Filed under: Sermons
Read the texts When I was in college, I studied psychology. Through my studies, I got to do some really cool things, like putting electrodes on people’s heads and studying their brain activity and heart patterns as they entered a time of prayer or relaxation. The role of experimenting scientist was fun, but some of my classes frustrated me. I didn’t like the need to diagnose, learning labels, boxing people in to personality types with a fatalistic view that they would act out of who we had determined they were. My own personality is much too independent to want to be known and anticipated in that way.
And yet… now that I’m living in a household with three other people, I can see the value of knowing that people interact with the world in different ways. Some people need structure to feel secure, others need time alone in quiet to process their days, and giving them the things they need makes for a better living situation for all of us.
In our household, it’s a mix of personality traits and developmental stages that needs to be managed. Our young child has gained a stronger sense of time, so that words like today, tomorrow, and yesterday now have meaning as they didn’t even a year ago. With that knowledge comes a need to organize her time. At the beginning of each day, we talk about what will happen: school, daycare, supper, babysitter, and anything exciting that might be coming up: a birthday party or a visit with grandma and grandpa. It doesn’t always make the transition to daycare any less whiny, but it prepares her. And the calendar days are eagerly crossed off when there is a special day that she can visualize coming closer.
As people of faith, we also have our own personalities and needs. These special ways about us form how we interact in our faith community, how we approach sacred texts like the Bible, how we analyze confessional documents like the creeds, what we see as central in our actions, how we visualize God, and the ways we grow in connection to God.
Some of us need to know what’s going to happen next. That’s where these Easter texts are most powerful. This is the season that we hear most powerfully God’s promised future, and hear the witness of the first people to start to experience its dawning.
John experiences a revelation, in which a messenger of God leads him through strange sights to feel the greatness of the power of God and the wonder of God’s triumph over evil and death. John and his people live under the power of the Roman empire, they are sometimes in danger because of their faith, they see some faithful losing interest, they have not experienced Jesus’ promised return, and their loved ones are dying. God pulls back the curtain of fear, sadness, and pain to show the future God intends, so that John can return to his community with a message of hope.
In this promised future, God continues God’s work of creation. A new earth and a new heaven are formed, but instead of two realms which divide people and God, God chooses to locate Godself right in the middle of the community. God comes to be with us. God will take away all fear and pain; God will wipe away all tears. The sea, symbolic of chaos, all that is dangerous because of its unpredictability, is no more. Death is no more. Mourning and crying and pain are no more. God is making all things new.
This is a beautiful promise, but it doesn’t translate well into a countdown calendar. Plenty of people have tried to turn it into one, pointing to this or that happening in the world as a sign that the next stage of God’s plan is happening.
Instead, it might be better to point to experiences in our lives that mirror how God works. The other day, I told my daughter she could have a few jelly beans as a treat after lunch. After she had some, I told her that was enough, no more. Then she looked at me, shot out her hand, grabbed some more, and shoved them in her mouth.
The consequence of her action landed her in a time out, tears streaming down her eyes as she experienced separation from her mother, her family, and distance from the table where she’s had a place. After a few moments, there was reconciliation, when I came to her and hugged her, when we talked about the way we’re meant to live together. Holding her close, I wiped away her tears.
God has come into our world, Jesus Christ united God and humanity, in order to take on himself the separation and punishment that would be the consequence of our sin. Instead of us experiencing separation and death, Jesus did. All the pain of this life is temporary and will be washed away by the loving, forgiving, life-giving embrace that awaits us when God welcomes us into the new Jerusalem.
We don’t know when God will bring us into the new creation, but we receive moments in which we experience what that will be like: when we are forgiven, loved, brought into community; when we are washed in these waters and told we belong to God forever; when we are fed with the very body and blood of Christ that have been broken to make room for us at the table. We live in hope for the future God is bringing.
God is making all things new. That sounds like a wonderful promise, but it can just as easily be something terrifying. It is the ultimate change. We know death, fear, division, and judgment. Do we know how to live without them? Could we handle a future that isn’t marked by those certainties?
Those first disciples were really put to the test as they lived into the new future God intended for them. I don’t think someone at my child’s level would have been able to cope with the work God was doing. My daughter is a concrete thinker. Rules are important.
If we think back to the jelly bean example, it would be like my consistent rule that we eat food that makes our bodies strong- fruit and vegetables- before we’re allowed to eat the jelly bean treat. That’s just how we do things in our household. But when we have friends over, I don’t make sure everyone eats at least the minimum number of carrots – everyone is welcome to enjoy as much of the whole meal as they want- dessert included. That can be confusing and frustrating to someone who sees the world in black and white. How can they be rules, if they are sometimes ignored and broken?
The first disciples are Israelites. Through generations of trying to remain faithful while living among and under many other empires and their cultures, the Israelites adopted ways of living that were meant to help them keep an identity as a separate and distinct people.
I think my daughter would understand: she needs her food to retain its purity- if a speck of mashed potato gets on a carrot, she’ll never eat it because it touched the wrong thing!
So when news reaches the early church that the disciple Peter has been eating and drinking with Gentiles – that’s all they can focus on. His being in community with these outsiders is such a scandal that no one hears the really big thing God has done: God has sent God’s Spirit on the Gentiles to make them God’s own. God commands Peter to set aside all the rules that were meant to make God’s people holy and separate, and to go see the new thing God is doing: God is going out and claiming, bringing in the Gentiles, those who are not marked as God’s people, by placing God’s Spirit in them and thereby marking them as God’s own.
Much of the New Testament deals with the struggle of those early disciples to understand what God is doing in reaching outside the defined boundaries of God’s own people to draw more and more outsiders in. This new thing changed and built the Church. It wasn’t easy and it was confusing.
Each of the early Christians engaged in that mission as much as they were able to. Some were ready to embrace this new thing God was doing, like Paul, who travelled far into other cultures to proclaim Christ to those who never knew God. Others stayed closer to the familiar, the practices and prayers that had grown in their hearts from childhood. To the extent to which their personalities and faith lives allowed, each of those first believers joined in God’s work to bring new life to all creation.
That’s what we’re about today. God uses each of us, all our varied personalities, all our experiences, to serve in God’s work of restoration. Today we rejoice to see Tony set on that path. In baptism, God claims him and unites him with Jesus, freeing him from sin and death, in order to join in God’s work towards the completion of God’s vision. Together, we are being brought forward, into the new creation, trusting that in God’s time, all will be made well.
I traded a future in psychology for one in religion, embracing the mystery over the science. God is beyond our ability to define and box in, but God has shown us who God is and what God intends. We worship a God of love, who runs to us to make us God’s own, forever. God is making a new thing, in which all that has given us pain will be gone, and the distance between us will be bridged. This is our sure and certain hope.
Filed under: Uncategorized
Grace and peace to you, siblings in Christ.
I’ve learned a lot about myself and how society works by watching my children play. I see them trying out labels- she’s a girl, he’s a boy- forming and rejecting alliances- he’s my best friend, she’s not my friend – and creating groups.
The favorite in our household right now is “Team Elsa.” Elsa’s the main character in Disney’s Frozen, a movie that continues to capture the hearts of some young girls in my family. L* will run up to her friends and shout, “Team Elsa!” and they’ll all respond “Team Elsa!” This battle cry unites them as it strengthens their identity- “we’re together, against the bad guys!”
As a parent who’s trying to form my children to play nicely with others and get along, I question her when she talks about people who aren’t part of her team. What do you do when someone wants to play with you, but doesn’t want to play Elsa? How can you make sure no one is left out? How do you feel when others don’t let you play with them?
Parenting has forced me to recognize some realities about the way humans function in groups- and given me hope that I might have some limited power and responsibility to make the future better.
I don’t like the way I see communities forming themselves into battle lines.
In this season, we’ve seen it at the cinema. Batman vs. Superman. Iron Man vs. Captain America. We’ve seen it in our politics. Republican vs. Democrat. Progressive vs. NeoLiberal. Conservative vs. Tea Party.
We’ve let it happen in the church. We do it on the big stage: Protestant vs. Catholic, Evangelical vs. Mainline. We do it within our tradition: WELS vs. ELCA. We’ve done it, as much as we may have not wanted to, here at Cross, as discernment begins about our experience, expectation, and identity around issues of welcome, gender identity, and sexual orientation.
When the hope, “can’t we all get along” is trite and naive, what’s left for us?
Is the world left the way it is? Is this the inevitable entropy- all things declining into disorder and division? Are splits the only way new churches are born? An argument over the true preaching of the gospel was, after all, the birthing of Cross.
Or, might God have the power to move us into a new future? Could this very moment in our lives be precisely the moment into which God’s powerful promise speaks? Could there be reason to hope, not in our own ability to get it all together, but in the God who works reconciliation, bringing together far off groups and making them one? Certainly the God who raised Jesus from the dead can work miracles.
The New Testament is a witness to the power of this life-restoring, relationship-restoring God. As the good news about what God has done through Jesus moved through and outside of the Jewish people, God’s chosen people, and became embraced by those who weren’t part of the chosen community, the wideness of God’s plan of salvation for all people became known.
We trace this initial spread of the gospel through the book of Acts. Today, we hear the story of a disciple who has died. This disciple has built up a community through her acts of charity, caring for those who were on their own. We learn that she has two names, Tabitha and Dorcas. Tabitha is an Aramaic name, the language the Jewish people would have spoken. Dorcas is a Greek name, the language of the wider culture, written by the educated, especially spoken by people beyond the Jewish communities. Through the community that gathers around her deathbed, variously lamenting their friend called Tabitha, their friend called Dorcas, we see that she is the first of many to bridge cultures in her witness. God has worked through her to bring together within diversity a community unified by the Spirit.
In the book of Revelation, John records a vision of hope for a community uncertain if God has the power to work good for them in their difficult situation. The part of the vision we read jumps in after an image of the 144,000 who have been sealed as servants of God, a specific, finite number from each of the twelve tribes of Israel. After this finite number, out of tribes that often were fractured factions of what was meant to be one people, we hear that John sees a multitude beyond numbering. He writes, “there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. 10They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
Can you imagine- all tribes, all nations, all peoples and languages- being brought together by God?
Tribe’s a word that’s growing in usage today, to refer to one’s own group. It’s about focusing in on my people- pushing towards groups that share similar experiences- age, gender, socioeconomic status, education level, and political leanings. Tribes are a reflection of our whittling down our potential social sphere until we are surrounded only with people who look and think like us, who validate each other’s beliefs and strengthen our position. We learn to only feel safe around the familiar.
There are plenty of destructive jokes that get at our typical attitude of tribalism’s exclusion. It didn’t take me long on the internet find one: The story is told of some Christians who have just arrived in heaven and are being given a grand tour. Everywhere they go they see happy people, rejoicing and celebrating with loud songs of praise. But then, their guide leads them down a long hallway and tells them to keep very quiet. “Why?”, the people ask. That’s when the tour guide answers, “We have to be very quiet down this hallway, because all of those other Lutherans are in that room, and they think they are the only ones up here.”
It’s a joke meant to demean one group – the other Lutherans- while making the group telling it – maybe us- feel better about themselves. But it also gets at a destructive mindset- a sense that our tribe is the right one, the only one who has gotten this faith thing right. It’s a pointed satire that hits each one of us who may have ever assured ourselves that we’re on the right side while others are in the wrong.
The vision of God, recorded in Revelation, is that all the tribes who spent their life’s energy defining and strengthening their positions over and against the other- are finally brought together, into one, around the Lamb- Jesus- the God who died to achieve their unity.
When we are gathered around Jesus on that great day will there be surprise? Disbelief? Joy? as we recognize among those brought together people we spent our lives feeling so very distant from? God’s purpose is to bring us all together to experience the love and life God so freely gives us through God’s own work in Jesus. We are meant to join together as the beloved community who worship the one God.
This is the community into which M* is baptized today. God is placing her firmly among the varied people who are made into one in Christ. This is the promise that is for her as it is for all of us- that God will bring us to a day when we will be gathered up together by Jesus in love and unity:
“(we will be) before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter (us). 16 (we) will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike (us), nor any scorching heat; 17 for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be (our) shepherd, and he will guide (us) to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from (our) eyes.” (Revelation 7: 15-17, pronouns shifted)
For us who live in the present reality- as we celebrate that God has already been victorious in Jesus’ death and resurrection even while we are not yet at the new creation in which our unity is made complete- for us who live in the already but not yet- we continue to live in hope and trust that God will fulfill this great promise. When Jesus declares, “No one will snatch them out of my hand,” he is including you as one to whom he holds on so tightly that you will never be removed from his community. Not your beliefs, not your anxieties, not your tribe, not your faithfulness- nothing will pull you out of Jesus’ grip on you. Jesus will never lose you.
Filed under: Uncategorized
Alleluia. Christ is risen.
Christ is risen indeed, alleluia.
My Aunt Becky’s a writer. She’s published a number of Christian Romance novels.
She’s been starting a blog. A recent post came to my mind as I studied our text from Acts.
My aunt reflected on how we don’t always know how things in life will work out, but how God works all things for good. God carries us, even though tragedy, to a better future. She used the refrain “because of this…” to trace life’s ups and downs into the joys she’s experienced.
I think of God’s action not as God making good things happen or bad things happen in order to get us to do a certain thing, but more about encountering God through the joys and struggles of life. God is with us in all things, the Spirit works within us to recognize God in our daily lives, and we discover more about who God is and what God intends for us as we encounter the world through prayer, the lens of Bible and tradition, and the community of faith.
In this Easter season, we get the opportunity to follow the book of Acts and see God working a path forward for the disciples and the early church. We listen to their stories so that we can become more aware of how God is calling us forward into a new future, shaped and directed by the transforming power of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Jesus was killed and he was raised to life.
Because of this, his disciples were confused, afraid, and in awe. They stepped back into the ordinary things of their lives, like Peter’s fishing, in order to make sense of their world being shaken. Then Jesus meets them, on the shore, in a locked room, wherever they are stuck, to show them his real body, scarred, but resurrected. When he leaves them, he does not leave them alone, but sends his Holy Spirit.
Because of this, they are empowered. They preach and heal. The Spirit works within the listeners. The Church is born. Thousands of people are baptized into the new community that follows Jesus.
Because of this, the religious establishment, the powerful institution, feels threatened. Some of those within it believe Jesus is evil, and those who follow him must be stopped before his story leads good people away from the true faith.
Because of this, a man named Saul approves of and presides over the violent killings of those who follow Jesus. He gets authority from the religious establishment, so that he can go into their local worshipping communities and search out those leading people astray by teaching about Jesus. He has the power to arrest them, so as to root out the cancer of Christians.
On his way, Jesus Christ meets him. “Why do you persecute me?” Jesus asks, speaking in the powerful voice of God.
Because of this, Saul’s understanding of who Jesus is dramatically changes. In this encounter, and in those that follow, God changes Saul.
When Saul meets Jesus on the road, it’s in a blinding light. Saul emerges with a changed purpose and limited abilities. He cannot see. He doesn’t really know what to do next, Jesus just told him to wait until he hears from him again.
Because of this, he has to rely on others. He has to trust they are who they say they are. He has to put his life on hold, because he’s not continuing on the path towards attacking Jesus’ followers, but he doesn’t know yet what Jesus has in mind for him. It’s not the best position to be in. He’s already made a lot of enemies, especially among those who follow Christ, with whom he now wants to learn and pray.
There’s a man name Ananias who’s a follower of Jesus. His name is on the list in Paul’s bag, the one giving Saul power to arrest and kill false teachers. He knows Paul is coming after him, breathing threats and murder. Then Jesus appears to him in a vision, telling him to go to Saul. They have a little back and forth- Ananias isn’t so sure God’s in the know about who this Saul guy is- and what a bad guy he is, but eventually, Ananias goes.
Because of this, Ananias walks up to the person who meant to harm him and calls him brother. Saul is welcomed into the Christian community with baptism. Saul becomes Paul, one of the most influential apostles, bringing word about Jesus to people all over the region, writing letters that still define God and faith for believers today.
Peter, Paul, Ananias, all their lives were shifted into new directions because of the work God was doing through Jesus Christ. They might not have ever imagined they’d end up with the adventures and priorities they did because of Jesus. Who could have guessed God would enter into creation? Who could have guessed God would not only become incarnate, but would die? Who could have guessed that for Jesus, death would not be the end? Or that because of Jesus, death is not the end for us, either?
As you live into Easter, take some time to reflect on your life’s path. How are encounters with God nudging and shifting you closer to God’s desire for your life? How is the death and resurrection of Jesus changing your life?
Let’s begin with the experiences I hope you share:
God has claimed you as God’s own child, most loved, a sibling to Jesus, connected to all those whom God loves, in the water and promise of baptism.
You’ve been welcomed into a community where we worship and serve, learn and celebrate.
Jesus has invited you and made you worthy to sit and eat at his table, so that in bread and wine you would receive into your body his own life giving body and blood.
The Spirit has come into your life to bring you to Jesus and gift you with all you need to do his work in the world. God loves you unconditionally and forever.
Jesus has died and been raised to give his life so that you would have life. God has a new future planned for all of creation, in which death is not the end and pain is no more.
So… because of this?
Because of this, all God has done for us, what matters changes. We don’t have to be afraid of the future- of the church, of our lives. The scope of our purpose is broadened beyond the individual and the present moment. No longer do we live for ourselves only, but we live for Jesus and in living for Jesus, we live for our neighbor and our work and our life does not end with our death.
Because of this, the scales over our eyes that have built up from years of living according to the self-centered vision of this world begin to fall away. We begin to see with God’s sight, focused not on what we can gain to build up ourselves, but how God is including us into God’s great redemptive work of bringing hope, healing, and joy to all creation.
Because of this, the meal we are about to serve and enjoy is not about impressing our neighbors, earning a specific dollar amount, or breaking record attendance, but is an experience of the kingdom of God, in which each person works together for the sake of a shared celebration of all God has given us.
Because of this, people we once condemned or feared have become our beloved family. God pushes us into relationships with people we might not otherwise choose to share community with, and even in the midst of challenge, we discover the joy of growing in trust and love within the richness of a diverse community.
Take some time this week to write, share, or pray about your own encounters with God and the ways God has been working in your own life.
How are you being shifted into a way of being that is ever more closely aligned with God’s intentions for you?
How is God showing love and hope to you through the community that walks with you through life’s adventures?
We are being transformed. It can be scary, it can be uncomfortable. It’s God’s work, and God will accomplish it. If we take anything from Saul’s story, and Ananias’ story, and Peter’s story- if we learn anything about God from Jesus’ death and resurrection- it’s that God works life-changing, boundary shattering good even when we least expect it. Welcome change is coming.
Alleluia. Christ is Risen.