You Are Somebody

Youth Sunday Slide

On May 17, we celebrated Youth Sunday at Good Shepherd Episcopal Church. In place of the usual sermon, I was joined via Zoom by our Youth and Family Minister, David Dixon.  Following the Sunday gospel reading from the Gospel of John, David and I reflect together on the promise of Jesus to “send another Advocate” and “to not leave us as orphans.” This promise speaks to the core of who we are and provides a strong foundation for all of us to stand upon in the midst of the these uncertain time. Here is the full video of this collaborative sermon.

Living Stones

As Episcopalians, we love our church buildings. Whether it’s the grandeur of a gothic cathedral or the charm of a small country chapel. Whether it’s the brilliance of stained-glass windows or the humbleness of well-worn pews. We love and cherish our buildings. We cherish these buildings because they represent a significant part of our spiritual journeys. What happens in our buildings encompasses the whole of our lives from baptism to burial. Our buildings are a sacred place where we come to encounter the presence of God in a more focused and intentional way.

Now, I know that the church is more than a building. In fact, our mission beyond the walls of our buildings has been a central theme for us here at Good Shepherd over at least the past year.

And yet, more and more, what I am hearing from people is that they miss a sense of connection to this sacred space. They miss being able to come into this building, to take a deep breath, to leave the stress and strain of the world outside. They miss being able to worship and encounter the presence of God within the sanctuary of this building.

So, what I’m saying is that it is okay to recognize that our identity as God’s people is about more than a building and at the same time to grieve the fact that we can’t gather in this sacred space. It is okay to recognize that our mission is beyond these walls and at the same time to feel a sense of disconnection from the sanctuary of this building.

TempleAnd I believe that’s okay, because almost two thousand years ago, that is exactly what God’s people were feeling. During the time of Jesus and during the very early days of the church, the magnificent Temple of Jewish people stood in the heart of Jerusalem and in the hearts of God’s people. The Temple, this massive and glorious building, was the centerpiece of Jewish faith and practice. The Temple was the ultimate destination of hundreds of thousands of God’s people who would make a pilgrimage to that sacred space at least once a year.The Temple was a place of worship. The Temple was a place of prayer. The Temple was a place of sacrifice. The Temple was the very dwelling place of God. But in the year 70 AD, the Temple was destroyed. The Roman army captured the city of Jerusalem, and destroyed both the city and its Temple. The Temple as a building, as a sacred space, as a sanctuary for God’s people, was gone.

Temple DestroyedNow there were followers of Jesus all over the known world, but many of those first followers still felt a strong connection the city of Jerusalem and to the Temple as a place of worship and prayer. They still felt a connection to that sacred space. And so, even though they knew that their identity was about more than a building, they still grieved the loss of that building, they grieved the loss of a building that had stood as a symbol of God’s presence for hundreds of years.

But then along comes the Apostle Peter who wrote a letter to his congregation, a letter of encouragement and hope. And in that letter, he says to God’s people, “Come to Jesus, a living stone, rejected by many yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house.”

At first, living stones seems like a contradiction in terms. How can a stone become alive? But Peter is ultimately doing something remarkable. He is taking the language and imagery and history that was once applied to the physical Temple in Jerusalem and he applies it to the beloved community of God’s people. What was once confined to a single, particular location is now located wherever the people of God are gathered.

The Temple was static. The Temple was not able to get up and move itself. But now the Church, the Body of Christ, becomes a living, breathing organism. These STONES are giving LIFE. Now you may not have thought of yourself as a stone before. But, my friends, that is who we are, LIVING STONES, chosen and precious in God’s sight.

We are being built into a spiritual house. A spiritual building. A spiritual Temple that is a dwelling place for God.

And as with any building, there is a cornerstone, and his name is Jesus. If there was no cornerstone, if there was no beginning, if there was no foundation, there would be no building. But this spiritual house into which we are being constructed is being built on the firm foundation of Jesus, who is the rock of our salvation.

And as with any building, every part is interconnected with every other part. Every stone is meant to mutually support the other stones. Height and strength and security are only possible when the stones are in alignment with each other.

And as with any building, we are in relationship with all who enter. As God’s spiritual house, we are called to welcome and love all who enter into our midst. To be a place of sanctuary, a place of healing, a place of hope.

My friends, as I stand here in the beauty of this building. As I look at the stained-glass windows that adorn this space. As I look at the pews, where I normally see your beautiful faces. Of course, I grieve. I grieve the fact that we can’t gather in this sacred space. I grieve the fact that we can’t enter into this spiritual house.

But I am encouraged by the promise that you and I are living stones. You and I part of a living, breathing, spiritual house. It’s a building that is not confined to particular location. It’s a building that is not limited to the boundaries of four cinderblock walls.  It’s a building that is being constructed right where you are. And as living stone, you are needed. You are essential. You are part of God’s spiritual house.

So be encouraged today. Keep the faith. Remain steadfast in hope. Because you are God’s living stone, chosen and precious in his sight.

Sheep Need Their Shepherd

Over two decades ago, a team of researchers in the United Kingdom conducted a series of studies with one particular flock of sheep. And one their initial discoveries was that sheep have the capacity to recognize the faces of up to 50 other sheep. In other words, within any given flock, a sheep can recognize and distinguish between 50 of his or her closest friends. Now, when you think about it, this is quite remarkable. Because if you and I looked at the pictures of 50 different friends, we would see 50 substantially different faces. But just take a look at a sheep! To you and me a sheep pretty much looks like a sheep. But apparently sheep look very different to other sheep.

Now after this initial finding, researchers conducted a follow-up study on sheep anxiety. They conducted this study on the sheep that seemed especially anxious or fearful or agitated and here is what they discovered. When researchers held up pictures of random sheep or other animals, the anxious sheep remained anxious. But when the researchers held up pictures of sheep in the same flock, their 50 closet friends, the anxious sheep responded positively. In other words, when the anxious sheep saw a familiar face, he or she began to show signs of improvement. But when researchers held up a picture of the shepherd, the anxious sheep became completely calm. Their heart rate went down. Their blood pressure returned to normal. Almost all the physical symptoms of anxiety or fear were diminished, and all was well when the shepherd was close at hand. This scientific study essentially demonstrates what Jesus declared two thousand years ago, “sheep need to be in the presence of their shepherd.”

This brings us, of course, to our gospel reading this morning from John, chapter 10, in which Jesus famously proclaims, “I am the good shepherd.” The image of Jesus as shepherd is one of the most well-known and beloved images of Jesus in the entire New Testament. It’s an image that has possessed significant sentimental value for generations of Christians. But this particular passage is anything but sentimental. Jesus is standing before those who are opposing him, those who are seeking his life and he is making a powerful prophetic pronouncement. Jesus is making the claim that he is the fulfillment of the promises established by God through the ancient prophets of Israel.

You see, if we step back into the world of the Old Testament for a moment, what we discover is that the leaders of Israel were charged with the care and protection of God’s people. They were in essence shepherds over the people of God. And yet, they consistently turned their backs on God’s people and were consumed by greed and power and corruption. And as a result of the failure of these earthly shepherds, God’s people were scattered into exile, separated from each other, separated from their homes and their land, separated even from the experience of God’s presence among them.

But in the midst of the pain of separation and isolation, God raised up prophets. Prophets like Ezekiel and Micah and Isaiah and Jeremiah. Each of these prophets spoke of time when God himself would come and dwell among his people as shepherd. In fact, the prophet Isaiah offers us an amazing image of God as a shepherd who picks up a lamb in his arms and holds the lamb close in the embrace of his love. It’s an image that reminds me of a time when my middle son was about a year old and he was that stage that when he was in church he would do anything to get out of reach of my wife and make a beeline down the center aisle, because he wanted to get to his daddy. One Sunday toward the end of the service, he succeeded, and just as I was preparing to offer the final blessing, Parker made his way behind the altar and just stood there, staring at me with his big blue eyes. I did the only thing a dad could do. I scooped him up, held him close, and finished the rest of the service with him in my arms. All he wanted was to be in the presence of his dad.

This is what Isaiah is talking about when he said God would be our Shepherd. God, as the great shepherd of his people, would come and seek out those who were lost, he would gather up those who had been scattered, he would bring healing and renewal to those who had experienced the pain of separation and isolation. The ancient prophets of Israel knew that God’s people desperately need to be restored to relationship with God.

And so, along comes Jesus, standing before the religious leaders of his own day, standing before those who were seeking to kill him, and he boldly declares, “I am the good shepherd.” Jesus knew the prophecies of Ezekiel and Micah and Jeremiah. He knew the promises that God had made to his people and He came to dwell among us as the fulfillment of those promises.

He came to seek out those who were lost. He came to gather those who were scattered and isolated. He came to those who were alienated, those on the margins of society and offered them not just life, but abundant life. He came with such love and passion for you and me that he was willing to lay down his life, because that’s what Good Shepherds do. The Good Shepherd doesn’t abandon the sheep, that what’s the religious leaders had done over and over again, but not Jesus, because he knows that sheep need to be in the presence of their shepherd.

My friends, take a moment to think about the state of the world in which we live. Take a moment to think about your life, your family, your community. Take a moment to think about the lives impacted and lost by this pandemic that has swept across the globe.

We desperately need a Good Shepherd. And we, as the church, desperately need to be formed as a community of disciples who not only follow Jesus, but who also embody the character of Jesus, who is our Shepherd.

There is a story of young girl who was asked to stand and recite Psalm 23 from memory. She stood in front of the church and began, “The Lord is my Shepherd, that’s all I want.” Now she may not have gotten the text exactly right. But I think she nailed the theology. Because sheep need to be in the presence of their Shepherd.

We need to be in the presence of the One who laid down his life for us.

The One who died and rose again for us.

The One who seeks us out when we are lost and scattered and isolated.

The One who, when he finds us, will never, ever let us go.

Breakthrough

During the first half of the twentieth century, an epidemic spread throughout the United States that struck fear in the hearts of many Americans. Numerous outbreaks of this particular disease surged during the heat of the summer months. People were afraid to go on vacation or to travel far from their homes. At the peak of the epidemic, somewhere between 10 and 20 million people had been infected and over 250,000 were left paralyzed for the rest of their lives. This disease, of course, was polio. And this disease that caused widespread panic over several decades until finally, on this date, April 26, 1954, field testing for a vaccine began in northern Virginia and within one year the vaccine was proven to be effective. Up until that moment in history, exactly 66 years ago today, this disease caused fear and confusion and uncertainty – until there was a breakthrough, until there was a moment when everything shifted, a moment when suddenly, there was hopeand renewal and a sense of promise for the future.

In many ways, we are all searching for breakthrough moments in our lives! A breakthrough is a moment of discovery. It’s a moment of clarity. It’s a moment of revelation. A breakthrough is when you and I seesomething that has been there all along, but now our eyes have been opened to see it. The Bible is full of breakthrough moments, and one of those moments just happens to be described in our gospel reading today.

In our reading from the gospel of Luke, it is still Easter day. The women have only just discovered the empty tomb. The news of resurrection is still sketchy and somewhat scary. And so, two disciples of Jesus, one of whom is named Cleopas, decide that they have had enough. It’s time to skip town. It’s time to move on with their lives. So, they make their way down a dusty road to a small village named Emmaus. But, you know, what is significant about their journey is not so much the fact that they are heading toward Emmaus, but the fact that they are walking away from Jerusalem.

You see, Jerusalem was the place where they thought Jesus was going to accomplish a great victory. Jerusalem was the place where they thought all their hopes would be fulfilled. Instead, Jerusalem ended up being the place where Jesus was crucified. And so, they are walking away from that pain and hurt, they are walking away from the fear and uncertainty, they were walking away from unmet expectations and unfulfilled dreams. They are walking away from Jerusalem, because Jerusalem was the place where they had experienced a profound sense of hopelessness and despair.

And yet, if we glance ahead, we see that at the end of the story, Cleopas and his companion make a dramatic turn back toward Jerusalem. At the end of the story, they suddenly get up from their seats, go back by the same road that they just traveled, and return to Jerusalem. These two disciples were moving in one direction and all of a sudden, everything changes. All of a sudden, they turn 180 degrees and begin moving in the other direction. Why? Because they have a breakthrough moment!

Cleopas and his companion are making their way down this dusty road away from Jerusalem and toward to Emmaus. They’re tired. They’re afraid. They’re confused. They’re going over the events of the past few days, trying to make sense of everything that has happened, when Jesus shows up and joins them on their journey. Now you and I know that this stranger is Jesus, but Cleopas and his friend have no clue! They have no idea that this is Jesus who is now walking with them down this road. Because their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And so, they just their story. They share their pain. They unload their disappointment and pain. The stranger begins to teach these two disciples about the Word of God, about the promises and faithfulness of God. But they still don’t recognize who it is that is speaking to them.

Until that night, when Cleopas and his companion invite the stranger to stay for dinner. And while they are sharing the evening meal, the stranger takes bread, he blesses the bread, he breaks the bread, and then he gives its to Cleopas and his friend. And in that moment when the bread is broken and given to them, and as they partake of that bread, their eyes are opened and they see the presence of the risen Christ in their midst.And all of a sudden, every makes sense.

This is their breakthrough moment.

This is their moment of discovery.

This is their moment of clarity, their moment of revelation.

This is the moment when they see the One who has been with them the whole time because now their eyes have been opened!

And in this breakthrough moment. Everything is changed! Where there was once fear, confusion, and uncertainty, there is now hope and renewal and promise for the future. Where there was once pain and disappointment, there is now joy and passion and determination. And this breakthrough moment happens in the breaking of the bread. Normally when I read this story, I immediately connect the breaking of the bread with the celebration of Holy Communion. I immediately make this a story about the sacrament that we partake of around this altar. And I don’t think that’s wrong.

But this year, when I read this story, I saw something different. It occurred to me that this breakthrough moment didn’t happen in a church around an altar. It happened in a home around a table. It didn’t happen during a formal liturgical celebration. It happened during an ordinary evening meal. Isn’t it interesting that during this time when most of us are stuck in our homes, we keep reading stories about God showing up in people’s homes. We keep reading stories about Jesus revealing himself in the midst of the ordinariness of daily life. That seems to be the way God works!

Now, of course, we are all praying for a scientific breakthrough when it comes to the pandemic that has stuck our nation and the world in which we live. But I believe that in the midst of these unprecedented times, there are spiritual breakthrough moments happening. Moments of discovery. Moments of clarity. Moments when we see something we have never seen before because suddenly our eyes are open!

And like with Cleopas and his companion, these breakthrough moments are happening in our homes; they are happening in the ordinary stuff of life. So, may that be our prayer this morning. Lord, open my eyes. Open my eyes to see your presence in my life. In the breaking of bread. In the sharing of a meal. In the song of a bird. In the laughter of a child. In the clatter of a thunderstorm. In the stillness of the morning. Lord, open my eyes.

My friends, Jesus is with you. The risen Christ is with you. The peace of his presence is with you. And because he is with you, the ordinariness of each moment comes with the possibility of breakthrough. And when that breakthrough happens, your life and my life will never be the same again.

Beyond Lockdown

Good morning! As you can tell, I am coming to you today from my home. Because that is where most of us are spending most of our time right now. We are, of course, exceedingly grateful for our healthcare professionals and essential workers who are on the front lines and continue to serve our communities, because the vast majority of our nation remains on lockdown. Most of us are experiencing some degree of confinement and restriction. So, I’m coming to you from my home today, because that’s where most of us are. In our homes. Behind our doors. Hoping to remain safe.

However, I’m also coming to you from my home today, because in our gospel reading this morning, the disciples are essentially on lockdown. They are in their homes. Behind their doors. Hoping to remain safe. We have to remember that on that first Easter day nearly two thousand years ago, no one was quite ready to shout “Hallelujah!” No one was eager to fully embrace the reality that Jesus had been raised from dead. Instead, the disciples went on lockdown. They went into hiding. They went into self-protection mode. Because they were afraid. They were uncertain about the future. They were unsure about their faith. Poor Thomas always gets the bad wrap as being the one who doubted. He is the one who needed proof. But, let me tell you, on that first Easter night, every single one of those disciples was bound up by fear and uncertainty about the future. Every single one of those disciples were struggle with anxiety and doubt. Every single one of the disciples went into lockdown mode. In their homes. Behind their doors. Hoping to remain safe.

But in today’s reading from the gospel of John, Jesus makes himself known to the disciples. He walks right through the locked doors of their house. And he walks right through the locked doors of their hearts. He walks through the physical barriers of wood and stone. And he walks right through the spiritual barriers of fear and doubt. Jesus, who had been crucified, was now standing in their midst, and they were filled with joy.

But, you know, what struck me this week as I read this gospel reading, is that when Jesus shows up for the first time on that first Easter night, there is no small talk, there is no conversation. Jesus does all the talking. Because he has come specifically to give the disciples what they need to go forward. Jesus has come to give them what they need in order to end their lockdown and go into the world.

And so, this morning, I want to talk to you about what Jesus gives to his disciples on that first Easter night. What he gives them that enables them to overcome their fear, their uncertainty, and their doubt.

The first thing Jesus gives the disciples is PEACE. The very first words that Jesus speaks are the words, “Peace be with you.” Now this peace that Jesus bestows upon his disciples is not simply a feeling or an emotion. Jesus not saying, “Just calm down and everything is going to be okay.” Jesus is giving his disciples what he promised them before he died. He told them, “I will give you my peace.” He said, “I will give you a peace that the world cannot give. I will give you a peace that passes all understanding.”

The peace that Jesus gives to his disciples is the what the Old Testament prophets referred to as the shalom of God. Shalom is about wholeness. And fulfillment. And completion. Shalom is about being everything God created us to be. Shalom is about experiencing the peace of God in every fiber of our being. This is what Jesus gave his disciples on that first Easter night, the very shalom of God, the peace that the world cannot give.

The second thing Jesus gives the disciples is PURPOSE. He said, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” The disciples were locked in a room. They didn’t know what to do next. They had no sense of purpose or direction in their lives. But Jesus says to the disciples, “The mission that I came to initiate, I am calling you to continue. The mission of love and transformation. The mission of forgiveness and reconciliation. The mission of healing and deliverance. Everything that you saw me doing, I am now commissioning you to do.” On that first Easter night, Jesus came to the disciples to unlock the door of their house and to unlock the door of their hearts. So, they could fulfill their purpose. So, they could fulfill their apostolic mission in the world. Jesus came to give his disciples PEACE and he came to give them PURPOSE.

Finally, Jesus came to give his disciples POWER. After Jesus gave the disciples their mission, he breathed on them. (Thankfully, Jesus didn’t get the memo that he was supposed to be wearing a mask). Because he breathed the breath of life on his disciples and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Just as God breathed his Spirit into the body of Adam, a body made from the earth, and it became a living soul. In the same way, Jesus breathes into his disciples and they become alive in the Spirit. They become empowered to be his witnesses.

My friends, on that first Easter night, Jesus came to his disciples. He walked through the locked doors of their house. He walked through the locked doors of their hearts.

In the midst of their fear, he gave them PEACE.

In the midst of their uncertainty, he gave them PURPOSE.

In the midst of their doubt, he gave them POWER.

But there is one more detail of the story that we cannot overlook. When Jesus shows up on that first Easter night, he shows the disciples his hands and his side. The disciples know that it is Jesus not because he is glowing with God’s glory or shining with the brilliance of heaven. The disciples know that it is Jesus because he still bears the scars of crucifixion. In other words, He comes to them as one who has been where they are; He comes to them as one who has experienced what it means to be human. Jesus has experienced fear, uncertainty, and doubt. He has experienced the depth of human suffering and he has the scars to prove it.

I think this is profoundly important. Jesus comes to his disciples and he comes to us as one who has been where we are. And so, only Jesus can bring peace where there is fear. Only Jesus can bring purpose where there is uncertainty. Only Jesus can bring power where there is doubt.

We are all on lockdown in some form or another. There are times when we have all closed the doors of our hearts to God’s love. When we have hidden behind walls of fear and uncertainty and doubt. But the good news for us today is that Jesus can walk through walls! And wherever you are right now, Jesus is with you to give you peace. To give you purpose. And to give you power.

Turning the World Right-Side Up

Over the course of the past several weeks, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the world has been turned upside down. Not that long ago, it would have been inconceivable to think that our schools to be indefinitely closed, public gatherings suspended, and the sanctuaries of our churches empty. But here we are. And although there are signs of hope and people are discovering unexpected blessings in the midst of adversity, we have to acknowledge there is real pain right now and real loss. There is real fear and anxiety and uncertainty about the future that is weighing heavily on the hearts of many. We have to acknowledge that life has been changed in significant ways, and many of the changes and losses that we have experienced will have a long lasting, if not permanent, effect on the way we live our lives. I have a feeling people will look back on the year 2020 as a moment in history when the whole world was turned upside down.

But this morning, I’m here to tell you about another moment in history when the world was turned upside down. It was around the year 33. It was early on a Sunday morning while it was still dark. Two women went to the tomb of their friend to pay their respects. These two women were followers of Jesus. This man was their Teacher and Lord. This was the one they had devoted their lived to. And now he was gone. Now he was locked in a tomb behind a massive stone. My friends, that first Easter morning did not begin with shouts of “Hallelujah!” It began with wales of lament. It began with real pain and real loss. It began with fear and anxiety and uncertainty about the future weighing heavily on the hearts of many. Sound familiar?

However, as those two women came year the tomb of their friend, something extraordinary and unexpected began to happen. The very ground beneath their feet began to shake. Everything began to move and shift and change. An angel of the Lord appeared and pushed the massive stone to the side and that same angel announced that Jesus who had been crucified, had now been raised from the dead. For the women at the tomb on the first Easter morning, their world was turned upside down. They had no idea what it all meant. They weren’t sure what the future would hold. It was not clear exactly what the next steps were going to be. But in that moment, their friend, their teacher, their Lord who once was dead, was now alive! And nothing was ever going to be the same again. Their world had been turned upside down.

And from that moment on the first Easter morning, a movement began to grow. Followers of Jesus began to go into almost every part of the known world preaching the message of God’s love, working for justice, healing the sick, building community, serve the poor, and caring for one another. In fact, the Book of Acts tells us that this movement, powered by the experience of resurrection, made such an impact on first century society that the religious and secular authorities ordered the followers of Jesus to stop their ministry, because, wait for it,  “they were turning the world upside down.” My friends, we are gathered this morning not just to celebrate a moment, but a movement that changed the course of history!

But I want you think about something with me. What if this resurrection movement was not so much about “turning of the world upside down” as it was “turning the world right side up?” In other words, what if the upside-down world is the world Jesus came to heal and restore and set free? What if the upside-down world is the world of sickness and brokenness? What if the upside-down world is the world of injustice and division? What if the upside-down world is the world of pain and violence? What if the upside-down world is the world we’ve just gotten used to and accepted as normal?

All of this makes me think of an experiment conducted in the 1950’s. In this experiment, a man was given a pair of goggles that inverted his view of the world. Everything was upside down.  He wore these goggles 24 hours a day/7 days a week. At first, he couldn’t do anything. He fell over. He broke things. He couldn’t get dressed. He couldn’t feed himself.

But after only about 10 days of this experiment, the man became so accustom to living in an upside-down world and he so quickly adapted to this new reality, that he began to live a rather normal life. He could read and write his name upside-down. He could pour a cup of tea up instead of down. He even got to the point where he could ride a motorcycle all while seeing the world upside down. His inverted view of the world became his reality! Part of the theory behind the study was that if we all wore inversion goggles, eventually we would all adapt to that new inverted reality and lead perfectly normal lives in the midst of an upside-down world. We would come to think, “Well, that’s just the way the world is!”

When you think about it, that sounds rather silly! But you know what I think? I think theory behind that study is exactly what happens in our human experience. We see injustice and sickness and pain and division and fear and we think, “That’s just the way the world is!” We grow accustom to the way things are. We get used the world as it is.

And yet, the resurrection of Jesus shows us that there is another way of seeing the world. The resurrection of Jesus shows us that there is a new reality. The resurrection of Jesus has turned the world upside down, which is actually right side up.

So, there is only one more thing to do. Go and tell somebody! The women at the tomb went and told the disciples. The disciples went and told their friends. Their friends went and told their families. And before long, the world was changed.

On this particular Easter morning, I had planned to start a new tradition here at Good Shepherd. During the closing procession, I was going to have you all turn and face the processional cross as it moved toward the back of the church, so you would be facing the doors, ready to be sent forth into the world.

But, you know, as it turns out, this is even better, because you are already out there in the world. You are already in your homes, in your communities, in your neighborhoods. This morning, when we are sent forth into the world, guess what? You are already there!

And your job is to be an agent of God’s love right where you are. To bear witness to the power of the resurrection right where you are. To share the grace and peace and mercy of God right where you are. My friends, our world desperately needs some good news right now. In the midst of the anxiety and uncertainty of this present moment, the world needs to know that Jesus came to show us another way. He came to give us another chance. He came to turn the world upside down, which is actually, right side up!

Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Essential Faith

This morning we begin our annual journey through Holy Week. And what a strange and different sort of Holy Week it will be. Almost all of the usual outward and visible signs that we associate with this holiest time of year are simply not possible. There was no grand procession of palms at the start of our liturgy this morning. There will be no foot washing or stripping of the altar on Maundy Thursday. There will be no lighting of candles in the darkness of Good Friday. There will be no baptisms on the Sabbath of Holy Saturday. And, of course, one week from today, our pews will still be empty, devoid of all the usual sights and sounds of our Easter celebration. What a strange and different sort of Holy Week this will be!

But I think the uniqueness of this Holy Week will also be an opportunity. It will be an opportunity for us to go to a deeper place in our understanding of what God has done for us through the death and resurrection of Jesus. I have a friend on Facebook who said, “This has been the Lentiest Lent I’ve ever Lented.” But what if the next seven days turned out to be “The holiest holy week we’ve ever holied?” What if it turns out that when all the outward and visible sights and sounds of this week are stripped away, we actually come to face to face with the power and depth of God’s love for us in a way we’ve never experienced before?

I’ve been thinking about the fact that in our society, we are being forced to limit our movements to the most basic, most necessary, most “essential activities.” The busyness and chaos that typically defines our world and our lives has been reduced to that which is most essential. In other words, that which is secondary, that which is superfluous or excessive has all been stripped away. It’s not that those elements of our lives are not important or don’t have meaning, it’s just that they’re not essential. For the safety and health of ourselves and those around us, we are setting aside the accessories of life, and we are focused on what is necessary, what is most basic, what is most essential.

I think that is helpful paradigm for us as we enter into this Holy Week. Yes, it is going to be different. Yes, it is going to be strange. Yes, all the usually outward and visible sights and sounds of this week will be stripped away. But maybe that’s the point.

Maybe this is a time when God is calling us to focus on what is necessary, what is most basic, what is most essential about our faith. Because when everything that is secondary or superfluous gets stripped away, what you’re left with is the old, old story of Jesus and his love. What you’re left with is the very heart of the gospel message. What you’re left with is what we proclaim in the Nicene Creed every Sunday, that “for us and for our salvation,” Jesus came down from heaven. For us and our salvation he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary. For us and for our salvation he was crucified under Pontius Pilate. For us and for our salvation he suffered death and was buried. For us and for our salvation on the third day he rose again. My friends, he did that for us and for our salvation.

These words of promise are what is most essential. These words of promise are what we are called to enter into more fully over the course of the next seven days. These words of promise are what define who we are as followers of Jesus and as God’s beloved sons and daughters.

And so, my word of encouragement to you this Holy Week is to focus on what is most essential in your spiritual life and in your relationship with God. My prayer is that you will have an encounter with the unconditional love of God that has been poured out for you. I pray that you will know depth of God’s grace for you. I pray that this Holy Week will be a time when you experience the power and presence of God in a fresh way. Because, my friends, we may be separated by distance, but we are walking in the Spirit together!

 

Messy Faith

At some point we all come to the realization that life is messy. There are times when we get things right, and times when we get things wrong. We experience success and we experience failure. We say the right thing in one moment, and the wrong thing in the next. No matter how hard we try, how hard we work, many schedules we try to follow, how many “to do” lists we create, we have to acknowledge at some point that life is messy. It is often full of inconsistencies, contradictions, and complexities.

And yet, when it comes to our spiritual lives, we have a harder time acknowledging that faith is messy, too. I think we often have an image of what a spiritual person is supposed to look like. It’s someone who prays all day long. Reads their Bible constantly. Never gets rattled or loses their temper. And possesses a certain level of holiness and sanctity of life. But the reality is that when we are walking this walk of the faith, there are times when we get things right, and times when we get things wrong. We experience success and we experience failure. We say the right thing in one moment, and the wrong thing in the next. No matter how hard we try,      how hard we work, how many Bible studies we attend, how many prayer groups we join we have to acknowledge that faith is messy. It is often full of inconsistencies, contradictions, and complexities.

Now, this morning our gospel reading recounts one of the most powerful stories in the entire Bible, the raising of Lazarus from the dead. We’re told Jesus makes his way to the village of Bethany where is friend Lazarus has been dead for at least four days. Jesus prays to his Father in heaven, calls Lazarus forth from the grave, and the dead man comes forth. This is clearly a story of life conquering death. Of hope conquering despair. Of light conquering the darkness of this world.

But upon closer examination, this is also a story that reveals the messiness of faith. 

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Unplugged

Over the past week, many people have been engaging with technology and digital platforms and virtual communities in ways they have never experienced before. For some, this has been a seamless transition, while for many others this surge in technological engagement has been a source of anxiety and frustration. But whether you are an expert or a novice, I think we all know that there are times when technology doesn’t work. We lose our WiFi connection, we can’t get a video to play, the computer just freezes up, or the printer simply refuses to print. But, you know, almost invariably, no matter what the technological problem is, when you call customer support, the first thing they will ask you is “Have you tried unplugging the device and plugging it back in?” It’s remarkable that, as a country, we spend billions of dollars every year on technological innovation and development, but when it doesn’t work, the only thing we can think of to do is unplug it and plug it back in! What’s even more remarkable is that most of the time it actually works! The simple act of disengagement and reengagement. Disconnection and reconnection. Unplugging and plugging back in. And the result is the rebooting and restoration of the system, and a return to normal operations.

For me, this has been a helpful analogy as I have reflected on our current situation. As a society, we are in the process of unplugging, the process of disengaging and disconnecting. We are unplugging and disconnecting from social gatherings. We are unplugging and disconnecting from public worship. We are unplugging and disconnecting from travel and sports, from theaters and theme parks, and from just about every other public dimension of our lives.

Now, of course, the immediate purpose of this disconnection is to hopefully slow the progression and spread of the novel virus known as COVID-19. But it’s becoming abundantly clear that the unintentional effects that this is having on our communities, our families, and our businesses are significant and real, and no one is quite sure what it will look like when we eventually plug everything back in. What will it look like when this time of social distancing has passed? What will it look like when we reengage and reconnect? Most people agree that it will not be as easy as it is to plug back in your electronic device. This is not going be the simple reboot of our cultural operating system. We’re not simply going to return to normal operations. Life is going to change. The question is “What will that change look like?” “What will things look like when we ultimately plug back in?”

I believe this is where you and I as followers of Jesus, as God’s people, can make a difference. During this time of disconnection, we can choose to follow a different path. To embody a different way of being. To reflect a different set of priorities and values.

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Jesus and Social Distance

This sermon was preached this past Sunday. Of course, there was no congregation present. I am still getting used to this new reality and it’s impacts on liturgy and preaching. You are invited to view the entire service, which is posted above, or read the text of my sermon. The audio of the sermon will also be available on our church website. 

Also, please visit our website and click on the link for “Virtual Church”  where you will find additional resources such as weekly bulletins, prayers, and devotional materials.

http://www.goodsheponline.org

Just a few weeks ago, none of us would have believed that the National Basketball Association would suspend its season indefinitely; or that Broadway theaters and the Metropolitan opera would cancel performances; or that Walmart Supercenters would limit their hours and even close some of their stores. And we certainly would not have imagined that houses of worship across America would be relatively empty and that we would be gathering together through the modern miracle of technology. But here we are, growing accustom to this strange new practice we are calling social distancing, the intentional separation and isolation of ourselves for our own protection as well as the protection and wellbeing of others. I have to admit, this sense of disconnection has been a bit disorienting, but it’s important to remember that for us this social distancing is a temporary reality. This intentional separation and isolation is a decision, a choice, that we’re making in the short term that will hopefully help us in the long term.

But all of this has made me think about the millions of people who experience social distancing, separation, isolation, disconnection – not because of a global health crisis, but simply because of who they are and the circumstances of their lives. Because of social status, economic differences, race, creed, gender, politics, and a host of other factors that cause us to be separated from one another. All too often the social distancing that is caused by these factors is not a choice and it’s not temporary. It’s a daily reality for many people. People are searching and hoping and yearning for connection, for a sense of belonging, and for authentic relationships with one another.

This morning, we meet just such a person in our gospel reading from John. A woman comes to a well all by herself in the middle of the day. We don’t know her name, her age, her family, or anything about her community. What we do know is that she shouldn’t be coming to the well in the middle of day! In the ancient world, women would have come to the well as group in the morning or in the cool of the evening, but the woman in our story comes alone during the hottest part of the day. For some reason, she has been isolated and even ostracized from her community.

We find out later in the story that she has had five husbands and that’s she is not married to the man with whom she is currently living! This information has led some to suggest that this woman was highly immoral, perhaps even a woman of the streets. But we really don’t know that. In fact, it is very likely that she was simply the victim of a patriarchal society in which men could issue a certificate of divorce for almost any reason. Perhaps she was a widow or perhaps she was barren and her husbands each left her because she could produce no children. We simply don’t know. All we know is that this woman is experiencing social distancing that is not of her own choosing. And as far as we can tell, it is not a temporary reality. This is her life. A life full of pain, isolation, and shame. But all that is about to change.

Now when she gets to the well on that fateful day, she finds Jesus sitting there taking a rest. According to almost any first century cultural standard, when Jesus saw this woman walking toward him alone, his most sensible course of action should have been to practice social distancing. As a man, Jesus should not be speaking to a woman in public, a practice that was strictly forbidden in the ancient world. As a Jew, Jesus should not be speaking to a Samaritan, because the Samaritans were an ethnic group despised by the Jewish people. And Jesus would have known that something was not right about a woman coming to a well all by herself in the heat of the day. According to the cultural, social, and religious norms of the day. Jesus should have gotten up and simply continued on his journey.

So, here we have a woman who is caught in a cycle of social distancing not of her own choosing.  And we have Jesus who should have by almost any measurement chosen social distancing as the proper cultural and religious response.

But he doesn’t. Jesus breaks the cycle. He chooses relationship. He chooses connection. He chooses engagement. And he simply says, “Can you give me a drink?”

At first the woman is hesitant. She is likely preparing herself for yet another layer of rejection and ridicule. But on this day, she meets someone who knows everything she has ever done and does not reject her. Jesus knows the very secrets of her heart and yet he still accepts her. From what we know, all this woman has experienced in her life is distance and separation. But now she’s with the One who fully knows her and full loves her.

And the symbol of that connection, the symbol of this new relationship, is the living water that she receives. Jesus says, “You don’t have to drink the stale, stagnant, well-water of rejection and isolation. Because I am giving you fresh, living-giving water, that will overflow in you life. And we know this woman is different when she goes back home, because she leaves her water jar behind. That symbol of her old life. That symbol of disconnection and isolation. That symbol of shame and rejection. She leaves it at the well. She goes home to tell everybody about what Jesus has done for her.

My friends, perhaps during this time in which we are experiencing distance from one another, it is also a time in which we can deepen our connection to Jesus.

Perhaps this is a time when we can reflect on the experience of those for whom social distance, separation, and isolation, are realities not of their own choosing.

Perhaps this is a time when can examine the ways in which we are all longing and yearning and searching for a sense of belonging and authentic relationship with one another.

Above all, I pray that this will be a time when we are reminded that we worship a God who is never distant or absent, but who is always with us, who knows us better than we know ourselves, who see the desires and secrets of our hearts, and yet who loves us anyway. We worship a God who fills us with fresh, life-giving water.

Our buildings may not be open. But may our hearts be open to receive the living water of God’s love and to be filled with the hope that will never, ever fade away.