Pentecost C
June 9, 2019
Mixing and Moving Us

The little introduction to our reading from Genesis this morning suggests that the Pentecost event reverses what happened in the tower of Babel story. What got taken apart gets put back together. The big, brick, building project had revealed humankind’s pride and arrogance, and God punished the people, confusing their language and scattering them across the earth.

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Pentecost C June 9, 2019

Genesis 11:1-9 Pastor Susan Henry

Acts 2:1-21 House of Prayer Lutheran Church

John 14:8-17, 25-27 Hingham MA

Grace to you and peace from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Mixing and Moving Us

The little introduction to our reading from Genesis this morning suggests that the Pentecost event reverses what happened in the tower of Babel story.  What got taken apart gets put back together.  The big, brick, building project had revealed humankind’s pride and arrogance, and God punished the people, confusing their language and scattering them across the earth.  But on Pentecost, what God scattered gets gathered back together when, through the gift of the Holy Spirit, the apostles can speak about “God’s deeds of power” and be understood by all, no matter where people come from or what language they speak.  It’s kind of a “reversed the curse” story.  I’ve preached sermons like that -- but not today.

Some biblical scholars have been thinking differently about the tower of Babel story and about its meaning for us today.  They suggest that this story is really about the beginning of cultural diversity, not about human arrogance and pride.  They see God’s actions not as punishment but as God’s way of furthering what God has intended from the very beginning – that humans be fruitful and multiply, that they go out and fill the earth, that they be stewards of God’s vast, diverse creation.

The people in Babel, however, had decided to settle down and make a nice, comfortable life with other people who looked like them and talked like them and thought like them.  They made some bricks and they built a city and a tower in order to keep their community together.  We may not be bricklayers, but we are inclined to do something similar in our neighborhoods, schools, and churches.  The South Shore is a pretty white, wealthy enclave, and the truth is that we Lutherans make up the whitest denomination in God’s church.  There’s more than a little of Babel in us.

I would guess that neither the folks in Babel -- nor we ourselves -- see hanging out with people like us as inherently a bad thing.  And it isn’t.  We do need a sense of identity and solidarity, but the tower of Babel story suggests that our desire to only be with people who look and talk and live like us runs counter to God’s plan.   God’s desire is for us to experience unity in the midst of diversity, rather than to seek out uniformity for the sake of our own comfort.  God is doing us a favor, not punishing us, when God nudges us out of our comfortable sameness and scatters us into less comfortable but richer and more diverse neighborhoods and schools and churches, into the very big world full of neighbors who don’t look and talk and live like us, into the vastness of creation where our neighbors are both human and other-than-human.    

We usually call this “the tower of Babel story,” but God doesn’t really pay all that much attention to the bricks and the city and the tower.  God seems more interested in mixing things up for the people who live there so that their sense of community doesn’t harden into isolation, protectionism, nationalism, or “othering.”  “There’s a big, interesting world out there, people,” God says, “go live in it!  Figure out how to relate to people who don’t speak your language.  Learn from one another.  Eat together, play together, celebrate together.  Enjoy the abundance that diversity brings.”

Really, why would we expect God to delight in the diversity of nature – in 20,000 species of bees alone! – but not delight in a diversity of human cultures?  The story of Babel says that God “confused” their languages, but it’s equally accurate to say that God “mixed” their languages, and that’s a good fit with understanding this story as the beginning of cultural diversity.          

That we live in a world where fear of the “other” is rampant suggests that the tower of Babel story has something to say about human resistance to God’s desire for richly diverse communities in which all people can thrive and appreciate each other’s gifts.  Some voices insist on building walls, but God seems way more interested in having us build bridges. 

It’s easier to make bricks and build walls than to figure out how to span the distances between people.  Even our best intentions don’t always lead to good results.  When more white people move into communities of color, there are opportunities to build bridges between cultures, but most often, that doesn’t happen.  White people move into predominantly brown or black neighborhoods, and rents for longtime residents often go up.  In those more diverse neighborhoods, people who speak the same language tend to interact with one another rather than build relationships with neighbors who speak other languages.  A sense of entitlement creeps in when a new white resident wonders how many little Vietnamese shops the neighborhood really needs when there’s no Starbucks or yoga studio that she’s interested in going to.  Yikes.

I hope I’m not as clueless or heartless as that woman, but I too am most comfortable in the company of people who look and talk and think like me.  I don’t much like admitting that, because I have an intellectual and a theological commitment to diversity of all kinds.  Unfortunately, our preference for people “like us,” whatever that means, can seduce us away from loving – or even knowing – our neighbors.  This is surely not what God has in mind in a world where, from ancient times, God has been mixing up our language and booting us out of Babel.  Apparently we’re not quick studies about how to welcome and receive and be enriched by God’s gift of cultural diversity.

The tower of Babel story really is our story.  It’s a sorry little story, isn’t it, that tangles up our God-given need for community with our human temptation to resist the gifts offered to us through all kinds of God-given diversity.  Stories throughout scripture remind us of creation’s diverse flora and fauna, of outsiders who surprisingly become part of the people of God, and of insiders’ struggles to go where God leads.

Pentecost, too, bears witness to God’s continuing work of mixing things up and moving people out for the sake of fostering all kinds of life in human and other-than-human community.  Pentecost bears witness to the Holy Spirit’s work of building true community that connects us and breaking down walls that separate us.  And Pentecost bears witness to the Spirit’s power to give us a glimpse of the fullness of someone’s humanity, even for a moment, and to move us to love that neighbor as we know ourselves to be loved by God.

So, how might we cooperate with God’s mixing things up and moving us out of our cozy cocoons of sameness?  We might learn how to protect some of those 20,000 species of bees or some other creatures that make for glorious diversity in the natural world.  We could sign up with Babbel – that’s B-a-b-b-e-l – to learn a language other than the one we’re most comfortable speaking.  We might read books by authors from all over the globe who will introduce us to diverse cultures.  We can ask the Spirit to open our eyes and ears and hearts to the gifts, not just the needs, of the people we serve.  Hoping to deepen our connections with one another, we might take more risks and be more vulnerable in conversations with people we disagree with.  We can pray, as we do every week, for our President and Congress, that, in a world of diverse cultures, they might lead our country with wisdom, compassion, and humility.

The possibilities seem endless, really.  I mean that not only in terms of what we might do, but in what we might discover.  The Holy Spirit just might mix things up and move us out of our comfort zone only to hand us gift after gift that reveals the beauty, complexity, mystery, challenge, and joy to be found in the rich and diverse world in which we live.

Amen

    

              

Easter 4 C
May 12, 2019
More than Just Weird

After Sunday worship last week, Kurt Lundin leaned in conspiratorially to greet me, saying “Did you notice – hymn number 666?” Indeed I did, and I told him I suspect that the people who put the hymnal together thought long and hard about what song should go with that infamous number.

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Easter 4 C May 12, 2019

Acts 9:36-43 Pastor Susan Henry

Revelation 7:9-17 House of Prayer Lutheran Church

John 10:22-30 Hingham MA

Grace to you and peace from our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

More than Just Weird

After Sunday worship last week, Kurt Lundin leaned in conspiratorially to greet me, saying “Did you notice – hymn number 666?” Indeed I did, and I told him I suspect that the people who put the hymnal together thought long and hard about what song should go with that infamous number.  It’s “What Wondrous Love Is This,” and there are clear references in it to the book of Revelation -- which is where 666 and all that “mark of the Beast” stuff comes from.  In the third verse of that hymn, we find, “To God and to the Lamb I will sing, I will sing . . . To God and to the Lamb who is the great I AM, while millions join the theme, I will sing, I will sing.”   So there, 666!  “To God and to the Lamb” we will sing, we will sing.  You can’t scare us!

In Revelation, the last book of the Bible, a seer named John who is in exile on Patmos, likely for being a thorn in the side of the Roman empire, writes to seven churches in what’s now Turkey about a heavenly journey he experienced in a series of strange visions.  Through what John has received, he wants believers to find hope and courage so they can live faithfully in even the most difficult times and circumstances. 

John’s visions are weird stuff, to put it mildly, although the meaning of the coded language was clearer in its own time and culture than it is to us.  Rome was an oppressive empire, and it expected blessing and honor and wisdom and power to be given to Caesar, the ruler Nero at that time.  It was dangerous not to do that, but Christians then (and now) rightly give honor and blessing and glory and might to God, not to imperial rulers or authoritarian leaders.  Just as Voldemort in the Harry Potter books was sometimes referred to as “He who shall not be named,” Nero was alluded to by believers in other ways.  For example, since Jewish numerology assigns numbers to the letters of the alphabet, when you spell out Caesar Nero, you get – ta-dah! – 666.   He who shall not be named. 

The book of Revelation was controversial enough to be the last book accepted as part of the Bible, and Martin Luther was never convinced Revelation really belonged there – although he felt free to appropriate some of its imagery to viciously attack the pope.  Revelation has been used and misused throughout the centuries, and the current iteration of misuse is the well-known series of Left Behind books and movies.  In them, born-again Christians get “raptured” up to heaven out of their beds, cars, or planes, leaving behind their clothes, glasses, hearing aids, and maybe even their hip replacements.  The rest of us get left behind.  Lutheran scholar and professor Barbara Rossing recalls how her seminary students once left clothes carefully arranged on their chairs for her to find when she came to class.  Nobody got raptured, she said – “I found them in the cafeteria.” 1

The whole rapture thing, she insists, “is a racket.”  It was invented back in the 1830s as part of preacher John Nelson Darby’s system of biblical interpretation.  The word “rapture” doesn’t occur anywhere in the Bible, so the concept got pieced together from a verse here and a verse there.  The Left Behind books are grounded in Darby’s system, and they lead to what Rossing sees as a preoccupation with fear and violence, with war and “an eagerness for Armageddon. 2”  For fundamentalist Christians – who are politically influential right now -- all of this has significant implications for American foreign policy in the Middle East, which should give us pause.

It’s only on All Saints Day and during the Easter season every three years that we hear readings from Revelation, so it’s a perfect time to leave behind the misuses and abuses of it and wonder how it might be the word of God addressed not just to first-century Christians, but to us today.  It’s full of rich images for worship that are meant to be read more as poetry than prediction.  And while John hears about the coming Lion of Judah – fierce and violent – what he sees is “the Lamb who was slain” – vulnerable and victorious.

As I was studying Revelation this week, I found myself thinking about the baptismal font in the church where I grew up.  It was white marble and on its cover stood a little lamb with a tall, thin pole leaning against it.  At the top of the pole was a narrow signal flag.  Oh, I realized, that’s “the Lamb who was slain [who] has begun his reign.”  And we who got baptized in the water in that pure white font were washed in the blood of that slaughtered Lamb.  It’s a shocking image that we’ve thoroughly domesticated, and of course it’s not meant to be taken literally.  However, it bears witness to how life is stronger than death and how God’s vision is about new life, restoration, renewal, and healing.

When chaos threatens, people of faith can live as people of hope, enduring through struggles and suffering because we trust that ultimately God’s power is greater than any other power, God’s grace is stronger than the world’s sin, and God’s reign has already begun, even if we don’t see it.  Revelation is a pretty bracing witness – encouraging us to not give up or give in to whatever is not “of God.”  We sometimes pay lip service to how a life of faith is a counter-cultural way of life, but Revelation amps that way up and exhorts us to resist the cultural and political forces that work against God and seek to thwart God’s desire for an end to violence and oppression.  The Lamb who was slain becomes the shepherd who leads the flock to green pastures and springs of water, and through places of danger to where “God will wipe every tear from their eyes.”  John wants believers to listen in worship to his visions so that they will find courage and discover strength for the present because they have hope and trust in God’s future.

A week or so ago, Kris Niendorf came to the Thursday Bible study with a bunch of origami peace cranes she’d made as signs of hope while watching the not-so-hopeful news on tv.  It seems to me that, through these tiny symbols of resistance to the world’s injustice and violence and oppression, Kris was refusing to give in to the despair that I suspect can tempt us all.  Images, gestures, and actions can embody hope and offer strength in anxious times like our own, and worship itself is full of such images and actions.  We come to remember who God is and who we are.  We come to be put back together after the past week so that we can be signs of peace and hope in the week ahead, bearing witness to God’s power to sustain and encourage us and to lead us to live ever more deeply into our identity as people of faith.  Revelation speaks as powerfully about our call to live with hope and courage in the face of injustice and violence as it did in the first century.

Revelation offers us a word from the Lord in another way, too.  In a couple weeks, we’ll hear a reading from Revelation in which John sees the holy city, the new Jerusalem, “coming down out of heaven from God.”  He hears a voice saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals.  He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them. 3”  In John’s vision and God’s plan, the earth matters.  We don’t go up to God; God comes down to us and makes God’s home with us.  If we took that image seriously, how might it affect how we care for the earth and for all life on this planet we call home?

The language of Revelation is filled with images of all creation being restored and redeemed, and of all who make earth their home singing praises to God.  As part of the Great Thanksgiving in the liturgy during the Easter season, I say, “And so, with Mary Magdalene and Peter and all the witnesses of the resurrection, with earth and sea and all its creatures, with angels and archangels, cherubim and seraphim, we praise your name and join their unending hymn. . . .”  Did you catch that?  It’s not just us who sing but it’s the earth itself, the sea, the creatures who walk and swim and fly.  We all sing “to God and to the Lamb” and “millions join the theme” as we sing, as we sing.  We’re part of a cosmic chorus.

We humans are smart but not necessarily wise, and technology allows us to exploit our planet’s resources faster than the earth can renew itself.  That has never been true until now.  We who are called by God to care for and protect what God has made are surely called to repent -- not only for what we have done but also what we have left undone in caring for God’s creation.  From the beginning, we were created for partnership with God, for joining all creation’s song of praise.  We were not made to wreak havoc on creation, which humankind increasingly is doing.

In that holy city that comes down from God, the water of life that we know in baptism flows through the city from the throne of God and of the Lamb.  John sees that “On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”  Can you picture in your mind God’s new creation where water flows freely, all are fed, and healing marks all kinds of relationships?  Where our allegiance is to God alone?

That’s the vision John describes, and we are called to live into it, to let God’s future draw us to it and to work for its fulfillment.  A clear-eyed look at the forces, fears, appetites, and institutions that resist what God desires makes it clear that courage and hope will be crucial if we are to live faithfully.  A community of worship that sings “with earth and sea and all its creatures” and receives the Supper of the Lamb will help sustain us.  The book of Revelation – which, as you see, is not just weird -- will ground us in a deep ecology that is the word of God addressed to us today.

And so, let us be faithful people of hope and courage, of strength and healing.  Let us be faithful people together in worship and praise.

Amen

       

              

             

1. Amy C. Thoren, “Barbara Rossing: The Wittenburg Door Interview,” Issue #202, November/December 2005.

2. Ibid.

3. Revelation 21:2-3

Easter 3 C
May 5, 2019

Breakfast on the Beach

“Come and have breakfast.” If those words get spoken in our households, they might mean, “Eat these pancakes before they get cold” or “Look what I made for you” or “Hurry up, the bus will be here soon.” Breakfasts can be ordinary or special, barely noticed or unforgettable. My kids still remember the time we woke them early on a cool summer morning and, with them still in their jammies, drove to a little lake to have breakfast at the beach.

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Easter 3 C May 5, 2019

Acts 9:1-20 Pastor Susan Henry

Revelation 5:11-14                 House of Prayer Lutheran Church

John 21:1-19 Hingham MA

Grace to you and peace from our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Breakfast on the Beach

“Come and have breakfast.”  If those words get spoken in our households, they might mean, “Eat these pancakes before they get cold” or “Look what I made for you” or “Hurry up, the bus will be here soon.”  Breakfasts can be ordinary or special, barely noticed or unforgettable.  My kids still remember the time we woke them early on a cool summer morning and, with them still in their jammies, drove to a little lake to have breakfast at the beach.  I’m pretty sure we brought along fruit and hot chocolate and muffins, but what they still talk about are the little single-serving boxes of cereal that, as they would have told you, “Mom never lets us get.”  It was a lot of fun to surprise them with breakfast on the beach.  Maybe you have some memorable stories like that to tell, too.

The seven disciples in our gospel today certainly experienced a remarkable early morning breakfast on the beach.  The writer of John begins this story by telling us that “After these things, Jesus showed himself again to his disciples by the Sea of Tiberius” – which is another name for the Sea of Galilee.  So, what were “these things”?  They’re the resurrection appearances to Mary Magdalene on Easter morning, to the disciples that same evening (although Thomas was absent), and again the next week when Thomas was there, too.  After “these things,” Jesus reveals himself again – this time in the place where he first called them to follow him.

Peter had said to some of the disciples, “I am going fishing.”  This has always seemed a little strange to me.  Weren’t they busy doing Jesus-y kinds of things?  In light of the resurrection, hasn’t everything changed for Peter and the others?  Well, yes – and no.  They still have to make a living, and fishing is how some of them used to do that, so it makes perfect sense, economically speaking, to get back in the boat and head out onto the lake.  But perhaps there’s something else at work in Peter’s decision, something that has pulled him back to what seems safe and familiar, back to what he knows and who he was before Jesus came along. 

The thing is, they have now fished all night and caught nothing.  In the dark, when each time they cast the nets and they came up empty, I can imagine Peter feeling the sting of failure – not just this night’s no-fish failure, but his in-the-dark, three-times-denying-Jesus failure.  This is Peter whom Jesus had called the Rock.  Peter who’d seen Jesus in glory at the transfiguration.  Peter who had insisted that he would “lay down his life” for Jesus.  But also, as writer Debie Thomas puts it, “Peter whose courage failed so catastrophically around a charcoal fire on the night of Jesus’s arrest that I’ll bet he expected to spend the rest of his life fleeing from that single, searing memory:  ‘Hey, I saw you with Jesus!  You must be one of his followers.’  ‘No.  No, I am not!  I swear, I don’t even know the man.’

That “single, searing memory” filled Peter with shame.  And a long, dark night of useless endeavor out on the water did nothing to mitigate his guilt, his grief, his shame.  He might have thought he’d find respite in something he knew how to do right, where he’d always felt competent and worth something, where being busy and working hard might keep his shame at bay, and where he didn’t have to face Jesus.

At daybreak, after that fruitless night of hard labor, they all see someone on the shore.  That “someone” is the risen Jesus, but they don’t recognize him.  They don’t know him when they see him, and they don’t know him when they hear his voice.  But when they do what he tells them to do, and they experience the surprising abundance that follows, one of them realizes who he is.  “It is the Lord,” he says. 

At this, Peter jumps into the lake and heads for shore while the others come in the boat, hauling the net full of fish behind them.  Once on the beach, they see “a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread.”  And they see Jesus, who says to them, “Come and have breakfast.”  This whole resurrection thing must still be unsettling, confusing, and confounding because none of them seem to know how to act in Jesus’ presence.  Did you notice an odd sentence in this story?  “Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ because they knew it was the Lord.”  They knew, but they didn’t know what to do with their knowing any more than Peter knew what to do with his shame.

Jesus, on the other hand, knew just what to do with all of it – and with all of them.  He fed them:  “Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish.”  As he had shared a last supper in an upper room with them, so now he offers a first breakfast on the beach -- surprising them, nourishing them, letting them get more used to the idea that he can still be with them, that death is not as strong as life-giving love.  In two of the most ordinary and necessary human activities – working and eating -- Jesus makes himself known to them.  Empty nets and empty stomachs get filled.  There is much to wonder at here.  With Jesus, it seems, the disciples can come empty and – nets, stomachs, and hearts -- be filled.  There is much to wonder at and to rejoice in.                            

Now, surely all of us have experienced times when, like the disciples, despite all our hard work, we have little or nothing to show for it.  We have moments when we’ve simply come up empty or nothing satisfies us or even our closest relationships still leave us feeling alone.  We may discover that these are just the times and places when Jesus wants to fill our lives with his presence, when he wants to deliver a boatload of just what he knows we need or when he wants to invite us to breakfast – or to supper.

We might not recognize him at first, if he comes in the guise of a neighbor who calls to make sure we’re okay or of a friend from church who says, “I know you’re grieving.  Here’s a book I found helpful” or of someone whose compassion for others or whose passion for justice becomes a model for us.  A list of the surprising ways in which Jesus recognizes our emptiness and fills it with his presence would be a long one, I’m certain.

But let’s go back to Peter.  At the end of our gospel today, Jesus gives him a chance to say what he did not say as he stood around a different charcoal fire on the night when Jesus was arrested.  To have denied even knowing Jesus has left Peter burdened by guilt and filled with excruciating shame.  But there on the beach, Peter gets to say more than “I do know him.”  Peter gets to say, “I love him.”  Or, more precisely, he gets to say to Jesus himself, “I love you.”

Jesus doesn’t pretend that what Peter did doesn’t matter.  He doesn’t tell Peter to just get over his guilt and grief and shame.  What Jesus does is gently lead Peter to where he does not want to go – to that place within himself that knows deep and crippling shame.  There in this intimate encounter with Jesus, Peter discovers that his shame doesn’t define him.  He is not unlovable or unworthy or unfixable in Jesus’ eyes.

What Peter – and we ourselves -- discover is that, as Debi Thomas writes, “[i]n the end, it’s what Jesus knows that matters.  Jesus knows that we’re more than our worst failures and betrayals.  He knows that we’re prone to shame and self-hatred.  He knows the deep places we flee to when we fail.  And he knows how to build the fire and prepare the meal that will beckon us back to shore.” 

The gospels do not include even one story about Jesus calling out Peter and the others for denying or forsaking him.  There’s no anger, no violence, no retaliation.  Jesus doesn’t guilt them into behaving better or shame them for abandoning him.  Instead, he graces them with his presence – filling their nets, filling their stomachs, filling their hearts.  He asks Peter, “Do you love me?” and Peter gets to reply, “Yes.  Yes, Lord.  Yes.”  Jesus heals and restores and sends Peter out to tend to Jesus’ lambs and his sheep. 

Jesus graces us with his presence, too – in water and the Word, in bread and wine and the Word, in the Word proclaimed, and in the Word lived out in lives of love and service.  Jesus heals and restores and sends us out to bear witness to love that is relentless no matter how great our shame, love that’s stronger than death, love that’s more powerful than the whole world’s sin.

When we’ve come empty and been filled or we’ve come full of shame and been set free, it’s pretty stunning.  Even when the world around us is a mess, we have wonder-filled, joyful, hopeful stories to tell about the transforming power of Jesus’ presence and God’s grace.  If you want to share stories over breakfast some morning, suggest a time and a place.  If you want to meet at the beach, you bring the coffee and I’ll bring those little single-serving boxes of cereal.

Amen 

  

Easter 2 C
April 28, 2019
Our Brother Thomas

Brother Thomas, where were you on that first Easter evening when the doors were locked and Jesus showed up in the midst of his fearful disciples saying, “Peace be with you”? Why weren’t you there with them?

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Easter 2 C April 28, 2019

Acts 5:27-32 Pastor Susan Henry

Revelation 1:4-8 House of Prayer Lutheran Church

John 20:19-31 Hingham MA

Grace to you and peace from our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Our Brother Thomas

Brother Thomas, where were you on that first Easter evening when the doors were locked and Jesus showed up in the midst of his fearful disciples saying, “Peace be with you”?  Why weren’t you there with them?

As the writer of John tells the story, on that very morning, Mary Magdalene had come to the tomb, found it empty, and had run to tell Peter and the disciple Jesus loved that Jesus’ body was gone.  They ran to see, and it was just as Mary said, but “as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.”  They had gone back home, but Mary had stood weeping at the tomb because she was sure that somebody had stolen the body of Jesus.  When she turned and saw someone nearby, she assumed it was the gardener.  She begged him to tell her, if he knew, where the body of Jesus was.  Only when he called her by name did she recognize him as the risen Jesus.  He sent her off to tell the others, and she went -- to their homes, it would seem -- and told them, “I have seen the Lord!”

John’s gospel doesn’t tell us how they reacted or what they did next or how the rest of the day went for them, so we’ll have to imagine that, but John does tell us that by evening they were huddled together somewhere, having locked the doors of the house out of fear of the Jewish authorities.

Jesus had come bringing healing and mercy, preaching a kingdom of love and justice, challenging the authority of the religious leaders, and attracting both a following and the attention of Rome.  In response, the religious and political authorities had colluded to bring about his death by crucifixion.  They saw Jesus as a threat to their power and privilege, as an enemy of the state and as a danger to Jews living under that state’s oppressive rule.

After Jesus’ death – and despite Mary’s witness to his risen life, the disciples were afraid that they’d be next, that their own lives were at risk because they were Jesus’ friends and followers.  Maybe they got together that evening because it was slightly less terrifying than being apart.  Or maybe they were together because, now that they’d had a day to think about it, they wanted to hear each others’ responses to the mind-blowing story Mary had recounted to them that morning.  We’re all about the joyful Alleluias when Easter comes around, but perhaps we know enough about the disruptive potential of impossible-to-believe news that we can picture ourselves locked behind those doors with the frightened disciples, trying to take in the astounding possibility that Jesus’ death was not the end of Jesus’ story and not the end of their relationship with him.

But where is Thomas on that Easter evening?  We have no idea.  I wonder if anything we know about him might suggest why he isn’t there.  The writer of John tells us that, during the winter, when Jesus had been in the temple in Jerusalem, the religious authorities had accused him of blasphemy and tried to stone him, “but he escaped from their hands” and went across the Jordan to where John had been baptizing.  When he heard later that his friend Lazarus was sick, he waited a couple days, then told his disciples, “Let’s go back to Judea.”

They reminded him that the Jewish authorities had tried to kill him the last time he was there, so why would he go back?  He replied that he was going to wake his friend Lazarus, which totally confused them because they thought he meant Lazarus was just sleeping.  But when it became clear that Jesus intended to do something way more significant to Lazarus and far more provocative in the eyes of the authorities, Thomas said, “Let us go also, that we may die with him.”

Was that said sarcastically or out of cynicism – “Oh, fine, let’s go get ourselves killed, too”?  Or was it resignation -- “We’ve been with him so far, and apparently this is where staying with Jesus is taking us”?  Or was it perhaps solidarity with Jesus and encouragement to the others – “We are with you, Jesus, no matter where that leads.  Let us go with you, knowing the risk and considering the cost.”  It could be that Thomas’ response to Jesus’ plan included all of it -- cynicism, resignation, faithfulness and courage.  Our own responses to what we don’t understand can be a muddle of thoughts and feelings, of hopes and fears.  Brother Thomas sounds like us.

We hear from him again a little later, after the raising of Lazarus, when Jesus is with his disciples for a last meal.  He washes their feet and gives them a new commandment:  Love one another as I have loved you.  As he lets them know that he will be with them only a little longer, he prepares them for his absence from them in the way they have known him until now.  He assures them that he is going to prepare a place for them and will come again and take them to himself so that where he is, they may be also.

He continues, “And you know the way to the place where I am going.”  A baffled Thomas no doubt speaks for all of them when he says, “Lord, we do not know where you are going.  How can we know the way?”  Jesus assures him – and them – that they do know the way, that he himself is the way.  They will be People of the Way, and the Holy Spirit will teach them and remind them of all that Jesus has made known to them.  “Peace I give to you,” he says; “My peace I leave with you. . . . Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not let them be afraid.”

But, now, where is Thomas on that Easter evening?  Where is our perhaps cynical, resigned, faithful, confused, and fearful brother Thomas?  Well, perhaps he is out looking for Jesus.

Maybe, despite his perfectly reasonable fears, he is finding his way through remembering Jesus’ words, through the powerful witness of Mary Magdalene, through his own urgent, restless desire to also “see the Lord.” Maybe, instead of being huddled in fear with his brothers behind locked doors, he is running the risk of being out in the world, looking all around, hoping to see Jesus.  Maybe he is looking for the one he has come to know as “the way, the truth, and the life.”  Maybe.

That is sheer conjecture on my part, of course, but entering imaginatively into the lives of people in the scriptures sometimes gives us insight into their stories and our own, so that’s why I’ve been wondering what our brother Thomas might have been doing on that first Easter evening when Jesus had shown the others his wounds, and they had rejoiced in his presence among them.  Later, when, like Mary Magdalene, they said to Thomas, “We have seen the Lord,” Thomas wasn’t buying it.  He wanted to see for himself, just as they had.  He wanted to touch Jesus’ wounds; to know that this was really Jesus; to see that, even if following Jesus’ way may lead to death, death is not the end.

A week later, when Thomas is with the other disciples, something has shifted.  Fear does not fill the room, and the door is not locked, but simply shut.  Jesus comes again and greets them, saying, “Peace be with you.”  He offers Thomas the opportunity to touch his wounds, and though we don’t know whether Thomas does that or not, we do know that he responds, “My Lord and my God!”  If, perhaps, a week ago, Thomas had been out looking for Jesus, now Jesus has revealed himself to Thomas in an incredibly intimate way. 

Mary Magdalene recognizes Jesus when he calls her by name.  The disciples know him by his wounds.  We might recognize the risen Jesus in ways like that, too.  He continues to reveal himself in the wounds of the world – in people who are food-insecure or lack access to clean water, in girls who can’t go to school, in women who lack skills and opportunities that would allow them to provide for their families, in families seeking asylum because home is too dangerous a place to stay.  Jesus continues to reveal himself in the wounds of our own society where privilege and power insist on their own way rather than attending to the common good.  Jesus continues to reveal himself in the wounds of the earth itself – in our exploitation of our planet’s resources and our shocking disregard for the well-being of the earth itself and for all of life, human and other-than-human.

Cynicism or resignation in the face of the world’s wounds will not serve life well.  Fear will keep us huddled in locked rooms, wary of being out in the world and, honestly, not very useful to Jesus.  Faithfulness to his way may inconvenience, discomfort, challenge, scare, or ask more of us than we want to give.  But that’s a good reason to gather again and again to hear the stories of those who’ve heard the risen Jesus call their name, been surprised by his presence, recognized him by his wounds, and borne witness to the power of God to bring life out of death.  Our stories may be formed in part by theirs, and our faith may be shaped by their witness.

To follow Jesus’ way is to not turn away from him or from his wounds, but to gather our courage, to receive and soak up the peace that only he can give, and to trust that the Holy Spirit will remind us and teach us how to live as such faithful followers of his way that others may come to say that, through our witness, they have seen the Lord.

Amen              

                

Easter
April 21, 2019
Broken Open

Before I was a pastor, I was a preschool teacher. Now and then, when I was in the grocery store, a family from school would be shopping there, too, and we’d be surprised to see each other. The mom and I would greet each other, but the child who was in my class would often be taken aback by my presence there.

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Easter April 21, 2019

Acts 12:34-43 Pastor Susan Henry

1 Corinthians 15:19-26 House of Prayer Lutheran Church

Luke 24:1-12 Hingham MA

Grace to you and peace from our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Broken Open

Before I was a pastor, I was a preschool teacher.  Now and then, when I was in the grocery store, a family from school would be shopping there, too, and we’d be surprised to see each other.  The mom and I would greet each other, but the child who was in my class would often be taken aback by my presence there.  As Mom said, “Look, it’s Ms. Susan!” her child might slip behind her and hide, just stand there perplexed and speechless, or do something goofy as they tried to take in this encounter and make sense of it.  You could almost see the wheels turning:  “What’s going on here?  How can Ms. Susan be at Star Market?  Why isn’t Ms. Susan at school where she belongs?”

Sometimes it just took a moment before they came around and said hello, but often it wasn’t until they arrived at school the next day and saw me “where I belonged” that they would say with some kind of conspiratorial excitement, “I saw you at Star Market!”

A grocery store encounter could rock a four-year-old’s world, but through a bit of conversation with me in the store or a mother’s explanation that teachers don’t actually live at school or just a little more time to process the whole experience, that preschooler would fit this startling encounter into his or her view of how the world worked.  Their old way of seeing life was changed; it had made room for something totally unanticipated.  What had in some way threatened the worldview that child had constructed actually opened up something new, something they were now “in on” with their mother and their teacher.

We adults have carefully constructed views of how the world works, too – and we are loathe to give them up, especially when something disorienting, confounding, or threatening comes our way.  Something like Easter, for example.  Even those who knew Jesus best didn’t know what to do with the news that the body of Jesus was missing from the tomb because he had risen.  The women had come with burial spices meant for Jesus, the friend and teacher and Lord whom they had watched die a horrific death.  Now, in the tomb, they were terrified, hiding their eyes from those two men in dazzling clothes who asked, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”  Talk about rocking your world.

And yet . . . the women didn’t flee or hide or say something weird.  Instead, they did what those messengers of God then asked of them:  they remembered. They called to mind Jesus’ own words to them about being handed over, crucified, and rising again.  They grounded the present disorienting and confounding moment in something and someone familiar and trustworthy -- and their sense of how the world worked was transformed.  It was not so much broken as broken open.  Remembering Jesus’ words broke something within them open to the good news of the resurrection.

They had remembered his words, and so they went and “told all this to the eleven and to all the rest.”  Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James and the other women “got it” now, and they shared their experience with men they knew had also heard Jesus’ words and were also Jesus’ friends.  And what was their response?  The writer of Luke says, “[T[hese words seemed to them an idle tale.”  They didn’t believe a word of it.

Now, the Greek word leiros appears only once in the whole Bible, right here, and the translators have protected us from its full meaning.  “An idle tale” is a watered-down translation of leiros.  Our word “delirious” comes from it.  Leiros means garbage.  It suggests that you’re out-of-your-mind ridiculous.  It’s really a locker room word.  So the very people whom these women had every right to expect would believe them, instead dismissed what they said, not as “Oh, you silly girls,” but as “That’s a load of crap.”

Well, that must have stung.  Not to be believed, not to be taken seriously, surely caught the women by surprise.  To have their own experience casually dismissed and demeaned by these men who, like them, were Jesus’ friends and followers was appalling.  Something else will have to happen before the reality the women experienced will break through and then break open the men’s minds and hearts.  For Peter, it will be going to the tomb, seeing for himself that the linen cloths are there, but the body of Jesus is not.  He goes home “amazed at what had happened.”  The world looks different to Peter in light of the resurrection.

The next story that the gospel of Luke tells is of two who are on the road to Emaus, disheartened and sad, having had their hopes dashed when Jesus was put to death.  The risen Jesus joins them as they walk, but they do not recognize him.  He opens the scriptures to them, and when they arrive home, they invite him to stay with them.  At the table, when he takes, blesses, and breaks the bread, their eyes are opened, and they recognize him.  In that instant, he is gone, but they travel the whole seven miles back to Jerusalem to tell the disciples and the others what has happened.  They find them saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!”  In turn, they tell “what had happened on the road, and how [the risen Jesus] had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.”

The very next story in Luke tells how, as they are talking about this together, Jesus himself appears in their midst saying, “Peace be with you.”  Startled and terrified, they think they are seeing a ghost.  He assures them that it is really him, and he shows them his hands and feet.  Luke writes that “in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering.”  They knew where death fit into how the world works, but they were both overjoyed and still disbelieving and wondering as they experienced Jesus’ presence with them in some new way that required a more expansive sense of what it means to be alive.

Lutheran scholar and teacher Karoline Lewis says that nobody encountered the risen Jesus and said, “Hey, you’re back.”  Nobody recognizes him at first.  Something else has to happen in order for them to believe that death did not get the last word in Jesus’ life.  They remember his words or they look in the tomb.  He opens the scriptures and breaks the bread or he stands in their midst and proclaims “Peace be with you.”  And even then, in their joy they are still disbelieving and wondering, still coming to terms with the breaking open of their hearts and minds to receive the good news that Jesus is risen.        

That someone who was dead can be alive again will rock anybody’s world, so if we too in our Easter joy are still disbelieving and wondering, we are in good company.  Really, if the dead don’t even stay dead, no wonder we hide, terrified, or stand speechless or act like jerks until something or someone breaks open our hearts enough for us to come out of hiding, to stand in awe and gratitude, and to let our defenses down.  In that vulnerable state, we may recognize the risen Jesus.

In the old way of understanding how the world works, Jesus belongs in the tomb.  But in light of the resurrection, we won’t keep looking for the living among the dead.  Jesus is risen, and we might meet him anywhere.  On the T, at Starbucks, in school.  Where hungry people are fed, in our own pain or sorrow, where women’s stories are believed, whenever we love as we are loved by God.  And where else might we meet and recognize him?  In our joy and disbelief and wonder, in the scriptures, in bread and wine that are Jesus’ own body and blood.  And -- who knows -- perhaps in the produce aisle of the grocery store.

Amen