God’s Love. Broader Than We Think?

acts 8*Sermon of Sunday, April 29, 2018, at First Christian Church (Hampton VA), on the fifth Sunday in Easter, as we inch toward Pentecost.  It is not meant to wrap up everything in a bow, but to start you to thinking.   Open to the Spirit, we can find ourselves amid interesting conversations, ones that stretch our limited thinking in new ways and a larger view of what God is doing even now. -Vinson

Book of Acts 8:26-40 (New Revised Standard Version)

26Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road tht goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) 27So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship 28and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah.29Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” 30So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. 32Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. 33In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.” 34The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” 35Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. 36As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” 38He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. 39When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. 40But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.
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INTRODUCTION

It was 1971 and Easter was coming.  I’d been through the “Pastor’s Classes.”  Knew the answers.  If there had been a test, I think I would have aced it.  But something gnawed at me.

Was I ready?

The day was getting closer to my baptism.  So, I thought, why not suggest to God that a particular sign would be helpful confirmation for me to go ahead into the waters.  For some reason the whole, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test,” Jesus spoke against wasn’t in my thinking.  Maybe because I was about to become a teenager and testing comes with the turf!

So a few days passed.  No sign.

I said to God that maybe I was asking too much and I cut the request down a bit, as to the sign I needed, if I was to go through with baptism.

A few days more passed.  No sign.

Now it was Holy Week, and I was a bit anxious.  I mean, Dad was my pastor.  No small pressure there, although it wasn’t coming from my Dad.  It was all inside me.  I once again asked for a sign, a really small one would do just fine.  Not much.  A little one.  Then, I would be sure.

Saturday came.  No sign.

I said to God, OK, I get it.  I am the sign.  And I felt a sense of peace wash over me.

WHY I BRING THIS UP

We come to God with questions.  We may be tracking in the right direction, but anxious and uncertain of ourselves… and knowing own our faults and failings… sometimes, we need to be dragged into a new place of faith.

FOR INSTANCE

This is what comes to my mind when I hear this passage from Acts, of an Ethiopian eunuch traveling away from Jerusalem, heading back to his homeland by way of Gaza, where it’s reasonable to assume he would have boarded ship for home.

Here is this Secretary of the Treasury, who had been to Jerusalem for Passover having come from the region of Ethiopia with its ties to Israel dating to the reign of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, a place that until they were evacuated to Israel in the 1970s, home to a “lost tribe” of Jews.  Wealthy enough to apparently purchase or perhaps receive as a gift for his queen, an Isaiah scroll, now reading the Hebrew text aloud and with ease.  Scratching his head over a certain portion from the 53rd chapter, when this encounter occurs; at an intersection of very different lives, amid noon-time sun and dust of the arid wilderness.  One is known for what he was – a eunuch, a visitor to the land, a royal official, riding in a chariot – a symbol of power and wealth, reading as another handled the ride.  The other is known by his name, running on foot to catch up, propelled forward by the Holy Spirit.  Two men separated by social class, race, and sexual identity, brought together by the Spirit and the word of God.

Approaching the chariot, Philip hears its occupant, the Ethiopian eunuch, reading a passage from the 53rd chapter of Isaiah: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth.  In his humiliation justice was denied him.  Who can describe his generation?  For his life is taken away from the earth.”

In the back and forth of questions, we learn much.

“Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asks.

“How can I, unless someone guides me?” the eunuch asks in response, as he takes the initiative to invite Philip to get in and sit beside him.

This was no mere weird hitchhiker encounter, as the next question posed by the eunuch is: “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?”

Now I don’t know about you, but I find it difficult to have to keep identifying and thinking of someone limited to who they are physically and absent of a name.  Seems a bit dehumanizing, but maybe that is part of what Luke, in writing the Book of Acts, wants us to think about.  We may think about that various ways, but whatever the reason or however it happened that the man was made a eunuch did not matter under the Law of Moses, not when we read the Book of Deuteronomy [23:1].  That’s why, here this high court official, likely a Jew, certainly fluent in reading Hebrew, is identified throughout this passage neither by title, ethnic group, or nationality – but as a eunuch.  It would have meant something to the readers back then.

Making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem – as a eunuch he would have been considered “blemished” and therefore banned from the assembly of the Lord, the temple gates would have shut to him, and he would have been humiliated.  Wondering aloud to Philip about these words: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth.  In his humiliation justice was denied him.  Who can describe his generation?  For his life is taken away from the earth.”

There is a reason THIS particular passage caught the eunuch’s eye.Starting with this scripture, Philip shared the good news of Jesus Christ.  That’s all that is written about his witness.  For all the conversation, one sentence, no more.

We can speculate this passage echoed a bit of the eunuch’s own suffering, notwithstanding his status and wealth, or that he had heard things in Jerusalem that got him to thinking.

We can speculate that Philip recalled in detail the events of Holy Week and of Easter, and recounted the scriptures like Jesus did to Cleopas and the other disciple on Emmaus road.

We can speculate that Philip spoke of how Jesus both healed and welcomed into his midst, the marginalized – like the prostitutes, the tax collectors, the blind, the lame, even a bleeding and therefore unclean woman.

We can speculate that the eunuch might have wondered in response, “Does this include me?  Does Jesus welcome me into his midst?  Am I welcomed into this new assembly formed in his name?  Does it matter who I am… what I am… and which is part of my very identity?  Can I be accepted for me?

We can speculate that Philip points to the broad banner of the Messiah a couple chapters further along in Isaiah 56:3-5, “Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, ‘The Lord will surely separate me from his people’; and do not let the eunuch say, ‘I am just a dry tree.’  For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.’”

We can speculate that here, two chapters in Acts before Peter has a vision in which he speaks to the expanding reach of the Gospel, saying afterwards “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” [Acts 10:34-35], that the Spirit is already busy using Philip to deliver a similar message – to those considered somehow blemished under the Law, but who are not so in Christ.

We can speculate that in all of this, that as Philip and the eunuch both were being stretched by the power of the Gospel, they both spotted the water beside the road and the eunuch was the first to speak “Look, here is water!  What is to prevent me from being baptized?”  What is there to prevent me from being part of God’s family?  What is to prevent me from sharing in the bounty of God’s love?

We don’t know who led who to the water, but both go down to it.  The baptizer.  The baptized.

We do know both come up out of the water and are different.  The baptizer.  The baptized.

The leading of the Spirit, as evidenced in the Book of Acts, calls… even drags!… disciples of Jesus into the lives of people who are different, freed from the expectation of the others’ need to become “just like us.”  For, as another succinctly puts it: “The Spirit of God… has an uncanny ability to upset our comfort zones” [Citation noted below].

SO WHAT?

So what do we make of this story of divine compulsion, between a follower of Jesus and seeker of God, neither of whom sought this encounter?

What waters is the Spirit asking us to step into that expands our understanding of the reach of the Gospel?  Where and with whom are we discovering ourselves, where we would not have once expected?

Step into these waters of love, my friends, they are placed there by God.

Amen.

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Pastor’s Note:  I enjoy a fellow Disciples’ blog, who also follows the lectionary and offers insights.  Very thought-provoking.  I pulled one thing from him (cited) amid preps for this sermon.  You can find his blog Ponderings on a Faith Journey, and “Abiding in God’s Love” which I cited, found at: http://www.bobcornwall.com/2018/04/water-baptism-time-to-rejoice.html#more

Leading the Sheep Out

john 10*Sermon of Sunday, April 22, 2018, at First Christian Church (Hampton VA), on the fourth Sunday in Easter.   Fond memories of being among those of my “flock” who raised sheep in Washington County, Pennsylvania. -Vinson
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Gospel of John 10:11-18 (New Revised Standard Version)

11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13 The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”

First Letter of John 3:16-24 (New Revised Standard Version)

16 We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. 17 How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister[a] in need and yet refuses help? 18 Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. 19 And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him 20 whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. 21 Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; 22 and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him. 23 And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. 24 All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.

INTRODUCTION

When I was a pastor up in Pennsylvania, I often wore a floppy hat and slick-soled boots, which along with my beard, sometimes caused me to be mistaken for an Amishman when I was in town.  And my congregation and neighbors?

Some businessmen and women, or in the trades.

Some farmers.

Some dairymen.

Some shepherds.

In that county — which once produced most of the wool in the U.S., and where the Disciples of Christ was born when Thomas Campbell published “The Declaration and Address” in 1809 – was near ideal land for sheep.

Rolling and often steep.  With limited bottom land good for corn and other cash crops, sheep put the often rocky hillsides in that area to good use – grazing down even the briers and weeds that would quickly overtake the land without either sheep or a bushhog, as neither cattle nor deer would touch them or the trees that just as quickly sprang up.  Cattle tend to tear up the steeper hillsides, exposing them to erosion, because of the combination of their weight and sharp hooves.

Out and about, I wore slick-soled boots because nothing else was as easy to scrape clean of “sheep dip” (as the black, smelly tar-like poop is called), as I dressed pretty much like most of my congregation who lived in the countryside.  Some, after all, would only be found in their fields, like Dave Horn, a tall, thin, extraordinarily quiet and calm man whose sheep clearly knew his voice.  When I think of a shepherd, I think of Dave, watching him as he led them into the barn at night for warmth and safety to protect them from feral dogs and other predators, or when I was out early and in the early light of day, he led them out into the pastures.

Always, he led them.  One doesn’t really drive sheep.  That will scatter them, kinda like people.  But they will follow the shepherd, whether coming in for the night or going out for the day.

WHY I BRING THIS UP

No small wonder that over the centuries it has been the image of the “Good Shepherd” most closely identified with Jesus.

FOR INSTANCE

In Jesus’ time, the hard work of the shepherd was neither prized nor esteemed. Its labor was reserved for the lowest of the low, the less promising young men of the community.  Shepherds smelled like the sheep and if you have smelled sheep, you would understand why the Egyptians – who raised cattle, so looked down on the Israelites – who raised sheep.  Yet here, in John 10:11, Jesus made a statement that was probably shocking, even contradictory, to the religious people standing before Him: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” In the same sentence, He had just referred to Himself as both the I AM – the same almighty Yahweh who spoke to Moses in the burning bush – and a tender, lowly, protective, and humble shepherd.

And so, in the ancient church, it was the image of the good shepherd, far more than the crucified Christ or even Christ the King, that was portrayed on the walls of the worship spaces.

A young Jesus, carrying a single lamb upon his shoulders.

Many times over, found among the preserved paintings and drawings of Christians from the first centuries after Christ, for all the meaningful imagery expounded upon in scripture of Jesus as light, as vine, as pre-existent Word… it that of the shepherd that has resonated most among people – even among those who know nothing at all about sheep.

The image of the Good Shepherd holds our imagination, our hearts and our minds.

The image of the Good Shepherd, rooted in the 23rd Psalm and in the language here of the Gospel of John, that was held onto in those first centuries when throughout the Roman Empire it was a crime to be a believer in Christ, a crime that merited a death sentence.  Amid this, the comforting image of Christ as the Good Shepherd… calming his flock… leading his flock… feeding his flock.

The image of the Good Shepherd, has been held onto in our own lifetimes, during the Cold War and in hot wars alike, amid seismic changes to our society, and when nothing seems sure – the comforting image of the Good Shepherd, is that to which we turn.  Declared the Psalmist:

I lift up my eyes to the mountains—
where does my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord,
the Maker of heaven and earth.

He will not let your foot slip—
he who watches over you will not slumber;
indeed, he who watches over Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.

The Lord watches over you—
the Lord is your shade at your right hand;
the sun will not harm you by day,
nor the moon by night.

The Lord will keep you from all harm—
he will watch over your life;
the Lord will watch over your coming and going
both now and forevermore.

Yet, here is this passage in John, it is also clear that while the Good Shepherd keeps watch and comforts, that doesn’t mean he makes us comfortable.  Being comfortable would mean staying in the barn, under the warm lights…  out of the rain…

Nope.

There is a reason why John places this smack between the healing of a blind man and the raising of a dead man – one can now see and the other now speak.  In both cases folks are upset because the ordered way of life is upended by Jesus.

Jesus isn’t going to be a guide who leads the sheep into a place of mere complacency, but where the sheep can feed and grow.

This means moving the sheep into the world.

If sheep are known to have excellent hearing, readily able to pinpoint the direction of sound with their ears, they are just as easily frightened by sudden loud noises, becoming nervous and difficult to handle.  It is the shepherd who minimizes their stress by speaking in a quiet, calm voice.  Calling them.  Directing them onward.

If sheep have large pupils and eyes placed more to the side of the head giving them a 191 to 306-degree field of vision, depending upon how much wool is upon their faces, they also have really poor depth perception and may not be able to see the opening created by a partially opened gate.  Being reluctant to go where they can’t see, it is that shepherd who goes before them.  Leading them onward.

In the lesson, it is clear, the sheep cannot easily see the opening, and so Jesus enters in, as the gatekeeper opens the gate for him.  And the sheep, they hear his voice, for he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.

Jesus enters in and leads the sheep – us – out.

Jesus leads the sheep out.  Not in.

SO WHAT?

Jesus entered the world to lead us out.

Finding us where we are and as we are – at time perhaps a bit witless, defenseless, and obstinate – and transforming us into friends as he said in John 15:11-17.

Friends who aren’t held at arm’s length while the host holds his breath against the stench that comes with being sheep – but friends who are embraced, held close, kissed, loved.

Friends, not just to be fed, but to be transformed.

The sheep, emulating the Good Shepherd, extending his protection, his love, his grace.  Perhaps clearing out the briers to make a place for the other sheep he wants to bring into the fold, who hear his voice too.

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Pastor’s Note: 

Because I am Your Friend

Emmaus-Road - Copy*Sermon of Sunday, April 15, 2018, at First Christian Church (Hampton VA), on the third Sunday in Easter.  I remain grateful to those who look for ways to help me as I seek to help others, as you will see in my note at end of this post, followed by a list of those resources I have quoted (credit where credit is due!).  -Vinson
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Gospel of Luke 24:36-48 (New Revised Standard Version)

3While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 37 They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. 38 He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39 Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” 40 And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. 41 While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” 42 They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43 and he took it and ate in their presence.  44 Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46 and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things.

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INTRODUCTION

The mile-high desert of volcanic ash and rock, at the center of the Big Island of Hawaii, was where I spent most of the two years I was a battalion chaplain with Marine artillery.  There we conducted live fire exercises in conjunction with infantry and close air support, and away from phones and email.  There is nothing like being in the field to get to know people, and it was there that I got to know the Operations Officer.

One night, Hank walked up to me in the dark twilight.  It sometimes frustrated him that I could call out his name, even in near pitch dark, just by hearing his footsteps and seeing in the distance the stride of the shadowy figure.  On one of those encounters, heavily engaged in conversation, and a bit frustrated, he suddenly asked: “Chaplain, why did you move next to me?”  It jarred me as I had not really been that aware, but apparently I had moved from standing face-to-face, to being beside him – repeatedly.  Surprised, I responded, saying: “Because I am your friend.”  What I meant was that instead of the posture of being face-to-face which is a position of challenge, I tended to stand beside him, gesturing and talking so we could share our perspectives – as a friend would stand.

It is those days which I remember when I read of two men retreating away from Jerusalem, joined by a stranger who interrupts their conversation, asking: “What are you discussing as you walk along together?”

It is a dusty road and it had been some long days and restless nights.

“You must be the only person who was in Jerusalem with no idea of what’s been going on!”

“What are you talking about?”

“Jesus of Nazareth – that’s what!”

Walking beside each another, they begin to talk of a rabbi they admired so much, a prophet powerful in teaching and healing.  They could not grasp why their religious leaders would hand him over to a death sentence by the hated Roman authorities – and worse, for crimes he did not even commit.

They spoke of their certainty that he was the Messiah, the holy one who would lead Israel out of subjection.

They spoke of how some of the women followers had gone to his tomb in the Sabbath haste following the crucifixion.  The requirements to clean and scent his body had been postponed, but now they had found the tomb empty of Jesus, while also encountering angels telling them he was alive.

They spoke of how they discounted the women, something that sadly, women continue to deal with, and yet something HAD happened.

WHY I BRING THIS UP

All of this brings us to now, as it has been said, “Which of us has not, at least once, walked the road to Emmaus, full of uncertainty about Jesus; full of disappointed hopes for his Church?” [Endnote 1]  While the joy of Easter comes, there seems at times, a kind of spiritual dissonance that follows.  We hear that the Lord has risen, but look around expecting a magical transformation and it seems absent.

FOR INSTANCE

Perhaps, we are tempted to lose heart, for it has been noted, “We are undergoing the shock of the passing away in our society of a certain kind of thinking about God; Christ is, to all appearances, defeated; the Church and its liturgy seems irrelevant to the unbelieving masses of people fascinated (instead) by latter-day idols.” [Endnote 2].  A quick review of the past week’s news shows it full of salacious new details of those in governance, full of war, and full of faith leaders who have abandoned principle over power.  It can cause one to wonder if people of faith are actually making a difference, with scandal and hate-tinged rhetoric on the rise, even as churches have found too many of their disciples scattered to the four winds.

But it is precisely on the road to Emmaus, a journey from despondency to faith, taking us from retreat to pressing the good fight, where we meet the disguised companion, Jesus himself.  Then and now, Jesus takes his disciples where we are, while perhaps questioning us at length.  It is THIS Resurrection story which may seem so much closer to our lives – precisely because it does find us on the road, not in the Upper Room, walking back to ordinary life… “scared, dejected, perplexed.”  For here was “a walk of sadness and gloom, of frustration and doubt; a walk filled with deliberation and discussion, but without answer and understanding, and thereby, without comfort; going, but without a sense of mission and purpose” [Endnote 3].  As it has been succinctly put, here is where the disciples begin “to suspect that the whole thing had been a mistake, a worthy hope and one unlikely ever to be realized” [Endnote 4].

While Jesus calls them “foolish,” the context of that word in the New Testament Greek is best captured in “The Cotton Patch Version of Luke” [vs. 26-27], where Jesus said to them “O how dense you are, and how sluggish of minds in catching on to all that the prophets spoke?  Can’t you see how necessary it was for the Leader to suffer like this…” [Endnote 5]  Lifting up text after text, out of the some 140 references within the Old Testament that spell out the journey the Messiah must experience – the very one that led Jesus from Palm Sunday through Easter, with the heartbreaking stops at Maundy Thursday and Good Friday – they converse mightily on that road.

Yet, even when Jesus expounds upon scripture to the two, they do not recognize him.  Like Cleopas and his companion, we ourselves may talk endlessly, and for all the many shelves filled in our church library, internet blogs we read, or religious TV channels we watch – talk does not always lift our sadness or low expectations of what God could or should do.

There is a tone of resignation in Luke’s story, maybe in our own lives.

But, then something happens.

They don’t go home, or at least not right away, deciding on stopping for the day at an inn.  Intrigued by the conversation, but not yet believing, warmed somehow with glimmers of understanding and perhaps a hint of hope that they have been wrong – the intensity of the verb used in the text means to “twist someone’s arm,” to compel them.

And so, they prevail upon Jesus to stop and eat with them, not realizing that it had been his plan all along.  Here things change – in the moment that the table the habits they formed as disciples, natural to them now in ways they didn’t realize, opens the table the stranger and the self-giving attitude of Jesus is taken up.  Remember, it was “in Jesus’ characteristic behavior of giving, of feeding, of caring for his sheep – whatever way you want to describe the blessing and distributing of bread – that they knew him.” In the feeding of others “at the right time and in receiving the bread broken for us with thanksgiving, we are given Jesus.”

Writes the Apostle John in his first letter, “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.”  Adding, “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed.  What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” [I John 3:1a, 2]

The message is clear.

“Stop talking, stop everything…pay attention as you reach out to receive what is blessed.  A glimpse of the Lord may propel you to a new confidence, a new hope, even a new way of remembering.”

“Cleopas and his companion are us.”

“They know a lot.  They care a lot.”

“They think about things and are saddened by their diminished hopes.  More important, they don’t even know that their eyes have been closed until suddenly they are opened.” [Endnote 6]

Here it is to finally understand that “I am enough,” as one Christian author puts it, as the Lord’s grace-bearers.  “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are,” says John [I John 3:1].  God loves us.  Not for our stuff or our accomplishments, or even for how fervent we are in prayer – rather, God loves us because that is the nature of God.  So then, as John puts it, Christ abides in us, and we are meant to embody and to pass on God’s love.  That very “love is what will repair a broken world.”  This is what opens eyes to the Risen Lord.

Isn’t that the message Luke seeks to convey in his retelling of contrasts?

How if it takes the two disciples the better part of a day to plod their melancholy path away from Jerusalem to an inn near their home, their return to Jerusalem is clearly much faster!

How they move from being tellers of a sad story and conversation partners about the happenings and hopes they once had, to being tellers of a story of seeing the Lord in the breaking of the bread.

How they move from spiritual refugees fleeing Jerusalem, to spiritual witnesses bearing new hope.

How in the breaking of the bread, they know the Lord, and I would suggest – finally themselves, through his eyes, for it was then that “he gave them the insight to understand the Scriptures” [Endnote 7].

SO WHAT?

As we journey through these Sundays in Easter, on the way to Pentecost, I would suggest that as children of God we are called forth in devotion to making the world into the world that God wants…

The “…world (in which) all God’s children recognize and treat each other as God’s own flesh.”

The world in the face of which“…forces that diminish and dismantle and terrorize anyone, we (can now) say, ‘We are enough.’” [Endnote 8]

The world, as the late theologian Walter Rauschenbusch put it more than a century ago, where Christ died “…to SUBSTITUTE LOVE for selfishness as the basis of human society,” as the Kingdom of God is about the business of “transforming the life on earth into the harmony of heaven” [Endnote 9].

This is why the Gospel of John “does not stop at merely saying that we are enough.  He says that we are becoming more” [Endnote 10], for as John writes: “What we will be has not yet been revealed.  What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him” [1 John 3:2b].

In Christ, we are enough.

In Christ, we are called to rise with Him and share the Good News with others – they are enough too!

Amen.

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Pastor’s Notes: In reference to the Marine officer of which I spoke, about a week after the interaction cited, by which time we were back “in garrison,” Hank called me in to talk about how I could reach more of the men by changing up how I conducted services in the field.  I went to 7-8 minute “gun crew” devotional service – in which I literally went from gun crew to gun crew (there are six howitzers in a battery), “XO Pit” and “Comm Shack” for all the firing batteries, vice a 30-minute battery-level service.  It wasn’t just that it resulted in 85% of the battalion attending a service (with me doing up to 23 separate services on Sunday, from sun-up to midnight!), it was that it changed my relationship with gun crew chiefs – as they began to increase my counseling load (especially relationship counseling) while in the field, reducing much of the “at home” issues.  But here’s the thing… it changed me as much as it changed anyone else! – Vinson
ENDNOTES (USED IN SERMON PREPS): 
(1) The Community of Affirmation, “Meditation for Christians: A Christian Website about Prayer and Meditation,” quoting Genstall Missal.  http://www.meditationforchristians.com/sec3yra15.htm.  Accessed 14 April 2018.
(2) The Community of Affirmation.
(3) Raymond E. Brown, “A Risen Christ in Eastertime,” Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1990.
(4) Sarah Henrich, “Commentary on Luke 24:13-35, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=933.  Accessed 13 April 2018
(5) Clarence Jordan, “The Cotton Patch Version of Luke and Acts,” NY: Association Press, 1969, pp. 87-88.
(6) Jon Bloom, “The Eyes Jesus Opened First,” https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/the-eyes-jesus-opened-first.  Accessed 13 April 2018.
(7) Jordan.
(8) Jake Owensby, “We will rise,” https://jakeowensby.com/2018/04/13/we-will-rise/.  Accessed 14 April 2018.
(9) Walter Rauschenbusch, “Dare We Be Christians,” Boston: Pilgrim Press, 1914.
(10) Owensby.

Celebration of Life: Mary A. Keith

download (1)Photo:  First Christian Church, Choir.  2014.
Celebration of Life message from the at April 15, 2018 service for Mary A. Keith, a long-time and very active member of First Christian Church.  It is a huge understatement to say she will be dearly missed by all of us.  -Vinson
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INTRODUCTION

One of the characteristics of the New Testament, especially the Gospels, is that when followers of Christ are mentioned it is because they were major influences in the first and second generation church.  Name-dropping is intentional, speaking to those known and typically still alive at the time of the writing.  They aren’t there just for a cameo appearance, but because of the work they were doing to advance the gospel of Jesus Christ.  And so, what catches my attention is how the name “Mary” is so strongly associated with the ministry of Jesus, more than any other name.  Think about it for a moment.  Mary, the mother of Jesus; Mary Magdalene, the first witness to the resurrected Lord; Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, who took the role of student at the feet of Jesus;  Mary, the mother of James and Joseph; Mary the wife of Cleopas and one of the first witnesses to the Resurrection; Mary, the mother of John Mark and sister of Barnabas; and even Mary of the church in Rome who was of such importance that Paul lifted her up by name – which was his way of noting who were leaders in the early church.   Of the women at the Crucifixion and those at the resurrection, all who were named, except for one, were called Mary.

Names were given in that culture as a personal description, rather than just as a given name.  In fact, given names were often dispensed with or replaced – as we see numerous times in Scripture.  And, as Hebrew does not have written vowels, MRY carries the meaning of “beloved.”

WHY I BRING THIS UP

I bring this up because such involvement in the lives of others in order to do good, and being “beloved” – fits how our Mary was truly experienced by each of us.

FOR INSTANCE

Raised in a large, rural North Carolina farm family, everyone had a role to play.  Tobacco was the mainstay, and for those who have never had the pleasure of working with tobacco, it is hard, hot, sweaty work.  Heaven help you if you wiped your eyes, because tobacco juice stings and blinds one for a couple of days.  Her brothers would work in the dark, extraordinarily hot tobacco barns, hanging the sticks holding the leaves to dry, working from the uppermost racks downward, until the last leaves would almost touch the ground.  Mary would needle the jute twine in and around the fresh pulled yellowing leaves, lashing them to the sticks – although she was notorious for putting more on one side of the stick that the other!  In all of the work at hand, she learned the type of family teamwork that would define her life – at work and at home.

I have to think this, along with a very sharp mind, is why as a customs broker she could flawlessly mange the international and logistical complexities of international shipping, first at Wilford Shade and then at Liebherr America.  In this, typical of Mary, she developed the kind of friendships and collegiality which foster successful work accomplishments, while also engendering the kind of loyalty that doesn’t end at the threshold – but is for life.  For instance, one comment posted by a former co-worker read: “It was a wonderful experience to work for and with Mary.  Her kind, calm and caring demeanor made everything easier. She became a dear and cherished friend…”

In church, as much as her former work life, Mary was all in!  Some of the photos that have flipped past on the screen touch all-too-briefly upon the many ways her faith was seamlessly integrated into her acts of service.  No small wonder I think of Mary, when I read the Letter of James, 2nd chapter [vs. 14-18]:

“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works?  Can faith save you?  If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?  So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.  But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’  Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.”

But, in the end, illness was ever more closely limiting her ability to “do” for others, and on the 27th of the last month, Mary and I were talking.  It was clear to me how much she missed the people of this congregation and being a contributor to The Welcome Table.  For our guests today, “The Welcome Table” is a ministry of this congregation in which we feed 120-140 souls every week, as the Biblical “least of these” are welcomed and cared for.

Each Monday morning is food preparation time and Mary would sit at table, methodically slicing all of the bread to an exact width with a remarkable gadget, and then putting silverware and napkins into plastic sleeves.

Not a gregarious person, yet I always noticed how Mary was at the center of it all, sometimes interrupted by her short, pithy sentences full of meaning and her very dry wit!

Quietly working.

Having something funny to say.

Encouraging others.

Sharing a word of love.

This is what we experienced.  Mary was simply not wired to be a bystander when work was to be done, and she did not make distinction between friend and stranger, as to the largeness of her heart.  Whatever difficulty she had in walking the last year or so, it was not a hindrance to her work ethic – but most especially it did not limit her heart for others, including welcoming my wife into her embrace of love.

Mary’s hospitalization last December drew that portion of her work to a close for her, and how she missed it, and we, — her.

The table just seemed empty.

Quiet.

We were poorer for her absence and quiet witness to the physical work of the Gospel.  So, we crowded into her apartment for Christmas Carols to cheer her, and she was the one who wanted to cheer us.  We visited her countless times, family and friends alike.  What did she want?  To hear about our lives and what we were up to, soaking it up – because our beloved loved us.  Janice took books and read to her, and others visited as the staff at The Newport noticed – the crowd had followed Mary.

For a good reason.

I’ve been present for far too many in the process of dying, whether of hours or months, hundreds of souls.  I’ve watched some evidence fearfulness neediness… and who withdraw into themselves.  I’ve watched others evidence boldness, selflessness… those who serve up the last portion of their hearts to others – knowing the Lord will refill it all and more when they are taken up

Trapped in bed, for months – it was hard for Mary to be on the sidelines.  It just wasn’t her.  The legs just weren’t going to work anymore.  Infections had taken their toll on her stamina, as well.  Cancer was back.  Yet, she wanted to know how others were doing.  She wanted to know how things were at The Welcome Table.  She wanted to know how this grandchild and that was doing… how her kids were doing… how her siblings were doing.  She wanted to clear out what regrets she had, but most of all she wanted to be good with everyone.  No clearer example was on March 27th, when I recorded a video message to take back to the Monday “Welcome Table” kitchen crew.  It’s still on my phone.  In Mary’s words, a bit more clipped sentences as breathing was more difficult that day, she said everything that needed to be said:

“Tell everyone that I love them. I miss them. I can’t wait to be back with them.”  Then, she said, “I’m doing fine.  You all don’t worry about me.” I had to chuckle, when she said that.  Here she was, dealing with increasing pain and increasing disability, knowing it wasn’t going to get any better – and with that typical cadence in her voice, she added that she would try, in her words “to not be too much of a wimp.”

As the past two weeks slid by, more confident in letting God embrace her in the perfect healing, looking forward to heavenly reunion with cherished ones already in the Lord’s embrace, I can think of no more fitting words that those, which may be familiar to some:

I am standing upon the seashore.

A ship at my side spreads her white sails to the morning breeze, and starts for the blue ocean.

She is an object of beauty and strength, and I stand and watch her until she hangs like a speck of white cloud just where the sea and sky come down to mingle with each other.

Then someone at my side says: “There!  She’s gone!”

Gone where?

Gone from my sight – that is all.

She is just as large in mast and hull and spar as she was when she left my side, and just as able to bear her load of living freight to the place of her destination. Her diminished size is in me, and not in her.

And just at the moment when someone at my side says: “There!  She’s gone!” there are other eyes that are watching for her coming; and other voices ready to take up the glad shout:

“There she comes!”

And that is death.

Sunday last, the first thing she had to say when we walked in was “I’m ready!”  The day would become about her children seeing her, a granddaughter too.  No fear.  Just gentleness and trust in her Lord and Savior in approaching the great letting go in order to be bourn up to God.  No indication her time of departure would be so soon, but she was indeed “ready.”-

SO WHAT?

“For now we see in a mirror, dimly,” Paul wrote the Corinthians, “but then we will see face to face.  Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.  And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” [I Corinthians 13:12-13]

Tilting her head as Mary did when saying something that was the deepest part of her heart, Mary concluded the words she wished to be shared, meant for that Monday, they are all her – and her truest legacy:

“And I love you all, very much.”

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Pastor’s notes:  Obituary accessed on 13 April 2018, at http://www.legacy.com/funerals/peninsula-newport-news/obituary.aspx?n=mary-a-keith&pid=188729847
Mary A. Keith, 82, went to be with the Lord on Tuesday, April 10, 2018, after a long and courageous fight against leukemia. Mary was a wonderful and caring mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, sister, aunt and friend. She was preceded in death by her husband, James Keith and son Thomas Butch. Left to cherish her precious memory are sons John Butch, Timothy Butch, daughter Julie Sutton, and numerous other family members and friends. A Celebration of Life memorial service will be held 2 PM, Sunday, April 15th at First Christian Church in Hampton. The family will receive friends after the service. Memorials may be made to First Christian Church, 1458 Todds Lane, Hampton, VA 23666. Arrangements are under the care of Peninsula Funeral Home.

A Skeptic for Our Time

John20v19to31_2005Cartoon credit:  https://localsharedministry.com/tag/cartoon/.  Accessed April 8, 2018.

John 20:19-31 (New Revised Standard Version)

19When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” 24But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.25So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”  26A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”30Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
 *Sermon preached on Sunday, April 8, 2018, at First Christian Church (Hampton VA), on what is known as “Holy Humor Sunday” in part of Christendom.  Sermons aren’t always meant to “tie everything up in a nice neat bow” but make all of us think (preacher too!).   In everything, I am always open to follow up conversations.  -Vinson

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INTRODUCTION

I was still fairly new to the command when I stepped into one of the office suites full of cubbie holes and Navy SEALs working on various planning processes.  Greeted warmly by one of the officers, another made a very sarcastic comment.  A biting joke about Christianity.  We had not met before.  I caught my breath and chatted for a sec, then moved on.

The same thing happened the next day, as he leaned on one of those half-walls that surround cubbies.  He was an atheist.  What did I think about that?  I remember seeing the smile on the face of another SEAL and realized he was watching to see my reaction.  I joked back with an atheist joke to my new friend.  Caught off guard, an anti-Christian joke was batted back.  We went on this way with jokes, back and forth for 15 or 20 minutes, until he said he needed to get onto a meeting and it was good chatting.

In that moment, I realized he was a skeptic.  One with reasons.

WHY I BRING THIS UP

I bring this up because, because skepticism invites us into others’ faith struggles.  Yes, it might be in odd and even in off-putting ways, but regardless of the style of others’ approach to the subject of faith, aggressively or tentatively, we do well in remembering how difficult it can be to risk oneself in talking about matters of faith – especially the doubts.

FOR INSTANCE

In the lesson this morning we hear:  “…the other disciples told him –Thomas –, “We have seen the Lord.”  But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”  It’s easy to forget about the others standing in that upper room, as Jesus later uses Thomas for a teaching aid, just as he had with Peter and others on earlier occasions.  It really isn’t just about Thomas.  If he should have believed the word from the other disciples, when they said: “We have seen the Lord’ [20:25], then the other disciples should have believed the word from Mary Magdalene when she said: “I have seen the Lord” [20:18] instead of discounting them because they were women.  As an aside, this wasn’t exactly a high point in the church, but the early church had the integrity to allow its warts to be seen… for they too teach across the centuries.

In my seminary years, I was introduced to a bit of a tome in James Fowler’s “Stages of Faith.”  He broke out the developmental aspects to the journey toward God and must have surely thought of Thomas when he spoke of those who won’t blindly accept what others have said, but seek certainty for themselves.  For those whom Fowler called searchers back in 1981, the popular term now is “Seekers.”

“…regretfully… many adults in the church have never had the benefit of an environment which encouraged searching faith.  And so they are often frightened or disturbed by adolescents [or others!] who are struggling to enlarge their affiliative faith to include searching faith.  Some persons are forced out of the church during this state and, sadly, some never return; others remain in searching faith the rest of their lives.  In any case,” he writes of them, “…surely they need to be encouraged to remain within the faith community during their intellectual struggle, experimentation, and first endeavors at commitment.”  [Fowler, Stages of Faith, p. 97]

Some do indeed raise questions, because of where they are in their spiritual development, not unlike adolescents can be challenging to some, asking things in ways that can rub others wrong.  Yet this is the very witness to their authentic walk, one that echoes the words of Jesus in Matthew 5:37:  “Let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’”

As to my friend, I had picked up enough from bits and pieces… from him… from others in the community… and I could reasonably guess what had happened.  He had started out as a Christian, but then had just seen so much horror during various missions over the years that, well, he just became angry at God and had decided he would not believe in Him anymore.  Offended that life had been unjust, an emotional state that is now referred to as “moral injury,” he turned his back.

We continued to have encounters.  Once or twice every week.  For a couple of months.  Tennis ball-like banter.  Him throwing anti-Christian jokes at me and me in the moment creating anti-atheist jokes to send back.  Over time, the audience of SEALs grew.  Grinning… laughing… getting those expressions people get when they start thinking hard about something they just heard… and… in their own way, keeping score.

Neither of us ever took what the other said as personal or got angry.  Each encounter ended because, well… the Navy was paying us and we both had work to do!

It was a little weird.  But relationships can sometimes be a little weird.  Then one day he said something and I shot back “Oh, you DO believe in God!”

“No, I don’t!” he said.

“Yes, you do!”  I quickly ran through what he had said, using his own words to prove he did believe in God.  “I win!” I called out and bounded down the hall.

He yelled after me, “No, you didn’t!”

It was a little weird, but it was the SEAL community where weird was something of a relative thing.

The next morning he popped into my office and sat down.  No jokes this time.  He started off by saying, “You aren’t like the other chaplain.”  I was curious what that meant and asked, “Tell me about that?”  Apparently when he had attempted his edgy jokes with the chaplain before me, the chaplain got mad and stomped off.  This SEAL had been effectively shut down, when actually, in his own backhanded way, he was extending an invitation to help him find his way back to faith.  Sometimes, people just don’t know where to start… or they start off by showing their wound.  I have usually found that wounds are WHY others do not believe.

Sitting in my office after all those months of barbs, he began to unload those things in his life that really troubled him.  It was a very different conversation than from previous months.  I saw the real person, his griefs, and his fears.  Finally, he observed that his wife was in chapel every Sunday: Praying For HIM.  He might join her at chapel, he said.  Not that he believed, he said, grinning in a coy way.  Mere days later, he stopped by to tell me he had looked at the new command building plans and he had already made a change to them… to give me an office where SEALs could anonymously slide in and out of my office for counseling.  He wanted them to be able to talk with me.  Henceforth, he always made a point of talking about his wife’s joy, because he continued, finally, to be with her at chapel, and he delighted to share what the priest said that would make him think.

I have thought of him many times over the years, a reminder of the need to meet people where they are, not where you want them to be.  When I read of Thomas, even though their stories and context are so very different as to how and why they sought proof, it brings me back.  Let’s face it, who among us, doesn’t immediately say “Doubting Thomas” when hearing that name?  A moniker.  A label.  A confinement.  A judgment.  At the same time, what’s our internal reaction when we hear someone is an atheist or agnostic?  I just think the Kingdom of God is poorer for such limitations we impose in our reactions; certainly they can impede our ability to walk with others in ways that work, as the witnesses to the Resurrected Lord.

“Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you’” [20:26], the word “peace” throughout the New Testament, being used to describe the type of relationship between people, rather than an inner, personal tranquility [see:  Mark 9:50; Romans 12:18; II Corinthians 13:11; and I Thessalonians 5:13].  After all, relationship-building is the first step, if any words and witness are to make a dent.

If Thomas “is at a crossroads in his life as to what ”adjective will describe him: trusting or not, faithful or not, certain or not” …living in the lament tradition evident throughout the Psalms, Job, and the Prophets where “questioning God is an aspect of faith” [Brian Stoffregen, in Exegetical Notes], then it also seems to me that the safest place in the world for skeptics to stand – should be among us.  Let me repeat that:  the safest place in the world for skeptics to stand SHOULD be AMONG US.  Indeed, in the Book of Acts, the early church honored such spiritual honesty and critical thinking, noting “Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” [Acts 17:11].

SO WHAT?

So where do we go from here?

Perhaps some seek such evidence as they have a mind that craves sensory proof of one kind of another.

Perhaps some seek such evidence in the link of those identified as Christian, and the words and way of life set forth for Christians in scripture.

Perhaps some just SIMPLY SEEK because they have been wounded severely in life and need to work through their righteous anger.

What they do have is the Gospel …and us.  It may just come down to whether we are willing to stand in the place of Jesus – and in Fowler’s words — encourage them “to remain within the faith community during their intellectual struggle, experimentation, and first endeavors at commitment.”

Most of our lives — right now, this very day even, — are filled with questions for which we do not yet have the answers.  In point of fact, many of us will not HAVE all the answers we seek until we stand before God.  In the meantime, let us embrace knowing that we – and others – are still seekers.  Let us be a safe place for questions, discussions, growth, and love.  And above ALL things, LOVE.

Amen!

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Pastor’s notes:  Two resources helpful in preparation of this sermon.  James W. Fowler, Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning.  NY: Harpercollins College Division, 1981 (My copy is from 1981, but I think it is still in print); and Brian Stoffregen, in Exegetical Notes, http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/john20x19e2.htm. Accessed: April 5, 2018.

 

You Can’t Make It Up: An Easter Sermon

563be82d731d2.image.jpg

Photo credit: Stephen M. Katz, The Virginian-Pilot, April 15, 2012.  Mayfair News Apartments, photograph of the “Good Friday Miracle.”

Gospel of John 20:1-18 (New Revised Standard Version)

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples returned to their homes. 11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look[a] into the tomb; 12 and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14 When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew,[b] “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” 18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
If there has ever been an “Easter” experience in my life, it was Good Friday 2012 and the days that followed.  I still, even six years later, find this a “touchstone” in my spiritual life.  As to what I have written, it did not begin to encompass all the stories of those days.  For instance, the man who rescued the pilot?  18 years before, in the last jet crash, it had been his wife who was killed when the jet landed on her car driving down Old Colonial – yet here he was one of the heroes of the day.  Everyone on the scene… the first responders… all of us, firemen, police, Navy chaplains and command personnel… all of us remember those days, for they bore witness to the utter grace of God.  I have pasted some of the news articles at end of this sermon… if you need a refresher.  God is good.  All the time! – Vinson

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It was just after noon, on April 7th, 2012.  I was midway through a brief noontime service at NAS Oceana.  My cellphone buzzed.  My deputy gave me an intense look, stood and made his way quickly down the side aisle.  Something very wrong had happened.

Finishing up quickly, I darted back into the offices, only to learn a tragedy was unfolding.  An F/A-18D Hornet from the training squadron had taken off from the primary runway that takes jets out over I-264, Laskin Road, the oceanfront and out to sea.  Both engines flamed out with mechanical issues and it had gone down quickly.  The student pilot ejected, while the instructor pilot attempted to get the crippled bird out to sea, to no avail, and 50 feet above ground he ejected.  I sent chaplain teams to the control tower to care for the shocked air traffic controllers who heard and saw it all unfold, to the training squadron who did not know if their friends had died, while I headed to the scene and called in other chaplains to assist.  Half the complex was incinerated and we had no idea how many had died.

It was Good Friday, it was easy to think the worst.

Caring for the residents, seeing each relieved to see one another, they slowly trickled into the offsite emergency center.  We began to find hope that perhaps none of the almost 100 residents had died.  Certainly not the manager, whose precise daily routine had been interrupted and so he was out of his office and some 50 feet away with his grandkids – as the office became the initial point of impact.  Not the resident who had retired from Kroger the week before and received a call 15 minutes before insisting over her protests that she leave her apartment and come in to cover for a sick employee – her apartment disappearing in the fireball.  Not the man who quickly rescued the pilot who had landed beside the aircraft, the flames following them and yet not burning them – he himself having suffered a massive heart attack the week before, having been saved by another resident who had completed CPR training a mere two days earlier.  Not so many people, called away, breaking routines, being anywhere but where they normally were that fateful day.

As dusk approached, it was finally clear: No one had died.  So many stories of being spared, any one alone would have been remarkable – and the crash itself quickly became known as “The Good Friday Miracle.”  It really was a Good Friday and while Easter was still to come, the residents clung to each other, joining in a prayer led by the building manager who had been and was — more crucially — their friend – as each, in community, gave thanks to God, in the name of Jesus Christ.

It was Easter Sunday, and the sunny and blue sky contrasted with the blackened earth, making an indelible memory in my mind as we approached the tomb of their former homes.

All the hot spots had cooled, the Navy had removed the aircraft remains and the fuel-soaked soil, and it was safe to go in.  Those with intact apartments were there to grab clothes.  Those of the destroyed buildings, were there to see what remained, if anything, and grieve for what was lost.  There were no second stories left, just a burnt wall here and there, part of a staircase standing by itself, and a whole lot of ash.  Eight chaplains.  Each took a resident.  One at a time.

I think about when I stepped through ash with one resident.  The only thing she was worried about was the cremation urn of her late husband.  It was, she said, on a shelf in the living room closet.  She kept it there, to pull out and set beside her on the couch to watch baseball – which he had loved!  The couch was gone along with the rest of the apartment, with only two partial walls surviving – bracketing the closet now open to the sky.  I forced open the singed door and lifted off the shelf the gunny sack containing the urn as she looked on and rejoiced.  It was perfectly dry and not an ash on it.  I looked up at the sky and then down at the wet ash on the shelf and at my feet.  The only foot prints in the ash were mine.

I think about the young man I walked with to his apartment, a 3-foot high corner of which was all that remained, as I pulled a wooden cigar box out of a small sodden pile of ashes.  It was intact, and the contents safe and dry – his dad’s medals and stuff – the only thing his heart told him couldn’t be replaced.  It had been on a shelf, which had disappeared with everything else in the fire.  He wept with joy.

I think about one of my chaplains who walked with the Vietnam vet who saw a flaming wing land outside his sliding glass doors and ran the opposite way out the front door – while the flames followed him, consuming his apartment in the fireball.  Just ash and no walls remained, except for his coffee table sitting amid the scene.  Unburnt.  Alone upon its clean top, where he had left it only minutes before the crash, was his well-read Bible, a central part of his life since the war.  The Bible was dry and clean.  The chaplain remarked to me that there were no footsteps in the deep, wet ash anywhere around it.

How could these things be?

We had to be there, but none of us had journeyed there with any real hope.

There was no avoiding the ash-laden scene, just as there had been no avoiding the tomb for the disciples.

All was gone, after all, had been our thinking.  That is, until we discovered otherwise.  AMAZED,… each of us was marked by what we witnessed.

It was Easter, after all.

In the much more powerful scene, the disciples came upon the absence of the very body of Jesus Christ — with the presence of burial cloths presenting to them a very confusing scene.

It just doesn’t seem to make sense to them.

Hearing the news Mary had conveyed of the rolled away stone, the Beloved Disciple had run fast, but coming to the tomb, he stops and doesn’t go in.  Is it for what he might see… or not see?  Does he, like Mary, remain outside the tomb for the same unknown reasons as she?

Simon Peter, right behind the Beloved Disciple, enters the tomb.  Seeing the linen wrappings “lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself” – he just doesn’t seem to know what to think or say.

The Beloved Disciple goes in finally and is said to believe, perhaps because the belief was already present – we are not explicitly told.

Mary Magdalene, having made the trip back to fetch the disciples, is now left alone in her thoughts.

The angels appear, yet not recognizing them for who they are, Mary Magdalene hears the question: “Woman, why are you weeping?”  Stuck on Friday, she responds: “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”

Then, again it is said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?  Who are you seeking?”  She had just turned around before these words were spoken, confronted by Jesus and so clouded over in grief and confusion – as she still supposed he was dead – she wails out again.  Then he calls out her name and she throws her arms around him in joy.

We are confronted with a narrative in John “designed to provoke (our) response,” as one commentator puts it.  Whether the resurrection of Jesus is condensed to few words such as in Mark or an extended narrative like John or Luke…

“How do we respond to the empty tomb?”

Can “we be instructed by the honesty of Mary who went to the tomb expecting to find a corpse?  She is (after all) the one who invites the disciples and us… to the empty tomb.”

As I was reminded six years ago, life presents us with Good Fridays we just couldn’t make up.  Good Fridays so real that we can taste the ash in our mouths, and it is hard to see beyond it – for that is shock.  Like Mary, we approach the tomb with all the worries of our humanity, fixed upon who will roll away the stone of despair and hopelessness that would block the path – only to be surprised by the promise fulfilled, a promise first given the mother of Jesus all the way back in Luke 1:7 that “NOTHING will be impossible with God!”  For there is Easter.

And we encounter the RISEN Lord.  The Lord of the empty tomb.  The Lord of life.  The Lord who snaps us out of our daze, calling us each by name.

Dear Ones,…Easter has come!

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Pastor’s Notes:  A bit of this used in preparation…. “Commentary on John 20:1-18,” by Robert Hoch, dtd April 17, 2017.  Accessed at: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3206
For a trip down memory lane, here are some of the articles from the jet crash: “Four Years Ago Today, the Good Friday Miracle in Virginia Beach,” The Virginian-Pilot, dtd April 6, 2016; https://pilotonline.com/news/local/history/back-in-the-day/article_2369aa90-1d53-5c8a-9f8d-3c5e5defa589.html  Accessed on: March 31, 2018; “A terrible crash, yet no lives lost? How is that possible?” The Virginian-Pilot, dtd April 15, 2012. Accessed at: https://pilotonline.com/news/local/article_9c4554fb-765f-587c-a8ae-eb367453647a.html; “All about the 2012 Navy jet crash in Virginia Beach,” The Virginian-Pilot, dtd April 27, 2012.  Accessed at: https://pilotonline.com/news/military/local/collection_a746a21e-fc13-11e5-bddf-bbc8955ba9f6.html

No White Charger, Just a Donkey

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Gospel of Mark 11:1-11 (New Revised Standard Version)

Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.
“Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die. The crowd answered him, “We have heard from the law that the Messiah remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?” Jesus said to them, “The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.” After Jesus had said this, he departed and hid from them.
*Sermon preached on Sunday, March 18, 2018, at First Christian Church (Hampton VA), the fifth in a Lenten series drawing upon aspects of the “12-Steps” that form the basis for spiritual recovery.  In this case, Steps 8 & 9.  If something resonates and deserves a private conversation, I am always available.  -Vinson
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INTRODUCTION

In a closed clergy group blog, as I was preparing for today, Palm Sunday, one of the group administrators asked what we were all doing for today.  One comment stuck out:  “What can I say about Palm Sunday that hasn’t already been said to my loyal congregation a million times?”  That really is a part of the challenge, isn’t it?  I had to chuckle, but it is kinda true.  Being so familiar with the story, it’s too easy to sprint past its words, much less its message.

Preparing to enter Jerusalem, Jesus directs a couple of his disciples:  “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it.”  I have to admit that I don’t know much about donkeys, certainly not young donkeys – called colts, even though occasionally around them during that part of my childhood in rural eastern North Carolina.  I know our own Special Forces folk use them in Afghanistan, because they make superb pack animals, walk at about the same speed as people and can easily handle rocky ground – without the need for shoes, like horses.  Among the ancient Romans, to whom Mark wrote, donkeys were a mainstay in the city for transportation of carts and persons on the narrow Old World streets.

But, I keep thinking about Jesus sending his guys to “borrow” a stranger’s young and unbroken donkey.  As a donkey trainer out west with a website called bibledonkeys.com notes:

“You do not train a donkey just like you would a horse.  A donkey is not a horse… Donkeys will not take well to force or fear training and will remember it at a later date… You will want to make friends with and gain the trust and respect from your donkey before you start training your donkey to carry a rider… The donkey should be a friendly, tame donkey; ideally anyway.  Training should begin in a calm and individual matter.  If you are in a hurry, forget it, buy one already trained.  Training an animal to ride or drive takes time.  Some people think that they can take an unbroke equine to the lake, get on and ride out on a broke to ride animal….good luck to them.” 

But here is Jesus preparing to do just that very thing amid the narrow, confusing streets of Jerusalem.

WHY I BRING THIS UP

Yes, it fulfilled a prophesy found in Zechariah 9:9: “… your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”  Or, as one of my mentors is fond of saying “Jesus didn’t ride into Jerusalem on a white charger, but on a donkey.”  He was trying to get across the radical nature of Jesus, for as he proved during his desert temptations three years before, Jesus wasn’t going to play the Devil’s game of self-centered power – but lived in dependence upon God.

FOR INSTANCE

So we read yet another year of how the excited crowds lined the streets.  It is contagious.  Voices rise saying “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!  Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!”  Palm branches are cut and waved.  It becomes an event.  There is no National Park Service or CNN to get a head count, Twitter to capture quotes of those lining the road, or Facebook to capture all the selfies with Jesus on the donkey.  But, their imaginations still run wild; perhaps liberation from Rome is possible in the person of this rabbi from Nazareth.

I suspect most of us think the donkey was chosen so Jesus would appear peaceful, meek, mild, but just past the reading for today in Mark, is the story of Jesus clearing out the Temple in righteous anger.  You remember it, money changers tables flipped, animals for sale driven out, questioned as to what authority he possessed.

Michael Lindvall, a New York City pastor, says the donkey, palm branches and the whole entrance into the city was actually Jesus’ way of engaging in a form of political street theater.

It makes sense.

Everywhere in the world, street theater is used as a way to subvert the status quo, to question the power brokers in a society, to upend people’s thinking.

Think about what happened yesterday.

A historic march in Washington by perhaps half million young people and supportive adults.  Additional marches scattered across the US, demanding of leadership the political courage to address reasonable restrictions on assault weapons and to put some teeth to ensuring weapons stay out of the hands of those who are a proven danger to society.  No palms cut from any DC trees, but a lot of signs waved – speaking truth to power in a massive street theater not to be ignored.

Street theater mocks power, the kind of power that enslaves.

Street theater isn’t subversive simply for the sake of rousing up trouble, but is prophetic and presents an alternative reality to the way things are currently arranged.

Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a lowly, untrained beast – and it obeys.

Just as the crowd parted in downtown Norfolk yesterday to allow the keynote speakers, all students, to approach the stage, the people of Jerusalem also made way.  They had notions of what it meant as Jesus rode in, winding through the streets and the crowds until — late in the day — he came to the Temple.  They laughed and cheered and waved palm branches, not understanding God was doing something new, that the center of power was about to shift as much as the earthquake that would shake the city the moment Jesus would die.

It’s easy to understand why they might have been so filled with hope.

It’s easy to understand why they wanted liberation from their oppressive Roman rulers and puppet king.

It’s easy to understand why they hoped for the Messiah to be a military King who would ride into town on a stallion prepared for battle.  They looked for, they wanted, a mighty King bringing an army and able to defeat the despised Romans.  They desperately needed a powerful king finally taking his rightful throne as the King of the Jews.

Instead, Jesus engages in a deeper act of subversion.  His street theater was actually meant to challenge them, not the Romans, even though the teaching of Christ would ultimately overcome the empire by changing it from within.  He comes with no stallion, no white charger – just a young donkey on loan.  He comes without an army, just an odd collection of unemployed fishermen, an errant tax-collector for the Romans, some women who were underwriting his ministry, and a collection of various folk of various previous reputations.  He comes in this humble entrance into the city, demonstrating he isn’t the type of Messiah they are looking for.

He is bringing liberation, but not the kind they are thinking about.  It is far more radical.  One commentator on this scene points out:  “As they were laying down their palms and their cloaks before Jesus, they would also have to lay down their ideas of who Jesus was, and what his purpose was in their lives,” just as we are all still called to do… to THIS day.”

“It’s no secret that Christians disagree,” Adam Cleaveland writes,

“we all have different ideas of who this person Jesus was and is…and what it is that he cares about.  It is extremely easy for us to become sidetracked by our own ideas of God.  It is scary how easy it is for us to allow our vision of God to become so narrow that we don’t allow ourselves to realize that God is so much bigger and more grand than we could ever imagine.  Some of us may find ourselves in the crowd today – yelling and cheering and waving our palm branches as Jesus the Christ enters into Jerusalem.”

Throughout the gospels, Jesus kept saying, “The realm of God is in you” and “The realm of God here.”  Liberation is here, but this is what it looks like:  “Love one another as I have loved you.”  “Others will know that you’re my followers because of your love for each other.”

As a Christian blogger wrote earlier last week of this very challenge:  “There are many people today who attempt to use, abuse, and generally control others in the name of Christianity.  As far as I’m concerned, that’s trademark infringement.   They might as well be bottling sludge and selling it as pure spring water.  Unfortunately, the hatred and vitriol they peddle is a product that feels right to many people because it’s aligned with their own prejudices.  Ultimately,” Dr. Lou Kavar writes,

“Jesus didn’t expect his followers to all be the same.  There were Jews and Samaritans, common laborers and artisans, Roman soldiers and religious officials, even the hated tax collectors and prostitutes.  Jesus didn’t teach them to be the same.  He taught them to love each other, to trust that they were lovable, and to realize that the Divine was already in them.  That’s the Christianity of Jesus.”

SO WHAT?

The challenge then before us is to love, to act with compassion, to define ourselves by these values amid our society rather than merely reflect our society – and yes, its worst impulses.  Perhaps it is to even cease to identify ourselves, like that same Dr. Kavar, not merely as a believers in Christ, but as followers of Christ – wherever he leads us.

My friends, the donkey approaches.

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Notes: “Bible Donkey,” a website.  Accessed at: http://www.bibledonkeys.com/?id=6; “Lay Down Your Cloaks,” by Adam Walker Cleaveland, April 5, 2009.  Accessed at: http://pomomusings.com/2009/04/05/palm-sunday/ ; “The Christianity of Jesus,” by Lou Kavar, PhD, March 21, 2018. Accessed at: http://blog.loukavar.com/2018/03/21/the-christianity-of-jesus/