Sunday, April 29, 2018

Abiding in God’s love (1 John 4:7-12, 16-21)


To love God is to love who and what God loves. The deeper we grow in God’s love the more connected we become to everyone and everything else. And this love comes to fruition and expression in how we treat others and care for others. John makes it very clear in this passage that loving God and loving God’s world, loving our sisters and brothers in the human family are inseparably tied together. Because God dwells in every human being and every human being is sustained by the Spirit of God, every human being has a bit of God in them. Every human being bears God’s image, no matter how marred that image may be. When we love others, we are loving God.

God is Love, says the writer of this passage. Most of our beliefs about God are like fingers pointing at the moon. The moon is so much bigger than what we see with our eyes from this vantage point, from this earth looking up. It’s even more so with God. When Jesus talked about God he used images and symbols and told stories. How can any human know fully or completely what God is like? So we use images and stories to try to see a particular aspect or characteristic of God.

But the writer here is bold enough to say, God is Love. For this biblical writer and his faith community love is not just one feature or characteristic of God. For this community love is the essential thing – the essence of God, the heart of God, the soul of God. Love is the power of God that motivates us and empowers us to be better persons – to overcome our negative attitudes and habits, to be less selfish and driven by our ego, and to be more compassionate and merciful and gracious. 

God’s love is an all-encompassing, all-embracing love and it always moves us outward and beyond the limits that we tend to put on it. Of course, none of us will ever love perfectly, nor can we possibly express our love to the degree that God loves each of us. We are all God’s children and God’s love is a first love. The late Henri Nouwen puts it this way: We are the Beloved. We are intimately loved long before our parents, teachers, spouses, children, and friends loved us or wounded us. That’s the truth of our lives. . . . That’s the truth spoken by the voice that says, “You are my Beloved.” I think the major theme of most of Nouwen’s writings is about helping his readers learn how to hear that voice. 

God loves all God’s children unconditionally and eternally. None of us can love like that. As a human being not even Jesus of Nazareth could love to that degree, though he clearly was far more advanced in loving than we are, and his life as portrayed in our scriptures becomes for us the definitive human expression of God’s love. But all of us are limited in how we express God’s love, and we are simply not capable of loving everyone in equal measure, nor are we capable of completely grasping and experiencing God’s love. And when you read all of 1 John where these wonderful passages on God’s love are found, it is clear (at least to me anyway) that even John and his church who had such insight into God’s love struggled with this too, because John says some other things in this short letter that seem like a contradiction of what he says here. We all struggle with trying to understand and live out God’s love.

Maybe it will be possible in the next life to more completely experience and incarnate God’s love. Jesus, on one occasion, seems to suggest that in the life or age to come we would not have the same kind of possessive relationships we have in this life. Maybe you recall in the Gospels the time when the Sadducees (the priestly party of Judaism) attempt to trap Jesus by describing a scenario where a woman marries seven brothers in succession. The question is asked: Whose wife will she be in the resurrection? Now, the reason they asked that question is that they were trying to refute the idea of resurrection. Jesus says in response that in the resurrection we “neither marry nor are given in marriage” (Luke 20:35). Jesus seems to be saying that in the state of resurrection, at the next level of consciousness, in that advanced state of reality there will be no possessive, exclusionary relationships. Our experience will be more inclusive and unitive. We will be more deeply related and connected to everything and everyone.

Maybe this was what Jesus was getting at in his response to his mother and brothers who tried to coercively get him to drop his mission and come home. We can’t blame them for trying. They knew the Jewish authorities had already started plotting how they could get rid of Jesus. They feared for his life. Do you remember Jesus’ response? When Jesus was told that his mother and brothers and sisters were seeking him he asked, “Who are my mother and brothers and sisters?” Then, looking around at everyone present he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers and sisters. Whoever does the will of God is family.” I don’t think Jesus was being disrespectful. I think he was operating out of a different level of consciousness than most everyone else. I think he knew and experienced at a much deeper level than any of us here today just how all-embracing and all-inclusive God’s love is.

In this life we have to have some boundaries. There are limits on the degree to which we can love. But the Spirit of God is always compelling us to be more embracing, more encompassing, more inclusive and less possessive. And the Spirit does this “nudging along” in whatever ways the Spirit can use to move beyond us where we are, so that we are growing and enlarging in our capacity to love. 

In the film version of the story The Great Gatsby, Gatsby goes to great extremes to prove his love for Daisy. The narrator tells us that everything he did—the house, the parties, all of it—he did for Daisy. His love for Daisy was a great love, it was an enduring love, but it was a tainted love and a possessive love. It was a love born out of fear and insecurity and mixed with greed and selfish ambition. He didn’t think she would truly love him unless he proved himself, unless he was rich, powerful, and successful. So his love was a very skewed love.

God’s love, on the other hand, is pure; it’s not tainted or twisted by ego. All human love has some measure of possessiveness and exclusion attached. It’s inevitable. In marriage, for example, we pledge loyalty and faithfulness to our spouse. We become bound by a covenant that excludes others. The marriage covenant is an exclusive covenant right? It is a necessary exclusion; necessary for a healthy, flourishing marriage. But this can turn dark and go awry.

There is a scene where Gatsby and Daisy confront Tom. Tom was married to Daisy. And Daisy doesn’t want to do this, but Gatsby is pushing and demanding. Gatsby, fueled by his ego, presses Daisy to tell Tom that she never loved him, that she only loved Gatsby, that even when she was married to Tom she never loved him. But she did love him. So she could not do that.

By contrast, God’s love is an infinitely expansive and deep love that extends to all God’s children equally. Anytime we think that God loves our group more than others we have seriously misunderstood and misinterpreted our experience of God’s love. We project our limitations on to God. And often what we project is rooted in the ego. We want to think that we are more special than others. But when God’s love fills us and flows through us it always moves us outward, breaking down walls and barriers, leading us to be more hospitable, accepting, welcoming, and affirming, more open, receptive, self-giving, and attentive to others, which, of course, is how the Spirit led Jesus.    

John tells us that God’s love dispels fear.  John says, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love cast out fear; for fear has to do with punishment.” You don’t need to be afraid of God. One might interject here: But what about all those texts, particularly in the OT, that admonish us to fear God? Well, you know the biblical writers struggled to put all this together just the way we do. They were just as human as we are. But that said, some of those passages that admonish the reader to fear God are talking about reverencing or respecting or trusting God, rather than being afraid of God.

John says that fear has to do with punishment, and when we are abiding in God’s love we don’t have to fear being punished. But in another sense, even if we are punished, we don’t have to fear it. And the reason we don’t have to fear it is because God’s punishment, whatever that may be, would not be for the purpose of condemnation, but restoration and reconciliation and redemption. God will never abandon any of God’s children. The door is always shut from our side, not God’s side. God is the waiting Father of Luke 15 who runs to embrace the child the moment he sees his child coming home. And God never ever withdraws the invitation to come home. I would bet my very life on that.

Wendell Berry’s novel, A World Lost, is the story about a family coping with the death of one of their own. In the final chapter, Berry reflects on the manner of man he was. This meditation gives way to a reflection on death as a pathway into the light. Berry writes, “I imagine the dead waking, dazed, into a shadowless light in which they know themselves altogether for the first time. It is a light that is merciless until they can accept its mercy; by it they are at once condemned and redeemed. It is Hell until it is Heaven. Seeing themselves in that light, if they are willing, they see how far they have failed the only justice of loving one another; it punishes them by their own judgment. And yet,” says Berry, “in suffering that light’s awful clarity, in seeing themselves within it, they see its forgiveness and its beauty, and are consoled. In it they are loved completely . . .” What Berry is saying is that the light of God is a blinding light before it is an illuminating light. Berry is saying the fire of God can be painful, but it is a purifying fire.

Berry says it’s only hell until it is heaven. Hell, however we may experience it, is not forever. Heaven is forever. Heaven is where we are going. Think how this understanding of God’s love casts out all fear. You don’t fear God’s punishment, because you know that whatever it involves, it will make us a better person. If we accept this understanding of God’s love then some of these biblical images that preachers have used for years to instill the fear of hell in people take on a completely different meaning. The furnace of fire where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth becomes a furnace that does not burn up the person, but burns up the greed and hate and selfish ambition that has been consuming the person. The “weeping and gnashing of teeth” is the temporary struggle and suffering we go through that is the prelude to the joy and gratitude that comes from God’s healing and redemption. John says, “There is no fear in love, and perfect love, mature love casts out all fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection/maturity in love.” Can we trust in the greatness of God’s love that frees us from all fear. None of us need to be afraid of God. Fear of punishment will never heal or liberate or transform a person. As John suggests in another passage it’s only when we can see how beautiful and immense God’s love really is will we be changed by that love.

What will it take for you and me to see, to experience, to enter more fully into the unconditional love of God? Perhaps the story of Philip and the Ethiopian we read earlier is suggestive. In that story Philip is led by the Spirit into an encounter with this brother who is traveling a wilderness road. The wilderness road is symbolical of the journey that we all must take. Every spiritual journey involves the wilderness road. The man is reading the Hebrew scriptures but he does not understand what he reading. And he doesn’t pretend to. That’s important. He is seeking truth and understanding, and ready to admit he has a long way to go. He is seeking God. He is open and ready to learn and to become more than what he is.

To experience God’s love we must want to experience God’s love. We must realize our need to be changed by God’s love and desire to become more loving like God. We must be honest enough to admit how unloving we sometimes are. And we must be willing to walk the wilderness road. We don’t need to know where it will take us. We only need to trust that as we walk this path God will lead us into those experiences and encounters that will help us to see more clearly just how great and liberating God’s love is. We must be willing to be immersed in the healing, purifying, life-giving waters of the Divine Spirit who will lead us into the transforming reality of divine love, which is what baptism symbolizes.

The wilderness road is not a safe road. There’s a lot of uncertainties and dangers on the way. There are places where the terrain is treacherous and the journey difficult. There are times when you will question whether the journey is worth it, because you don’t even know where you are going. There are places on the wilderness road where you feel lost and alone. But deep in your heart you know that it’s the only road that will take you home, even though you don’t even know what or where home is. But something in your gut tells you that on the wilderness road you will find it – it will lead you there. Are you ready sisters and brothers? Are you willing to trust God and trust the journey?

O God, we know that the many experiences we have had in our lives – in our families, our relationships, our opportunities or lack thereof – both negative and positive – have had a profound impact on where we are right now. Some of that we have had no control over. In order to experience your love more fully there are things we need to unlearn and let go of. We know we can’t hunker down where we are, where we feel safe. We have to explore, we have to venture out, we have to take a journey that will lead us into some unpleasant and difficult places. Help us, O Lord, to take that leap of faith. To trust that you will be with us. Growing in your love is not an easy thing, but it’s what we are all made for. And we know that we will never find meaning and joy apart from your love. Give us the courage to say “yes” to that journey this day and every day. Amen.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

What the world needs now (1 John 3:16-20; John 10:11-18)


Our Gospel reading is part of the parable of the good shepherd where the actions of the good shepherd are contrasted with those of the hired hand. The contrast is based on how each one responds to dangers that threaten the lives of the sheep. The good shepherd is willing to lay down his life in protecting and caring for the well-being of the sheep. The hired hand is ready to flee to save his own life if the threat becomes too real. The hired hand is not fully committed to the good of the sheep. The hired hand, unlike the good shepherd feels no sense of belonging or connection to the sheep. So he is out to preserve his own life rather than the lives of the sheep.

Now, one question that we have to ponder that makes a big difference in how we read and apply this parable relates to the identity of the sheep. Who are the sheep? I said last week that persons can read the same scriptures, but then interpret them and apply in completely different ways. Many Christians read this in an exclusive sense. The sheep are Christians or maybe even their particular group of Christians. I’m sure you have heart all the jokes about particular groups of Christians who think they are the only ones in heaven. Other Christians, like myself, give this a more inclusive interpretation. The text itself hints at this. The good shepherd says, “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.”

I read “this fold” to mean the Christian fold. The good shepherd has other sheep not of the Christian fold and they too are included in the one flock. They do not employ the same religious language and symbols as we do, but they also are sheep. Unlike the parable of the goats and sheep in Matthew 25 where a separation occurs, here there are no goats, we are all sheep. There’s a parable in Luke that we commonly call the parable of the good Samaritan. Clearly the Samaritan is one of God’s sheep. Jesus was speaking to his fellow Jews and was explaining what it means to love one’s neighbor. I suspect that most of Jesus’ Jewish audience had narrowly defined neighbor as a fellow Jew. Jesus wanted to  move them beyond their exclusive beliefs and practices. So to make his point in a provocative way, Jesus made the one doing the inclusive loving and caring a Samaritan, not a Jew. Now, Jesus, of course, knew quite will that many of the Jews and the Samaritans had a long standing feud going on, and many Jews considered the Samaritans their enemies, even more so than the Romans and vice versa. Jesus could have told the story as the good Jew who cares for a Samaritan, a person of a different race and religion. But Jesus told the story in a way that made the person who was of a different race and religion the hero in the story, the one who was the model of what it means to love one’s neighbor. In fact, he even included in the parable two highly regarded religious leaders among his own people, the Jews, a priest and Levite, and he made them negative examples of not loving one’s neighbor. You can imagine how that went over with his exclusively minded Jewish brothers. About the same way it goes over when I tell my exclusively minded Christian sisters and brothers that God has many other sheep not in the Christian fold, even Muslims, some of whom may be better at loving their Christian neighbor than us Christians. That goes over with my fellow Christians, I’m sure, about the same way Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan went over with his fellow Jews.

Martin Buber was a great Jewish philosopher who said, “I do not believe in Jesus, but I believe with Jesus.” Ghandi said basically the same thing in different way. John Philip Newell, in a wonderful book titled “The Rebirthing of God,” asks with regard to the statement by Buber, “What if Christianity had got that one right? What if we had realized long ago that the important thing is not getting the world to believe what we believe, getting others to subscribe to our particular beliefs about Jesus? The important thing is inviting the world to believe with Jesus, to  believe in the way of love.” And that, sisters and brothers, is the basic difference between an exclusive understanding of the Christian faith and an inclusive understanding of the Christian faith.

An exclusive reading of the parable of the good shepherd in John 10 says that only Christians are God’s sheep and if you want to be one of God’s sheep then you have to become a Christian. An inclusive reading of John 10 says that we are all God’s sheep, and what is important is to respond to the voice of the good shepherd, which is the voice of love. Inclusivists, like myself, learn how to love primarily and preeminently through Jesus, but not exclusively through Jesus. And we believe that anyone who loves one’s neighbor as oneself is doing so by the Spirit of Christ whether they realize it or not.

Both the parable of the good shepherd and the passage in 1 John emphasize that the main quality or attribute of being a Christian is doing love. If there is anything more relevant or more important, I would be hard pressed to say what it is. What the world needs now is for more Christians to actually express Christian love. The reason I talk about “doing love” is because if love is not demonstrated in deed, then it’s not really Christian love.

Michael Jinkins, the president of Louisville Presbyterian Seminary, writing in the Christian Century three or four years ago told about a ministry developed by then Associate Pastor Bob Lively at First Presbyterian Church in Dallas. Lively had been walking along a sidewalk in front of the church one day when he passed a homeless man sleeping at the base of the church steps. Lively walked into a colleague’s office and said, “That’s my Lord out there.” Then he, and his colleagues and congregational leaders began to ask themselves what they could do to address the problem. Over the next few years, the Stew Pot ministry was formed, which fed the homeless a meal every day and provided medical care and social services. Later they also offered educational and recreational programs to children and youth.

Jenkins said that the young people from the congregation that he was serving at the time helped with the Stew Pot ministry, as did their parents and others in his congregation. Over the years, Jinkins noticed that many of the youth who participated in the Stew Pot ministry pursued careers as social workers, teachers, and counselors, and many served as leaders of conscience in their congregations and communities. Jenkins recalls a message on the church sign of First Presbyterian Dallas, the home of the Stu Pot ministry that read: “Justice is love distributed.” Obviously, justice here is restorative justice, not retributive justice.” Unfortunately, many Christians have never even heard of restorative justice. When they hear the word justice in a religious context they think of retribution and judgment. At one time that’s what I thought, because that’s all I knew. Restorative justice is about lifting people out of poverty, liberating the oppressed, empowering the downtrodden, and doing what can be done to change the systems that help create and keep people poor, oppressed, downtrodden.  Restorative justice is about working for a just and fair world. Jenkins said of that congregation, “They had seen justice in personal terms, as an extension of love, as a distribution of God’s love, and they came to understand love as something tangible and powerful.”

The writer of 1 John and the faith community he represents clearly understand that Christian love is something tangible and powerful. The writer asks, “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” Christian love is not primarily a feeling or emotion. It is rooted in action, not in mere confessions or claims. John says, “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” Truth is love in action. Truth in John’s writings is not doctrinal or propositional, it is proportional – that is, it is proportional to the degree that love is demonstrated and expressed in concrete and tangible ways.

When the writer says, “let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action” he is not suggesting that we not use words. He is not denying the power of words. Words of acceptance, words of compassion, words of hospitality, caring, empathizing words can be powerful expressions of love. However, if our actions and deeds do not back up our words, and that’s the point the biblical writer is making, then our words could possibly do more harm than good. Our words, then, become meaningless and hypocritical. But when our words are grounded in authentic service and action, then our words become concrete expressions of love.

Both passages – 1 John and the parable of the good shepherd – draw upon Jesus’ self-giving unto death as the Christian’s ultimate example of love. Jesus was willing to die for God’s cause and give up his life in the work of healing and liberating people from the sins of society and from their own sins, from injustice and from their own negative, life-diminishing patterns and behaviors. The writer of 1 John says that because Jesus laid down his life for us we ought to lay down our lives for one another.

I know that passages like this where we are exhorted to love like Jesus can be daunting. Are we willing to risk jobs, relationships, money, even our very lives in order to love like Jesus? We may feel like throwing up our hands in despair: Who can do this? Who can love like this? I can’t. Maybe this is why John encourages us by telling us that when our feelings condemn us, that when our hearts judge us, when we feel like we have let Jesus down or our brothers and sisters down, we need to remember that God is greater than our hearts. God does not abandon us or forsake us. God’s Spirit abides in us still and inspires us to keep trusting and becoming and growing in our capacity to love.

If we grow at all in the love of Jesus we will have to deal with hurt and personal offense. Our love cannot be selective. We are not called upon as followers of Jesus to just love those who appreciate what we do or who love us back. Jesus even instructs us to love our enemies – those who wish us harm and may actually do us harm.

A family is out for a drive on a Sunday afternoon. It is a pleasant afternoon, and they relax at a leisurely pace down the road. Suddenly, the two children begin to beat their father on the back, “Daddy, Daddy, stop the car! There’s a kitten back there on the road!” / The father says, “So, we’re having a drive.” / “But daddy, you must stop and pick it up.” / “I don’t have to stop and pick it up.” / “But if you don’t, it will die.” / “We don’t have room for any more animals. We have a zoo already. No more animals.” / “But Daddy, are you going to just let it die?” / “Be quiet, children, we are going to have a pleasant drive.” / “But Daddy, we never thought you would be so mean and cruel as to let a kitten die.”

Then, the definitive word. Mother turns to her husband and says, “Dear, you’ll have to stop.” So he turns the car around and pulls off the road. “You kids stay here in the car. I’ll see about it.” / He goes out to pick up the little kitten. It’s skin and bones, full of fleas. When he reaches down to pick it up, with its last bit of energy the kitten bristles, baring tooth and claw, and it scratches him. He picks up the kitten by the loose skin at the neck, brings it over to the car, and says, “Don’t touch it. It’s probably got leprosy.” 

Back home they go. The children give the kitten several baths, about a gallon of warm milk, and plead with Dad, “Can we let it stay in the house just tonight? Tomorrow we’ll fix it a place in the garage.” By this time the father is whipped, “Sure, take my bedroom; the whole house is already a zoo.” They fix it a comfortable bed. Several weeks pass. Then one day the father walks in, feels something rub against his leg, looks down, and here is this cat. He reaches down as he checks to see that no one is watching. When the cat sees his hand, it does not bare its claws and hiss; instead it arches its back to receive a caress.

Now, is that the same cat? Well, it is, but it is isn’t. It’s not the same frightened, hurt, angry kitten on the side of the road is it? And we all know what made the difference. Love can do that. That is the power of love – to heal, to free, to make whole, to redeem, to reconcile. But it doesn’t always work. Because love is not always received. Love is not always reciprocated. Some people have been so scarred and hurt and beaten down by life that they don’t know how to receive and give love. And some folks who have had every privilege in the world are so narcissistic that all they basically know how to do is use people.

When Fred Craddock told that story about the kitten, he concluded by saying, “Not too long ago God reached out a hand to bless me. When God did, I looked at that hand; it was covered with scratches. Such is the hand of love, extended to those who are bitter.” When we act through the love of Jesus, there are times we will get scratched. Because the love of Jesus is not selective. It is extended to the frustrated, the bitter, the angry, the disappointed, the depressed, and the hateful. It does not show partiality. When we love with the love of Jesus we will acquire some scratches, probably some scars. When we love all people, without differentiation and partiality, we can expect to get hurt.

Is it any wonder why so many Christians have made Christianity primarily about believing the right things, rather than loving with the love of Jesus? What if more Christians today would adopt this understanding of truth? Truth would not be something you look for in a creed or in a statement of beliefs. It would be found in the ways we love one another, the ways we listen to one another, support one another, talk to one another, and serve one another. It would be found in the humility and honesty and integrity of compassionate action on behalf of others, which can be expressed in numerous ways: By fixing a meal for someone who is sick. By visiting someone who is lonely. By purchasing some groceries for a family you know or for the food pantry. Or, it could be demonstrated by standing along with and standing up for an undocumented person, who our government has made into a scapegoat.

One final thought: If we are going to enlarge our capacity to love, and be able to some degree to reflect the love of Jesus, then we must be able to love ourselves. Desmond Tutu puts it this way: “When we begin to realize that God loves us with our weakness, with our vulnerability, with our failures,” then, “we can love others with their failures and weakness.” Tutu says, “God’s love for us and our love for others is the single greatest motivating force in the world.”

O God, may we experience anew just how deep and wide, how magnanimous and inclusive your love actually is. And empower us in whatever ways we are able to mirror your love in our relationships and service. In the name of Jesus, our Christ and Lord, I pray. Amen.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Some Essentials of a Good Conversion (1 John 3:1-2; Luke 24:36-48)


I heard about a lady who decided to get a pet after her husband died. The house seemed so empty and she wanted some company. So she went to the pet store and the pet store owner talked her in to getting a parott. She brought it home and after a few days this parrot started talking--but this foul had a terribly foul mouth. She could not believe the words that came out of the bird’s mouth--blankety blank blank after blank. She tried everything she could think of it to cure it. She would squirt it with a water bottle. She would take its food away for a little while. She tried throwing a blanket over the cage. And the pet store would not take it back. 

One afternoon the pastor called and wanted to stop in for a few minutes to visit and have prayer with her. In her haste to straighten the house, she forgot about the parakeet. Just as the pastor was leaving the parakeet billowed out the most horrendous string of curse words you ever heard. She was so upset that as soon as the pastor stepped out of the door she ran to the cage, grabbed hold of the bird – she was so mad. She opened the freezer door and placed the bird inside thinking she would let that bird cool off for a minute or two. Then, the phone rang and she forgot about the parakeet. When she finally remembered and opened the door the parrot was almost frozen stiff. There were ice cycles hanging off its feathers. Shivering the bird says, "I reeeeeppppent. Then the bird asks, “WWWhat ddddid that Turkey do?" 

The life of Christian discipleship is about conversion, that is, it is about change. The kind of change that makes us more like God. This change does not happen through fear. Like the parakeet we may decide to amend our ways because we fear what will happen if we don’t. But fear cannot bring about any deep personal transformation.

In the little letter of 1 John, the writer says that God is love. And there is no fear in love, but rather perfect (or mature) love casts out fear (1 Jn. 4:16-17). Fear does not produce love. It might produce conformity to a behavioral code, but that is not Christian conversion. Christian conversion results in loving God and loving others the way Jesus did, who is our model and guide. Fear of punishment does not produce love. The writer of 1 John says that fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached completion in love (4:18).

Authentic conversion is grounded in the assurance that we are loved as God’s children. The writer of 1 John says in the passage we read earlier (3:1-2), we are God’s children now. This very moment. It’s all grace and gift. There is nothing we can do to merit this relationship. It’s our birthright. We claim this relationship by faith. But whether we claim it or not, it’s still true. We are God’s sons and daughters. Faith involves trusting in this relationship and being faithful and committed to this relationship. But faith doesn’t merit or earn us the relationship. The relationship is pure grace.

We don’t make our children earn the right to be our children do we? We instruct and guide and pray and hope that our children will become caring, compassionate, loving persons. But regardless, they are our children and we are going to love them no matter what. Why would we ever think it’s any different for God?

Some folks are nurtured into this awareness that they are God’s daughters and sons, and may have not thought of themselves in any other way. From the time they were toddlers they were told how God loves them. They believe that and trust that. Others may have had some religious or spiritual experience that brought this awareness to light rather suddenly. None of our histories or experiences are exactly the same. However, the one thing that is the same is that an authentic Christian conversion is rooted in love, not fear. It is grounded in the awareness that we are God’s beloved daughters and sons.

The passage we read in Luke highlights two essential processes that are a vital part of any genuine conversion – repentance and forgiveness. God’s forgiveness is unconditional. Luke makes this point in his Gospel when Jesus forgives those who crucify him. There is no hint that those who killed Jesus ever repented of what they did, but Jesus still forgives them, and in doing so embodies the forgiveness of God. Unconditional forgiveness, however, doesn’t mean everyone automatically enters into the experience of God’s forgiveness. Forgiveness can go unappropriated, like an unopened Christmas gift. If I don’t think I need forgiveness, then how can I ever receive forgiveness and rejoice in it. An important part of appropriating forgiveness, which Jesus emphasizes, is our need to forgive others. We find this in the model prayer: “Forgive us our sins, our failures, our offenses, as we forgive those who have failed, offended, and sinned against us.” Forgiveness is a two way street. If we do not have a forgiving spirit and are not willing to forgive others, there’s no way we can enter into the experience of the forgiveness that God has granted us.

Repentance is the other process highlighted by Luke. Repentance involves a turning around and a change of mind, a change of attitude and direction. The Hebrew word that is translated by the English word repent means “to turn or return.” It’s often used in connection with Israel, God’s covenant people, and their need to turn back or return to God. In the OT, when Israel is unfaithful to their covenant relationship with God, God would raise up prophets to call Israel back, to repent, to return to a relationship of faithfulness.

The Greek word that is translated “repent” in the New Testament primarily means to change one’s mind or attitude. One commentator points out that the Greek root word actually means “to go beyond the mind that we have?” The mind that we have is the mind that has been formed by being socialized into our culture, into our particular place and time in history. Our way of thinking, our attitudes, our priorities, our values are often shaped by the culture in which we live. When we commit to follow Jesus we commit to allow the Spirit of Christ to shape our way of thinking, our attitudes, our priorities, and our values, rather than our culture. In this way, we go beyond the mind-set of our culture and we allow God to form in us the mind of Christ.

Both repentance and forgiveness are processes, not one-time single actions. They are processes that involve letting go of the negative, destructive, and life-diminishing stuff that keeps us stuck in the same place. These processes cannot be forced upon us. We have to be ready and willing to engage and participate in them.

Sue Monk Kid tells about going into her young daughter’s room and noticing that she had went to sleep clutching a half-eaten grape lollipop that her grandmother had given her on her birthday. It was an all-day sucker that had turned into a two day sucker. Now it made a purple splotch on her pillowcase. She managed to pry her daughter’s fingers away from the lollipop, and then she tossed it in the trash. The next morning her daughter confronted her in a blaze of righteous anger. She said to her mother, “But it was mine, and I wasn’t ready to throw it away.” When it comes to letting go –whatever it is – an unforgiving spirit, a grudge, an addiction, a prejudice, or even a lollipop, we have to be ready and willing to let go and give it up.

Any time someone offends us or hurts us, we are faced with the issue of letting go of our desire and need for revenge and retaliation. Or anytime we hurt or offend someone, we are faced with the question of whether we will let go of our pride and ego, and be willing to admit the hurt we have caused, and be humble enough to seek their forgiveness. And, of course, the greater the offense and the hurt, the more difficult it is to let go.

Jean Vanier, the founder of the L’Arche’ communities, wrote about being in Rwanda shortly after the genocide. A young woman came up to him and told him that seventy-five members of her family had been assassinated. I can’t imagine and don’t want to imagine what that would be like? I’m not sure I could ever recover from something like that. She said, “I have so much anger and hate within me and I don’t know what to do with it. Everybody is talking about reconciliation, but nobody has asked any forgiveness. I just don’t know what to do with the hate that is within me.”

What do you say to a young girl who finds herself all alone because all her family has been killed? Her problem, wrote Vanier, was the guilt she felt because she didn’t know how to forgive. So she got caught up in a world of hate and depression. Vanier said to her: “Do you know that the first step towards forgiveness is ‘no vengence’? He asked her: “Do you want to kill those who killed members of your family?” She responded: “No, there is too much death.” Vanier said, “Well, that is the first step in the process of forgiveness”

I can’t imagine having to struggle with the demons this young lady has had to contend with. But she decided to let go of any desire for vengeance, and she took the first step toward forgiveness. I suspect that her capacity to forgive will be a key ingredient in her own, personal healing. Only her capacity to forgive could give her any peace of mind.

A key part of this process of letting go in order to grow is knowing what we need to let go of and knowing the ways in which we need to change. Being humble, honest, open, and willing to change is critical to the process of conversion.

The first part of the passage in Luke today is Luke’s version of the story about Thomas in John’s Gospel that we looked at last week. In John it’s Thomas who doubts, but here in Luke it’s all of them. Jesus says to them, “Why are you full of fear? Why do you hesitate and waver?” Then Luke has this interesting description. He says they were joyful but still disbelieving. They were not ready to fully trust Christ and be committed. Then Luke offers this mysterious explanation of what happens to move them from a state of non-commitment to commitment. He says that Christ “opened their minds to understand the scriptures,” then they were able to let go of their old ways of reading and interpreting their sacred writings, and were able to read them in light of their new experience with Christ.

Persons who get stuck in negative beliefs, attitudes, or patterns of behavior, who cling to their prejudices and biases, and are unwilling to change, will use scripture to reinforce their biases and their negative beliefs and actions. On the other hand, persons who are undergoing a process of conversion, persons who are willing to change, can read the very same scriptures, but they will hear in those scriptures the living voice of Christ calling them to let go of all the unloving stuff in their lives and to participate in the healing, liberating, transforming work that Christ is doing in the world.

And you know sisters and brothers Christ will spread love and grace through any willing instrument he can find to do it. Christ will use anyone, Christian or non-Christian, who is vulnerable enough to love.  I suspect (I don’t have statistics for this) that the percentage of Christians actually undergoing the process of conversion is not much different that the percentage of non-Christians undergoing the process of conversion, even though the Christian religion provides us with all these great resources for conversion. Just consider today how many Christians end up on the wrong side of history, the wrong side of social justice and the common good, when it comes to the critical issues of our day. We should be on the cutting edge, leading the way into positive change.

What will it take to convert us? To get us to open our minds and hearts to the greatness of the love of Christ? Maybe it comes down to these kind of questions? To what degree do I really want to change? Can I be honest enough to admit how much I need to change? Do I want to be like the Jesus the Gospels tell us about- full of grace and compassion? Or do I just want to preserve the status quo and my biases and those of my group? Do I really want to overcome the negative stuff in my life that keeps me from loving like Jesus?

Living Christ, Holy Spirit, Everlasting Father, open our eyes and ears. Open our minds and hearts. Form Christ in us. Amen.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Real Christians forgive


For a good number of years my dominant image of God was that of a Judge who presided in a heavenly courtroom and demanded payment from his human creation for breaking his law. The God I imagined was bound to the law and intolerant toward sin. God demanded punishment – by death. So God sent Jesus, God’s unique Son, to die, so that God’s justice would be satisfied, and God would be free to release the rest of humankind from the penalty and punishment they deserve for having transgressed God’s law and offended God’s justice.

But then, at some point on my journey when I gave myself permission to question and even doubt, I began to wonder why God’s unique Son would have to die such a cruel death by execution in order to satisfy some broken law, particularly since God is the one who makes the law in the first place. God can change a law anytime God wants to, I reasoned. So why would God require this sort of tit-for-tat, quid-pro-quo justice that would demand the sacrifice of a human life? I began to wonder how this arrangement was that much different than what primitive peoples did when they offered up human lives, and then later, animals to appease the anger of their gods?

These questions led to more questions. So I started down that “slippery slope.” In one sense it was and continues to be a liberating ride, sort of like the kid who finally gets up enough nerve to ride the roller coaster and afterward wants to ride it over and over again. But in other ways it was and continues to be a painful ride, because of those who want me to keep it to myself. Sharing my journey has come with both personal and institutional costs (we have lost church members on account of it – but gained some too). Anyone who has traveled this path knows, as some of you know, that once you give yourself the freedom to question, and once you discover liberating and transforming truth, there’s no going back.

As I reflected on the stories of Jesus with new understanding I wondered how I could have missed the central message that makes the good news good news. I realized that Jesus’ dominant image of God was not a God who sits upon a judgment throne far above his subjects demanding punishment for breaking the law. Rather, Jesus’ dominant image of God was that of an “Abba” – a loving father or mother who is intimately aware and engaged in the life of his or her children. I realized then that Jesus considered all people to be children of God, worthy of love.

God forgives because God loves us with an eternal love, and wants nothing more than to be in relationship with us. When Jesus was criticized for eating with all manner of people, tax collectors and other “sinners” whom the religious leaders condemned as lawbreakers, Jesus said, “Go learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’” (Matt. 9:13). The gospel of Jesus is not about a sacrificial offering required to pay off a divine penalty. Rather, it is about sacrificial love committed to the good of others, even to the point of death on a cross (death by Roman crucifixion). This is how Jesus’ life and death constitute an “atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:7-12). We now “live through him” (1 Jn. 4:9) by loving others the way he loves all of us.

Maybe you have seen the roadside billboard that reads:  Real Christians, love their enemies. I don’t know who is responsible for that sign, but when I first saw it I said, “Yes, finally, the gospel of Jesus.” God unconditionally forgives us and commands us to do the same to others because God wants us to live free of our grievance stories, and free of our need for revenge and retaliation. There is no personal healing or relational healing without forgiveness.

Forgiveness, of course, is not the same thing as trust. And trust is a necessary ingredient in any kind of restored relationship. Often, restitution is a vital part of reestablishing trust. But forgiveness itself is pure grace. 

The gospel of Jesus is captured best in the parable of the waiting father in Luke 15. The father has already unconditionally forgiven his wayward son. When he sees him in the distance returning home, he runs out to embrace him, weeping tears of joy. Then he throws an extravagant welcome home party.

The gospel of Jesus is not about retributive justice. It’s about restorative justice that restores relationships and works for the common good of all people. It’s about good news for the poor, freedom for captives, liberation for the oppressed, sight for the blind, and spreading grace like scattering seeds (Luke 4:16-21).

(This piece was first published in the Frankfort State Journal)

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Learning from a Fellow Doubter (a sermon from John 20:19-29)

If you are familiar with this story about Thomas, you might remember this as the story of doubting Thomas. In fact, the expression “doubting Thomas” has become something of a cliché. But it’s not really accurate. It is true that most of our English versions use the word “doubt.” Our text reads that Jesus says to Thomas: “Stop doubting and believe.” But what he actually says is, “Do not be unbelieving, but believing.” I would paraphrase it this way: Stop hesitating, stop wavering, stop straddling the fence, be committed. In order to understand the ins and outs of doubt, the positive and negative aspects of doubt, we have to understand what faith is.

There are three components to authentic faith and when you understand these three components, then you will understand why I paraphrase Jesus as saying, “Stop hesitating. Be committed.” What we normally think of when we use the term belief is just one component of what faith is. This involves believing intellectually, giving mental assent to something. Belief is one component of faith. The second component is trust – trust that results in action. If I tell my son, “I know where a big bass lurks and this is how you will have a chance to catch her.” (By the way the bass that rule a water system are always female, male bass are puny little things). Now if I share this with my son, and if he trusts me, he will go to that spot and he will do what I told him to do, if he trusts me. That’s what it means to trust. The third component of faith is faithfulness. The Greek word can be translated either “faith” or “faithfulness.” There is a big debate going among NT scholars about the phrase “faith in Christ” that Paul uses several places in his letters, particularly in connection with his teaching on justification. There’s a growing number of scholars who say that phrase should be translated as the “faithfulness of Christ.” What Paul may have meant was, “We are put right with God through the faithfulness of Jesus” – a significant difference in meaning than saying we are put right by our faith in Jesus. I like to use the word commitment when I talk about faith because commitment is a word that embraces all three of these components – belief, trust, and faithfulness. To have authentic faith we need all three components.

Being a follower of Jesus requires all three components. I must believe that Jesus is someone to follow. I don’t need to believe everything some doctrinal statement says about Jesus. I don’t need to believe any particular theory of the atonement, or how his divinity relates to his humanity. I can believe and do believe certain things about Jesus, but many of these aren’t necessary in order to be a disciple of Jesus. What I need to believe is that the way of Jesus is a way that will lead me to know God and to participate in God’s good will for my life and the world. If I don’t believe that much, I will never follow Jesus. Then, I must trust enough to act. Here is where we usually talk about making a decision to be a disciple. Then, if I have truly trusted in Jesus, I will become faithful to the way of Jesus. So, belief, trust, and faithfulness must all be part of a genuine commitment to discipleship.

Now, what we believe about God, about Jesus, about how God works in our lives – all of that is important, but not in the way that many Christians think. Our beliefs can be healthy or unhealthy. There are droves of people walking away from the church today because they don’t buy in to the beliefs they are told they have to believe about God, or Jesus, or the Bible in order to be a Christian. For example, If you tell them that God tortures people in hell, and then you tell them that God is love, they say, “No way, you can’t have it both ways. I can’t believe that.” Then, if you tell them they have to believe that in order to be a Christian or a member of your church, their response is likely to be, “Then, I won’t be a Christian.” And many of these people who refuse to believe what they are told they have to believe are people working for social justice, they are standing with the dreamers, some are trying to take care of our planet, they oppose the exploitation of the earth’s resources. I have a lot in common with these folks. In fact, I suspect some of us here today have more in common with these folks than some Christians who think we don’t need to care about such things, and who think that these things are not part of the gospel.
 
So then, what we believe determines (or at the very least impacts) what we trust in and are faithful to. A person can believe in the values of equality, fairness, love of neighbor, compassion, humility, honesty, social justice, and the common good without actually attaching these values to the person of Jesus of Nazareth. There are people who believe in, trust in, and are faithful to these values who are members of other religious traditions or not affiliated with any religious tradition. And yet, because they are committed to these values, they reflect more of the way of Jesus than many Christians who do not embody these values. I personally, and hopefully most of you as well, attach these values to the person and life of Jesus of Nazareth, so that living out these values is part and parcel to our discipleship to Christ. Jesus was killed for living out these values and for speaking truth to power. And when God raised up Jesus, God validated and vindicated Jesus as the incarnation of these values. And that gives us hope that in time all these values that are nothing less than aspects of God’s love will prevail. Our Easter faith fuels and ignites this hope.

When Thomas becomes convinced that he had indeed “seen” Jesus alive, that God had raised Jesus, he says to Jesus, “My Lord and my God.” Now, what is really important for us to understand is that this glorious proclamation from Thomas is not a statement about the metaphysical nature of Jesus. This is not a propositional or doctrinal confession with regard to the divinity and the humanity of Jesus. This is a statement of commitment, and as such it is a statement of faith. In the Roman world of the first Christians both “Lord” and “God” were titles attributed to the Roman emperor. The emperor was known as “God manifest.” In that world, only Caesar was Lord. These early followers dared to protest and say: Caesar is not Lord. Neither Caesar, nor anyone or anything else is Lord. Jesus is Lord. So, to him and all that he stood for I am committed. My allegiance is to the way of Jesus and the values he embodied.” That’s what these early Christians meant when they said, “Jesus is Lord” or as hear in John’s Gospel, “Jesus is my God.” They were saying, “We are committed to all that Jesus stood for and died for.”

So, how does doubt play into this? How is it that doubt can be a good thing? I can share from my own journey.  I was taught a particular version of Christian faith and then told that I should never doubt or question what I was taught. That to doubt or question would not lead to a good place. I would fall down that “slippery slope” into the abyss of God’s disfavor. So, for a long time I didn’t question what I was taught, and I tried to stifle and suppress all doubts. But, at some point in my life, I realized that there was no guarantee that what I was taught was indeed the truth. Now please understand. I didn’t question the sincerity or the motives of those who taught me. They had good intentions. They believed they were teaching me the truth. They taught me what they had been taught. But, at some point my sense of what was true started to call into question some of my beliefs, and that led to doubt. It may have been around the time our second child was born. That experience may have been the experience that opened a crack in my defensive ego. It takes what it takes, right? Maybe, that was it, but I can’t say for sure.

Now, what I discovered is that doubt doesn’t have to be a negative thing at all. There were beliefs I held that I needed to question and doubt. That little bit of openness allowed me to hear and read and listen to others without a presupposed and predetermined mind-set of proving them wrong. I needed to doubt my belief in a vindictive, punitive God. I needed to doubt a system of faith that put me ahead of and made me superior to others, just because I believed “the right things.” I needed to doubt my belief that everyone had to be a Christian in order to be saved from their sins and to know God. I needed to doubt my very limited and narrow understanding of the gospel. I needed to doubt these things, in order to come to a more healthy, inclusive, transformative faith. The key to all of this was a willingness to hear, listen, and be provoked by others, without thinking I had to critique and correct them.  

In the movie, Bridge to Terabithia, ten-year-old Jess Aarons has his sense of what is true and real questioned and turned upside down by a free-spirited ten-year-old girl named Leslie Burke. In the woods adjoining their homes, an old dilapidated tree house becomes an invitation into the enchanted kingdom of Terabithia.

One Friday, when they’ve been rained out and cannot enter their magical world, Jess complains about Saturday’s chores and church on Sunday. Leslie asks Jess if she can come to church with him. Jess feels certain Leslie will hate it, but he takes her along. On the ride home with Jess and his little sister, May Belle, in the back of the truck a conversation develops. Leslie, who had never been to church before says, “That whole Jesus thing is really interesting isn’t it? . . . It’s really kind of a beautiful story.” May Belle interjects, “It ain’t beautiful. It’s scary! Nailing holes right through somebody’s hand.”

Then Jess chimes in, ‘May Belle’s right. It’s because were all vile sinners that God made Jesus die.” Leslie questions that part of the story. She asks, “You really think that’s true?” “It’s in the Bible,” responds Jess. Leslie, in a puzzled and questioning tone says, “You have to believe it, but you hate it.” Then she says, “I don’t have to believe it, and I think it’s beautiful.” May Belle jumps in, “You gotta believe the Bible, Leslie.” “Why?” asks Leslie. “Cause if you don’t believe in the Bible, God’ll damn you to hell when you die.”

Leslie is taken aback by such a dreadful image of God. She asks May Belle for her source. May Belle can’t come up with chapter and verse, so she turns to Jess, who can’t quote the Scripture either, but knows that it is somewhere in the Bible. “Well,” Leslie says, “I don’t think so. I seriously do not think God goes around damning people to hell. He’s too busy running all this.” With that Leslie raises her arms to include the sky and the trees and the wind and everything over the beautiful landscape through which they were driving.

Think about this. In this interchange Leslie calls into question three sacred beliefs that Jess and May Belle thought they had to believe. She doubted three things they thought they could not doubt. Three things that made church something to be dreaded and God to be feared. One, Leslie doubted that just because it’s in the Bible one has to believe it. Two, she doubted that God made Jesus die. And three, she doubted that God would punish people by sending them to hell. And in doubting these things she was free to “see” the whole Jesus thing with different eyes that made it in her words “beautiful.” Jess and May Belle didn’t see it as something “beautiful” at all, but she saw it as something beautiful  

This is my journey. I went from being like Jess and May Belle to being like Leslie when I started listening to other people, who, like Leslie, saw the whole Jesus thing with different eyes. When I was able to hear and listen to people like Marcus Borg and Richard Rohr talk about the story of Jesus from a different perspective, they and others gave me a whole new way of seeing, so that the good news really began to feel and look like good news. The gospel became something quite beautiful. Not something I had to believe in order to go to heaven and escape hell, but something that inspired me to want to become like this beautiful Jesus I was seeing again as for the first time. And that sisters and brothers, is what, as your pastor, I am doing my very best to try to help you see – just how beautiful this “whole Jesus thing” really is.  

One reason it’s important to believe in a beautiful Jesus (there are other reasons too, but one reason) is because God needs people like Jesus in the world. God needs image bearers. God needs people who will mirror this beautiful Jesus.

When Jesus appears to the disciples in this story he appears with greetings of peace, and then he issues a call, a charge, a commission that would send them out on a new mission. He says, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And then he breathes on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” In one sense they already had the Spirit. God was with them and in them. Here the point is made that the Holy Spirit is equivalent to the Spirit of Christ. What this says to us is that the same Holy Spirit that empowered Jesus in his teaching and healing and liberating work, the same Spirit that led Jesus to embrace and embody the values of mercy, compassion, grace, restorative justice, and unconditional love, is the very same Spirit who empowers us to reflect in our lives the same values, attitudes, and self-less service we see in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. In the language of Paul we are called to be the body of Christ in the world. We are called to bear witness to a beautiful Jesus by doing the best we can to live out the values and relationships and ideals that made Jesus beautiful.

Now, certainly doubt can be a negative force if it leads us to be cynical and indifferent and isolated. But doubt is not something we need to fear or avoid. It can be an instrument that leads us into a whole new way of seeing. A major theme throughout John’s Gospel relates to our capacity to see with new eyes.

Our Gospel story today ends with the concession that we are not all going to see Jesus in the same way. We may not see Jesus in the same way Thomas and the other disciples saw Jesus. And that’s okay. We can still be blessed, if our vision of Jesus inspires us to love like Jesus. Remember what Jesus said to his disciples: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you all believe the right things.” Wrong. What did he say? “If you have love for one another.” Doubt can be a good thing if it leads us to envision a beautiful Jesus who inspires us to love the way God so loves the world.

Our good and gracious God, I pray that more of us will not be afraid to question and doubt, but to allow our questions and doubts to lead us to a better place, where we serve you, not out of fear or mere obligation, but because we are inspired by the beautiful vision and life of the one we confess as Lord.  In his name I pray. Amen

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Easter Means Hope or "It takes what it takes" (John 20:1-20)


The resurrection of Jesus is a matter of faith. Perhaps you have heard Christian pastors or leaders argue that the resurrection of Jesus is the most clearly attested  event of history. That, of course, is not true. The Easter stories in our Gospels are stories of faith, not historical reports. There is no way to verify historically the resurrection of Jesus. What we can say historically is that some of Jesus’ closest followers, who participated in his mission, became convinced that God raised him from the dead.

All four of the Gospels give us an empty tomb story. There are certainly differences in the details, but they all build a story around the empty tomb. And three of the four Gospels, with the exception of Mark, give us appearance stories. Our Gospel story today combines the empty tomb story with an appearance story. Now, one  might think that appearance stories are stories only relevant to Jesus’ first disciples who actually knew him personally. That’s not true. Nor are appearance stories confined to sacred literature or a past era.  

Seminary professor and preacher, Tom Long tells about the time when, as a seminary student, he served an internship at a church where he provided pastoral care to families. One of the families under his charge was quite large, and their youngest child, Robert, had cerebral palsy. More often than not, when he visited the family they would be gathered together in a large group, at the dinner table or in the den, laughing and telling stories, but not Robert. Robert always seemed to be on the outside of those gatherings, watching the others.

On one occasion, it was just Dr. Long and the mother visiting together. After some small talk, she told him about something that had happened just a few days prior to his visit. She was sitting in the family room in the late afternoon, and Robert was standing in the darkness down the hall, watching from a distance. She felt what she described as a “strange shift in the room.” She looked up from her knitting, down the hallway toward Robert. She told Dr. Long that she saw Jesus with his arm around Robert’s shoulder. She looked away, looked again, and there was only Robert. But she was convinced that she saw Jesus. I suspect the same way these early disciples were convinced that they saw Jesus.

Dr. Long says that to this day he’s not sure what to make of it. One can’t prove or disprove these appearances.  At the time, he decided to psychoanalyze the event, thinking that she probably felt so guilty about the ways she and the family had excluded Robert that she was projecting her failings through the symbol system of the Christian faith. That was how Dr. Long, the seminary student, made sense of it. And yet, the mother was convinced that she saw Jesus. Does anyone have the authority and the right to deny her experience or to interpret her experience as a psychological projection? And after that experience, says Long, that mother was not the same. It was a personal experience, but it didn’t remain personal. She went to work in the community and started several programs for children with disabilities. Her experience inspired and empowered her for good. She became a force for good in her community.

These disciples who spoke of having seen Jesus alive, were the ones who had deserted him in death. They did not have the courage and the commitment to drink the cup he drank from or to be baptized with the baptism he was baptized with. And after his death they went into hiding fearful that what happened to Jesus would happen to them. So what was it that brought them out into the open, out of the darkness into the light? What was it that changed them? They had an experience or experiences that convinced them that God had raised up Jesus and that the Christ had forgiven them and had imparted to them a new mission. Their experience of the living Christ inspired, emboldened, and empowered them to fearlessly face the powers that be with a message of hope in Christ.

The first part of our text is John’s version of the empty tomb story. The second part is about Mary Magdalene, who according to John’s telling was the first to discover that the stone had been rolled away from the tomb. She was already burdened and overwhelmed with grief. Now, someone has stolen the body, she thinks. Surely she is at the brink of despair. And then John says she sees two messengers who ask her why she is weeping? After she answers the two messengers, she turns around and sees a man. It is Jesus, but she does not know it is Jesus. She assumes he is the gardener. She sees a man, but she doesn’t see Jesus. She does not know that it is Jesus.

Why is that? Is her grief just too great? Is the loss so painful that her mind and heart would simply not allow her to recognize Jesus? She clearly wasn’t looking or expecting him to be alive. Is not Mary’s experience our experience? Through no fault of our own, circumstances beyond our control impact our capacity to see. We can be so overwhelmed by grief, by shock, by fear, by anger that we cannot see the Christ who is with us.

And then sometimes it’s our own doing. We just get stuck. We get caught up in our own little stories, in pursuing our own agenda and interests. We become trapped in negative patterns of thinking and feeling and reacting. Sometimes it’s the group we belong to, the people who influence us, the powers over us who exert influence. We get caught up in “group think” and the pressure of the group prevents us from even considering other possibilities. I see this in Christian congregations all the time. It can be some false attachment or destructive addiction that keeps us from seeing.

So what is it that brings illumination? What is it that opens our eyes? What is it that creates an opening so that we might have a revelatory encounter with divine grace and truth, when suddenly like Mary, we can see what we couldn’t see before. I wish I knew. I used to get really down when someone would leave the church and walk away because I could not get them to see what I see. And then one day I realized that’s not my job. No amount of logic, or common sense, or reason, or persuasive arguments can open someone’s spiritual eyes. Reason, common sense, methods of biblical interpretation, and the like are certainly helpful, when someone’s eyes are opened. But until they are opened, words fall on deaf ears.

Consider Paul. Thirteen documents in the New Testament are attributed to him. He probably did not actually write all of them, but he wrote a bunch of them. He was a persecutor of followers of Jesus. He despised Jews who became disciples of Jesus. He regarded them as heretical Jews worthy of death. What changed him? It wasn’t logic, or reason, or common sense, or really good biblical interpretation was it. It was an experience of the living Christ. It was his experience of the love and grace and truth in Christ that opened his eyes. And once his eyes were opened, he could then rely on reason, logic, and common sense to make sense of his experience. His experience completely altered, completely revolutionized the way he read and interpreted and applied the Hebrew scriptures. It was all based on the experience of seeing what he could not see before.

I suspect there are some of you hear today, and maybe you have been a Christian for years, all your life perhaps, but you have never had the kind of revelatory experience that opens your eyes to see what you could not see before. And honestly, I don’t know what it will take in your life for that to happen.

In the movie, The Flight, Denzel Washington plays a pilot, Captain Whitaker, who performs an amazing maneuver to land a plane, saving most of the passengers and crew. The irony is that he accomplishes this phenomenal maneuver while legally intoxicated, which he denies. His story is a story of denial. He is an alcoholic who keeps lying to others and himself and keeps getting away it. Well, actually he doesn’t get away with it. He alienates and drives away the people who care about him.

Well, he has a great lawyer who has worked the system so that it comes down to a final hearing that will require a final lie. But, and here is what makes it so difficult on him. His denial – this final lie – will set him free of charges, but it will probably cost the flight attendant her job. They found empty alcohol bottles in the trash on the plane and if he denies that they are his, and they were his, they will most surly pin that on the flight attendant. He struggles. He hesitates. He takes a drink of water. There is an intense inner struggle going on. In the end, he just can’t do it any longer. He finally comes to the place where he could no longer live with himself. So he confesses. And that’s what it takes for him to see.   

In a final scene, we see Captain Whitaker sitting in a group with some other prisoners. He has been in prison for over 13 months and he is sharing his story. He says, “My chances of ever flying again are slim to none, and I accept that . . . I wrote letters to each of the families that lost loved ones. Some of them were able to hear my apology, some of them never will. I also apologized to the people who tried to help me along the way, but I couldn’t or wouldn’t listen. People like my wife—my ex-wife, my son and again, like I said, some will never forgive me, but at least I’m sober. I thank God for that. I’m grateful for that. And this is going to sound real stupid from a man locked up in prison, but for the first time in my life I’m free.”

Now, obviously, this is a fictitious story. But it is a true to life story. It is drama that mirrors life, that reflects human experience. So what brings him to this point? What opens his eyes? Why is he finally able to break out of his denial and see the truth? For Captain Whitaker it all came down to that decisive moment. All the preaching in the world would not have opened his eyes. It took what it took. For you and me it takes what it takes. For Mary, in our Gospel story, it was when Jesus spoke her name. What will it take for us?  One of my mentors, Richard Rohr likes to say it takes great suffering or great love. But even then, there is no guarantee. Suffering can just as well harden a heart as open it right? I’ve seen people hardened by suffering, and I’ve seen people transformed by suffering.

After Mary’s eyes are opened and she can see the truth, and she knows that it is Jesus, she clings to him. “Do not hold on to me,” says Jesus. “Stop clinging to me,” says Jesus. She doesn’t want to let go. She wants her experience with Jesus to be what it was. But it can’t be what it was. Otherwise, there would be no growth, no development, no maturity, no transformation. She can’t have her old time religion like she had it before. She can’t have Jesus the way she had him when she accompanied him on his journey throughout Palestine. She has to let go of that and be willing to change and to experience Jesus in a different way.

The journey doesn’t end when our eyes are opened and we are able to see. That simply marks the beginning of a whole new stage in our journey. And like Mary in our story, even after our eyes are opened we are going to struggle with old ways and patterns and beliefs and habits, which we will want to hold on to. This is why we need community. This is why we need each other. We can’t go it alone. Because, like Mary, we will want to cling to the way things were.

The things that kept us from seeing won’t just automatically go away. And if we cling to them they will continue to keep us from seeing and from growing and becoming. It could be our old coping mechanisms that never really worked and were never helpful. It could be a belief system that we want to cling to that no longer fits our experience and the new ways in which we now see God and the world. It could be old grievance stories of past hurts and offenses that we keep replaying in our minds over and over and over again. It could be the fears and insecurities that kept us blind for so long. These are things we will have to stop holding on to and clinging to if we are to continue to see and grow.

Sue Monk Kidd tells about a little boy named Billy who was living at a shelter for abused children. He had been horribly wounded and was reluctant to move beyond the security he found in his room. The day of the Christmas party he refused to leave the safety of his room and join the party. He told one of the workers he wasn’t going. The volunteer who had spent considerable time with him said to him, “Sure you are, Billy. All you need is to put on your courage skin.” His pale eyebrows went up as he seemed to drink in the possibility. After a long pause, he said, “Ok.” The volunteer then helped him put on his imaginary courage skin and off he went to the party.

Once again, sisters and brothers, I don’t know what it is that gives us the courage to let go of unhealthy beliefs, attitudes, habits, patterns of thinking and reacting, and gives us the inspiration and courage to be able to move forward and become more of what God wants us to be. I don’t know how that happens. But I do know that a healthy community that allows us to question old ways and explore new possibilities sure helps. A community that emphasizes a wider, greater, deeper, more expansive and inclusive divine love than what we have known sure helps. It doesn’t guarantee anything, but it helps. 

The powers that be thought they had silenced Jesus, they thought they had put an end to the alternative wisdom he taught and the magnanimous, inclusive love he embodied. But how could they have imagined or anticipated what some of his followers experienced – Jesus alive and the Spirit of Christ filling them with motivation, love, courage, faith, and hope. And what they experienced validated and vindicated what Jesus taught, how he lived, and how he died. Easter gave them hope.

Easter gives me hope. It gives me hope that no matter how dominant the forces of greed and hate seem to be, no matter how powerful these forces are at preserving the status quo, and stifling the pursuit of justice, the common good, and the liberation of all people, Easter gives me hope that God’s love, God’s peace, and God’s righteousness will one day prevail. The Christ is not going away. The Christ is here to stay.

I don’t know what it takes for people to hear the Christ call their name and for their eyes to be opened to the greatness of God’s grace and love. But I am glad that no matter where we are on the journey, anyone of us at any time – walking in darkness or in the light, blind to the truth or enlightened to the truth, clinging to the past and refusing to let go, or leaning forward into the newness of life – wherever we are along the path, I am glad God loves us all the same. 

Our good God, I don’t know what it takes in our lives to open our eyes so we can see. But I pray that somehow, someway, the experience will happen in all of our lives – not just once, but again and again. Amen.