abraham in the heat of the day.  Abraham, still recovering from his circumcision, jumps up from under the big bush and runs to greet the men on the road.
     We are not told who the men are.  Much hay has been made over the years interpreting the passage.  Are they angels?  Are they somehow the Triune God walking the earth?  Are they just common men given the voice of the Lord?  We do not know, and Scripture seems not to think that detail important.  What we do know is that despite his physical discomfort, Abraham runs to the men and enjoins them to rest with him during the heat of the day.  It is at this point that we often hear long sermons on the obligation of hospitality.  I will not be taking that path as I do not believe it is the lesson we are called to consider here at Advent.  But notice the details.  Abraham offers water to drink and to clean themselves, a morsel of bread, and a place in the shade.  What he gives them is bread made from the “king’s flour,” the best flour he has available, curds and milk – dare we think butter--, and meat.  Abraham offers a small repast and escape and provides a feast.
     Then begins the part that should interest us this day at Advent.  One of the strangers asks Abraham where his wife Sarah is.  Hmmm.  How do they know her name?  Has a servant let her name slip?  Has Abraham called her name out loud in giving instructions?  We just don’t know.  What we do know is that she is inside the tent.  You have probably heard it told to you over and over and over again that Jewish women were simply property of their husbands.  You have probably heard it so many times that you accept that idea as a foundational truth.  It is not.  I will not go into all the details this morning, as it is not the focus of this sermon for today, but the Jews in particular were weird in the Ancient Near East because they elevated women.  Oh, to be sure, by modern standards, there was no exact equality.  But it is the Jews who make the revealed claim to the world that women and men both are created in the image of God.  For a Jewish male to be able to sit at the gate and make decisions for a village, a wife had to be running the household well.  They had different jobs, but no faithful Jewish male would have ever thought of his wife as property.  And if he did, she would likely disabuse him of that stupid notion quickly and loudly.  The first Jewish audience would have likely thought it weird that Sarah was not playing the proper role of hostess with respect to these three strangers, just as her husband was playing the role of host.  What details we have remind us of that, right?  While Abraham is choosing the calf, Sarah is making the loaves of bread.  She is as active in hospitality as her husband except for this one detail: she stays in the tent.  Why?
     I think the reason is told us in the passage.  Our translators render her condition in such wonderful euphemism.  She was advanced in age and it had ceased to be with her in the manner of women.  LOL  I wish I had been videoing you all as I said that sentence.  I thought there was a lot of squirming when I spoke of the circumcision of Abraham’s retinue.  Yes.  Sarah is post-menopausal.  Big shock, I know.  A ninety year old woman no longer menstruates.  That is a significant detail on two accounts, though.  Given the upcoming revelation, how can she and Abraham have a child together?  Not to be crass, but they are of an age when one need not worry about birth control.  In fact, our society spends a small fortune annually trying to reverse the effects of such aging on our libidos and on our ability to enjoy sex.
     Just as significantly, though, I think it provides us with the reason why Sarah stays in the tent and avoids hosting the strangers with her husband.  Your squirming a few moments ago, when I pointed out she was post-menopausal, hints at the discomfort we feel about menstruating women.  It’s culturally ingrained in us.  Many cultures freak at the idea of menstruating women.  We have texts from the ANE, in particular, which forbid menstruating women coming into the presence of a king or his retinue.  Heck, the Jews will received God’s holy instruction, the torah, which will tell them that menstruating women cannot go to the Temple while on their periods and that ritual purification will be required after the bleeding stops in order to worship God.  Blood “down there” is a subject to be avoided at all costs.
     Now, place yourself in Sarah’s tent.  Culturally, you are likely expected to absent yourself from others while menstruating.  You have been feted by kings.  You were courageous enough to follow your husband on a crazy journey.  You have been left in charge while he went after Lot.  You are not known for your timidity or lack of confidence.  Yet now you stay in a tent?  When hospitality demands your presence, you absent yourself?  I think the likely happening here was that she started bleeding while making the bread.  Being a woman of a certain age and wisdom, she understands what this means.  Today we would recognize it as a sign of cervical or other internal cancers.  For women of her day, it was a sign of death.  Old women bleeding down there was never a good sign.
     Is this explicit in the text?  No.  But it does answer a couple important questions.  Why does she stay in the tent?  What prompts the stranger to make the weird prophesy?  To our ears, the prophesy sounds out of place.  Why not wait until they are both there?  The stranger knows Sarah’s name.  Now that we learn it is the Lord, we know He knows everything about her.  What prompts Him to make that promise in this way?  Imagine the timing.  She thinks she has received a death sentence, and the Lord tells her and Abraham that He will return in a year to see her son.  That might cause any of us to laugh, to scoff at the Lord’s promise, and to do so determinedly.
     Laughter, of course, figures prominently into this section of the life of the holy family.  Much is made of her laughing and Abraham’s laughing.  Abraham will stop laughing, and Sarah will deny that she laughed.  The child born as a result of this prophesy will be named, Isaac, which means “he laughs.”  The split between Ishmael and Isaac will be over what?  Laughter.  Sarah will see Ishmael making young Isaac laugh, and she decides to cast Hagar and the young man out.  The cultural root of the Arab-Israeli conflict is laughter.
     What would cause Sarah to scoff so much?  What would cause her not to believe the Lord, once she knew His identity?  Given their shared experiences and multiple redemptive events, what would cause Sarah to be a bit harder of heart than Abraham?  It fits, does it not?  That’s not to say something else might fit, but maybe it helps us understand Sarah’s fear.  She and her husband have had 24 years of experience the presence and provision of the Lord.  What could cause her to fear but death itself?
     Into that scoffing and reflection, the Lord hurls another question.  Is anything too wonderful / too hard for the Lord?  Clearly the question is rhetorical.  He expects a “no” answer.  And His question carries a range of meaning.  The word our translators chose to render as wonderful can also mean hard or difficult.  A fairer translation for us might be, Ís anything beyond the Lord?  He can do anything.  It does not matter how hard it seems to us, how wonderful it seems to us, how out of place it may seem to us, God can do whatever He pleases.  He can even cause a woman almost a hundred years of age to become pregnant for the first time and bear a son, even when her experience and the world’s wisdom proclaims something else!  And such knowledge, such faith, ought to inspire in us a joyful laughter.  Why do we gather here this morning?  What is the meaning of Eucharist?  It is good thanks.  It is joyful thanks.  We gather here each week to remind ourselves of the saving work God has done through the birth of another Babe, and we gather to thank Him joyfully for all that He has done is our lives.
     How does such a narrative apply to us at Church of the Advent in Nashville Tennessee some three thousand years later?  The connection, it seems to me, is easy to see.  Do we reflect a community, a Christian community, that is joyfully confident in the promises and power of God?  Certainly the events of the last couple months would testify against us.  In many ways, we have been a community of scoffers like Sarah, rather than a community of joyful believers.  What’s the impact?  Place yourself in the role of a visitor, either someone who believes in the promises and power of God already or one who is seeking this person we call God.  How would you the visitor respond to us?  If the people you encountered lived fearful or angry or scoffing lives, would you be drawn in?  Or would you continue to look elsewhere?  Would you wonder whether such a community of so-called faith knew God?
     And please do not hear me condemning you this morning.  This is an “us” thing.  I am often the chief scoffer among you.  After eight o’clock I was asked when I scoff.  An easy one was during the search process.  At that time I knew very few Adventers, maybe Dale and Dick.  I had met Tina in the office and talked to Hunter on the phone and by e-mail.  The rest of you were pictures or blank spaces in a directory.  That first morning I get the e-mail and then the phone call from Justin’s secretary about Rome.  Talk about a scoffer.  I am the guy who hangs up the phone because stuff like that does not happen!  I have laid hands on a dying person and watched God heal them.  I have experienced provision in the most incredible ways.  And I thought something as unremarkable as a secretary calling for an Archbishop of Canterbury was unbelievable.  Not once did it occur to me that she had tracked me down to a Holiday Inn Express in Cool Springs.  I can certainly relate to Sarah’s scoffing.
     Most of you all know that in a prior life I was a broker.  Prior to that I had studied Classics.  One of Karen’s and my dreams or grand plans was that, after we made our fortune and the four kids had grown, we would go to Rome and Athens.  We would do it right.  When I finally accepted a call to seminary, that was just one of the dreams that Karen and I had to accept was never going to happen.  In my finite wisdom, I knew churches could not support priests with four kids.  It was too hard; it was too expensive.  And I found myself in a hotel in Cool Springs listening to the Archbishop’s secretary asking me to work for him and the Holy Father, at the Holy Father’s request!  What I got out of that was a bit of a tour of Rome that I would never have gotten otherwise.  I could have been as rich as our current President, and it would have done me no good.  And yes, there is more that I wish I could have seen and done, and all of it with my wife, but it was beyond my wildest dreams.  Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?  My laughter changed from scoffing to something far more joyful.
     I was reminded of that question again this week when James Harvey came into my office.  Due to our schedules, I don’t think we had connected since Lent.  We chuckle at how we met, sometimes, but James came in this week to touch base and share a couple stories.  For those of you wondering why the name is tickling your ears, you pray for him and his family every week in the Prayer of the People and you have supported them through discretionary funds. 
     James recently returned from a mission trip to Siberia.  James and his team had gone with the intention of planting a church in an unchurched valley in Siberia.  When they arrived in this valley, they found that God had gone ahead of them.  Though the world thought this valley unchurched, there was a man functioning as a bi-vocational clergy there.  Well, bi-vocational in the sense that he was paid for his secular work and able to do the pastoring stuff for free.  As they spent time with this man, the team realized they had misheard their call.  They were helping water and nurture a church that had already formed before their arrival.  They had to set aside their plans and do the work God had given them to do.
     Unknown to them at the beginning was the redemptive role they were playing in this pastor’s life.  You see, when he first felt this urge or call to start a home church, he went to the next valley over and spoke to the mainline missionaries over there.  They were encouraging in that they were excited he had been called.  But they were discouraging in that there was a lot he needed to do before they would sign off on him being a pastor in their traditions.  This group of missionaries simply accepted the man and began working with him to teach him what he kind of already knew.  They let him ask lots of questions and steer the conversation where he wanted, no doubt with sharing bits of their wisdom.  When the man was too busy with work, the missionary team even dug him a new mechanic’s bay, so he could work on more cars—or hire others to do the work for him, freeing him up for more of the work of a church.  By the end of their time there, the team and the pastor were sharing their personal stories of redemption in their lives—how God had provided in the midst of privation, how God had healed bodies that were broken, and how God is always to be glorified for that amazing grace in their lives.  A pastor, who had been rejected for lack of learning and a lack of not doing this planting thing the right way by some, found himself encouraged by others, others who were rejoicing that in this pastor, yet another of God’s promises had been fulfilled!  He runs ahead of us and with us!  He uses the uneducated to His wise purposes!
     And, lest you think that these are special stories, that God rewards priests and missionaries because they are special, think of our collective history at Advent.  Our spiritual forebears fought poverty in the early and mid 1800’s.  Think of the absurdity of that notion.  Our Episcopal forebears, the rich and power Episcopalians of the cathedral in Nashville, TN, decided that the poor should be free to worship God with the rich and powerful.  How do you think other Episcopalians took to that odd notion?  Today it seems rather passé, but in those days it was revolutionary!  And they were the shakers and movers of this community!  They were the politicians, the doctors, the accountants.  We are not known for our work with blue collar folks today.  We tend to attract white collar or entrepreneurial individuals to our worship.  Yet our forebears held so tightly to the idea that God loves the poor that they split from that congregation and founded a church that rejected pew taxes.  Can you imagine!  And yet that scoffing turned to joy years later in the Church, when the Church finally lived up to the reminder that God loves the widow, the orphan, the outcast, and the poor.
     And then, some three decades later, another later generation of our spiritual forebears found themselves in the middle of the race wars of the 1870’s.  As crazy as suggesting that God loves poor people might sound, can you imagine yourself with the courage and conviction to tell your recently defeated brothers and sisters that God loved the freed slave as much as he loved the wealthy white folk?  Who among us would have that kind of courage?  Yet Adventers did.  Adventers helped lead the effort to incorporate the freed slaves in the life of worship in the Southern Church, especially in and around Nashville.  Can you imagine the scoffing they faced?  Can you imagine the resistance?  When George and Billy stepped into the anti-racism leadership role in the diocese, I know they wondered the use.  I’m sure some of you wondered what good it would do.  But in God’s eyes, it seems rather normal for Adventers to be taking on incredible evil, such as slavery, poverty, or racism, confident in His promises and His ability to redeem.  While the work may be daunting and oppressive, we can face it with joyful laughter, expectant that He will use our faithful labors to His redemptive purposes, and bring true joy.  Such has been His work since the days of Abraham and Sarah, such as been His work during the first generations of this parish, and such will be His work in this day and in this place, if we but seek out His will and His purposes.
     Brothers and sisters, fellow Adventers, I realize that these last few months have been challenging.  I recognize that there is a level of anxiety as we have been working to figure out our Lord’s plan for us in this community and in our age.  I get all that.  There is much about which we can be concerned and some things which could easily distract us.  But we are the inheritors of those promises made to Abraham and Sarah so long ago in Mamre.  We are the inheritors of that courage and perseverance imparted to Adventers in ages past.  We are, each of us, by virtue of our baptism into our Lord’s death and Resurrection, promised that He is with us in whatever journey we take, even when we take detours or choose routes that seemingly make things tougher for Him to redeem.  And we are promised that, so long as we seek to glorify Him in our lives, both collectively and individually, He will bless us and glorify Himself in us.  That is His promise to us as sons and daughters; that is His promise to us as His covenantal Bride.  The real question for us, the question that others likely have for us when they visit, is whether we are scoffers or joyful believers.  How we act, how we speak, how we love, even how we dispute testifies to them our answer to that question, Is anything too wonderful or too hard for the Lord?

In Christ’s Peace,

Brian†

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Looking back and looking forward, changing our perspective . . .

     Six or eight weeks ago, I was approached by a parishioner.  We’ll call him “Ralph.”  “Ralph” was dreaming a bit and wondering how cool it would be to see his beloved Penguins play the Predators in the Stanley Cup Finals.  He was also worried about split loyalties.  To take us all back in time, the Predators were the last team in the playoffs in the Western Conference.  They were playing the top seed in the West, the Chicago Blackhawks.  Pittsburgh, of course, was more likely to get to the finals.  Their only real obstacle, at least according to the pundits, was the Washington Capitals.  Fast forward to today, the Preds and the Pens start the series for Lord Stanley’s Cup this week in Pittsburgh.  I have advised “Ralph” that he should just wear a yellow shirt and sit on his hands for the games at Bridgestone! 
     I know some of you sometimes wonder whether I have a plan, whether there is a madness to my method (just testing to see if you are awake this morning), or a planning process at all when it comes to preaching and teaching in the parish.  As I began to prepare for this sermon, I was laughing at the plan I had way back in February.  To take you all back in time with me once again, I had been given permission by the members of the Vestry to rip the band aid off quickly, rather than pull slowly, when it came to doing the work of discernment and living into our discernment as a parish.  I expected that Vestry would begin to probe and test through prayer and fasting, and we as a parish would probe and test through prayer, fasting, and ministry efforts.  I had thought at the time I would spend our time in the season of Easter in the book of Acts, reminding us all that our story is a continuation of the book of Acts.  We are not continuing the book as if we are adding to the canon, but we are continuing the book in the sense of what comes next in God’s redemptive story.  Alas, such has not been how life has gone here these last few months.  We are still engaged in the beginning of discernment, and God seems to have pulled me to other lessons this season of Easter.  I share the story of my “it’ll never happen” with “Ralph” and the story of how I expected this season of Easter to unfold in our midst as a cautionary tale.  Things do not always go like we expect, nor did they always go the way our spiritual ancestors expected.
     This week, though, I think I am supposed to preach on Acts.  So turn in your Orders of Worship to that reading, if you want to follow along.  This section begins with a question that must have had Jesus ready to pull his hair out or blast His disciples with lightning bolts.  Maybe it’s a lesson to clergy that we need great patience with our Vestries?  To put the question in context, though, let me remind you that the disciples and apostles had been travelling with Jesus for three years.  For three long years, He had taught them about God’s plan of salvation and how He was instrumental in God’s plan.  In fact, He had taught them that He was God incarnate.  These same disciples had witnessed the Crucifixion, which Jesus had prophesied, and the Resurrection---again, a prophesy of Jesus.  If they had any doubts about the teachings of Jesus or His sanity, those doubts should have been trumped by the Resurrection.  In truth, the miracles should have been enough, but these men and women, certain ladies are mentioned as disciples in this passage, have encountered the Resurrected Jesus!  Like Thomas, their doubts should have been assuaged.  And after all this, they ask that stupid question: “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom of heaven?”
     You may think the question innocuous, but that great Anglican theologian John Stott often taught and preached that this question is entirely grammatically wrong.  It is so wrong that they do not get a part of the sentence correct.  The disciples and apostles get the verb wrong, the noun wrong, and the adverb wrong.  And despite the evidence that testified to the truth of Jesus’ words and teaching, they demonstrate the fact that they have not yet grasped His teaching.
     The first error is the adverb.  Is now the time that God will complete His work?  Much hay and great litmus tests are created about figuring out the date of the end time.  No matter the parish, such is always a lingering question.  We are instructed to live as if Christ could return any moment, but we are also repeatedly told throughout Scripture that we are not going to be given the times and periods God has set by His authority.  But we are sometimes seduced by those who point to specific dates as the beginning of the end times.  Social media helps fan that anxiety.  Every single time some nut job or self-aggrandizer takes to the pulpit to declare a date, it seems like social media picks it up and spreads it.
     Case in point: A couple weeks ago, my FB feed started showing a bunch of articles on the upcoming total eclipse.  I forget how many years it’s been, maybe 30?, but we in Nashville will get a total eclipse in August.  A swath from here to Seattle, I think, will be included.  Most of the articles were safety-related (don’t look directly at an eclipse) or travel related (the best destination cities for viewing).  I remember chuckling to myself that at least no one was predicting the eclipse as a doomsday signal.  Then, a couple days later, an Adventer sent me an article and asked me what I thought of the “Christian” group’s claim that August 21 would be the end of the world.  By the end of that week, a half dozen Adventers had asked me to share what I thought about this group’s claim.
     What the disciples and apostles missed and what we miss is that we are not going to know the time.  Oh, to be sure, we have a lucky guess chance of getting the date right.  But it’s just a guess.  Why do we feel tempted to spend so much time trying to figure out a date?  Why do we not listen to our Lord and realize it is not given to us to know the date?  Why?  Why are we seduced by the pursuit of such knowledge?  In reality, we, like the disciples and apostles who came before, are called to live each day as if this might be the Day.  We are called to live as if the preparation for the Day really began Easter Sunday almost 2000 years ago.
     Look how such “guessing” dishonors the Lord.  Every time there is a comet or a significant event, “Christians” seek to scare the world with a claimed certain knowledge of the date.  And when they are wrong, what happens?  People doubt God’s message.  People doubt God’s messengers, you and me and everyone else who call Him Lord.  People doubt God.  And we wonder why they mock us?  Imagine the testimony if we just lived our lives as if each moment could be the last moment!  That was Jesus’s instruction to His disciples and Apostles.  I will return, so get to work!
     Of course, the adverb is not the only part of their question that reflects that they still do not understand what Jesus was teaching them.  Look at the noun.  With what are the disciples and apostles concerned?  The kingdom of Israel.  Now, Jesus has reaffirmed Israel’s unique role in God’s redemptive plan—they are called to be a nation of priests, a light unto the world.  But Jesus has been teaching them about a far greater kingdom than that of what you and I, or the disciples listening to this teaching, think of as the nation-state of Israel.  He has been teaching them of the kingdom of God.  As good as things were under David or Solomon or Josiah or any other king you might think, Jesus has an even more magnificent kingdom in mind.  And they, like us, are heralds and workers in that kingdom.  This kingdom transcends time and space though it can be seen in this time and in this place.  It is, in the end, the recreation of everything as it ought to be, and not just settling for “as good as it can get here.”  For us, the Church or the people of God, such should be our focus.  The principalities and powers of the world claim to us all the time that the world is the way that it is or we are the measure of all things.  But we know better!  God has revealed Himself and His love to us fully and completely in His Son our Lord Christ!  All authority has been given to Him.  And we know that He will return one day to consummate this recreation begun that Good Friday and Easter morning so long ago.
     What happens when we get that noun wrong in our lives?  Look around.  Listen.  Evangelical Christian groups placed a mantle about a particular candidate in our last election.  Some were the complete opposite of me.  I reminded us not to put our faith in any human beings; but some pastors claimed all Christians were obligated to support only one candidate.  How has that played out for them?  How will that play out for us?  Do we as a country really want to claim we are God’s chosen sovereign nation?  I mean, sure there are benefits, but there is also cost and obligation.  And if we align ourselves with a political party, as if we are of and in this world, look at the dishonor we bring upon our Lord.  Non-Christians who have read the Bible challenge us on our stances on immigration or health care, if we are Republicans, or maybe classism or racism, if we are Republicans.  True, each party does some things which I think would please our Lord, but I have no doubt each does things that causes other citizens to doubt Him and His messengers.
     The verb in question also signifies that the disciples have missed His teaching.  Restore.  Restore implies that Jesus is simply about the business of bringing back what was.  I suppose, as Christians, we understand that God will recreate things like they were in the Garden, so in some sense, we will be restored to full communion with God.  We will walk with Him, talk with Him, glorify Him, and simply engage with Him in a manner that is beyond the best would could ever imagine.  But the disciples are simply looking for Him to bring back the glory years of the kingdom of Israel.  Maybe they like the militaristic past of David.  Perhaps they long for the wealth and wisdom of Solomon’s reign.  Could it be that they long for the peace of Josiah’s reign?  We are not told.  We simply learn that they are looking merely for restoration of some “golden-age,” when Jesus clearly has in mind something far greater than they could ever imagine.
     Again, how this plays out in our life at Advent is plain enough for good ol’ blind Bartimaeus to see.  How much of our anxiety, how much of our fear is caused by the realization that the church of today is not the church of yesterday nor the church of tomorrow?  I still believe that most of our angst is caused by a sense of loss combined with a lack of vision for the future.  Many of us look back a decade or three and in our mind’s eye see the sanctuary full, the rector handsome and priestly, hear the choir in all its glorious sound, remember the youth programs bursting at the seams, remember that everything was polished fine, and that everyone gathered was dressed to the nines.  We lament what we think is lost.  And we worry whether anything is to come.  In this we are like those disciples so long ago.  We forget that God is always about His work, renewing, refreshing, invigorating.
     In truth, none of us gathered at Advent really remember THE glory years of the parish.  Given that Charles Todd Quintard is now a celebrated saint in our wider church’s life, maybe the parish of his time represents our glory years.  Of course, some might argue that it was our founding to oppose pew taxes that served best to glorify God.  Others may say that when Adventers have been elevated to the role of bishop we were really glorifying God.  I’m sure there are other times that meet the definition of glory years for a parish.  But the fact that we can argue about them ought to give us some serious hope.  If we have had six or eight or ten glorious periods where the Gospel was proclaimed in the power of the Holy Spirit in word and deed, what’s to prevent a next golden age?  Why can there not be a seventh, ninth, or eleventh period that contests for our glory years?
     All of this, and Jesus’ counter-instructions, are given in light of the looming Ascension and coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.  When Jesus takes the time to rebuke and to remind the disciples and us that we are called to preach and teach the Gospel to the ends of the earth in the midst of this and that the Holy Spirit will come upon them and us, we know that they are His final earthly instructions.  He goes to prepare a place for us, but we have work to do until His return!  And to help us do the work He has given us to do, Jesus promises to send the Holy Spirit.  In fact, our primary focus really ought be this, His last instructions!  How often, though, are we like those early disciples?  How often are we consumed by our own foci and not our Lord’s?  In one sense, the book of Acts is all about the work of the Church, empowered by the Holy Spirit, seeking to accomplish the will of God to His honor and His glory.  That you and I gather here today, some 2000 years later and however many miles distant, testifies to us that the disciples listened to Him and that He sent that promised Spirit.  In other words, the book of Acts is the introduction to Advent’s  story, or Advent’s story is an appendix to the book of Acts.  Take your pick.
     This brief and final teaching is significant because it reminds us, all Christians, of the relationship between the Holy Spirit and the Church.  We need the Holy Spirit to understand our mission, our calling, in the world.  But we come to know the Holy Spirit better through our engagement in God’s mission in the world.  It’s both incredibly freeing and incredibly weighting.  We are promised that God is present with us as we discern and exercise our gifts for ministry--in fact, we would say the Spirit gives us those necessary gifts--, but we would also remind ourselves and others that it is the exercise of those gifts and talents that we experience the risen Christ of whom you and I are witnesses.  The application at Advent is probably obvious to those of us who self-describe as Adventers, or at least it should be.  Real ministry, real mission that glories God, can only be done in the power of the Holy Spirit; and God will become better known to us as we engage in those Spirit-led individual and corporate ministries.
     So, how does it speak to us in Nashville some nineteen centuries later and however many miles distant?  First, there is power in this truth.  Our gathering here is a fulfillment of Jesus’ promise.  When Rome ruled the world, no ambitious politician or military man wanted to serve in Judea.  No one.  And as we know from the Apostle Nathaniel, those in Judea did not have a good impression of those who were from Nazareth.  In some ways, Nazareth was the backwater region of the backwater province of the civilized world.  Growing up in West Virginia, we would give thanks for Louisiana and Mississippi because they sometimes made us look good by comparison, but nobody in the United States, except people born in those states, really wants to be from those states.  So it was in Rome with Judea.  Yet, within three centuries, after countless deaths and incredible persecutions, the Gospel of Christ conquers the Empire.  In that conversion of an emperor and assents of the aristocracy are born the seeds that make their way to this place.  Think of all the threats that must have been overcome to reach you and me in this place.  I have lived here only two years, but I have heard from some of you and read in books some of the challenges faced when settling this land.  I have read of some of the challenges that faced our parish ancestors within our beloved church.
     Our parish ancestors rejected the accepted idea that the poor were second class citizens in the church, and so they set out to form a new parish that was committed to the image of God in every single human being and to the breaking of human-created barriers that separated the poor from God.  That commitment to the image of God in everyone later put our ancestors at odds with their Christian brothers and sisters again as we struggled with the role of freed slaves in the church.  My predecessors and your spiritual ancestors took seriously Jesus prayer for unity and fought the tides of post-Civil War racism in the South and lobbied for the full inclusion of the freed slaves.  Most of us would agree that levels of racism exist still today, but can you imagine the racism of the 1860’s and 70’s that was, in part, fueled by the bitterness of defeat?  And make no mistake, some of those freed slaves took courageous leaps of faith and stayed in our church, against the seductive calls of their fellow freed-slaves, all in an effort to love and serve God to His glory.  Freed slaves rejecting the call of their brothers and sisters; whites rejecting the accepted teaching of the day—in some ways, our forebears at Advent were the outcasts of the outcast.  Yet the Gospel was preached.  Lives were transformed.  Buildings were built and sold.  And today, you and I are reminded that He promised His Gospel would reach to the ends of the earth.  Our presence today testifies to that truth.
     That’s not the only lesson for us at Advent, though.  These first five months of discernment have not gone well.  We have had some difficulty starting the process; we have had different “buy-in” among members.  How do we pray?  How do we fast?  How do we study?  How do we hear the voice of God?  How do we recognize the presence of that Spirit which our Lord promised?  We have had a budget issue—no real surprise since we had no stewardship program, which caused a great deal of anxiety, anger, or worry.  In many ways, we are just like those disciples who asked Jesus this question so long ago.  One repeated criticism is that I am unengaged about the financial issues at Advent, that I am not hammering us enough, that I am too focused on mission discernment and evangelism.
     My patient response has been that I understand the priorities.  Provision always follows mission.  Always.  If we properly discern God’s call upon our corporate and parish lives, provision will not be an issue.  I’m not saying that we will ever be flush with cash.  I am saying that everything we need to accomplish God’s will in our lives will be provided—be it money, passion, numbers of volunteers, expertise, leadership—whatever is need for us to glorify God in this place at this time will be provided by that same Spirit He promised to send to lead us.  And here’s the even better news: if we fail, if we make a mistake, if we mishear His voice, He forgives.  He not only promises to forgive those who repent, but He promises to redeem!  Think of that freedom, brothers and sisters!  Those of us seeking to do His will in our lives or in this parish can really make a mess of things in our lives or our parish, but He promises to redeem our mistakes.  With penitent and obedient hearts, His Gospel spreads like a wildfire.
     You all know this.  Yes, there are pockets of classism still rampant in the human heart, but how many of those same churches that were insistent our parish ancestors were wrong to lower the barriers to God for the impoverished in our midst take that stand now?  How many churches proclaim “only the rich are lived by God?”  If any denomination has a reputation for elitism, it’s Episcopalians.  Yet Episcopalians at Advent were the ones discerning God’s will better 150 years ago!  And yes, there are pockets of racism still rampant in the human heart, but how many of our churches, Episcopal churches, are confused as safe havens for racial hate groups?  Clearly, God forgives those who repents and redeems and blesses.  We are witnesses to His redeeming grace!
     That brings me to the last important message to us this morning: Witnessing.  If you are visiting today, you may feel like you have stumbled into a bit of a family history lesson.  I have spoken of parish, and diocese, and regional corporate history.  You may feel a bit detached from those stories; you may wonder at their significance in your life, especially if you are not Episcopalian or if you are seeking God.  But I am here to remind you that the history of which I have been speaking is the history of all of God’s people.  If I have done my job well this morning, if I have effectively proclaimed the truth of the book of Acts, you now see God’s story at work in our lives, in our parish, and in our city, fulfilling the promise He made to those men and women in Jerusalem almost 2000 years ago.  And those stories I have told are part of your story because you are among those who love Him and call Him Lord.
     Every single person whom God calls into relationship with Himself is transformed and empowered to testify to His saving grace.  Every. Single. Person.  No exceptions.  The shape and form of that testimony may differ greatly from individual to individual, but that is the real point of everything we do!  Everything the parish does is about equipping and preparing the saints for this witnessing we have been describing.  Our worship, our study, our prayers, our sermon time, our fellowship time, our budget, our meeting times, our pastoral care efforts—all of it is done with an eye to helping each and every one of us see God’s grace at work in our lives so that we might be more effective witnesses.  It can be challenging because it is not formulaic.  But it can be incredibly rich and diverse because of the individuals involved.  How I speak of God as a professional clergy person differs from how an insurance salesman might or a teacher or a musician or medical professional or an athlete.  I might use words, but others may use service or music or art or still other ways.  Earlier I spoke of our ancestors recognizing that the poor and freed slaves were created in the image of God.  The outflow of that understanding is the recognition that God can and does use all of His sons and daughters for His redemptive purposes.  Some of those uses may be subtle—how we show hope in the midst of disease or death, how we give generously in the midst of financial uncertainty, how we relate to others--; others may be radical and profound—such as taking a fisherman who denied Him three times in the face of common folk and giving Him words to say in front of the Sanhedrin a few weeks later!  You and I fall somewhere along that spectrum.  We are somewhere between subtle and incredibly visible witnesses.  And God has promised, as reminded this day by Luke, that He has made His Spirit available to each of us, that He might be glorified in our lives, in our churches, and in the world around us.
     Brothers and sisters, as we wrap up this season of Easter, as we begin to embark in that wonderful season of growth we have a perfectly assigned lesson.  We have been reminded for seven weeks that we are a people of the Resurrection.  Just as significantly, though, we are a people empowered by the Holy Spirit entrusted with the incredible responsibility of proclaiming the Gospel in word and deed so that He might be glorified in our lives, that His kingdom might continue to grow, and that the world will be restored to its Creator!  It is unfathomable responsibility and awesome opportunity.  Perhaps even more frightening, He allows us to discern what He wants us to do!  He woos us, He nudges us, He grants us peace and passion that the world does not know.  And individual by individual, His kingdom grows.  What is He nudging you to do?  What is He wooing Advent to do?  As we return to that long season of green, how is He calling upon each of us to grow in our relationship with Him?  Just as He was willing with those disciples across the oceans and continents and so long ago, He wants nothing more than to work with and through each one of us.  Who knows?  Such is His willingness to pour out grace and honor on all who serve him, maybe a couple centuries hence Adventers of the future will speak of your names in the same loving reverence we speak of Quintard, Sanders, Longhurst, MacGruder, and whatever other names for whose witness you give thanks to God!

Peace,

Brian†

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Preparing a table in the midst of our enemies . . . On the life and witness of Ruth!

     I must confess sermon-crafting in situations like this can be incredibly paradoxical.  On the one hand, I did not know the Ruth that all of you all did.  When I arrived at Advent a couple years ago, Ruth was already not herself.  In fact, she was so ravaged by her memory loss that caregivers in her facility told me on my first visit not to expect her to be able to receive Communion.  Swallowing was already a difficult challenge for her, as it often is for men and women in her condition.  So, me trying to figure out Ruth’s testimony to you all, her friends and family and partners in crime, is really tough.  I have no first hand stories from her upon which I can draw.
     On the other hand, as Ruth had been stripped of all the façade of what we call life, I did get a view into her core being that parishioners often try to hide from clergy and each other.  And Ruth’s was amazing, at least from the perspective of an outsider.  Keep in mind, I had not yet met Susan and heard any stories.  The caregivers were very insistent about how hard it was for Ruth to eat and drink and for me to keep my expectations low.  Yet every single time I or Holly brought her Communion, Ruth’s face lit up and she consumed the Sacrament.  There was no hesitation, no gagging or choking, just grateful that her hunger and thirst were being met by the Lord.
     And make no mistake, Ruth was not happy to see me.  Quit laughing, I did not mean it like that.  We had no prior relationship.  It was not as if Ruth was excited to see this green-shirted or white-shirted or red-shirted clergy show up like a long lost friend.  I did not look like Tom or Rick or anyone else who had ministered to her over the years.  She was just happy to be receiving the body and blood of our Lord.  That was her focus.
     That was her focus on all my visits save the last.  My last visit was on Maundy Thursday last month.  That was the first day that she could not receive the Sacrament since I had been here.  She was disappointed in her eyes.  I saw it, and so did Susan.  I offered to lay hands for prayer and to anoint her with the new oil the bishop had blessed that morning and pray for her.  As the fragrance of that oil wafted over her, Ruth visibly relaxed and sunk back into her pillow.  Having seen that hunger and thirst for a couple years, I’ve no doubt that Ruth has received the healing for which she longed and for which I prayed that afternoon last month.
     That is, of course, great for her, but funerals and funeral sermons are more for the living.  We gather as a group of people touched by the life and witness of this lady we call Ruth wondering where God is and was in the midst of all this.  How can God redeem a death that seems so cruel?  Many of us worry about dementia and Alzheimer’s and other diseases which cause us to lose our minds.  Many of us will mouth the words, “If I can just keep my mind when I get older, it will be ok.”  We might grudgingly accept a need for assisted living.  We might even grumble as we are forced to depend upon a cane or walker to help us balance.  We might even choke down an unholy and bitter cocktail of drugs to help our hearts, our blood, or whatever ailments we have.  Heck, we might even think we have the courage to withhold prolonging treatment in the face of a terminal disease or condition.  Ah, but to lose one’s mind, THAT is a fate worse than death.
     And if we fear that so much, it makes sense that such a condition would be better visited upon those other than God’s people, right?  I mean, what good is it to serve God, to worship God, to love one’s neighbors as oneself—as by all accounts Ruth seems to have done in the stories many of you have shared with me—if He won’t honor His end of the bargain?  Where was He when Ruth started to lose her mind?  Where was He when Ruth lingered and lingered?  Where was He when the Ruth we knew left and was replaced by this shell of what we knew?  In rage, we might demand of God where His justice was in how she lived the last years of her life.
     Where is He for the family?  Susan and Edgar will have a really tough time over the next few months as these issues are raised in conversations that are meant to be comforting.  Some of us will make the horrible mistake of telling them that this, the death of their mother, is for the best.  As outsiders we may look on their emotional, physical, and financial investment in the care of their mother and think that a burden has been lifted.  Susan and Edgar will feel only the pain of having lost the lady who raised them, who nursed them, who taught them, who mothered them.  And our heartless words of “comfort” will serve only to make us feel better that we do not have the answers.  Yes, Ruth is in a better place.  Yes, Ruth is joining the choir of angels and archangels and singing in glorious harmony the praises of the Lord.  But we are not.  We are left searching, seeking, struggling.  That is where Ruth’s witness to you and to me is most profound.
     As Adventers have shared their favorite stories of Ruth, one common thread was the table cloth.  Adventers, some jokingly and some not so jokingly, spoke of that table cloth for dinner as the acknowledgement that they were finally Adventers.  It was a great thing to be invited to Ruth’s house for dinner and be asked to sign the table cloth.  Ruth’s practice, for those of you who never made it to dinner, was to embroider the signature of all those who shared a meal with her in her house.  As I was laughing about this practice, well more the responses to the practice, with Susan yesterday, her lightbulb went off.  Susan had the table cloth and planned to bring it today.  Most of you saw it over in the parish hall this morning.  A lot of you went looking for your own signature.  As people found their names, they shared stories about the meal.  A few remarked on the color of the embroidery thread Ruth had chosen for them.  And some people panicked.  Where’s my name?  Did she wash me out?  I know I signed it! 
     I suppose I should take this moment as you are all chuckling, nudging , and murmuring to remind you that, if a stupid human priest can notice all these details about you, imagine the details that God can see in your or my life!
     Watching and listening, of course, drew me right in to Psalm 23 this morning.  I often think it is a foolish preacher who bothers to preach on that well known psalm because it is so well known.  But, I am sometimes cognizant that we are too familiar with things and thereby miss them.  Psalm 23 might just fall into that category. 
     One of the great myths about our faith is that when we convert, when we “get Jesus,” all our problems will be saved.  I won’t ask for a show of hands, but I wonder how many people chose to be baptized thinking they’d never have another money problem, they’d never have a health issue, they’d never have a relationship issue, that they’d be taken care of by God.  That’s a failure on the part of clergy leadership.  We should be telling people it gets harder.  The Enemy of God is not happy when we choose the Lord, so the pressure points often get more acute to drive us from the faith.  If we discover that our problems do not go away, maybe we will think God does not really love us or that His covenant does not apply to us.  And we will turn away.
     Certainly the psalmist recognized this issue or temptation.  Does the psalmist understand that God will take away all his or her problems?  Of course not!  The table is spread before the enemies.  They are not destroyed.  They are not removed.  The enemies are still there, surrounding the psalmist.  Yet the psalmist understands that God will provide abundantly in the midst of his enemies.  We think of pastoral enemies because of the setting of the psalm, The Lord is my shepherd.  Because we are familiar with the psalm and the setting, we think in terms of wolves or lions or brambles or grassless pastures, but the psalm was intended by God to be so much deeper for us.
     Even in modern Nashville, where sheep have not been seen outside the zoo since pretty much ever, God was shepherding Ruth.  Like us, she experienced the normal vicissitudes of life.  Susan and Edgar might be a perfect son and daughter now, but I bet Ruth could share some stories that would disabuse us of our silly notions.  By all accounts, she and Edgar had a wonderful life together, but I bet she could share with us that there were marital difficulties at various times.  Perhaps we perceived her as having all her material needs met, but I am sure she could tell about the hard times in her life, too.  None of us would dare make the claim, “At least she had her health.”  Nobody, but especially no disciple of Jesus, goes through life untouched.
     But she recognized where her protection, her abundant life came from.  Not a person outside my church has failed to mention how Ruth’s dinners were meant to be an escape of sorts, that for the few hours you were wined and dined at her table you could forget your cares and enjoy the feast and the friendship.  Where do you think she learned to model that behavior, my friends?  Right here in this psalm!  She loved you, her neighbors and her friends, as she did herself.  She wanted each of you to experience, however insignificantly she could provide, the Peace and abundance offered by her Lord.  She wanted you, her friends and family, pointed in His direction, because, in the end, He is the true shepherd.
     Those of you perhaps wrestling with her testimony and the claims of the Christian faith might well point out her end of life as justification for your doubts or fears or disappointment.  I would not leave you without a couple thoughts to consider in light of the life of Ruth.  We serve a God who specializes in redemption and resurrection.  For reasons known only to Him on this side of the grave, He often chooses to work through suffering.  The ultimate example of that suffering was, of course, modeled for us by Jesus Christ His Son our Lord, and His call to us is to pick up our cross and follow Him.  Crosses are not easy things to bear.  There is not much glory in this world to be found in following God.  Sure, from time to time, a bright light (we call them saints) will shine for a brief moment, but the world is often determined to snuff out the memory of those lights.  By all accounts, Ruth lived a life that glorified her Lord.  For most of you in attendance, she was that kind of light we call a saint.  Many of you have spoken how she loved you like a sister, a daughter, or a son.  All of you who have shared that with me have pointed out how Ruth wanted you in her inner circle of love, that being a cousin or a co-worker or a friend was just a little too distant for her.  And each of you has remarked how you have missed that Ruth these last years.
     She simply loved you as best she could in light of her certain knowledge that God loved you even more.
     How do we know?  As I mentioned in the beginning, let’s consider the end of her life.  In no way would any of us choose to suffer what she suffered.  In absolutely no sense of the word would we ever expect that any good could come from such evil.  The veneer that we all put up in front of one another was stripped bare from Ruth.  What’s worse, there was a time when she knew it was being removed.  How did she respond?  At her core, still she hungered and thirsted for her Lord.  And those of you who saw it, or have seen it, know what I mean.  There was no “appearances” in Ruth at the end of her life.  She did not pretend to be pious.  This was who she was.  God was whom she desired in spite of her sufferings and her losses.  And as we recall that this day, God is again glorified in suffering.
     Make no mistake, God did not want her to be a widow or to suffer the loss of her memory as a lesson to us.  Just as we read a couple weeks before Easter at the tomb of Lazarus, our Lord weeps with you, her family and loved ones.  This was not the life He desired for Ruth when He created the heavens and the earth.  But He still has the power to redeem all things, even those of us who have entered the shadows of the valley of death.  Even as He weeps with us at this tragedy, He has power and authority to call her out!  To bring her to Him for all eternity!  And that is the promise which comforted Ruth.
     That, brothers and sisters is what makes Ruth’s testimony a Gospel lesson for us all.  If this was the end of her story, it would still be tragic.  She has died.  But in this season we call Easter it is appropriate that we remember the promise upon which she staked her entire life—that He would redeem her from all things, even her own death!  That, my friends was the promise upon which her hope rested.  That, my friends, was the promise that compelled her to love you each as she did.  That, my friends, was the promise that caused her to set that table for you and point you in the direction of her Lord who sets an even better feast!  A feast whose foods make Ruth’s look bland!  A feast whose wine makes Ruth’s taste like Boone’s Farm!  A feast to whom the invited never need worry whether their name can be found, for it has been cleansed and sealed in the Body and Blood of our Savior, Ruth’s Savior, Jesus Christ!

In Christ’s Peace,

Brian†

Friday, April 14, 2017

Adornment or a symbol of oppression or a way of life?

     I suppose the origins for this sermon was in a conversation last Saturday, though I admit I did not real theologizing about it until later in the week.  Last Saturday, to refresh our memories, we were in the midst of the parish cleanup.  Holly and I were washing windows in the parish hall.  John Stokes had invited me again to the Rotary Pancake breakfast, and I had accepted, not realizing the conflict.  Now, you all know John.  Everybody in Brentwood knows John.  Everyone that came by John to say hello got introduced to me.  Some paid attention to the “This is our priest,” promptly shook my hand, and took off.  Others wanted to talk to a priest.  Still others did not hear the priest part.  And let’s face it, I was dressed like a cleaner, except for my cross.
     One gentleman decided to tell me the story of a lady’s cross.  He went into great detail about the origins of her cross.  It was made out of dogwood.  Her favorite tree had been a dogwood which was killed in the blight or fungus that killed them all thirty years ago.  The brother had taken up carving as a way of using the wood.  He made the whole family crosses out of that tree.  He’s even painted the top of hers to match the bloom.  It was a good story of a cross and told a bit about families and memories.  Clearly he was impressed by the story of the cross.  Then he asked me if mine had one.
     Now, many of you know the story of my ordination cross.  It survived a run through Chosin Reservoir.  The gentleman who gave it to me specifically rejected giving it to family members because I was greater battles.  For those of you who do not know the story, ask at another time.  Frank had enlisted in the Marines underage, had been sent to Asia, and before that battle at Chosin Reservoir served as an acolyte for an Anglican Eucharist.  This cross had been given him by the bishop, and, as far as Frank was concerned, explained as well as anything why he had survived when so many had perished.
     It’s a good story.  It’s a really good story.  It makes carving a cross from the deadwood of a tree seem . . . trivial.  But I was not in a mood to be trivializing.  I sure did not want to embarrass John or a friend of John’s.  Palm Sunday and Holy Week were upon me.  So I deflected.  I started off with a discussion about how all crosses point to the Cross and the love and heartfeltness we should all feel toward God, particularly this time of year.  The comments annoyed a couple people who were listening to his story.  You ministers are always so . . . churchy.  I am certain the other fellow meant it as a slam, but I am glad he is encountering ministers in his life that are excited about God and the Church and the Gospel.  For so long, many of us have been . . . less than excited.
     Of course, too much passion can be a bad thing.  Some of my colleagues were in a discussion this week.  One clergy friend was buying crosses for those being baptized.  It was there that he got a lesson in the cross as a fashion accessory.  Boy or girl?  What color looks best on them?  Low cut blouses or high neck colors?  As he griped about his experience, others chimed in.   I was asked if I wanted one with a little man on it.  I was asked why it was so popular to begin with.  Clearly, a nerve had been struck, and many had a story to one up each other.  One colleague even posted a magazine article, I think it was Glamour but it may have been another fashion magazine, that helped the reader figure out what kind of cross went with every kind of outfit.  Apparently, the cross is not the sacred symbol we consider it to be.  As an aside, our own Frank says that crosses had become more of a fashion statement that a statement of faith when he retired from the jewelry business.
     Then I wondered if the ever was a worldwide symbol of faith.  The cross in Rome was a symbol of futility, humiliation, and power.  There are other ways to kill people, but crucifixion is particularly drawn out.  It goes on and on and on.  Heck, we get a sense of that from our readings today.  The authorities want the condemned men to die quickly because of the solemnity of the occasion, so they ask Pilate to break the men’s legs and speed their death.  Let me state that again, they need Pilate’s permission to speed up the death of the condemned.  We can’t have it happen too quickly, else the people will never learn the lesson.
      And imagine the lesson for the family members and friends.  They get to watch the loved one suffer and die, and they are powerless to do anything about it.  What must have been running through the ladies’ minds as they watched Jesus die?  What kind of raging futility must have gripped Mary?  Was she mad at Rome?  At those who conspired against her son?  At Pilate?  At Jesus for putting Himself in this position?  At God, for making her watch on helplessly?  And I wonder f maybe there were fear?  She had to be worried on some level that maybe she was next.  She had raised Him.  Where had He gotten these ideas that He was the Messiah?  Someone might come looking for her.
     Christians quickly adopted the Cross as the standard or symbol of their faith, but the adoption process was not particularly quick nor uncontested.  Most of us know that the fish, not the cross, was the figure drawn in the dust to mark a house church in the time before the conversion of Rome.  And, let’s face it, when did Christianity ever really truly dominate the world.  Sure, we had some prestige in Western Europe.  Many of our modern countries trace their existence to some sort of divine providence arising out of those periods.  But the world?  Movies are out now depicting the missionary activities of the Church in places like Asia or South America.  For all our handwringing, I wonder if the Cross was ever the sign or standard that we would like to believe it was.  Somehow, given the condition of the world, I doubt it.
     I am thankful, of course, that we liturgical Christians focus on the Cross for a few days each year.  Unlike our brothers and sisters who chose not to follow liturgical seasons, you and I come face to face with the Cross for a few days every year.  Like others, we might convince ourselves that we are the “special” Christians.  Like others, we might delude ourselves into believing that our relationship to God means we have a special relationship with rulers.  Like others, we might even convince ourselves, or allow ourselves to be convinced, that we are really powerless to change the evil in the world, that we are unfit or impotent to help God with His plan of salvation on earth.  For all of what we call Holy Week, you and I and all liturgical Christians (who bother to attend and remember) are called to remember that the Cross was The plan of salvation.  The Cross was the means by which God redeemed the world to Himself.  The Cross is the means by which we know God’s love for each one of us.
     For our more Protestant brothers and sisters, the Cross is strongly (and correctly) identified as the source of their salvation.  The Cross becomes that mysterious means by which our mortal, sinful selves were crucified with and died with Jesus.  And while this existence is not yet the Resurrection that was begun on Easter morning, it surely is a sign of the hope we have in Christ, a pledge of His power to redeem each one of us.
     But the Cross is more than “just” a means of personal salvation.  The Cross was a signifier to those early Christians, and to us, that a new reality was bursting in.  Rome, the superpower of the day, had put down the leader of this new reality in as cruel and as permanent a way as possible, and still God was sufficient.  This new reality, this heavenly kingdom, could not be stopped.  Nothing, not even death could stop its determined advance because God was the One empowering it, nurturing it, determining it.  It was that sense of things becoming on earth as they were in heaven that caused Christians, empowered by the Holy Spirit, to begin to change the world.  It was Christians who began adopting abandoned babies off the trash heaps.  It was Christians who began to care for the widowed, the aged, and the infirm.  It was Christians that nursed the common people through the plagues.  Heck, we like to think we fight about sex now, but it was Rome whose patron goddess was sex even as their patron god was war.  Christians, according to non-interested experts, removed the shame that was associated with sex during the empire.  To be sure, these changes did not happen overnight.  Great numbers of Christians were killed for their willingness to help others.  Rome argued that might made right, and they were quick to punish any and all who stood against them.  It took three centuries for the empire to begin to convert, at the sign of a cross before a battle I might add, and those “great times” to really begin.
     What caused so many normal people to fight that system?  What caused so many people to love and serve others into the kingdom?  What convinced ordinary people that this life was worth laying down in service of others in a culture that rejected them?  The Cross.  For so many that cross stood as the symbol of God’s love of the world and all that is therein.  The Cross was that wonderful and visible reminder that the world could throw its best and strongest weight at God and that God was still up to the challenge.  God was still redeeming the world, one soul at a time, one service at a time, one family at a time, one group of people at a time.  And no matter how hard the world resisted, God would win in the end.
     Brothers and sisters, we live in an age that is not so different from the age in which our Lord was nailed to the Cross.  The poor and homeless are still with us.  Disease still ravages us.  Slavery still surrounds us and benefits us.  Human beings are beaten for no good reason, like sitting on an airplane having bought a ticket.  Wars are still happening.  Heck, I could give a homily on the injustices of the world, and I am sure I would forget a couple.  But the message of the Cross is not just one of personal salvation, as important as that is, but one of molding and shaping us to be heralds of this new order, this kingdom come.  All of who we were, who we are, and who we are to be is signified by that rugged tree.  And each and every one of us has a role to place in the advancement of God’s kingdom.  To be sure, it will not come fully until the Day our Lord returns in glory.  But part of our response to the Gospel is to remind people that we are a Resurrected people.  We may not look like it all the time yet.  We may not sound like it all the time yet.  But we are, by virtue of the Cross and empty tomb, a people who can hope, who can serve, who can lay down their lives for others, in loving imitation of the One we rightly call Lord and Master.  And through His call on all our lives, we can help change lives, families, systems, governments, and the world.  The Cross is not just a fashion statement or means of torture; it is the place where our lives find meaning and purpose.

In Christ’s Peace,

Brian†

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

The Path that leads to glory . . .

     I suppose, as I get started, I had better do a quick check and address the elephant in the room.  I know some people at Advent think I do not know what a pulpit is, so the fact that I am standing in this one may have caused a heart attack or unnecessary fear that you have been left behind.  What?  You don’t think I don’t hear the comments?  Some have been said right to me?  Some have been reported to me to get others in trouble, but that’s a different issue.  Yes.  We know what a pulpit is.  Yes.  We are aware that some love the pulpit.  But there are other forces at play here.  For everyone that loves the pulpit, there is an Adventer that doesn’t.  As often as I get comments of “I wish you would preach from the pulpit” I get “I’m so glad you and Holly don’t.”  What she and I wish, of course, is that everybody would divide into two different services.  It would be great if the pulpit lovers all came at one service and the “not in the pulpit” people came to another.  Feeding both groups would be so much easier for us.  But, no.  We have people at both services in both camps.  What’s worse, as I have shared with pretty much everyone who has shared this particular concern, younger visitors overwhelmingly prefer clergy amongst them.  Pulpits give them the impression of us preaching at them.  And, let’s face it, the preachers in the Church have made a lot of mistakes and incarnated the perceived hypocrisy rather than our Lord’s ministry.  Our balance is to figure out how to feed you and how to feed visitors, especially those adamantly opposed to the “at them” setting.  We exist for people not yet a part of us, but we still have to nourish and strengthen those who are already here.  So, if you are visiting, and you are inclined to presume that I am preaching at you, I ask your patience.  I am often a stroller as I preach, and, as many at Advent will share, I am in life’s struggles and faith’s struggles with you.
     Our reading today is another long pericope from the Gospel of John.  As long as they have seemed to you, Holly and I have wondered if they are going to end as we read them during the service.  As a preacher, of course, the length causes some significant challenges because there are so many topics upon which to preach, all of which have applications in the lives of those at Advent.  So today, I will highlight a couple of those topics, hoping to cause further pastoral conversations this week, while focusing on two significant issues to us a parish body.
     Before I get to the real teaching, those at 8am told me between the services that I needed a sermon illustration to drive the points of this story home.  Clearly, I had not used one during the early service.  When I shared what would have been my illustration, it was clear I did them some disservice by not sharing.  That means you all get the illustration.
     When I was interviewing and exploring a call at Advent, I was asked by several members on the Search Committee and Vestry if I believed the Bible.  I understand there as an undercurrent to their questions, but I answered it as if the questions were the real questions and not covering for something behind them.  I told those who asked that of course I believed the Bible.  When I answered a little too nonchalantly or too blasé for their tastes, follow up questions ensued.  Some heard the story of my own Lazarus moment.
     I was asked by a fellow priest if I would cover for any pastoral emergencies while he was on vacation some years ago.  Naturally, I agreed.  That meant he would owe me when I went on vacation!  Anyway, a few days after Darin left, there was an emergency.  I received a call in the middle of the night from the old Episcopal hospital in Davenport telling me I need to come quickly to give Last Rites.  I threw on my clothes and headed in to the hospital.  When I got to the floor, the charge nurse greeted me at the elevator explaining the situation.  Gib had a severe brain bleed—I guess you doctors and nurses call them acute aneurisms.  Gib had only hours to live, at most, and she was glad for the wife’s sake that I had gotten there within a half hour or so.  The nurse walked me into the room, introduced me to the wife, and then left me to do my job.
     Now, you all know me pretty well.  Whatever descriptions you might use of me, “unable to speak” would not be one of them.  A strange thing happened as I introduced myself to the soon-to-be widow, grabbed my oil, and got my prayer book opened.  I found myself on page 462 unable to speak.  Don’t bother looking; it’s the Ministration at the Time of Death.  I could see the words; I knew the words.  And I could not shape my mouth to say the words.  I kept trying and trying and just could not spit out the words.  I’m sure Gib’s wife had to think she got the only uneducated priest in all of Iowa—that’s how incompetent I was.  After a few minutes, I began to wonder if maybe God was binding my tongue.  I can read; I can usually speak.  Was I having a stroke, was I having an aneurism, or was God up to something?
     I closed my book and prayed to God for discernment.  I needed clarity about my role.  What I felt was that I needed to pray for Gib to be healed.  Then the real wrestling match began.  The nurse had made it clear she had been worried I would not arrive in time.  The soon-to-be widow made it clear she was worried about whether I would even bother to come – remember, I did not know them.  I had done the faithful, obedient thing.  I had dragged myself out bed to be with strangers as he died.  But I had this feeling.
     The wrestling match with God probably only lasted a few moments.  Lord, this is wrong.  She is about to become a widow.  What will I say to her when Gib dies?  How will I ever bring her or the family comfort?  The feeling would not leave.  So, I spit it in God’s teeth.  OK, Lord.  I’ll pray for His healing, but it’s on You when He dies.  You are going to have to do some extra work here when I muck this up.
     And I prayed for Gib’s healing.
     I remember the generalities of the prayer to this day, even though the specific words escape me.  I reminded God that we were in the season of Epiphany, the season when we celebrate His manifestation to the Gentiles of His Son our Lord, Jesus.  I asked God to show those who worked in that hospital, those who were being cared for by the hospital, and even for sorry priests like me to be reminded where true healing was to be found.  I prayed that Gib would be raised to His glory.
     Wouldn’t you know it, Gib sat up and said “I gotta pee.”
     Now, at the time, I confess I was not processing what I had just heard or just seen.  As he struggled to get out of bed, his wife was trying to hold him on the bed.  It was not quite WWF at this point, but I was sure someone was going to get hurt.  Gib would not calm down no matter how many times she and I tried to calm him or answer his questions.  So I did the only thing I could think of.  I left the wrestling match and went looking for help.
     I found the charge nurse down the hall in the corner rooms.  I told her to come quick because Gib was trying to go pee.  I was fairly certain he should not be walking with that acute brain bleed.  She needed to help calm him down before someone, either Gib or his wife got hurt.  The charge nurse looked at me, so disappointed and so condescendingly, and said, “Father, I know you want to believe things like that happen.  They just don’t.  Maybe they did, but now they don’t.”  We argued for maybe two minutes, and I finally convinced her to come to Gib’s room.  She was clearly only doing it to placate me.  The whole walk there she was clucking at me about needing to get with the real world and not get my hopes up.  Well, she was doing that until we turned the corner and she saw Gib’s wife laying over Gib on the bed and Gib shouting at her and trying to throw her off the bed.
     You laugh.  It was the craziest and most remarkable turn of events I have ever witnessed.  I had been called to the hospital for Last Rites; I half expected one or both to be seriously injured in this battle of wills.  Maybe I would be doing two rites.  The nurse hit the button on the wall and yelled stuff with “Stat!” at the end of every instruction.  Clearly, the voice on the other ended did not expect such instructions in that room with any demand for haste attached to them.  A team of nurses and doctors came rushing in within a couple moments, the first group pushing me aside and a later group asking me and the wife to leave the room.  A neurosurgeon (I later learned) asked me what had happened.  I told the guy I had prayed over Gib and he needed to pee.  Gib was simply bound and determined to get to the bathroom.  I had asked him to wait until I could get a nurse, but he was confused.  He could not figure out how he got to Genesis nor why he was there, and he was not letting anyone put a catheter in!  I had to be wrong.  He’d read the pics himself.  Gib was a dead man.  It was a question of when, not if.  No one could be healed from that big a bleed in the brain.
     Meanwhile, in the background, Gib was telling people to get off him, to leave him alone, and to take him to the restroom.  God had come powerfully among us in that room.  In those first few moments, I did not recognize the significance of the event.  I was more worried about them getting hurt.  Heck, the healed man just wanted to pee.  And the cynicism of doctors and nurses was, for a time, shattered.
     Our story from John today is the seventh sign or miracle attesting to the identity of Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ.  John weaves these miracles throughout the Gospel bearing his name because he wants to put the evidence before readers and hearers.  We have to decide who this Jesus is.  Is He a hippy born out of time?  Is He just another good guy who had some charisma and was able to tap into the human psyche?  Is He who He claims to be, the Son of God?  CS Lewis once famously wrote that the Gospels force us to choose whether Jesus really was God Incarnate / Man divine or a nutcase.  There is no “meh, I guess He’s fine.”  You either accept His claim and His authority and His promise, or you reject Him.  John understood that about His Lord.
     Think of the miracles that have come before.  They testify to Jesus’ authority over nature.  He turns water into wine.  He calms the waves and the storm and walks on water.  He feeds thousands with a few loaves and fishes.  Other miracles are more focused on His authority over what you and I think of as natural, but the audience would have understood as supernatural or “belonging to God.”  The man blind from birth last week and the crippled man by the pool come to mind.  Jesus heals the latter on a Sabbath, seemingly violating God’s law.  But the witnesses and we are forced to ask and answer the question, “Would God do such a work through a blasphemer?”  The man born blind from birth causes the disciples to ask whether his suffering was due to his sin or the sin of his parents.  Most would have assumed that the blindness was a curse from God for some heinous sin.  Jesus’ ability to heal, and do so on a sacred day or to declare that there is no sin, would have caused an ANE audience 2000 years ago to see Jesus as having authority over things that belonged to God.  Apart from God, how could He do those things?
     And, lest you think Brian is being too simplistic about their purpose of John’s recording of these miracles, look at how he ends his Gospel: (20:31) Jesus did many other signs but these are told that we might come to believe that He is the Messiah, the Son of the living God and that through believing in Him we might have life.  Even later, John confesses that Jesus did many more signs, but 20:31 gives the purpose for the signs that John chose to include.  So why did John include this one?  What does it have to say to Adventers in Nashville some 200 years later?
     In fact, this lesson has much to say to all of us.  I will touch upon a few areas because I hope to provoke some specific conversations before I get to the corporate message.  Look at the beginning of John’s Gospel.  When Jesus gets news of Lazarus’ illness, how does he respond?  We might well expect Him to run to Lazarus, His friend, and do another work of power by healing Lazarus.  Instead, Jesus stays two days longer where He was because He knows that the Lazarus illness leads to God’s glory rather than death.  At first, we might think that Jesus is being a bit callous.  He could save some significant grief; yet He lingers to allow the disease to run its course before He acts.  But it is one thing to believe that Jesus can cure a disease.  Death?  Who has an answer for that?
     What happens next?  After two days Jesus says it is time to return to Judea.  You may have forgotten, but His disciples have not.  Teacher, you do know they just tried to stone you a few weeks ago, right?  Had this been our only story about Thomas, what would we call him?  Thomas the Courageous?  Thomas the Valiant?  When Jesus says Lazarus is dead and that this miracle is for them, Thomas encourages the disciples to go with Jesus so that he and they may die with their Lord.  Not quite the picture of a doubter, is he?
     Next we are given one of those little tidbits that have lost their meaning to us.  Lazarus had been dead four days by the time Jesus arrives.  Many cultures in the ANE believed the soul hung around the body for three days after death.  I suppose we might use Miracle Max language in the Princess Bride to describe this problem.  Lazarus is not mostly dead; he is all dead.  It’s time to go through his pockets and look for loose change.  No chocolate coated pill will restore him at this point.  But Jesus can and will.  The implications for us are amazingly hopeful!
     Jesus greets the sisters.  In the first meeting, He makes what I would argue the greatest of the I AM statements in John’s Gospel.  Part of the elites’ problem with Jesus is His constant use of the Great I AM statements.  Every time we hear Jesus speaking of being the light, the truth, the way, and etc., Jesus is equating Himself with God.  For faithful Jews, such a claim is blasphemous.  Yet, John has already recorded six miracles which testify to the truth of Jesus’ claims.  This one will simply be the exclamation point at the end of that sentence.
     What happens next?  I find this section perhaps the tenderest in all of Scripture.  There is much nurturing and love and grace extended by God to His people, but it is in this passage where God addresses our greatest needs and greatest fears.  How does Jesus respond to the death of Lazarus?  Everyone knows He weeps.  That’s the shortest verse in all Scripture.  But in our excitement as kids to memorize so easy a verse, do we really pay attention to the significance?  Jesus weeps over the death of Lazarus!  Jesus knows this death will lead to God’s glory, that He has power over death, and still He weeps!  Why?  Because this is not what He intended for us when He created us in His image.  You and I were never meant to know the sting and pang of death; we were never meant to experience the feeling of loss and loneliness.  We were never meant to experience the fear of death.  Jesus feels the same at our death when you and I as parents feel sad at our children’s trials.
     Think I am exaggerating?  Look a couple verses before that.  The NIV translators use the “He was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved” translation.  It’s a nice sentiment, but it fails to capture Jesus’ emotional response here.   Jesus has an angry snort response to the death of Lazarus.  Think about the significances of that verb for us.  The Creator of heaven and earth is angry about the death of those whom He loves!  If you and I accept Christ and call Him Lord, that makes Him our friend.  How do you think He will respond to your or my death?  We see a template here in John’s Gospel.  When we wake to see Him as a friend and not a stranger, He will have been angry at our death and wept, even though He knows He has the power to redeem us and call us to life.  Can you imagine what at your feelings will be at that moment?  We claim to be grateful for what God has done, but will we truly understand all that He has accomplished for us prior to that moment when He says to each of us “Come out!”?  That will be the moment our eyes are finally opened; that will be the moment that the scales fall from our eyes!
     Last, and not least, Lazarus is resuscitated.  After four days of death, Lazarus’ life is breathed back in to him.  We say resuscitated because Lazarus dies again some years distant.  He is only called back to this life.  He is not given a resurrected body because Jesus has not yet been resurrected.  Yet Jesus, as the Son of God, and God are glorified in this act.  Many of the Jews that had come with Mary and saw what Jesus did believed in Him.
     All these little bullets are nice teaching points, and I hope that we get to have a conversation this week on the ones that touch you personally.  For those who struggle with the Resurrection, I understand.  We want proof; we want Gib’s in our own lives.  Jesus acknowledges the difficulty of having faith in such instances.  You believe because you have seen?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet come to believe.  Jesus understands our fears, our worries, our needs, and our unbelief.  Still, He loves us; still, He snorts in anger at our own deaths.
     I wonder, though, would we really believe and accept Him were we to see with our own eyes.  Some of us, no doubt, would.  But how many of us would refuse to see?  How many would be like me in that hospital room with Gib and his wife and miss the significance of the event because of the urgency of the situation?  Worse, how many of us would respond as did those who heard the story, who met a revived Lazarus, and still refused Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah?
     That last question, I see, causes a bit of squirming.  Good.  We should be.  If we continue to read John’s Gospel, we learn that it is this miracle which causes the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Temple priests, and others to come together to plot Jesus’s death.  It is in the light of this miracle that Judas approaches the Sanhedrin and others and seeks to betray His Lord’s life.  Feeding 500 men, besides women and children?  Bah, that’s no big deal.  Changing water into wine?  A parlor trick.  Healing on the Sabbath?  Wrong, but tolerable.  Calling someone back from death?  Ho now, He needs to die.  It is the demonstration of His power over death that causes all those enemies to unite against Him.  It is His power over death that causes the enemies to work for His death.  This God Man whom we claim as Lord and proclaim as the Messiah for the world is rejected by the world.  We know this.  We see this.  We live this.  Every time we stand in privation expecting God to provide, we hear the scorn or derision of others.  Every time we serve others in His name, we hear the mocking laughter of others.  The language of doormats and idealist follow us as attacks and mockery.  Every time we stand over a grave and proclaim our alleluias, we hear the clucking tongues calling us simpletons.  If Jesus is who He claims to be, all those worldly measures have, in the end, no significance in our lives.  If Jesus is who He claims to be, we can set about any work He has given us to do confident that, even if such work leads to our death, still He will redeem us!
     As a parish we are struggling with this battle.  We have secular expertise which causes us to trust in the things we understand, the things we know, the experiences we have had.  But we claim to follow a Lord who can subdue chaos, who can turn the common into holy, and who can call life from death.  Whom do we trust?  What do we trust?  Our answer has repercussions.  We know this.  We fear this.  Even if we do not name the fears or the repercussions, we know our answers have consequences.  Who is He to you?  Who is He to us?  Perhaps more immediately, what has He given us to do?  How do we live into the reality that is proclaimed in the Gospel, that Jesus is Lord and in believing in Him we, and all those who believe, have eternal life in Him?
     Notice that the answering of that question causes personal threats to rise.  Again, if we had read further in our narrative today we would read that the same authorities who wish to put Jesus to death want to kill Lazarus, too.  Lazarus’ big crime is that Jesus has raised him from the dead.  If the authorities were to kill Lazarus, their power would be re-asserted over the Lord’s.  When you and I choose to follow God, when you and I choose to pick up a cross and follow Him, we should expect to have others wanting to do us harm.  We should expect that those in the world will want to humiliate us, show us to be hypocrites, maybe even to kill us.  Why?  Because the world, and the powers and principalities of the world are at war with Him and all those whom He claims.  It really is that simple.  There is a cost.  Perhaps that cost will be our reputations.  Maybe that cost will be our “financial security.”  Maybe the cost will be respect or relationships?  Perhaps that cost ultimately will be our lives?  But I ask you again, what would you give to Jesus knowing that one day He would stand over your grave, snorting angrily at your death, weeping that you experienced death, and yet still powerful enough to call you to life?
     I recognize that my sermon today has been heavy.  I think it is a bit heavier because I have distanced myself from you in this pulpit.  Please do not think I am not in the midst of these same wrestling matches with you.  Like many of you, Jacob is definitely one of my spiritual forefathers!  These questions are asked in the midst of struggles, personal, corporate, and even wider.  And I have seen God raise a Lazarus in my midst.  Because of that, though, this—pastoring-- is not just an academic exercise to me.  It is a vocation, a way of life, in reality, the only way to abundant life.
     We live in an age that claims to be smarter and better and stronger and whatever other superlative you wish to use.  In terms of technology and explaining the way things work, we certainly are.  But deep down, deep in the innermost marrow of our bones and heart, we are really no different than those about whom we read this day.  Before our own encounter with the Risen Christ, we have every reason to fear death.  We have every reason to wonder at our own significance.  We have every reason to wonder whether this is all that there is.  We may live and drink and party hard for fear that we might die tomorrow, to coin a popular Roman phrase, and most in the world would consider us fun-loving, good to be around, or some other shallow nonsense.  But it is at the grave, at the encounter with death, when we really discover who we are and what we need.  And even then, still He is gracious.  Still, He gives us the choice to follow or to reject.  And in the end, our choice is what determines our outcome.  For those who reject Him, what hope is there really?  But for those who choose Him and His Cross, not even death can separate them from Him?  And here’s the better in the Good News: as cool and as awesome and as whatever else you and I think it is to see a Lazarus or Gib brought back from the dead,  how much better will the Resurrection be?  What words will we have for an endless life without mourning, and endless life full of joy, an endless life of abundance?  That, my brothers and sisters, is the Sign to which these signs point.  That, my brothers and sisters, is the time to which you and I should really look forward, when we are raised to that New Life Feast to which He has invited the world!  That, my brothers and sisters, is the glory upon which our Lord is focused when first confronted by the messengers bearing the news of Lazarus’ impending death, that is the glory upon which He is focused when our Lord accepts the Cup in the Garden of Gethsemene, and that is the glory upon which He is focused when the crowds mock Him as He dies on the Cross for them, and that is the glory that only is beginning to be revealed to us when He burst forth from that tomb on Easter morning!

Peace,

Brian†