Stardust, Plus

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, May 15, 2016.
Taken from Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-32


Let’s begin with a little mental exercise this morning.  I think it will be fun.  I’m going to rattle off a list of names in no particular order. Your job will be to identify what they all have in common.

It’s a list of names that I’ve just pulled off the top of my head that I know.  It’s by no means exhaustive.  The other thing I need to say is that all these names are western and northern.   There are vast swaths of other cultures that I’ve omitted, but that’s out of my own ignorance, of other cultures, O.K.?  It shows the limits of my own education, and my own failings of intellectual curiosity.

So, if you’ve got some names from Asian culture or Middle Eastern or African or one of the Americas other than North America, by all means, plug those names in…it’s still work.

So, with that upfront mea culpa, here we go.  What do all these names have in common?

Monet…Georgia O’Keefe…Erma Bombeck…John Steinbeck…
Pearl Jam…Hank Williams…Louis Sullivan…Roy Orbison…God…
Gregory Hines…Merle Haggard…Nina Simone…Sam Maloof…
Thelonius Monk…Jesus of Nazareth…Jesus the Christ…
Alice in Chains…Degas…Andy Warhol

That’s round one; are you getting the idea?  What do all these folks have in common?  A few more, and then I’ll quit.

Duke Ellington…Frank Sinatra…Janis Joplin…Frank Lloyd Wright…
John Williams…Patsy Cline…Christopher Wren…Earl Warren…
Antonia Scalia…The Artic Monkeys…God…Grandma Moses…
Jack White…Joni Mitchell…The Holy Spirit…
Thomas Jefferson…Merle Haggard…I.M. Pei…Mary Cassatt…

O.K., I’ll stop now.  So, all these names, plus the names you’ve thought of, what do all of these folks have in common?

They have in common at least this:  each one discovered his or her own way of seeing life.  From the mash up of experiences and perceptions and distortions and genius that made them, they in turn crafted for themselves a unique perspective on the world.  They each found a medium which they mastered—painting, music, the law, clay, wood, words, dance, their own bodies.  They used that medium to get what they saw within themselves out into the world so the rest of us could see it.

We know their names because they helped enough of us to see what we ourselves could not see, of life, especially of this bit of life called humanity.

The fancy word for expressing one’s personal way of seeing is “aesthetic”:  each of these, had his or her own aesthetic.  As I said, aesthetic is a fancy word.  It’s not a word we’re prone to use much in church.  In fact, we may be kind of suspicious of such words and the people who use them.  So, let’s acknowledge that suspicion up front.

The second suspicion to acknowledge is that among those many names I named, there were a few that seemed out of place.  You know the Sesame Street song, “One of These Things (is Not Like the Others)”?

One of these things is not like the others,
One of these things just doesn’t belong,
Can you tell which thing is not like the others
By the time I finish my song? 1

Among all those other names, I dropped in these names, in this order: “God”, “Jesus of Nazareth”, “Jesus the Christ”, “God”, “The Holy Spirit”.  For the purposes of this list, are these names not like the others?

Does God have a unique perspective about life which is God’s own?  Has God masterfully made use of a medium to get that perspective on life out where the rest of us can see it, especially that little bit of life called humanity?  So, couldn’t we say, God has an aesthetic?  If so, what is God’s aesthetic?

From what our reading in Proverbs says, God’s aesthetic seems to be Wisdom.  But this is no wisdom of the “stitch in time saves nine” variety of wisdom.  “Neither a borrower nor a lender be.”  “The early bird catches the worm.”  “What goes up must come down.”  “Let sleeping dogs lie.”  “Don’t be surprised if you lie down with dogs, you’ll get up with fleas”

There is wisdom in such sayings.  Maybe they’re sort of like droplets of water sprayed up off the surface of Wisdom’s ocean.  But the sayings are mere surface.

The writer, here in Proverbs chapter 8, is reflecting upon creation and sees something beneath the surface.  He sees a liveliness beyond the obvious.  There is evidence of what he can only describe by the one word, “delight”.  It seems as though the Maker took great delight in the making of this world.  More than that, it’s as if the Maker actually infused delight into the media of creation:  the stars, the sun, the way the sun plays across the horizon, delight contained from within the largest mountains down to the mere “bits of soil” as verses 25-26 put it.

But, what makes it so lively is this, says this sage:  it’s as though creation itself is responding with its own delight offered back to the Maker.  It’s as if there’s a grand duet of delight being sung between unseen partners…a dance…perhaps even a romance.

This writer is no idiot.  He knows as well as anyone, dirt is dirt, rock is rock.  The same wind that blows his hair askew atop his head is the same wind that moves the trees and shrubs that sit firmly rooted in the soil.

He knows, Water is water.  It’s necessary for life, be it vegetable or animal; it’s wet.  He knows that too much water can ruin the farmer’s work just as easily as too little water.  He knows the water distorts the light somehow.

Yet, there’s more at work.  There is laughter in the dirt, the rock, the wind, and the water.  There is joy, as though shared between old friends, or perhaps it is love, after all?

The writer, here in the verses of chapter 8, somehow has to capture what he perceives God showing him, what he experiences so vividly yet which lie beyond mere touch, or fragrance; beyond the majesty of sights and sounds and the flavors of the stuff of this world.  For him, it is as though a far greater sage, a woman, were calling out through creation itself, inviting him to hear and understand her story, so he can tell her story to others.

Her story of how it is that she has come from before time and place ever were, to be here, now, in his own time and place, speaking to him.  He names her Wisdom

In beginning,” you know, says she, “the Lord created me….at the first, before beginning even with the earth.”  There were no depths of the sea, nor mountains; no horizon was in sight, because there were no heavens to separate what was above from what was below; there was no up or down:  “First,” she says, “the Lord created me.

“So,” says Wisdom, “there I was beside him, to begin, like a master crafter, and I was the Maker’s daily delight.  And I, rejoicing always before him, rejoiced in the Maker’s world as together we brought it life, especially delighting in the children of our making, the human race.

Now, my children, listen to me…,” Lady Wisdom says, in verse 32.  Have we forgotten how to listen to Wisdom in creation?  Does Wisdom’s song fall wasted, misunderstood, mislaid and finally lost to us, like some great work of art tucked away in the attic of an abandoned house or a lyric composition, or a play-write’s drama that sits idle in the drawer of a piece of furniture, an unwanted heirloom that no family member cared to take?

Should we even be taking time in a Christian worship service to speak of something so spiritual in creation itself?  Isn’t this all just a bunch of “woo-woo”?  Is “woo-woo” a term you’re familiar with?  “Woo-woo” is a derogatory term, defined this way:

adj. concerned with emotions, mysticism, or spiritualism; other than rational or scientific; mysterious; new agey.2

Now, there’s the curse of death in Christian circles, to term something as “new agey”.  That’s right!  By golly, we want a rational faith; we want a scientific faith, not a “woo-woo” faith!

As I was first going through the lectionary suggestions for this Sunday and read this, Proverbs chapter 8, almost immediately there popped into my head the refrain from the 1970 song, “Woodstock”, the rock version by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young.  Surely you know the refrain to “Woodstock”?  Let’s sing it, why don’t we?

We are stardust/Billion-year-old carbon/
We are golden/Caught in the devil’s bargain/
And we’ve got to get ourselves/
Back to the garden. 3

 I guess we might call that “woo-wooey”, too, if it weren’t for the Bible references to the Devil and the Garden of Eden and then the scientific references Joni Mitchell put in there when she wrote the lyrics.

I’m all for us Christians knowing at least something about the science of how this creation in which we live came about and continues.  We need it.  A solid, scientific understanding of the Universe is, literally, what keeps our faith from turning into one big mess of “woo-woo”, whether it’s New Agey woo-woo over here or the Tim LaHaye “Left Behind” woo-woo over there!

Because creation is the backdrop for all kinds of good Christian theology, from Genesis, to Proverbs, to John’s Gospel, throughout the writings of the Apostle Paul and ending up in the Book of Revelation.  Good, solid theology and Christian practice is grounded in creation.  It behooves us to understand it.

I strongly recommend to you Bill Bryson’s book, A Short History of the Universe.  There are all kinds of scientists who’ve tried to write books for the general reader, and they fail miserably at it.  Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye the Science Guy do a pretty good job, but, for my money, you can’t beat Bill Bryson’s book.

What you’ll learn is that, in fact, Joni Mitchell got it right:  we are stardust, billion-year-old carbon and other stuff that burst out of a nothingness some 13.8 billion years ago.  All of the energy, all of the elements of matter, out of which we are made, popped out as if from nothing, per scientists who know what they’re talking about.

Lawrence Krauss is a physicist who knows what he’s talking about.  He tried to explain all this for the general reader in his book, A Universe Out of Nothing:  Why There is Something Rather than Nothing.  I’ve attempted to read it, and I have to say, “sorry, Larry, but I’m not sure you know any actual ‘general readers’.”  So, start with Bill Bryson.

If we want to have a sound theology and a right practice of our faith, we need to learn something of the medium in which God chose to work.  Because, it is through this medium of matter and energy that God worked out God’s own unique aesthetic, of which the sage of Proverb testifies.

It is our calling to continue to testify of God’s delight in this, God’s, creation; it is our calling to help this creation, especially its human family, to voice its delight back to God.

Theologian Matthew Fox argues vigorously that we Christians have become so obsessed with the idea of “original sin” that we’ve completely forgotten about the “original blessing” in creation.4

You know, I often wonder this:  why was it, when Jesus walked into a bar-room full of tax collectors, or when Jesus walked past a street corner where gathered prostitutes, or whenever Jesus came into the sightline of any other groups of people whom the religious termed unclean and unfit for God, why was it they so welcomed Jesus, rabbi that he was?

Was it that in the presence of Jesus, they felt in their souls this primordial delight of the Creator now looking them in the face?  Is that why they flocked after Jesus and hung on his words and welcomed Jesus to their tables?

Do you know what it is to experience judgement, shaming, perhaps deserved condemnation, to experience it all so much so that you start living your life to fit that rejection?  Or, you live your life in such deep fear of that judgment that you bind yourself up:  rigid, buttoned down, excelling at becoming like those whose judgement you seek to prevent?

And, then, you come into the presence of someone who seems to actually welcome you, who delights in you, who embraces you?  Well, then, that’s who you’re going to follow, that’s the group to whom you will pledge your fidelity come what may.

Jesus’ ministry was a ministry of delight.  Jesus called forth the innate delight which the Maker infused within creation itself.  The first generations of Christians quickly seized upon this picture of Lady Wisdom in Proverbs 8 and saw there attributes of Jesus.  The Apostle Paul knew these ancient writings as well as anyone.  Paul wove the theme of creation and re-creation as he sought to explain the death and the resurrection of Jesus.

The sage of Proverbs introduces this wisdom collection with this person, Lady Wisdom.  In a very similar way, the Gospel of John introduces the ministry of Jesus with this Prologue read for us earlier of the Living Word of God, who was before creation and through whom came creation and for whom all was created.  Jesus, the Living Aesthetic of God.

Among all those names with which we began, there should be your name and mine.  God calls us to see with God’s own way of seeing, to express God’s aesthetic through the medium of our lives.  God calls us to embrace this world of rock and soil, of wind and water, and most of all, this human race, with God’s delight in it all, and then to help all, flawed though they be, to find delight in God, their Maker and their Redeemer.  We see that way most fully in Jesus the Christ.

We are stardust, plus, the Holy Presence of God’s Delight, who would sing through our voices and live through our bodies, this deep, deep Wisdom of creation.

________________________________

1 http://www.metrolyrics.com/one-of-these-things-is-not-like-the-others-lyrics-sesame-street.html

2Robert T. Carroll, http://skepdic.com/woowoo.html

3 http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/jonimitchell/woodstock.html

Matthew Fox, Original Blessing: A Primer on Creation Spirituality, (NY:  Tarcher/Putnam, 2000)

The Holy Ghost Transit Authority

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, May 15, 2016.
Taken from Acts 2:1-21

PentecostDoveFlames-200x200

Can you imagine what it would be like if God had something really exceptional planned for us here today, but we didn’t know God was going to do that most exceptional thing today?   In fact, what if we didn’t know that in exactly three minutes and five seconds from this very moment, God, within God’s own Self—however that happens—God will say, “Holy Spirit…Now!”

And instantly, these walls of brick and concrete turned transparent, from top to bottom, as clear as plate glass.  That would be some kind of event, wouldn’t it?   Traffic would stop; pedestrians would stop; cell phones would come out; videos would be posted; 911 calls would be made.

More than that, what if in that instant that our sanctuary turned transparent, what if God, again within God’s own Self—however that happens—God again says to the Holy Spirit, “O.K., now!”   And, we, sitting in these pews in the midst of a transparent sanctuary, suddenly we ourselves in our bodies turn transparent!

The flesh transparent so that everybody out there could see, not muscle and bone and that wee bit of extra fluff most of us carry, but these folks outside looking on us in the inside, could see the presence of God’s own Spirit within us?  What would that look like?   Maybe it would look as though a bit of fire had settled down upon our heads and had kept right on going, infusing our whole bodies with this flaming brightness and buoyancy.

How would you account for it?   What words could any of us put together that would adequately explain such a phenomenon?

I have to admit that my dear wife hurt my feelings Friday afternoon.  We were driving into town, talking about something, and she accused me of “mansplaining”.  I said, “What?!  I never mansplain anything!”  Karen said, “Oh, yes you do…all the time.”  I said, “Look, dear, maybe you don’t quite understand ‘mansplaining’…here’s what ‘mansplaining’ is, it’s when a man assumes a woman can’t quite get something, and so she needs a man to explain to her in ways that she can understand.  You see?  That’s not something I would do.”   Karen then proceeded to “ladysplain” some things to me.

Well, if God all of a sudden turned these walls transparent, and then God immediately turned us transparent for all the world to see the presence of God aflame within us, I’m pretty sure no amount of “mansplaining” nor “ladysplaining” would do the job.   What we would need is some serious “Spirit-splaining” to happen.

Even our most eloquent attempts to get somebody else to understand what Jesus Christ means to us, will only be us imparting information.  Our words, like bricks and concrete will remain only bricks and concrete, opaque, dense.   The words will be only words, bits of data momentarily shared and then forgotten.

But if our conversations and our words, come out of our humility before God and out of our faith to believe God dwells within us, then some genuine Spirit-splaining will indeed happen.   Pentecost will happen.  Pentecost is a time to chasten our pride and to reorient our souls, that the Word of God may speak once again through us to the end result, as verse 21 says, “That whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved”.

Most of the time I use the Revised Standard Version of the Bible for study and preaching.   But, there are times when it’s hard to beat the King James translation of Scripture.  The 23rd Psalm, the Lord’s Prayer, a few other memory verses all speak the Scripture better for me in the King James.  This is true in our reading today from Acts, chapter two…the Day of Pentecost.

This particular King James Bible I’m using today is the one my parents gave me when I was a child.   This was the Bible I used right on up until I was 21 or 22 years old. Then, I decided I might try reading a Bible I could actually understand.  That’s when I tried the daring experiment of reading the New International Version.

Reading a Bible you can understand can have some interesting consequences.  I once visited with a couple in their home.  They were in the mid-50’s or so.  The wife had always been very faithful in church and basically would drag her husband with her on Christmas and Easter.  Then, suddenly, here in his later mid-life, the husband experienced something of a spiritual rebirth.

He explained to me and to the other minister visiting with me, that he’d always owned a King James Version Bible.  He could never quite make much sense out of it, but he’d held on to it over the years out of sentimental reasons.  Then, on his most recent birthday, his wife gave him a modern translation of the Bible.

So, to please her, he started reading it and for the first time he said he could understand what he was reading.  He said, “And it scared the h…” and he almost uttered the H-E-Double Hockey Sticks term until he remembered he was talking to a couple of ministers there in his den, and you know how we clergy are just so fragile.  So, he said, “Well, you know what it about scared out of me!”  And what he read changed him.

So, if you do plan on doing something in your spiritual life, by all means go get a Bible that you can at least follow along when you read it.  There is nothing especially holy about the “thee’s” and the “thou’s” and the “begettest’s” of the KJV.   In fact, there’s not even anything especially holy about Greek or Hebrew.   The Greek in the New Testament was the common Greek of the everyday speaker, not the formal classical Greek of the philosophers and poets.1  It certainly was not some sort of special Divine Greek.

There was not anything especially holy about the many languages and dialects which these early believers began shouting out on this Pentecost Day in Acts chapter 2.

What was holy about the languages and the dialects which these Pentecostal Christians were speaking that day was this: they were speaking so that their listeners could understand what they were saying about God. Those words, heard with understanding, the Holy Spirit then used to open the minds and hearts of these listeners to believe the Good News of Jesus Christ.  That is what made their speech holy.   A whole lot of Spirit-splaining was going on.

The “holiness” of the Holy Bible is not in the ink on the paper or the fancy binding.  The “holiness” of this collection of writings is in what happens when God writes on the pages of our soul, imprinting there the true revelation that we are God’s child.  Whether we be a child freshly minted into this world, or we be a child long lost in thickets of this world, when we take in the words of this book and understands that it is the Holy Spirit speaking to us, then, for us, it becomes Holy Scripture.

That man I just told you about, by then into his mid-50’s, to him his King James Bible was a greatly valued book as a revered family heirloom.   It was a decades-old edition, like mine, of a book first published in the year 1611 containing beautifully constructed sentences.   That’s what the Bible was for him.

Until the day he picked up a contemporary translation that he could read and understand.  Then, he said, to paraphrase the words of verse 8: “How hear I now in my own tongue, wherein I was born….the wonderful works of God.”  As with these men and women 2,000 years ago, he was amazed—and according to him, frightened—by this close encounter with the Holy.

So, if you can’t read or hear and comprehend what your personal Bible is saying, then keep shopping…there is a translation out there somewhere, the language of which is your own language, your own dialect, your capacity to read, hear and comprehend.  But, watch out!   Pentecost might happen to you.

Which brings me back to my childhood King James reading of Acts 2, which I choose to use today because of the words, “Holy Ghost”.    You’ll notice that the King James uses both the words, “ghost” and “spirit” in translating the same New Testament word.  Mostly they translate the word as “spirit”.   But in verses 4 and, later, in verse 33 and 38, they translate the exact same word as “ghost”.

Here’s what going on:  wherever the word “spirit” is modified by the word “holy” they chose to translate it as “ghost”.  That was a theological decision on their part; it’s not a decision demanded by the text itself.  We’ll come back to that in a moment.

For Pentecost, I prefer the word “Ghost”, as the King James puts it.   You remember way back in high school when our dear English teachers would try to teach us to talk right.  They told us all about sibilant and fricative and plosive sounds?

“Spirit” is a sibilant.  To me, sibilants are subtle, sensuous, soft and whispering….breezy. But “ghost” is plosive…it’s momentarily blocked and then bursts free out of our mouths: “ghost”…  “gut”… “gosh”… “gust”.

So, “Ghost” to me fits Pentecost better.  Because this wasn’t a breezy Holy Spirit softly sifting among the believers…this was the Holy GHOst GUsting down on them, GUshing out through the windows and doors and GRAbbing and GAthering people from all around.  Verse 2 means something like a “sudden, violent wind” dropped down upon these believers.   It was like a Holy Ghost “microburst”!

We here all know what a “microburst” is, don’t we?  We seem to get at least one every summer.  A microburst is like a tornado in reverse.  The winds of a tornado swirl around and form a funnel that sucks everything in and up.  Well, in a microburst, the winds collide and rush down, hitting the ground with a sudden burst that blows everything outward and away.  This was a Holy GHOst microburst!

Neither phonetics nor meteorology guided the King James translators, though, in their choice of whether it would be “spirit” or “ghost”.  They made their choice based on their own current theology about the Trinity.  All translators have to do it.

You need to be aware of such things when you’re reading your Bible.  Translators have to make judgment calls on how to translate certain words and phrases into English.   They do that based on their best knowledge at the time of ancient and modern language.   They do that choosing based on their best current understanding of the ancient setting.  They also are guided by their theology, and by their own church practice.

For example, when the King James translators got to the Greek word, baptizo, they could have translated it as “dip” or “dunk” or “bathe”.  But in King James’s church, they did not “dip” nor “dunk” nor “bathe”; they “sprinkled”.   Would you want to be the scholar who had to tell King James that John the Baptist may have dipped Jesus or he might have dunked Jesus, but he most certainly did not sprinkle Jesus?

So, these scholars simply went with an easier option.   They chose an English word that had been coined from the Greek, the word baptism.   No need to get specific about how wet the person actually got.

There will be four lines queued up at the Pearly Gates:  there will be the sprinkled line and the dipped line and dunked line and the “I didn’t know line”.  We will of course all assume that we’re in the preferred boarding line.  But as soon as we go through our respective turnstiles, we’ll see we’re all are gonna queue up and get on the very same bus that takes us to our heavenly mansions.

But, what is the correct answer about baptism and so many other things in the Bible?  As with those King James translators and everyone from every age that’s picked up a Bible, we understand the Word of God through the lens of what we already think and believe about that Word.  Which is a real dilemma, because we none of us have perfect clarity of understanding.

What is the answer?  How does any human being find the truth of God if we come to this testimony of God with our best intentions but also with our very flawed capabilities?

The answer?  The answer for us today is as it was back then 2,000 years ago.   To borrow from Peter, Paul and Mary–not the ones from back then but from the 1960’s—“the answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind”!   Acts chapter two, verse two:  “And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting.”

What these first believers in Acts chapter 2 needed to happen on that day was not some soft, sibilant, Spirit whispering in their ears of the things of God.  They needed a Holy GHOst microBURst, to break through their BOUND-up grasp of God and Jesus and the Gospel.  They needed to be BROken loose from the present limits of their imaginations and their faith, so they could proclaim God’s grace come on earth.  So do we all, with “we” including you and including me.

A moment ago I used the image of four lines on the outskirts of heaven merging into a single line to board a bus bound for heaven.  I borrowed that metaphor from C.S. Lewis’s book, The Great Divorce.  That’s the literary device Lewis used to describe a group of souls on a field trip aboard a bus.

They’re traveling across a great divide, or a “great divorce” to use Lewis’s quaint expression.  They are on a bus, traveling from the outskirts of hell over to the outskirts of heaven.  It’s a good read, The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis.  I highly recommend it.

University Baptist Church, we are passengers traveling on a bus line being operated by the Holy Ghost Transit Authority.   This Jerusalem church before Pentecost, was made up only of Palestinian Jewish riders.  After Pentecost, not anymore:  the Holy Ghost Transit Authority parked its bus right there and even more riders got on.  Now, there were Jews and converts to Judaism from all over the known world who climbed on board and took their seat.

But what really got interesting along the way, is when the Holy Ghost bus parked even further out, and those non-Jews, plain old Gentiles with no thought of becoming Jews, starting on board the Holy Ghost bus.  Did the Holy Ghost kick them off?  No, the door closed and off they went again.

University Baptist Church is one of the better runs in the Holy Ghost Transit Authority, in my estimation.   But this bus has been parked and idling for far too long.   It’s time to pull away from the curb and move along.  Are you on board?

We will reach the destination God has for us, but I can’t drive the bus there and you can’t either.   Only the Holy Ghost of God gets that privilege.   This wonderful One of God, this Advocate and Helper and Sustainer whom Jesus promised, will get us safely to where we should be.

It’s not an express run, that’s for certain.   There will still be lot’s of stops along the way with many other riders coming aboard.   There’s room for all on any bus operated by the Holy Ghost Transit Authority.  Don’t miss the ride.

 

1C. Milo Connick, The New Testament:  An Introduction to Its History, Literature, and Thought, Literature, and Thought, 2nd Ed. (Belmont, CA:  Wadsworth Pub. Co., 1978) pp. 6, 246.

Discombobulation

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, May 8, 2016.
Taken from Acts 1:1-11

A few years ago, I came across this quote that was taken from an academic study:  “In some ways we feel that we are as confused as ever, but we think we are confused on a higher level and about more important things….But we are doing better than we did.”

When I read that, I thought, “Man!  Haven’t we all been there?”  It’s a rare and honest admission from a person who was not being paid to be confused.   I’ll read it again for you in a moment, but let me give you some context.

This quote comes from a book published in 1951 entitled The Workshop Way of Learning.  It was written by a professor at Wayne State University named Earl Kelley.

Throughout the 1940’s, Wayne State offered an annual training workshop for high school teachers.  After a decade of hosting these workshops, Dr. Kelley was given the job of assessing the worth of these workshops and, then, to recommend how the workshops should proceed.  So, Dr. Kelley does his study, then he writes up his findings.  In his introduction, Dr. Kelly wrote this:

We have not succeeded in answering all our problems—indeed we sometimes feel we have not completely answered any of them. The answers we have found have only served to raise a whole set of new questions. In some ways we feel that we are as confused as ever, but we think we are confused on a higher level and about more important things. So this report does not purport to give final answers, or to claim that we now “know how to do it”…. But we are doing better than we did.1

I somehow feel that Luke might have included such a statement in his first draft of the Book of Acts.  Luke offers an introductory summary of what happened in those forty days after Jesus’ resurrection, when Jesus led his remaining eleven disciples in reviewing the sacred Scriptures, as Jesus assessed the meaning of his public ministry, as he invited these Eleven to understand all of it in the light of Easter morning.

Does not Dr. Kelley’s honest introduction so well express the state of these Eleven, as Luke introduces them to us on this first page of the Book of Acts:  The answers we have found have only served to raise a whole set of new questions. In some ways we feel that we are as confused as ever, but we think we are confused on a higher level and about more important things.

But, Luke instead chooses to introduce Acts this way, in verses 1 and 2:  ‘In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commandment through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen.’ 2

The first book to which Luke refers, of course, is his Gospel account.  If we take a moment to look back over into the last chapter of Luke’s first book, we can read there how Jesus worked with his followers over those critical forty days.  Luke concludes in chapter 24, verses 45-46, ‘Then he [that is, Jesus] opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written….”’

This in-depth review and interpretation Jesus does with the Eleven until, as Luke closes out his Gospel account, Jesus ‘led them out as far as Bethany….as was carried up into heaven.  And they returned to Jerusalem with great joy….’ (vv. 50-52)

Well, Luke knew what he was going to go on into his second book, the Book of Acts, so he sort of glossed over things there right at the end about what happened in that moment that Jesus ascended up into Heaven.  He picks it all up again here, for us, in Acts, chapter 1, verses 1-11.

To paraphrase Luke, recalling where I left off in my last book, dear reader, where I described how Jesus opened up the disciples’ minds to understand everything and laid it all out for them, well…you know how you can lead a horse to water?  Yeah, that’s pretty much the situation on this Day of Ascension.

Just imagine it!  Eleven guys, standing up on top of this hill, hands on hips, looking up in the sky like they just dropped something valuable.  But instead of falling down onto the ground, it fell up into the clouds!  Now, they’re standing there, staring up.  “Dang!  Can you see him?  I can’t see him.”  “Where’d he go?  Is that him?  No!  That’s a buzzard.”  “Well, maybe once all these clouds disappear, we can catch sight of him if he hasn’t drifted off too far.”

In Heaven, I can just imagine God the Father and Jesus, also standing there, hands on hips, watching these guys down on earth.  God says, “Well, Jesus, what’d ya think?  They’re your disciples; are they just gonna keep standing there all day?!”  And, Jesus would answer, “Yep, they’re my disciples alright.  Better give ‘em a little push!”

(Do you think Jesus, by the time he finished his three year or so ministry, had more grey hairs on his head than when he started?  You know, the whole Incarnation idea is that Jesus was fully human.  So, maybe by the time he finished he had a few more grey hairs, put there not by the Pharisees or the Sadducees but put there by his own disciples?)

So, poof!  These two messengers in white robes, appear.  And, yes, I think they are meant to remind us of the two messengers in white robes who appeared on Easter morning in the empty tomb, who had to tell the women, “You’re not going to find him here…go back to Jerusalem!”

They function almost as prompters who have to move folks along, to keep the action going.

These two call out, in verse 11, “Excuse us, Men of Galilee!  But, what are you doing?  He’s gonna come back, but not just right now, o.k.?”  So, the Eleven pack it in; they go back to Jerusalem where they’ve been staying these past forty days or so.  Perhaps, as they walk, they say among themselves, in the words of Dr. Kelley, “In some ways, we feel that we are as confused as ever, but at least now we think we are confused on a higher level and about more important things, whatever those things may be.  We just don’t know.”

They don’t know.  In fact, “we just don’t know” could have been their motto.  At every twist and turn on their three-year walk with Jesus, these Eleven plus one—Judas Iscariot—consistently were confused and confounded over what Jesus told them and showed them.  They lived pretty much in a constant state of discombobulation.

That’s a wonderful word to put on their predicament…they are discombobulated.  It means “to throw into a state of confusion…to cause to be unclear in mind or intent.”  These Twelve demonstrated their discombobulation over and over, sometimes in very embarrassing ways.

Such as in Luke, chapter 9, when Jesus catches them arguing with each other over who among them is the greatest (Lk 9:46).  As in, “Yeah, I know Jesus loves you, but I’m his favorite!”   (That was on a bumper sticker Karen once saw.)  Something along those lines.

Sometimes their confusion was tragic, as in John chapter 9, when they walk right up to a blind beggar sitting there on the curb and in a pathetic attempt to impress Jesus, they ask, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?”  This guy was blind, but he wasn’t deaf!   How did that make him feel, hearing them say that?

Other times, their discombobulation was just comical.  As in that time that Matthew 16 records for us.  You recall that day:  Jesus has been arguing with the Pharisees and the Sadducees over some point of law.  Then, Jesus and the Twelve got into a boat to sail across the Sea of Galilee.  Jesus tells his disciples, “Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”

So, Matthew tells us, the disciples start whispering among themselves, “What do you think he meant by that, scolding us about leaven?”  Finally, they conclude, Jesus was rebuking them for forgetting to bring bread along for the trip.  So, Jesus had to spell it out for them.  “I’m talking about the teaching…Beware the teaching of the Pharisees and the Sadducees, not actual bread!”  “Oh,” say the disciples, “now we get it.”

Finally, they have suffered through the horror of Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion.  They have reveled in his resurrection.  They have enjoyed these forty days of his presence among them.  Jesus has comforted them, restored them, taught even more about the meaning of his mission.

Now, Jesus meets with the Eleven once more on this significant place called the Mount of Olives.  He tells them, go back to Jerusalem.  Stay there until you receive this baptism, this gift, of God’s Holy Spirit.    “Finally!” the Eleven must have thought to themselves, “this is it!  It’s all finished, over and done with!”  They ask, “Lord, so at this time are you restoring the kingdom to Israel?”

Now, that is a reasonable question for them to ask Jesus.  They have about 2,000 years of sacred history backing them up; they have their Sacred Scriptures, they have the collected teachings of their best scribes and rabbis.  Now, they have the Resurrected One, the Messiah.  They have every reason to think they’ve got the all the pieces of the puzzle laid out before them, and now, God is going to put it all together in this one, grand picture:  the restored Kingdom of God on earth, headquartered there, in Israel, in Jerusalem.

How truly disorienting it had to be for them, when Jesus responds, “I can’t really say.  But, I’m leaving now.  God will send God’s own Holy Spirit upon you.  And, then, you will be my witnesses to the ends of the earth.”  That was a total disconnect from what they were expecting.  It’s been that way since the day they took up with Jesus by the shores of the Sea of Galilee; it ends that way here on the Mount of Olives (v. 12), this last time they ever see Jesus on earth.  They are discombobulated.

If we were to work our way right on through this Book of Acts, we would see that it just keeps on happening…they receive this promised gift of God’s own Spirit among them.   But, they discover, this is not the end point in God’s creative movement among humanity.  Instead, they discover God launching them out in some totally unexpected directions, always unfolding before them a path they never expected to be traveling.

This Way of the Nazarene, this is a spiritual movement birthed out of the womb of Judaism.  Why wouldn’t they expect, then, that they would continue as a new form, a new practice, within Judaism?   I’m pretty sure if we were in their shoes back then, that’s exactly what we’d expect, too?

Well, in way, we are sort of in their shoes.  As I mentioned a moment ago, they had roughly 2,000 years of sacred history under their belts.  Well, we sitting here this morning, we have about 2,000 years of sacred Christian history under our collective belts, don’t we?

These followers of Jesus had their sacred Scriptures of the Law and the Prophets and the Writings, the Hebrew Bible.  Well, we have all that plus our own 26 books we call our New Testament.

They had their collected teachings of the scribes and rabbis interpreting the Hebrew Canon; it’s called the Talmud.  My goodness, do we ever have our own Christian Talmud!  Libraries full of commentary on top of commentary, we’ve got.  Throw on top of that all the stuff coming from every Christian pastor with an opinion, a computer and an internet connection.

In the minds of so many today, as was true for these Eleven on that day on the Mount of Olives, it’s as if Jesus has finished up all there is to know, do or say about the Kingdom!   But, Jesus seems to keep on telling us what Jesus told these poor folks back there on that hilltop:  “I can’t really tell you that.  I’m leaving.  God will send God’s own Holy Spirit upon you.  And, then, you will be my witnesses to the ends of the earth until God says it’s done.”

Translated, Jesus was telling them and us don’t plan to stay put…you can’t be going and staying all at the same time.  Geographically, psychologically, theologically, methodologically, spiritually…you have got to keep your walking shoes on because the journey’s not over.

So, the story of God’s work among the human family keeps on unfolding in unexpected ways.  The kingdom of God is like trying to nail Jello to the wall—it won’t stay put where we want it.  I don’t like that.   I like order and predictability.

I could stand here and tell you in great detail exactly where my bedroom slippers are at this very moment sitting in the bedroom.  I could draw you a map, detailing in our walk-in closet where you would find hanging my dress clothes and my blue jeans.

The blue jeans, of course, I subdivide into three categories.  Working from front of the closet to the back, you would find my dress blue jeans (2 pairs), then my casual around-the-house jeans (2 pairs) and then, finally, my lawn-mowing grungy work jeans (approximately 1 and ¾ pairs).  I love Jesus, I love my wife, but by golly, they best not mess with my closet ‘cause I love that, too.

But, if I bring all that expectation of order and predictability to Jesus, you know what Jesus is going to do?  Jesus is going to look me in the eye and go, “Really?”  Here, he would say to me, “Let Dr. Jesus write you a prescription; there’s medication available for people like you, ‘cause you’re gonna need it if you follow me!”  So, I take my pills and hang on for wherever the Spirit of the Living Christ is leading.

So must we all, hang on and follow where the Living Christ leads, here in University Baptist Church and every other Christian church here in this year of our Lord, 2016.   Of course, the prescription Dr. Jesus writes for us is not available at our pharmacy.  It is, instead, what Dr. Jesus dispenses from waters of the baptistery and from the bread and cup of the Lord’s Supper table.

We enter those waters to die with Christ, so that we may rise and live in the new life which Christ himself died and rose to give us.  We eat of his body and drink of his blood to remind ourselves that this business of following Jesus is not an easy outing to be taken lightly.  It’s life, it’s death, it’s the cross.   And, thank God, it is resurrection.

The same Spirit of God who resurrected the crucified Jesus, stands ready to resurrect this part of the body of Christ called University Baptist Church, along with every other gathering of every other person, who follow the Way of Jesus in this world.

The same Spirit who transformed Jesus’ sacrificed life into a transcendent life that could not be contained, seeks to transform this congregation’s life into a transcendent life that will not be contained.  It’s a risky thing we do.  It is a seriously discombobulating thing we do.   But how dare we do anything other than follow the One we know as Savior and Lord?

We may take this comfort, at least:  Jesus invites us to tolerate that disquieting experience of discipleship, so may we pursue matters higher and to do things more important and better than what we would do if left to our own devices.  It is true for you and me, personally, and it is true for us together as a church on the Way with Christ Jesus, who will day one come again in that glorious community of love we call, the Kingdom of God.

_________________________________

1 from blog, The Quote Investigator:  Exploring the Origins of Quotations, July 11, 2010; http://quoteinvestigator.com/2010/07/11/confused/

2 exegetical resources taken from F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1979) pp. 30-42; and Frank Stagg, The Book of Acts:  The Early Struggle for an Unhindered Gospel, (Nashville:  Broadman Press, 1955), pp. 28-40.

 

Little Sabbath, Big Sabbath / Old Temple, No Temple

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, May 1, 2016.
Taken from John 5:1-11

 The Christian faith can turn and become a very shall-notty religion, can’t it?   Take, for example, the Ten Commandments.   Why is it always Christian leaders who want the public posting of the Ten Commandments?  I don’t recall any Jewish leaders doing that.   Why aren’t these Christian leaders pushing for the posting of the Beatitudes?

There’s something very appealing about all those “shall nots” of the Ten Commandments.  They’re almost all “shall nots”…you shall not have any other gods before me, says the Lord God; you shall not make any graven images nor take the Lord’s name in vain nor steal nor lie nor murder nor covet…all preceded by this directive:  you shall not.  That’s what I mean, it all seems to get “shall-notty”.    Two of the eight Ten Commandments are positive:   “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy,” and “Honor your father and your mother.”   All the rest, “shall nots”.

Then, there are all the prohibitive corollaries we ourselves come up with.  One of the homegrown corollaries for us boys growing up in the South was “thou shall not drink nor chew nor go with girls that do.”  In Martinsville where I grew up in my elementary school years, we had no girls who drank nor chewed in our church or elementary school, so I was safe.

But, then, something dramatic happened during the summer between 6th grade and 7th grade:  we moved to Waynesboro.   There, just over these beautiful mountains, in Waynesboro, I entered the halls of junior high school.   I was shocked!   Shocked, as for the first time, I encountered girls who had just as expansive and salty a vocabulary as the boys.   “Aha!” I thought.  “These must be some of the girls my mother had warned me about!”

If you were to ask me as a religious professional which kind of religion is easier to administer, I probably would lean toward the shall-notty kind.   It just seems simpler to tell people what they can’t do…“No! don’t do that!”  It just flows more easily off the religious tongue.  I think the Jewish religious administrators found this to be true as well.

These descendants of Aaron the first High Priest, loved to devise corollaries to the Ten Commandments.   They even took the positive command, “You shall remember the Sabbath, to keep it holy,” and they turned that into a negative!

These keepers of the sacred flame of Judaism delineated a long list what thou shall not do if you are to keep the Sabbath holy:  you shall not…you shall not…you shall not.   All these corollaries, their versions of “neither drink nor chew nor go with girls that do,” spun out in excruciating detail.

By the time Jesus shows up at the Temple in Jerusalem, the “shall nots” of Sabbath had long-ago buried the “shall”.   It really seemed to rankle Jesus!  To these religious administrators, Jesus said, “Oh, yeah!   Well, you just sit back and watch me do what I shall do.”  And, Jesus did.

Such as on this Sabbath day John records for us in chapter 5.  We, the readers, don’t know yet that it’s the Sabbath.  That’s because John doesn’t mention the Sabbath until the very end of verse 9.   Verses 1 through 8 simply describe for us this miraculous healing Jesus accomplishes one day as he goes to celebrate a festival at the Temple.

But, before we get there with John let me ask you:  what does the Sabbath matter to you?   As we’ll see, it mattered a great deal for these folks.   But, what does the Sabbath matter to you?

For the Jews, Sabbath was sundown on Friday until sundown on Saturday.  The sun set on Friday and out would come all the “shall nots” to get them through Saturday.  But, in the light of Jesus’ resurrection, his Jewish followers did the unthinkable:   they changed the Sabbath.  How dare they?   How dare they, each of them devout Jews, how dare they upend almost 1,300 years of accepted Jewish doctrine?

They dared because of what they knew in the light of Easter morning.   Not right away, of course.   They were absolutely confused and even terrified by Easter morning.   But as the months and years passed, they began to understand the meaning of Easter, and they changed Sabbath.   What did Sabbath now mean for them?   What does Sabbath mean for you?

Chapter 5, verse 2, John tells us Jesus enters on to the Temple grounds by way of the Sheep Gate.  The Sheep Gate was just that:   it was the point of entry where worshippers would bring the sheep for the priests to prep them to be sacrificed on the Temple altar.*

There by the Sheep Gate, there also was a large, spring-fed pool; steps at each corner of the pool led down into the water.   Five covered walkways were there, four ran along the sides of the pool and fifth walkway, scholars think, went across the midsection, dividing the pool into two parts.

The story was that at random moments, an unseen angel of God would briefly disturb the water…perhaps a momentary bubbling or rippling in some part of the pool.   Whoever made it down the steps and into the water first would be healed of whatever ailed them, and only the first one in would be healed.

You can imagine such a desperate scene.  John says in verse three that under these five covered walkways lay a great number of disabled people…the blind, the lame, the paralyzed.  Those who could see would watch, their eyes scanning back and forth over the pool’s surface for any unusual movement in the water.   Those who were blind would have to listen ever so carefully for any noise, any sudden movement in the crowd that suggested the others had seen a stirring in the water and so were moving to get in.

All these ailing people lay there, vigilant, ready to thrust themselves ahead of the others.  Those men and women who were paralyzed…who of their families could afford to sit all the day through, ready to help their paralyzed loved one down into the healing waters?

This practice, so random and so cruel, pitting sick against sick, blind against the lame and the lame against the paralyzed, every one of them with such debilitating suffering that it compelled them into this desperate competition for healing.

Perhaps the worst cruelty was this:   they actually believed this was God’s way for them to find healing.  That God could be so arbitrary as to set up this contrivance there on edges of the Temple grounds among the livestock, as if they were but so many dumb animals to whom God might, one day, throw some small scrap of mercy.  How many prayed, “Dear God, send the angel today, won’t you?”  “Let me win today, God…let me for once, win the race down into waters.”

Jesus walks by this travesty, and sees the same man that Jesus has seen every time he’s come to the Temple.   Even as a boy, coming to the Temple with Mary and Joseph, Jesus would see this very same man laid out under one of the porticoes by the Pool of Bethsaida.

Today, Jesus stops.  He asks this man, “Just how long have you been coming to the Pool looking to be healed?”  The man says, “Thirty-eight years I’ve done this, and I haven’t been healed yet.”  Jesus himself is only about thirty years old.  For eight years longer than Jesus has been alive on this earth, this man has lain here.

“Why in the world haven’t you been healed after all these years?  Don’t you want to get well?” Jesus asks him.

“Well, how can I?  Look at me!” says the man.   “No one will help me.   Every time there’s a bubble or a burp, it’s a stampede.  They run me over getting into the water!”

“Get up,” says Jesus.   “You’re well.   Pick up your mat.  Walk the rest of your days in the healing I give you.”  So, the man does.  He picks up his mat and starts walking.   What a stir that must have caused among the crowd.

John does not pause to wonder, beyond this man’s own explanation, why this man has lain here all these years.   That’s not the point of the story.   The point is what happens next.  Watch, John tells us at the end of verse nine, watch what happens, because that day was the Sabbath.

 The keepers of the Sabbath “shall nots” swoop down like vultures over a carcass.  “What are doing?!” they shout at the man.  “Thirty-eight years you’ve laid there, and you suddenly pick the Sabbath to get up and carry your pallet?  It is the Sabbath, it is not lawful for you to carry your pallet.  What has gotten into you?!”

“It’s not my idea,” the man protests. “ The man that healed me said to me, ‘Take up your pallet, and walk.’”  Yes, Jesus who for years has known this man’s dilemma could have picked any other day to do this good work of saving grace.   There was no emergency.  But, as was his habit, Jesus picked the Sabbath.

These keepers of the Sabbath looked on a man miraculously healed and saw a Sabbath law-breaker.   Jesus, the Lord of the Sabbath, looked on that same man and saw a broken Sabbath.

The promise of God’s Sabbath was the promise of healing.   The promise of God’s Sabbath was the promise of restoration.  The promise of God’s Sabbath was the promise of celebration.   But, instead, the promise of God’s Sabbath had become promise broken, not by God, but by God’s priests.  This man’s plight epitomized the curse of a broken-down Sabbath.

Do you find healing in the Sabbath?   Do you find something essential being restored to your soul?   Do you look to Sabbath as a celebration of what only God can give us because we know this broke world cannot give the one thing we must have, which is communion with God?   Or, have we God’s people become like this man, laid out by a pool that offers nothing except one more day to be disappointed?

Now, I’ll concede this point to you:  we clergy, we whom God has called as keepers of this sacred flame, we have long settled for the simplicity of the shall-nots.  We clergy have to answer for all the ways we have broken God’s Sabbath promise.

But, thank God, Easter still dawns, shining the light of God’s salvation even for such weak souls as we so-called priests can be.  Easter still dawns for you in your search for God’s Sabbath promise.   Easter yet shines upon us here in this congregation, sisters and brothers of the Lord of the Sabbath, once crucified, now risen and alive among us.

When Jesus shared that Last Supper with his followers, he picked up that common cup and said, drink this and know now, in me, is the new covenant God makes.   All the promise of the old Sabbath transformed into something new that we discover together, just like those first believers had to do:  the promise of God’s new, Big Sabbath.

Do you want to be healed? Jesus asked the man.  Sir, I have no one to help me and everyone is against me.   No more, says Jesus, no more.   It’s the Sabbath, don’t you know?  Rise…and walk.  It is indeed, an unending Sabbath for we who have heard Christ’s call, “Rise and follow me.”

 

* references used are Raymond E. Brown, ­The Gospel According to John, I-XII, The Anchor Bible; Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1966, pp. 205-211; and Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, Grand Rapids, MI:  Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1971, pp. 298-306.

 

A Bit of Undigested Beef. A Fragment of Underdone Potato.

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, April 24, 2016.
Taken from Acts 11:1-18

PetersVision180x178

Just by way of preface, let me note for us that these 18 verses of Acts 11 document what is perhaps the most critical juncture in the life of the early church.   What happens here in this church conference is second only to the Day of Pentecost itself in its importance to the Christian movement.

So important is this event, Luke devotes a very long chapter 10 to tell the story of what happened to Peter, while he was up on the rooftop of a friend’s house, and what came after.   Then, Luke immediately repeats for us in chapter 11, what he’s just told us in chapter 10, almost word for word.

When a Bible writer does that, what is that person telling us?   That writer is telling us:  this is so very important for you to get, I’m gonna stop and tell you twice, before moving on.

In chapter 11, verses 1-18, the other Apostles have demanded Peter come back to Jerusalem and explain to them and to the rest of the church what he’s been up to.   They want to know why he has baptized Gentiles in the name of the Jewish Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, without first requiring them to give up their Gentile ways

For these other Apostles, Peter has not merely committed a procedural oversight; he has started down a road many in the church believe strikes at the very heart of their movement.   It’s a big deal.

So, Peter tells them what Luke has already told us in chapter 10.  Peter’s up topside on a friend’s house over in Joppa.   He’s enjoying the late morning, but it’s getting on toward lunch.  Peter’s hungry.   He calls down, “Hey! When’s lunch?”  His friends call back up, “Hold your horses!   We’re working on it!”

So, Peter waits up there for his lunch, and he falls into a trance.   Three times, while Peter’s in this trance, this apparition of a great sheet appears above him.   An unseen hand has gathered this sheet up by it four corners, which it now lowers down before Peter there on the rooftop.

The four corners are released, the sheet falls open there before Peter.   Peter, of course, is surprised, then shocked and horrified, for what the sheet contains is alive and anxious to get out.

Flooding around Peter come creatures,  crawling and creeping and slithering and flying even, animals and reptiles and birds of all kinds:  but, not pleasant things at all!   They are things Peter never ever wants to see nor touch nor taste.

The sheet releases things that frighten Peter, that make him wretch, that makes his skin crawl, and yet he cannot run; he cannot move, as these filthy things flow under his robes and over his sandaled feet and brush past his face and catch in his hair.   And the voice belonging to the hidden hand that’s just set loose this horror upon Peter says to him, “Peter, you’re hungry?  You want something to eat?   Rise, Peter; kill and eat.

Peter recognizes it is the voice of his Lord Jesus.   No, Lord; I have never eaten such things…they are forbidden!

The sheet instantly disappears.   But before Peter can catch his breath, or think to move, or shake himself free, once again, the sheet appears above him, the same unseen hand holding the sheet by its four corners, plops the sheet there at Peter’s feet, releases the corners.   The same horror unfolds before him; the same command comes for Peter to eat what the Lord has served him; a second time Peter refuses the Lord.

A second time, the sheet disappears; the abhorrent creatures are gone.  But, still, Peter remains stuck in place, unable to move or turn away or shut his eyes.   A third time, the sheet appears, and Peter, with dread, knows what he’s about to endure for a third time.

I like to play with sermon titles.   The first one I came up with was, “Ew, gross. Cooties!”, but then I thought that might send the wrong message to the children.   Then, I thought, “Peter:  Three Sheets to the Wind!”.   But, that might send the wrong message to the adults and might actually get me struck by lightning.

So, I thought, here’s a man suffering from gastronomic distress, a man unknowingly encumbered by the unseen chains forged over many years, a three-fold apparition attempting to unshackle a stubborn heart and a stubborn mind.  Of course!  Peter is Ebenezer Scrooge in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.

The ghost of Scrooge’s dead business partner, Jacob Marley, appears to Scrooge.   Scrooge dismisses him as a bit of stomach distress.

Marley’s ghost challenges Scrooge:  “Why do you doubt your senses?” Scrooge scoffs that “…a little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheat. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”

That’s Peter, up on the rooftop, waiting for his lunch.  His trance…who knows?  A case of low blood sugar?   Heat stroke, perhaps, up there on the roof under the hot sun of high noon?   So, naturally, he hallucinates about food.  He has a moment of mental confusion distorting a lifetime of religious practice.   Peter might have scoffed, “There’s more of lunch than of the Lord about you, whatever you are!”

Yet, somehow, this vision rang a bell in Peter’s memory.   Peter recalls something similar from his past with Jesus.  Such as that day the Gospel accounts record for us.   The Pharisees had attacked Jesus for allowing his followers to break the laws for ritual cleansing.

Jesus shoos the Pharisees away.   He tells his followers:   what goes into your mouth, goes into your stomach, and then moves on.   It’s not what goes into your mouth and into your stomach that gives God trouble.   It’s what starts down in your heart and then out of your mouth that offends God.   Mark’s Gospel account here adds this note, in chapter 7, verse 19:  thus [Jesus] declared all foods clean.

Jesus basically tells his fellow Jews:  I know what the Scripture says, I know what we’ve all been taught, I know what you all believe will get you in deep, deep trouble with God.   But, that no longer applies.   Yes, that law was necessary for the time and place our forebearers once lived…but, it no longer applies to you or me nor to those who come after us.

Jesus tells his followers:   You’ve got to revise your religion to conform to what I, Jesus, your Lord, am now teaching you and showing you.   What once was useful and needful, are now but chains and shackles for your souls.   Be free of those commandments, teachings and expectations.  What once was needed has now turned into stumbling blocks.

Now, as you can easily imagine, that was some serious stuff for Jesus to be saying.  Matthew records in chapter 15, verse 12, The disciples came and said to [Jesus], ‘Boy, the Pharisees are really ticked off at you for saying that!’

You may know Edwin Markham’s little poem, “Outwitted”.   The first line reads, “He drew a circle that shut me out—heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.”   The religious leaders called Jesus all those things and worse, didn’t they?

So, it’s not really all that hard to understand why Jesus’ disciples, such as Peter, were so reluctant to hear Jesus on this matter of kosher law.

The thing we modern day non-kosher folks misunderstand is that these kosher commandments were not about hygiene.   For one thing, they didn’t just cover food, but they also covered clothing, for example.

These all were ways for the ancient Jews to mark clear boundaries between themselves and other ancient peoples among whom they lived and, especially, to separate themselves from the religions of those other people.   These laws were very much about saying, this is who we are because this is who God is.

Now, Jesus is telling his followers, well, no, here is what is closer to the truth of who God is.   To borrow again from Edwin Markham, for a time, God had scribed a fairly tight circle of inclusion and exclusion for those with whom God made covenant.   But, with Jesus’ coming, with Jesus’ example and teaching, with Jesus’ death and resurrection, with the gift of the Holy Spirit, God drew an all-encompassing circle excluding no one.

But, it is so very hard to allow one’s faith find a new form of religion by which to grow and live that faith.   Faith is our soul’s sensibility of God, our soul’s conviction of God’s presence; faith is our soul’s capacity to comprehend and commune with God in God’s true nature.

Religion is the container we make, to live out our faith; most often, others have fashioned and passed down to us our religious containers:   all those practices and all those statements and declarations and creeds and bells and whistles get spelled out, generation after generation, all shaping a religion to serve as a manageable way to live what our souls have discerned.

Religion migrates down deep into our souls.   So, we do not simply change our religion at the drop of a hat; not even if its Jesus himself who’s trying to knock that hat off of us, as Jesus is trying to do with Peter on that rooftop in Joppa.

Have you ever taken off your shoes and taken a good look at your feet?   And then looked back at your shoes, and then look at your feet again, especially your toes?  We won’t do that now, here in church, but give it try when you get back home.

I don’t really spend time looking at other people’s feet.   But, I’m guessing it’s not just my feet that look suspiciously like they’ve conformed more to the shape of my shoes than the other way around.

I had a friend in college named Nina.   Nina’s parents were Baptist missionaries in Kenya, and that’s where Nina grew up.   At college, where Nina and I became friends, she sometimes bemoaned to us that she’d lost what she called her “African feet”.

Where Nina grew up in Kenya, all children and many adults went barefoot.  If they wore shoes at all, they were sandals.  The soles and toes of their feet were more spread out, more responsive to the varying shapes and textures of the ground on which they walked.

But, once Nina got into her teens, her parents sent her to a high school for children of Westerners working in Africa.  Closed-toe shoes were the norm, as was the case when Nina returned to America to go to college.   The shoes began to shape Nina’s feet until one day she realized, she no longer had her “African feet”.

Faith is the substance of our souls; it is our spiritual feet and religion is the shoes.   Like shoes subtly but surely shaping our feet, our religion shapes our faith.   That’s good and necessary, until our religion starts to distort our faith into something other than or less than the faith of Jesus.  We want the living faith of a living Lord.

Jesus’ experience of God would no longer allow him to accept the forms of his religion.  He worked and taught mightily to get his followers to understand that they, too, would need to let him redefine their religion.   That’s what he was talking about in that familiar metaphor of wine skins and new wine.

Not an easy task at all.   It certainly was not an easy task for Jesus to accomplish with Peter.   Not here on the rooftop, this day in Joppa, and not in the years that followed.   The Spirit of Christ kept on having to confront Peter and challenge Peter to let the Spirit reshape his religion, to change his religion to conform to truth of God as Peter now knows God through Jesus Christ.

That’s why the Lord was scaring the beejeebers out of Peter that high noon on the rooftop was because Jesus had a mission for Peter.   He wanted Peter to go to the home of a Gentile, the Roman commander, Cornelius.   Jesus wanted all preconditions set aside from Peter’s mind.

Jesus needed Peter to speak with this man and his family, to receive this man’s hospitality and to let Cornelius and his household know, God had redrawn the circle.   The Good News, the Gospel, was this:  even they, despised Gentiles, were in the circle of God’s love.   Period.   Just as they were.

So.  Let’s say you’re on the rooftop, having this vision.   Down comes the sheet.   The four corners are turned loose to unfold.   What would be inside your sheet?   What of your religion would Jesus, today, want you to change, so that your faith and how you practice your faith, are set free, to better serve the Lord?

I can tell you what would be in my sheet.   First, you need to know:   I like singing traditional hymns out of a Baptist hymnal.   I like having a book you can open to page whatever and hold while you sing.   Because, I despise singing off a movie screen stuck up front of a sanctuary.

Singing praise choruses projected onto a screen make me to slip into a brief mental coma:  my mouth is moving, the lights stay on, but I am not at home for the duration of the praise chorus.

I do not like what I call “preacher casual”.   You know the look?   A polo shirt, khaki pants and casual dress shoes.   I’ve got a preacher suit, thank you very much, and a clergy robe because that’s the way Jesus and I like it.   Jesus did not dress like he was taking a date to the movies.

Also, honest-to-goodness Baptists hold worship from 11:00 am to precisely 12:00 pm on Sunday mornings.   Those are some of the reasons why I joined University Baptist Church, 12 years ago now.   I liked how you were doing church.

I am so glad you called me to be your interim Senior Minister, because I was holding my breath, afraid that one day, God just might drop a sheet down at my feet.  There, spread out before me, would be an earnest group of worshipers, staring happily up at a movie screen, singing their hearts out to some Bill Gaither tune.   A minister of worship arts, in a knit shirt and khaki pants, leads them from behind a keyboard put smack in the middle of the chancel.

A voice would command:  “Gary!   Rise and go interim!”  And I would cry out, “But, Lord, I’ve never reduced myself to such a state of affairs such as that!”  Up would go the sheet, only to return a second time.   Again, the voice would command, “Gary!   Rise and go interim with these folks!”  A second time I would protest.

Yet a third time, the sheet would be lowered before me.   The voice will command:  “Gary!  I liketh what they doeth!   And by the way, dust off your King James Bible because that’s how they best heareth me!”   It maketh my skin crawl to thinketh of it, but, truth be told, God is not wedded to the Baptist hymnal nor clergy in suits and robes nor the Eleven-to-Noon time slot.

What would it be for you?   What would be in your sheet that the Lord would lay at your feet?

We could dismiss the Lord as bit of undigested beef, a fragment of underdone potato, or just plain wrong.   What a shame for any of us to so lightly slight our Lord.  How sad, should we as a church fail to grow our religion to fit the faith God would offer us through such moments.  The risk always is that we subjugate our faith to a religion that is too small.

We live in an ever-changing world of possibilities into which God would lead us, to know God more truly and to serve God more fully.   God leads us, so we and others may experience that full circle of salvation God has prepared for all of us together, in Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Double-Grip Guarantee

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, April 17, 2016
Taken from John 10:22-30

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Our Gospel reading this morning drops us into the middle of the ongoing confrontation between Jesus and the Jewish authorities.   Things have gotten pretty intense by this time.   At the end of chapter 8, John tells us of an earlier day in the Temple in Jerusalem, how Jesus so enraged these men that they picked up stones to throw at Jesus (John 8:59)

Now, Jesus is back, teaching in the Temple.  As on that earlier day, Jesus so angers these Temple leaders, John tells us in verse 31 that they took up stones again to stone him.  Which makes me wonder, what’s with these stones just lying around on the Temple grounds?   Why do they always seem have a pile of rocks on hand of sufficient size and heft to stone an adult to death there at the Temple?1

So, things are tense here in verses 22-30.  As Jesus teaches, he makes use of two images.  The first image is that of the shepherd and the sheep.  Verses 26 and 27, Jesus tells his adversaries, you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep.   My sheep hear my voice, and I know them and they follow me.  This follows on the much longer description Jesus offers in verses 1-18, using this figure of Good Shepherd and sheep.

Then, Jesus turns to use a different image.  He may still be thinking in terms of shepherd and sheep; probably so.   But he offers this very powerful visualization.  In the second half of verse 28, Jesus says of those who believe in him, no one shall snatch them of my hand.   My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.   I and the Father are one.

Visualize what Jesus is saying.  No one is able to snatch them out of my hand…no one is able to snatch them out of my Father’s hand…I and the Father are one.  It’s one hand, wrapped around another hand, both holding on to same precious thing.  That’s what I call a “double-grip guarantee”.

We’ve all seen the poster: the kitten hanging on to the end of a rope.  What’s the poster encouraging us to do?  “When you get to end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on!”  This isn’t that.

This is, “when you lose grip of the rope and you’re in free-fall, you will discover someone had the foresight to tie that rope around you so they can catch you and start hauling you back up, and that someone is God.”  That would be a lot to on a poster.

In every action movie, it’s almost required that at some point, somebody either falls over the edge of a cliff or off the roof of a skyscraper or out the door of a helicopter.   Suddenly, a hand reaches out and grabs the flailing hand of the person as they fall out into open space.   Can our rescuer hold on?!  Can they pull their friend to safety?!  Must we watch as the victim’s hand slowly, slowly slips free of the rescuers grasp?  This isn’t that.

This is God holding on to us, wherever and whenever, so we don’t go over the edge or off the roof or out the door.  We might get really close, and it may be terrifying, but, really, it’s o.k.  God has got us.

Or, as Jesus and his listeners most likely pictured it, it was the shepherd holding the sheep close with one hand, as the shepherd wields a club in the other, giving that wolf reason to pause and go find lunch somewhere else.  The wolf will not be snatching this particular sheep from the shepherd.

Which was a pretty bold thing for Jesus to be saying, given his own present predicament.  So, let’s back a moment and unpack these verses just a little bit more

As John sets the scene for us, Jesus is once again walking the Temple grounds, where, apparently, piles of stones are kept lying about.

John tells us it is winter, by which he means it’s somewhere along into November or December.  It is the feast of Dedication, also known as the Festival of Lights.   In other words, it’s Hanukkah!

Jesus is celebrating Hanukkah in Jerusalem.   It’s not spinning dreidels and eating fried potato pancakes yet.  It’s certainly not Adam Sandburg singing his annual “Happy Hanukkah” song yet.

But, it is Hanukkah.  It is the festival in which Jesus and his fellow Jews celebrate the rebellion, nearly two centuries earlier, when the Jews had recaptured control of Jerusalem from the Syrians.  These Jewish liberators were called the Maccabees.

The priests among the Maccabees set about ritually cleansing the Temple.  When they go to relight the sacred lamp that’s suppose to burn from sunrise to sunset every day, the priests discover there’s only a one-day supply of consecrated olive oil.  Yet, the one-day supply somehow fuels the sacred lamp for eight days, while more olive oil could be pressed and consecrated.

As part of this rebellion, the Maccabees depose the High Priest and his family who had conspired with the Syrians.  They install a new High Priest and his family.   This new High Priest, his family, and their descendants, are responsible for keeping the Temple pure.  To them belongs the sacred call to shepherd God’s people in the way pleasing to God.

So, this Feast of Dedication commemorated the Temple of God cleansed, the sacred Light of God relit, the true High Priest installed who would once again shepherd God’s people.   I’m sure you can see the problem the High Priest has with Jesus.

Here is this radical rabbi from Galilee, walking on the Temple grounds at Hanukkah, with all its revolutionary meaning.  Jesus, who claims that he is God’s chosen shepherd to lead God’s people.  Jesus, who on an earlier day, violently disrupted the marketplace on the Temple grounds that he said defiled the Temple. (John 2:13-17)  Jesus, who says that he himself is the miraculous source of Divine Light. (John 8:12ff.)

The High Priest and his administrators are fed up with Jesus.  They want this Jesus-problem over and done with.  They see Jesus walking along one of the covered porticos that border the Temple grounds.  The High Priest sends out his enforcers.  John writes in verse 24, So the Jews gathered around him…

Two things to note in this verse.  John, in his Gospel account, always refers to Jesus’ opponents as the Jews.  We need to constantly remember that John did not mean the Jews as a people…everyone in John’s account are Jews:  Jesus is a Jew; his disciples all are Jews, crowds who follow Jesus are all Jews.   John uses the phrase, the Jews, to refer to the Jewish religious authorities opposed to Jesus.  In particular, John means those who served at the pleasure of the High Priest and his family.

So, here they come, these emissaries of the High Priest.  Picture them, this group of men, marching down the portico towards Jesus.  John says they gathered round him.  Here’s the second note.   The word John uses here means that these subordinates of the High Priest physically surround Jesus so that he is blocked, going and coming.   The word, as you might guess, carries the idea of hostile intent.2

In other words, they’ve surrounded Jesus to bully him into submission.  Here and now, they intend to bring this conflict to a head, where either Jesus is going to have to back off or else Jesus is going to give them what they need to stone him right then and there.3   Either way, this is the day their Jesus-problem goes away.

Has a group of bullies ever encircled you?  I hope not; I hope you’re not presently in such a physically intimidating situation.  It is frightening when bullies encircle you, and its effects linger in your heart and mind long after whatever physical harm may come.   Imagine being encircled by bullies, each one holding a stone with which they hope to bash in your skull.

If not bullies, we may have experienced harsh circumstances marching toward us; a situation hemming us in, pushing us to edge of our resources and beyond.

We may appear to all those who know us to be the models of composure and self-discipline, but within our own minds, uncertainty and confusion have laid siege upon us, dark and even deadly voices shouting us down and drawing us where we dare not go.  Jesus has been there, in each and every one of these threatening scenarios.   The danger, the threat, the awful snapping maw of a violent beast preying on the most innocent of God’s lambs.

Singer and songwriter Brandi Carlyle has this beautiful song called, “The Eye”.  I heard it last week on the radio.  Maybe I’d heard it before but for some reason this time, it took.   The rest of the week I had this song, “The Eye”, playing on a steady loop in my head as I thought about this account of Jesus.  I posted it on the church’s Facebook page, if you want to listen to it and get it stuck your head, too.

In “The Eye”, Brandi Carlyle sings about someone she loves whom she sees going into this downward spiral of hurt and harm.   In the refrain, over and over, she sings, “you can dance in a hurricane/but only if you’re standing the eye…you can dance in a hurricane/but only if you’re standing in the eye.”  Jesus, somehow, can do that.  Jesus dances in the eye of the hurricane.

We watch our Lord, over and over in his life, where this hurricane of opposition overtakes him; people like these men of unassailable authority, who surround him, who literally take up stones to brutally kill him where he stands.  Yet, he does not cower; he does not shrink back.  Our Lord does not lose his voice, nor does he show any reservation whatsoever when challenged to explain himself.

Jesus our Lord “dances in the hurricane”, because Jesus has found his place in the eye of the storm.  Jesus, his human frame the same as our frame; his human brain processing what’s going on around him the same as ours; his human soul no different than our own souls.

The only thing separating Jesus in his human experience from our human experience is this most essential thing:  Jesus has learned that perfect faith, that God holds him in the Divine Hand out of which no force can snatch him.  Though they may pick up stones to break his body and extinguish his life, they will never remove him from his God.  Jesus in perfect faith is so united with God that he alone may say truly about himself, I and the Father are one.

Jesus could dance in the joy of the angels, for this reason:   he carried within himself the serene eye of the hurricane.   Where Jesus was, God was.

At whatever point in Jesus’ emerging consciousness of who he might be, he looked to God in faith and the Spirit of God took hold of the son of Mary and did not let him go:  he was the Son of God, and of that Jesus never doubted.

Whose daughter?  Whose son are you?   From whatever branch in this great human family you may come, has the Spirit of God yet spoken to you of your identity, your place in God’s family?  Have you heard, as that voice quietly but persistently lays claim on you, whispering to your soul?  Are you ready, here and now, to let this truth awaken in you, that you are the child of God?

God does not force that claim.  But, God does guarantee, receive your place with God, and you will know God for all time and eternity.

What about these men who encircled Jesus like so many predators, hoping for any opening Jesus might give them to grab him up and devour him?   What separated them from these other men and women who heard Jesus and discerned the voice of God, who saw Jesus’ great acts and saw in them God’s own witness to Jesus?

Well, Jesus tells us when he answers them.   In verses 25 and 26, Jesus says, I told you, and you do not believe.   The works I do in my Father’s name, they bear witness to me; but you do not believe…

It’s not the accumulation of words and facts that are in question here.  These men had words and facts aplenty about Jesus.  Their problem was, they simply would not trust themselves in this truth of Jesus and in this way Jesus was seeking to lead them.

Jesus was offering to be their Shepherd, but they simply would not trust him, so, as Jesus says, you do not belong to my sheep.   Instead, they belong to the High Priest; that’s the one in whom they believe and trust.  Yes, the High Priest can give them position and prestige, but it will not last.

As a congregation, we are a gathering of God’s children; or, to stay with John 10, we are a gathering of Jesus’ flock.  Do we for a moment think that Jesus would abandon us to the whims of circumstance?  Do we really think something so fleeting as our present frustrations could cause Jesus to lose grip on us and let us slide by the wayside?

Jesus didn’t even ask that we have the perfect faith he knew within himself.  What did Jesus promise?  If you have the tiniest bit of faith, the faith the size of a mustard seed, you will do even greater things than you’ve seen in me.  (Mark 11:22ff.)

So great is the chasm between unbelief and faith…the tiniest seed of faith once brought to life far exceeds even the greatest force of unbelief.

Information is good; facts are helpful.  But information and facts never saved a soul nor sustained a church, just like information and facts never changed these opponents of Jesus into disciples of Jesus.  What saves a soul and sustains a church and nurtures a vital community of faith is the one thing these folks lacked…believing trust in Jesus to shepherd them into the fullness of God’s eternal life.

Will we be such a congregation of believing trust?  Will you as a professed follower of Christ, be such a person of believing trust?  Is that something you need to reaffirm this morning, either privately with the Lord or publicly before this congregation?

If you remain undecided about Jesus, won’t you now say “yes” to the Spirit of God who witnesses to your soul?  In Baptist circles, we use the word “profess”.  By that we mean that, first, you say “yes” to God, whatever an inward yes to God might mean for you personally.  Then, we encourage you to be baptized and to join our congregation.

Will Brown will be standing here as we sing this last hymn, and he would love to help you through that process.  So, do that inward ‘yes’ thing with God while we sing, and then come to the front and talk with Will.

 

_________________________________

 

1Raymond E. Brown attributes the ready presence of stones to the on-going construction by Herod on the Temple (­The Gospel According to John, I-XII, The Anchor Bible; Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1966; n.59, p. 360).  Leon Morris states there would be no stones lying about on Solomon’s colonnade, so the men would have had to bring stones with them—which must have been an odd and intimidating sight (The Gospel According to John, The New International Commentary on the New Testament; Grand Rapids, MI:  Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1971; n.81, p. 524)!

2kuklow, BAG, p.457.

3Morris, pp. 518-519.

What’s Changed?

Preached by Rev. Will Brown, April 3, 2016
Taken from Acts 5:27-32; John 20:19-31

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I’m sure you’ve seen the ads, whether it’s for a new miracle diet pill or revolutionary exercise equipment that will transform the shape of your body. Or maybe one of the many home makeover shows on HGTV and elsewhere. There are always two pictures: before and after. Before the weight loss program, and after, with a dramatic change between the two.

Let’s think about today’s two scripture readings (from John and Acts) in those terms: before and after, two pieces of the same story.

First, “before.” John, chapter 20, verse 19 begins on Easter evening. It’s Sunday night, the third day since Jesus had been killed. The disciples have secretly gathered together and locked themselves in a room, afraid that the same religious leaders who had Jesus killed would also be coming for them. So they’re hiding, with the doors locked. Locked away, afraid.

Fear is a powerful emotion, isn’t it? It paralyzes us, renders us unable to act or even to think clearly. When we are afraid, we play it safe, avoiding risk. We hunker down. That’s where the disciples are, hunkered down in fear for their lives, afraid of who might come banging on their locked doors.

That’s “before.” How about “after”?

It’s Acts chapter 5, and the disciples once again are found behind locked doors, but this is an entirely different scene. They have been parading around Jerusalem, healing the sick, brazenly proclaiming that Jesus was raised from the dead, colliding head-on with the teachings of the religious elites, who promptly have them arrested. They are thrown in jail, with the doors locked. Locked away, unafraid.

“No-fear” is a powerful emotion, too, isn’t it? It frees us, enables us to act and think clearly. We can take risks, put everything on the line. There’s no need to hide away.

Before and after. What a contrast! Are these the same disciples?? They had locked themselves away, afraid that the Jewish leaders might find them; now they are defiantly preaching in their faces, getting arrested like they had feared, and then getting right back to work when an angel breaks them out of prison. Rounded up and interrogated again, they reply, simply and defiantly: “We must obey God rather than human beings!”

What happened to these people? How did they get from “before” to “after”? What changed?

In a word: resurrection.

I’m not sure quite how else to describe it. When the “before” picture is taken, it’s a snapshot of a devastating chapter in their lives. Jesus was dead. Remember how they had dropped everything and followed him? They left behind their families, dropped their nets on the seashore, gave up their livelihood and everything that mattered, just to follow Jesus. He amazed them with miraculous healings, walked on water, multiplied loaves and fishes to feed the crowds, taught them in parables they couldn’t quite understand, yet it made them believe in an entirely different world, a kingdom of God that somehow was at hand, breaking into the world everywhere Jesus stepped. Following Jesus: this is who they were now. And then he was dead.

What were they supposed to do? This unbelievable ride, following God incarnate around the countryside, just came crashing to a halt, and their lives with it.

That’s why I feel bad for “Doubting Thomas,” as we always seem to call him. You know how the familiar story goes: Thomas wasn’t in the room when Jesus had appeared to the disciples, so when Thomas gets back, they tell him what had just happened. But he stubbornly replies, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, … I will not believe.” At least that’s how we tell it, with Thomas being the doubtful disciple who must see things for himself!

But there’s another way to read this story. Might a more fitting moniker be Grieving Thomas? It seems significant that what Thomas demands to see are Jesus’ wounds, the very proof that Jesus had died. In his grief, all Thomas knows is the truth that Jesus was killed. When he hears his friends proclaim that Jesus is alive, he dismisses it as wishful thinking. Perhaps he knew all too well the voice in his head that we call denial, claiming the same thing, desperately yearning for it not to be true—maybe Jesus didn’t die, somehow, maybe he’s still alive? But Thomas knows what happened. He saw the pierced and bleeding hands and feet and side. So he won’t believe. He can’t.

Jesus has died, and with him died the hopes and identity of the people whose lives revolved around following him. They hunker down, lost, defeated, and afraid.

And then resurrection happens.

We do a disservice to our faith when we tame these stories. They are—and should be—painful to read. To truly put yourself in the shoes of these desperately grieving disciples—it hurts. It hurts because life is not tame. You know what it feels like to be in their shoes—the grief, the confusion, the questions. That’s why it’s so jarring to read the story this way, to sit with them in the depths of their grief and then collide without warning into the strange claim of resurrection.

But here we are in the Easter season, and that’s what we’re doing. This season is an emotional rollercoaster, and you better hang on, because right there, when the disciples are staring at each other in a sad room somewhere in Jerusalem, Resurrection just appears right there in their midst, not even bothering to knock on the door.

The grieving, broken disciples had no idea that they were posing for a “before” picture.

Having read ahead in Acts, we know where they’re going, the great things they’ll do, and this startling appearance from Jesus is clearly the turning point. He reassures them, breathes new life into them, and sends them out: “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you!” Wow. So, what happens next?

Some of you have heard me tell this story before, but when Erin and I were living in Nazareth, Israel, a few years ago, we were fascinated to discover that with so many different Christian traditions (Protestant, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Coptic, and more), there was more than one calendar that the different churches followed. This meant there were different dates for Christmas, different dates for Lent, and different dates for Easter. When we went to church on Easter Sunday (a week after some churches had celebrated Easter), we greeted our friends with the traditional “Al masiih qam,” Arabic for “Christ is risen,” to which the response is “Haqqan qam,” “Christ is risen indeed.” Well, when we said the phrase “Al masiih qam” (“Christ is Risen”) to one neighbor, he dryly responded, “My Jesus rose last week.” [We were a week later in his church’s calendar.]

“A week later” is where our story picks up. The Gospel of John’s narrative jumps from the appearance of Christ on Easter evening to the week after Easter. Let’s see what these newly empowered disciples are doing. Hear again verse 26:

26 A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!”

A week later, there they are again, in the same house, with the doors locked. In a way this baffles me: Jesus just rose from the dead, breathed the Holy Spirit into you, and sent you out—what are you still doing here a week later?? Shouldn’t you be over here by now? [the “after” picture]

Then again, maybe they had been out there risking their lives all week, and now they needed to come back together for support and renewal, and to convince each other that this really did happen, that they’re not crazy and making it all up. Maybe what they had discovered was that resurrection is hard and slow, and it doesn’t take place alone. Their new life depends on each other. Their very identity now is a communal one; they have become the church, collectively resurrected and empowered to continue Christ’s work.

So a week later, they gather again—this time with Thomas—and again Jesus is present with them, reassuring them, giving them what they need to believe, and sending them out again.

Perhaps that’s why we are here too: community, mutual reassurance, to be strengthened, renewed, and sent back out.

In any case, the “before picture” of the disciples slowly begins to shift, and a new “after” comes into focus. By the time we arrive at the courageous stories in the book of Acts, these disciples look totally different. No longer hunkered down, they are bold and strong and decisive. The contrast could not be more striking. Yet there is one remarkable commonality between these two stories: locked doors.

In the Gospel lesson, they have locked themselves away for protection, and in Acts they are locked up in prison. But in both instances, God will have none of it. After all, this is the God who began the day by rolling away the stone door that was meant to seal a tomb. Mary Magdalene and at least some of the disciples had seen the open tomb earlier that day, yet by the evening, they have closed themselves in, locking themselves away in a “tomb” of their own making. But neither these locked doors nor the prison doors in Acts are any impediment to the God of Resurrection.

What about you? What about us?

Are we metaphorically locked away in a room somewhere? Do we keep ourselves safe, hold a little bit back, afraid of what may be out there? Some of the strongest prisons are the ones we build for ourselves, for self-protection or fear of the unknown. Or do we feel constrained by forces outside our control, imprisoned by forces more powerful than we are? Death, disease, the unrelenting passing of time, social stigma, the –isms and –phobias of our world—these locked doors can feel immovable and final.

Thank God that the God of Resurrection is no respecter of locked doors.

Whether we’ve locked ourselves away or feel locked in from the outside, our Easter God is rolling away the stone, calling us out to new life, and to get to work.

In closing, I want to ask us a question. As a congregation, is our self-portrait—if I were to hold up my phone and take a selfie right now (there it is)—is this a “before” picture or an “after” picture? Are we “before,” waiting for God’s resurrection to sweep over us? Or, “after”: has God already finished with us? Or might we be right in the middle, living in the midst of that transformation, being collectively resurrected even at this moment, as God makes us into something new?

Let us pray:

God, are we the best you have? Are we good enough? Use us anyway. Resurrect our hopes and make us your people. Amen.

The Guest

Preached by Rev. Jack Averill, March 27, 2016
Taken from Luke 24:1-12, also 13-35

 

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 Lord God, as we look into your word for us today, we want to  welcome the risen Christ, so that he may live in our hearts by faith and be proclaimed in our lives by love.  Amen.

A

This scripture is familiar to many people, and it’s relevant for today: “Listen! I am standing at the door knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me” (Revelation 3:20).

B

They are headed in the wrong direction, going away from the other disciples.

In the early morning hours on the day we know as Easter, disciples are moving quickly to the tomb, then running back to talk with other disciples; then others run to the tomb to see for themselves.  Now, somewhat later, these two are leaving. They are going home.

I

The account from Luke’s Gospel, which Martha Ballenger read, tells us that Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and other disciples go at daybreak to the tomb where Jesus’ body had been placed. They find the stone — gravestones were round, they stood on edge in a trench in front of the tomb where they could be rolled to one side to allow entry, then back to close the tomb — the women find this heavy stone rolled aside and the tomb, empty.  They are “perplexed.” Suddenly, “two men in dazzling clothes” stand beside them. The women are “terrified.” An earth-shaking question confronts them: “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

The women return to the city and tell the other disciples what they experienced. “But,” scripture says, “these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” Peter goes to investigate, looks into the tomb, and returns “amazed.” The disciples are perplexed…terrified… disbelieving…amazed, which in the Gospels includes fear and a bit of anger: a strange, painfully honest introduction to this day of the greatest joy and celebration.

Our worship on Sundays in Lent responded to the theme, “Through the Wilderness.” Despite Jesus’ efforts to prepare them, his death on Friday, that devastating ending, cast his disciples into a wilderness of confusion and grief, despair and powerlessness unlike any they had ever experienced.  We know that an astounding beginning burst upon them early Sunday morning, but it was far beyond their immediate ability to grasp.

It’s when Luke’s scripture for today continues that we first meet these two disciples who, bewildered in their wilderness, are now on the road, walking toward home. One is named Cleopas; the other, unidentified, is very likely his wife. We know nothing more about them, except that they must have been at the table with the other disciples as Jesus led them what we call the Last Supper.

As they walk along in their seven-mile journey to the village of Emmaus, they are deep in conversation, trying to make sense of what happened, not only that morning, but on Friday as well. They are questioning, baffled, uncertain. A man walking that same road from Jerusalem comes up alongside them.  He asks what they are discussing.  With some exasperation, Cleopas responds, “Are you the only person in Jerusalem who does not know…?” “What?” the stranger asks.

“Jesus of Nazareth, a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people,” Cleopas replies, “our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel, to rescue us from the Romans. It is now the third day since these things took place.  Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive.”

The stranger and the two disciples continue walking down the road. Now they are listening to him as he interprets scripture, helping them to comprehend, to put in context, all that has occurred in these last days.

The turn-off to their village is just ahead. They have left Jerusalem. They have gone away from the other disciples.  You may know from your own experience that when part of your life is falling apart, when you find yourself thrown into a wilderness of uncertainty and confusion and pain, heading for home may seem the best thing to do — as a “time out,” not a solution — until you can get back to what you may be avoiding.

II

I read recently about a man who, while traveling in England, took time to wander through the cemetery that surrounded a village church. He came to a low brick wall that enclosed 50 graves, somewhat neglected, graves of young men between the ages of 17 and 25, all from New Zealand.  Placed into the brick wall surrounding the graves was a granite slab with these words: We Shall Never Forget Your Sacrifice.

Nothing in the cemetery explained what had occurred, so the man went to the village museum. The attendant there had no idea. Townspeople whom he asked did not know. The man could only surmise that these 50 were soldiers who had been stationed in the village during World War I and who died in the flu epidemic of 1918. “No one knew,” he lamented. “The impressive inscription in granite, We Shall Never Forget Your Sacrifice, was a lie. Their sacrifice had been forgotten. No one could remember.”

Had God not raised Jesus from death, would people eventually have forgotten his ministry? That, for me, is unthinkable because we know that God loved the world so much that God gave us his Son and, when part of the world responded with crucifixion, God loved the world so much that he raised his Son to dwell among us through all time and into eternity, a gift that no one can put to an end.


III

“Why do you look for the living among the dead?” That question would become a pathway out of the wilderness of grief and lostness and apparent defeat and into the utterly new beginning that God had created.

The two disciples arrive at the side road that leads to their village. The stranger seems about to continue on his way. “No, stay with us,” they insist. “The day is nearly over.”  So he enters their home. They prepare a meal. He takes his place at their table. They start to eat, but their guest begins to preside at the meal, to do what the head of the household would do. Says the scripture, “He took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them.” This is what had happened in the upper room. It was then, Luke tells us, that “their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight” — literally, “He became someone disappearing from them.”

Without delay, their meal apparently postponed, these two are on the road again, going back to the others. Before, they had felt empty and dead inside. Now they are filled with new, resurrected life. “That same hour,” Luke tells us, “they got up and returned [the seven miles] to Jerusalem; and they found the other disciples gathered together. They were saying, ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!’  Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.”

IV

Those words of scripture with which I began are relevant: “Listen! I am standing at the door knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.” For many of us, when and where we eat our meals has changed from some years back, and rare it is if members of the household sit at a table, all together at the same time. In fact, some us of rarely use a table—we eat standing up, or in front of the TV, or listening to music through our earbuds. Only on special days are we all seated at the same time, if then — Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, perhaps birthdays.

If we want to open the door to Jesus so that he can preside at our table — well, we’ll have to think of that in a different way: if we want Jesus to preside in our lives, no problem — this is what he wants to do. And when we leave from here and go to there, we won’t be leaving him behind. He will walk with us throughout the day, encouraging us in everything to walk with him on his way, think his thoughts, and extend his care for all other people.

While we walk with him, we will discover who we are. Scripture tells us, “You are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:26). We are all children of God. That’s who we are; that’s our new identity in Christ: all children of God. It’s our identity to accept, ours to grow into.

 

The Gift

Preached by Rev. Jack Averill, March 20, 2016

The common thread running through worship on these Sundays in Lent has been “Through the Wilderness.” Each Sunday, the children have lengthened our pathway through the desert. I’ve spent time in the desert. I’ve come through the wilderness. I didn’t like it. I don’t want to go back.

I

Some of you have tales to tell about driving through a desert when your air conditioning started to fail or the time you watched the gas gauge dropping down and down while someone in the vehicle—perhaps you—asked accusingly, “Why didn’t you fill the tank before we started?”

I’ve spent time in a desert, my personal wilderness. I didn’t like it. I don’t want ever to return—but, considering the nature of human experience, it’s likely that I will.

I grew up in the Midwest. The desert was nothing I’d ever seen. For me, wilderness meant forest, heavily wooded—trees dwarfing me as they reached endlessly above, blocking the light. That’s my mental picture of a wilderness experience—no clearings, no trails, no apparent way out.

Rarely in our lives, perhaps never, can we step from an ending directly into a new beginning. Endings first cast us into a kind of wilderness. The greater the impact of the ending, the longer we’ll need for finding a way through the wilderness, a path back to life, life that will be different from before.

Even endings we choose—transferring from one school to another, quitting our job in order to begin a better job, freeing ourselves of a toxic relationship in order to order to step out of darkness into light—even endings we anticipate may throw us first into uncertainty, confusion. The hour-to-hour predictability that structured our day is disrupted. Part of our identity has come to an end. The familiar markers that told us what was expected of us are missing. Yet, eventually, we reorient ourselves and step out into that new beginning.

Major endings turn our lives upside down. Serious illness that threatens us, an avalanche of anxiety that descends on us without explanation, the death of someone who was life itself for us: these plunge us into endings with no new beginnings in sight. There we are: hemmed in by dense forest wilderness without sunlight or trails to follow or wandering in an expanse of desert sand, directionless. We’re there because something that defined us has ended. A reality that shaped who we were, that gave direction and content for living each day, is gone. We feel lost, deserted, profoundly alone. What was has ended. What will be has not taken shape. We are in the wilderness of the in-between. I’ve been there.

II

Palm Sunday takes us into Holy Week, days filled with remembering Jesus: his entry into Jerusalem on Sunday, his cleansing of the temple on Monday, and his entire day of teaching in the temple on Tuesday; on Wednesday his anointing by an unnamed woman, after which Judas arranged to betray him; Thursday the Passover meal in the upper room—his last supper with the disciples, then his arrest late Thursday night, leading to a hastily called hearing before the Jewish high court; very early Friday his trial before Pilate and his sentencing, his crucifixion at nine that morning, his death at three in the afternoon, and the burial just before sundown.

Recall one other scene. It seems almost inconsequential—late Tuesday afternoon after his full and exhausting day of teaching in the Temple. Controversy and conflict had for hours washed over Jesus as his enemies again and again attempted to trap him into making statements they could use against him. At last, the people intent on bringing about his death departed, the crowds who had listened to his teaching dispersed, and Jesus found welcome moments of solitary quietness. He sat on a bench in the temple courtyard—resting, gathering himself, thinking about what lay ahead of him in the next hours and days.

Observing people in their coming and going, his gaze focused on a woman. What she was doing moved him deeply. The Gospel of Mark tells us about it:

He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. (Mark 12:41-42)

This is what we are told about her, that she was a poor widow who gave an offering. Yet we also know, at this time and place, that her parents had arranged her engagement when she was still a child, agreeing with the parents of a somewhat older boy that in years to come their two children would be joined in marriage. As the marriageable age drew near—18 to 20 for the boy, as young as 14 for her—their parents established the terms for their one-year betrothal. They did not live together, but they called each other husband or wife, and their betrothal could be broken only by divorce or death.

When the betrothal year ended, and the two families had negotiated the marriage contract, the wedding feast got under way, starting with a torch-lit procession that meandered through the village, bringing the bride, her friends and family to the bridegroom’s home where his close friends and family were waiting. This week-long celebration was not elaborate—poverty defined most families—but people recognized it as the highest pinnacle of celebration and joy that a bridegroom and bride would ever know.

The widow whom Jesus saw in the temple late Tuesday afternoon was now at a quite different place in her life. Was she elderly, do you think—not what we consider “elderly,” but in her 50s or early 60s? Yet, married at 14 or so, she could have been widowed before she was 20. A woman then and there, without a husband for protection and status, was particularly vulnerable to economic and social deprivation. The death of her husband had cast her into her own wilderness experience. We don’t know how recently, but she had spent time in that desert.

III

I’ve had to deal with my own wilderness experience—more than once, for different lengths of time, never quite the same desert as before. Human experience brings us all sorts of endings, most of them arriving without warning and leaving us uncertain about where to find the next beginning. Small endings may put us into a fog of short-term uncertainty. For days, possibly weeks, we reassess our situation, make adjustments and find our way. It’s the major, largely unanticipated endings that hurl us deep into the wilderness. What we took for granted about the structure of each day is now uncertain. The person we are supposed to be and what we are supposed to do with ourselves have for the most part disappeared.

We experience loss. Loss entails grief. Grief may occasion anger, depression, and a stepping away from life. We didn’t ask for the wilderness, but there we are—big time. The familiar pathways to God may now seem to lead nowhere. The faith that was the foundation and structure for our lives falters. God has gone away. That’s not true, of course. God is never closer to us than in our personal wilderness, but we’ve lost confidence that God even cares. We’ve worn out the effectiveness of prayers we used to scatter throughout the day. Concern for other people, affection, helpfulness—all these dwindle: we can find nothing about ourselves that is worth offering to anyone else. The wilderness is a depressing place, isn’t it?

God does not intend for us to take up residence in that desert, nor does God want us to escape from it. The wilderness occurs because of loss. Loss entails grief. Grief causes pain. Hiding from pain doesn’t work. Masking pain is foolish. We have to turn, with God’s help, not away but toward our pain. Grief is the start of healing if we face the pain of loss and stare it down by praying our way through it, however long it takes.

My prayers from the wilderness tend to start, “O God, help me…”: get out of here, recover, make the right decision, find my way—whatever. But after a while, my prayers are just three words, “O God, help.” I don’t know what to say next. God knows.

Months may pass—long, long months—before we’re aware that light has begun to shine. We have redefined ourselves and our relationships. We’ve sharpened the perception of our life’s purpose. We’ve revised our faith. Our reaching out to God is wiser, more mature. We step out into the new beginning.

IV

The woman in the temple courtyard that afternoon was not aware of Jesus, but she held his attention. Like any widow, she wore her loss—black veil, black head covering, and black robe—perhaps carefully patched: a widow struggling with meager means. She was no stranger to the wilderness, but she was there no longer. Selfless giving does not occur when we’re in the desert, focused on self and survival.

Jesus sat on a bench—resting, gathering himself, thinking about the ordeal that lay ahead of him. Men and women were depositing coins in the treasury, wooden chests attached low to the wall, each with a metal tube through which the coins fell. The abundant, heavy coins of the well-to-do clanged against the metal tubes. Who could even hear the tinny, tiny sound of two copper coins, worth not quite a penny? I think Jesus heard. I know Jesus saw.

“This poor widow,” he said, “has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” (Mark 12:43-44)

Even the most sacrificially generous people we know who, for love of God, give all that their right hand contains, hold other resources in their left hand to sustain their lives. When this woman emptied her right hand of its two thin coins, her left hand was empty. Because of her poverty, she could well have regarded herself as one who should receive. Nonetheless, she gave—“everything she had,” he said, “all she had to live on.” He was deeply moved, about to give everything he had, even his own life.

He is God’s gift to us: “God loved the world so much that God gave his only Son…,” you know the scripture (John 3:16). Jesus is God’s gift to us—a gift who promises, whatever may happen to us, more life than before, even life that has no ending.

Wilderness Retro: What’s a Sheave?

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, March 13, 2016
Taken from John 12:1-8; Psalm 126

Psalm126

As I looked through the lectionary suggestions for this Sunday, there was Psalm 126.   I read those verses 5 and 6:

May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy!/ He that goes forth weeping bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him.

As soon as I read that, I knew what hymn we just had to sing this morning:   Bringing in the sheaves, bringing in the sheaves, we shall go rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves!”

So, I asked Alba, “Alba, may we please sing ‘Bringing in the Sheaves’, because it comes straight out of Psalm 126.  Especially the third stanza of the hymn: “going forth with weeping, sowing for the Master, Tho’ the loss sustained our spirit often grieves; When our weeping’s over, He will bid us welcome, We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.”

One of the beauties of this great old hymn is how it respects this odd thing we find in the final verses of Psalm 126.   Which odd thing is this:   What’s up with all this talk of tears and weeping and grieving?   Whatever that sheaving business once was, I sure am glad we don’t do it anymore!   It all sounds pretty painful, with all that crying and wailing going on.   But, the hymn writer respects that and just works with it.

We’ll get back to this sheaving business in a bit.  But, for most of us, wasn’t it fun singing it.   How many of us grew up singing, “Bringing In The Sheaves”?

When I asked Alba if we could sing it today, I knew we’d have to reprint it in the bulletin, because you’re not going to find it in our present, 1991, edition of The Baptist Hymnal.   In fact, “Bringing in the Sheaves” has not appeared in any edition of the Baptist Hymnal since 1956, and there have been three editions since then, in 1975 and 1991 and in 2008!2

By 1975, I suppose the hymnal editors were asking themselves, “sheaves?   Nobody’s gonna know what a sheave is anymore!   That belongs to a whole different era!”  So, out it went never to appear again.

Well, this morning, I thought, let’s go retro!   Because it’s Psalm 126, and Psalm 126 is all about the weeping and the crying and the laboring and the bringing in those sheaves!  And, by golly, I like singing “Bringing In The Sheaves”, and I’m guessing a fair majority of folks at UBC are gonna like singing it, too!   So, there!  My call…we’re gonna do it.”

So, here’s this hymn that has not appeared in any Baptist Hymnal since 1956, and yet it means so much to so many of us who grew up in church, even those of us who were born after the 1975 hymn book got published.   Because, of course, we didn’t just go out and replace our old ’56 hymnals right away, did we?

Even when Baptist churches bought the new 1975 Baptist Hymnal, do you think we just sent the old raggedy 1956 hymnals out the backdoor?   No, of course not!   We moved them out into the Sunday School rooms.   We kept right on singing out of the ‘56 Hymnal for years and years during  Sunday School assembly time.

You remember department wide opening assembly, don’t you?   All the individual classes in particular age-department met first in a big open room.   The Department supervisor would lead in a hymn, followed by a prayer, and the announcements and then a little five-minute warm-up devotional.   Then, all the classes would dismiss, each to go into their little 10×10 cinderblock cubicles for that morning’s lesson.  Basically, these opening assemblies were a mini-worship service, before big worship.

There, we could still sing all the good hymns out of the real, 1956 edition of The Baptist Hymnal…Praise Jesus, Amen!  So, “Bringing In The Sheaves” stayed alive and well among Baptists despite the good intentions of those editors in the music department down in Nashville.

Now, as you may suspect, I am engaging us in a little Baptist Retro Work.   Psalm 126 gives me the license to do that retro work because that’s exactly what Psalm 126 was doing there in the Hebrew Bible…there was just a bit of what we might call “Wilderness Retro Work” going on in worship for these folks when they sang Psalm 126.   They were singing their version of “Bringing In The Sheaves”.

Everybody does it, this retro thinking and even retro living.   What in the world possessed me to throw away my polyester silk shirts and my three-piece camel-brown suit with the extra-wide bell-bottom trousers?   My goodness, I looked so cool in that outfit.  That would one sweet retro fit for me.

Whether you’re an ancient Hebrew or a contemporary Christian or post-modern secular whatever…we human beings have always loved us some retro.   When times get uncertain, when the future hovers before us like a thick fog, when today does not compare favorably with yesterday, well, where are you going to turn?   You’re gonna go retro; you’re gonna look back because you lived through that back there:   you survived, you thrived, it’s a known-quantity, you remember the good folks who were part of your group.

Psalm 126 is all about that retro.  Verse one, paraphrasing:   Oh, you remember what it was like when the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, oh my, back then we were living the dream, weren’t we?   Verse two, you remember that happy time, there was so much laughter, everyone just seemed to have so much more joy back then.

The second half of verse 2, paraphrased:  why, complete strangers, people on the outside, would watch us and nod their heads and say to themselves, Well, God sure must like them, look how good they’ve got it!

But, that is not how it is for them now, as they sing this psalm in worship.  That’s why they’ve turned to this kind of retro prayer…Lord, the way it was back then, won’t you please do it for us again, and soon, Lord, because we’re in trouble here! Restore our fortunes, O Lord.

The word restore is what we might call a “time-intensive” word.  It’s got past-tense and present-tense and future-tense all rolled up together.   First, “restore” looks back, to the way things once were in a good, remembered past…that’s what we want restored; the word “restore” also implies a present moment, where things are not at all as good as they once had been; and, finally, the word “restore” looks to a hoped-for future, where one prays God may soon turn circumstances to become once again as good as they used to be.

Verse 3 in this Psalm is a critical turning point.  It’s where these worshippers start their turn from looking back, to affirm their faith in God here, now, in their present worship.  Verse 3:  The Lord has done great things for us; we are glad.   Hear that little turn they’ve made to the present…we are glad.

Can we here, today, stop for a moment and make that same affirmation?   Really, right now, all together, look in our bulletin where Psalm 126 is printed   If you can affirm this sentiment that verse three expresses, then read it aloud with me.  If you can’t really say it like you mean it, you know, it feels a little forced, that’s o.k.; honesty in worship is the only way to go.   You can just sort move your lips so you don’t feel out of place.   Let’s read verse 3 together, now:   The Lord has done great things for us; we are glad.

That is a critical transition point, for a person of faith, as well as for a congregation.  The transition is this:   To tell you truth, I don’t like where we are today.  But, there sure have been some great moments in the past with God, and for that, at least, I am glad today.   The Lord has done great things for us; we are glad.

This is true for us, University Baptist Church, isn’t it?   For those of us with extra-long memories, I’m sure you might describe some of those great experiences of God working in the life of this church.

So, O Lord, won’t you please do it again?  See, in verse 4, how they’ve turned now to look to the future?   What are they asking God to do?  They’re asking God to do, what they have learned through hard experience, that only God can do.   “O Lord, what once you did for us because only you could do it, well, please do that again.”

If they themselves could have restored their fortunes they would have done it by now.  But, suffice it to say, they’d already tried to fit together all the pieces, especially to make Jerusalem great again, and it just wasn’t going the way they thought it would go.  They’re disappointed to say the least.  Well, that’s one sort of progress, isn’t it, when God’s people realize only God can actually do God’s work?

Perhaps their wilderness retro trip reminded them of these basic lessons from their history:   1) God makes promises that only God can keep, 2) they themselves were often the biggest impediments to God keeping those promise, 3) God’s promises turned out to be different and ever so much better than God’s people dared imagine, and 4) though they indeed benefitted, when God fulfilled those promises it was always to God’s glory and not their own.

Nothing has changed, sisters and brothers of the faith…from the Hebrew Scriptures right on over into our New Testament canon, those four fundamentals continued:  1) only God could accomplish what God has promised; 2) Jesus’ followers often turned out to be the only impediments to God working out those promises; 3) God’s promises turned out in ways far different and far greater than Jesus’ people could imagine; and 4) while God’s people certainly received a blessing, the real goal was God’s glory and praise.

Enjoying a few minutes together this morning recalling the ‘56 Baptist Hymnal and Sunday School department assemblies and singing a great old hymn like “Bringing In The Sheaves”, if all this Baptist retro work reminds us of these four foundational lessons of faith, well, then that been some good work for us this morning.

Is this not where we are together as a congregation?   Are we not, as this ancient congregation before us once was, seeking God to do what only God can do, in and through University Baptist Church?   Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like water, springing up and flowing through a desert wilderness!  That’s our prayer.  But, what might be the impediments we present to God?

That question brings us back around to this odd business in verses five and six, about sowing in tears, going forth weeping to the work of planting so they could get on to sheaving.   What a strange practice this sheaving must have been!

What exactly is a “sheave” anyway?   If you watch a lot of “Law & Order” or “NCIS” when you hear, “sheave”, you might think of the word “shiv”.   They certainly sound alike…sheave…shiv.   Maybe “sheave” is plural for a bunch of “shivs”?   “Hey, what’s in the box?  Oh, it’s a sheave of shivs.”  Nope, that’s not it.

Properly speaking, the word “sheaves” is the plural form of the word, “sheaf”.   A “sheaf” is a bunch of grain stalks, such as wheat, that’s been cut and tied up together into a big bundle.   As illustrated on our bulletin cover this morning.

You’ll notice in the painting of these workers, sheaving harkens back to olden times of another age; you’re not likely to see any sheaves out, standing in anybody’s field, unless maybe it’s at the Frontier Museum over near Staunton.   Which is why the editors in the music department down in Nashville in 1975 thought it was time to dispense with hymns like “Bringing In The Sheaves”.   Sheaving was not much a part of people’s lives anymore.

But, way back when, when this good old hymn we call Psalm 126 got written, people knew a thing or two about sheaving.  Yet, again, why all the sadness?

In the ancient Canaanite cultures, to quote one scholar, “the time of sowing was…considered as a time of mourning”. Those ancient agrarian folks lived very close to the natural cycles of things dying and decaying, thus providing the fertility out of which new life would sprout and grow.  There had to be dying involved with bringing forth new crops.

These ancient cultures surrounded their practices of spring planting with rituals of dying and death and funerals.   The sowing in tears and going forth weeping speak to a funereal grieving that something must be surrendered over to death and finally buried.   Only in that way, would they find those longed-for days of harvest with shouts of joy.

Up to this point, Psalm 126, verses one to four, have said nothing about farming.  It has only talked of reminiscing, of recalling they are indeed God’s people for whom God has done great good and through whom God has brought the other nations around them to acknowledge and praise God.   But, they turn to end on this metaphor drawn from their own experience of sowing and reaping.   Why?

Because they are drawing on this wisdom, that if there is to be such new life reborn among them, then they must be ready to endure grieving as they release and bury whatever they must for that new life to come.

We know it is true in our personal spiritual journeys.   The Spirit of God touches upon our lives, saying, “here…this…and this…these things precious to you, you now must let go of if you want to receive what God now offers you.   What God offers you of God’s own Self, of joy and splendor which God alone can accomplish in you, well, here is what you must relinquish as though it were a thing now dead to you.”  We should not fool ourselves; that is no easy task to do.  It can be a time of grieving.

The same is true for a congregation.   This Psalm 126 is first a word for a congregation, before it is a word for the individual believer.  What must we lay aside as a church, what must we bury… burying not to avoid nor to hide nor to pretend something does not exist…but genuinely to understand it–if the Spirit of God leads us–what congregational practice or attitude or misunderstanding, is the Spirit saying, now is time to see it, let it go and bury it.

Grieve if we must, but, that hard work we must do, if we are to make a place for new life to find fertile ground among us.  That is worthy labor and productive labor that yields a bountiful harvest.

Whether in our personal lives or in our life together, remember God’s call to surrender whatever hinders us always comes out of God’s profound love for us.   That surrender gives birth to new expressions of God’s love which we will find to be no burden.  Rather, each new step with God restores a balance, between God doing what only God can do, and our faithful service working with God in that work.

To the glory of the One who saves us, now and forevermore, even Jesus who himself did no differently, as he showed us this way of dying that we may know resurrection.   Amen.

__________________________________

1 Exegetical notes from Artur Weiser, The Psalms, The Old Testament Library, Peter Ackroyd, et al, eds. (Philadelphia:  The Westminster Press, 1962) pp. 759-763.

Dr. Terry C. Terry, et al, A Comparison of Musical Content in Baptist Hymnal (1956), Baptist Hymnal (1975), Baptist Hymnal (1991) and Baptist Hymnal (2008) (Nashville:  Lifeway Publishers, September 29, 2008).

3 Weiser, op.cit., p. 762.

 

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