Thursday, April 16, 2015

Charge Your Batteries

Last night at a social function, a parishioner asked our curate and me, "How do you keep your batteries charged? Y'all are like Energizer bunnies." I thanked him for his compliment and said a silent prayer of thanksgiving that the fatigue I'm still feeling from two weeks ago isn't showing. And then I thought more about his question. How do I keep my battery charged?

On Wednesday of last week, I preached a sermon on Peter and John's encounter with a man lame from birth at the Jerusalem temple. On Sunday, we'll read the follow-up to that encounter in Acts 3:12-19. The crowd in the temple was amazed that this lame man was suddenly up and walking and dancing and praising God. Peter's response to their surprise says a lot about the nature of Christian ministry: "When Peter saw the astonishment of those who had seen the lame man healed, he addressed the people, 'You Israelites, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we had made him walk?'" Who healed the man? It wasn't Peter, and it wasn't John. It was the resurrected Jesus himself who accomplished this miracle. As Peter put it, "...his name itself has made this man strong," clearly directing the focus of the crowd back on the power of Jesus' name.

The same is true for everyone who professes to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. Everyone who works in the name of Jesus accomplishes that work through a power that comes not from within but from above. Whether we preach or teach or pastor, whether we help or comfort or pray, whether we heal or lead or labor, we do so through the name that is above every name--the mighty name of Jesus.

How do we keep our batteries charged? In the answer that I gave our parishioner, I described how it is my "job" to take care of myself. "I get paid to pray and spend time in quiet and study the bible and exercise," I explained. "When I take care of myself, I am living out my calling as a disciple of Jesus and as a priest in the Episcopal Church. It's my job to be spiritually nourished and to invite others to do the same."

I can't do this job on my own. As Peter professed, it isn't my power or even my piety that makes it possible for me to run around and do all the things that a clergyperson is called to do. I am filled with the Holy Spirit and given a share in the power of Jesus' name. And so are you--so are all of us. Forgetting that--whether by neglecting our spiritual disciplines or by developing a messianic complex--is a recipe for defeat.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Peace With You

Peace be with you. Peace be with you. Peace be with you. If you haven’t heard that lately, you haven’t been to church.

Last Sunday, as I read the gospel (John 20:19-31), I thought to myself, “Dang, that’s a lot of ‘Peace be with you.’” Jesus said it three times in that one reading—twice in one encounter with the disciples. Of course, we also say it in our liturgy—“The Peace of the Lord be always with you. And also with you.”—and I suppose that’s where it comes from.

This Sunday (Luke 24:36b-48), again, Jesus will greet the disciples with that familiar phrase: Peace be with you. As I wrote about yesterday, the disciples didn’t seem to care; they were still terrified. Still, it seems to be Jesus’ attempt to greet them in a disarming way. Peace be with you.

But it’s more than a greeting; Jesus is offering them his peace. Way back in John 14, Jesus made that explicit, saying to them, “My peace I give to you; my peace I leave with you.” Part of his departing gift is the bestowal of that peace. And, when the risen Jesus shows up again, he reminds them that they have it. Peace be with you.

Grammatically speaking, the statement “Peace be with you” is an interesting way of conveying the Lord’s peace. Jesus didn’t say, “Receive my peace.” Nor did he say, “Peace is yours.” Instead, he says, “Peace be with you.” In fact, he doesn’t even say a verb. It’s merely implied in the Greek. He just says, “Peace…with you.” It’s not an action. It’s not a disposition. It’s a recognition of what is already true.

How does that shape our liturgical exchange of the Lord’s peace? When someone says, “The Peace of the Lord be always with you,” he/she isn’t really giving you anything. You’ve already got it. They’re really saying, “The Peace of the Lord…always with you.” It’s not a granting of peace. It’s an invitation to recognize it.

Jesus says comfortable words to the disciples—Peace be with you—and sometimes he has to say it multiple times. He’s not giving them extra peace. He’s urging them to see the peace that they have been given. It’s the peace he has given to us as well. Let us bid one another recognize it.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Still Scared

Luke 24 is an interesting chapter to read from start to finish. Before attempting to preach the gospel lesson appointed for this Sunday (Luke 24:36b-48), it might be a good idea to let the rest of the story soak in a little bit.

On the third day, Jesus rose from the dead, and, when the women discovered that the tomb was empty and were told by two heavenly messengers that Jesus had risen, they were frightened (v. 5). When they reported what they had seen to the disciples, many of them dismissed it as "an idle tale" (v. 11). The disciples who walked down the road to Emmaus explained to the risen Jesus, whom they were kept from recognizing, the reports of the empty tomb, but still they did not understand. So Jesus called them "foolish" and "slow of heart" and explained in detail how the scriptures pointed to the death and resurrection of God's anointed one (vv. 25-26). Still unable to perceive what was being said or who it was that was saying it, the disciples stumbled along until Jesus broke bread and their eyes were finally opened. So they ran back to Jerusalem and told the other disciples what had happened, and the heard that Jesus had indeed appeared to Simon (vv. 33-35).

What happens next? Just as the disciples were discussing all of these things, Jesus shows up again, and the disciples "were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost." Think about that again. After all of that--after the empty tomb, conversations with angels, a scriptural explanation by Jesus himself, a remarkable recognition and disappearing act, and confirmation of another visit from Jesus--the risen Lord shows up, and the disciples still think they are seeing a ghost. To put it plainly, it was easier for them to believe that they were being haunted than to believe that Jesus had been raised from the dead.

What about you? What's easier for you to believe--that ghosts walk the earth or that Jesus rose on the third day?

Part of me is shocked at the thick-headed disciples who still can't believe in the resurrection. And part of me is sympathetic and understanding that the thick-headed disciples still can't believe. Two-thousand years later, what's easier for the world to believe--the likelihood of a zombie apocalypse or the likelihood of the resurrection?

"But don't worry," Jesus said. "Stay here until you are clothed in power from on high." We don't get to that point in Sunday's reading. Liturgically speaking, the Ascension and Pentecost are still a few weeks away. But it's worth noting now that the disciples won't fully appreciate the power of the resurrection until they receive the power of the Holy Spirit. It's ok if it doesn't quite make sense yet. It's ok if it's still easier to believe in ghosts than it is to believe in the empty tomb. God isn't finished with you yet. It might take a little time for the pieces to be put together. Even Jesus himself couldn't explain the scriptures clearly enough for the disciples to believe...that's because it takes more than bible study to put your faith in the empty tomb. It takes an encounter with the risen Lord, and it takes the gift of the Holy Spirit, which leads us into all truth.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Preaching Repentance in Easter

If you come to church this Sunday and pay attention to the lessons, you might think that we’ve gone back in time to the season of Lent:
  • Peter says to the crowd in the temple, “You rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, and you killed the Author of life…” (from Acts 3)
  • John writes, “Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. You know that he was revealed to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him.” (from 1 John 3)
  • Jesus says to the disciples, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” (From Luke 24)

Some churches omit the confession in Easter, citing a connection with the Council of Nicaea, which in Canon 20 decided that everyone should stand to pray during the Easter Season. (See Steve Pankey’s post from last week about why St. Paul’s, Foley, decided not to do that this year.) But, this week, I’m thinking that we should not only confess our sins but even start on our knees with the Penitential Order, Decalogue, and Exhortation. All of this week’s readings seem to focus on sin.

Of course, all of these are Easter or post-Easter readings. Peter is speaking with the power of the Spirit he and the other disciples received at Pentecost. John is writing to his people about the power that the resurrection has on daily life. Jesus is speaking to his disciples as the resurrected one and sending them out in the power of his risen name. But, even those these are stories about or get their basis from the resurrection and even though this will be the Third Sunday of Easter, we’re invited to contemplate our sin.

Perhaps a clearer focus for these readings is repentance. Peter calls upon those who unknowingly murdered the “Author of Life” to repent “so that [their] sins may be wiped out.” As they wait for Jesus’ return, John urges his readers to “purify themselves, just as [Christ] is pure.” And Jesus’ commission to the disciples is about taking good news to the ends of the earth—the good news that the resurrection proves that repentance leads to forgiveness and thus to new life.

Easter isn’t a season to omit the confession. It’s a season to embrace it. These fifty days aren’t a time to pretend that there is no consequence for our sin. This is a time to declare that the consequences of our sin—the cross upon which Jesus died—isn’t the end of the story. We can’t proclaim the good news of the resurrection without also proclaiming the reality of our need for it—the reality of our sin.

So don’t fret if your preacher sounds a little Lenten this week. Don’t worry if the sermon starts out with a heavy dose of sin. By the end, it will be a story of resurrection. It’s still Easter after all.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

The Idolatry of Fundamentalism

There's a conversation I had several years ago with some clergy colleagues with whom I trained for ministry that sticks with me and comes back into my mind every year at this time. I've written about it before, but I think it's worth repeating. (If I'm still struggling with it, I bet others are, too.) At the crux of that discussion was a disagreement between us over the extent to which the hypothetical discovery of the not-resurrected, not-ascended body of Jesus of Nazareth would threaten our faith.

"If archaeologists were to discover the body of Jesus and were able to prove without a doubt that it was the actual body of Jesus of Nazareth, would you still be a Christian?" All of my friends said no, and I was astonished. For starters, let me say that I am a firm and resolute believer in the physical resurrection. I am convinced in my heart and my mind that the tomb was empty and is empty, and I believe in the physical resurrection of the dead at the last day when Jesus returns. (Call me old-fashioned, but that's what I believe.) At issue in our conversation wasn't whether Jesus was raised from the dead--we all agreed on that. What we were discussing was whether one needed to believe in the physical resurrection in order to be a Christian.

This gets to the heart of the issue that I believe is the most important, most substantial, and most controversial issue that contemporary Christianity is struggling with: how do we read the bible? Which parts are literal history and which parts are metaphorical truth? In which passages is the author allowed to exaggerate without defying the inerrancy of scripture (e.g. how many Israelites were freed from Egypt in the Exodus)? In which passages is the author allowed to estimate and not be wrong (e.g. the censuses in Numbers or the feeding of the 5,000)? Which stories were written to be stories, and which ones are we supposed to believe happened exactly as they are told to us? If we dismiss literality of the story of Job as an ancient teaching tool, what do we say about the flood? What about the walking on the water? The raising of Lazarus? The resurrection of Jesus? Where do we draw the line? How do we know what matters? And, most important of all, what happens to our faith if we let go of our literal beliefs?

What happens to Christianity without the physical resurrection? Can Christianity survive? Paul says no (1 Cor. 15:19). Lots of contemporary preachers and theologians say no. My friends, I think, would say no. Me? I'd like to say no, but I'm not sure if I should.

Thomas says, "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." Jesus, of course, calls him out, not even giving him the chance to voice that objection, saying, "Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe." That is enough for Thomas, who without touching the risen Jesus proclaims, "My Lord and my God!" Jesus' parting words are an encouragement to us--to those who live in a world that is governed by proof: "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."

When reaching out to the un-churched or the post-churched, setting up a belief in the physical resurrection of Jesus as a sine qua non for Christianity is counterproductive. "Hi, my name is Johnny Preacher. Have you heard about Jesus?" the misguided evangelist might say. "He's the one who came back from the dead on the third day. Doesn't that sound like something worth believing?"

Likewise, I think we set ourselves up for disappointment, disillusionment, and cultural irrelevance when we internalize the physical resurrection of Jesus as our own sine qua non. If we refuse to consider a Christianity without the empty tomb--if we push that thought out of our heads as an impossibility--then we face the inevitability of the moment when all the proof that is available to us will be insufficient. Sure, we should believe in the physical resurrection. I remain convinced. But to believe that everything would unravel without it is mistaken.

Jesus says, "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe." Exactly. We can't see. And we can't ask people to see until after they believe. Beholding the physical resurrection of Jesus is a product of faith--not a precondition of it. We need to stop worrying about a Christianity that is losing its grasp on the literality of empty tomb. If the church is boldly proclaiming the power of resurrection, the world will see that the tomb indeed is empty.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

No Silver or Gold

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

The Acts of the Apostles are just that—the acts that they did in the name of Jesus Christ as the gospel spread across the known world—and today’s lesson is the first of those. In Acts 2, we read about Pentecost—the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Peter and the other apostles. Immediately, they began to speak in other languages, and all of the residents and visitors in Jerusalem heard them speak in their own native tongues. Peter interrupts the disbelieving crowd to explain to them what this means—the first speech/sermon of Acts. And then, as soon as you turn the page, you get the story of the lame man (Acts 3:1-10).

Hear how the author (Luke) describes this individual. “A man lame from birth was being carried in. People would lay him daily at the gate of the temple called the Beautiful Gate so that he could ask for alms from those entering the temple.” His identity was inability. His life revolved around the generosity of others. I would guess that someone who had that kind of support—people who would carry him here or there every day—probably made a decent living begging for alms. But where was that living headed? What sort of career goals does a career beggar have? What kind of fulfillment comes from that?

As Peter and John walked by, the man asked them for alms. He kept his eyes down, humbly staring at the ground where they walked. He knew not to look them in the face because people don’t want to give money to someone who has too much pride. Pride doesn’t evoke pity. But Peter wouldn’t have it. “Look at us,” he commanded, and the beggar “fixed his attention on them, expecting to receive something.” But Peter surprised the man, not offering “silver or gold” but granting him healing “in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth.” Peter reached out his hand and pulled the man up, “and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong.” The man jumped up, stood on his own, and began to walk around, jumping and dancing and leaping about, praising God as he went. Had the man simply walked away, the miraculous healing would have been remarkable, but Luke wants us to see that the apostles had given him something more important than physical healing. They had used the name of Jesus to give this person fulfillment—a state of being Luke indicates when someone praises God (see also the healing of the bent-over woman in Luke 13).

I walk around in a clerical collar. I drive around town in a clerical collar. It’s pretty easy to see me and tell that I am in the church business. Although I prefer to wear a bowtie to work, I wear that collar as a testament to the one I serve—our Lord and savior, Jesus Christ. The collar gives me access to a lot of places—the ICU even when it isn’t visiting hours, the staff discount at local hospitals, the heart-warming exchange of eye contact and smiles with a total stranger, spontaneous questions about God and church and religion. But there’s one area of my life that I feel incredibly uncomfortable wearing a collar: meeting a beggar.

The other day, I was driving down Fourth Ave. and saw for the second time a woman sitting on a street corner holding a sign that read, “Homeless/ Out of Work Artist/Will Work for Food.” I’m fascinated with her sign—with what it means to advertise one’s self as an artist. Who stops and picks her up to do a portrait? When I’m wearing my collar and pass by someone, I feel the need to look them in the eye. No, I’m not going to give them any money or food, but I could offer a little bit of respect. I looked her way, but she stared down at the ground. She knows the routine. She knows what works.

What should I do? Stop and give her some money? Stop and engage her in conversation—let her tell her story? Offer her a job? Reach out my hand and say, “I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and be employed?” I’m a follower of Jesus Christ. I believe that the Holy Spirit gives his followers the ability to transform the lives of others. But how can I do that for her? How can I do that for any beggar?

I don’t know. This sermon doesn’t have a happy ending because I don’t know. You’ve heard me say that I’m tired of writing checks to put Band-Aids on people’s deeper financial problems. I certainly don’t make a habit of tossing change to someone—in fact I have a policy against it. I want to be in the transformation business. I think that’s my job. I think it’s your job, too. That’s what we are called to do. I think our life is supposed to have just as dramatic an effect on the lives of others as Peter’s miraculous healing had on the man lame from birth. We are supposed to help people find their fulfillment in God—a life-giving, life-changing fulfillment that comes through Jesus Christ. But what does that mean? What am I supposed to do? What are we supposed to do? Pray about it with me. Pray that God will help us see what we can do to bring transformation to those in need. Listen with me for the Spirit’s answer, and seek the courage to do it.

Tomb or Table?

This post originally appeared as an article in yesterday's parish newsletter, The View. To read the rest of the newsletter and to learn about St. John's, Decatur, click here.

Do you wish that you could have been there on the Day of Resurrection to peer into the empty tomb? Would you have wanted to stand there with the women as they heard the young man in white announce that Jesus had been raised? Have you dreamt of running alongside Peter and the beloved disciple to see for yourself that the only thing left in the tomb were the discarded grave cloths? Would you like to have that proof for yourself—to behold with your own eyes the miracle of Easter?

The historicity of the empty tomb has become a fashionable test for delineating between Christians who accept the supernatural claims of scripture as fact and those believe that such stories are merely ways of communicating the deeper truths to which they point. In short, if you can believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus then likely you can also believe in the other miracles of the bible. Some are quick to dismiss skeptics as thoroughly un-Christian while others are just as quick to disregard the claims of traditionalists as “primitive” or “na├»ve.” For what it’s worth, I think that it’s possible to do both—to hold fast to beliefs as ancient as the actually empty tomb and to emphasize the thoroughly modern metaphors that such historical claims represent. Either way, however, I don’t think the empty tomb is the right place for us to start.

Instead of peering into the tomb to see whether it is empty, I believe we need to look around the table to see whether Jesus is there.

The gospel lesson appointed for Wednesday in Easter Week is the story of the walk to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). On the afternoon of the same day that the empty tomb had been discovered, Jesus joined two disciples as they walked the seven miles between Jerusalem and the town of Emmaus. We are told, however, that the disciples “were kept from recognizing him.” Even when this stranger used the Hebrew scriptures to explain why Jesus needed to die before being raised on the third day, they still did not understand who he was or that he had risen. Then, as it was getting late, the disciples unknowingly urged their Lord to remain with them that evening, and, while sitting at table together, Jesus “took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.” In that moment, “their eyes were opened, and they recognized him.” But, as soon as they saw that it was Jesus, he vanished from their sight.

Every year, during the great fifty days of Easter, I read with amazement as the truth of the resurrection sinks into the hearts and minds of the disciples not at the empty tomb but later on—when Jesus meets them elsewhere. The Emmaus-bound disciples reported the news of the empty tomb to Jesus as they walked down the road, but they did so out of confusion rather than belief. Only when Jesus blessed and broke the bread and gave it to them could they see that he had indeed been raised. Likewise, in John’s account, Peter and the beloved disciple believed that Jesus’ body was not there, but “they [also] did not understand” what it was that had happened. Famously, as we will read this Sunday, Thomas refused to believe until he had the chance to touch the risen Jesus and feel the nail-marks for himself, yet, when Jesus gave that invitation to Thomas, it was enough to change his heart.

In all four gospel accounts, individuals who see the empty tomb require an additional encounter with the risen Lord before they understand what the resurrection means. No one comprehends the miracle of Easter simply by staring into the place where Jesus’ lifeless body once lay. Instead, they must meet the living, breathing, walking, talking, teaching, loving Lord whom they had known before his death. Why would it be any different for us? I do not know what I would have seen had I peered into the tomb on that Easter so long ago, but I do trust that even seeing it would not have been enough for me to believe. Like Peter, Thomas, Mary Magdalene, Cleopas, and the other disciples, if I want to know the resurrection, I must search for Jesus himself.
Jesus gathers us together at his table. Bread is taken, blessed, and distributed to us—to his disciples. Jesus himself commanded that we eat that symbolic meal in memory of his death, but he also joins us in Communion as the resurrected one. When you kneel and extend your hands to receive the morsel of bread, can you see that the tomb is empty? When you gather together with the other disciples, can you tell that he is there?