Sunday, April 29, 2018

Sermon, "Strengthen Your Core: Presence," Hebrews 10:19-25

Sermon 4/29/18
Hebrews 10:19-25

Strengthen Your Core: Presence

On a scale of 1-10, how present are you today? In early 2016, this photo of young people at a museum in Amsterdam, in front of Rembrandt’s painting Night Watch, went viral.[1] It was taken in 2014 sometimes, but in the way of the internet, somehow sparked interest in early 2016. “Oh, young people and technology!” people lamented. “They aren’t even paying attention to the beautiful artwork that is right next to them.” Of course, the true story was a little different than a bunch of teens ignoring the art around them. There at the museum on a school trip, they had been instructed to read more about the artist on an app on their phone. Other photos of the class show them absorbed in looking at the paintings. A picture taken out of context, it seems. There was a provocative article written in response to the quick criticism: “This Photo Went Viral Because We Love Shaming Teens For Using The Technology We Give Them.”[2] (emphasis added) Some other images to consider: This photo, taken during the presidential election campaign season in 2016, of Hillary Rodham Clinton with a crowd full of people wanting “selfies” – which meant they all actually turned their back on her. She was right there! But everyone was facing the other way.[3] Or this image that shows the difference in the crowds waiting for the announcement of a new pope: Pope Benedict in 2005, and Pope Francis in 2013.[4] (All those lights are phones, not candles!)
            It’s easy to blame technology, meant to make it easier for us to communicate, easier than ever to stay in touch and stay connected, for making us less and less present. I know I’m guilty of this myself. If I’m waiting in a checkout line, I’m probably playing on my phone instead of chatting with the person ahead of me. If I need to eat a meal alone, use my phone as a wall of sorts: I’m not alone, not bored, not just sitting there. I’m doing something important! A working lunch! But I think technology, as with most things, is just the tool, the tool that we can use in good ways and bad, in ways that enhance our lives and detract, in ways that magnify our impulses. And our impulse, apparently, is to disengage rather than engage, to isolate rather than build up relationships, to wall ourselves in, rather than break down barriers. Our technologies, I think, have just made it easier to follow through on those impulses.
How present are you today? “As members of the body of Christ and in this congregation of The United Methodist Church, we will faithfully participate in the ministries of the church by our presence.” Not present like gift – that’s next week! No, we vow that part of our faithful core-strengthening discipleship comes by showing up! In some ways, this seems like the easiest one of all, doesn’t it? Support the church by your presence? Well, you’re here, aren’t you? I mean, isn’t this sermon a bit like preaching to the choir? You’ve all come today to be in this time of worship when you could be doing any number of other things. You’re here! You showed up! Done, right? And indeed, I am so thankful that you are here, that of all the things you could be doing, what you are doing now is gathering together with a group of journeyers on the way, praising God, and trying to listen for God’s direction in your life. That’s a part of showing up that means a lot. And when we make the vow to participate in the ministry of the church by our presence, actually showing up to worship and to ministry and mission events – that’s a very serious part of what we commit to doing. I do not take it for granted, your presence. The presence of each one of you. But it’s more than that.
            Today we heard a lesson from the book of Hebrews. This anonymously authored book is counted as an Epistle, a letter, but it is really more of a sermon than a letter. Hebrews contains some of the most moving sections in all of the scriptures. You’re probably most familiar with Hebrews 11: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” which the author follows with a beautiful litany of how people responded to God and how we are called to do likewise: by faith, by faith, by faith. Our Adult Sunday School class has spent a lot of time working with through Hebrews together.
Here in this section we find the author reminding us that because of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we are able to draw even closer in relationship to God. We are able to come into God’s presence without a barrier, without a curtain that keeps us separated, as did the designs of the temple in Jerusalem that kept people away from the holiest place where it was thought God would dwell. Because of Jesus, we can claim the gift of being invited into God’s very presence. The author goes on to tell us how we ought to come into God’s presence though: by seeking to have a clean heart and a clear conscience, by holding fast to our faith, “provoking” one another to good deeds and loving actions – I love that language, that idea of provoking each other to do good – not normally how we try to provoke one another, is it? – and by meeting together, encouraging one another as we prepare our hearts and lives for God’s kingdom. Apparently, gently encouraging people not to skip out on worship and fellowship isn’t new! The author of Hebrews says we shouldn’t “neglect to meet together, as is the habit of some” (emphasis added), but rather we should encourage each other. So, we can experience God’s being full present to us, especially because of knowing Jesus, and in turn we are meant to be present and encouraging to one another, building each other up in faith, love, and good works. Being present is about our presence with God, and our presence with one another. God and neighbor, a pairing that has a familiar ring to it, doesn’t it?  
            In Jesus, we find the one who is God’s presence embodied, God-in-the-flesh. God, already ever-present, becoming one with us, because we still didn’t seem to get it – God’s inescapable presence. In the gospels we see Jesus demonstrate the power of being present. Yes, Jesus’ ministry was about his preaching, teaching, and healing. But I think one of the most powerful things Jesus did was spend time with people. He spent time with all kinds of people that most went out of their way to avoid. And in these instances, it isn’t always the content of the conversation between Jesus and the person that the gospel writers viewed as significant. It was the very act of Jesus spending time with others that was powerful. It was Jesus eating dinner with Zacchaeus. Jesus spending time talking to women as equals. Jesus spending time in regions filled with Gentiles. Jesus eating meals with Pharisees and sinners and prostitutes and tax collectors – Jesus honored them all with his presence, with his time, with conversation, with relationship, and made them feel, maybe for the first time ever, worth it. His presence was powerful. And so is ours! Giving someone the gift of your presence is just that – a gift you have to offer. A gift we too often withhold, intentionally or unintentionally. Just yesterday, I was visiting with someone who was near tears telling me how lonely she feels, how rare it is that people come to visit her. Just showing up was a gift I could offer, and it humbled me to have my time so valued, when I can so easily mentally check out of being fully present. How present are you? Are you present in your own life? Are you present here? In your relationship with God? With those around you for whom your presence could be a gift of love and hope?
In one of my Doctor of Ministry classes, one of the most challenging, one that required our deep, active participation all day every day, the professor had us start each class by rating ourselves – in our notebooks, not out loud, but just for ourselves – on a few questions. And the first question was always, “On a scale of 1-10, how present am I today?” It was a helpful question to ask. Some mornings I was ready to go, excited. Some mornings I didn’t feel very present at first. But just asking the question reminded me that I wanted to be fully present to my classwork. Why would I bother spending money and time to take a class for a degree that I don’t have to have, unless I was going to be fully present for everything I was meant to be learning? I wanted to be present. And asking the question helped me remember that. 
            This week, I want you to ask yourself that same question. Not just at the start of the day, but several times a day. On a scale of 1-10, how present am I? You can start right now, in the quiet of your mind. On a scale of 1-10, how present are you in worship right now? And then ask yourself that question all week long. How present are you at work? At school? How present are you when you’re driving? When you are at the store? How present are you when you speak with your children or your parents or your spouse or your friends? How present are you at meetings? At church? When you volunteer? When you walk down the sidewalk? When you interact with a cashier? How present are you when you talk to God? When God is trying to talk to you? How present are you in your life? 
            Ask yourself that question, and see if you can figure out if you are showing up to life. What areas of your life do wish you were more present for? What things might you have to tune out so that you can focus on being present to God and neighbor? Can you start making sure that you are really present with your family? With friends? With those in need? In the life of this congregation? In your relationship with God? God is here. The curtain, the veil is drawn back in the work of Jesus, and God is as close to us as we will let God get. Always present for us.  God is always here, and here is always wherever you are! And everything God does is an attempt to get us to show up too, to realize God’s presence, to be fully present ourselves, to invite others to start showing up too. God is here. Are you?


Sunday, April 22, 2018

Sermon, "Strengthen Your Core: Service," Matthew 14:13-21

Sermon 4/22/18
Matthew 14:13-21

Strengthen Your Core: Service

            We’re in the midst of our sermon series on strengthening our core, strengthening our spiritual practices that will help us grow in faith, grow as disciples, deepening our faith practices so that we have strong core to rely on as we navigate life. And this week, we’re thinking about how we can strengthen our core practice of service. In our baptismal liturgy we say, “As members of the body of Christ and in this congregation of The United Methodist Church, we will faithfully participate in the ministries of the church by our service.” How are you, how will you cultivate your faith and follow Jesus by serving others? What, specifically, will you do to serve God and neighbor? To help us answer these questions, we turn to our gospel lesson. 
There are very few events, particularly outside of the death and resurrection of Jesus, that appear in all four gospels. As similar as Matthew, Mark, and Luke are to each other, still they each have many of their own stories, and each of them exclude some of the stories for one reason or another. So when an event occurs in all four gospels, we should stop and take notice. Clearly, the event must have some particularly strong meaning and message to be so included. One such event is what we call “The Feeding of the 5000.” Of the miracles of Jesus, it is the only one recorded in all four gospels, and in fact, two gospels, Matthew and Mark, include two feeding miracles. There is, of course, some variation in detail, in specifics, but all four gospels carry the same essence. Today, we’re looking in particular at Matthew’s account.
            When the text opens, Jesus has just received some bad news. It’s part of your homework to read the first part of Matthew 14 to see what has happened. But Jesus is reeling. He’s in pain, he’s grieving, and Matthew tells us that Jesus takes a boat by himself to try to just get away. He needs some time alone. But it isn’t to be. The crowds hear that Jesus has taken off by boat, and they decide to find him, going by foot around the lake, so that by the time Jesus comes ashore from the boat, a crowd is already to greet him. I’m not sure how you’d feel in Jesus’ place, but I can imagine how I would feel, being overwhelmed and just wanting some time to myself, only to find a crowd waiting. I’d want to turn around and get back on that boat. I might feel a little cranky, or resentful. I might burst into tears at the thought of having to deal with a whole crowd. But Jesus, Matthew tells us, looks at the crowd and is filled with compassion for them, and begins curing the sick they have brought to see him. Remember, some time ago I shared with you that the Greek word for compassion, splangchnizomai, is my favorite Greek word. It means literally that we’re so moved with concern that our insides are kind of churning with the deepness of our care. And it is in this way, with gut-churning compassion, that Jesus most often looks at the crowds in the Bible, and the way he looks when he comes ashore and sees them waiting for him.
            As the day draws to a close, the disciples come to Jesus and tell him, “Look, this is a deserted place, and it’s late. Send everyone away so that they can go get themselves some food.” I don’t know what you hear in their words, but I hear some disciples who felt like I thought I might upon seeing the unexpected crowd. They’re done. Jesus has done what he can, and now, they think, he should just send them away, so that they can get on with their own plans. He’s done what he can. Let them take care of themselves now.
            Jesus isn’t having that. “They don’t need to go away,” he says bluntly. “You give them something to eat.” The disciples are flummoxed. “We only have five loaves and two fish!” they insist. Again, I hear their unspoken sentiments. We have fives loaves and two fish – and they’re for us. We have five loaves and two fish – what could they possibly do for a crowd of thousands? We have five loaves and two fish, and we just want to enjoy our dinner. Send everyone away. You’ve done enough. Let them take care of themselves.
            But Jesus just says to them, “Five loaves and two fish? Give it all to me.” He takes everything they have, gets everyone to sit down. He takes the food, blesses it, breaks the bread, and gets the disciples to start handing things out. “And all ate and were filled,” we read, and the disciples gather up the leftovers, “twelve baskets full.” Biblical scholars disagree about the nature of the miracle we witness. Some see Jesus multiplying the bread and fish with his supernatural ability. Others see it as a miracle of sharing – once some shared what they had, others were more willing to share what they had too, and suddenly, it was clear that there was really enough after all. I think though, that these disagreements miss the point. There is plenty that is miraculous about the text – many miracles for us to see here.
            Here are some of the miracles I see: First, Jesus’s compassion is a miracle. To be able to turn our pain into care for others is a gift. Two of my favorite books are the Eight Cousins/Rose in Bloom set by Louisa May Alcott. They never gained the popularity of her Little Women series, but they are worth a read if you’re a fan of her writing. In the books Rose is a young woman trying to find her place in the world, trying to live as a thoughtful, ethical young woman, although she has a large fortune at her disposal, and although she is often tempted to spend her days attending parties and spend her money on the latest fashions. At one point in the story, she is feeling distraught and upset. The adults in her life have made some decisions that leave her feeling heartbroken. And in the midst of her anger and sadness, Rose remembers that her great aunt has always told her that when you’re feeling like this, the best way to move beyond your pain is to start serving others. So Rose decides to turn her pain into helping others. Through serving others, Rose is able to gain some perspective, and transform her own feelings into making a positive impact on her community. The pain and sorrow we experience in life is real, and hard. And we can’t always just “snap out of it.” Healing is important. But I believe serving others, loving others, showing compassion to others can be part of that healing. A miracle: we heal better when we love others than when we are thinking only of our own needs.   
            Another miracle: God works with what seems like very little to make something that reaches a crowd of thousands. The disciples didn’t think that they had much to offer, and what they did have, they didn’t seem too keen on sharing. Their strategy was: everyone should just take care of themselves. But in God’s economy, in God’s world, we’re meant to take care of each other. And God can take even what you consider to be hardly worth sharing and make it into abundance. How often have you looked at your gifts, your talents, your assets, your life and thought that you couldn’t make a difference in the world? How often have you thought that hunger was too big a problem for you to confront, that poverty was too overwhelming to change, that the “isms” of the world were too hard to tackle? Jesus wants to feed the crowds, and he says to us, “You give them something to eat.” He believes that we have the capacity, the resources, the ability, when we offer what we have to God for blessing and sharing, to change everything. What are you holding back from God, afraid that you won’t have for yourself if you share, or afraid that it simply isn’t “enough” to be of much good?
David Lose says that one of the miracles of the story is that Jesus is able to use a bunch of people who would really prefer to just take care of themselves, to care for the need of thousands of people. “And that miracle continues,” he writes. “When a college-grad eschews a high-paying job in order to teach disadvantaged kids, God’s miracles continue. When a parent puts dreams of an academic career to the side to care for a special-needs child, God is working that same kind of miracle. When a church makes the wrenchingly difficult decision to celebrate its century of faithful service and close its doors after significant decline in order that another ministry might flourish, miracles abound. When one student stands up against bullies in defense of another student, the God of compassion is again miraculously revealed. When a fledgling community of faith makes a promise that no one that comes to its doors will be turned away hungry, God is still at work performing miracles through disciples eager, reluctant, and everything in between, miracles that easily rival those reported in today’s reading.”[1]
What would we add to Lose’s list of miracles? I would add, when a congregation in a small town decides that they can feed the community, for free, feed anyone really who wants to come and eat, or anyone who wants a meal delivered to them, and that they can continue doing this year after year, and when they decide they can serve hundreds of meals every Thanksgiving, every Christmas, then, God’s miracles continue. I’m not sure that all the folks who have been and who are involved in Friday Lunch imagined how the ministry might grow and unfold through the years. How could they have? But what they didn’t doubt was the they had something to give, something to offer, something to share, and that God could use what they would offer, bless what they offered, grow what they offered. A miracle indeed. What other miracles might unfold, right here in Gouverneur, when we trust God, when we look with compassion like Jesus does, and when we offer up all we have to be used in service? What do you have that God can use, even if you can’t quite imagine how it could amount to much, because you remember that God is a giving God, and has given you so much? What are you willing to share, even if it feels like all you have, even if it means you have to give a little more of what you have than you think you can spare, because you remember God is a God of abundance? How can you look on God’s people with eyes of compassion, not wondering why folks don’t just help themselves, take care of themselves, but instead seeing an opportunity to demonstrate your love and God’s love through serving? How can you work in the world to build your relationship through service, remembering that we can only truly love and serve God when we love and serve one another?
Today, we give thanks for one of many of God’s miracles. We celebrate and give thanks for our Friday Lunch ministry, and think of all who have been reached in God’s name over twenty years, and all who will be reached with God’s love and ours in the years to come. That’s one miracle, a precious one. What miracles does God have in store in your life? What do you have that God can put to use in ways you will hardly believe? I can’t wait to see what God will do among us! Amen.

[1] Lose, David, “Pentecost 8A: The Real Miracles,” In the Meantime,

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Sermon, "Strengthen Your Core: Prayers," Nehemiah 1

Sermon 4/15/18
Nehemiah 1

Strengthen Your Core: Prayers

           Some of you know that our RipIt folks in our exercise ministry have been participating in a challenge since January, a challenge that draws to a close in the next few weeks. Folks have been trying to eat in healthy, wholesome ways, and been pushing themselves to be more physically fit, all the while trying to build each other up in teams, encouraging each other, challenging each other. Amber, our fearless leader, and some of our other fitness buffs will tell you that one of the areas of focus in physical fitness is having a strong core. There are lots of exercises that emphasize strengthening your core muscles, because with a strong core, so many other areas of fitness are enhanced, and, reciprocally, you’ll have a harder time having strong arms and legs if you don’t have a strong core of your body to support them. And so Amber is constantly reminding us to focus on our core muscles when we exercise. It’s not easy, of course. But it’s important.  
            When my nephew Sam was a baby, he was a bit late in learning how to walk. There was nothing physically wrong with him. He just was, well, a bit floppy. You would sit him down and he’d just slump right over. He had no muscles to hold himself up. When my brother and sister-in-law took him to the doctor, they figured out that this was probably simply because Sam had never been set down on the ground in his life. Ok, that’s maybe an exaggeration. But Sam, the first child, the first grandchild, the first nephew – we all held him a lot. So baby Sam had to have some physical therapy sessions that focused on strengthening his core. He’d have to sit on a big yoga ball, and my brother would roll him around from side to side, holding him in place on the ball, so that Sam would have to engage all his core muscles to stay on the ball. With that and some other similar exercises, Sam was walking in no time. He needed those core muscles to get himself moving.
            In the same way that we need to develop a strong physical core, we also need a strong spiritual core. We need our souls strong, ready to hold us up through the challenges of life, a core that reminds us who we are and who we are following when we are bombarded with constant “opportunities” to go in different directions than God. And I think that to focus on our spiritual core, to find practices that strengthen our core, we have to turn no farther than the words we say again and again: when we become members of the church, when we celebrate baptisms, and when we renew our own baptismal vows each year. Next month, after spending most of this school year working hard to learn, and explore their faith and the teachings of Jesus, and understand what it means to be United Methodists, our confirmands Ayse and Peyton and Shea and Taylor will become adult members of the congregation. And when they do that, they will, as we all have many times, pledge that they will support the ministries of the church through their prayers, their presence, their gifts, their service, and their witness. Prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness. And so for the next five weeks, as we lead up to Confirmation Sunday, we’re going to be exploring these themes, these practices together. Because as they are confirmed, again, we have the opportunity to recommit ourselves too, affirming one more time that we will commit to these practices, these core-strengthening spiritual disciplines in order to strengthen our faith and the faith of our congregation as disciples of Jesus.
            Today, our focus in on prayer. We say in our membership covenant, “As members of the body of Christ and in this congregation of The United Methodist Church, we will faithfully participate in the ministries of the church by our prayers.” So, how exactly do we do that? How are we doing that? How could we be doing that? Are you strengthening the church and your own faith life through prayer? If you’re not, can you take steps to start? What would that look like? I think about the opportunities we have to support each other, the whole congregation, and our personal spiritual growth through prayer. Each week, there is a place on your bulletin worksheet to write down prayer requests that emerge during worship. I hope you not only write things down here, or make a note on your phone, or whatever works for you, but that you also then actually return to these names, these requests in your prayers throughout the week. We have a fellowship group on facebook, aside from our regular facebook page, that is a place folks share prayer concerns. We have a monthly prayer ministry, on Thursday afternoons. We’ll meet this coming Thursday at 2pm in fact. In that group, we’ve been praying through our church mailing address, inviting folks to share with us what is on their hearts for themselves and their families. I’d love for you to join us in that prayer time if you’re free in the daytime. And of course we have other opportunities – prayer during worship, prayer at meetings and events, prayer in our own devotional life.
            There’s been a lot of push back lately against the phrase “thoughts and prayers,” and I understand why. Sometimes, in the face of tragedy, leaders offer up their “thoughts and prayers” but fail to act, fail to work for changes that could prevent future tragedies, or minimize them. And so I’ve heard people saying, ““We need more. We need more than thoughts and prayers. We need action. We need people working for change. We need strategies and solutions.” As people of faith, I think we need to be attentive to those voices, those calls to action. And I think: Yes, this is just what is in line with the message of the scriptures: prayer paired with action. We pray for God’s guidance, God’s direction, God’s presence, and then, confident that God hears our prayers and equips us as we need to be equipped, we act as God’s agents of change, of compassion, of grace in the world. Pray and act. I think of baby Nolan, Natalie Towne’s grandson for whom we’ve been praying since he was diagnosed at birth with leukemia. We pray – we pray a lot. But we also hold some benefit fundraisers, because we know that God has called us to be a part of the very answer to prayer that we are seeking.
            As we turn to our scripture for today, we see prayer and action together in our reading from Nehemiah. Nehemiah is a book of the Bible you might not be very familiar with. Nehemiah was written in the late 5th century BC, and is a unique book among books of the Hebrew Bible because it is primarily told in the first person point of view. We hear directly from Nehemiah. The events he describes take place after the Israelites had been exiled to Babylon, conquered by the Babylonians, and after the Israelites had finally been allowed to return to Jerusalem. But all is not well, “back to normal,” and Nehemiah returns to oversee the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem.
Nehemiah is the cup-bearer to King Artaxerxes in Susa, the capitol of Persia. Cup-bearers were positions of high status. Because of the constant fear of plots to harm the ruling king, a person had to be considered highly trustworthy to hold the position of cup-bearer. The cup-bearer had to guard against poison or tampering with the drinks served to the king, sometimes even required to taste-test for the king. But this role also brought the cup-bearer a degree of closeness and confidence with the king. Cup-bearers had influence with the king.
Nehemiah, cup-bearer to Artaxerxes, learns that the wall of Jerusalem had been destroyed. As our text opens, we find him praying to God after receiving the news. He prays that God will give him strength and success as he asks Artaxerxes to let him return to Jerusalem to oversee the rebuilding of the walls. After our text for today, the king agrees, and Nehemiah is appointed governor of Judah. He rebuilds the walls, he wards off enemies, and he rebuilds the community to conform again with the law of Moses, making many reforms, including reforms to combat oppression of the poor, like cancelling past debts and mortgages. He meets with a lot of opposition, especially from the Jewish nobles, but he eventually prevails.
But our focus today is specifically on Nehemiah’s prayer. Before any of the events unfold, right in the first chapter of Nehemiah, we read his prayer, his starting point, before he begins to carry out what he believes is God’s purpose for him. Nehemiah’s prayer is beautiful and flowing, but we shouldn’t be put off by the beauty of his words. The heart of the prayer is always what matters to God, just as a child’s “I’m sorry” or “I love you” is as powerful to a parent as an adult child’s more eloquent communication. Essentially, what Nehemiah says is this: “God, you are always faithful. I’ve screwed up, my family and my people have screwed up, and we see the consequences, the separation we’ve experienced from you because we’ve failed to follow you. But we’re going to try again.  You’re always faithful. So please be with us and help me communicate my plan to my king.” Nehemiah has a sense of what he thinks God is asking him to do. He asks God for strength to get it done, for God to help him convince the king who will have to allow Nehemiah’s journey. He admits that without God, he screws up. And he remembers God’s faithfulness, God’s promises, and places his trust in that faithfulness, those promises. And then, confident because of his relationship with God, Nehemiah gets to work on just what he has offered to God in prayer.
            If you read the newsletter this month, you’ll know that our Council of Stewards and Council on Ministries are reading a book together right now called Simple Church, a book that talks about how important it is for congregations to have simple, clear paths for discipleship. In other words, a congregation should have a way that everyone knows and can share and participate in that makes it clear how you would come to know Jesus and be a disciple of Jesus. Often, authors Thom Rainer and Eric Geiger say, churches don’t send any clear message about how people should go about being disciples. We might talk about being disciples a lot, but we don’t make it clear to people that are trying to be disciples of Jesus just how they might go about doing that. I think we’ve got a lot to learn from this book, and we’re trying to think together deeply about how we are doing, and how we could be doing at helping folks come into a relationship, new or deeper, with Jesus.  As we work through this together, creating an intentional discipleship system in our congregation, we’re going to face challenges and changes, undoubtedly. And so I know that prayer – our constant conversation, our constant communication with God – is going to be an essential part of our journey. I hope that you will pray for our congregation, and be ready to act, so that we can connect more people to a life-changing path as followers of Jesus.
            When we talk about prayer as part of our commitment in this family of faith, we’re committing to praying with a purpose: to strengthen the core of our own personal faith, and to strengthen the core of our congregation. We pray to say: God, help us do your will here, in our own lives, in the life of the church. God, be our strength here. We pray to ask God for help in keeping the core of who we are and what we’re about as a congregation and as disciples of Jesus at the center of everything we do. We pray for courage to follow wherever Jesus leads, and wisdom to help others follow with us.
            Each week, as we consider these core acts of discipleship, these core faith practices, I want you to think about how you will make this vow your own. When you say that you will commit to supporting the ministries of this church with your prayers, what do you mean specifically? “As members of the body of Christ and in this congregation of The United Methodist Church, we will faithfully participate in the ministries of the church by our prayers.” Let’s do just that. Amen.

Sunday, April 01, 2018

Sermon for Easter Sunday, Year B, "That's How It Could Have Happened," Mark 16:1-8

Sermon 4/1/18
Mark 16:1-8

That’s How It Could Have Happened

            In 1985, the movie Clue was released. Unlike movies based on books, the movie Clue was strangely based on the popular board game. You’ve probably played the game, where you race other players around the board, trying to solve the murder. You have to make accusations: “I think it was Miss Scarlett with the Rope in the Conservatory.” The movie brought these characters to life in a campy comedy film that did very poorly at the box office. In fact, the film did not earn as much as the movie cost to make. If you went to see the film in theatres and compared notes with your friend who attended a different showing, you might find that you’d seen a different ending. The film has three different ending – three different “solutions” to the mystery – and theatregoers were treated to one of the three endings at random. Like I said, though, the film wasn’t very successful in theatres. Eventually though, when released for home viewing, the movie gained quite a following. I first saw it at home, and it has become one of my favorites – just a clever, goofy movie. And if you rented the movie, you had a different experience of the ending: all three endings were shown, one after the other. So you’d watched the movie through the end, when the mystery was solved, and then, you’d see this screen: That’s How It Could Have Happened…and then But How about This? on the next screen. And then finally, But Here’s What Really Happened as the three endings played one after the other.
            I feel like we need a That’s How It Could Have Happened screen at the end of the gospel of Mark. When it comes to an account of Easter morning in the gospels, the gospel of Mark is startlingly different. The gospel of John is usually the odd gospel of the four, but not when it comes to the account of the resurrection of Jesus. Mark is really unique. If you flip in your Bibles to Mark chapter 16, you’ll see the brief account of the resurrection that we just read. You know, the awful one, where the women go back home and don’t tell anyone what’s happened! But then after that you’ll see notes adding “the shorter ending of Mark” – another verse – and “the longer ending of Mark” – another several paragraphs of text. What’s going on here? How strange is that? It reads like a choose-your-own-adventure. Which ending of Mark would you like? What’s going on with the crazy gospel of Mark?
            If you look at the footnotes that are likely to be in your Bible for Mark 16, the footnotes will tell you that the oldest copies of Mark’s gospel that we have end the way that we heard the gospel today: that short, clipped “and everybody went back home, afraid” ending. But some later manuscripts, copies of Mark’s gospel that appear in the hundred years or two hundred years after that include one of these longer endings. Most biblical scholars agree that they were additions, not written by Mark. The motive is clear? Everyone thought Mark’s ending was awful, awful enough that others tried to fix it by adding their own ending.
            And that’s ok, I guess. Because to be clear, Jesus is still resurrected in the gospel of Mark – God’s messengers at the tomb tell that to the women: “Jesus has been raised – Go, tell his disciples that Jesus is going to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” Jesus is resurrected. It’s just that no one seems to know it. The women are too stunned and afraid to really absorb what they’re hearing, and they just go back home. The alternate endings of Mark just fix the part that we, the humans in this story, seem to screw up at first. The other endings fix the failures of Mark’s ending.     
            But what if, this Easter morning, we sit with the failure for a little bit? During Holy Week, we talked a bit here about letting ourselves stay in difficult places, by Jesus’ side, even though they make us anxious, uncomfortable, and we don’t know quite what to say. I think the ending of Mark’s Easter story is another uncomfortable place, but if we can just stay here long enough, I think there’s a purpose for our being here.
            Lutheran pastor Diane Roth writes, "In Mark’s Gospel, failure is a more relevant word than triumph: the failure of the disciples, of the women, our failure, my failure … Among other things, that’s what I come face to face with in Mark’s story of the resurrection. The disciples fail to understand Jesus. The women run away and say nothing to anyone. Jesus rises from the dead but no one sees him. How is it possible that there is even a church around after 2,000 years, with all of this failure? … But lately I’m thinking that failure is the point. That Mark is the gospel of failure, our failure—and that resurrection grows only out of this … The Gospel of Mark is the gospel of failure. It is the theme that runs through the whole book, and it doesn’t resolve during those last eight verses—it’s like a piece of music that ends on a discordant note. I suppose this is why there are so many attempts to resolve it. Make your own ending! Add verses! But the gospel of failure is the gospel of life. It is the gospel of our lives, which, no matter how successful they are, always end in death. It is left to God to resurrect us, to complete the story and resolve the chord. It is left to God to overturn failure and create and re-create the church, despite our failures. It is up to God to raise the dead, including us. The women run away and say nothing to anyone. The disciples miss the point. The church leaders set the wrong priorities. The people are petty and small. And we’re here. Turning to the people, lifting high the cross. Listening once again to the music of failure, the triumph of God."[1]
            We are here! Easter people, even after failure. Resurrection people, even after the terrible ending of the gospel of Mark! And we’re here because even though we forget it over and over, resurrection isn’t something we do. Resurrection is what God does in us. I think we face failure again and again in life because we are trying so hard to resurrected ourselves, to create new life on our own steam, our own strength, our own gumption, and again and again we come up short, we find we can’t quite do it, and we fail. But here is the truly good news of our failure on this Easter morning: It is God who resurrects. We just have to open ourselves to God at work in us. We just get invited to share the amazing new of God’s work with others. And even when we screw that up, God of resurrection keeps on working, telling us that what we thought was the ending really wasn’t after all. Nadia Bolz-Webber says that our whole Christian faith is “really about resurrection. It’s about how God continues to reach into the graves we dig for ourselves and pull us out, giving us new life, in ways both dramatic and small.”[2]
            Whatever grave you think you’re in, friends, whatever ending you think you’ve reached in your life, your story, God promises resurrection to you, new life to you. Even with a start to Easter morning like the one Mark gives us, one that seems like a clear failure, where no one announces the good news, somehow, here we sit  two thousand years later, calling ourselves Easter people, resurrection people, followers of Jesus who believe that God has the power of life over death. Our very presence here is a testament to God’s resurrection power. God is in the business of pulling us out of our graves, pulling us out of death, out of isolation, out of destruction, out of failure, and setting us down in life, in hope, in promise, in love, in joy. The worst thing is never the last thing. We will choose the wrong endings. We will turn away, again, from the God who loves us unconditionally. We will fail. But the God of resurrection shows us a beginning beyond every ending.
            The tomb is empty. The women leave. They flee the site, seized by terror and amazement. They’re afraid. They say nothing to anyone. That’s how it could have happened…
            But … at some point … however long it took them, those women chose faith over fear, responding to the irresistible resurrection that God was working in the world. Look around, friends. Here we are, telling the resurrection story still, living it still, thanks to those very women. God is resurrecting us. God’s beginnings after our stumbling endings. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Diane Roth, “April 1st 2018 Easter Sunday,” The Christian Century,
[2] Bolz-Weber, Nadia, I’m unsure where this quotation originates.

Sermon, "In Denial," Mark 8:31-37

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