This is the sermon I preached on May 17, 2015 at Peakland United Methodist on Acts 1:1-11. You can also listen on iTunes by clicking here.
I’m reposting the audio of a sermon I preached a few years ago at Peakland. I preached this sermon at the Community Thanksgiving service last night.
In the 1980’s, the first case of what would later be known as AIDS was reported in the United States. The Normal Heart is HBO’s TV movie version of Larry Kramer’s Tony-winning play. Mark Ruffalo is Ned Weeks who has had enough. He has been in the closet for most of his adolescence and adult life, as so many of his friends have done. But, when his friends start dying, he becomes angry. This, at the time, unknown disease has to have a voice.
Julia Roberts is Dr. Emma Brookner, who has been submitting research papers to the scientific and medical communities for years. But, because the disease primarily affects gay men, it has been ignored. Emma’s anger is only matched by Ned’s. At times, though, it is a bit too much. Ned seems to alienate everyone, including the gay community. We know, from our side of history, that he is correct. Until the community being affected by the disease finds their voice and starts speaking out, it will be near impossible for change to take place.
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.
“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?
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.”
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.
August: Osage County received nominations for Best Actress: Meryl Streep and Best Supporting Actress: Julia Robert.
Adapted by the playwright Tracy Letts, from his own play, August: Osage County makes the challenging shift from stage to screen. Unfortunately, it may have been better left to the stage. The trailer that has been playing over and over again on television is a bit misleading. It couples parts of dialogue together that do not below together. It also makes the film appear funnier than it really is. While there are funny moments in the film, we have to question whether it really is humorous or just plan mean.
The film begins with Beverly Weston (Sam Shepherd), a lonely poet hiring Johna (Misty Upham), a Native American woman to be the cook, nurse, and maid for his old farmhouse and for his sick wife, Violet (Meryl Streep). After hiring Johna, Beverly disappears. This disappearance is what sets the story in motion. It brings the family together to the old farmhouse in Osage County, Oklahoma.
The August, Oklahoma heat is not the only thing keeping the family members on edge. Violet, who is suffering from mouth cancer and is addicted to pain pills, is ruthless when it comes to sharing what she really thinks. As the family gathers around the table after Bev’s funeral, the insults, the anger, the name calling, and the “truth” telling begins.
Eventually the “truth” telling leads to dishes being broken, Violet being wrestled to the floor by her daughter, and pills being flushed down the toilet. Violet’s sister, Mattie Fae (Margot Martindale) will drop another bomb onto the plot, which later we learn Violet knew about the whole time.
As Violet, Meryl Streep dominates the screen, which only reminds us why the story is better on the stage than on the screen. Streep has this innate ability of bringing pure horror to a character, while evoking pity for her from the audience. It is why she has received over eighteen Oscar nominations. But what makes Streep shine is her supporting cast. Of all the actors only Julia Roberts, as the eldest daughter Barbara, got an Oscars nomination.
The supporting cast is one of the best, and frankly makes the film tolerable. Within the first twenty to thirty minutes, we get a sense of who Violent is and that Violent is not going to change. But it is the supporting cast that gives us hope. Julia Roberts’ Barbara has her own set of struggles, a cheating husband (Ewan McGregor) and a teenager searching for her own place in the world (Abigail Breslin). A cancer-striken, pill addicted mother doesn’t help. Barbara is the only one, however, who is willing to speak up, break a dish or two, and really tell her mother what she thinks. Not unlike Violet.
Barbara enters the story with a guilty conscience, feeling that the situation and the drama is somehow her fault. Violent does not give up the chance to tell Barbara that its her fault, either. “You were his favorite,” Violent tells her daughter, implying that she is Violent’s rival in the family.
The other two sisters are Ivy (Julianna Nicholson) and Karen (Juliette Lewis). Karen is the baby of the family who left home to sow wild seeds. She brings one of them home with her as her fiance, who makes advances on Barbara’s daughter. Ivy is the middle daughter who never left home. She was left to care for her mother, while dealing with her own medical issues of not being able to have children.
Ivy is the older son in Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son, while Barbara and Karen are the younger son. Ivy hangs on to bitterness towards her sisters, mostly Barbara, for leaving her behind. No one knows about her secret love for Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch), which largely represents the fact that no one really knows her. Ivy has remained faithful to the work at hand, unable to successfully carve out her own life, her own happiness, or her own healing.
Violet reveals in one of her “truth” telling moments how cruel her mother was to her and to Mattie Fae. It is one of the rare moments when Mattie Fae is silent. It is clear that pain riddled their childhood, just has it as for Barbara, Ivy, Karen, and Little Charles. Mattie Fae shows her true colors when Little Charles arrives late to the funeral. Charlie (Chris Cooper) stands up to Mattie Fae telling her that she doesn’t start treating their son with more respect, he is going to leave.
Chris Cooper is one of the best, and I think was overlooked for an Oscar nomination. He is the new, gentle, patriarch of the family. He is the calm presence in the midst of the dysfunction and chaos under Violet’s control. He is also the loving and proud father, offering Little Charles love and advice, where he does not get it from the rest of the family, except from Ivy.
While there are connections to the Parable of the Prodigal Son, what seems to be missing is the loving father. Beverly disappears too early in the film, and Violet is drunk, high, angry, or a combination of all three. Ivy as the eldest son ends up driving off. Barbara and Karen, though they are the prodigals who returned home, leave too. The Forgiving Father is Johna, the hired cook, nurse, and maid. She is the healer, offering unconditional love to Violet as she holds her and rocks her. It is the films only major, significant scene.
I first met Andrew Taylor-Troutman in a seminary classroom. We were both students at Union-PSCE, now Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia. I have this image of Andrew sitting in the chapel in Watts as I preached (if you want to call it that) during a chapel service. The Central America travel seminar group was leading worship one week, sharing about the experiences from the trip. I was sharing about our week in Costa Rica and how we experienced God.
That image of Andrew sitting in the old pew listening intently to what was being said and shared, pondering in his heart these things, has stuck with me through the years. Andrew ponders. And his pondering has led to writing beyond a blog. Andrew has two books published sharing his ponderings, Take My Hand, and most recently Parables of Parenthood. Andrew’s published works are both connected to his vocation as a pastor.
Andrew started journaling while in college, but started writing five to six days a week while in seminary as a spiritual discipline. He says:
I used to wake up early just to write! I found that there was a great convergence between my classes, which I wanted to articulate but wasn’t really appropriate for assigned papers. So I needed to carver out some extra time.
Andrew attended a travel seminar in 2008 to Ghana. One of the requirements of the seminar was to submit a journal. While he thought what he turned in was the typical, customary musings of a seminary student, the reaction from Andrew’s professors was extraordinary. “They were extremely impressed,” he recalls, “I wasn’t really thinking about publishing then, but their support did leave an impression on me.”
On Being Published
Re-reading my journals, I began to notice that my musings were connected with my Sunday sermons. In other words, my reflections on the events of Monday through Saturday were informing my work on Sunday in conversation with the biblical texts. This is the idea behind Take My Hand. I was fortunate that the publisher, Wipf & Stock, happened to be looking for practical theology.
Parables of Parenthood is really a Bible study, written in accessible language for a wide audience, that is explained in part by anecdotes from my family life, kind of like sermon illustrations.
I like to watch movies and I like to write them and how they intersect with our faith. These are the top 15, most read, posts about movies of 2013.
15. Philomena (2013). “The story implies that disciples, or followers of Christ, are to be persistent in their prayer life, while also seeking justice. Elsewhere in Luke’s gospel, Luke uses the encounter between Jesus and the sisters Martha and Mary to illustrate the importance of balance in our lives. A balance of being with Jesus (Mary) and doing for Jesus (Martha) is necessary. Philomena represents this balance. While she is persistently seeking her son and justice for the wrong that was done to her, she is persistently faithful to her God.”
14. Home Alone (1990). “Old man Marley takes Kevin’s advice, and as Kevin is reunited with his family when they return home, Marley is reunited with his. It is the heartwarming moment of the film. And the moment when we all find hope. Christmas is about family coming and being together. Christmas is about forgiveness and reconciliation.”
13. Parental Guidance (2012). “There is no doubt that everyone who sees this film will connect with one of the family members. And we can all relate to Alice who tries to avoid letting her children around their crazy relatives. We learn that for Alice, the crazy are her parents. When Artie and Diane arrive at their home in Atlanta, they learn that they are the “other grandparents.” The ones that rarely see their grandchildren. Diane vows that by the end of the week, that is going to change.”
12. Snake and Mongoose (2013). “That is who these two men are. Like Jonathan and David in the Old Testament, they were the most unlikely of friends. Yet, they were. And they were better for it. They knew each other, cared for one another, and there to support one another.”
11. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989). “The God figure that Sybok seeks turns out to be more of a Satan-like figure. While the figure appears to look like God in the Judeo-Christian tradition, he does not act like God. He is demanding, wanting the starship to escape the place he has been locked into. “What does God need with a starship?” Kirk asked. Furthermore, this figure is destroyed by the Klingons who are hunting after Kirk.”
10. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003). “John Connor has a purpose in life. A vocation that the whole world depends on, whether they know it or not. He has a hard time, however, accepting the fact that he will be kept in the equivalent of a “safe house.” As the apocalypse of the computer-age gets underway, Robert Brewster tells Kate of a secret underground weapons control facility. She and John head there. These scenes were actually filmed on location at a decommissioned federal control center in West Virginia.”
9. The Great Escape (1963). “World events like war remind us that we are all prisoners of sin. Our own personal sin, but also corporate, communal sin. The sins of establishment, institutions, governments, or cliques. These sins imprison us, with hopes to paralyze us. We long for escape and freedom. We work together to make escape and freedom a reality. It becomes our mission and purpose.”
8. The Pirates! Band of Misfits (2012). “It is through the faithfulness of his crew, and in particular Number Two (also called the Pirate with a Scarf voiced by Martin Freeman) that Pirate Captain learns that he is a good pirate when he is himself. He tells Pirate Captain as the film ends, “It’s never been about the trophy or the treasure. It’s about who you are on the inside.”
7. Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991). “John asks the terminator, “Are you ever afraid?” The terminator responds, “No.” The terminator has no feelings, emotions are not a luxury he can afford. Later, the terminator notices water in John’s eyes. “Why do you cry?” he asks. John’s simple answer is, “When it hurts.” As a 13-year-old, John is coming to terms with a vocation that has been placed upon him. One that he may not have chosen for himself had the circumstances been different. These interactions only strengthen the father-son bond (a theme that will become a foundation for the third film).”
6. Dick Tracy (1990). “The heart of the film belongs to the Kid. At the beginning of the film, we see the kid pick-pocketing when he can. He steals a watch from a man in a diner that Tracy and Tess are about to walk into. Tracy runs after the kid who eventually runs home to a shanty where his abusive father is not impressed with the stolen watch and denies his son chicken. Tracy arrests the father for abuse, and takes the kid back to the diner for dinner.”
5. Joyeux Noel (2005). “In the darkness of Christmas Eve, in the midst of singing, peace is found. And this found peace, even for an evening, is celebrated with champagne, gifts, sharing of photos and stories. The peace is extended through Christmas day, so that both sides can bury their dead. But war will disrupt the singing again.”
4. Free Samples (2012). “This day of handing out free samples is a kind of intervention for Jillian. She gains new perspective on her personal problems. She begins to reach a place where she acknowledges that her life will never be what she thought it would be. But it can be what it will be. None more so than when she interacts with Betty. When Betty enters into the film, there is a noticeable change in Jillian. And it seems to make a difference.”
3. Lee Daniels’ The Butler (2013). “Director Lee Daniels creates a visual treasure of sorts as he draws a parallel between Lewis’ involvement with the Freedom Riders and Black Panthers alongside his father’s serving in the White House. Lewis is the rebellious young adult whose actions are wrapped in the need for change. Cecil, on the other hand, is the speechless, unquestioning, servant. It is the parallel between keeping silent and speaking out.”
2. The Captains Close-Up (2013). “One of the recurring themes in the interviews was that of leadership. Each captain was a leader to the fictional starship crew, but seemed to be a leader to the acting crew as well. Interviews with cast members of the various shows revealed how much they all looked to the Captain who set the tone. Cast members of Deep Space Nine, talk about how scenes with Avery Brooks were usually cut up and took a number of takes. But those scenes with Brooks was a completely different case. Brooks set a tone when taping. He raised the bar for his crew.”
1. A Streetcar Named Desire (1951). “All of the mental confusion, self-deception and great anxiety lead us to believe that Blanche lives in the shadows. Even in a black and white film, it is clear by the lighting employed that Blanche’s narrative is filled with darkness. Many films use the tools of light and dark to tell their stories. Yet, here in this 1951 film is the most astonishing use of this contrast I have seen. In a scene where Mitch is asking her about the darkness, she replies, “I like the dark. The dark is comforting to me.”
In the A Charlie Brown Christmas special, Linus recites from Luke 2:8-14:
Sometimes, we can feel like Charlie Brown. We get caught up in the hustle and bustle of Christmas and wonder, “Is there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?” Linus, much like the angels on that first Christmas, remind us what Christmas is all about.
“Peace and goodwill toward men.”
Peace and goodwill is hard to come by these days, as it was that first Christmas. Charles Campbell reminds us, “The political powers, in both Jesus’ day and our own, play on fear to get their way – whether it be the fear of the emperor, the fear of terrorists, the fear of the ‘other’ (the immigrant), or the fear of death.”
Government mandated oppression.
Discrimination against those were different than them.
The poor were kept poor.
People suffered from hunger.
Violence was evident on the streets daily.
But, that was in “those days.”
“And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7, NRSV).
The arrival of Jesus brought with it a “new day.” There is no longer need for fear, only joy. There is no longer need for corruption, only freedom. There is no longer need for hunger, only feasting. There is no longer need for occupation, only liberation. There is no longer need for war, only peace.
And yet, we struggle to see this “new day.”
Political parties inspire fear of the other party.
Hatred and bullying of someone, anyone, who is different from us is rampant.
The great divide between the have’s and the have-not’s gets wider and wider.
People suffer from hunger.
Violence is evident on our streets and in our schools.
And there is something deep inside of us that wants to cry out like Charlie Brown, “Is there anyone who knows what Christmas is about?” Sure, we get all these warm fuzzies at this time of year that make us feel so good. It’s great giving and receiving gifts. It’s great going to parties. It’s great having family and friends around.
But, at least for me, there is something hard to swallow about Christmas. That is with all the joy, there is grieving and hopelessness. And I don’t mean to put a damper on things. From Central America and back, I have seen suffering at the hands of poverty, addictions, and violence. And while we try to not think about these things at Christmas, we have to remember this is why the baby boy was born. This poverty, these addictions, and this violence is the reason God became man. This suffering is the reason that Jesus was born.
Jesus is not just the reason for the season. Jesus is the greatest gift of all. In that lowly manger sits hands of grace that bring healing and hope into our hopelessness.
John’s gospel talks about Jesus’ birth as a great Light that penetrates the darkness of the world. Matthew quotes Jesus telling the disciples that “You are the Light of the World.” This is just one of the many commissioning sayings of Jesus. God sent Jesus as the Light, we are the light-bearers. It is now our responsibility to carry that Light into the dark crevices of the world. Because we claim Jesus Christ, we now become a gift to the word.
Taking the Light to the oppressed.
Taking the Light to the poor and the hungry.
Taking the Light to the bullied and the bullies.
Taking the Light into the violent streets.
It is us who must act. It is us who must bring peace and goodwill to all. It is our gift to give.