Stranger Among Us

Easter PonderingsRead Luke 24:13-35.

The two travelers in our text were walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus in the broad daylight of Sunday, yet they were still walking in the shadows of Friday.  They were tangled up in disappointment, grief, fear, confusion, and the list could go on.  The man they thought would redeem their people had been nailed to a cross.  The man they thought would bring them a new way of life was sealed in a borrowed tomb.  And now there was a rumor running around that the tomb was empty.  All the hopes and all the dreams that they anchored in this man named Jesus, had come crashing down around them.  Belief and hope had come to a dead end.  They were walking somewhere between the grief and hopelessness of Friday and the joy and hope of the Resurrection.

In the midst of this walking a stranger joined them.  We know that the stranger is Jesus only because Luke tells us so in his narrative.  We find ourselves shouting to the story like we would to a game show or reality TV show, “Come on!  Open your eyes!  It’s Jesus!”  But, if Luke hadn’t have told us that the stranger was Jesus, would we see Jesus?  Would we recognize Jesus?

While their minds were occupied with their bitterness, grief, disappointments, and hopelessness, the unrecognized Christ was walking in the midst of their tangled lives.

This is not the only time we see the risen Christ as a stranger – a mere bystander in the Resurrection narrative.  In John’s gospel, Mary Magdalene does not recognize Christ.  She thinks he’s the gardener.  Later in John’s gospel, Peter and others are in a boat fishing doing what they know best, and a stranger appears on the beach, asking if they have caught any fish.  Here in Luke’s narrative of the two travelers, Jesus is walking with them and they don’t even know it.

Jim Palmer, in his book Divine Nobodies talks about how religion almost destroyed him.  After a hard childhood, Palmer went to college and got involved in campus ministry.  This led to a calling which took Palmer to seminary and put him on a fast track to a booming ministry.  He would become a part of the ministry staff at a large North American church, become front-page news in the local newspapers when he started his first church on his own, and was on his way to becoming one of those Christian gurus you spend lots of money to go listen to.

But Palmer was tangled up.  Listen to what he writes:

Like Jesus, I began in humble circumstances, but unlike him, I rode high on the palm branches of people’s praise.  I’m sure that was where my addiction to becoming a mega-something (anything) was born.

So Palmer began a journey down a road to his Emmaus.  He left the ministry and began working any job he could find.  And on this journey of rediscovering his faith, he met various strangers.

This is what Palmer says about the experience:

On this journey God has provided the necessary epiphanies to save me from complete self-destruction and has opened my eyes to deeper realities.  With a seminary degree under my belt, you could think those epiphanies would have come when caught up in a deep theological treatise – Calvin’s Institutes or Barth’s Ethics.  But that’s not what happened. . .  God opened my eyes . . . through the unlikeliest people – people I, well, just kind of ran into along the way.  The cast of characters includes a Waffle House waitress, a tire salesman, a hip-hop artist, and a swim teacher.

Each of these strangers that Palmer encounters becomes a Christ –figure, teaching him something else about his faith and through these various encounters with strangers, Palmer began to slowly be untangled.

This story of the two travelers, on a deeper level, is the transcript of human experience: a history of God’s gracious dealing with the human soul.  Jesus doesn’t make a big deal that the two traveling believers didn’t recognize him. He doesn’t make a big deal that Mary thinks he’s a gardener or that Peter and the others think he’s some random guy on the shore.  Jesus sees what we sometimes cannot see – that we are tangled up in our fears, our doubts, our anxieties, our disappointments, and our addictions. That’s because Jesus is grace, mercy, and love walking beside us.  Jesus is healing through the hurting we cannot understand.  Jesus is a risen Savior that could not be killed, a risen Savior that is always with us.

We cannot forget that these two travelers, for the most part, are unknown.  Luke reminds us that Jesus did not appear just to the cast of characters in the Gospel narrative that we’ve learned to love.  Jesus appears to the unknown believers as well.  And I can’t help but wonder if Luke wants us to put ourselves in the shoes of these two travelers.  When considering the narrative of the road to Emmaus, James Hastings writes: “Here is the Master of all those obscure lives that are yet precious in the sight of heaven.”

Here in the midst of two obscure, unknown lives, the Risen Christ is in their midst, walking right beside them.  Our lives for the most part are obscure lives.  We go to school, we go to work, we go to the movies, we go to the park, we go to the grocery store.  For the most part, there is nothing extraordinary about our lives.  And yet, the Risen Christ is walking in the midst of our tangled lives as well.

School Lunches

In Mrs. Flakes’ first grade classroom at Rural Point Elementary, the most embarrassing  thing that could have happened happened. I was sitting in the last desk in my row. I slowly began to feel hot. As my head warmed and I began to sweat, I had an uncomfortable feeling in the bottom of my stomach. No, it wasn’t butterflies of nervousness about something that we were about to do in class. It was lunch.

I had gotten a few dollars from Dad that morning so that I could go through the cafeteria line and get pizza with my friends. Unfortunately, after lunch when we were back in the classroom, the pizza returned. I quickly turned in my seat, and like a scene from Family Guy, it seemed to not stop. I vaguely remember standing up and not knowing what direction to go. I felt awful! Mrs. Flakes tired to steer me away from the throw-up and out the classroom door to the nurse’s office. From there, my parents were called and I went home.

I made a decision that day that I held to until my senior year in high school. I would never eat cafeteria food again! From that day on Mom packed me a lunchbox (until high school when the Alf lunchbox was replaced with a brown lunch bag.)

And I still have it!

And I still have it! My mom thinks it was Superman or Mickey Mouse before Alf.

 

And the lunch was always the same. There was my peanut butter and jelly sandwich on white bread. There was an off-brand ziplock bag of potato chips, a Little Debbie dessert, and a drink. Mom remembers me using the thermos that came with the lunchbox in elementary school with either milk or apple juice in it.

Even in the first grade, I was a creature of habit. I would empty the contents of my lunchbox and arrange them. When I graduated to the brown lunch bag, the drink was always in the bottom, followed by the sandwich, and the Little Debbie cake, and the chips. I would eat my peanut butter and jelly sandwich first. Then, the chips, and lastly the Little Debbie cake. And then, I would drink my drink. Why I did it this way, I have no idea. But that was my lunch routine.

When both Mom and Dad worked, I would stay at Mrs. Rice’s house. Later, when I got older, she would tell the story that whenever it was lunch time, she would ask me what I wanted, and the answer was always the same: “Peanut butter and jelly.” I image when I got older and into high school, I may have veered off that plan. But, for the most part, it was always peanut butter and jelly.

Today, whenever I’m hungry and there seems to be few options, I will make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich – either strawberry or grape. It brings me a level of comfort. It reminds me of my childhood and the security of always knowing that peanut butter and jelly would be there for me.

And the best part is, I never got sick at school again.

Easter Feet

Easter Ponderings“But, go, tell his disciples, and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” (Mark 16:7)

A few weeks ago my friend Jennifer posted on Facebook a quote from her daughter. The three year old had placed two Easter eggs on her feet and declared, “Look, Mommy! I have Easter feet!”

So adorable and innocent. And theological.

Mary Magdalene and the other women at the tomb, in Mark’s Gospel, are commissioned to go and tell the others that the Christ is Risen, Risen Indeed! The command to go and tell is not unlike other times in the Gospels when the followers of Christ are told to go and tell. After Jesus had healed lepers in Luke 7, he tells the followers to go and tell John the Baptist about the things they had seen. Mark and Matthew record Jesus telling the disciples and go and tell (preach) the good news.

Go and tell.

That is what it means to have Easter Feet. To walk or run with our Easter Feet is to go and tell. Mary and the other women were a sent people with a mission.

We, too, are people who are sent. We are sent out beyond the boundaries of our church walls to share the gospel message – a message filled with love, grace, and hope. The church is an important and vital place for the believer. Christians gather together at the church on Sundays and throughout the week for worship, studying the scriptures, prayer, and participation in the sacraments. Then, followers of Christ are sent to feed the poor, clothe the naked, visit the sick and imprisoned, to love others as Christ has loved them.

We gather with other people of faith to engage in works of piety so that we can be sent to engage in works of mercy.

We are sent out on our Easter Feet.

The mission of the sent is to continue the work of making God and God’s ways known to the world. In this sense, the world needs the Church. It is through the Church that the world responds to Christ in faith and accepts the grace that has been given to the world. All of this is made possible by and through the power of the Holy Spirit.

But, there are days when it is not easy to walk on Easter Feet. There are days when it would be so easy to act like all those other people who are rude and just plain mean. We are assaulted by this meanness at work, at school, in our communities and yes, even in our churches.

Recently, a minister in town attended a children’s ministry event at our church. He took issue with the children’s moment that we had, where we shared the Easter story. About 80% of the children were not part of our church, and were 3 and 4-year-olds. The children’s moment presented the story using language that was age appropriate and focused on the meaning of Easter – a risen Jesus!

This visiting pastor, who was present with his children, took to Facebook to share three or four theological points that he considered were left out of this outreach event. He did not come to talk to any of the clergy. He did not write an email. He did not place a phone call. He took to Facebook and shared very publicly that our church was leaving out the truth of the Gospel. Some members who knew him took him to task for his actions. He later edited his Facebook post deleting the rude statement and replacing it with scripture. The meaning, however, was the same.

There are times when people will assault us with meanness and they think they are doing the right thing. They think they are being faithful to their God. They use their Bibles, quoting scripture to put others down.

Friends, this is not what it means to stand on Easter Feet. 

We can stand on Easter Feet and be in dialogue with those that we disagree with. We can stand on Easter Feet and walk in grace, showing the grace that Christ extended to us to others. We can stand on Easter Feet and use the word of God to build up instead of tear down.

Jesus did not say, “Go and tell others all the ways in which they are wrong.” Jesus said, “Go and tell that I have risen!”

How are you walking on Easter Feet?

 

Sermon: Savior, Like a Shepherd

A sermon preached April 21, 2013 at Peakland United Methodist Church the Sunday after the Boston Marathon bombing. The texts for the sermon were Psalm 23, Revelation 7:9-17, and John 10:22-30.

Bible’s Major Players: Mary Magdalene

Slide2The Bible is filled with some major players. Mary Magdalene is one from the New Testament.

Mary Magdalene is one of the few women who are named as followers of Jesus. Mary is often listed first among these names. She is often portrayed in movies, including Jesus Christ Superstar and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, as a prostitute. Why? Mary Magdalene is often connected with the woman of the street who breaks the jar of perfume and washes Jesus’ feet in Luke 7. In Luke’s Gospel this woman is nameless. Mary Magdalene first appears in Luke 8. As scholar Fred Craddock points out, “Only popular legend has made her a prostitute.” Luke’s eighth chapter tells the reader that Mary was healed of seven demons. Craddock observes, “Demon possession caused various maladies of body and mind but not moral or ethical depravity.”

Monica Bellucci as Magdalen in Gibson's film.

Monica Bellucci as Magdalen in Gibson’s film.

Mary plays a significant role in the Gospel story. All four gospels account for Mary being present at the death of Christ. More importantly, Mary was the first witness of the resurrected Lord. In Luke’s account of the resurrection, the two men “in dazzling apparel” tell the women, “Remember how he told you . . .” (Luke 24:4,6). This assumes that Mary Magdalene and the other women were apart of the inner circle of Jesus’ followers. The dazzling men are under the impression that these women were present when Jesus predicted his death and resurrection (“Remember how he told you”).

Luke continues the narrative saying that the women “remembered his words” (24:8). The women are told to go and tell the disciples what has taken place. They recalled what Jesus had said and told the eleven and “all the rest” (Luke 24:8-9). As Craddock points out, these women were not “errand runners for disciples; they were disciples.”

Mary Magdalene, the woman saved from seven demons, is one of the first witnesses of the Resurrected Christ. Her role in being one of the first to communicate the resurrection to others, places her among the Bible’s major players.

How are you living as a witness of the Resurrected Christ?

Resources: Craddock, Fred B. Luke. John Knox Press, 1990.

eastr13c

Resurrection Hope

Read John 20:1-18.

Easter PonderingsEaster will forever be a deeply personal day for me. Thirteen years ago on Easter Sunday, I was congregated in the choir loft of the small United Methodist Church I grew up in. I had promised my Aunt Polly that though I was starting a new job that week at another church, I would sing Easter Sunday in the choir.

It was in that choir loft that had an encounter with Jesus that gave me new eyes.

For the previous seven months my Dad was fighting prostate cancer. After being misdiagnosed with a pinched nerve, a new doctor found the tumor. It was a large and fast moving tumor. After rounds of chemo and radiation, surgery, and pints and pints of morphine, Dad was getting weaker and weaker.

I’ve shared before how hard it was to watch Dad get to so weak. Everything about this experience went against what was suppose to be.

In fact, on that Easter Sunday, as the choir and the congregation sang the classic Charles Wesley hymn, “Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” I was filled with fear. I was filled with so much fear that I was not able to move, to speak, or to sing. I wasn’t even able to cry I was so overwhelmed with fear.

What had paralyzed me? A “What if?” thought had creeped into my mind. What if Dad dies before we get home? What if we miss saying good-bye? What if . . . . what if . . . . ?

But, then, I was filled with a peace that I had never felt before. I had an encounter with Jesus standing there, wordless, motionless, and tearless. As the church sang about the resurrection, I suddenly felt an assurance that Dad was going to be okay. I no longer feared Dad’s death. I no longer worried about what would happen to him. I no longer had fear or doubt.

It was a peace that passes all understanding. It was a peace that calmed the storm in my heart. It was a peace that assured me that even though I don’t have all the answers, I know Christ and all is well with my soul.

I imagine that this is how Mary must have felt on that first Easter morning. Her heart having been filled with fear and doubt because of the last few days’ events. And then, there in the garden facing fear once again, she is filled with a peace when the Risen Christ calls her name.

It is a peace that gives birth to a hope. A hope that assures us that we have victory over sin in and through Jesus. A hope that assures us that in and through Christ, death has no sting; death is not final; and with resurrection comes new life.

On that Easter Sunday, thirteen years ago, I came home from church slightly anxious, but relieved when I saw Dad still in his hospital bed awake and alert. He was getting weaker by the minute. It was later in the evening, while he was sitting with my PaPa, his father, talking, that Dad claimed the promise of the resurrection.

And I knew – I knew – because of the peace that had settled over me that Easter morning, that Dad had indeed claimed that promise. And I know, without a doubt, that that same promise is there for us to claim as well.

Holy Saturday

Christ is Dead

Read Matthew 27:57-66.

The stone has been rolled in place.

Death has been sealed.

And all is silent.

The Saturday between Good Friday and Easter Sunday is sometimes quickly breezed over. It is the bridge between the darkness of Friday and the light of Easter. The bridge between death and resurrection. And it is a day marked by silence.

Nothing is happening. Nothing, that is, expect mourning. The sealed tomb echoes throughout the hearts of Christians that death is final; that Jesus was as human as he was divine; and the eagerness of which we wait for the resurrection.

But before the resurrection – before the new beginnings – before new life – there is mourning. Change happens. It is built into the very fiber of creation. Yet, what will be will only be until we mourn what was. When we gaze upon the stone that has been placed at the entrance of the borrowed tomb, we gaze upon what was as we anticipate what will be.

The tomb gives us permission to mourn.

This is an important and gracious gift. Death makes us uncomfortable. We would much rather engulf ourselves with resurrection and new life than spend an hour, much less a day, surrounded by death. And yet, we mourn at the sealed tomb. We mourn what was, we mourn what was not, and we mourn who we were. With the resurrection, things change, things that were not will be, and we will never be the same again.

So, today, on this Holy Saturday, as we gaze at the sealed tomb, let us mourn what was and who we were in anticipation of the resurrection.

 

Noah (2014)

noah-poster2At the sound of his name, Noah has become quite a controversial figure these days. The film has been declared “unbiblical” by many, while deeply theological by others. (For example, there is this YouTube video that someone thought I needed to see after posting a comparison chart and some discussion questions.) What follows is a theological reflection on the film. I know that there will be some readers who will disagree with me, and that is okay. I am assuming that you have seen the film. If not, I recommend reading this spoiler-free review.

Entertainment Weekly was perhaps one of the first outlets to say that the director

faithfully follows the message of the slim biblical text in the Book of Genesis, but he fills the gaps with spectacular CG effects, Tolkien-esque creatures

The film is based on the Genesis narrative of Noah, the man who found grace in the eyes of the Lord, as found in chapters 6-9. The film’s production notes cite the Book of Enoch, the Book of Jubilees, and the Dead Sea Scrolls as additional sources. These are ancient texts, which are not found in the Christian canon, but were likely widely read in the ancient world.

Ari Handel, the co-writer of the film, told Jacob Sahms of HollywoodJesus.com that they started with Genesis. “The commentaries are there to draw on to take themes and questions that people have been asking about the Noah story for hundreds and thousands of years,” he said. The Genesis account wrestles with the themes of destruction and new beginnings (or second chances) and Handel told Jacob that they “wanted to humanize those issues and make the audience empathize with them.”

DeMilleTenCommandmentsDVDcoverAdam Hamilton, minister at the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection, agrees that these are powerful themes in the Genesis account. The themes, he argues, gets overshadowed in the film and when “Christians insist that the stories be read like an historian’s report of ancient history.” I don’t disagree with Hamilton, but I have to wonder if what we carry with us when we enter the dark theater  - our expectations, our baggage, our hopes of a great film or of a horrible film – is what overshadows the themes. Yes, the director Darren Aronofky is a self-proclaimed atheist. But that fact does not eliminate the themes of the Biblical account – the themes of destruction and new beginnings. The way the story is told is different from Sunday school – not unlike Cecil B. DeMille did with the Moses narrative in the classic film The Ten Commandments. The original Noah story was told and retold through oral tradition long before it was ever written down. The fact that artist liberties were taken, should not be a surprise.

Darren Aronofky took the lead as the film’s co-writer and director. Aronofky has been thinking about Noah and the themes of his story since middle school.  The 13-year-old Brooklyn native wrote a poem called “The Dove” in which we get this theological gem:

Evil is hard to end and peace is hard to begin but the rainbow and the dove will always live within every mans’ heart.

In many ways this statement is the thesis for Aronofky’s film: “Evil is hard to end and peace is hard to begin.”

The film begins with Noah (Russell Crowe) and his family as the only descendants left of Seth – the third son of Adam and Eve. Seth, unlike his older brother Cain who killed brother Abel, remained faithful to the ordinances of God. While the descendants of Cain kill animals to eat (they believe they gain power through the meat) and use up the earth’s resources, Noah and his family live a simple life.

Father Time or Voodoo Witch Doctor?

Father Time or Voodoo Witch Doctor?

One evening, Noah has a dream where the earth is destroyed. Unclear about what the dream is about, he packs up his family and home and they hike to the mountain of this grandfather, Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins). Methuselah’s father was Enoch “who walked with God.” It is believed that Enoch did not die a physical death, instead he was so faithful to God that one day he just walked into eternity. These are Noah’s genes.

Methuselah mixes some drink for Noah (which has earned him the “witch doctor” nickname). Upon awaking from his sleep, Noah tells Methuselah of his dream about the world being destroyed by water, not fire. As they discuss this, Noah acknowledges that the Creator’s goal is rebirth. Water has long been the theological and spiritual symbol of rebirth. Jesus tells Nicodemus in John 3 that he must be born again, drawing upon the images of water in the womb. The sacrament of baptism reminds us that in Christ we have a new life.

Noah follows the Creator’s instructions and builds an ark with the help of the Watchers. The closest we get to the Watchers in the Christian canon is the nephilim. These are the Tolkien like creatures that Entertainment Weekly spoke of.  These creatures of Earth’s rock each have a dim light within them. The Watchers themselves represent the thesis of the film – there is light within us – there is peace in the midst of evil.  The Watchers are fallen angels striving to redeem themselves with the Creator, which is accomplished when they are faithful in their assistance with Noah’s call.

There are a handful of images that get played and replayed through the film. The image of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, both humans are glowing creatures of light. This is followed by the image of a black snake coming out of a green snake, leaving behind the skin. Then, the image of the fruit of the tree, beating like a heart, acknowledging that The Knowledge of Good and Evil is itself life. The fruit of the tree is picked and eaten, which is followed by the image of Cain killing Abel.

Peace has been engulfed by evil.

This series of images communicate a theological understanding of sin and salvation. When Noah tells his family the story of creation (remember that the bulk of Genesis was first oral tradition before it was written scripture), these images repeat themselves. Humanity was created in the image of God. But when the first humans disobeyed by eating the fruit of the tree, sin distorted the image of God. The image of God in humanity continued to get distorted until the point where the wickedness was so great (humanity was striving to be its own ruler – as Ham tells the human leader, “There is no King, only the Creator is God”) that God decided to flood the earth to give it new life. The themes of destruction and new beginnings.

Evil does not win.

But evil is hard to end and peace is hard to begin.

Noah ArkUnfortunately the debates about whether or not Noah is Biblical – word for word from the Bible – has overshadowed Aronofky’s thesis: Evil is hard to end and peace is hard to begin. If you have seen the film, you would most likely agree with me that evil seems to prevail in the film. The film is filled with darkness and it feels worse when the storms and the rain come. Peace only seems to appear at the end of the film, represented by the broad, all-encompassing rainbow.

Noah takes the call to build the ark seriously. Humanity has rejected God and this is a serious offensive. Aronofky and Handel, as they did in other films such as Black Swan, dive into the exploration of obsession. To say that Noah goes a little crazy while he is on the ark is putting it mildly. Noah becomes so obsessed with the wickedness of humanity, that he truly believes that his sons will be the last men on earth. If Shem’s unborn child is a girl, Noah will kill her. But, if the child is a boy, he will let the child live, and he would be the last human on earth.

noah-jennifer-connellyAri Handel tells Hollywood Jesus:

Noah is given an almost insurmountable job, to go build this giant ark. How could he do that? To do that and let everyone else die. What kind of power of will? What strength of purpose would you need? What weight would he have to carry? Those are things we wanted to convey through the story.

In this instance so many of us can relate to Noah in a way or another. Noah is obsessed with his mission, that he becomes blind. His wife (Jennifer Connelly) pleads with him to see the good in their sons – in humanity – which she does. But Noah is clear that the task is for humanity to cease in its existence.

Why does this happen? What causes Noah to become this way?

When Noah goes into the human camp, what we assume is to find wives for two of his sons, he is encountered with a wickedness that is overwhelming he cannot handle it. This scene, of animal tossing, cave man like behaviors, and the air filled with cries and hissing, is a pivotal scene. Under the cloak of darkness, a raw piece of meat is thrown over the fence. A longhaired, bearded man, walking like an ape, grabs the meat. He scuttles off, passing in front of Noah. Noah watches him as his chipped teeth bite into the raw meat. As the ape-like man turns to face Noah, he hisses. In that moment the man’s face looks an awful lot like Noah’s. (I only caught this the second time I saw the film.)

Noah sees wickedness in himself. And it changes him. It hardens his heart. And he becomes obsessed with his own wickedness. He is not worthy to be saved, so clearly God’s intention is for him to perish as well.

Is this in the Bible? Literally, no. The Genesis writer provides no account of what happened while Noah and his family were on the ark. But, it is Biblical? We can argue that it is.

We believe that God created the world, and it was good. We believe that God created humanity in the image of God, and God declared that it was good. We believe that sin entered the world and it distorted the image of God within humanity. We believe that the journey we call faith is a journey of redemption, restoring the image of God back to its original beauty. We believe that in the midst of this journey, evil exists. We believe that we all have fallen short of the glory of God. We believe that through accepting the power of Jesus Christ, we reject the spiritual forces of wickedness.  And we believe that the day will come when there will be no more violence, no more crying, no more pain and suffering, only the peace of the Kingdom of God.

Evil is hard to end and peace is hard to begin.

Good Friday

All Hope is Gone

the Light that had been sent to the earth was growing dim
love had been replaced with hate
peace replaced with war
the Light had been arrested and dragged away into the night
betrayed by a kiss
but the Light would not go out
the chains rattled as the Light was pushed and kicked
the Light was declared guilty
the people who were loved by the Light cried for the Light to be extinguished
those who loved and followed the Light denied ever knowing the Light
their hearts were filled with the darkness of fear
but the Light would not go out
insults and salvia were hurled at the Light
the Light was flogged and beaten
forced to hike the hill called calvary
mocked and stripped, the Light was left with very little
expect love for those who hated
but the Light would not go out
the Light is finally nailed in place, keeping it from spreading
the banging of the hammer causes the Light to flicker
pierced in the side, the Light continues to dim
until finally, the Light does out
and there is only darkness
and all hope is gone