Sunday, April 25, 2010

Rev. Harold Tucker to Preach

On both May 2 and May 9, Rev. Harold Tucker of Wiscasset will conduct the regular Sunday service at 10 a.m. in the Valley Church. Carroll Smith and Mary Chase will supply the music on the 2nd and the 9th respectively.
Coffee and fellowship will follow the service on both days, with the monthly communion service scheduled for the 2nd. All are welcome to worship and to share our communion.

Faith the Size of a Twig

Sheepscott Community Church April 25, 2010

Acts 9: 36-43

John 10: 22-30

Faith the Size of a Twig

Jon and I were walking through our woods down by the Sheepscot River last week. He remarked on the fact that there were several winters’ worth of wood already on the ground, what with windfalls and those trees dropped by the weight of snow and limited root systems. If we were living in medieval times, he said, the floor of the forest would be clean of wood, the way we see it in documentaries and other films made in England. Everywhere looks like a park. The reason? Peasants would scour the woods for fallen branches to use for their own firewood during the cold, wet, English winters.

A few years ago I mentioned a divorced friend of mine who was raising four young boys. She was hard up against it one winter and was nearly out of firewood. A praying woman, she cried out to God for some relief across the board, but especially in the moment for some firewood. When she next looked out the window, she noticed, and you might say “saw” for the first time that the ground of their four acres of pine woods was littered with winter-fallen wood and branches. A resourceful mom, she and the boys were out there over the next few days getting all of that wood into the cellar. It was not a long-range solution, but it did keep them warm for some days while she came up with a longer term solution.

Lord, give us eyes to see. Remove the scales from our eyes as you removed the scales from Paul’s eyes. Give us as church eyes to see what resources we have right now that we can capitalize on for the good of the church and for the glory of God.

I would say the principle resource of our lives together as church is the people themselves. But there are so few of us, all cry out in unison. What can so few do in the face of supporting two church buildings, and the various programs the church supports: education, music, a minister’s salary, etcetera.

By way of an answer, I call your attention to this morning’s first reading from Acts. Imagine being in Peter’s shoes. The Christian community of Joppa sent for him, where he was visiting nearby in Lydda because one of their number, Tabitha, which translates Dorcas, had died. She was always doing good and helping the poor, and when Peter was shown upstairs to where her body was laid out, the women of the community showed him the robes and other clothing she had made while she was with them, and these testimonies were delivered with copious weeping at the loss of their beloved Dorcas.

Peter ushered all of them out of the room so that he was alone with the body. Can you imagine how he must have felt? He may have thought, Okay, I knew it was going to come to this at some point, but I hadn’t expected it so soon: raising a dead body. Peter had sense enough to get down on his knees and pray before he attempted anything. He knew from whence came the power to do whatever was of value. Only after prayer did he turn to the woman and say, “Tabitha, get up.” And she did. She opened her eyes and sat up, and Peter helped her to her feet. Then he called in the weeping widows and presented her to them. The scripture says, “This became known all over Joppa, and many people believed in the Lord.” Notice it doesn’t say, “Many people believed in Peter.” No, although they knew and respected Peter as the head of the church in Jerusalem and a close companion of the Lord while he lived, they all knew from whom the power to raise the dead came. And Dorcas had been dead, not sleeping.

We have a few elements here to consider. Peter knew that he had no power in him except the power that came from Jesus Christ, and him crucified and raised up. He had things in proper perspective. He knew when he got down on his knees that if that woman was to be raised, it was God, the author of life and death, who would do it. Peter was only doing what Jesus told them to do, which was, what he, Jesus, had done. How many times have we heard that? Do for others what I have done, what I have shown you. Peter was in fact one of those who had been present when Jesus raised from the dead the daughter of Jairus, head of the synagogue,. You remember that story? How Jesus was ridiculed by the professional mourners outside the house of Jairus when he said the girl was not dead but only asleep? He said to the child what Peter in essence later quoted, “Talitha koum, little girl, get up.” And she did, and Jesus asked her parents to give her something to eat.

Peter was only doing what he had seen the Lord do. Let me rephrase: He was allowing the power of the Spirit of God to be expressed through him and his faith in just this way because it was what the situation called for and was indeed in obedience to Jesus’ command to do what he had done. And it was a good thing, was it not? A child restored to her parents, a woman restored to her community. And God glorified in the process, not to mention the faith of those around the incidents built up immeasurably by what they had seen. That name of Jesus was some powerful name.

And still is. Praying in the name of Jesus can open doors that have been locked for centuries. The power of the name. It can raise up and lay down. It can multiply a few pieces of bread and fish to make enough to feed five thousand people. What is needed is faith in that name, which is above all others. We are told that upon hearing the name of Jesus, one day every knee above the earth and under the earth will bend.

So what does that have to do with us, you may rightly ask. First, we are at least a nominally Christian church, hopefully trying to live beyond that label of nominal to living in and with the internalized Spirit of the raised and living Christ. Second, like that first community of disciples, we are few in number, but we have faith in God and in ourselves as followers of the Way that Jesus laid out. Third, we few at this time are thinking and planning how best to use our resources to maintain our churches that we may have a structure where the people of the community can continue to come together to worship and to have fellowship.

As I noted in the opening announcements, the Board voted to have our mission statement printed on the front of the Order of Service. It reads, “The Sheepscott Community Church is a church that welcomes all. Its purpose is to provide for the spiritual and moral growth of our members. To whoever will come, the church opens wide its doors and offers all a free place to worship.”

That’s a noble and good sentiment and one that we need to work to bring to fulfillment. It deserves our focus and reflection. Following our meeting on April 11 when Ted Smith led us in a preliminary self-evaluation, it became clear that we the people of the church are the primary asset or resource of the church, and we are what we have to offer the community. That has ever been so. Last Sunday we capitalized on that resource and breathed life into that sentiment by gathering for what we hope will be a weekly coffee and fellowship in the vestry following the service. At such a gathering, we can get to know each other better, and get to know and welcome visitors from the community who stop by to check us out. And this happens over coffee and cookies. We build our community and become a place where people want to come. You can’t manufacture that magnetism. It grows spontaneously out of human interaction and the joy and pleasure we take in each other’s company under the influence of the Holy Spirit of God, who is in our midst, and in whose name we gather.

And the reason we have that fellowship following worship, when others might join us, the reason for bringing people in, is not to cover the cost of painting the front of this building but to share what we believe is the word of God and the sacramental life of the Christian community. As Jesus conveyed in his parable of the lilies of the field, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all other things will be given to you as well.”

We need to continue to build up our own community in faith, and have joy in the building. If it’s drudgery and simply duty that impels us forward, and joy is absent, we are not going to attract others. It is loving community that attracts. That is what will enable this church to continue as a light on the hill, a fire in the valley. I think we ourselves are the wood strewn on the ground whom God has gathered up to be fuel for the fire. We in our turn have the opportunity to gather up other wood to keep that fire burning. First, community. And coffee and fellowship is one way to realize that community; and then the increase, and it is God who will give the increase. We only have to be listening for Jesus’ voice to discern what he is saying, what he wants for this church, for us who are the church, which brings us to the gospel.

How do we know his voice? From today’s gospel, when the Jews in the Temple at the feast of Hanukkah asked Jesus to tell them outright whether he was the Christ, he said, “I did tell you, but you did not believe. The miracles I do in my Father’s name speak for me, but you do not believe because you are not my sheep.”

Let me remind you here that it has been only a few weeks since the Passion, and there we heard the priests and people say in Luke 23: 35, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One.” In Mark 15: 32: “Let this Christ, the King of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe.” And in Matthew 27: 40, “You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! Come down from the cross if you are the Son of God!” The people and the preists laid out the case of what they say will make them believe that Jesus is the Christ. In other words, be the God made in the image of what we say God is. Pride is the dead center of this position and typical of us human beings who will dictate to God what the correct time frame for action and way of action are. We need to tread carefully in this area of listening to God and what God wants for us, for this church, for this community, for this world.

So, I ask again, how do we know his voice so that we may know how to proceed? We know it by the absence of confusion we feel, when we hear it. When do we hear it? In prayer, from others in our everyday life whom we trust and whom we know to be well-disposed. We hear the voice of Christ in scripture, in liturgies at significant times in our lives: christenings, marriages, deaths and funerals, every Sunday. We know when we are hearing the voice of God, and we can trust that about and in ourselves.

And again, we will know Christ by what he does. “The miracles I do in my Father’s name speak for me. My sheep listen to my voice; I know them and they follow me.”

Our fellowship together is a great opportunity to hear the voice of the Lord, to hear about the miracles of God in our own stories as we share them. I don’t know what the Good Shepherd will say to you, but I do know that you’ll know it’s he speaking, when he does, by the way it feels. And yes, there are some times when we need to trust our feelings. Listen for the voice of the Lord in the scripture, in the music today, in your neighbor’s story, in a memory that calls us to see something in a new way, with the new eyes I spoke of earlier in relation to the young mother seeing the wood all over the ground and realizing that was firewood enough for the immediate future.

There are people enough in this church to embody the living Word. Where two or three are gathered together... That living Word, which can be ambiguous in its expression, is what we need to listen for and listen to. Like the people in the gospels of the Passion, we would like to hear and see plainly and clearly who the Christ is, not to have this consarned ambiguity, where we have to think and consider and try to discern the loving voice, the unseen loving presence at the center of our lives. That’s why we have church, so we can pursue and worship this living presence together, helping each other, and call it into our midst to empower us to live as Jesus did.

Call us firewood, call us gatherers of firewood, call us makers of coffee and drinkers of coffee, call us storytellers and listeners to stories, but in any case, call us, that we might be community together. Amen.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Precipitousness vs. Patience

Sheepscott Community Church April 18, 2010

Acts 9: 1-20

John 21: 1-19

Precipitousness vs. Patience

Paul knew it all, he thought. He was an organization man. As a specialist in the Law, he was a pharisee among pharisees––a pharisee for pharisees, we could say, just as we speak of an actor’s actor, or a writer’s writer. Yup, Paul knew it all, and as a know-it-all with his credentials in his pocket in the form of letters for the synagogues in Damascus, he was on the road, on his way to arrest any followers––men or women––of the Way, viz., the new teaching of Jesus that was spreading like proverbial wildfire. To be fair to Paul, he thought he was quashing blasphemy, that he was doing the right thing, and he was, as he saw it

As the reading from Acts tells us, he didn’t make it to Damascus in quite the time frame he had carefully planned. Uh-uh. An encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, the power and light from which knocked him off his horse, moved him into another time zone, where he remained for the rest of his life. Thus it happens when we meet God on the road.

Paul was no longer in charge of his life. God, in the person of Christ, had intervened and Paul’s own plans went into the round file permanently. His old life as he had known it as a company man went into the round file because he had met the Living God on the road. I want to say, we should be so lucky to know with such certainty, but some of us might protest under our breath, Yeah, right. Thanks, but no thanks. Help yourself––not my cup of tea. I can hear that, and I expect that some of us will continue to imagine and pray to a God we don’t ever anticipate will interfere, or intervene in our lives as we carefully plan them out according to our needs and our desires. Noble as those plans may be they are, are no match for the plans of God which incorporate us into the living, breathing Body of Christ, truly becoming those legs and arms, hands and fingers of the body that moves about being and bearing Christ into the world.

Let’s move on to the gospel, which is actually the basis for that title, “Precipitousness vs. Patience.” Whose precipitousness? Whose patience? I suppose I could catch Paul up into this net. If we think about his hustle and bustle as he went about getting his letters from the synagogues, checking whatever passed for a timepiece in those days, gauging how many days on the road to Damascus, where he and his entourage might stay, and so forth. He was a planner, a careful planner, as I said, a man who abided by the letter of the law and would make others do the same or his name wasn’t Saul of Tarsus. He would make an example of these wayward Jews to the rest of the Jewish community as unacceptable and arrestable. Shades of the Taliban.

That was his frame of mind and how he had framed time to serve his purpose. As I said earlier he was knocked into a timeless zone, the place of eternal verities, when he had the transforming vision of Jesus. He was blinded and had to be led by the hand into Damascus, where he prayed and waited to be told what to do. Saul went from a place of precipitousness––my will enacted now; to a place of patience, where he couldn’t hurry God, but had to wait on God in the darkness of blindness, until God chose to act.

The gospel. I had never before noticed the subhead that precedes the second part of this reading until I was preparing this sermon. “Jesus Reinstates Peter,” it reads. Three times Jesus asks Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Twice Peter answers that he does, and the third time, he was hurt that Jesus would ask again, and says, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.” The reinstatement? Three times Peter had denied Jesus, and now three times he has the opportunity to redress that denial. It isn’t for Jesus’ sake that Jesus takes him through that litany of professed love. No. That is for Peter’s sake. What a loving and understanding thing for Jesus to do. The opportunity for Peter to go from denial to affirmation.

As three of the gospels tell us, Peter had already repented with tears, copious tears, when he fully understood what he had done, when that cock crowed and he remembered what Jesus had said. It had also been at least a few weeks since all of this happened, so Peter had had plenty of time to feel bad, to experience the guilt, shame and grief that any of us with a conscience feels after sinning against, or hurting someone whom we love, or even someone we don’t particularly love. Peter had had time to repent, and now Jesus gave him this opportunity to be forgiven and to feel the forgiveness, to hear those words from Jesus and testify to his own love for the Lord. What a gift that must have been.

Contrast Judas. Although Judas isn’t mentioned in today’s gospel, I cannot help thinking of him in connection with Peter’s repentance because Judas’ reaction was so different. We know from the gospel of the passion that when Judas realized that Jesus was condemned, he went to the high priest and the others and threw the 30 pieces of silver at them in the Temple, saying that he had betrayed innocent blood. That was not their concern, they said, but his. They got what they wanted and didn’t care a fig about the betrayer. As far as they were concerned, they had fulfilled their contract with him, which was to cross his palm with silver when he turned over their quarry. Judas’ love of money was his downfall. He ran from the Temple, and “seized with remorse,” as it is written in Matthew 27: 3, he hanged himself.

If only he had given himself time to repent of what he had done, there might have been a different outcome for Judas. He felt the remorse but he acted precipitously, like Paul; and no doubt in paroxysms of grief and remorse, he saw himself as unforgivable. How could he go back to the other apostles, his friends in whose company he had spent the last three years? He had betrayed their leader, the Lamb of God, who took away the sins of the world. What a sad outcome for Judas, and what a contrast with Peter’s choice to repent, accept forgiveness and go on into a greater and greater life of service. Somehow the lasting tribute to Judas, a cemetery for foreigners called the Field of Blood outside the city of Jerusalem, purchased with the blood money he had tossed back into the Temple––somehow that is a fitting tribute. Death leading to death.

Think of Peter and his legacy––heading the early church, working with Paul, James and the others to spread the message as the Lord Jesus had commanded. That is what becomes possible when we repent and accept forgiveness and don’t act precipitously but wait on God to discern what God’s idea is, what God would have us do. We need to listen that way, to recognize the action of the Spirit in our lives that bends us toward this course rather than that course. It’s a fine line, kind of like walking the Knife’s Edge on Mount Katahdin in Baxter State Park. It’s all about balance.

We need not be paralyzed by our fear of falling, of a making mistake as we try to discern God’s will in our own lives as well as the life of this church that we share together. We will make mistakes because we’re human, and human beings do that. It goes with the DNA. Good will, good intention, and then acting on them is all, and, finally we are not in charge.

We have to have patience with our human process that includes sin, mistakes, fear, hurting others, impatience with God and situations, not being able to make things happen when we want to make things happen, to control outcomes. That impatience with ourselves and others can lead to despair, as it did with Judas. Some scholars believe Judas was frustrated with Jesus because he wouldn’t show his power hand, that he wasn’t accepting the role of worldly redeemer and savior as Judas and some of the others pictured it would be. There were numbers of self-proclaimed savior types in Palestine at the time, a relatively common phenomenon when one country is under the boot of another country. In this case it was Palestine under the boot––or sandal––of Rome. Zealots were waiting and hoping for the promised Messiah to come now and free them from the yoke of bondage to that imperial power. People, including some of the apostles and probably Judas among them, were waiting for Jesus to make his move. As the time they spent with him went on, it must have been becoming clearer that he was a different kind of savior, whose kingdom was not of this world.

And service. Always he was talking about service. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he said to the apostles after washing their feet at the Last Supper. “You call me ‘Teacher,’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” How must that have exasperated Judas, who the gospel of John says had already been prompted by the devil to betray Jesus. That was the last straw, and off he went into the night to do his dirty work.

But it wasn’t just Judas, who was waiting for Jesus to turn over the power card. Recall the mother of James and John asking Jesus if her sons could sit on his right and left hands when he came into his power. These are pretty regular guys, these apostles. Maybe they would be miners or millworkers in our time. They didn’t feel a lot of power in their life circumstances, and part of the attraction Jesus held for them, no doubt, was the power that was in him. But, he didn’t use that power to advance himself but to minister to the hurting people who were his constituency.

And he wanted his closest friends to do the same after he had gone, as he told them again and again. Unlike him, they were into advancing their own causes. It took the discipline and freedom of the Holy Spirit of God, which they experienced a first taste of in last Sunday’s gospel when he breathed on them, before they began to understand.

Jesus’s unfathomable depths of understanding of the human condition that immediately forgives the repentant heart is probably most characteristic of him. “And the Word became flesh,” and because it did, because he did, he knows how it is with us and for us. Instead of hatching our little plots, as we humans do, we could actually take seriously Jesus’ commission to his apostles when he washed their feet, to go and do likewise.

I don’t know if God’s patience wears thin. I expect it doesn’t. God both waits and pursues simultaneously, like the best lover, giving the beloved a chance to see himself or herself as God sees that one, and then to change a behavior or two or three that will help the soul to line up with the beautiful vision of us individually that indeed God has.

Think about it: someone who matters more than anyone truly sees us as we are, and loves us. Isn’t that good news? Not just good news: that’s the best news. If we were confined to the image others may hold of us or even we of ourselves on a bad day, what a bummer that would be. But no, we can know that our Creator is looking at us right now with complete joy in who we are, a love that is energetic enough to spare and share the vision of who we are with us so that we can aspire to be patient with ourselves and others. To wait in love with encouragement for another to become himself, herself. Not to be precipitous in deciding who someone is, but to wash that other’s feet in service and love for the sake of community, for the sake of God, who was born, died and raised up in the flesh of Jesus, the Christ. Amen.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

In the Afterglow of Resurrection

The Congregational Church at Bristol UCC Pulpit Swap April 11, 2010

Acts 5: 27-32

John 20: 19-31

In the Afterglow of Resurrection

Twice in this morning’s gospel Jesus says to the disciples, “Peace be with you.” When he appeared among them in spite of the door being locked for fear of reprisal against them by other Jews, the first thing he said was “Peace be with you!” With its exclamation point in the text, and set apart as it is, that quotation was not a nicey-nice comment as we may experience it in our time. No. It was an order from the Lord Jesus: “Peace be with you.” In one sense he could have been saying, “Settle down. Put a lid on it!” considering the excitement and exclamations his appearing would have generated. We have to try to imagine ourselves beyond years of hearing this story to think what it would have been like when it was happening right then and there for the very first time. Anyway, peace was with them, along with a big complement of joy.

As the gospel relates, Jesus then showed him his hands and side, the way we might have shown our friends––especially as kids––the scars we carried from traumatic injuries from which we had recovered, as in, “Look at this. Do you believe that?” with appreciative oohs and aahs all around. I don’t know about the neighborhood where you grew up, but in my neighborhood, the bigger the scar, the worse the injury, the higher the status. Jesus would have been a total star in my neighborhood.

After showing them his wounds, Jesus focused them again with another “Peace be with you!” He had something to say and he wanted them to hear it. Peace is a discipline we need in ourselves to calm the agitation, anxieties, and general all-around hullaballoo that is always going on in our minds. We need the discipline of peace to hear what God is saying, which is why centering is part of the discipline of meditative prayer. We need to call peace into ourselves before we can most easily hear God.

In today’s gospel, here is Jesus ordering peace for the disciples who are beside themselves with his appearing to them, and we, as readers and listeners to that gospel can hear it as an invitation to receive Christ’s peace into ourselves. Part of how we can recognize something as coming from God and not from our own inner monologue and turmoil is the advent of this peace. Occasionally we have such a moment of peace come all unexpectedly, and our inner ear and eye become alert for what will follow. This can happen in prayer, between the cantaloupes and pears in the supermarket, when gathered with like-minded people in a church service, at the copy machine in the workplace, in the evening quiet, in the middle of the night. Anywhere at anytime we may know the announcement of the approaching Christ by his words, or more likely, the sense of the words, “Peace be with you!” Then would we be wise to remain, like a pointer on point––all alert––listening to what he has to teach or show us.

So, now that Jesus has the disciples’ and our attention, what does he have to teach or show them and us? What he said to them and says to us, “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” Then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins they are forgiven, if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

Wait a minute, Jesus, we have questions. Okay, sending us where? And who or what is this Holy Spirit? No less than Jesus was sending his disciples into the world are we sent into the world. That answers the question, where. The world is everywhere. As soon as we awaken in the morning to consciousness, to ourselves as conscious beings, the world is the arena for that focused consciousness, especially how we choose to think about people, about material things, about time. The world into which God as Father as Jesus as Spirit sends us is waiting in the kitchen with our first encounter of the day, whether that’s with a spouse, a friend, a child, an infirm parent, a dog or cat or birds waiting to be fed. Do we approach that encounter with the love of God chosen by an act of our free will?

Let me step aside from this text for a moment to tell a story. When I was much younger, the question used to arise for me about willed love. If it wasn’t spontaneous, was it not somehow of less value? A romantic notion. That was answered for me when I went to my first AA meeting in Worcester, Mass., with a friend of mine who was taking his father to the meeting to keep his mother happy. I don’t know how familiar you are with AA meetings, but they sometimes have a contingent from another city and meeting come and tell their stories. That was the case that night. A contingent was there from Providence, RI, and the first man got up and said, “I’m So-and-So, and I’m an alcoholic,” and the people greeted him.

He then began to tell the story of years and years of alcohol abuse and his bad treatment of his family during that time. At the very first glimmers of his recovery, his wife was pregnant again, and when the baby was born with a severe deformity, the storyteller from Providence loathed the child. Loathed: that was his word, and he loathed him from the first moment. But then God through circumstance began to deal with the man. The time for telling himself the truth had come––by grace––and he wanted to give up the alcohol, over which he admitted he no longer had any power. On the contrary, alcohol had all power over his life. He did follow through and part of his commitment to the new life was his decision to love the baby he in fact loathed. So, each time he passed the infant’s crib, he would lay his hand on the baby’s head and say, “I love you.”

Although the first time he laid his hand on the baby’s head he had no love for the child in his heart, as the days turned into weeks turned into months, with countless passings by the baby’s crib and consequently countless layings of his hand on the baby’s head with his profession of chosen love, the man did come to love that child with a love deeper than he had ever experienced. We can make that same type of decision in our lives both to forgive and to love. To forgive ourselves and others, to love ourselves and others. I think part of the importance of vowing love in a marriage ceremony is the commitment to a decision to stay with it when the initial glow of first love and romance and wedding planning are gone, and we find ourselves in the nitty-gritty of everyday marriage to another faulted human being. That reality is much more deeply satisfying in the long run through life, but in the short run it would sometimes try the patience, even of Job.

I have to get back on track here. So, Jesus has given peace to his disciples and is sending them into the world even as he himself was sent. And we, as I noted, are sent no less than those disciples to heal and teach, to preach and raise up, to serve, to bring the life of Christ to life in a world that longs for that life, even if it doesn’t know its name, which is Love. And that love is embodied perfectly in Jesus, who teaches us how to do it.

But how does he teach us how to do it at this point in time two millennia hence? In the same way he taught the disciples: by his Spirit, who makes all things possible. I was well on in life before I finally got this particular idea about the Spirit. Remember when Jesus said to the apostles in John’s gospel shortly before he died, “It is for your good that I’m going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor––viz., the Paraclete, the Spirit, the Comforter––will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.” What I hadn’t understood up to that point is that it was necessary for Jesus to die before he could send his Spirit back to sanctify and enable the efforts of those who sought to continue his work, to teach his way of life. God, Jesus, the Spirit are One. Three persons, one God, not so difficult, really.

In today’s gospel we have this first appearance to all of the disciples in the Upper Room and Jesus breathes on them that they might receive the Spirit. They would need the peace of Christ in them in order to receive the understanding of the earlier teaching Jesus gave them before he died, and just to accept that he was alive and standing there in the same room with them. That was a lot to swallow. And as we know, also from today’s gospel, one man was missing at that first appearance, Thomas, and by golly he wasn’t going to swallow that story, no matter that they all swore to the truth of it when they told him about it. Thomas’ legendary, “I won’t believe it until I put my finger in the nail prints and my hand into his side,” resonates with all of us. Who would not be skeptical of such a story. Skepticism is a reasonable response to anyone who tells a story of having seen a ghost, and that’s what Thomas must have thought he was hearing: a ghost story.

But has there ever been such a ghost? And in fact we know when Jesus tells Thomas to “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe, “ we know that this is a flesh-and-blood man. Jesus is there bodily and not as an ethereal, ectoplasmic substance. They saw him as he had been on earth, but with the tell-tale addition of nail prints in his hands, and a spear wound in his side.

When he came that second time to the Upper Room, when Thomas was with them, Jesus once again said, “Peace be with you!” thereby calling them again to a spiritual place of centered peace, beyond their excitement, agitation, nervousness, all of it. He needed their full attention to once again teach them something, therefore, “Peace be with you.”

In the first appearance Jesus gave notice about sending them forth as he himself had been sent, and also about the importance of the forgiveness of sins––deciding to love and to forgive. At this appearance he disempowers skepticism in the person of Thomas with his “Stop doubting and believe.” Thomas believed because he saw, whereas Jesus called across the centuries to us when he said, “Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.”

While it is true that we have not seen the visible wounds of Christ, we do see and experience the wounded Body of Christ every day. We have the opportunity to stop doubting and believe that how Christ reveals his wounds in our time and place, removed as we are from those post-resurrection appearances in the Upper Room, is each time we encounter another human being who is hurting, whether it is in the spirit or the body. In spirit, some feel ostracized, ignored, left out, alone because of appearance, age, beliefs whether political or religious, sickness or incapacity of some sort, sexual preference, race or ethnic background, poverty. These are just some of the categories of ostracization we human beings utilize and often elaborately in our own minds justify.

Something as simple as a smile, a nod, a touch on the arm––some expression of inclusion in the rest of the human race––can make an immeasurable difference to someone who is feeling profoundly alone. One moment can change a life, for good or ill. Follow your instinct to act in such cases. Take the chance that it is most likely the Spirit of God whom Jesus has sent us who profess to be his followers, that it is that Spirit who motivates us toward love. I remind you that taking the chance on being a fool for God in such a situation is a better choice than being one whom the world considers wise or cool in our ‘60s parlance.

If we encounter the Body of Christ wounded in spirit, we also encounter that Body in the physical as well, when we know of someone who is literally hungry, whom we may have the opportunity to feed; when we hear of someone who is living in a house that doesn’t keep out the elements, whose discomfort we may have the opportunity to relieve. We have an organization in our area called CHIP, founded by Ruth Ives, also from this area, which provides opportunities to volunteer to work or to contribute to keep that organization afloat and serving the wounded Body of Christ. Literacy Volunteers, People to People, Boy Scouts, Girls Scouts, Habitat for Humanity, The Pemaquid Watershed, Sheepscot Valley Conservation Association, pastoral visiting at Miles Complex, this church itself. I think you get the point: the opportunities for serving the wounded Body of Christ are limited only by our willingness to share our time, and the health we need to do that. For those of you who for whatever reason can’t get out to serve in a way you might like to, I ask you to consider being an intercessor for those who are out in the marketplace. That means simply a ministry of prayer, interceding for others that the Spirit of God may find its way more fully into the world through those who have Jesus’ heart of love for the world and its peoples.

I invite you to think about Jesus breathing his Spirit on us in this afterglow of the resurrection, enabling us to forgive and love others as we ourselves have been forgiven and are loved, and then sending us forth as God sent Jesus. As members of this raised Body of Christ, who believe the best we can, we are no less beloved of God than John, Thomas, Peter, James, all of them who were gathered in that Upper Room. Because of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, the Holy Spirit of God will minister through us to the wounded Body of Christ, with our permission. There is no higher call in life than the decision to love as God loves and then to trust God for the best employment of that love in the world. Amen.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

It's a Beautiful Day in Our Neighborhood

Sheepscott Community Church EASTER SUNDAY April 4, 2010

Acts 10: 34-43

Luke 24: 1-12

It’s a Beautiful Day in Our Neighborhood

The last line of this morning’s gospel is about Peter, who had run to the tomb upon hearing the women’s reports that the body of Jesus was gone and that two men with garments shining like lightning had asked them why they were looking for the living among the dead. While the larger group of disciples had thought the women’s reports nonsense, Peter went out to see if it might not possibly be true. The very fact that Peter was there says a lot for him. Everyone knew about his three-time denial of Jesus; news travels fast in a small, tightly knit community, such as the disciples and followers of Jesus were. And yet he had the moral courage to face those who knew his shame. He really is an inspiration to the rest of us human beings who know well our shall-we-say deficits.

So, here is Peter at the tomb. As the the scripture relates, “Bending over he saw the strips of linen lying by themselves, and he went away, wondering to himself what had happened.” I expect we would have scratched our heads in the same way. What happened to the body? Where is Jesus? Soon enough Peter would know, and the other disciples as well, when Jesus appeared in their midst in the Upper Room a week after the events described in the gospel. Soon enough he would know when the disciples shared a meal of cooked fish with Jesus on the Galilee seashore. Soon enough he would know when he heard about the two disciples on the way to Emmaus, to whom Jesus revealed himself over supper in the breaking of the bread before he suddenly disappeared.

But what about us? We don’t see Jesus himself as the disciples did on a number of occasions after the resurrection. How on God’s green earth are we to believe such a fantastic story? Is it simply the metaphor for new life focused on the vernal equinox with its return of the sound of birds, crocuses in bloom, irises, tulips, daffodils, lilies, hyacinths, chives, all pushing up from their roots in life? The birth of lambs, trees budding, grass greening––all hope-filled signs of life returning to the frost-filled ground that settles back into itself under the warmth of the sun. Lovely. But is that all there is? as the song from the ‘80s asks.

No, it isn’t, and as Paul famously wrote in First Corinthians, “But if it has been preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, preaching is useless and so is your faith. ... If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.”

These are still open questions: What does it mean to be raised from the dead? And was Christ truly raised? What happened to the body? Isn’t it just as likely that his followers or even the Roman guards, all working in their self-interest, disposed of the body before that third day?

The gospels of the next few weeks talk about the appearances of Jesus, so, as I pointed out, belief that Jesus had been raised was not a problem for those disciples of the post-resurrection period, with doubting Thomas as the paradigm of skepticism who will not believe until he places his finger in the wounds and his hand in the riven side.

But again, what about us these two millennia hence? How can we believe such a marvelous assertion as resurrection? I have one suggestion to offer this morning, and you might guess at it by the title of the message: “It’s a Beautiful Day in Our Neighborhood.” Is there anyone here who does not recognize the theme from Fred Rogers’ children’s show that aired on PBS for so many years and was key in the formation of many of our children––and to their benefit, I might add? I’ll tip my hand up front here and tell you that I think Mr. Rogers is the closest thing to a saint I have seen in this life.

In preparation for this sermon, I watched again on Utube the presentation of a Lifetime Achievement Award to Mr. Rogers at the Oscars in 1997. Tim Robbins, the presenter, introduced Mr. Rogers and the award with these words: “For giving generations of children confidence in themselves, for being their friend, for telling them again and again and again that they are special and have worth.”

Then Fred Rogers unselfconsciously addressed the glittery crowd of Hollywood Oscar hopefuls and their supporters with these words: “All of us have special ones who have loved us into being. Would you just take, along with me, ten seconds to think of the people who have helped you become who you are, those who cared about you and wanted what is best for you in life.” And then Mr. Rogers said he would keep the time, and at the end of ten seconds, he said, “Whomever you’ve been thinking about, how pleased they must be to know the difference you feel they’ve made.”

The connection between this event and the resurrection of Christ? We don’t have to continue to wonder as Peter did as he walked away from the tomb on that morning of mornings what had happened. And although we cannot see the raised Christ as the image we have seen rendered artfully since our days in elementary school, we can know the resurrected Christ in each other and all others, in how we care for and help others become who they are, and in Mr. Rogers’ words, by wanting and acting for the best for them, and thus by loving them more fully into being. That is the living Christ, the Body of Christ in the world impelled only by the motive of loving another selflessly for their own sake.

Happily we are sharing communion this morning, as Easter falls this year on the first Sunday of the month, the day of our communion. With his uncommon wisdom, Jesus knew the long-term importance of an ordinary way for his disciples and those who came later to remember him. He instituted the sacrament of communion at the Last Supper when he said to share the meal of bread and wine in remembrance of him––”Do this in remembrance of me.” Jesus was not big into showy manifestations of his power. He moved in the company of those we might consider the lesser ones among us––sinners of all stripes––because they were the ones who recognized that they needed help.

He spoke in homely parables about bread, lost coins, a runaway child, the lilies of the field. He knew the lives of the ordinary people––he was one himself––and lived that life, bringing the greatest gift of unconditional love to those ordinary people.

He moved among the lesser lights of the Galilean community and shared life with them, eating bread and drinking wine. And at their last meal together, asking them henceforth when they did this simple eating a meal together, to do it in remembrance of him. Don’t forget me. We this morning will eat and drink in remembrance of him, and the resurrected Christ will consequently be among us because we are remembering him.

As I read earlier from First Corinthians, Paul focuses on the risen Christ and the importance of belief in that because that is how he met him on the road to Damascus, never having met him in the living flesh on this side of the veil. But the disciples would remember Jesus not because he was raised up, but because they knew him as the healer, the teacher, the helper, the friend, the best friend any one of them––including Judas––ever had. They would have known him, as Mr. Rogers described, as “the special one who has loved us into being; who helped us to become who we are; who cared about us and wanted what is best for us in life.” That would have been the Jesus they knew and loved.

Now before we have our communion together, I want to take a page from Mr. Rogers’ book and ask you to remember who it was who loved you into being, the one or two or three people who helped you to understand your self-worth in God’s eyes by acknowledging it in their eyes, which, for all intents and purposes, are God’s eyes on this earth. I ask you to think about those people in recognition of what and who the resurrected Christ is, how he lives by his Spirit among us in how we treat each other, how we raise each other up. He continues as the healer, the teacher, the helper, the friend, living in and through us as we allow. We have been given this sacrament to remind us that he is with us as we remember him, and we do re-member him when we eat this bread and drink this cup. Fred Rogers only took ten seconds. I am going to keep time for thirty seconds. At the end of that time, I will say the pastoral prayer and will include a blessing for these people we have thought about. ––30 seconds––

It hardly matters how the body of Jesus came to be missing that first Easter, that resurrection day because in the last analysis what convinced the people that he had risen from the dead was not the absence of his corpse but his living presence, and so has it been ever since. And so is it here today, in you, among you, within you, with us. Know this: Jesus lives. He is at large in the world as the very power of life itself, i.e., Love. Let us love others into being, as we ourselves have been loved into being. That is an act of both thanksgiving and praise. Amen.