Monday, April 29, 2013

Let No One Call Profane

I think I have said before that this part of Acts is my favorite part of scripture.  Some may also know that I went to seminary in the South. 

The practice of Christianity in the South is a little bit different than it is in NEPA.  Folks want to know your conversion story.  They will buy you a cup of coffee and ask you about how you came to Christ.  It matters.  They’ll ask you what your favorite scriptures are.

This are different up here.  I first learned this when I was the associate pastor at Shavertown UMC, and was teaching confirmation.  I sat them down in class one day and told them that I would teach them how to respond when someone approached them in school about whether they were saved.  It was a common question to ask in rural Texas, and I just thought it was a common thing. 

They looked at me like I had two heads.  That had never happened to them, and in fact, they found it hard to imagine. 

When we talk about scriptures that guide us, it’s an easier conversation there than here.  But when I am asked that question, this part of Acts, 10 and 11, are what I say.

Chapter 11 is the report of Peter to the Jerusalem folks, the leaders.  No one had approved Peter going and baptizing gentiles, no one had discussed it, and yet he’d gone and done it.  He needed to share why.  Chapter 11 is that explanation.

Peter had been up on the roof of a house in Joppa, getting fresh air and praying, when in that prayer time, he has a vision.  In that vision, a sheet of some sort descends from the sky, and on this sheet are all matter of animals, and birds, and lizards, and such.  The subtext is that this sheet is filled with all of the animals on earth, and that means there are both clean and unclean animals, there. We know this mainly because there is Peter responding to the visions’ voice saying “kill and eat” by saying “I cannot eat, Lord, I am observant.” 

So, to help us understand what it is that on that sheet, let’s put it into our understanding, by saying what it is that modern observant Jews can’t eat.




Baby back ribs.

Meat pizza.

This gives us an idea about what might be there for Peter, and what he is saying by denying the voice. 

The next line is the important line, the reason for the vision; “what I have created, you will not call profane.” 

It is said three times, and then the sheet rolls back into the sky, and immediately there is a knock on the downstairs door. 

The men at the door are the emissaries of Cornelius, a Roman commander, who has been told by an angel to send to Joppa and bring Peter back to his house.

And there’s Peter, in that house, having just had this vision, now receiving the dirtiest of the dirty.  Not just gentiles, but also officials of the occupation force that is subjugating his country. 

And Peter says ok.

At Cornelius’ house, Peter meets everyone, and he begins to go into his sermon, the Holy Spirit descends on the people, just like it did as described in the 2nd chapter of Acts, when tongues as of blue fire flicker over the heads of the believers, and a great wind blows.

This is very important to notice-the same exact event has happened now to gentiles, not just the Jews. 

Up until now, the people who follow Jesus have almost entirely been people who define themselves in separation.  They separate themselves, by food, by gentile, by sex. 

But in this moment, God has destroyed those lines.  And Peter has listened to the Holy Spirit, though he is surely not comfortable.  But now he has to go explain what happened. 

He does, and they “settle down”.  They understand.  They didn’t expect it, but now the word of Jesus is to be extended to the whole world, no exceptions.  There is no one who should be considered exempt from the love of God.

Which means there is no place for prejudice in the Christian faith.  There is no place for gossip.  We are all alike, we are equally loved by God. 

When the Holy Spirit comes upon us, our heart expands, our prejudices disappear.

When the Holy Spirit comes upon us, we truly see each and every person around us, the person in line at the grocery store, the person who honks their horn as soon as the light turns green, even though they are like 4 cars back (I hate that!).  Even that person has the spark of God within them.  (Darn it).

All whom we meet, all whom we know.  All whom we don’t know.  All whom we hate.  The people who have hurt us, the people who have destroyed our families, the people who set off bombs at marathons:  All are eligible for the love of God. 

The gentle and easy way to say it is Olly Olly Oxen Free.  Everybody’s out can come in.

A spiritual discipline for Christian spiritual growth, is to identify whom it is you don’t want in your life, and realize that that little part of us, the one that resents, resists, and shuns, is NOT Christ like.  And to work on it.

That is who we are.  We are people in progress.  This is who we are supposed to be.  We all have our prejudices, we all have our biases.  To grow in Christ is to name them and to work on them. 

To truly be able to say “what God has created, let no one call profane.”








Monday, April 15, 2013


I haven’t ever been on a fishing camping trip.  When Donna and I went camping, at the end of the summer, I bought a fishing pole once, and a weighted bob (I think it was a bob), and I would just use it to cast and reel in, cast and reel in.  No hook.  I got pretty accurate, but it was just about the meditation, not about catching fish.   

There’s a story about Albert Einstein that is similar.  He loved to sail, but knew nothing about sailing.  So he’d put out in his boat, and float around Long Island Sound, and then at dusk, the Coast Guard would go out and bring him back in.   

He’d be out there all day, just thinking. 

I’ve never been on a fishing trip that featured the pressure of actually catching fish, or the added pressure of having to catch fish to feed your family.   

But I do know the meditation of being on the water.  And this is maybe what Peter is thinking about when he tells the other disciples “I’m going to go fishing.”   

You must remember what these disciples have been through in the past couple of weeks.  Jesus has been killed, Peter has failed him, the disciples were less faithful than Peter, then the women go to the tomb and report back the disappearance of Jesus’ body.  Then they gather together in a locked room, and Jesus appears anyway.  And then he comes back the next week for Thomas.  

Put yourself in their shoes.  Wouldn’t you be a little scared, a little confused.  Jesus is supposed to be dead, and some of us have now seen him, in the flesh, twice.  

It would cause you to think.  It would cause you to go find somewhere familiar and meditate, doing something mindless.  It would cause you to go fishing. 

The rest of the disciples with him, some of whom are not even fishermen, decide they are going as well. 

And they don’t catch anything all night.  In the morning, there’s this guy out on the beach who hollers out to them “hey, catch anything?”  They’re only about a football fields’ length out, so they can hear, and respond with a big fat “no”.   

The man on the beackh hollers back “try the right side of the boat!” 

So Peter tosses the net, and as soon as they start pulling on the rope, they can tell it’s different.  The net is very heavy, and hard to pull.  They wrestle it to the surface, so they can see that it is full of fish, but they can’t get it any higher into the boat. 

And remember, this is the Gospel of John, so I’m willing to bet that these fish aren’t the bottom of the lake skinny ones, either.  Just like the wine that got better than the stuff served before it at the wedding in Cana, Jesus’ first miracle, these fish are probably big and fat, and have very few bones. 

Peter figures it out: he realizes it is Jesus, and says “it’s the Lord!”, and he throws his clothes on and starts swimming to shore.  The rest of the guys in the boat paddle the boat and the trailing huge net of fish back. 

They get there, and Jesus invites them to put some of their fish on the charcoal fire he’s built, and they do. 

If I’ve had a stressful night of thinking and confusion, I would think that grilled fish on a beach at daybreak would be the cure of a lot of what ails me.  That just sounds wonderful! 

The lesson from the text, separate with what he says to peter, immediately following this, which is really it’s own sermon, is this; Jesus is starting to be able to be relied on.  This is the third time he’s showed up.  The disciples are starting to get the clue, that Jesus will be with them anywhere.  Which could also mean everywhere.  It’s not just the Upper Room anymore.   

We say the word at Christmas:  Emmanuel.  God with us.  Christmas is the promise, of what Jesus can be for us.  But in Easter, and these stories after Easter, we see the fulfillment.  We see the reality of Jesus as Emmanuel, and what that really looks like.  Bit by bit, step by step.

This is the story the disciples begin to tell.  Peter goes to Rome, and Paul goes all over the eastern Med, and legend has it that James is buried in far western Spain, and Thomas ends up in India. 

As the story spreads out, the tale is Jesus Christ, Emmanuel.  And they haven’t just heard it, they have experienced it.  They have lived it.  It is testimony, not hearsay. 

Just as I said last week with Thomas, there is nothing wrong with proof.  When we first step out in faith, we have to have it proven to us.  After a while, we realize that faith has become trust.  After the third time, the disciples surely must start expecting Jesus at odd times and in odd places.  After a while, we do the same thing.  We move from fear that Jesus won’t be with us this time, to expectation that jesus will be with us at some point along the way.  Or all the time.  This is the difference between a mature faith and a childlike faith.   

We need them proven to us at first, just like the disciples did.  Peter sees it first, and they get it from him.  They tell others of their proof, they testify, and then others tell their stories, and so it goes, all the way to America, through our ancestors, here to church and our families.  And then someone told you. 

Now the story is ours to tell.    God is with you, and now you are called to tell your story of God’s presence.  It can be in the dark of the night of chemotherapy; it can be in the loneliness of a relationship in trouble; it can be in the room when a child is born. 

After a while, you just begin to know that God is with you.  And this is the story you can begin to tell.

Go tell it.




Friday, April 12, 2013

Trusting the Rock Bridge

Thomas gets a bad rap.  He is only saying the things we’d all think or say when given the same circumstances.  Think about it.  We’re so used to Jesus being divine, and reading the stories of the Bible, that when does something interesting, or miraculous, or in this case a little spooky, we all say “well, that’s just Jesus; and anyone who doesn’t believe that just doesn’t believe in Jesus.” 

We forget that these are just folks, and what they’ve just gone through has been hard.  Lots of stuff has happened that has been hard to believe for the people living through it, just like it would be for us.

They’re in that upper room, and remember the story says that the door was locked.  No one heard the door open, no one heard the door close, no one heard the lock being picked, and yet, here he is all of a sudden.  This is the first time, at least in John, that they see him.  He’s supposed to be dead!  The sotyr that the women have told is all very good and interesting, and they’ve seen the empty tomb.

“OK”, they say, “the body isn’t here.  What’s next?”  This is what’s next.

Jesus appears to them, and says “look at me, I’m here.  Look at the holes in my hand, look at the cut in my side.”

This proves two things:  He’s Jesus, and that he isn’t a ghost.  He’s tangible, physical.  In another text, he eats a piece of fish to prove it.

He’s for real.  That’s what the resurrection did. 

Poor Thomas, he’s not there.  Maybe he’s off getting the hot dogs and buns right then.  He comes back, and they all say “You’re not going to believe what just happened!  Apparently Jesus came, did the thing, and left before Thomas got there.  So Thomas hears the story, and responds like we all would, like Cosby in the Noah routine:  “Riiight!”

And so, as an indicator of grace, Jesus comes back at the same time the next week.  And is it fair to think he came back for Thomas?  I think so.  He gives everyone his peace again, and then pulls Thomas aside, and gives him the same opportunity he gave everyone else.

What else could Thomas respond with, other than “My Lord and my God!”  It’s all righ there, literally and flesh and blood.

What gives Thomas a bad rap is the general interpretation of the last line, “Have you believed because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have believed.”  It has come to mean “Those of you who expect empirical or scientific proof of Christ are foolish.”

I beg to differ.  The things that Jesus is asking those first disciples to believe in that first visit; he tells them that his peace he brings to them, and his peace he leaves with them, and he breathes on them the Holy Spirit; this is John’s version of Pentecost, right here.

And then he shows up again to do the same thing for Thomas.  And they are all sent out to do what Jesus was doing; teach, do miracles, even die in the faith.  To spread the story around the world; not just among Jews, but Gentiles, too; Peters’ Centurion, Philip’s Eunuch, and others.   The world began to spread out, but it had to start with these disciples. 

Now imagine these mean and women.  You’ve now been told that you can do what Jesus did.  You can heal and teach, too. 

Can you imagine what Peter must have felt like, that first time, as he tried to heal?  And then what he felt like when it did happen?

Wouldn’t that prove to you that you could, if you did?

That’s proof, isn’t it?

So maybe Thomas isn’t such a bad guy, then, for wanting proof.

I don’t know many here among us who can lay hands on and heal, or other stuff that gets done in Scripture.  But we can still see proof of the love of God in the people around us. 

We all know people whose life just seems to be a succession of difficulties.  And yet they know that God is not the source of their struggle, but rather God is the companion.  Sure, they may have made bad choices, or just circumstances, but God is with them at all times.

When they say that “God is with them”, instead of “why Lord have you done this”, it is proof of faith.

There’s a scene from the movie “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”, that gets shown often in churches equipped with the technology when the subject of faith is raised.

The background is like this-Indy’s father has been shot, and they know that the cup of Christ can save him.  So Indy is sent to face the trials that must be faced before the cup is recovered.  He’s avoided the head-cutting saws of the first test by kneeling like a penitent man, and now, he’s faced with a chasm across which it’s too far to jump, and there is nothing to use his bullwhip on a swinging vine.

Now he’s got the clue in the book with him, and it’s a knight walking in midair across this chasm.  And the words say “you must walk by faith”.  Well, Indy’s got trouble with this, because he knows he has no faith.  And yet, here he must, with his dad dying behind him. 

So he closes his eyes, and steps out into midair, and falls into the chasm. 

Except he doesn’t.  Instead, he comes down onto a rock bridge that has been carved to look exactly like the facing rock wall, as an optical illusion.  Until he stepped out in faith, he did not know that it was there.

This is what we have to do when we step out in faith, too.  In the beginning.  After a few times of stepping out in faith, we begin to trust it’s there, and faith of that sort isn’t as necessary as it had been.

Many of us are like Indy.  Maybe we don’t have the trust in God that seems to be required of the churchy people around us.  Maybe we haven’t had the experiences that cause us to believe, yet.  We need proof in our own lives. 

Our proof comes in acting out of faith.  John Wesley has said that we must “preach Christ until you have Christ”. 

There is a goal to which all Christians aspire, and that is to have faith in God at every moment of the day.  And the way to do that is to prove it to ourselves, and the best way to prove it is to act as if you believe.

After a while, those who trust in faith who began by saying, “O, my goodness this is scary, will God show up”, start to say instead “Oh, goody, Let’s see where God shows up this time!”

We have to grow into the sight of God in the world. We have to experience the arrival enough times that it becomes less scary, and more anticipated.

So, when Jesus says “blessed are those who do not see and yet believe”, it isn’t a rebuke.  It is a technique.  It is how we grow in faith.  It is necessary for growth in faith. 

How to put your foot out into the chasm and trust that it will land on the rock bridge, and eventually just know that it is there.      









Where We Live

Easter Morning

Preached on March 31, 2013

We can finally say Alleluia, again!  There’s this ancient church tradition that says that during Lent, you omit the word “Alleluia from all worship, because there is nothing to be happy about. 

Now is a joyful time!  I’ve already talked to a few people who have food in the ovens at home, preparing for some sort of dinner event later today.  A couple of the people who came to sunrise service did so because they wanted to get worship before they chained themselves to their stoves!

Some folks have decided that cooking is for the birds, and they’ve made reservations somewhere.

Some folks, like preachers, are going home and sleeping after church.

There is joy in Easter!  There are joyful things to be had; candy in baskets, deviled eggs; sales at Target (or Sears),

There is joy in Easter, but sometimes we forget what the root of that joy is.

There are folks who are not in church this morning.  Not everyone is Christian.  Some people are celebrating Passover this week.  Some are Muslim or Hindu, or something else, and some people worship at the church of St. Mattress. 

But they do all benefit from the holiday we have given our culture.  Our holiday is the reason for secular sales.  But let’s not celebrate Easter the way that the world participates in it.  At least lets not forget what it is we are really acknowledging in this holiday.

Easter is where we live.  This day, and the things we commemorate on this day, is the root of all it means to be Christian. 

If we do not have Easter; if we do not have the resurrection of Christ, then a very wise rabbi and teacher was killed as a political prisoner in Jerusalem by the Roman Empire, and thus endeth the story.  We’re done.

He is merely a son of God the way we are all Children, and that’s it.

It takes today to make this unique and special.  It takes Easter, it takes the Resurrection.  It takes the women who come to the tomb at daybreak, finds the tomb open and two strange men standing there, telling them that he is not there, and going back to the disciples and saying they would love to dress the body, but there’s no body there!

In one of the other Gospels, they find the body gone, and the rest of the women go away, and Mary Magdalene is left standing there crying to talk to the gardener.  He says, in a certain tone of voice, “Mary!”, and she realized that it’s Jesus. 

Notice, in all these stories, that the first people to give the announcement of the empty tomb, the first ones to proclaim the Gospel, as it were, are women.  They are the ones who bring the first message to the male disciples.

The message that they carried is the message we carry now.  Jesus was more than just a wise man who was killed as a political prisoner.  He was sent by God so that we may know God’s love.  The final proof we have that God loves us, is that Jesus was raised from the dead.  Death has no power over us.  You may not believe in heaven, but it is your choice to do so, but in our central core of belief, we are told it is there.  We can’t prove it scientifically, we can’t point to it in a telescope, or reach for it through time travel or quantum physics, but we know that death here on earth is not the end. 

And God has given us the power to overcome death.  We may not be as we were, but we know there is something after. 

This is the joy of Easter.  This is the promise of Easter.  This is why we do the things we do in this world, as Christians.  We follow more than just a wise man; we follow the Son of God, who was raised from the dead by God. 

This is why people dip Peeps in chocolate; this is why hams are baked, and kielbasa is smoked, and potatoes are scalloped; to show love in various ways.  We cannot show love by raising people from the dead, so we bake, we get up early, we dress our finest; we’re trying to express joy!

Christians have millions and millions of ways to show Christ’s love in the world.  And they are all based in the joy of this day, of Easter.  They are all based in the truth that Christ was given back to the world; Christ was not killed; Christ was resurrected! 

And so we can say again, Alleluia!      






Maundy Thursday

I realized something as I read the text for Maundy Thursday.  After the story of Jesus adapting their Passover meal into we call Eucharist or Communion, and after the foot washing, and then the garden, we hear nothing more about the disciples, except for Judas and Peter.  Everyone disappears. 

At one of the two churches that I serve, there is a Maundy Thursday service, but no Good Friday service.  And in thinking about this text in that good old Ignatian style (the spiritual practice of inserting oneself as a specific character into a biblical story, and imagining with all senses what you experience), it kind of pushed me to identify with the other disciples.  The ones who scattered when the soldiers showed up in the garden. 

They were even more faithless than Peter.  Peter may have denied the Son of God three times, but he showed up, at least.

Did they even know what was happening before Peter told them?  Maybe John, once, in the Gospel named after him, had a little bit of a clue, because he accompanied Mary to the cross.

If I was a fire and brimstone preacher, I would talk about how faithless we are when Jesus calls us. 

But I’m not. 

What I also notice, in the text, is that there are faithful disciples.  They are hardly ever mentioned, but I’d imagine that they were every place that their society would allow them.

The women.  They stood under the cross.  They might have been in the courtyard, they may have been in the garden.  But 2000 years ago, women were not always worth mentioning.  WE don’t know, therefore, where they were if they were a passive part of the crowd.

But when it came to Jesus’ crucifixion, they were standing right under Jesus, who, according to Adam Hamilton and others he attributes, was not hung high in the air, but was really only three feet or so off the ground.  Close enough to be touched.  To be heard.  To be seen. 

Jesus was NOT alone. 

I would expect, since the disciples were just folks the way we are, that they respond in the varied and different ways that we would when inserted into the same scenario.  Some of us would run away.  Some of us would care enough to follow, but be afraid of being associated, for fear of being killed, too.  And some of us would not even be noticed as they followed Jesus, because, after all, they were only property themselves, commodities to be traded for land and prestige. 

Times have changed, society has changed, its two thousand years later, and we are no longer in the Bronze Age.  Disciples can clearly be men or women, just as both can be pastors.  There is no reason to think differently about gender, only about gifts and graces.  But our responses as disciples remain as varied as they would have been then. 

On this night, Jesus said to his disciples “you are no longer my disciples, but you are now my friends.  This Passover meal, is not as a teacher and students, but as friends.  And he changed the meal they were celebrating.

He also washed their feet.  This was so shocking, because there was still an aura around him, that maybe even yet he would become the Messiah they still wanted, the military leader.  And he destroyed the last vestige of that, because a general does not wash the feet of a private.

But Jesus did. 

Our general, our leader, the person we are called to follow, to emulate, to do impressions of as best we can, said to them, I have come to serve you, now you must serve each other.

How do we serve each other?

How do we serve the wider world?

I’m sure we can all think of way, a way we’re not doing now.  Something that humbles us.

 I remember my father singing a song at a talent show once, “O Lord, It’s Hard to be Humble, When You’re Perfect in Every Way.”  But we believe that we are made perfect in love THROUGH humility. 

So what is that way we know we’re being called to serve, but are resistant to?  Perhaps it might even be to serve ourselves, to make ourselves stronger, to not spread ourselves so thin we serve no one and damage our spirits?

 How do we find a way to imitate Jesus?