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Risen in Deed

A lot can happen in three months.

So the next time I will see you all will be September. That’s three months from now. A lot can happen in three months.

Three months may not be that long of a period of time, but things will be different in September. I know that I will be different when I get back. I have a full summer planned, but a relaxing and refreshing one. So I know I will come back changed, refreshed, renewed, different.

In two days, construction starts on building renovations. So I’ll get to see some of the dust fly before I leave, but not the end result. So our building will look different: better, more welcoming, ready, different.

What about you? Will you be different? If so, how would I know? How would you know?

Over the past few weeks, we have been spending time with these Easter lectionary texts, these lessons where Christ speaks of his resurrection. Today’s reading actually comes from the Last Supper, before the transformative events of Holy Week, as Jesus projects forward to the Easter promise and beyond. The disciples end up scratching their heads in bewilderment. They understand that things will be different; but what that different looks like, they have no idea.

How could they? How in the world would they possibly understand that Jesus was going to die, rise from the dead, visit them, and then ascend out of sight? How could they have anticipated Pentecost, when the Spirit shoved them out into the streets, speaking in tongues, the church exploding right before their eyes? And how in the world could they have expected the miraculous turn in the life of the one who used to be named Saul?

As the early church grew, one of its fiercest opponents was Saul the Pharisee. Just last week, we read how when Stephen was stoned by the crowds for preaching Christ, the perpetrators lay their cloaks at the feet of Saul to watch over them while they lynched an innocent man. It’s not long before Saul is blinded on the road to Damascus, healed, and becomes one of the fiercest defenders of Jesus.

Our lesson today finds him in Athens – no longer Saul, but Paul – standing at the Areopagus, the site of the ancient high court. It is here that this persecutor of Christians preaches a sermon “to an unknown god”. Having seen this inscription on an altar in the city, Paul knew it was the perfect way to tell them about the God he has come to know in Jesus. “It’s time to put the past behind us,” he says, “and look toward the future. God knows you, and knows you well; it’s time for you to know God, too.”

I wonder how many of us have sympathy for the people of Athens? How many of us resonate with this idea of an unknown god? Maybe we can get our minds around the idea that there is a god, some kind of higher goodness or force in the universe; but to know much, if anything about this god?

You see, this is the ridiculous thing that Christians say: not only that God is knowable, but that we know God and God’s character, because we know Jesus and Jesus’ character. We read the stories of his healing, and we understand that God desires wholeness. We listen to his teaching and we hear the wisdom of heaven. We witness his compassion, especially for those who are most vulnerable, and we are grateful that God cares about those whom the world neglects.

There are some of you here today for whom that description makes absolute sense. My hunch is that there are many more of you here who dearly desire for that to make sense. And I also know that there are some of you here today who hear this all as utter nonsense. Whatever the case may be for you, the point remains the same: how is it that we know God? And how is it that we come to deepen our knowledge of God?

I think, oddly enough, that knowledge of God is nested in our knowledge of self. It’s not that we should confuse the two: we are not God, and thank God for that. At the same time, we say that God has made an impression on us, that we are made in the image of God, so there is certainly an element of holiness within us. So one of the ways that we get to know God is by getting know ourselves. So here’s my question for you today: what is it that you want to know?

I want to make today an opportunity for us as a community. And I want to suggest that from now to September can operate as a kind of three-month process for you – for all of us, really. What is it that you want to come to know in the next three months? What is it that you want to know about yourself, about God? Is there some kind of concrete goal you want to set for yourself?

Maybe you want to aim for establishing a daily discipline for yourself. I know we have talked a lot about prayer this year; is that something that has rooted itself in your life, or not yet? Perhaps you want to be more committed in your Sunday worship attendance. Or maybe you want to find ways to participate more – in mission, in Sunday School, in service.

Or perhaps you’re sitting there saying, “The last thing I need is one more thing to do.” If that’s the case, what can you give up? What is one burden you carry that you can spend the next three months removing from your plate?

Or maybe you want to become more generous. Look: whenever we have a financial challenge here at Oglethorpe, I am always amazed by the response. As Paul shared with you earlier, we have already met and beat our challenge gift. And that only took a week. We still have a little ways to go before we can comfortably say that we will meet our expenses for 2014. And I know that some of you squirm when we talk about money; some of you might put up with it, knowing that we have to do it some, but would prefer we didn’t. Fair enough. But that’s not my point.

My point is this: what we do with what we are given says a lot about who we are and who we want to be. If you added up everything you gave away, how would it compare to what you take in? Would it be 1%? 10? 3? 15? Nothing? Does your giving say about you what you want it to?

I hope it goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: life is a series of phases. There are times when the going is rough and times when it’s smooth sailing. All of this is to say that there’s no magic formula for all. At the same time, do you know God well enough to know what is truly in store for you right now?

This is all a long way of saying that I’ve got something I want you to do today.

I want you to concentrate on one thing: how would you like to be different three months from now? It could be that you have something concrete in mind, like a developing a discipline or giving up a difficulty, in which case the goal is relatively clear. It could be that you are contemplating something more abstract, like less fear or more hope, something that, when you wake up in the morning three months from now, you will recognize some sign that things are really different. Maybe you’ll wake up with a smile for the first time in a long time.

Whatever it is, I want you to choose one thing.

A lot can happen in three months. When we meet again, we will be different. But I know this: when we meet again, we will have grown in our knowledge of God. And that is something to celebrate!

Risen in Word

We are connected.

One of the words that is often used to describe Presbyterians is “connectional”. It’s a helpful way of explaining our system of churches. Each congregation, like Oglethorpe Presbyterian, is independent enough to allow for creativity and flexibility. Most of the decisions we make as a church are done by those whom we elect into leadership. We call them elders. At the same time, we are also in partnership with other Presbyterian churches – by last count, about 100 in the Atlanta area and about 10,000 nationwide. And it is these connections which are crucial to my mind: they provide systems of both support and accountability.

When we struggle, we do not struggle alone. Instead, we have access to resources locally and nationally that can provide guidance, prayer, and support. And we are also nested in a system of checks and balances that makes sure we don’t go off the rails. In 2014, I don’t need to tell you how important that is. Too many churches and pastors, left to their own devices, have betrayed the sacred trust of the gospel.

We are connected.

That’s the message that lies at the heart of Jesus’ conversation with his disciples that we read in our lesson from John. That text is part of a long conversation that takes place during the Last Supper. Jesus speaks somewhat cryptically, talking about how he is in the Father and the Father is in him, which points to this idea of connection, that Jesus and God are intimately related. That’s hard enough to get our minds around. But Jesus goes on: “Whoever believes in me will do greater works than mine.”

Did you catch that? Philip demands to see God as proof of all of this talk, and Jesus replies by telling him that seeing what Jesus has done is all the evidence he needs. His teaching, his healing, that whole “water into wine” thing, that was all God at work in Jesus. But apparently, that was all peanuts compared to what those who believe in Jesus will be capable of, because Jesus will be at work in them.

Those who believe in Jesus will do things that eclipse Jesus himself? I don’t know about you, but I find that pretty hard to swallow…

It all seems to go back to this connection thing. God is at work in Jesus, Jesus will be at work in the disciples, and one down through the generations. And that brings us up to today.

We are connected.

Today, we do one of my absolute favorite Presbyterian things, and that is ordination and installation of elders and deacons. “Elders” is the title we give to those whom we elect into leadership. They include the pastor and members of the church. “Deacons” is the title we give to those whom we elect into ministries of care and compassion. And when we ordain folks and install them to these offices, we are living out an example of correction.

I remember the day of my ordination to ministry, which happened 14 years ago in Chicago. As I kneeled, the elders of First Presbyterian Church of Wilmette stood around me and placed their hands on my shoulders. My mother was in that elder “scrum” too. When my mother knelt for ordination at First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta, elders stood around her and placed hands on her shoulders. And they had once done the same.

So when we ordain and install elders and deacons today, it is as though our circle is surrounded by ever-widening circles that go further back in time, connecting us to that ragtag bunch of disciples, sitting in an Upper Room, listening to Jesus, and being promised gifts beyond imagining. And so, what we do here today is much more than just an odd little remnant of an ancient ritual. We are resting on the belief that this same power of Jesus echoes down through the ages, from touch to touch, from shoulder to shoulder, giving us the faith and ability to speak and act and pray as though Jesus is working through us!

And here’s one more Presbyterian spin on things: we are skeptical of individuals acting on their own, claiming to speak for God. We prefer to trust the wisdom of groups. When the elders meet together as a session, we discuss thoroughly. And when the group decides, even if I don’t agree with the decision (and that does happen from time to time), I am called to trust that we have done the best we can to discern God’s desires for the moment. And that should mean a great deal to us right now.

Next Sunday will be my last Sunday with you for three months. I cannot express my gratitude to you enough for this summer Sabbatical for my family and me, for the rest and refreshment it will provide us. And I also have to say that I am grateful to the Lilly Endowment for footing the bill for us as a church! I would be lying if I said I wasn’t looking forward to leaving. The truth is, I’m pretty excited. And yet, I will miss you all. I may not miss you all right away, but I will miss you. And I will look forward to returning in September so we can share stories with each other.

But the reason that I go in confidence is because of everything we have just talked about. The pastor is one of the elders in the congregation, and in influential one at that. But I am just one of the elders. There are nine other phenomenal leaders who prayerfully deliberate the direction of our congregation month in and month out.

By now, many of you have read about our Summer Minister, L’Anni Hill. If you haven’t, please pick up a copy of the newsletter in the lobby or check it out on our website. And be sure to welcome her on Sunday, June 1. She will be preaching, teaching, caring, and leading our congregation during my absence, all of which fills me with energy and excitement for Oglethorpe Presbyterian.

God is looking out for us. Of course, if you know our staff, you know that already. What can I say about our staff? Tim, who does everything in our music program, short of juggling, but I hear we might add that to his job description, too; Cheryl, who wears, at last count, 482 hats as our Office Manager and Christian Educator (on top of which she is both an ordained elder and deacon); Francisco, who I like to call “MacGyver” for his ability to use the most unusual of materials to hold our vintage building together; the unparalleled Linda Hawthorne, my tremendously gifted pastoral care partner in crime; our Preschool team, our amazing Preschool team, where I have been blessed to be both pastor and parent…

In short, I hope you hear how well supported we are as a congregation – make that, well-connected, because undergirding all of this is not just a human connection, but a godly one.

We are connected.

One more example of connection. As we bid Bethany farewell today as our Student Pastor, I am reminded of the many seminary students who have come through our doors over the years. Think of the many congregations and ministries they are now serving and the many, many people whose lives have been touched by them. They are leading congregations, teaching in seminaries, working in hospitals…Oglethorpe Presbyterian is a living, breathing example of this connectional DNA!

Because we are…connected.

Risen in Thought

God is speaking. Can you hear it?

When I was 13, I got my first walkman. For those of you too young to know what I’m talking about, it was essentially a giant ipod that could store up to one whole album at a time. The album that was on constant rotation at the time was 90125 by prog rockers Yes. I had to be careful not to turn the music up too loud, lest I miss the dulcet tones of my parents calling me. The first few times I listened to the opening song, “Owner of a Lonely Heart”, there was this sound that came right before the vocals kicked in. It was a kind of a squeal. The problem was that it sounded exactly like my mother’s call, “woohoo!”

I knew the sound of my mother’s voice – probably better than any other sound in the world. But here was this random sound scrap from an 80’s rock song that imitated what I thought I knew.

What about the voice of God? Friends, God is speaking. Can you hear it?

If God is really God, then surely there are times when God’s voice splits the clouds, sets a bush on fire, brings light into being. And yet, most of the time, God’s voice comes through others. In a world of cacophony and chaos, that’s not easy to do. And there are far too many who claim that they speak in God’s name when all they really do is use God’s name. So how do we develop that capacity to tell the difference? How can we cut through the noise to know when it really is God speaking to us?

There’s an app that I have learned to love. It’s called SoundHound, and it’s a song recognition program. If a tune comes on the radio or in the restaurant that I don’t know, all I do is touch a button and, within seconds, it gives me an answer. The way it works is that it has access to a massive database of songs. It essentially takes a fingerprint of the song sample you give it, and then matches it up with its massive database. The problem comes when there is too much other noise – either the song is too quiet, or the crowd is too loud. As precise as this technology might be, it doesn’t know how to focus on what’s important.

We do have that advantage over programming, that we can filter out what is unimportant. The trick is learning what it is that is necessary and what is frivolous. In our Scripture lessons today, we have these images of the shepherd and sheep. We have the shepherd of Psalm 23, who calls the sheep by name so that they follow him faithfully into the greenest pastures and the stillest waters. In the gospel of John, Jesus uses a similar image to talk about the faithful as sheep who recognize the sound of the guard who leads them out. When they hear a stranger’s voice, he says, they will know to flee. In other words, the sheep know without a doubt whose voice they can trust.

Now: putting aside for a moment the indignity of being compared to sheep, how does this sit with us? How confident are we that we can recognize God’s voice when it calls us out to feast and be satisfied?

I love playing trivia, because I apparently don’t know how to focus on what’s important. We had a trivia team that played together regularly, and each one of us had our areas of expertise. One of mine was song recognition. I could pick out the song, artist, and year within moments almost every single time. But there was one spectacular fail I still remember. The first few notes started, a guitar distorted with a waa-waa pedal, followed by a cymbal crash. That was it. No vocals, nothing. I was stumped, so I gave it my best guess: the theme song to “Three’s Company.” The answer? Marvin Gaye, “Let’s Get It On.” So close!

I had probably heard the song before, but not enough to recognize it. If we compare the brain to something like SoundHound, I simply didn’t have the database in place. The more often we have heard a song, the more often we are likely to recognize it. Even if it’s a song we don’t know by an artist we love, we are better suited to hear it correctly.

So how do we measure up when looking at God’s back catalog? Have we heard enough of what God has already done so that we can recognize it when God’s voice rings through again?

The goal here is competency. If we think of it like a language, whether that’s a foreign language or the insider language of a particular industry, you might eventually get to fluency; but long before that point, you’ll get to where you’re comfortable, even competent. And that’s the point here: we should be aiming for that place where we are confident, but not overconfident, in our ability to recognize God at work in our lives.

There are three phrases I want to suggest to help us filter through the noise. I am lifting these wholesale from Richard Hays, New Testament scholar at Duke University. And they are: community, cross, and new creation.

  • Community: God does not call us to gated lives, but to live in the world. We care about the fate of others. This is why we are horrified by the kidnapping of Nigerian girls. We are enriched by our interactions with others, even (and especially) if they don’t agree with us about everything. We can recognize God’s voice because it speaks to us of God’s desire for us to live connected to others, not to live in isolation. Community.
  • Cross: God’s relationship with humanity becomes most visible in the form of the cross. It was and is the embodiment of selfless love. There are those who will try to emphasize God’s judgment or wrath over God’s grace and mercy, and the cross is the clearest indicator that it is compassion and sacrificial love that reign supreme. Cross.
  • New Creation: Being in relationship with God means that we are changed. Our lives are visibly different because of our encounters with the risen Christ, transformed more and more into God’s likeness and wonder. New Creation.

These three – community, cross, and new creation – are a great way to think about how it is that we recognize God’s voice in the middle of the noisy chaos that envelops us. And the way we build our database, our vocabulary of God-speak? If you’ve been with us some this year, you know what I’m about to say: prayer.

You see, here’s the thing: what Jesus tells us in the lesson from John is something that ought to give us great courage. And that is that Jesus is not the guard in the story, but the gate. Jesus is the very thing that gives us the protection we desire. What I hope this means is that we can have the courage to take a chance, to learn this new language, to step out into this new adventure, confident in the fact that Christ will keep us safe from what it is that truly harms us.

God is already speaking, calling out to us. Can we hear it?

Risen?

Do not doubt; believe.

In the church calendar, we are a week removed from Easter. In our story from John, though, it is still Easter day. It was just that morning when Mary Magdalene found the tomb empty and tipped off the disciples. John and Peter sprinted to the garden to see for themselves. Once they leave, Jesus greets Mary by name. She then runs and tells the disciples the unbelievable word of resurrection.

We have no record of how the disciples received this news. What we do know is that they are still locked away, fearing what their fate might be. After all, the powers that be saw fit to execute Jesus. What might they do to his followers?

And that’s when Jesus just materializes. “Peace be with you.” They see his hands and side. They rejoice. And Jesus disappears into thin air.

Poor Thomas – he must’ve been out running errands or something, because he misses the whole thing. The disciples try to share with him what they just experienced. Thomas responds, “If I’m going to believe this nonsense, I need to see it for myself.”

And this is how Thomas the Twin came to be known as Doubting Thomas.

I don’t know about you, but this strikes me as unfair. So far, everyone who has encountered this news of resurrection has doubted. Mary was convinced that grave robbers were at work – that is, until she sees him face to face. John and Peter, we are told, believed but did not understand, which I take to mean that they had some kind of faith experience that took a while for their mental processes to catch up with. The rest of the disciples are hiding, even though Mary told them she met the risen Jesus. When he appears to them, he shows them his hands and his side.

Thomas, it seems to me, is more the victim of bad timing than doubt. He is not asking for any more proof of resurrection than anybody else has had the opportunity to experience. And once he sees, he believes, just like everyone else. And yet, we still know him as Doubting Thomas.

Do not doubt; believe.

How many of us are like Thomas? We want to believe in this outrageous thing called resurrection, and all we are looking for is a little proof. Is that so much to ask? Unless we see his hands and his side, we might not believe, either.

I am enough of a product of the 21st century that I am naturally skeptical of anyone who tells me that have met Jesus. At the same time, I have had enough encounters with people’s faith experiences that I know it can happen.

I was fresh out of my seminary book-learnin’ experience when I worked as a hospital chaplain in Chicago. On my rounds, I met a young woman who had gotten a dangerous infection when recovering from surgery. Knowing that she was possibly near death, she had a late night vision of Jesus, standing at the foot of her bed. And that was all she needed to know that no matter what happened, he was suffering right there with her. And I knew, no matter what my critical thinking might say to the contrary, that she was telling the truth.

Do not doubt; believe.

Is this the message we are supposed to get from this lesson, that doubting is wrong and believing is good? Sure – somewhat. That said, I think there’s something much deeper going on here. And the last few verses we read today shed some light on that. You see, the stories about Jesus that are shared are not just for the select few in that initial first or second century audience. They are meant to shore up the faith of those to come many, many years later. That includes us.

So when Jesus confronts Thomas, he already knows the pattern. Even those closest to him have trouble believing until they see. And so Jesus adds this little tweak at the end: “Do you believe because you see me? Happy are those who do not see and still believe.” (I think he’s talking about us!)

You see, here’s what happens to Doubting Thomas. According to tradition, Thomas headed east and ended up bringing the gospel to India. The members of the church he founded there are often referred to as “St. Thomas Christians”. They were part of the larger Eastern Orthodox Church in the early centuries, but by the 1300s, they were essentially cut off and isolated. In the 1500s, European nations began expanding their colonial reach. When they arrived in India, they were stunned to find these dark-skinned non-Europeans worshiping Jesus.

In short, this amazing legacy is what remains of Thomas’ work. Things like this don’t happen if doubt still has a stranglehold. At some point, Doubting Thomas became Believing Thomas.

Do not doubt; believe.

We tend see doubt and faith as opposites. Either you doubt, or you believe. But I’m not sure that’s a helpful approach. What would it look like if we embraced doubt as a way to serve faith?

Let’s take this ridiculous example of the cup and the cardboard. Why does it work?

Maybe I gamed the system. There’s something weird about the cup, or the cardboard has some kind of adhesive on it. We know when we see magic that there’s something else going on, something that has deceived us, if only we knew.

In this case, it’s a matter of science. I am no scientist, but as I understand it, because there is no air in the cup but just water, the water pressure pushing down on the cardboard is less than the air pressure pushing up, and that’s what keeps it in place. In other words, it’s not a trick. We just needed more information in order to understand why this works.

That, I believe, is the kind of approach we should take to faith. I don’t think it’s wrong to question, or test, or prove (a word which means “test”, by the way). In fact, I think it’s a healthy, even faithful thing to do. After all, as the saying goes, Jesus came to take away our sins, not our brains. At the same time, I think it’s important to keep the goal in mind. And that goal is faith.

Think about the cup. The purpose of asking questions is not to disprove that this weird thing happened. It did. We saw it. Instead, it’s to understand how it happened. And I think that taking this kind of approach to faith in Christ Jesus might transform both us and the church in amazing ways!

We don’t understand? That’s great! Then let’s ask! Let’s search! Let’s dig and explore! All the while, let’s trust the outcome, knowing that the purpose is not to disprove, but to improve. You see, the world we once knew doesn’t exist anymore. There was a time when a church could open its doors and expect people to show up on a Sunday morning. But that time is past. So we can’t just throw around our insider language and expect people to understand it.

“Greet the session in the narthex after the benediction.”

“Greet the who in the what now after the huh?”

We have to be translators of the gospel. And in order to do so, we have to ask those questions: of each other, of ourselves, yes, even of God! And friends, if I know Oglethorpe Presbyterian, then I think we are well-suited for this kind of work. We have always been a place that welcomes questions and examination. It’s no accident that we were birthed on a university campus 65 years ago. We have always been a community that lives with heart and head intimately connected.

Do you know how unusual that kind of church is, where doubting and questioning are par for the course? And do you know what I think? I think that means that we have an opportunity to offer the world a very different image of what church can be, a community where intellectual curiosity and compassionate service come together in a potent mix of smart faith.

We do not need to fear doubt. In fact, if faith is really as powerful as it is supposed to be, if God is really God, then they can handle doubt. They can field our questions. They can absorb our confusion, our troubles, our anger.

Friends, I trust that doubt can have a transformative purpose, that it can be a powerful means to serve our faith, to strengthen our belief, and to move us closer to understanding.

Risen?

Risen indeed!

Amen.

Risen!

He saw and believed…but he did not yet understand.

Let’s be honest: this is an odd story. Granted, it’s pretty central to our whole enterprise here. Without this resurrection thing, there’s not much reason for us to be here today – or any day, for that matter. What grabs me today, though, is this little nugget about John, the beloved yet unnamed disciple in the story. When he enters the tomb, he sees that it is empty, and so, we are told, he believes. But he did not yet understand.

John believed…but didn’t understand. Believed what? Understood what? Is it saying that he believed that the tomb was empty, but didn’t understand that Jesus was alive? Possibly…but I think if that were the case, he would be as despondent as Mary and join in the hunt for the body.

No…as strange as it may sound, I think it’s more likely that John believed in the resurrection before he understood it.

That’s not too much of a stretch, really, is it? We have gut feelings, those initial reactions where we just know something is wrong – or right – long before we can put words to those feelings. And there are probably a lot of us here who feel like John when it comes to faith. We believe that resurrection is possible – even believe that Jesus rose from the dead – but remain clueless about the mechanics of it.

At the same time, there are probably a lot of us here – and way more out there – who can’t believe in something so absurd as resurrection until we first understand it. Is it really too much to ask to see proof before we agree? No one expects us to sign a contract if we don’t get to read it first. Why should the resurrection be any different?

We like to think of ourselves as rational beings. We think things through. That’s what separates us from the rest of the animals, isn’t it, the ability to reason? Without that, we would be no more than hairless apes, giving in to every whim and urge.

It’s kind of adorable that we think so highly of ourselves. The truth is that we are a bundle of logic and feeling. And there are times when we need to let feeling take the lead.

Some of you might know the story of the Getty Kouros, an ancient Greek statue that the Getty Museum bought for nine million dollars in 1985. Before making the purchase, they put it through rigorous scientific testing to gauge its authenticity. The problems came after they paid for it. Several times, the Getty invited art experts to come at marvel at their purchase. And it happened repeatedly: the expert would walk in and immediately get a feeling that the piece was a fake. And the more the statue was studied, the more that initial feeling seemed to be true. Now, the statue bears a label saying, “Greek, about 530BC, or modern forgery.”

The experts who spotted the fake right away had spent years practicing their craft. Starting in internships and working their way up, they logged thousands of hours looking at archaeological finds to the point that their gut would know a fraud from the real deal long before they could explain it. Believing before understanding? It’s what we’re wired for. And the more we practice, the more we can be like John, where a mere glimpse of an empty tomb tells us everything we need to know to believe.

Remember: John and the other disciples had followed Jesus day in and day out for at least three years. We don’t know how much they knew of the faith prior to Jesus calling them. But by the time Easter came around, they had logged enough hours to recognize a miracle long before they could understand it.

Do we? Or have we even put in the time? If the goal is to build up muscle memory for faith, then we need to log the hours. And when we do, we will not only know the truth in our guts. We will know enough to trust that feeling, the glimpse that tells us all we need to believe. Understanding will follow…sometimes we just need to give it the time it needs.

So if that’s our destination, having enough practice under our belts to recognize miracles, then what’s the path? How do we get there?

I’d like to meet the person who invented the pedometer. What a brilliantly simple concept: an inconspicuous device that clips onto your waist and counts your paces. 10,000 steps a day is the goal, a distance that is an indicator that we are doing what we need to in order to keep fit. In essence, we have taken this complex idea of physical fitness and have managed to boil it down to a simple, achievable goal.

I would love find the faith pedometer. Faith is complex. Is there something that would help us boil it down to something simple so we can log those faith hours?

If you have been reading this blog at all this year, you probably have a hunch of what I’m about to say. As a community and as individuals, we have been growing toward a daily practice of five minutes of prayer. And as I’ve said before, what I have found so rewarding about doing so is how it seems to tune me into God’s wavelength, heightening my awareness to the extraordinary shining through the ordinary. I still think that’s a worthy goal to strive toward.

A couple of weeks ago, we wrote our individual commitments to prayer down. Those commitments now hang in the Narthex.

I’m also aware that, for many of you, Easter is one of the few times you’ll darken the door of a church over the course of the year. I know you don’t come to hear a guilt trip from the pulpit, and that’s not what I want to do. What I do want to do is encourage you to consider is that church could be a key part of building up that muscle memory, of logging those hours, of refining those feelings so that a mere glance at an empty tomb tells us everything you need to know.

I was fortunate enough to be raised in a healthy church environment. I sat between Grandmommy and Granddaddy each and every Sunday. I followed along in the hymns and the Bible readings. I knew the Apostle’s Creed and the Lord’s Prayer by heart. That was all fine and good. But when my first real adult crisis came along, when a loved one faced an illness that threatened to take them away, that’s when all those hours bore fruit. The muscle memory kicked in. When words eluded me, the Lord’s Prayer bubbled up and took their place. The years of practice took over and gave me the faith I didn’t have so that I could hold on until logic and understanding finally caught up.

Look: there are so many things we are willing to stretch ourselves to the point of discomfort. We get up earlier than we would like because of what time they want us at work. We wage the battle to make sure the kids go to school, even if they don’t want to, because we know it will matter down the road. We stay up late to crunch for that exam. We get up early to get to the gym. We watch our diets and our wallets as a matter of discipline.

So here’s my question: how does faith fit?Or does it? If the job goes, if the education fizzles, if we are dangerously ill, if the loved one is no longer with us, when life hits that crisis, will we have the faith to hold on until understanding can catch up?

A couple of months ago, post-it notes started popping up around the church. Some of you probably noticed them today. There are little positive messages on them like, “You are not a burden” or “You are loved” or my favorite, “If I weren’t a post-it, I’d give you a hug.” I’ll admit that I had a role in getting those started, but pretty soon, they started showing up in handwriting that wasn’t mine. It became viral, a kind of Guerrilla Grace.

But there’s a problem with these notes: they’re in the wrong place. Let me rephrase that: these are the kinds of messages we need to hear and see in church. And there are too many churches where, unfortunately, people are exposed to the exact opposite. It’s just that…these are the kinds of messages we need everywhere. Imagine: what would it be like if that dysfunctional graffiti on the bathroom walls was replaced with encouragement; or even if there was one shining light, a simple note in the midst of the dreck that says, “God loves you”?

You see, what I believe, what I know in my gut but don’t yet understand is that we can change the culture! But it means we have to get outside this building. Don’t get me wrong: it’s a good thing to come here, to see the empty tomb and recognize the miracle that it is. What is crucial is what we do with that belief. If we keep it to ourselves, that’s just selfish hoarding. But if we, like Mary Magdalene, run to tell the others, that’s how God will use us to transform the world!

So I’ve got an assignment for you today. Take your own post-it notes (which, by the way, were invented by a Presbyterian). Spend some time writing messages on them, notes of affirmation, of love, of Guerrilla Grace. Keep them close by. And when the moment strikes you, put it up wherever you go. At home, at work, at school, be a part of this amazing movement that lets the world know how much it is loved. Share it. Repeat it. Spread it! Believe it, even if you don’t yet understand it.

The truth is that one of these notes may be just the glimpse someone needs so they can believe the tomb is empty.

The Lord is risen. He is risen indeed!

The Lord is risen. He is risen indeed!

The Lord is risen. He is risen indeed!

Alleluia, Alleluia!

 

Prayer: Hosanna

Hosanna in the highest!

Today begins our week-long parade that starts overlooking Jerusalem and ends with an empty tomb. We will take time to gather around the table on Thursday and mark the Last Supper. On Friday, we remember that before resurrection comes betrayal, crucifixion, suffering, and death. And at first light on Sunday, we will find the stone rolled away, and sprint to share the news.

But first things first: Hosanna!

It’s the word the crowds cry as they gather along the roadside. Hosanna! As Jesus rides down from the Mount of Olives, they place their cloaks in his path. Hosanna! They cut branches, waving them and laying them in the road, too. Hosanna! The crowds surrounded Jesus, shouting and praying, “Hosanna!”

What is the “Hosanna”? It must be some Hebrew word of praise. They call Jesus the “Son of David,” invoking the name of the great ancient king. “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord,” they cry. They have some inkling of who he is and what this entry to Jerusalem must mean. “Hosanna in the highest heaven!” They are taking this one all the way to the top!

Hosanna!

It’s possible that by the time of Jesus, the word meant no more to most people than a placeholder of elation, like a first century “Yay” or “Wow” or some other monosyllabic palindrome. But no doubt, there were those who knew its origins. The religious authorities, for one, knew what it meant. The disciples, too – indeed, anyone who was steeped in the faith would know what it meant. And they also knew that by virtue of the cry of “Hosanna”, this was far more than a simple peasants’ parade. This was a procession meant to challenge the very heart of politics and religion as they were known, an affront to the Jerusalem status quo.

“Hosanna” does come from an old Hebrew phrase, but one that was less praise and more desperate plea. “Save now!” It was a phrase stripped of all pretense of politeness. “Help!” Its insistent cry was one reserved for royalty or divinity. “Deliver us! Don’t wait!” The people are either calling Jesus “king” or “God” or both.

In other words, this “Hosanna” lets us know that the crowds are not simply uttering prayers of praise. They are anointing the leader of a coup!

In the first century, the people of Judea were laboring under a triple occupation. The Romans had claimed this important geography as their own, controlling this crucial trading zone where three continents come together. Conspiring with this foreign Empire was King Herod, a figurehead Jewish ruler who was far more concerned with his own tentative grip on regional power than he was with the well-being of his people.

And the religious establishment colluded, too. The priests and scholars, the keepers of the traditions of priests and prophets that came before, were more interested in ritual purity than they were in sacred concepts like righteousness and justice, especially if invoking them might mean losing what little authority they had.

Hosanna indeed! This was a people in need of being saved, and they pinned their hopes on this Jesus, this prophet from Nazareth in Galilee, crying out to him on the road and following him into the city.

What happens next is where the story turns. Instead of heading to Herod’s palace and using the surging crowd to overthrow the puppet, Jesus heads to the Temple. He flips over tables and drives out the merchants. It’s a scathing action that put him at the top of the hit list, revealing that those in charge were more concerned with power than faithfulness.

By ending at the Temple, Jesus took a risk. And it probably lost him the crowds. It is only a few days later that those who cried out to him as Savior are now calling for his crucifixion. Hosanna indeed.

Are we like the crowds? Sadly, probably so. We can be fickle. We are eager to cheer Jesus on when he agrees with us. We are ready to turn our back on him when he discomforts us. So what would it look like for us to be those crowds, embracing Hosannas, crying out to Jesus as he enters into the heart of it all, but instead of turning tail, following him to the bitter end?

My own mind is drawn today to Anne Lamott’s book, which you have heard us reference a few times: Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers. In it, Lamott says that all prayers boil down to these three simple words: help, thanks, wow. And more often than not, these concepts overlap and run together. Lamott tells the story of an outing with her friend Barbara when she was in the final stages of ALS. Lamott asked her, “What are you most grateful for these days?” Her response, from the midst of precipitous decline, was this: “The beauty of nature, the birds and flowers the beauty of friends.” Even there in the midst of suffering, where the daily plea for “help” was surely at the forefront, Barbara still had the presence of mind to say “thanks”.

I think a truly holy Hosanna can hold these three words together, this help, thanks, and wow. Hosanna cries for deliverance. It calls out in gratitude. And it gives voice to holy awe.

What is your prayer today? What is your commitment to grow into daily prayer?

That’s the thing about following this Jesus: it’s risky stuff. We may want him to go to Herod’s palace, but that’s the moment when he’ll head toward the Temple. We may hope he’ll agree with us and what we’re already sure we know is true, but that’s the moment that he’ll challenge us directly and reveal to us what Truth really looks like.

And isn’t that what faithfulness is all about? It’s a journey, a parade, with stops and stumbles along the way, full of moments of both doubt and certainty, of hesitation and growth. It’s a procession whose ultimate destination will remain shrouded in mystery, but a holy mystery embodied in this royal, divine Jesus.

Hosanna indeed?

Hosanna indeed!

Prayer: Gratitude

RisenGratitude for what is.
Gratitude for what was.
Gratitude for what will be.

Our lesson this morning from John’s gospel tells the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. It is a story about prayer. It is a story that reminds us that prayer comes in many shapes and sizes, many forms and practices. And what lies at the heart of it all, regardless of what it might look like, is our theme for the day: gratitude.

We have been talking a lot about prayer this year. And, I hope, we have been praying a lot, too. I have been challenging each of you to take on a daily practice of prayer. And as you have heard from me and from others in our community, more than anything else, I hope you have seen that prayer is a very individual practice. What works for me might not work for you. Maybe it’s sitting still that calms you enough to enter into prayerfulness. Or perhaps it’s being on the move that helps you keep pace with God’s activity in the world.

Have you figured out what works for you? Are you at least on your way? Maybe you don’t have it all pinned down, but have you at least gained some insight into what kinds of prayer might be best for you. How many of you feel like you are at least pointed in the right direction? Whether you feel like you can say yes or no to that, today is all about encouraging you to keep at it.

Gratitude takes many forms. So let’s start with gratitude for what is. In many ways, this is the one that ought to be clearest. We see what we have, the blessings around us, and we are grateful. We recognize how blessed we are, and we give thanks to God, the giver of every good and perfect gift.

That seems to be what’s at work behind our lesson from John today. Mary and Martha call out to Jesus not only because they know what Jesus is capable of, but because they don’t want to lose what they have – namely, their brother, Lazarus. They may not be able to name it in that moment, but for them, there is gratitude for what is in this sibling relationship – so much so that they want to hold onto it.

That gratitude is also there in the disciples’ decision to go to visit Lazarus with Jesus. Word reaches them about Lazarus when they are across the Jordan River. Bethany is just outside Jerusalem. And knowing what they know about Jerusalem, about Jesus’ escalating conflict with the powers that be based in that city, they have a sense that going to Bethany means going toward certain death. And yet, they go. Led by Thomas, the one who later doubts, they go.

Again, I’m not sure the disciples would name that decision as one of gratitude, but they know and appreciate what they have in being with Jesus. They have seen his power. They have learned from his wisdom. They don’t want to lose that, but they know that traveling with him to the bitter end might mean having access to it just a little bit longer.

There’s a funny thing about this kind of gratitude, though – the gratitude for the present, the most tangible form of gratitude. It’s the one we are most likely to take for granted. There is something about us that seems to be uncomfortable with comfort. The moments where we should be most content are usually the ones in which we are most likely to be discontent. We are more likely to desire what we don’t have than what we do.

My encouragement to you is to spend some time taking stock of those things for which you ought to be grateful. Don’t get drawn in by jealousy, by looking at what someone else has and getting suckered into desire for what they have and you don’t. There are blessings right beneath our nose that we often miss because we won’t sit still long enough to notice them.

Gratitude for what is; gratitude for what was.

When Elizabeth and I were living in Louisville, one of the strongest draws back to Atlanta for us was family. We knew we were about to start our own, and we wanted our little family to be connected with that larger network here in Atlanta: cousins, aunts and uncles, grandparents, great-grandparents.

My grandmother was ninety-five years old when we moved back. She lived just down the street from here. And every Friday, we would go and have lunch with her. She lived to be ninety-nine. I cherished her, and there are many dear memories that will live on. In some ways, it feels foolish to weep over a life that lasted just shy of a century. And yet, I did; because we miss what we love.

Every loss contains at least an element of sadness. I realize that for some Christians, that idea comes close to blasphemy. The thinking goes that we are a people of hope, trusting in the promise of life beyond life. Therefore, shouldn’t death be an occasion for rejoicing? My response is simply this: Jesus wept. If it’s good enough for Jesus, it ought to be good enough for us.

Jesus not only knows this promise of eternal life more than any of us, he inhabits it; embodies it. He tells the disciples that the death of Lazarus is an opportunity to show the power of God. And yet, when he sees the mourners crying, he is moved. When he makes his way to the tomb of his friend Lazarus, he weeps. He doesn’t, for a moment, doubt God’s power in what is about to happen. And yet, he grieves. I don’t think this is just compassion – though I’m sure compassion is part of what moves him so deeply. Jesus is, quite simply, sad. When the reality of Lazarus’ death hits him in the face, he cries.

And what lies just beneath the surface of sadness, I believe, is gratitude. If we lose something or someone we don’t particularly care about, then we don’t tend to shed any tears. But when we cherish someone or something we lose, we are heartbroken. That heartbreak is shaped by many things: sadness for what will never be, emptiness for what is lost. And yet, right there in the midst, I believe, is gratitude. We may not be able to see it right away, but it is there, and it will come.

Gratitude for what is; gratitude for what was; gratitude for what will be.

This is the gratitude of hope, the gratitude of possibilities. It is an intangible gratitude, because it is the gratitude of the unknown. It’s the gratitude of a stone rolled away, of a dead man walking out of a tomb, of a community surrounding him and finishing the work of resurrection.

And that’s where today’s conversation, hopefully, moves us forward in the months to come. While we will not be talking about prayer as much as we have been, we will continue to grow as a praying congregation. My vision is that every single one of us is praying daily. Some of you are already there. Some of you are on your way. Some of you probably think I’m way off base here. All I can tell you is that my own life is better, and markedly so, because of daily prayer. How can I not want that for each you?

You see, the more we are in prayer, the more we are in tune with God. And the more we are in tune with God, the more we know the character of Jesus that is at the heart of God. If what will be is in God’s hands, then hope is the surest thing of all, because hope is at the heart of God. What will be may not look like what we expect. And yet, what will be is as outrageous as a dead man living, because what will be belongs to God.

Today, I want you to do is to make a commitment to what your prayer life will look like from here. It could be a word, a phrase, a doodle, a drawing, whatever it is that makes the most sense to you.

For me, the word is consistency. The more I practice prayer, the more consistent I am with my daily habit; and yet, I still feel like I am too easily thrown off track. So my commitment from this day forward is consistency.

Maybe that’s true for you; or maybe it’s about getting started – really giving this prayer thing a try. Or perhaps it’s about figuring out what it is that works for you. Are you distracted too easily? Do you need the focus of a candle, a song, a Biblical text as your centering mantra? Or is it that you want to be more mindful of how it is that you pray? Maybe it’s about spending that daily time journaling, writing or drawing your way with God. I don’t know what it is that calls to you, challenges you, comforts you. Prayer is as individual as you are.

Maybe it’s the commitment of accountability that you’re looking for. If so, then I would suggest a prayer partner.

A prayer partner can be someone you pray with regularly, or someone who prays for you regularly, or someone who checks on your prayer life regularly, or any combination of these.

My hope is that gratitude will permeate all of your prayers: gratitude for what is; gratitude for what was; gratitude for what will be.

Amen.

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