Monday, April 27, 2015

Lectionary Notes for Fifth Sunday in Easter, Year B

Readings for 5th Sunday of Easter, 5/3/15:
Acts 8:26-40, Psalm 22:25-31, 1 John 4:7-21, John 15:1-8

Acts 8:26-40:
  • Rarely mentioned in the gospels, here disciple Philip gets a whole scene, as he explains a text from Isaiah (sheep to the slaughter) to a eunuch. Philip interprets the passage as speaking about Christ, and the scene ends with the eunuch's baptism, and Philip continuing preaching the good news.
  • Philip leads here a mini-Bible study. Do you feel comfortable helping others understand scriptures? Who best helped you understand what you were reading in the Bible? How did they teach you?
  • "how can I, unless someone guides me?" The eunuch has no problem letting someone help him. I have a harder time asking for help, submitting to teaching. I like to think I can do it on my own. When/how can you be open to someone guiding you in your spiritual life?
Psalm 22:25-31:
  • We saw this Psalm in its entirety on Good Friday, and in part with mostly this same selection earlier in Lent. Today, our focus is not the "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" section we usually associate with this Psalm. This section is the conclusion of the Psalm - a much more hopeful section.
  • Dominion belongs to God - not to us. God has (vs. 28) God may have given us a limited sense of dominion over creation - a dominion we've much abused, but really, this power belongs to God and not to us. Nevertheless, the world is quite filled with people and leaders who want to claim dominion.
  • "The poor shall eat and be satisfied." What a day to look forward to. But think also metaphorically - how often do we fill ourselves and our lives with things that don't really satisfy us? Whenever we do, we are outside of God's plans and hopes for us.
  • "deliverance to a people yet unborn" - God's promises are not just for us, but for those yet to come. We can help or hinder God's salvation getting to those yet to come.
1 John 4:7-21:
  • A common wedding text, one that I personally prefer to 1 Corinthians 13. Our love, our basis and example for loving one another is God's love for us. How does God love you? How do you love others? In the same way? Is your love of others like God's love for you?
  • "abide" - this word shows up in the epistle and in the gospel lesson for today. It is from the Greek meno^, which means literally "to stay at home, to stay where one is, to not stir." It has the sense of "lasting" or "remaining." On a day when we also celebrate in the UMC "The Festival of the Christian Home," this is a perfect image. We are 'at home' in God's love, not wanting to stir from that place. And God is at home in us, if we let God.
  • "that we may have boldness" - boldness because we are at home, trusting and resting in God's love. This knowledge gives us confidence, boldness to act.
  • "liars" - John has this strong word for those who claim to love God but hate their neighbors. Illogical, John says, eloquently.
  • "perfect love casts out fear." Nice. Perfect love.
John 15:1-8:
  • I love this text, and always think of the sermon Bishop Janice Riggle Huie gave on this text at General Conference in 2000. I highly recommend reading it ("Hanging on for Dear Life." She said, in warning, that branches don't cut off other branches. Excellent.
  • Again, abide - at home in God. (see notes above on meaning of 'abide.')
  • Pruning and cutting down are different processes. We all need to be pruned. But in fear of being cut out altogether I think we resist God's pruning of us. But pruning produces even better fruit. How have you let God, or refused/resisted God's pruning of you?

Monday, April 20, 2015

Lectionary Notes for Fourth Sunday after Easter, Year B

Readings for 4th Sunday of Easter, 4/26/15:
Acts 4:5-12, Psalm 23, 1 John 3:16-24, John 10:11-18

Acts 4:5-12:
  • Notice the content of Peter's preaching, and really, most of the preaching in Acts. Instead of preaching about the things Jesus talked about, the apostles preach instead about Jesus' identity. But they seem to share very little about his parables, etc.
  • "there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven . . . " How quickly the apostles make the gospel and exclusive message instead of an inclusive one, as Jesus did. How easy it is to change the whole tone of Jesus' work into something different!
  • Still, Peter speaks up and speaks boldly in some very difficult situations. When have you been so bold?
Psalm 23:
  • Ah, perhaps the one passage of scripture that most (English speaking) people, regardless of their usual preference of translation, prefer to hear in the poetry of the King James version, myself included. Just a part of our identity as people of faith.
  • "I shall not want." Hmm. I think we skip right over this little phrase. We like to hear about our overflowing cup. Less interesting to us, less believable, is that we could be without want. How do we get there?
  • Have you ever tried writing this as a reverse Psalm? Verse by verse, reverse the meaning of the phrases. Not necessarily point for point, but in the sense of it. Instead of "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want," try, "I have no one to lead me, and my need is boundless." I've been led in this process, and led my Bible Study in it. At first you might ask, "Why do it this way?" But, especially when in a group, reading back all the hopeless examples of our life without God, we see the power of this psalm more clearly.
  • Like all well-known texts, there is a danger of it communicating nothing fresh to us. This psalm is often used at funerals - many people know it by heart. Many find it comforting and strengthening. What else can it be? Challenging? Guiding us?
1 John 3:16-24:
  • An excellent passage, and one that challenges us. "How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods an sees a brother and sister in need and yet refuses help?" Indeed. How? The author's words call us to repentance and accountability.
  • "Let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action." I think of the Extreme song, "More Than Words." I doubt the singers were speaking about the gospel message, but we can apply it nonetheless. Words are powerful, but no matter how eloquent they aren't a substitute for acting in love.
  • "God is greater than our hearts." Amen!
  • Believe, and love - in action. Seems simple enough. And yet...
John 10:11-18:
  • John 10 is one of my favorite chapters in the Bible, and I love the image of the Good Shepherd. We've cleaned this image up a lot in artwork today, in church images, but shepherding wasn't clean and easy work, resulting in a Jesus with fresh-looking robes and flowing, combed hair.
  • "I know my own sheep and my sheep know me." Jesus argues that only the shepherd is truly invested in the well-being of the sheep. Everyone else is motivated by obligation, by reward from earnings, etc. In whom are you truly invested? Who is invested in you?
  • We all have power. Jesus took the powerful path of giving up power. Have you ever given up power? How?

Lectionary Notes for Third Sunday of Easter, Year B

Readings for 3rd Sunday of Easter, 4/19/15:
Acts 3:12-19, Psalm 4, 1 John 3:1-7, Luke 24:36b-48

Acts 3:12-19:
  • Anger - sometimes Peter sounds so accusatory to me, especially in his early preaching, as if still so fresh from losing Jesus as a daily physical presence in their midst, he's looking for someone to blame. He does make concession in verses 17-19.
  • Peter's words are also interesting considering his own role in Jesus' trial and death. Do you think he's speaking to himself as much as to the crowd?
  • This scene takes place just after Peter heals a crippled beggar. Healing was central to Jesus' ministry. How do Peter and Jesus differ in their style of healing?
Psalm 4:
  • "how long" - the human cry against injustice, the human plea for God to intervene.
  • A theme of this psalm: God hears us. Sometimes we doubt this - wonder if God is listening. The psalmist, with his own doubts, is still sure in his heart that God hears and listens. Are you?
1 John 3:1-7:
  • We are God's children. The author sticks with this theme throughout. More than creator and created, more than master and servant. We are parent and child, a relationship that communicates God's overflowing, unconditional love toward us.
  • Verses 2 and 3 are traditionally used as part of funeral liturgies. What we will be has not yet been revealed. So much potential that is inside of us. What is the best you can imagine yourself being? What is God revealing you to be?
  • "no one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him." What do you think the author means by this? Obviously, Christians continue to sin. Do we not abide in God? Sin can but distance between us and God, I think, but does it keep us from seeing or knowing God? I think God can bridge even such gaps between us, and seeks to do so.
Luke 24:36b-48:
  • Luke presents instead of just a doubting Thomas, a whole group of disciples who are frightened and terrified, which seems a likely scenario to me. What would it take to convince you that someone had risen from the dead?
  • Jesus eating fish is a symbolic proof that he is alive and real - not just a spiritual appearance - eating symbolizes his human body appearance for Luke - that's why it is emphasized that Jesus was hungry and ate in their presence.
  • "Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures." - I love this verse, and have a jealousy about it - what did Jesus say to them? I've always been a questioning, looking for answers sort of believer. Not a doubter, but a seeker. I'd like a Q and A session with Jesus like this.

Sermon "Dreaming: Jacob," Genesis 28:10-22

Sermon 4/19/15
Genesis 28:10-22

Dreaming: Jacob

            How does God communicate with you? How do you most often hear God’s voice? How can you tell the difference between God’s voice, and your own voice in your mind? One of the questions I’m asked regularly as a pastor is “why doesn’t God speak to us today like God spoke to people in the Bible?” After all, in the scriptures, we read about God speaking out from a burning bush, or God walking through the garden where Adam and Eve lived, or speaking from an overshadowing cloud – all these very dramatic ways of getting someone’s attention. And yet, I’ve encountered very few people who have said that they have heard God’s voice in this way. I don’t know, of course, why God chooses to speak to us in the ways God does, but here’s what I think: What if someone today told you that they heard a voice come to them from, say, a tree, and that they were going to listen to what the voice told them to do? Well, we’d probably suggest that person seek counseling. Immediately. I think as our knowledge and understanding of the world around us has changed, our understanding of what is believable has changed too. It would be hard for us to believe for ourselves and for anyone else that God would speak in these crazy ways. I think God, then, speaks to us in ways that we are able to hear. And for most of us, that means that God might speak to us in some deep, yet insistent, internal ways. I’m not saying God won’t call out to you in some surprising way. But I’m saying: I don’t try to email Janet Norris when I know she doesn’t use email! I’ll give her a call, or meet with her face to face, in a way I know she can receive. I think our Creator is certainly capable of doing the same!
            Still though, I think we can learn from and explore being open to hearing from God in some of the ways we witness God at work in the scriptures. Throughout the scriptures, one unique way God communicates with people is through dreams. Sometimes we see people dreaming of God’s future plans for them. Other times, the Bible tells about people who were not Israelites dreaming, and seeking interpretation of those dreams from one who was a servant of God, and then was able to use that opportunity to teach them about the God of Israel. Our Christmas story is shaped by dreams, with Joseph learning about God’s purposes through dreams, while Mary hears mostly from God’s messengers, angels. On the day of Pentecost, at the end of May, we’ll hear that God’s vision for the church is that, through the Holy Spirit, young and old, men and women, “see visions,” and “dream dreams.” Dreams are important in the Bible: a method through which God communicates.
            Is that still true for us? Do our dreams mean anything? Most of the time I hardly remember mine. When I do: well, some of you saw on facebook recently that I had a dream about swimming in a river with Patrick Stewart. I don’t think God was trying to tell me anything there. Once I had a strange dream with trains and climbing into windows and coins on the ground, and for fun, I looked up what each part of the dream meant according to a “dream interpretation” guide – and every part of my dream supposedly meant I was thinking about money and wealth. I think most of the time, our dreams are the result of all the things we’re thinking about in the background during the day. Our minds are amazingly complex things, and they never stop, and I think our dreams are a way we process everything we are experiencing and considering. But can they be more? One dream I will never forget happened in the last year or two. My grandfather, Millard Mudge, who was so dear to me, died when I was 19. But sometimes it seems like just an instant since he’s died. He was very ill and frail for the last couple years of his life, after always being a robust, jovial, smiling man. And I dreamed that he was alive, happy, so healthy, with me again. And he gave me a big hug. And I said to him “I have missed you so much.” I woke up with tears in my eyes when I realized I had been dreaming. But I’m convinced it was more than just a dream. Maybe it wasn’t a vision, exactly, a confirmation of my grandfather’s eternal well-being. But I do believe it was a very precious gift from God of one more hug from Grandpa. I think maybe, just maybe, in the vulnerability of our sleep, sometimes God can speak to us in ways we’re not ready for in our waking hours, when our skeptical, logical minds won’t let us experience things that seem too good to be true.
            Too good to be true. As we’re thinking about dreams and dreaming, I want us to consider the other way we think about dreams. Not only do we talk about dreams that represent our wandering thoughts during sleep. We also use the word dream to describe our hopes and visions for the future. Young people might talk about what they dream about being when they grow up. Parents and grandparents might talk about their hopes and dreams for their children and grandchildren – all the blessings they wish their loved ones would experience. We think of the hopeful dreams for the future articulated by visionaries and prophets through the ages, like Isaiah’s peaceable kingdom where the lamb and lion lie down together, or where Martin Luther King Jr. imaged a world where racism and inequality wouldn’t mar the lives of black children. And I wonder, when we talk about dreams like this, our daydreams, our visions, our hopes – are we so used to thinking of our crazy dreams in sleep that mean nothing much, that we can’t put any stock in our hopeful waking dreams ever becoming reality? Are dreams and reality irreconcilable? Do we put any stock in our dreams ever coming true? Or are dreams coming true just the stuff of fairy tales?
            Over the next several weeks, we’ll be exploring what it means to dream with God. In worship, we’ll be looking at several dreams and dreamers in the Bible, and see how God used their dreams to communicate something important. And in our book study, we’ll be looking pretty seriously at what God is dreaming about for us, for each of us, and for Apple Valley. If you haven’t committed already, I really encourage you to consider signing up for one of our sections of the study – Monday afternoons or Wednesday evenings starting next week. We want all of your voices, all of your dreams, to be a part of the conversation in the weeks ahead.
Today we heard from one dreamer – Jacob. We talked about Jacob back in January, when we studied people who received new names from God in the Bible. Remember, Jacob is a schemer, a swindler. He takes his twin brother Esau’s blessing. And when we meet him in our text today, he’s been on the run, avoiding meeting up with Esau again. In his travels, he has a vision of a great ladder, reaching to heaven, with God’s messengers going up and down between heaven and earth. And he hears the voice of God, drawing him into the promise that was made first to Abraham, the covenant. God promises to be with Jacob, and his offspring, saying that they will be like the dust of the earth. And God says to him, “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” And when Jacob wakes, he says, “Surely God is in this place – and I did not realize it! How awesome is this place!” He decides that if God will be with him, he’ll claim God as his God, as his fore-parents had. He marks the place by pouring oil on the stone where Jacob laid his head in sleep. But despite this dream that Jacob has, it isn’t yet that the deepest changes begin in his life. It’s just a first step. A baby step, even: an acknowledgment of God’s presence. But it is enough, of course, on which God builds something wonderful for Jacob, for Israel, for us.

That’s where I want us to start today. Maybe some of you are already dreamers. But I think many of us, myself included, spend so much time trying to deal with reality that we forget to dream. We forget that God promises again and again that anything is possible. And so when we try to dream with God, we dream such small, tiny things, when God wants to give us such an abundance, such a future, such love, beyond our imagining. We need to practice a bit, and remember how to dream, and to dream big, to dream with God. So we’re going to do just that – practice. I’m going to ask you to try a little bit of journaling this week. On a scrap paper, or in a diary or a plain notebook or on a keyboard or on some app on your phone – however works for you. I want you to try to pay attention and remember, as much as possible, what you dream about this week – dreams that come to you in sleep – and the things you find yourself daydreaming about. Whether they’re crazy, or unrealistic, or illogical, or seemingly impossible, I just want you to write it down. For now, that’s all. Just keep track. And perhaps we, like Jacob, can just take one small step this week: remind ourselves that God is always present, always here, in our sleeping and in our waking. It’s a good place to start. God can build on it. God can dream on it. Amen. 

Sermon, "After Easter," based on the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus

Sermon 4/12/15
Multiple Texts

After Easter

            Last Sunday, during our sunrise service, I talked about how easy it can be sometimes, or at least has been in my own life, to “miss” Easter. After all the build-up, all the special Holy Week services, somehow Easter can seem less intense. Part of it is because we focus first on something that is empty: Jesus is not in the tomb. And that’s a bit harder things to get our heads around. And sometimes we can be like Peter and the other disciple who ran to see the empty tomb, only to quickly go back to our place of fear and darkness without understanding. It is Mary Magdalene, who stays at the tomb, weeping, grieving, who is still present to have the very first encounter with the resurrected Jesus.
            But if we have a chance of sort of missing Easter on Easter Sunday, we really have a chance of missing Easter on the Sunday after, this, the second Sunday of Easter. In fact, it has a non-technical name: it’s typically known as “low Sunday,” because after the hype and fanfare and sometimes increased attendance and participation and Holy Week and Easter, the Sunday after is pretty quiet, pretty empty, a kind of emotional letdown. Jesus’ resurrection – that was so last week, right? Actually, though, the Great Season of Easter is 50 days long. It goes all the way from Easter Sunday up until Pentecost Sunday, when we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit, which we will celebrate at the end of June. These 50 days include the 40 days between Resurrection Day and the Ascension, the day Jesus returned to God and no longer was physically present on earth. Sometimes we forget, that for over a month, the scriptures record the resurrected Jesus as continuing to appear to and interact with and share teachings with the disciples and other close followers of Jesus. Normally, throughout this season of Easter, these post-resurrection appearances of Jesus in the Bible would be spread throughout our Sunday services.
But this year, we’re rolling it all up into one, today. Throughout the service, we’ve heard nearly every scripture that refers to this “post-resurrection” time. Next Sunday, we’ll begin spending time looking at dreams in the Bible, and talking about our dreams, and God’s dreams for our lives and for Apple Valley. We’re going to get serious about thinking about where God is leading us as individuals and a congregation. We’re going to see how big we can dream with God, right up through Pentecost, when I hope we will celebrate some of our dreams that will lead us forward. But today, before we begin that process, I want us to think about resurrection and new life. What does Jesus do and tell us in this time between resurrection and ascension? Yes, Christ is risen, Christ is risen indeed! But so what? What does it mean? What does Jesus hope it means for us? I think as we look at all these post-resurrection appearances, we get some clues.
First, I think we see in these passages the same temptation we experience with Easter. In the second part of John 20, which continues directly after the Easter morning story we read last Sunday, we find that Jesus appears to the disciples where they are all locked in a room, hiding in fear. This is after Peter and the other disciple have seen the empty tomb, and after Mary Magdalene has presumably found them and shared with the them the good news that Jesus has been resurrected and is alive and that death has not been victorious. And the disciples respond by: Hiding. Trembling. Doing nothing. Essentially sticking their heads in the sand. Jesus is alive – resurrection has happened – but it seems to make no difference! Not, at least, until Jesus comes to them and encourages them and breathes on them and speaks words of peace to them. I worry that sometimes we’re the same way. Has resurrection made any impact on us? If we have this good news, but don’t share it, don’t let our lives be changed because of it, if being Easter people who serve a God who conquers even the power of death makes no real impact on our lives, causes nothing about our lives to change: what’s the point? It’s so easy to go back to life as usual. Easter was so last week. But new life isn’t just a momentary event. It’s a new beginning, and like those seeds we talked about last week, we have to cultivate life, continue to nourish it. It doesn’t go from seed to fruit-bearing plant in a moment. There’s growing to be done. How is new life, resurrection, taking place in you?
Another theme in these post-resurrection stories is that we see Jesus encountering whatever stumbling blocks there are to moving forward for the disciples and followers and effectively removing them from their path. There’s Cleopas and the other disciple, walking to Emmaus, who seem confused about what has been happening, and don’t recognize Jesus, but Jesus walks with them, explains things, reveals himself to them, breaks bread with them. There’s of course Thomas, forever stuck with the label of one moment of doubt out of his whole lifetime. I feel sorry for him – what one mistake, one misjudgment would you like made into a nickname that sticks with you forever? All Thomas wants is to see Jesus for himself, to touch Jesus and verify that this outlandish story is true. Jesus says that we’re blessed when we can believe without seeing, but he doesn’t withhold proof from Thomas. Instead, he guides his hands to touch the wounds of the crucifixion. He gives Thomas exactly what he needs to believe and act on what he’s experienced. And then, of course, there’s Peter. Peter, Jesus’ closest, most devoted disciple: his last moments before the crucifixion were full of shame as Peter denied and abandoned even knowing Jesus, just as Jesus said he would. He’s a failure. He must be nervous, anxious about what Jesus will have to say to him. But what Jesus gives Peter is a gift: three times the opportunity for Peter to state his love and commitment to Jesus, three times a command from Jesus to go forth and carry on the work that Jesus began. Three strong responses to cancel out the pain of three denials. As we move on from here and begin to dream with God, we will find a lot of stumbling blocks – excuses that we’ve built up of why we can’t do something and why God can’t really be asking us to do that and why we aren’t qualified or ready or the right person or it isn’t the right time. To me, these resurrection stories show us Jesus removing every excuse we’ve got. There’s nothing God can’t work around. With God’s help, it’s time to put away our excuses, and clear the path forward.
            And then, I’m struck by how these post-resurrection scenes end. In John, Jesus is giving Peter the commands: Feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep, follow me. In Matthew, Jesus gives the disciples authority and tells them to go, make disciples – fellow students of Jesus – teach them about Jesus, baptize, share the news about Jesus everywhere! In Acts, when we read about Jesus returning to God’s eternal home, and the apostles are left staring up into the sky, the messengers of God say to them, “Why are you standing here staring at the sky?” The implication is clear: “Don’t just stand there! Get on with it! Go!” The final words, final teachings of the resurrected Christ on earth are all grounded in action words. The disciples have work to do. They should get going. They aren’t meant just to bask in the joy of resurrection, treasure a pleasant feeling of happiness. They’re meant to go, to share the good news, to teach others all they’ve learned and experienced, to help others get on God’s path, to feed and tend a hungry, waiting flock. They’ve been given authority. They’ve been equipped. The barriers removed from their path. After Easter, after resurrection, everything begins!
            What about for us, friends? What does “after Easter” look like for us? If we are tempted to go back to business as usual, then, well, I’m not even sure why we’re here! If we’ve got excuses – fear not! – Jesus has a “nice try” way of removing excuses large and small, showering us with love and grace along the way. Christ is alive, and new life is ours! So let’s go, and do something with the new life we’ve been given. Let’s go, and live out God’s dreams for us. Let’s go, knowing the Christ is with us, in us always, even to the end of the age. Amen.  

Sunday, April 05, 2015

Lectionary Notes for Second Sunday of Easter, Year B

Readings for 2nd Sunday of Easter, 4/12/15: 
Acts 4:32-35, Psalm 133, 1 John 1:1-2:2, John 20:19-31

Acts 4:32-35:
  • "one heart and soul" - Such a great vision of how we can wish for things to be in the Christian community, in the world. What are the obstacles that keep this from happening?
  • a little bit communist, no? I think the theory is great - it is the greed that gets in the way, and our overwhelming need for individualism. What and how much and with whom are you willing to share?
  • The benefit of such a plan is obvious here: "there was not a needy person among them." Isn't that a vision worth working toward?
Psalm 133:
  • Short and sweet?! Check out Chris Haslam's notes on this Psalm. The image of Aaron's beard dripping with oil signifies total consecration to God.
  • Haslam also notes the connection between this Psalm and our Genesis text in that verse 1 here declares, "how very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity."
1 John 1:1-2:2:
  • :1 - The author talks about a faith that involves all the senses - a complete immersion. How do all of your senses experience God's love and grace?
  • light/darkness imagery can be helpful ways for us to visualize (no pun intended) how Christ impacts our lives. But also be careful when using such imagery. In the past, such imagery has been used by some with racist intentions. Make sure you are clear about what message you are communicating and what message this text communicates.
  • :9 - "confess our sins" - so simple, and yet so hard! Admitting we are wrong is hard. Admitting we need forgiveness is harder.
John 20:19-31:
  • Ah, doubting Thomas. Most of us are less excited than I am to think of ourselves as being like Judas, but doubting Thomas we can relate to all too well. Who wouldn't want to see for himself, when everyone else had the benefit of seeing the risen Christ up close and personal?
  • "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe." Maybe today it is harder for us to take things on faith because we are so good at finding tangible - or at least scientific - proof for so many things. We can prove so much with our God-given minds - why not prove God? Prove Jesus? What do you believe without proof? Can you prove someone's love for you or yours for them? We try, but in the end, we just must trust.
  • John is obviously concerned with verifying the physical nature of Jesus' resurrection by having Thomas touch and feel Jesus, see the wounds. To me, as I mention in the Acts passage, I think the life of Jesus gets ignored in our obsession with his death and resurrection. Obviously, his death and resurrection are important to us - but would they be important if he had taught nothing in his life? If he had not been in such radical ministry for three years? So, John wants us to know Jesus' resurrection is the real deal. That's fine by me - but the statements about belief are more powerful in this passage, I think. More challenging.
  • Notice that Jesus doesn't exactly criticize Thomas for doubts - we add on the sense of blame over the centuries. Why is that?  

Sermon for Easter Sunday, "Buried Seeds," John 20:1-18

Sermon 4/5/2015
John 20:1-18

Easter: Buried Seeds

            This year I’ve been very carefully cultivating some seedlings so that if it every finally gets warm enough, I can transfer my little plants outside and have a garden that is ready to grow and produce good fruit. I’ve started seedlings many times before, but unlike my grandfather, who was such a natural with gardening, I’ve never seemed to have much of a green thumb. In elementary school, when the teacher would have us “plant” a bean in a Dixie cup with a wet paper towel, I was always that one kid with the dud seed that just didn’t do anything. As an adult, I’ve had a little bit better luck, but it seems that too often I start things too late, or animals eat all my promising plants, or I do something wrong in the transition from inside to outside. This year, though, I feel pretty good about my start: my plants are coming along nicely.
            I’ve always hated the process of thinning plants – pulling out perfectly acceptable plants to make room for the strongest to grow. But I’ve done it this year, and the result is some really strong, stable tomato, pepper, and eggplants that will be ready to go in the ground in a few weeks. This year, though, a few days after putting some of my seedlings into bigger pots, I went to move my bag of potting soil from one room to another, and I noticed that inside the bag of soil, I must have dropped one of the tiny tomato seedlings that I had thinned out to make room for other plants. And inside the bag of soil, it was growing, stretching toward what little sunlight it could find from deep down in the bag, to the nearest window that let in a bit of light. Well, since it was so enduring, so persistent, so determined to grow, of course, I had to take it out and give it its own little pot and let it grow. Now, I can’t tell which one it was anymore – it looks just as strong as all the rest of the plants.
            Seeds, plants, things that are meant to grow – they’re persistent. They can learn to grow in some of the most inhospitable locations. I love seeing images of plants that have broken through pavement, or scale buildings, or grow in places where it seems like they couldn’t possibly thrive. Yet thrive they do. Once planted, seeds want to grow. I’ve been trying ever since I bought my house three years ago to redirect the energy of some plants in the yard. But despite pulling things out or covering things with weed mat and wood chips and other plants, they have a way of creeping around the barriers I put in their path.
            I had all this in mind when I encountered a modern-day proverb this past week. “They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds.” The saying became popular in Mexico this past fall following the abduction and murder of 40+ young men from rural communities who were training to be teachers and who participated in a protest to fight for better opportunities. It is believed that they were abducted by the police and handed over to a crime gang who murdered the young men. In the wake of this horrific act, people were stirred to action to seek justice, this saying became sort of a rallying cry. It’s actually adapted from the words of a 1950s Greek poet, who wrote, “what didn’t you do to bury me / but you forgot that I was a seed.” (1) “They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds.” Life persists, pervades, won’t be stamped out, will grow where planted, where buried, will defeat ardent attempts to stop it. “They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds.” The community around these murdered young men were insisting that just because these young men were gone didn’t mean their cause would be silenced. Just the opposite. Many more voices were lifted up. I’m reminded of the words of Theodore Parker, the 19th century transcendentalist minister and abolitionist, whose words were made famous by Abraham Lincoln and then Martin Luther King, Jr., “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” “They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds.” Persistence. Pervasiveness. Perseverance. Injustice, defeat, and death are not the final words, because life and love will find a path, a place, a way to grow.
            I find that this theme is everywhere in the scripture, and most especially in the teachings of Jesus. The value of persistence. The pervasive nature of the good news about God’s kingdom being right here, right now. The unrelenting, unstoppable nature of God’s love, God’s forgiveness, God’s seeking us, God’s desire to build a relationship with us. The unstoppable force of love. In the parables of Jesus, we see again and again that persistence is rewarded, and that God is persistent in seeking us. God seeks us like a lost coin, a lost sheep, a lost child, stopping at nothing to find us. God wants us to seek after God like a person who won’t stop knocking on a door until it is answered, like a mother who will never stop seeking justice for her son. God’s love is relentless, impacting everything it touches like a little yeast can make a whole batch of bread rise, like a mustard seed can turn into a bush a million times the size of the seed from which it grew. It’s like Jesus says to the authorities on the day we call Palm Sunday when the crowds are praising him, “if the people kept silent, then the stones would cry out.” It is unstoppable, the work of God, the dream of God, the hope of God, the love of God.
            Over my years in ministry I have presided over so many graveside services, and words that once felt strange to my tongue in the funeral liturgy have become some of my favorite. We say, based on the words of the apostle Paul to the Corinthians, “Then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’ ‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’ But thanks be to God who gives us the victory through Jesus Christ.” I’m not sure I always understood those words, and I’m not certain that in the midst of grieving, people always catch the impact of them, the punch of them, the taunt of them. But Paul is laughing at death. Because he knows that death has no real enduring power over life. Death thinks it has buried us. Ended us. But it forgot that we are seeds. I’ve learned this as I think about the loved ones I have lost to death, but who are still so alive to me, to my family. Death was not able to cancel out the power of their lives. Of their love, or ours, or God’s. Even death has no power to stop the work of God, the love of God, our life in and through and because of and with God.
            With all this in mind, we finally come to John’s gospel and the Easter story we know. Jesus had been crucified, put to death. Everything suggested that it was all over. The disciples had basically abandoned him, and were locked in a room, scared and hiding. The authorities had won. Finally, the scheming of the religious leaders had worked, and Jesus was dead. No more Jesus, stirring up the crowds. No more Jesus, suggesting our lives might need changing, turning upside down. No more Jesus, suggesting that those in places of power might need to be humbled, that in God’s world, first was last, and those who wanted to follow most closely needed to serve and love most completely. Still, a few women, those who had stayed even through the crucifixion, were careful to attend to him even in death. And so Mary, on the first day of the week, went to the tomb early that morning. But when she arrived, she found that the stone entrance had been rolled away. She immediately goes and gets Peter and another, unnamed disciple. The two of them race to the tomb, go inside, and see that Jesus is gone, only his linen tomb cloth remaining. But they say nothing, understanding nothing, and go home. Mary stays, though, weeping. She sees two messengers of God, who ask why she is crying. She explains that she doesn’t know where Jesus has gone. And then she turns and sees Jesus himself. Somehow, through her grief and tears, she doesn’t recognize him, not until he says her name. And then, in joy, she says to him, “Teacher,” at last realizing the truth: Jesus is alive, risen, resurrected. He sends her to tell the disciples, and so she goes, and announces the joyous news, “I have seen the Lord.”
            And I hear Jesus saying, “What didn’t you do to bury me, but you forgot that I was a seed.” Of course, the crucifixion wasn’t the end. That’s what Jesus had been teaching us all along. God will not be stopped. God’s will isn’t thwarted. God’s vision for us isn’t mistaken and wrong. God finds a way, despite the strongest efforts of death to stop life. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? It is nothing, and Christ and life are everything. Persistent. Pervasive. Persevering. Injustice, defeat, and death are not the final words, because life and love will find a path, a place, a way to grow. Instead we just leave buried our doubts and fears. We leave buried our prejudices and hostilities. We leave buried our insistence on our own way, our grudges, our anger. But what God draws forth from us is new life. Resurrected life. Real life. And nothing will stand in God’s way.
            Friends, on this Easter morning, don’t be fooled where it seems that death has won and hope has been buried. Christ is alive, and we are God’s seeds, and nothing will keep God’s dream, God’s hope, God’s love, from taking root, and bearing fruit. Thanks be to God! Amen.