Hide and Seek, Sermon on John 20:19-31

A young boy was out walking with his mother and out of the blue asked, “Mom, how big is God?” The mother thought a moment and noticed a plane flying overhead high in the sky. She pointed to it and asked her son, “How big does that plane look, Ryan?” He said, “It looks really small.” “Remember that when we go out to the store later today,” was the mother’s reply.

I’ve been thinking this week about a question Pastor Mebane asked in her Easter sermon last week. The text for last week’s sermon told how two of the disciples run to the empty tomb and find only Jesus’ grave clothes there. John tells us, “Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed.” Mebane’s question was about how long it took between when the disciple “saw” and when he “believed.”

It wasn’t a total transformation at the grave because just a few verses later we are told “When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week … the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews.” They are playing hide and seek with the wrong guy. Even locked doors can’t stop Jesus from finding them.

And Jesus’ command to the disciples and to us is that it’s our turn. Believing in the resurrected Christ is just step one. We need to be sent, to shed our grave clothes and go be the church in the world that is dying for Good News.
That does not diminish the fact that our fears are real. Doubting Thomas usually gets most of the attention in this story. I like Thomas. I identify with his honest doubt. Frederick Beuchner says, “Doubt is the ants in pants of faith.” Honest doubt keeps us alive and growing.

There is no faith without doubt; they are two sides of same coin. Beucnher goes on to say that is not the presence of God that keeps us coming back to church – but the absence, the seeking of true peace in the midst of our broken world.

We don’t know where Thomas was. John just tells us he wasn’t there the first time Jesus appears to the other 10 disciples. Maybe Thomas was the most scared. The disciples are hiding – but Thomas is even afraid to hide in the same place with them. That’s ironic because Thomas earlier in the story where Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead is the disciple who says, “Let’s go to Jerusalem and die with Jesus!” What happened? Maybe Thomas realized it’s easier to die with Jesus than to live with or for him? After all, the Jews or other oppressors can only kill the body. Jesus wants our souls too.

But see what happens when we give into fear and hide from God? God breaks down the barriers anyway – even thru locked doors. And when Thomas is not there Jesus doesn’t give up on him; he comes back a week later specifically to address Thomas’ doubt and fear. Faith is not a one-time deal like a polio vaccine. It’s a lifelong journey. One of my favorite biblical characters is the man in Mark’s Gospel who asks Jesus to heal his son of an evil spirit. When Jesus inquires of the man’s faith his honest response is, “Lord I believe, help my unbelief.” Both Thomas and this father remind us that faith and doubt dwell in creative tension in all of us.

But I don’t want to focus on Thomas today. Instead I want us to look carefully at what Jesus says and does in these first post-resurrection encounters with his disciples.

John says the doors are locked in that upper room and Jesus comes right into the room anyway. How he did that is an interesting question we could explore, but that’s not really the point. Jesus coming into that locked room means that God breaks through whatever barriers we try to put up – whatever excuses we offer: I’m too old, too young, too poor, too busy, not good enough, too scared. “Sorry,” Jesus says, “it’s your turn now.”

One of the best Easter sermons I ever heard was by Bishop Dwight Loder, and the phrase I remember from that sermon is this. Bishop Loder said, “Jesus was not resurrected by the church. He was not resurrected for the church. He was resurrected AS the church.” We are the body of Christ, and as such God sends us in mission and service to the least and the lost. We are transformed by the salvation of Christ, but the story doesn’t end there. We are transformed so we can go out and change the world into the Kingdom of God.

How in God’s name can we do that? Exactly – we can only do it if we do it in God’s name and with God’s power. And here’s the good news – that power is ready and available for anyone who is willing to accept it and surrender to it.
Do you want peace in your life? Don’t we all? We long for real peace that only God can give, the peace that passes all human understanding. And the secret to finding that peace is right here in John 20. The first thing Jesus says to the disciples is “Peace be with you.” He doesn’t send them out looking for peace on E-bay or Craig’s list; he imparts it into their hearts and then sends them out. We don’t find or create that kind of peace; it finds us, in the midst of our doubts, not after all our doubts are resolved.

How does that work? Notice what happens right after Jesus says “As God has sent me, so I send you.” “When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them ‘receive the Holy Spirit.’” He breathed life into them just as God breathed life into humankind in the creation story. God’s Holy Spirit empowers before it sends us out to serve.

But here’s the catch – that powerful spirit only comes in surrender. True peace only happens when we are vulnerable enough to get up close and personal with God. You have to get very close to let someone breathe on you. The question is do we want Jesus getting that close? Invading our personal space, meddling with our priorities? That’s scary. But, if we let down our barriers and allow Christ into our hearts we are empowered by the Holy Spirit to humbly and obediently do justice and act mercifully – outside our comfort zones in the world God sends us into. To say with all the saints that have gone before us, “Here I am, Lord, send me!”

Now I want to circle back to young Ryan’s question about how big God is. That afternoon Ryan’s mom took him with her to go grocery shopping, but on the way she took a slight detour to drive by the city’s airport. She parked near a fence where the planes on the tarmac were visible and said to Ryan, “Do you remember how small that plane looked when we saw it today way up in the sky? Ryan nodded. “And how big do these planes on the ground look?” “They’re really big!” her son replied. And Ryan’s mom said, “That’s how God is. The closer we are to God, the bigger God is.”

Peace comes only when we get close enough to Jesus that he can breathe on us. I’m not sure I want Jesus or anyone to get that close. We have to really trust someone to let them invade our personal space. If we let Jesus get that close we might have a have heartwarming experience like John Wesley. We might get called out of our comfort zone to put our faith into action!

I don’t know what Jesus is calling you to do. That’s between you and God, but I do know that we will only find the peace and power to fulfill our calling if we let the risen Christ get close enough to breathe the power of the Holy Spirit into us.

Benediction – God is big enough to help our unbelief if we allow God to get close enough. Jesus finds us when we foolishly try to play hide and seek, and he says, “You’re it. I send you out, but only after I breathe the power of the Holy Spirit into your hearts.” Go in Peace. Amen

Know When to Walk Away and When to Run

“If that house will not welcome you shake the dust from your feet and walk away.” Those words from the Gospel of Matthew kept running through my mind as I followed the struggles of the United Methodist General conference last week. Leaving a significant relationship is never easy, but sometimes it is the best choice to make. I have been an ordained United Methodist pastor for almost 50 years. For all but 3 years of my entire ministry my denomination has been arguing over LGBTQ acceptance.

Like Charlie Brown I dared to hope that just maybe this time the General Conference wouldn’t pull the ball away before Jesus could kick a field goal. It pains me greatly that once again my denomination has failed to be the church. Isn’t 47 years long enough to wait for the UMC to produce good fruit? Far too many good people have been damaged by the judgmental policies of our church. Far too much time and precious resources have been wasted fiddling with this unwinable debate while the world burns from hunger, poverty, climate change, racism and rising nationalism.

The world is in desperate need of authentic ministry to the marginalized, the immigrants and oppressed, and a church that cannot even accept its own LGBTQ children so we can all join hands to care for God’s children is not a a church worthy of Christ’s name.

I will of course pray long and hard for everyone wounded again by this rejection and for the rejectors. But I will also be praying about my future relationship to the UMC. My decision may be easier because I am retired. It will be a much harder choice for others.” in active ministry. I will wait to see what last week’s vote for an even harder line rejection of my beloved sisters and brothers actually means. Like Congress church politics are messy and convoluted. Even those who were in Indianapolis at General Conference are not sure what the so-called “Traditional” plan means. Parts of it were apparently declared unconstitutional by the Judicial Council before the vote which probably means the battle will continue, and even more LGBTQ people and their progressive supporters will be alienated from Christ and his redeeming, inclusive love.

Even though we don’t know what the future holds, these things I do know for sure. God isn’t finished with us yet. For people of faith resurrection always follows death. It may feel like Friday, but Sunday’s coming! The Christ I have come to know and love says, “Come to me ALL (not just those we deem worthy) who labor and are heavy laden.” And in that verse from Matthew where it says to shake the dust from your feet, listen to Jesus’ final warning to those who refuse to welcome God’s blessed ones: “Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgement than for that town.” (Matthew 10:15)

Whatever emerges from the coming schism I for one am ready to shake the dust of judgement and rejection from my feet and align myself with those who are welcoming and inclusive. I don’t know yet what that looks like organizationally, but Jesus knows it’s not the name on the church door that matters. It’s the hospitality inside the fellowship of believers that makes us a church.

History Lessons

I’ve been pondering the current re-emergence of racism in America while reading a history of the contentious and violent 1968 presidential election. This takeover of the party of Lincoln and Eisenhower has its roots in the Southern Strategy of Nixon and the blatant racism of George Wallace and Strom Thurmond. Donald Trump is simply the latest horrible outbreak of the evil virus that has been in this country from its very beginning.

There has been attention drawn to the 14th Amendment recently by Trump’s unconstitutional assertion that he can abolish birthright citizenship with a stroke of his pen. The scary thing is that if he retains control of all three branches of government next year he probably can and will. That’s what dictators do.

But here’s the history lesson we need to remember. The 14th Amendment, along with 13 and 15, that abolished slavery and granted citizenship and voting rights to African American men (women had to wait another 60 years to vote along with their white sisters), all three of those amendments were adopted during Reconstruction. That means the southern states never did and never have adopted those basic human values because their economy and heritage was founded on enslaving and abusing other human beings.

On my most depressed days I wonder if Lincoln was wrong to try and preserve this deeply divided union. Maybe we would have been better off as two separate but unequal nations?

But then the Holy Spirit taps me on the shoulder yet again and whispers in my ear, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)

And my hero Nikos Kazantzakis shouts in the other ear, ““My prayer is not the whimpering of a beggar nor a confession of love. Nor is it the trivial reckoning of a small tradesman: Give me and I shall give you. My prayer is the report of a soldier to his general: This is what I did today, this is how I fought to save the entire battle in my own sector, these are the obstacles I found, this is how I plan to fight tomorrow.” (Nikos Kazantzakis, “Saviors of God: Spiritual Exercises”)

Where does that faith and courage to fight the good fight come from? The clue is this other quote from Kazantzakis that is his epitaph: “I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.”

Pastoral Prayer July 1

O God of reckless love, we your children come again to drink of your life-giving spirit. We are worn down by the heat and the steady drumbeat of conflict and division in our world. Speak words of life to us in your still small voice. Renew in us the vision you have given us of a world where liberty and justice for all are realities and not just ideals. As you inspired our ancestors to risk their very lives for that dream of freedom, let our celebration of independence be a time of renewal for all who follow him who is the truth that sets us free.

Let the spectacle of fireworks not only fill us with oohs and ahs in their moment of brilliance, but let them reverberate in our hearts to energize us to be the change we want to see; to be agents of compassion and civility in our daily relationships; to build bridges over partisan divides; to brighten our little corner of the world with random acts of kindness.

As we ring the bells of freedom let us also hammer out justice all over our land. We pray for families that are divided by strife, by politics, by geographic or emotional distance. We pray for military families separated by service to our country; for health care workers, first responders, and others for whom July 4th is just another work day. We pray for the families shattered by the shooting in Annapolis and for those broken by terminal illness, dementia, addiction or grief.

Yes, we’re here, loving God, hungry for love, for good news, for community; for all those things Jesus represents for us; for the things we find in bread and cup; in every child touched by Vacation Bible School; in every brown bag lunch packed and delivered with loving hands; in every smile and hug we share with those here today. We praise and thank you for the many signs of love you give us and pray for ears and eyes to recognize those signs even in a broken world. We dare to live as Easter people with resurrection in our hearts because of the one who taught us to pray……

Like a Fatherless Child

To paraphrase an old spiritual, “Sometimes I feel like a fatherless child.” Today is my first father’s day as an orphan. My dad died 4 months ago, and I didn’t expect to feel the loss today as much as I do. My dad and I were not very close, and his last few years were not conducive to meaningful conversation. Fortunately I made a concerted effort in recent years to forgive him for the things I resented about his parenting; and we were on good terms before he died. But there is still emptiness in my heart today. He’s not where I can visit with him or call him and that hurts.

If I feel that loneliness as a 71 year-old reasonably stable adult, I can’t imagine what the immigrant kids being held by our government away from their parents in a strange country and place they’ve never seen before are feeling. It breaks my heart, and so does the legalistic mindset that says, “You do the crime, you do the time.” Yes, at times that strategy is necessary, but these kids are innocent. They didn’t come here on their own. Many are here because their parents in desperation risked arrest to flee for their lives from danger in their home countries. They threw themselves on the mercy of our country much as immigrants have done for centuries, only this time the quality of mercy has been strained to the breaking point.

The legalistic response from the current administration and especially from (I hate to admit) my fellow United Methodist Jeff Sessions reminds me of the Scribes and Pharisees who wanted to throw the book at Jesus for healing someone on the Sabbath. Yes, Jesus broke the law because he knew compassion and human decency trump the law at times. You don’t tell a person begging for healing, “Sorry, not on the Sabbath.” As Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath.”

So what do we do now? Christians across the country and world have raised a hue and cry of righteous indignation, but so far the Republican President and Congress have been unmoved. Such desperate times call for desperate action. The damage being done to these children cannot go on. So here’s my suggestion to the Democratic leadership in Congress. Pay the ransom. Give the president what he wants. Pay for the stupid wall. The billions of dollars are a huge price to pay, but how do you put a price on the well-being of all the Dreamers and other children being held hostage? Pay the ransom for the sake of the fatherless and motherless kids. And then take the reins of government back in November or in 2020 and pull the funding for the worthless wall. It’s getting perilously late to save our democracy, but if a new birth of compassion is restored by the plight of these children it may be worth it.

Father’s Day Pastoral Prayer

Heavenly Father, we your prodigal children humbly come to you in prayer seeking forgiveness and guidance for all the need in our world. We lift up our joys and concerns written on these prayer cards as well as those we hold close to our hearts. We praise you for giving us a high standard of what fatherhood can be – a generous heart that allows children freedom to learn without sheltering us from the consequences of bad decisions. And you know we have made many. But we also know that the welcome mat is always out and your door is never locked to any who repent and return to you. We are here because we have felt your grace and radical hospitality and strive to offer the same to any and all who need love and compassion.

We pray for all fathers today here and in heaven with you. We give thanks where the bonds of love are strong in families, even as we pray for those where relationships are broken or strained. We know life is not always kind or fair. Help us celebrate the memories of good times between dads and kids, but also help us to let go of pain, forgive generously, knowing that we only have today – we cannot change the past. But with your help we can write a future worthy of Jesus who was so close he called you Abba which means “Daddy.”

In your family O God we are all brothers and sisters, no matter our race, gender, orientation or nationality. Help us all strive to emulate your unconditional love for everyone as if they are our own children, our own fathers and mothers.

And on this Father’s Day we pray for these members of our mission team who are leaving fathers and children behind to go and be the hands and feet of Christ to our sisters and brothers in Clendenin, West Virginia. We send this team as ambassadors from the Northwest branch of your family. We ask your blessing on them as they travel and work with those recovering from the terrible flood of 2016. They will offer their labor and their love, and we pray that hearts on both sides of the partnership will blossom with new relationships and a closer bond of love with Jesus Christ, the one who calls you Daddy, and the one who taught us to pray.

Flags, Idols and Outrage Burnout

Because life has been busier than usual for me the last few weeks I have not posted anything here. I know, you conservative friends have been relieved, but it doesn’t mean I haven’t been reflecting on the myriad of news events in our broken world. I’ve been busy in part because my dear wife had rotator cuff surgery four weeks ago and has been unable to use her right/dominant hand and arm. I’m glad to be her “right hand man,” and I have a whole new appreciation for all she does and for the loving ministry of caregivers everywhere. She’s still got a few more weeks in her sling, but we are grateful that she’s recovering very well.

The other reason I’ve not written was something I couldn’t identify until recently. You know the feeling you get when you’ve got something wrong but you’re not sure what, and how it helps to get it diagnosed and have a name for it? Well I heard someone on NPR last week who gave a name to what I’ve been feeling about the current political malaise in our country and world. She called it “outrage burnout.” There is such a string of astonishing unjust and stupid actions taken by the President, his Attorney General, his cadre of crazy lawyers, ICE, etc. that before you can respond to one outrage there’s two or three more. I’m convinced it’s a very clever political strategy to simply wear down the opposition before the midterm elections. So with that caveat, here’s a post I started a week or so ago while waiting for my wife at a Doctor’s appointment. You will notice it is a bit dated but I believe it is still relevant enough to be worth your time.

When I was ordained a United Methodist pastor 49 years ago this month one of the traditional questions the bishop asked me and my fellow ordinands was “Are you going on to perfection?” We dutifully, if suppressing a chuckle, gave the acceptable answer which is “yes.” If asked that now in this penultimate stage of my life I’d have to say “Probably not!” The point of that question is that like any milestone event in life, e.g. graduation, marriage, bat mitzvah, ordination is just that, a milestone on a long journey and not a destination. It is also there as a not-so-subtle reminder that all of us, clergy alike and maybe especially clergy are FHB’s – fallible human beings standing in the need of God’s grace.

Since that day in 1969 I have learned many things about my own fallibility and the dark side of human nature that have convinced me beyond a shadow of a doubt that “perfection” is not achievable in this life—not even close.
In fact, one of the biggest issues I’m dealing with in my 72nd year of life is dismay that humankind seems to be moving further from perfection at an alarming rate. For most of my adult life I have been comforted and inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s statement that “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Lately however I find myself questioning which way that arc is bending. My biggest regret about my ministry is that both my church and the world seem even more divided and imperfect now than they did 50 years ago.

I will spare all of us the litany of evil and depressing events that bombard us daily like a biblical plague of locusts. It is hard to decide which of the seven deadly sins is most prevalent on any given day. But for the sake of argument let’s just tackle the first two the Ten Commandments. The top two of the Decalogue can be summarized: 1) Have no other gods but Yahweh, and 2) Worship no idols. I am thinking of those two just now because of the “to kneel or not to kneel” debate going on between NFL football players, NFL owners, and President Trump.
The NFL recently, in my opinion, violated the first amendment rights of their predominantly black players by threatening to fine anyone for not standing during the national anthem. President Trump raised the ante by harkening back to the good old “America love it or leave it” days of the 1960’s anti-war protests to question if anyone defying the NFL rule even belongs in this country! Do you suppose he will also deport all the Amish, Mennonite and Jehovah Witnesses who also refuse to bow down to any empire’s graven image? Those groups have been exercising their right to freedom of expression for decades, but then again they’re white so that must make a difference.

The Supreme Court ruled in the middle of World War II no less that Americans have the right not to stand for the national anthem. Why does it matter? Because God and God’s values of justice and equality for all of humankind trump, pun intended, any human law or allegiance. That’s what the “under” means in “One nation under God.” And by the way all national laws of any nation are human laws. For a more detailed discussion of what Professor Robert Jewett calls “zealous nationalism” vs. “prophetic realism” see my post on “Biblical Politics,” Nov. 5, 2012.
The flag controversy began as a protest against police using excessive and too often fatal force, against black people, especially those who are unarmed. That’s a legitimate justice issue and needs to be addressed in any and all peaceful means; and kneeling players succeeded in bringing attention to that cause. But President Trump and the NFL have misconstrued their protest by trying to make it about patriotism and respect for the military. Intentionally or not that is a diversionary tactic to avoid the important issue of racial justice, the central moral issue of all of American history.

When a flag or any symbol becomes more important than the divine issues of truth and justice it has become an idol. Whenever loyalty to country or party supersedes loyalty to truth we are worshipping a false god. When I was a Boy Scout many decades ago there was a badge called “God and Country.” I don’t know if there is such an award in scouting now, but I hope not. That title equates God and Country as if the two are synonymous. They are not. Every nation, tribe, race, organization or group of FHB’s is by definition imperfect–in other words needs to always be “going on to perfection.” We the people of the USA have not and will never “arrive,” and therefore always are in need of positive and constructive criticism. That is what the first amendment so wisely is intended to protect and why it’s number one.

As for the NFL, let’s just say I’ll have more free time this fall on Sundays and Monday nights as I exercise my freedom to boycott their ill-advised rule.

P.S. As I was writing this my wife asked me a very good question about freedom of expression. This was during Rosanne Barr’s fifteen minutes of fame where her show was cancelled by ABC because she tweeted some racist comments about Valerie Jarett who was a member of the Obama administration. The difference is that Rosanne’s comments were degrading and libelous, defaming the very being of an African American woman. The NFL protest call attention to a social justice issue in order for it to be addressed. Rosanne slandered another human being in the cruelest of racial stereotypes that have no redeeming or critical value (and was a repeat offender of such behavior). Yes, she later apologized, but hateful speech is like the proverbial toothpaste that cannot be put back in the tube once it is expelled. On the other side of the political aisle a few days later Samantha Bee was guilty of using very crude speech about Ivanka Trump, and she was just as wrong and perhaps more so because her comments were not a late night tweet but a scripted pre-taped commentary on her TV show. So far as I know Bee has gotten off with much less punishment than Rosanne, and that is yet another example of how justice and human decency are being eroded by the partisan vitriol polluting the environment we all live in today.

Bottom line is that freedom of e xpre4ssion has never been an absolute right. The over –used example is that no one is allowed to induce panic in a crowded theater by yelling “fire” when there is none. Freedom must be tempered by the higher values of truth and respect for the greater good of others and the community.

The flag debate is not new but an on-going dialogue that will always be going on to perfection, even when it moves one step forward and two back. Never has the need for the balance between individual freedom and communal responsibility been more needed than it is today. The secret is in the first commandment. If we truly put the higher power of being itself that we call God first and foremost in our loyalties and obedience then other issues fall into place and greed, materialism, nationalism, sexism, and racism will not rule our thoughts and actions. Of course humankind has been trying to live up to that high ideal for 4000 years or so. We’re not close to arriving, and that is discouraging; but by the grace of God we continue on the way, even when the goal seems hopeless. For to continue seeking God’s way when all seems hopeless is the very meaning of faith.