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Suffering produces endurance. Endurance produces character. Character produces hope.

Our lesson this morning comes from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Church at Rome. He has been busy traveling and preaching, spreading the gospel as he goes. This particular church, though, is one he did not start. He is coming to visit them, and wants to establish some kind of connection before his arrival. What he doesn’t yet know is that Rome is the city in which he will die.

Suffering produces endurance. Endurance produces character. Character produces hope.

It is also important that we remember where Paul came from. He was a Pharisee who went by the name of Saul and, in the early days of the Christian movement, he was one of its fiercest opponents. He oversaw the martyrdom of Stephen at the hands of a murderous crowd. His dramatic conversion came while he was traveling up to Damascus to continue this cruel work.

Suffering produces endurance. Endurance produces character. Character produces hope.

All of this, of course, comes in the shadow of the cross. Jesus, the hope of the world, had been betrayed by those closest to him. He was tried, tortured, sentenced, and executed. And on the cross, he breathed his last before being buried in the tomb.

Suffering produces endurance. Endurance produces character. Character produces hope.

The early days of Christianity seem to be most pronounced by their suffering, a reality that continues to shape so much of Christian theology. There are places where this is still true. One need only speak with the families of Ethiopian and Egyptian Christians viciously beheaded by ISIS militants to know that this is true.

At the same time, our situation as 21st century American Christians is about as far removed from these kinds of contexts as possible. Our day-to-day existence is relatively carefree. We may be living in a society that is less and less “churched”, but the truth is that this is something we have to face as a minor inconvenience, not a life-threatening situation. Even so, this history continues to shape how we see the world.

Suffering produces endurance. Endurance produces character. Character produces hope.

There are many reasons why I am focused on this question of suffering today. The headlines are part of it – while the world is, in many ways, a far less volatile place to be, the 24-hour news cycle has turned up the temperature to the point that anything – anything – is worth spending hours analyzing. Things are happening halfway around the world feel like they are happening to us. If that drove us to compassion, that would be a good thing; instead, it tends to stoke the flames of our fears.

That’s part of it. But the bulk of it is that I have been spending a lot of time lately with families who are going through their own sufferings. Well-meaning people, in their efforts to provide comfort, offer up their own explanations, things that they would be better off keeping to themselves. And it all seems to swirl around suffering, around this idea that God must have meant for their suffering to happen in order for some greater purpose to bloom and flower.

I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t settle well with me. It bothers me when people say, “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.” It’s not that I don’t believe it; it’s just that I most often hear it when ascribing horrific things to God.

In my estimation, no one has ever put it better than William Sloane Coffin. For ten years, Coffin served as Senior Pastor of Riverside Church in New York City. In 1983, his son Alex was killed in a car accident. Ten days later, Coffin delivered the eulogy. In it, he delivered these words that have rung in my ears ever since I first heard them:

For some reason, nothing so infuriates me as the incapacity of seemingly intelligent people to get it through their heads that God doesn’t go around this world with…fingers on triggers…fists around knives…hands on steering wheels. God is dead set against all unnatural deaths. And Christ spent an inordinate amount of time delivering people from paralysis, insanity, leprosy, and muteness. Which is not to say that there are no nature-caused deaths — I can think of many right here in this parish in the five years I’ve been here — deaths that are untimely and slow and pain-ridden, which for that reason raise unanswerable questions…The one thing that should never be said when someone dies is ‘It is the will of God.’ Never do we know enough to say that. My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die; that when the waves closed over the sinking car, God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break.

Suffering produces endurance. Endurance produces character. Character produces hope.

You see, here is the thing about suffering. I do not believe that God causes suffering. If that were the case, I would have a hard time standing up here with a straight face, suggesting that worship is a worthwhile activity. Instead, I believe that God is more powerful than suffering, and can take suffering, broken heart and all, to transform it for the sake of the good that God desires.

There is an Old Testament story that illustrates this best, I believe, that of Joseph and his brothers. They are jealous of the attention that their father, Jacob, showers on Joseph. Not only that, they are bugged by the fact that Joseph seems to lord it over them. They plan to kill him, but change their mind at the last moment and merely sell him into slavery in Egypt. Joseph, somehow, manages to rise through the ranks to become the Pharaoh’s right-hand man. When famine strikes the land of Canaan, his brothers come to Egypt seeking sustenance and, as luck would have it, Joseph is the one who provides for their well-being. “What you intended for ill,” Joseph says, “God intended for good.” In other words, while is brothers were seeking to punish Joseph for his arrogance, God took what could have been misery and was ultimately able to bring good out of it.

That, I believe, is what is at work in what Paul writes to the Church at Rome. He knows that, as a minority community, they suffer. And while God did not intend nor create that suffering, God is able to take that suffering through a process and transform it into something that is ultimately good. In suffering, we learn how to endure. In that endurance, we cultivate character – a character that is, in the end, steeped in hope. And hope, we believe, has the final word.

The suffering of Christ was transformed into resurrection. The suffering of the early church was transformed into Paul’s conversion. And the suffering of Paul was transformed into the growth of the church. This is our hopeful inheritance! This is what the church exists for! This is the church into which we baptize: a community that lives to make hope alive and real in the world.

Friends, there are many out there who have rarely, or even never, set foot inside a church. To be brutally honest, I’m not sure that’s such a bad thing. There are many churches that have gotten convoluted in their purpose. As the theologian Jürgen Moltmann puts it, “The kingdom of God isn’t there for the sake of the church. The church is there for the sake of the kingdom.” In other words, we are not the perfection God desires. Instead, the church is meant to be the vehicle through which the kingdom is built. Sometimes that building is quite literal, as Habitat homes go up. Sometimes, it is built in the subtlest of ways, in prayers that come in moments of desperation. Whatever the case, we are called to be those builders!

There are many out there who need and deserve to hear this word of hope. In the absence of it, we are fumbling in the dark, creating God in our own image and finding meaning in all the wrong places. Without it, we are vulnerable to bad theologies and empty platitudes that may be offered with the best of intentions, but often do more harm than good.

Instead, when we recognize that God has not given up on us yet, and when we share that gift with others, we begin to sketch the outlines of God’s desires for us in a world where suffering still exists. But rather than seeing as suffering existing for its own sake, can we begin to see it as something we might have a hand in transforming?

After all, suffering produces endurance. Endurance produces character. Character produces hope.

Above all, though, let us remember this important point: we are not just the church when we are inside this building. If we are, then we have confused the kingdom with the church. As the children’s song puts it, “I am the church; you are the church; we are the church together.” It is not when we enter this place, but when we leave it that we truly become church, called out and into a world that suffers, a world that hungers and thirsts for hope.

And that hope? It does not disappoint; because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the gift of the Holy Spirit.

May it be so, now and always.

Amen.

There may be missteps in the journey of grace; but the destination is still a good one.

Our lesson this morning follows the leaders of the early church as they move through modern-day Turkey, bringing the gospel with them as they go. Paul (who was once known as “Saul”) and Barnabas are the evangelists to the Gentiles, taking the word and promise of Jesus beyond the Jewish sect of Christians and out into the broader world.

As they depart Antioch and enter the city of Lystra, they encounter a crippled man whom Paul, somehow, recognizes as someone who believes he can be healed. And he is. The result, however, is not what they anticipated. First, the crowds are convinced that the gods have taken human form and begin to worship and sacrifice to them. Second, Paul and Barnabas do, indeed, take the opportunity to preach about Jesus; but the crowds pretty much ignore them. Third, our lesson stops short by one verse to what I see as the real crisis: the local Jewish community overwhelms the crowd, forcing Paul into a fate he once forced on others: he is barraged with stones and left for dead. Let’s just say that this day probably did not go the way Paul had hoped.

Have you ever had days like that? Have there been times when you can see the destination at hand, but the closer you get, unforeseen obstacles rise up to block your way? If not, then please leave, because you’re making the rest of us look bad!

I am pretty sure all of us have had those moments – whether in faith or in anything else – where the journey gets tough, to say the least. We know where it is we are headed, but as we approach, we lose footing. We are beset by something unexpected. Unanticipated crises knock us off course.

There are, for certain, missteps in the journey of grace. And yet, the promise is that the destination is a good one.

This, in a nutshell, is the whole story of faith we say we believe. Sin and grace battle it out. And while sin may lurch ahead in the short run, nothing can outpace the outrageous abundance of grace that surrounds us.

It’s there in the story of creation. God makes and calls good. The snake tempts and leads astray…but God stays faithful.

Then God makes promises to God’s people. They forget and throw their weight behind other gods…but God keeps God’s word, sending prophets to encourage and cajole them back toward faithfulness.

God’s people still don’t quite live up to their end of the bargain, so God decides to show up personally. And this Jesus loves, heals, graces, forgives. This perfect mercy, however, is too threatening. Jesus is betrayed, sentenced, sentenced to death, killed, and buried. But God isn’t finished yet – not by a long shot.

The long arc of salvation seems to be marked by this push and pull, even today. God stays faithful, and we are grateful. And then we forget and wander off…but God is committed to this promise, this trust that we are far more worthy than we seem to be able to demonstrate. When we are desperate, we call on God. When things are good, though, that’s when we think we can take a break from God…until things get bleak again. And our personal cycle from faith to distrust to pleading and back again continues.

And yet, if we look closely enough, we can see the key to staying in focus right there in our own fumblings. You see, no matter what, God believes in us. Despite all evidence to the contrary at times, God still believes in us! It’s as if when all we can see is an empty shell, God sees our purest selves and calls out in that still, small voice: “I’m not done with you, yet. There is far more good to be done.” At the times when we find ourselves stranded on the margins, whether by our own doing or by the doing of others, that’s when God comes to us, healing us, restoring us, loving us more than we think we deserve.

Our calling is to take that character of God we know in Jesus and to mirror it to the world around us.

That is exactly what Paul and Barnabas were doing in Lystra. They saw this man who, in all likelihood, had simply become part of the scenery in town. It’s not a stretch to imagine that this people had stopped even seeing this crippled man, so used were they to his injuries and imperfections. And yet, Paul immediately recognized him and his suffering, saw his faith and desire, and reached out in compassion to love and to heal.

That’s what the church is supposed to do: to see those whom others have stopped recognizing. We are supposed to reach out to those on the margins, to extend a helping and healing and praying hand of comfort and courage. This is why we do Habitat builds. This is why our hearts break when we read of massive earthquakes in Nepal and terrified refugees in Syria. This is why we are so distraught when the world doesn’t go the way it should: because we have that glimpse of God within us and know the world can be a better place than it seems to end up so often. We can sense God’s desire and feel God’s heartbreak for a broken world.

This is our call, friends: to be those instruments of grace, the hands and feet of Christ in a world that sometimes literally crumbles before our eyes. There are times when we move forward. And there are times when we are knocked back, when the missteps seem take over the journey. And yet, the destination is still in God’s hands and is one of goodness.

After Paul is left for dead on the streets of Lystra, he and Barnabas leave for Derbe, where they meet with more success in sharing the good news of Christ. From Derbe, they head back to Lystra, where we are told they encourage the believers. In the end, it seems, despite all evidence to the contrary, their initial work had actually paid off. Even though it first appeared that they had been ignored, and even though their lives had been threatened, the gospel had taken root after all. How? Was it the healed man, becoming God’s messenger and proof of God’s goodness? Was it the crowds who saw Paul lynched, moved to compassion and sympathy? Was it that the evangelists’ words of caution about Zeus and Hermes rang in the people’s ears long after Paul and Barnabas had left?

Whatever the case, despite the missteps and obstacles, they journey continued on toward goodness.

You see, that’s just the thing: what matters, among everything else, is that Paul and Barnabas are crystal clear about what it is that motivates and moves them. When they are greeted as gods in human form, when even the priest of Zeus is convinced that it’s best to break out the sacrifices, Paul and Barnabas remain steadfast in their devotion to God. They do not take the glory for themselves, but seize the opportunity to let the confused crowds know that it is the power of Christ within them that brings this healing. It may not have sunk in at first, but eventually, their witness bears great fruit.

Do we do this?

We might not ever be in the position of bringing a crippled man to dancing. And yet, we might be among those who bring healing to a fractured community. We might be among those who allow a struggling family to celebrate the gift of home ownership. We might be among those who extend a hand of compassion to those who are broken down. We might be among those who reach out in grace to those around whom the world is crumbling. Whatever it is, if someone were to ask us why we do what we do, would we be able to give an accounting? Could we point toward what it is we believe about God’s story of creative purpose? Can we speak to the hope of Christ within us, even when the world seems to be pointing in the other direction?

Friends, there may be missteps in the journey of grace. And yet, no matter what, the destination is still one of goodness. That much is sure. When we draw on our own strength, it is likely we will run dry. But when we lean into each other and God’s strength that knits us together, that is when we are likely to do signs and wonders that point far beyond us and to the God whom we worship, serve, and love.

Our faith should be as sure as the ground we walk on.

Our lesson this morning jumps ahead in the Book of Acts quite a distance. In the last two weeks, we went from the empty tomb on Easter to the disciples’ reunion with Jesus in the Galilee. Now, we have fast-forwarded past Christ’s ascension to heaven, the beautiful chaos of Pentecost, the organizing of the early church in structure and finances, the martyrdom of Stephen at the command of Saul, and the scattering and regrouping of the Christian movement to avoid further persecution.

And now today, we read the account of the first Gentile convert to the fledgling faith. We need to remember that, at this point in the story, Christianity was not its own separate faith or ideology. Instead, it had become a mystical Jewish sect, following the teachings and miracles of their rabbi Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus had some key interactions with non-Jews in his three years of public ministry that helped lay the groundwork for how the church would approach the conversation. But this moment is a pivotal one, the first step in a complete transformation of Christianity.

God ends up orchestrating the whole encounter, like some kind of divine matchmaker. Cornelius, though a soldier of the occupying Roman forces, had already become a worshiper of the Jewish God and had brought his whole household – family, servants, and all – into the fringe of the foreign faith. And then, in the middle of the afternoon, he has an encounter with an angel.

The angel uses this as an opportunity to connect him with Peter. The impulsive figurehead of the disciples had relocated to Joppa, along the Mediterranean Coast, to find some shelter and safety. So as Cornelius’ messengers are making their way to Peter, God is preparing Peter to receive them with a mystical vision. Up on the roof, he sees an image that pulls apart the very foundations of ritual practice. The distinction between Kosher and non-Kosher no longer applies. When the messengers arrive, Peter connects the dots. Our lesson today skips over Peter’s trip to Caesarea to meet Cornelius face to face, but it does end with his new insight that “God shows no partiality.”

And Christians never discriminated against anyone ever again.

That last part is not true, of course; but the heart of this story today is so earth-shaking for early Christianity that its core message has radiated throughout the church’s history, even up until today. As Presbyterians, we have codified this idea of God changing hearts and minds with the phrase, “The Reformed Church, always being reformed.” In other words, we hold things lightly, because there is always the possibility that we might not have it right; that we, too, might have a vision on a roof or a mid-afternoon encounter with God that will change us in unexpected ways.

One of many such moments was the birth of the Confessing Church movement in Germany in response to the rise of National Socialism. The so-called “German Church” endorsed Hitler’s policies and philosophy, a kind of theological baptizing of a racist ideology. And yet, there were Christians who were deeply disturbed at what was happening and wanted to make clear that not only did they object to these trends, but they did so because they were convinced that Jesus commanded them to be bold in the face of injustice and horror.

Martin Niemoeller was a pastor in this resistance movement. You may not know his name, but you surely know his famous quote, “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Socialist. They they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak.”

Another was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was vocal enough in his opposition that he was sent to prison and then was martyred in a concentration camp. A third was Karl Barth, who in 1934 drafted the Barmen Declaration, the foundational document of the Confessing Church. He eventually fled to the United States, and became an influential theologian. This Barmen Declaration is part of our Presbyterian constitution, one document among many that Presbyterians see as important moments of the Church speaking to particular moments in history. Many of these moments owe their origin to Peter’s transformation.

What his vision reveals is a theme that we seem to touch on regularly here at Oglethorpe Presbyterian: God’s tribe is always bigger than ours. And there continue to be crucial moments in our history where we recognize this so that our vision of community might look more and more like the kingdom of God. Progress can be long and slow; and yet, it is progress. As Martin Luther King, Jr., once famously said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Our lesson today gives witness to that progress. Just a few verses beyond where our readings end, Peter baptizes Cornelius’ household. And as he does, Peter’s Jewish cohort sees Gentiles having a charismatic experience that paralleled theirs in Jerusalem on Pentecost: speaking in tongues, understanding languages they’ve never learned…And the story continues to expand. Peter and Paul meet in Jerusalem, wrestling over what Gentile converts to Christianity might mean, eventually agreeing that they do not need to be circumcised or keep Kosher laws in order to be part of the body of Christ. Even in its earliest days, Christianity was marked by its desire to grow and change, to be an incarnate faith that may look and behave in different ways at different times. And yet, no matter what, it should be as sure as the ground we walk on.

A few months ago, I started taking yoga classes. Once a week, I make my way over to the Y to take my place between the folks who are limber in ways that I’m pretty sure God never intended and the so-called duffers who inspire me with their persistence. I started because I needed the stretching regimen. Periodically, our teacher veers into the spirituality of yoga which, I will say, is not my cup of tea. But eventually, we end up in my favorite position, Shavasana, which is lying on the floor on your back, with your eyes closed. It’s heavenly!

This past Friday, as we lay there and I snuck in a quick nap, our instructor said, “You don’t need to do anything now. The floor has you fully supported.” What I first heard as a rather obvious statement (“Of course the floor has me supported! Isn’t that the definition of ‘floor’”?), quickly struck me as the perfect metaphor for faith. It’s there, supporting you, reliable, because that’s what it’s there for. You might have to watch your step, careful to navigate the twists and turns beneath your feet. But ultimately, it’s there whether you look down or not; in fact, it’s there whether or not you even believe it’s there.

You see, God is reliable. God has us supported. As strange as it might sound, whether we believe in God or not, God believes in us. And that knowledge is what gives us the trust, the awareness, the truth on which we can stand firm and act in faithful ways to see God’s tribe as much bigger than we would ever imagine. What it takes…are the quiet moments on the rooftop. Just as Peter paused in prayer and his vision came into focus, there is a need for us to carve out space into which we can invite the Holy Spirit to inspire, move, and transform us.

It might take different shapes for each us: whether it’s lying down in Shavasana, sitting up on the roof or in the back yard in quiet meditation, or what the Danish theologian Søren Kierkegaard referred to as walking “myself into my best thoughts”, our openness to God’s invitation is best served by our willingness to pause, to quiet, to still the rush and the noise.

The point is simply this: we all set foot on the same ground of faith! It’s there, beneath us, whether we look down or not! God’s got us! We can rest assured, trusting in the same Jesus who sends angels to Gentiles and visions to Jews and, yes, even elders to Presbyterians!

It is this knowledge that allows us know that there is progress, even when we cannot see the bend of the arc beyond the horizon. It encourages us to speak boldly but hold things lightly so that we might both be instruments of God’s grace and recognize that gift in others. And it unifies us, bringing us together as God’s people in ways that will surprise, awe, comfort, and challenge us.

Because sometimes, all it takes is a moment on the roof.

Amen.

Engaging Your Story

Welcome to the Galilee!

Last week, we met the risen Christ in Jerusalem, who told us to meet him up in Galilee. So this week we find him on the mountain. Some of us doubt; some of us believe. Whatever the status of our individual faith, Jesus tells us all the same thing: go and make disciples. Our marching orders are clear. We have now inherited his ministry of teaching and serving. It’s time to go. Are you ready?

Why does this seem so difficult? We have no qualms about recommending movies, TV shows, music, restaurants to friends and family. Some of us can even get a little belligerent about it: “What do you mean you haven’t seen The Big Lebowski? The Dude abides, man!”

We can be evangelists for gluten-free diets or yoga or our favorite technology with passionate fervor. But an evangelist for Jesus? Well…let’s not get crazy!

I’m sure some of this is our cultural training. Our schools and places of business are no-go zones for religious conversation. I’m not necessarily opposed to that. I think there are good reasons, frankly, for keeping things a little crisper in that regard. At the same time, the popular models we see for evangelism might strike us as at least distasteful if not downright obnoxious or manipulative. And so, because we have learned that faith is a private matter, we have built it into our belief structure. I believe what I believe; you believe what you believe; and that’s as far as we need to go.

We also, for very good reasons, put a priority on our relationships. Relationships matter. They matter a great deal. And so, because they matter, we don’t want to risk them by introducing controversial, divisive topics. So we tend toward keeping it safe and comfortable.

The problem with all of this is that most of us are incapable of expressing anything about what it is we actually believe. And if we’re honest, most of us are probably not clear on what it is we believe anyway.

When Elizabeth and I first returned from living in the Middle East, I used to joke about how we Americans are trained not to talk about religion or politics. In the Middle East, however, there really isn’t much else to talk about. Whether it was a conversation with Eastern Orthodox Christians or observant Sunnis, over time and through patient and impatient trial and error, we learned how to hold our convictions, express them with (or without) clarity, and honor the convictions of others without watering anything down in the process.

And that’s just it: the only way we can do the very thing that Jesus expects of us here on the mountain is to practice.

After all, practice makes…perfect?

Does it really? “Practice makes perfect.” The phrase is natural to us; but that doesn’t mean it’s true. We all know that the more you do something, the better you get at it. But…perfect? If perfect existed, there would be professional bowlers who retire with an average of 300; but the all-time greatest hover in the 220s. If perfect existed, then there would be professional basketball players who have never missed a free throw. But only three players in the history of the sport have averaged 90%.

Practice makes perfect? Nope. But practice does make a difference, doesn’t it?

Let me put it this way: when was the last time you talked to someone about your faith? Last week? Last month? Last year? Never? Practice may not make perfect, but the lack of it certainly isn’t going to get us closer to proficiency.

This week, our congregation has launched a small group study called “Engage”. Despite the fact that the subject of the study is evangelism, a big chunk of us have signed up! While this study is taking place, our Sunday morning worship will hopefully be a productive way not only to continue the conversation, but to loop the rest of us in as well.

And so, let us notice something about our title today: it all starts with our story. So what is your story? Where is it that faith began for you? What is the journey it has taken you on? If a timeline of your faith were a historical trail, what would be the markers along the way that you would want others to stop and read? What are the moments, the experiences, the people that stand out for you?

In fact: let’s sit with that question for a while: who are the people that have modeled faith for you?

If we really want to spend some time on the mountain with Jesus, if we really want to walk in the footsteps of the disciples, then this is most productive place for us to begin our practice. After all, when the disciples began this work of going out and making disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, of teaching them everything that they had been taught, that’s really all they had to go on. There were no gospels for them to quote – those wouldn’t come for at least another 50 years or more. There were no tracts for them to hand out, no videos for them to share on social media. All they could do was share their own stories of their encounters with Jesus himself and how they had been changed in the process.

“Why did you drop your fishing nets and follow this guy? Did he really feed 5000 people with the wave of a hand? An empty tomb? A risen Lord? The heavenly God in human form?!?”

We elevate the gospel accounts of Jesus – and we should value them, and value them highly. And yet, when we get right down to it, they are simply first-hand accounts of encounters with Jesus.

Most of us do not have the luxury of such experiences. And yet, each one of us can call to mind at least one person who formed us in faith through our encounters with them. Here is the way our Engage study guide puts it:

“Your experience of meeting the love of God in Jesus Christ may have been a dramatic, life-changing experience, our your story may witness to a steady, growing, confident awareness of God’s presence and providence in your life. Yet whatever your story is, like each one of us, you have been cared for, guided, loved, lifted up, and inspired by other Christians.”

Think of one person that fits this description for you. Who is it? A family member? A Sunday School teacher? A friend, colleague, neighbor, pastor? What was it about them and their faith? How did they share it with you? How did sharing it shape your faith?

There are many I could name on my own journey. One particular pastor comes to mind for me. I was a teenager, wrestling with many of the aspects of what it means to be a person of faith in the late 20th century. And I went to this pastor with those questions. And what he did forever changed me.

I was frustrated with the hypocrisy of church. Each week, we were reading story after story of this rabble-rouser Jesus, accomplishing incredible things, challenging the status quo, and pushing buttons. And yet, what I experienced in church at the time was a deep investment in the status quo, a safety and a comfort, a place where people came to judge others for the way they looked or dressed or behaved. In short, I saw a community that looked very little like the wandering rabbi whose stories they had raised me to treasure and emulate.

When I shared all of this with my pastor, he responded with a surprising grace. He made no argument on behalf of church; in fact, he did just the opposite, telling me that the worst thing I could probably do right then was to be involved in church. The best thing I could do, he told me, was to take a break.

I did – for about three years or so. And when I returned, my faith had been challenged and deepened in ways that meant I no longer took church for granted, or simply at face value. I came back as one who both appreciated what church could be and often was, but also very much willing to challenge and nudge the places where I saw church being less than what it is called to be. Little did I know it at the time, but there is no doubt for me now that this one hour conversation planted many of the seeds that have been sprouting in my ministry and faith ever since. It was, in a sense, my own Galilee mountaintop encounter with the risen Christ.

What about you? Who is that one person that comes to mind for you? What is it that they did that helped encourage or disrupt you on the journey that faith is?

You see: that’s all we are talking about here! When we speak of evangelism, what we mean is engaging our own stories of faith. It is one of the few areas where we have true expertise. All that remains now is to practice – practice sharing those stories. The more we do, the more proficient we become.

After all, when it comes down to it, people are hungry for models of faith they can embrace. Could it be that we are the ones they are looking for?

Amen.

Expecting Life

The Easter journey may begin in Jerusalem; but the destination is Galilee.

Once a year, we read some version this story. The angel rolls the stone away. The women who followed Jesus are the first to arrive at the grave, the first to meet the risen Jesus, the first to preach resurrection to the rest of the disciples.

Once a year, we are reminded that the story of resurrection that is at the center of our faith. Everything that came before and follows after is just commentary on that single moment when Christ defied and defeated death.

Once a year, we are invited to consider absence more than presence. The cross that once held a lifeless man is now empty. The tomb where a hopeful Messiah had been buried now stands bare.

Once a year, even when death is anticipated, we learn to expect life.

And once a year, we gather in a packed church. Children exhaust themselves “hunting” for eggs. Choirs, bells, musicians raise our spirits in song. The smell of fresh Easter lilies fills the air. Oh, why can it be like this all year long?

I can’t tell you the number of times I have thought that very thing – actually, yes I can. I can tell you exactly how many times: ten. Ten times I have stood in our chancel, looking out on a “full house” on Easter Sunday, with people smiling and singing, and have thought to myself, “Why can’t it be like this all year long?”

But it isn’t always like this. If you come next Sunday, it won’t be the same. It’ll still be Easter – in fact, the Easter season lasts through the end of May. But we won’t be hiding any more eggs. We won’t have communion for a while. The congregation will be about half the size of what it is today. We’ll have children, enough for an active nursery and a couple of bustling Sunday School classes, but not nearly the throng that swarmed the front lawn this morning. There will be refreshments, but not quite the spread that we have today. If we’re honest, after the rush of Easter morning, the following Sunday is a bit of a letdown.

But then, that’s nothing compared to the summer time! If you want to see the opposite of Easter, come in July! School is out. Everyone seems to be traveling. That’s when we really get to spread out, find some elbow room. Man, does this place clear out when the weather gets warm! Some years we have even cancelled Sunday School because the attendance is so low! It’s actually quite depressing! Ha!

If I really think about it, in reality, there are three times a year we have a huge blowout presence: Easter Sunday, Christmas Eve, and Preschool Sunday. The rest of the year, the other 49 or 50 weeks, seem like a mere shadow of what could be. You know, if you stopped to think about it, it could really take the wind out of your sails! (sigh)

Oh well…Anyway…Where was I?

Oh, yes: the Easter journey begins in Jerusalem; but the destination is Galilee.

Galilee is where this story of Jesus first started to build momentum, three years before all the events of Easter morning happened. Galilee is where Jesus grew up. It’s his home territory.

Jesus first gathered a following in those fishing villages around the Sea there. Disciples began to accompany him from town to town. His reputation as a teacher and healer and miracle worker preceded him, and so the crowds grew larger and larger. And then, suddenly, after three years, he turned everything toward Jerusalem. It can’t have been an easy decision. Galilee is quiet – kind of boring. Jerusalem is everything Galilee isn’t. Jesus knew what awaited him there, the drama that we have just remembered over the past week. What began in Palm Sunday with adoring crowds waving branches quickly turned to calls to crucify him. Even his closest friends, those who come with him from the Galilee, soon betrayed him and hid in fear.

And then…the unprecedented happens. Jesus rose again that Easter morning. And as our lesson begins to unfurl today, we get to see this news as it dawns on those who loved and cherished him. The one they had pinned their hopes on, the one they had willingly followed from the boring countryside into the bustling capital city, the one they had grieved beyond grief: he was alive! We can almost imagine their thoughts:

Time to seize the moment! What pageantry will surely follow! Another grand parade, but in this one, Jesus, you’ll take the throne of Herod and re-establish the great and storied lineage of David! Jerusalem has finally met its match! Those who have been cast aside will now take center stage! Trumpets will blare, throngs will gather, the ancient glory of Israel will be restored, the crowning jewel of God’s glo –

Wait, what’s that, Jesus? Oh…we’re not staying in Jerusalem, you say? Back to Galilee, is it? OK, then. We’ll go tell the others. Should we carpool? No? You’ll meet us there? OK. Um, all right…Welcome back! Good to see you! Happy, uh, Happy Life Day? Easter? That’s what we’re calling it? OK. Sure. Happy Easter.

All of that build up! For three full Galilee years, Jesus gathered disciples, taught and healed, performed miracles, and revealed prophecies, all leading to this resurrection moment! So, now where’s the payoff? Where’s the sustain, the hook? We’ve seen the comeback. Where’s the big follow-up?

But that’s not what we get. We are told to go back to Galilee. And there, we will spend time with the risen Jesus. In the few weeks ahead, he will ready his followers for the road ahead. It’s time for the message and the movement to pass on from him to us. More preaching, more teaching, more traveling, more healing…along with our persecution and suffering, glory and wonder.

The Easter journey may have begun in Jerusalem, but the destination is Galilee.

Jerusalem has this mystery, this allure. It feels like the prize, the goal. The truth, however, is that the normalcy of Galilee has been the point all along. That’s what God had in store from the beginning. Jerusalem has it’s place, but it’s only the fulcrum, the tipping point, the grand moment of drama that puts everything else in perspective. You can’t stay in Jerusalem; you have to go back to Galilee.

Isn’t that true about life in general, though? Is there anything we do that stays in elegant drama? Graduation is a celebration of hard work paid off. The moment itself is full of pageantry, but hard work also waits on the other side. Vacation is a treasured respite, but their days are fleeting. The Road Race comes after a lot of training; but the feeling of satisfaction that follows its completion fades quickly. The wedding is quite the joyful moment. The honeymoon follows. But the marriage itself has little in common with either one.

Most things in life have their Jerusalems, their peak moments. But there’s whole lot of Galilee, of trudge, of normal, on either side. If that’s the case, why would our approach to faith be any different?

I don’t know what might have brought you to church today. Some of you are there week in and week out. Others of you are there once or twice a year, coming in and out just for those Jerusalem moments – maybe trying to revisit your own ancient memories of the pageantry. Some of you might be looking for a place to call your Galilee, your spiritual home. There are those of you there because you might be wondering all the fuss is about anyhow. And I’m sure there are those of you who have a church home already but went to Oglethorpe today because it’s easier to find a parking place and get a seat.

Whatever the case is for you, if you take nothing away from today’s service, I hope it is this: Easter is not the destination. It’s not the end all and be all of loving God and being loved by God. It is a crucial, pivotal, tangible moment – but it is just that: a moment; because after today, it’s time to go to Galilee. After all, Jesus is waiting to meet us there.

This is important: Jesus is waiting to meet us there. The life of faith isn’t about you alone and Jesus, off by yourselves. It’s about ya’ll and Jesus together. Life in the everyday of Galilee is life lived in community. We strengthen one another. We challenge one another. We lift up one another when we fall; we pull each other back to earth when we get too lofty. In the life of faith, being in community is what makes us better. It’s how we grow, how we are stretched, how we train for the great race.

Friends, going from Jerusalem moment to Jerusalem moment is easy, but it’s unsustainable. It’s the in-between, the life lived in Galilee, that makes all the difference in the world. Those are the stretches where we learn how to be people of faith. Those are the periods where we learn what it means to be love God and be loved by God, to be living witnesses to Christ and Christ’s love. Those are the seasons where we learn that faithfulness is embodied the ordinary as well as the extraordinary.

After all, the Easter journey may begin in Jerusalem; but the destination is, and always has been, Galilee. Are you ready to go and meet Jesus there? If so, I’ll see you next Sunday.

Amen.

A Tale of Two Tombs

In Jerusalem, there are two pilgrimage sites that hold competing claims for our resurrection scene today, that empty garden tomb where Christ had been laid to rest. The first is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. In Arabic, it is called the Church of the Resurrection, which is a far more appropriate name. Nested amid the winding streets of the Old City, the Church is surrounded by vendors selling religious knick-knacks and glow-in-the-dark Jesus figurines; that is, until you reach the open courtyard. There, shrouded clergy rush to and fro across large paving stones smoothed with the passage of time and millions of pilgrims’ feet. The place smells of history; candles and incense burn around the clock. Bells chime. In one corner, Ethiopian Coptic monks chant prayers in Amharic in front of large-eyed icons withered with time. In another, Italian tourists follow their priest, celebrating Mass in the newly-renovated Franciscan chapel. The place is huge. The architecture is chaotic, as the divisions of the Christian community through the centuries have been played out in this building. There are ecumenical committees formed to decide who can change lightbulbs and who is responsible for repairs. If this is the scene of vacant tombs and empty crosses, of stones rolled away and folded linens, it remains hidden in the solemn echoes of feet and the fervent whispers of prayer.

The other site rests outside the walls of the Old City, a short walk of ten minutes. Trinket salesmen have set up shop there as well, but this place, known by the less formal name of the Garden Tomb, becomes an instant place of respite from the noise and traffic of East Jerusalem. The place is serene. It is, in fact, a garden, and it was a garden roughly around the time of Christ, as the eager tour guides will tell you. Olive trees, blooming flowers, and the open sky surround. From one vantage point, you can look over the East Jerusalem bus terminal and see the Old City walls. And just off to the left is a cliff whose face is very much in the shape of a skull. Golgotha, perhaps? The tour of the Garden Tomb ends at its namesake – an ancient stone grave, which also possibly dates from the time of Christ. There is a stone trough in the ground directly in front of the door, a groove in which the massive stone would have been rolled to seal the tomb. There is no such stone now; only a simple wooden door that bears a sign, in English, that reads: “He is not here; for he is risen.”

In terms of history, there isn’t much competition at all. The Holy Sepulchre is the real place. Early Christians venerated the site long before there were any buildings there. The first Church building was erected in the fourth century. Even the Garden Tomb guides willingly admit as much when pressed. But, they also say, “Unlike the Holy Sepulchre, the Garden Tomb can give you the feel of what it must have been like at the time of Christ.” And though I doubt very much that Mary Magdalene had to walk through the giftshop on her way back to share the news with the disciples, and though the stones are a little too pristine to have that sense of the Holy Sepulchre’s history, I must agree with the guide. You can feel it there. You can see a skull shaped hill – even if it’s not the skull-shaped hill; and you can set foot inside a tomb – even if it’s not the tomb. It feels like the place where our Easter morning celebration took place, where stones are rolled away and figures in dazzling white bring the most absurd of good news: “He is not here, for he is risen.”

Is that enough, though? For a place to feel like it’s the place? Or is it more important for the place to actually be the place?

In part, the divide between the two places is an historical one. We Presbyterians are newcomers to the faith; the ancient holy sites are firmly entrenched in the control of the Eastern Orthodox branch of the family tree. So when a German Lutheran archaeologist learned of the ancient garden site in 1867, it quickly became the Protestant site of veneration. And even with the overwhelming evidence that this isn’t really the place, it remains a huge pilgrimage site because of that spiritual feel of being transported back in time.

And that fact, that the spiritual feeling holds such power in a place that really isn’t the place, may give us thought for how we approach our faith. There is a gift when we give a boost to the spiritual meaning of our story. The risk, however, is that we do so at the cost of its material truth. If so, then Christ’s ministry among those who live in abject poverty becomes a word only about spiritual poverty. It loses its original power of promises made to those who literally have nothing. And the words which we read this morning, “The Lord is risen; he is risen indeed,” some of their material muscle atrophies when we begin to speak only of a spiritual resurrection.

So which is it: the material essence of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, or the spiritual force of the Garden Tomb?

Whenever I have had the privilege to visit Jerusalem, I have felt torn between these competing holy sites, this spiritual and material promise of the gospel. In the Garden Tomb, there is this sense of relief and respite. It becomes an escape from the overwhelming exhaustion of a land of conflict and pain, where the dual violence of Occupation and Terrorism beat down and destroy. The Garden is escape, quiet reflection, meditation.

And yet, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre became my first Jerusalem stop. There is an exquisite path through the Old City’s crooked lanes, past excitable shopkeepers and anxious pilgrims. Entering that courtyard, the sky itself opens up for the first time. In the Church, you get lost in space and time. Every visit uncovers a new nook or cranny claimed by this ancient Christian sect or that: the Armenian stairway with its grand arch; the mud huts of the Ethiopian monastery perched on the roof; the exquisite iconography of the large Greek Orthodox sanctuary; the small Egyptian Coptic chapel at the head of Christ’s tomb. Each spot is a reminder of how little we actually about church history; and, by extension, how little we really know of the fullness of God’s power and mercy.

I still don’t want to give up that spiritual feel of the Garden Tomb, this pitiful Protestant protest. But this morning, I invite you to walk with me among the cold stones of the Holy Sepulchre, as hymns of mystery mix with the smoke of incense and candles, unfurling into the ancient domes. And as the bells ring for yet another prayer in yet another language we don’t understand, may this question ring in our ears: What if this is actually the place? And what if what we have read is actually true? Not just spiritually true, but materially true as well?

And not just literally true, either; for if we only believe in a literal story of resurrection, then all we need to say here today is that Christ was dead and buried. The tomb was sealed. The angel came, the stone was moved, the Lord was raised; and one day, we, too, shall be raised. If we move away from the spiritual meaning to the literal meaning alone, then we’re done. The Easter sermon is finished and we can all move on to the rest of our Sunday plans.

But what if the story is materially true, as real as those old paving stones in the courtyard of the Holy Sepulchre? What if there is something to that haphazard building amid the crowded streets of Old Jerusalem? What if the very fabric of reality was changed on that ancient Easter morning? And what if we, who seek follow the risen Christ, are materially – really – changed by that moment of resurrection? What if we were willing to believe that the stone was rolled back every single day from our tombs? What if we are transformed into people of the Resurrection, the promise of life anew, the strange hope of encounters with dazzling angels and open graves?

The message that rings from the church bells of ancient Church is for those who have ears to hear: the promise of Resurrection is really true. It can and will transform old conflicts into new promises of reconciliation. It can and will build up what has been destroyed. It can and will bring an end to war and a beginning to peace. And it can and will transform us into the body of Christ, that community of the faithful bringing spiritual and material hope to a world so desperately hurting.

Are we listening? Do we have ears to hear? Are we willing to walk those crowded streets?

Expecting Crowds

Who is this Jesus?

One of my favorite points of entry into studying Scripture is looking at the different characters of a particular lesson and then seeing which ones resonate with me the most. In this case, you’ve got quite the cast: Jesus, his disciples, the donkey owner… Whatever the story, I’m often most intrigued by the nameless masses. The gospels often call them “the crowds”. Their participation is always more central that their general anonymity might suggest.

Imagine the feeding of the 5000 without the crowds…or the Sermon on the Mount…or the introduction of Zacchaeus…in fact, the crowds often act as a kind of Greek chorus in the life and ministry of Jesus. Even in the final drama of Holy Week, the generic “crowds” go from being the ones who celebrate Jesus’ parade into Jerusalem to those who call for his death just a few days later. There is, in the crowd, a sense of what it means to be human. And there are times when it’s a little too on the nose.

What sets our lesson today apart is that there are two different groups. There is the crowd and there is the city. The crowd spreads their cloaks and palm branches on the road. The crowd surrounds Jesus. The crowd shouts out “Hosanna!” The crowd names him as the prophet. The city, on the other hand, can only manage a question: “Who is this?” The city, in response to the parade, is in turmoil.

So my question today: Are we the crowd? Or are we the city? And which one should we be, anyway?

In our lesson, the city folks are seeing the stir this donkey-riding fellow is causing. They are curious, intrigued by all the excitement, and can only manage a simple question: “Who is this?”

The crowds, on the other hand, are the ones who already know about Jesus and are eager to celebrate him. They are the insiders, the excited ones ready to throw him a party. They elevate him and honor him with a title. And even though Jerusalem is in turmoil, they go with him willingly.

Where do you feel more affinity? Do you see yourself at home in the crowds, or in the city?

For some reason, this question has grabbed my attention today. I think it has a lot to do with the world we find ourselves in, as a church person in an increasingly non-church world. Our cultural landscape is changing dramatically, and we’re not even clear what the new landscape looks like. Some would have us believe that the separation is between those who are religious and those who are secular. That’s not the case at all, however. As a nation, we are no less “Christian” or “religious” than we have been at any time over the last sixty years. What is changing, however, is what “Christian” means.

On the one hand, churches are consolidating. Small churches are eroding as their members leave to join medium-size churches. Meanwhile, medium-size churches are breaking even as they take on these members while others fade out the back door to large churches. And large churches are facing the same reality: while people arrive from other churches, their members are departing for mega-churches. Mega-churches are growing; but almost all of them are centered around a particularly charismatic pastor (almost always the son of a pastor) so that when they retire, die, or fall in disgrace, their church disappears and the whole process starts over again.

On the other hand, the pattern of church attendance is changing rapidly. Even those who consider themselves very active in their congregations are attending less and less. Weekly attendance has become monthly; monthly has become quarterly. As weekends have more and more competition for our time, churches are on the losing end.

And on the other hand (the third hand?), those who might have had only a passing interest in church are now completely disinterested. Whereas in years past people might move to a new area and locate their bank, their grocery store, and their church, the church is being left off the list. There are the growing numbers of “de-churched”, those who have been burned by negative experiences in so-called Christian community. There are the children of the “de-churched”, who have never even set foot in the doors of a church, and whose experience of Christianity is shaped by what they see in society. And I’m sorry if I’m the one to inform you, but our co-religionists don’t always represent us well.

With all of these dynamics at work, I think our cultural reality is way more “crowd and city” than we might expect. And in that reality, we are the crowds. We surround Jesus and elevate his name with praise. The “city” might be intrigued by what we are doing, but our response is to wave palm branches and shout strange words like “Hosanna!” None of that does much to translate from our world to theirs. We might be the crowds…but should we be?

I think there’s much to be said for finding our place among the crowd in the city – and to do so with clarity and integrity. If we really believe that Jesus was the embodiment of the divine, if we really do proclaim that Jesus is the Christ, the incarnate God, holiness in fleshly human form, then the faithful church is the one that lives firmly within its culture. In other words, just as God took tangible form in first century Palestine, using the language and culture of the region, so must the church, as the so-called “body of Christ”, take tangible form in every language and culture it finds itself. And so, we must not separate ourselves into “crowds” and “cities”. We are not called to pull apart from culture. Instead, we are called to act as the bridge.

And that is both the gift and the challenge. Those of us who have been among the crowd for so long have largely forgotten what it’s like to live in the city. We have made Sunday morning worship a priority to the point that it might not even occur to us that there are other options out there. We know the insider language so well, knowing where the Narthex is and why we call it Palm Sunday and automatically bowing our heads whenever someone says, “Let’s pray” that when the city asks us “who is this” we are hard-pressed to come up with ways to translate what we believe and what we do into ways that the city might be drawn closer, let alone understand. The goal, I believe, is to be part of the crowd, living in the city, and moving between the two with clumsy grace.

How do we do this?

To be in the crowd and in the city is not easy. We like knowing who our tribe is. It helps us know whom to ignore. But living in both and in between is a much more interesting place to be! The beauty is that it is a place where we are constantly transformed – not because we want the crowd to act more like the city, but because we become the crowd that God wants us to be! You see, we know that God’s tribe is always bigger than ours. God never draws those circles as tightly as we like to. God finds pleasure in seeing us stretch – not to the point of breaking, mind you, but to the point of flexibility and growth.

Does this mean we change? Absolutely! But not the way that we might think. It’s not that we rearrange our lives in a way to accommodate a city that may not ever move beyond mere curiosity. What it does mean is that we spend more and more time with the citizens of the city in which we live.

The easy thing is to spend all of our time among the crowd. After all, they are our “people”. And yet, the faithful thing is to spend as much – if not more – time in the city square, willing to hear what it is that the city really thinks about our parades and prophets. We nurture relationships with our neighbors – not necessarily because we think they should be part of the crowd, too (though they should), but because God wants us to care about them as much as God cares about them.

Let me put it this way: it would be one thing to think of our hobbies and interests as things we can manipulate for the purpose of church growth. It would be one thing if our gym membership existed merely because we are looking for excuses to share the gospel and invite people to church. There are those for whom that works; but in this city, most of our fellow residents will simply learn to steer clear of the preachy spin class student.

It is another thing altogether to view our interests and hobbies as things that God has designed within us so that we might have relationships of integrity beyond the crowd. It is another thing altogether to sign up for an art class because we want to learn art and build authentic relationships with others who share our intrigue for creativity. If we do that, the opportunities to answer the question “who is this” will arise naturally.

The truth is that we are already there more there than we might like to admit. We are the crowds. We are here on a Sunday morning when there are an infinite number of other places we could be. We already know this Jesus. We sing his praises and give him titles like “Christ” and “Lord”. And at the same time, we are the city. Even those of us who have been in the crowds for as long as we can remember often feel like newcomers on the scene. We know there’s excitement around this Jesus, but we feel like we are just beginning to know who he is. We are intrigued, curious. We want to follow. We want to know more.

Who is this Jesus? That’s easy. In the end, he’s the one that turns the tables on us.

Amen.

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