Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Sermon for Third Sunday of Easter, "New Life: On the Road to Damascus"

Sermon 4/18/10, Acts 9:1-20, John 21:1-19

New Life: On the Road to Damascus

            I’ll admit to you that Paul hasn’t always been my favorite Biblical figure. When I read Paul’s writings, I see someone who is pretty full of himself and his own faithful discipleship. I think Paul thinks an awful lot of himself, and would be the first one to tell you, Biblically speaking, about how much he’s had to endure for the sake of the gospel. But over the years I’ve come to terms with Paul, at least, and though he’ll never be my favorite follower of Jesus, our text from Acts today, the story of Paul’s beginning in particular is one that I really enjoy, one that has stuck with me since I was a child. When the passage opens, we hear about Saul, a Pharisee, and his systematic and intentional persecution and execution of members of “the Way,” the name in the early church for followers of Jesus Christ. In fact, Saul is on the road to Damascus, hoping to find some of these followers as he travels so that he can hand them over to the high priest. But as he’s going, a light flashes around him, he falls to the ground, and he hears a voice: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” “Who are you?” Paul wonders. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” the voice responds. Saul follows Jesus’ instructions to head to the city to wait for someone to tell him what to do. He’s been temporarily blinded by his encounter with Jesus. Once in Damascus, he meets a man named Ananias, who was sent by Jesus to help Saul. Ananias lays hands on him and says, Jesus, who appeared to you, has sent me “so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Saul’s sight is immediately restored, and he gets up and is baptized, and over the next several days, he spends time with the very disciples he was intent on persecuting, and begins preaching: “Jesus is the Son of God.”
            Eventually, this Saul is known to us as Paul. He’s the only person to whom Jesus speaks in this way in the scriptures, in this ‘appearance’ of sorts after the resurrection. Paul’s conversion from a persecutor of the Way to a follower of the Way is one of the most dramatic stories of conversion in the Bible. But as dramatic as this story is, I almost decided not to preach about it today. In conversation with one of my pastor-friends this week, I mentioned to her that I’d been thinking about switching my plan to preach on the Acts text and Paul to preaching on the gospel and Peter instead. I figure that more of you have had gradual faith journeys, gradual growth in your relationship with God, rather than sudden epiphanies and revelations and 180 degree turn-arounds like Paul. So maybe Paul isn’t so easy to relate to – maybe we can appreciate his experience as fascinating and unique, but what can we learn from Paul, without being skeptical that Jesus will ever speak to us in quite the same way? As I expressed this to my friend, and indicated that I meant to lean towards Peter’s story in John instead, she suggested that perhaps the message of my sermon today was just that – talking about how different the spiritual journeys of Peter and Paul are and how that’s ok – not all of us have Paul’s kind of experience – not all of us have Peter’s. But we all have the potential for God to work new life in us, in whatever form, over whatever timeline that new life comes.
            Before we move on, let’s take a quick look at another piece of Peter’s story from our gospel lesson. We find ourselves in this strange post-resurrection time, where Jesus is spending these last days with the disciples before he returns to God and sends the Holy Spirit upon them. These are the last times that Jesus has to prepare them to carry out the ministry that he’s been about for years in such a direct, in-person way. And he’s taking full advantage of this time.
            In this unique story that appears only in the gospel of John, Simon Peter, Thomas, Nathanael, James, John, and two others decide to go fishing, but catch nothing. But then, after daybreak, Jesus appears to them on the beach. Jesus gives them advice on a better spot to fish, and suddenly the nets are full to overflowing. After they are done, they go ashore, and find that Jesus has prepared breakfast for them – fish and bread. They share this meal together with Jesus, and then Jesus sits down for a tête-à-tête of sorts with Peter. He asks him, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” Peter answers him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.”  “Feed my lambs,” Jesus says,“ and then he asks Peter again, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter repeats his answer, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” “Tend my sheep,” Jesus says, and a third time asks, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” We read that this time Peter is hurt that Jesus asks him again – he clearly must not be convinced of Peter’s answer. So Peter responds differently this time – “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” And Jesus tells him, “Feed my sheep.” He foreshadows with his words that indeed he does know – he knows that Peter is committed to discipleship and that his discipleship will bring him suffering. But his final words to Peter in this passage are the same as some of the first Jesus ever spoke to Peter: “Follow me.”
            I can only imagine the inner struggle, the pain, the searching that must have been going on inside of Simon Peter during this conversation. Peter might have felt conflicted about Jesus’ resurrection. Of course, he was filled with joy at the prospect that Jesus was alive. But was he also afraid, after how totally he’d denied knowing Jesus in the critical hour? Guilty? Embarrassed? Wondering if Jesus would still want anything to do with him? Wondering if he would still be used by God? Used by Jesus for ministry? Was Peter wondering if he’d screwed up beyond redeeming? And so I think it is no accident that Jesus asks him this question, “do you love me?” three times, just as Peter had three times denied even knowing Jesus. It is an act of graciousness on Jesus’ part – he is letting Peter know that he is forgiven, and he’s giving Peter a chance to say out loud that he is committed still to being a disciple. It brings Peter full circle. Yes, he messed up. But yes, there is grace, and Jesus needs to help Peter move on from his self-doubt, move on from wallowing in his own mistakes, and move on to the next chapter, literally and figuratively. So while Paul’s story is a story of a complete turn-around from a persecutor of Jesus to a proclaimer of his good news, Peter’s story throughout the gospels is a story of two-steps-forward, two-steps-back faith, perhaps one many of us relate to more easily, as Peter blunders and stumbles, but eventually becomes a rock of faith.
            The setting of Paul’s conversion is on the road to Damascus. The Greek word used in the Bible for road is hodos, which is also the word for path, way, or journey. In fact, when I said Jesus-followers were called followers of “the way,” that word is hodos – the path, the way, the journey. And when Jesus says he is the way in the gospels, again, that word is hodos – path, way, journey. Jesus is the road, the path, the journey – and his followers are those who are on the road – on the journey. The very earliest way then, to define followers of Jesus, was with a word that represented not a state of being, not a resting place, a static state, but a movement, something you would travel on, something that would require you to move along to follow. You don’t stand still on the road – you travel and journey along it. That’s what Jesus-followers are – those who take the road that is Christ.
            On Easter Sunday, we talked about new life, and whether or not we believed new life was for us – how hard it is to believe that new life is really going to happen in our own lives and experiences. But as I read the stories of Paul and Peter today, I wonder if we have so much trouble believing in our own new lives because we keep thinking of new life as a static, one-time event, rather than the hodos – the path, the journey on the road of Jesus. Paul’s new life came when Jesus turned him around to travel the road in the opposite direction he’d been going. Peter’s new life came step by struggling step – over time, through events, over years of listening to Jesus, and then years of serving Jesus. Maybe if we start remembering that new life is a journey, not a destination or a finish line, we’ll be better able to see new life at work in our own experiences. And for each of us, though we may be on the same road, followers of the same Jesus, our new life experiences can be as different as Paul’s is from Peter, even though we’re going the same hodos – the same way.
            Next month, we’ll celebrate confirmation, and join in affirming several of our young people as they make a public commitment to being followers of this way. One of their assignments in their coursework is to interview someone who is a part of this congregation – not their mentor or a family member, but someone who is part of this body, and to ask them, learn from them, what that person’s spiritual journey has been like. How did they get to be a part of this congregation today? I don’t know how the confirmands feel – usually it takes them awhile to get beyond the essay they have to write about the interview – but this is one of my favorite assignments for them. I love reading the essays the write, and in the past, I’ve loved hearing about how surprised our youth are to discover that adults didn’t always have a straight and simple path to today. Youth sometimes think that you all are spiritually stable, deeply believing, know everything about the Bible, have all the answers – and sometimes, then, that puts your experiences out of range for them – they don’t think they can ever be the kind of believers that you are. But what they don’t know is what your hodos – your journey with Jesus – has really been like. They don’t know the twists and turns, the hills up and down in the road of your faith, your travels seeking new life. And so these interviews can be eye-opening, when they learn that you too have struggled and wondered, even as you’ve had moments of faith and understanding and clarity.
            But it isn’t just our confirmands who need this eye-opening experience. We need the reminder too. As you look around you, if you look beyond any family who might be here with you, how much do you know about the spiritual journey of the people sitting near you? Do you know why and how the people here came to be sitting where they are? Why do they follow Jesus? What “new life” experiences have they had? What common threads are in your journeys? How have your travels on the path been completely different? I challenge you, between now and May 23rd, when we celebrate confirmation, to informally complete the same assignment the confirmands are – find someone in this congregation whose experience on the hodos you don’t really know – and find out whether they’re more like Peter or Paul, and whether they feel confident of new life in them all the time, or struggle, like you sometimes do, to let new life move them along the path.
            Saul started out looking for followers of the Way. What he found out was that he, too, was on the Way, the path of Jesus, heading straight for new life. Let’s follow along the same Way. Amen.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Sermon for Easter Sunday, "Resurrected"

Sermon 4/4/10, John 20:1-18


I’ve always thought Easter was the hardest day of the year to preach on. Every year as I prepare for what is our most holy of Sundays in the life of the church, I struggle. I’ve preached on this Sunday many times now, but every year it seems to be the same. What do we say about Easter? The stories of Jesus, preaching about his life, his teachings – that gives us a concrete hold – we can hear a lesson he shares and learn how to apply it to our own lives. But what do we do with Easter?
            We know the story. That’s not the problem. We know that Jesus was crucified and his body was laid in a tomb. Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb, and sees that the stone is removed. She runs to get Peter and another disciple. They come to the tomb and see that Jesus is not there, and they return home. Mary stays, and she encounters Jesus, although she doesn’t recognize him at first. But when he speaks her name, Mary realizes that it is Jesus. He sends her to tell the others, and she does, saying, “I have seen the Lord.”
            That’s the Easter story. Jesus, who they saw crucified, is alive. So, what’s the trouble with this? Why is it so hard for me to preach on Easter? I’ve struggled with answering that question every year. What’s so hard about Easter? And I guess it’s a question of believability. But I don’t think it is that we find the story so unbelievable in that God couldn’t raise Jesus from death. After all, as human beings our minds accept a lot of phenomena of seemingly unbelievable kinds. You’ll find among us people who believe in ghosts and spirits and angels, or who believe in life on other planets or think they’ve seen a UFO, or people who have witnessed some sort of miracle – a healing, an unbelievably fortunate turnaround of circumstances. I don’t think it’s that we don’t believe it’s possible that God raised Jesus from death to life.
            So what is it? What’s so unbelievable? I think, actually, that we have a hard time believing something much more straightforward. I think we have a hard time in believing that new life is for us. We can believe God can bring Jesus to life. But I think we don’t actually believe in new life. Maybe for Jesus. But not for us. We don’t actually believe that we can be resurrected. Maybe we believe in eternal life after death. But we have a harder time believing in resurrection that’s for right now. Think of all the public figures who have some scandal exposed, who fall from grace, who enter some rehab program or swear they’ve turned over a new leaf. It is not their failures that shock us and surprise us in the least. It is claims of being a new person that we’ll doubt, that will be met with skepticism or cynicism. We’re just not sure we believe in new life, not here and now.
Throughout Lent, we’ve been talking about the contradictions that mark our spiritual struggle. We seek abundance, and we seek to be filled, but we continually try to fill ourselves with things that have proven again and again to leave us empty. We want to be disciples but we’re unwilling to actually follow where Jesus leads. We are full of contradictions. And we talked about my suspicions that the reason we’re so full of contradictions – that I think we’re afraid to let Jesus change our lives, as we know would happen if we were really truly following God with our whole hearts. But I think we need to take it even one step further. I think our getting stuck in the same cycles of contradictions when Jesus offers us life is about even more than being scared that following Jesus will change our lives. I think, actually, we’re a little scared that Jesus won’t be able to change our lives. We’re scared that we’re beyond change. Or perhaps we’re not even scared – we’re just convinced, resigned, aware that new life is not possible in us. Change can’t really come to us.
            After all, how many times have you tried and set out to change your life in some meaningful way, and failed? How many New Year’s Resolutions have you made and broken? How many fresh starts and clean slates have you tried to give yourself? How many times have you said, “starting tomorrow I’m going to…” and then that tomorrow never came? How many times  have you imagined a different life – a fuller life, a more meaningful life – than the one you are living, and yet not found a way to that full live you’ve imagined?
            What do you hope you could be, when you envision your best self? There are so many things I wish were different about myself, or that I wish I did differently. When I think of all the gifts God has given me, I start to be overwhelmed with feeling like I could be doing so much more. I could be giving more of myself. I feel I know what God is calling me to do, and yet I struggle each day just to do the bare minimum. There are so many changes I could make, and so many times when I commit to beginning again. And yet, if I was being honest about it, I’d have to admit that I can’t really see myself ever becoming the me I wish I was. I don’t really see it happening. That’s the new life I can’t believe in – my own new life.
            That’s why I think Easter can be so hard for us to really ‘get’. It’s not that God raising Jesus from the dead throws us for such a loop. It’s figuring out if Jesus’ resurrection has any meaning for us, any impact on us that we can experience now – that’s what makes us skeptics.
I think our experience is somewhat like that of the disciples: Peter and the other disciple. In our gospel lesson, Mary Magdalene makes her way to the tomb to attend to Jesus. When she finds the stone rolled away from the tomb, she runs to bring back with her Peter and the other disciple. The two men run back to the tomb, actually racing each other, eager to see what Mary is talking about. When they arrive at the tomb, they walk in, look at everything, see that Jesus is not there. But they don’t get it – what they are seeing, or what they are not seeing. They simply return to their homes. They tell no one, they say nothing to Mary, they make no reaction whatsoever. All throughout Jesus’ ministry, the disciples have struggled with being truly transformed by knowing Jesus, by following him. Even his closest confidants had a hard time letting new life seep into them – and at first, on Easter, they don’t let the change wash over them. They’re frozen in time, in grief, and they can’t see the new life they’re staring at. 
Mary, on the other hand, has a totally different experience at the tomb than do her companions. While they run to arrive at the tomb, but quickly leave once they find the place empty, Mary stays, Mary lingers at the empty tomb a bit longer. She stands there weeping, grieving. Overcome by the events of the past days, months, years – everything that has changed in her life since meeting Jesus playing over in her head – she just needs a moment to soak everything in. She stays at the tomb just a little longer, lets the emptiness sink into her mourning soul. It is then, then, that she leans in and sees the risen Christ. She does not recognize him right away, but she stays, she waits, she asks questions, and wonders about what she is experiencing. Then, finally, the joy hits her. And so Mary experiences the resurrection in a way that the others miss at first. Literally and figuratively she’s the first to experience the new life of Easter morning, as she sees the risen Christ, and knows, beyond a doubt, that resurrection is possible.
On this most holy morning, be careful – don’t miss Easter. Don’t walk away, disillusioned, from the empty tomb, wondering what you missed. Don’t find yourself feeling empty, like you didn’t quite get it, in the midst of family celebrations and special meals with loved ones. Don’t rush out, like the disciples did, feeling that what you came to see wasn’t as special as you thought it would be after all. Don’t hurry away. Just stay here, wait a little, stand here at the door of the empty tomb. The risen Christ is in our midst. And God promises new life to you.
But new life takes time to unfold, to grow, to take root, to bloom, to flower. It doesn’t usually happen all at once. It takes nine months for a new human life to be formed and born, and years after to see what this new life will be. It takes a season for seeds to planted to grow into food for harvesting. Decades or centuries for trees to reach maturity. New life takes time. It took time for Mary to understand the good news of Easter before she felt the joy. It took even longer for the disciples to experience the resurrection. In the weeks ahead we’ll see that it takes time and reassurance for resurrection to soak into the core of Jesus’ followers. There is still doubt, and fear, and wonder, and figuring it out, and messing things up.
But their lives are changed. Their lives are new. There is new life, and there is resurrection. The truth of Easter is that God has swallowed up death with life. Even for you. For you, life can be made new in Christ. That is Easter. Maybe it will take a little bit for it to sink in. Maybe we don’t realize it fully yet. Maybe we have to take small steps toward resurrection before we know what it means. Maybe we are still working resurrection out. But the promise of new life is ours. Today is a day of resurrection, and I hope that we let it seep through every part of us. New life is ours for the receiving. Let us go, and share the good news.

Friday, April 02, 2010


Tomorrow night, I will be participating in perhaps my very favorite Holy Week tradition - I'll be heading off to see Jesus Christ Superstar, performed by the Salt City Center for the Performing Arts. Sadly, Joe Lotito, the longtime director, died last year, and the theatre itself is no more - the building was forever falling down and 'under construction' and finally sold. But the company still performs in other locations. 

If you read this blog, or have known me for any length of time, you know that I *LOVE* Jesus Christ Superstar. I can't remember ever not knowing at least a fair amount of the music from Superstar. We had the record? tape? in my home growing up. But the first time I saw it performed live was when I was in 7th grade. My pastor at the time, Rev. Bruce Webster,  took our youth group to see the long running community theatre production at Salt City Center for the Performing Arts in Syracuse. (That year was their 15th anniversary production.) I instantly became enamored with the actor who played Judas. Being an extremely shy person, I never would congratulate him after the show, even though the actors came right out to mingle with the audience after the performance, but despite never speaking to him, my crush thrived, and sparked a fascination with Superstar and Judas that has lasted for over half my life now!  

So where has this love of Superstar and Judas taken me?

*I've seen Superstar performed live about 25 times - maybe 2/3 of those at Salt City (yes, some years I saw it more than once), and 1/3 seeing various incarnations the touring version with Ted Neeley

*I've dragged countless friends and family members, church members, and parishioners along with me to see Superstar, and even gotten some of them hooked on it too, although, honestly, no one is as big a fan as I am...

*I convinced my Junior High Select Choir teacher to let us sing a Superstar medley that I tracked down in 9th grade, and got to sing the solo from "I Don't Know How to Love Him." 

*I wrote a letter to now-non-existent Youth! magazine (for UM Youth) asking about whether or not Judas went to hell, after a heated debate with my Junior-high Sunday School teacher. The editor wrote me back a lovely letter filled with words about God's grace that I will never forget (even if I can't find that letter. I'm sure it's somewhere...)

*Two of my friends and I in high-school made a serious attempt (at least serious for our life-stage) to organize our own Superstar production in Rome. Some day, some day. 

*My sophomore year, I wore one of my (many) Superstar t-shirts to school every single day for several weeks until the day of the show. 

*In college, I wrote my senior religion paper on the relationship between Judas and Jesus in literature, with, of course, a big segment about Superstar. (I just looked at the current course requirements for the Pre-Theology major - I wouldn't even have to take the class I wrote the paper for if I was at Ohio Wesleyan now!)

*Last year, I convinced my wonderful music director in Franklin Lakes to let us focus on Superstar as our musical theme for Lent. For me, at least, this resulted in one of the most meaningful Lent experiences I've had in a long time. Highlights included getting to sing the part of Mary during worship (as close to the role as I will likely ever get!), and our Maundy Thursday Service, with an actor from the touring production singing "Gethsemane," giving me chills. 

*Also last year, after seeing the touring production in a matinée on Holy Saturday with my congregation at NJPAC, my mother and I got in the car, drove to Syracuse, and saw the 30th anniversary production by Salt City. And then we got back in the car, and drove back to NJ, so I would be there for Easter morning. It was totally crazy, and involved getting pulled over once, but it was SO worth it! 

So, as I prepare to see Superstar again tomorrow night (with Henry Wilson starring as Judas again...), I've been thinking - aside from my crush, what about Superstar drew me in so deeply? Why do I love it so much? 

I've always been a fan of theatre, and musical theatre in particular. But Superstar - it was a combination of theatre that I loved, and the faith that was already becoming more meaningful to me. And Superstar brought the Passion story, the story of Holy Week, alive for me in a powerful way. Ever since that first year, I have looked forward to Holy Week very much. To me, understanding Holy Week means being able to see yourself in the story, somewhere. Who would you be? Where would you be? I think that Superstar helped me wonder about those questions in deeper ways. 

Judas - my curiosity about Judas is a curiosity about the fullness and boundaries (more accurately, the lack of boundaries) when it comes to God's grace. Romans 8 talks about nothing in life and death being able to separate us from God's love. Who more tests that truth than Judas? For me, wondering about Judas' eternal fate was wondering about God's love and grace and how far it goes. Because, really, aren't we all betrayers, when to betray means to fail, to desert, to be faithless, to go astray? If there's no grace for Judas... 

I'm looking forward to yet another Superstar viewing tomorrow night, the perfect preparation for Easter morning.