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The Sower with the Seeds of Life

Filed under: Pastor Jeff's Sermons — Pastor Jeff at 10:39 pm on Sunday, July 16, 2017

A sermon preached on July 16, 2017 based upon Matthew 13:1-9; 18-23.Jeff and Seeds

The Gospel writers tell us that when Jesus taught, he used parables: little stories taken from ordinary, commonplace happenings that invite us to climb inside to experience some kind of surprise, through which we catch a glimpse of the Kingdom of God.  The parable we heard is particularly significant in that it is the first parable told, introducing the theme of “seeds”, which will be the subject several more parables Jesus will go on to tell.

If we ask, what is the essence of a seed? The answer it would seem is that a seed represents the potential for life.  Seeds are small — easily overlooked, but within a seed there is the capacity for a great abundance of life to arise.

In John’s Gospel Jesus says straight out, “I have come that you may have life, and have it abundantly.”  In the early portions of the Gospels we hear of Jesus giving life to many.  He heals the sick, he forgives those troubled by the sins they have committed, and he feeds the hungry.   He fills people with hope who otherwise would be tempted to despair.

People are drawn to him because the life force within him is powerful and un-mistakable, and in his presence they find themselves becoming more alive.  At certain points in the Gospels we are told that Jesus taught, but not told what the words were he spoke; rather, we are simply told that the people marveled how Jesus “taught with authority and not as the scribes and Pharisees” – which is to say it was more than the particular words he spoke – it was the manner in which he spoke them.  People sensed they were listening to a man who was deeply, intimately connected to God, the source of all life.  His very presence awakened inside them a greater vitality for life.

Do you know what I mean when I say that inside all of us, there are two great competing impulses?  Speaking Biblically, the struggle is between that part of our nature that is made in the image and likeness of God, and that part which is captive to the destructive power of sin.  There is a voice inside us that recognizes life is a precious gift and like Jimmy Stewart in “It’s a Wonderful Life” would shout, “I want to live!” But there is also an opposing voice that says things like, “I’m no good – I’m a failure” or, “My life is a tedious, meaningless burden.  I might as well be dead.”

This is also the struggle between the impulse to love, to share, to recognize that we are all connected, and the impulse to harden our hearts, to treat others callously and cruelly, to look down on others, or to look at others with envy.

It is the struggle inside us between the willingness to trust, to have faith, to feel gratitude and that part of us in which fear and anxiety rule the day.

The people who responded to Jesus’ ministry were those who readily acknowledged this struggle within them — people for whom it oftentimes seemed like the “temptations of darkness” were prevailing.   They struggled with profound feelings of unworthiness, failing to keep the tenets of the Law.  They tended to be poor, weary from of the tedium of life and the struggle simply to survive.  They were tempted to give up.

And so they were pretty amazed when they encountered Jesus and in his presence they suddenly experienced their internal struggle shifting.  In his eyes they were worthy, in his presence, life felt again like a gift — that they didn’t have to be so afraid, and their desire to love and to share was strengthened.

But there were others who had the opposite reaction to Jesus.  His presence was not experienced as blessing, but rather as threat.  These were the people who in a certain sense seemed to be succeeding in saying “Yes” to their lives.  They tended to be better off financially, leading them to feel more self-sufficient, their lives seeming secure and stable.  They didn’t consciously struggle with feelings of unworthiness, and this was because they divided human beings into two basic categories, the sinners and the righteous, the good people and the bad people, and they had succeeded in convincing themselves that they were the “good people.”

In truth though, their sense of worthiness and stability was actually far more fragile than they cared to admit.  It depended to a large extent upon their capacity to look down on others, to feel superior.

So when Jesus came claiming to speak for God, comfortably keeping the company of the people they habitually looked down upon, conveying to these poor souls that they were in fact treasured by God, it threatened them, leading them to angrily lash out at Jesus.  And their hostility towards Jesus really spiraled out of control when he responded to their criticisms by calling them out for their hypocrisy – naming their self-righteousness and hardness of heart as expressions of sin at work in their lives — a more dangerous form of sin because of how easily it hides under a appearance of righteousness.

Jesus wanted to offer them a deeper, richer form of life – the kingdom of God — but in their eyes he simply threatened the hold they thought they already had on life.

The parables Jesus told were themselves like little seeds, intended to call forth life from those who could take in what they had to say.

Parables aren’t allegories, the meaning of which you can quickly grasp once and for all because all the parts of the story are easily identified as representing something else.  Twice in our passage Jesus speaks of the need to listen deeply to parables – implying that a certain willingness is required to patiently struggle with them, allowing the seeds they would plant to go deeper and deeper inside our hearts.

But we all tend to lack the patience parables require, and the Gospel writers themselves were no different.  They would sometimes try to turn a parable into an easy-to-understand allegory, which is what happens in the passage we heard after Jesus had told the parable about the seeds to anybody who was willing to truly listen.  Even though the parable is called “the parable of the Sower,” Matthew has Jesus privately give an interpretation of the parable to the disciples that completely bypasses the sower.  This interpretation focuses instead on the four types of soil, or lack thereof, into which the seeds fall, with each type representing different kinds of people.

The seeds, we are told, represent the word of God.  Some people are like the hardened ground that doesn’t allow the seeds to penetrate the soil, allowing birds to come and carry the seeds away — people who never understand what Jesus is saying.  Others people are like rocky soil – they initially have some understanding, but the understanding doesn’t penetrate deeply and so when hard times come, they forget what they heard.  The third type – the soil covered with thorns – are people who initially understand the word of God, but they lose their way, distracted by the lure of riches and the values of this world that conflict with the values of the kingdom of God.  And the fourth type, well they’re the good soil, the people who hear the word and spend the rest of their lives living out of what they have heard and understand.

Now this interpretation has some value.  It invites us to ask ourselves, have I really understood what Jesus was trying to say?  Have I forgotten what he had to say when times get rough?  Have I been distracted by the seductions of this world from trying to live a life centered in God’s kingdom?

These are good things to think about for sure.

But the thing that is unhelpful about this interpretation is that once again – just like the scribes and the Pharisees — it divides people up into distinct types:  the good soil people and then the various shades of bad soil people.  It can lead us to patting ourselves on the back – “I’m sure glad I’m one of the good soil people!” Or perhaps more likely, it can tempt us to despair.  “I’m one of the bad ones.  I know that often I just don’t get what Jesus is talking about.  When things get rough, I recognize how quickly I falter in my faith.  And when I’m honest, I recognize the many ways I’m easily seduced by the concerns of this world.   So, I guess I’m not worthy of the kingdom.  I might as well give up.”

The interpretation becomes more helpful, I think when we hear it not as different types of people, but rather as different parts of ourselves.  “Yep, all those things are true about me, but there is also a place inside me where the seed of the Gospel has been planted, even when I can’t locate that place.” This interpretation allows us to get away from a good guys/bad guys interpretation and to hear instead a “we’re all in this together” interpretation.

But the biggest problem with this interpretation is that it misses the central character of the story.  This is, after all, “the Parable of the Sower”.  And when we focus on the Sower – reflecting on what it would if the Sower is in some sense an expression of God and God’s activity in this world — well, that’s where the element of surprise comes in.

I mean, why is this sower so darn inefficient? If we were the sower, we would take more care, wouldn’t we?  We’d be more intentional about making sure the seeds land in places they could have a better chance of taking root and bringing forth a great harvest.  We wouldn’t just toss the seeds here, there and everywhere.  What a waste!  Thank God for the technological advances we have today that allow farmers to plant seeds so much more rapidly and efficiently.  Shouldn’t God be more like one of those fancy John Deere motorized seeders with computers that can precisely project seeds at the rate calculated to match the speed of the tractor so pretty much every single seed lands where it’s supposed to?

If you think about it, this objection is similar to the criticism that the Pharisees and scribes made of Jesus.  “If you really are from God, you wouldn’t be wasting your time on all this riff raff.  These taxcollectors and sinners.  These prostitutes.  These pathetic, broken wretches. You would spend your time with people like us – people who spend countless hours pouring over the words God gave us in the Torah in order to be ‘good soil’ for the God’s word to be planted.,

“And why do you waste so much of your time with this motley crew of disciples you’ve called:  Fishermen, tax-collectors, political nutcases.  They clearly aren’t the ‘best and the brightest.’”

And they had a point. Time and again the disciples showed themselves to be the hardened soil that is absolutely clueless about what Jesus is trying to teach them.   “Why, oh Jesus, did you invest so much time witch such a pathetic cast of characters?”

But the sower just keeps on casting those seeds to the four winds, spending little time worrying where they land.  Ever patient, ever trusting that seeds will land where they will find receptive soil.

So in the end, this parable is about God’s amazing grace – an antidote to our temptation to despair.  God doesn’t give up on us, even if we’re tempted to give up on ourselves.  God just keeps casting all those seeds out — seeds with the potential to call forth new life in the strangest places — knowing that some will find the soil they need.  Have no fear!

And oftentimes seeds do take root in the most surprising places. Sometimes it is in the darkest hours that people discover just how strong the life force is that rises up within them, like Jimmy Stewart’s cry of “I want to live!” That when life seems threatened, it’s preciousness becomes all the clearer, and all that truly matters comes rising clearly to the surface.

Rachel Naomi Remen has a memory that dates back to when she was fourteen and living in the city of New York.  She was amazed one day walking down the sidewalk of Fifth Avenue when her eye caught the sight of two tiny blades of grass growing up through the cement, standing their gazing down upon it with people bumping into her.  It struck her as truly miraculous, this powerful life force driving a seed planted in the harshest of environments.

The image of those blades of grass rising up through the cement became an important one for her when later as a young college student she received a diagnosis of Crone’s disease.  She was told she needed to drop out of college, live her life very cautiously, and that she could not expect to live past forty.   But a determination rose up within her that refused to give up, that she would study to become a medical doctor and now in her eighties she continues to share the wisdom she has gained of the spiritual dimensions of healing and wholeness.

The Divine Sower is there in the midst of our lives continually casting those seeds of the Kingdom of God.

And know this as well:  you have the capacity to cast seeds of the Kingdom of God to the four winds as well.  To touch lives with graciousness in a way that, beyond our knowledge, can profoundly call for the life force within them as well.

On the Desire to Protect Our Children

Filed under: Pastor Jeff's Sermons — Pastor Jeff at 10:26 pm on Sunday, June 18, 2017

A sermon preached on June 18th, 2017 — Father’s Day — based upon Romans 5:1-5


Fatherhood.  Traditionally throughout history the focus of a father’s role has been as the provider and protector of his children, and although in recent decades the role has expanded, I want to focus for a moment on the theme of protecting our kids, which of course, is a concern also shared as by mothers.   Instinctively we want to protect our children from depravation and harm — from all the possible ways this world could injure them.

In recent years an expression has entered our lexicon – the “helicopter parent” – referring to particular parents who “hover” over their children, trying as much as possible to manage every aspect of their child’s life.

But it seems to me that because of the ways over time our culture has shifted, in comparison to the parents of a couple of generations past, most of us parents today are to some extent “helicopter parents.”  In part this has to do with the perception that the threats out there — whether real or imagined, and I think there are some of both – are greater now than they were when I was a kid.

Those of us of my generation remember a time when if we didn’t have school and the weather was decent our parents would likely encourage us to get out of the house – to meet up with other neighborhood kids to find ways to entertain ourselves, altogether unsupervised by adults.  “Just be home in time for supper!” our mother would say.

That doesn’t happen much these days.

There was a day when if a child was going to become an accomplished athlete it would be because the child went out every chance the child got to find likeminded children to play ball with. These days, as I know from personal experience, if a kid is going to become skilled in a certain sport it will only happen if the parent is able and willing to spend countless hours chauffeuring the child to supervised practices and games, where the parent often has little choice but to wait till their kid is done, inevitably spending the time watching the child from afar.

The culture has changed, and the result is we are more aware of our kid’s day to day struggles, and with this awareness, the instinct to protect kicks in.

So to greater or lesser extent we all hover over our children – I know I have — and we do this because we want to protect our children, with this protection extending beyond the dangers of abductions and the like.   We naturally want to protect our children from threats of other kinds as well.

I’ve been thinking about what would happen if we were given super powers allowing us to be the ultimate helicopter parent – allowing us to pull invisible strings that determined the outcome of all our child’s experiences.

It goes without saying that we would protect our children from having to face starvation, homelessness, and violence as well as from getting sick or injured, or suffering some kind of disability.

But our invisible string pulling wouldn’t end there – we’d arrange it so that our children never got rejected, or teased, or bullied on the school playground.  We’d make sure they never got lonely – that they’d always have plenty of good-natured friends.  We’d have them always experience success in their studies. When they played sports, we’d make sure they never sat on the bench, or got chewed out by a hot-headed coach — that they’d win most of the time, and at least once have the experience of winning a championship.

As they grew older, we certainly wouldn’t allow them to get into a car accident, or abuse drugs or alcohol, let alone become addicted.  When they began to date, we’d want to make sure they never got their hearts broken.  We’d arrange to have them accepted into any colleges or graduate programs they choose, where they’d succeed, and upon graduation get the jobs they want in their chosen careers, where they would experience success and advance nicely in their careers.

Of course if we were really going to succeed at smoothing the road ahead for our children, we’d need the power to go back before the moment of conception and pick their DNA so they would be innately smart, good looking, athletic, not pre-disposed to depression or any other serious illness — all of which as we speak is actually becoming a real possibility in the future with the technology presently being developed for genetic engineering.

You probably see where I’m heading with this.

Loving our kids, our instinct is to protect them from pain, and a good part of this has to do with the fact that it causes us pain to watch them suffer, but if we were to succeed on the level I’m describing we would likely end up with offspring that were extraordinarily shallow, self-centered and lacking in the capacity to feel compassion for others.

And if somewhere along the way we were to lose our superpowers to protect them and our children found themselves encountering for the first time failure, rejection, loneliness, heartbreak, or sickness, well, in all likelihood, they simply wouldn’t be able to cope with it.  They would never have had the opportunity to develop what psychologists call “grit.”

The Apostle Paul was getting at the same point when he invites us to

boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.”

It’s a truth we resist, but without some measure of pain and suffering in our life, qualities like perseverance, character and a hope that endures – will never grow within us.

The greatest people among us are always those who have overcome some kind of serious adversity in their lives – people who have experienced the truth of the hymn we will later sing, in which our heavenly Parent with a wisdom infinitely greater than our own declares:

“When through fiery trials thy pathways shall lie, my grace, all sufficient shall be thy supply; the flame shall not hurt thee, I only design  thy dross to consume, and thy gold to refine.”

If you ask most parents, “what is it you want for your child?” most of us, myself included, would instinctively reply, “I simply want them to be happy.”

And although this answer comes from a place of love I think it’s actually a mistaken goal, because what we call “happiness” is very elusive — dependent upon so many things that aren’t under a person’s control.

What we should hope for our children is that they come to have a deep sense of meaning and purpose to their lives – that they would come to know that mystery Paul calls “faith” which trusts that through all of life’s twists and turns, God is with us, loving us, and that God has a purpose for our lives, and sometimes the experience of failure and suffering is a part of the journey we must make to receive this gift.

If happiness is our goal, then the inevitable pain and suffering that is a part of every life – and some lives far more than others – will be seen as nothing but a road block – a reason to become embittered and maybe to give up.  But if we can hold on to the belief that God is at work in our lives, and that God wants to give us not merely happiness, but something much deeper – to shape our souls so that we can be a vessel of God’s love – then as Paul says elsewhere in Romans,

“all things work for good for those who love God.”

I keep coming back to Jesus’ famous parable of the Father with the two sons – a good story to ponder for Father’s Day.  At the beginning of the story, the younger son hurts his Dad terribly, asking for his share of the inheritance.  Normally, this wouldn’t come to him until his Father’s death, so implicitly the son is saying, “Dad, I wish you were dead.” The older son – the “good son” – would never do such a thing.

The amazing thing about parables is that after forty years I can still hear new things in them – and in this case, as I consider this parable from the lens of our instinctive desire to protect our children, it seems likely that since this Father truly loved his son, that in spite of the hurt his son had caused him — his instinct to want to protect him would surely have remained.

And in this regard, the Father must have felt so helpless.  His son is an adult, so he’s free to choose to do what he wants.  The son is intent on going out into the world, thinking he knows everything when in fact he is clueless about the ways of the world, but he’s got that arrogance common to youth that isn’t interested in listening to the knowledge and wisdom the father has acquired over the course of his life.  So the Father knows the son is going to end up getting hurt, and hurt badly.

I wonder if at this point the father experienced some self-doubt.

“Where did I go wrong with my boy?  Was I too hard on him?  Or maybe too soft on him?”

Perhaps the Father derived some comfort when he looked at his elder son:  “At least he’s grown up to be a responsible adult.”

But maybe that consolation was undercut by the messages conveyed – either directly or indirectly – by the elder son that, “Dad, you were always too soft on the little brat.  You spoiled him.”

If he had the expression in those days, maybe the elder son would have accused his father of having been a “helicopter parent” with his younger brother.

So the elder son stays safely home, and the younger son goes off to the far city, and sure enough, he makes a royal mess of his life.  He ends up penniless, hungry, homeless.  A modern day version would have him becoming a drug addict.

But that’s not where the story ends.  In the deepest point of his suffering, the younger son “comes to his senses,” and slowly begins to make his way home, hoping to live merely as a slave in his father’s household, where at least there will be a roof over his head and three square meals a day.

And to his astonishment, he discovers that his Father has never stopped loving him – that he welcomes him home as a son, not a slave – not only that, he throws a big party to celebrate his homecoming.

The impression we are left with is that the suffering of the younger son — through the process of this great humbling and the astonishing love he has encountered it led to — has ended up in an extraordinary place, experiencing what Paul referred to in the first part of our reading — the gift of faith –

“peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand.”

But strikingly, the parable doesn’t end with the younger son discovering grace.  The story proceeds to tell us about the elder son, the one who had appeared to be the Father’s example of “successful parenting”– the one he had succeeded in protecting from undergoing the suffering that the younger boy was forced to endure.

This son refuses to come into the party.  He pouts in bitter self-righteousness.  Though he has grown up to be responsible and dutiful, he has no humility, no compassion for his younger brother, no sense of

“there but for the grace of God go I?”

So I am left reflecting on the fact that the full significance of our parenting in particular — and our lives in general — can’t really be known in the short term.  What we think we are doing right we may be doing wrong, and what we think we are doing right, we may be doing wrong.

Life is a marathon, not a sprint, and what seems like failings or defeats in the present moment – what seems like “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” to quote Hamlet, may in the big picture of life take on a meaning we never could know in the present moment.

God’s Spirit is at work in our lives, and in the lives of our children, even when we can’t see what the Spirit is doing.  So let us put one step in front of another, even when the darkness is deepest, and let us cling to that conviction that lies deep in our souls – deeper than all our anxiety — that the one great certainty in life is that God truly cherishes us, and will never forsake us.

The Experience of Wonder

Filed under: Pastor Jeff's Sermons — Pastor Jeff at 1:56 pm on Monday, June 12, 2017

A sermon preached on June 11th, 2017 – “Trinity Sunday” – based upon Genesis 1:1 – 2:4a and Psalm 8.


We often agonize over all that divides our nation, and although it is true there we are a highly divided nation, those of us who are old enough to remember recall that in 1968 our country was in even greater distress.  The war in Vietnam was raging, and here on the campuses and streets of our nations there were protests against the war.  The Civil Rights movement had been making progress, but then Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, and our cities erupted with violence.  Robert Kennedy who had seemed like a beacon of hope to many was also cut down with an assassin’s bullet.

As the year drew to a close, some relief from the conflict and despair came with the launch of the Apollo 8 space mission on December 21st.  On Christmas Eve the spacecraft reached the orbit of the moon, and for the first time ever human eyes were able to see the far side of the moon.  A live TV broadcast from the capsule captivated the largest crowd ever of television viewers from across our nation and throughout the world.  Bill Anders, one of the three astronauts brought the broadcast to a close with these words:  “We are now approaching lunar sunrise, and for all the people; back on earth, the crew of Apollo 8 has a message we would like to send to you.” The astronauts proceeded to take turns reading from the King James Version of Genesis 1 which tells the story of the first three days of creation, culminating with the creation of the earth, with the repeated refrain in which God sees what God creates and declares that it is “good.” With the reading finished, Anders spoke these words to the whole world: “And from the crew of the Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a merry Christmas – and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.”

As hard-nosed scientists, these astronauts read from the Genesis account of creation not because they believed it gave an accurate historical accounting of how the universe came into being, but rather because they recognized it to be the best known scriptural passage that expresses the sense of wonder they were experiencing as they contemplated the grandeur of the universe.  It answers the most basic question of all:  “Why is there everything, and not nothing?” with a resounding affirmation of the great mystery we call “God,” the source of all that is.  They read Genesis because they saw clearly at that moment that if we human beings could only get outside of our habitual tunnel vision and contemplate the majesty of creation, we would see what we so often miss, and that is that creation, and life itself, is good, indeed, very good, in spite of all the evil we human beings commit against one another.

A divided nation plagued by great hostility collectively caught a glimpse that Christmas Eve of God’s healing and reconciling grace.

Six months later Neil Armstrong would be the first human being to walk on the moon.  Two years after that, Edgar Mitchell would become the sixth.  Mitchell would later write about how although he was raised in a church going home, in his adult years he became a disciple of a strictly scientific view of the world, leaving behind religious belief as the primitive world view of a pre-scientific mind.  His experience on that mission turned his world view upside down, but the pivotal moment for him didn’t occur when he walked on the moon, but rather later, on the return trip home. After several days of intensely working to do his part to complete the most difficult part of the mission, like God in the creation story, he finally had the opportunity to sit back and rest, and revel in what together they had accomplished.

He gazed out the window of the capsule that slowly rotated every hour.  He saw the earth and was able to make out the continents.  He saw southeast Asia and thought of his younger brother, serving in the Air Force flying missions in the Vietnam war.  He saw Korea, remembering the missions he had flown a few years earlier in the war we fought there.  He found himself contemplating the extreme violence committed by humanity.

As the capsule rotated, he now gazed into the immensity that is space with the seeming infinity of stars.

And then, he said, something suddenly happened. He realizing intuitively that his scientific, materialistic worldview was on some fundamental level grossly wrong.  That science which moves in the direction of breaking creation down into smaller and smaller distinct parts, while providing the useful information that had made his flight to the moon possible, was missing the inherent connectedness of creation.  He would come to refer to his experience as the “ecstasy of unity,” and he would go in and out of it through the remaining days of the trip.  He spent the second half of his life trying to make sense of the truth he had grasped, reading broadly in religion, philosophy and science.

Although Edgar Mitchell’s experience in outer space was the most intense, it turns out that pretty much every astronaut who had the privilege of seeing what Mitchell saw – in particular, the sigh of this tiny, bluish-green sphere floating in the seeming infinity of space – have described the experience as transformative.  In a way that went beyond intellect to their heart, they became conscious of the fact that the human race is in fact absolutely connected in spite of the illusory divisions we create.  It’s been called the “overview effect”, which to me suggests they caught a glimpse of the earth with the eyes of God.    It left them feeling that if somehow you could get all the world’s politicians up there in space to see the earth as they were allowed to see it – there would be peace on earth.

You do not, of course need to fly to outer space to have an experience of wonder and awe like that of the astronauts.  It is the experience behind the words of Psalm 8.

“When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established, what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?”

You can imagine the psalmist out under a clear night sky with no moon and of course no electric lights awestruck with the immensity of the heavens. He experiences paradoxical emotions.  On the one hand he is humbled in the awareness of how small we human beings are in the great vastness of creation; on the other, he senses that we human beings have a special role to play in this creation – that God has made us “little lower than the angels”—or as Genesis puts it, in the image and likeness of God.

The psalmist references the sounds of praise arising “out of the mouths of babes and infants,” and holding his new born child and experiencing a similar sort of wonder. Those of us who are parents likely know this sense of wonder – gazing at our child and sensing a miracle beyond anything we have done, while at the same time, recognizing the powerful claim placed upon our child to nurture this miracle.

In both the Genesis 1 and Psalm 8 human beings are described as having dominion over all other beings that live upon on the face of the earth. Unfortunately this has often been interpreted as authorizing us to rape and pillage the earth for our own pleasure, but our “dominion” comes with great responsibility – a great claim upon us to be good stewards of creation, a responsibility we have too often failed to meet.

John Muir was working on mechanics – taking machines apart into their smallest pieces in order gain greater understanding – when at age 29 an accident left him blinded for a month in one eye.  Grateful for the restoration of his sight, he decided to follow a call he had felt to gaze upon the beauty of wilderness, travelling across the country travelling the wildest stretches of land.  The wonder he experienced led him to appreciate wilderness not as merely a potential utilitarian resource for human beings, but something that is created good by God in and of itself.  This sense of wonder led him to his vocation as the father of the conservation movement, founding the Sierra Club. Referencing the goodness and beauty he experienced in nature, Muir said, “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play and pray in where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike.”

So this experience of wonder that I’ve been talking about is connected to our deepest nature as human beings.  Where have you experienced it?

Perhaps walking in the woods, and marveling at a great oak tree rising up from its roots in the earth to embrace the sky?

Maybe encountering a bird in flight or in song?

Did you have such an experience contemplating a sunset, or looking up into the night sky?

Maybe it happened as you listened to music that stirred something deep within your heart.

Was it holding a newborn baby, or perhaps being present to someone in the moment of his or her death awestruck by the mystery of their soul departing their body?

Perhaps there have been moments of wonder in your life in which in the midst of deep and revealing conversation with another person, where you were allowed to truly hear their story and marvel at their perseverance in the face of adversity, or when another listened to you in such a way that deep truths about your life were revealed to you for the first time.

In all of these experiences of wonder there is simultaneously the humbling sense of being a part of something far greater than yourself, the mystery of God, and a sense of a call and claim being placed upon your life – a sense of a holy calling to fulfill.

In the midst of the strife of our present times, the experience of wonder is precisely what we need.  But the unfortunate truth is that we live in a society in which opportunities for such an experience have become harder and harder to come by. There are multiple reasons for this.  One is the frantic and anxious pace of our lives that leads us to neglect the ancient wisdom in the story of God resting after working, leading to our failure to set aside times for simple rest and stillness where let go of our compulsion to “fix” things and simply contemplate the goodness that is.

Another is the continuously declining direct contact we have in so-called “civilized” societies with nature.  We stay within environments made by human hands, and avoid venturing into wilderness where we have to leave behind our sense of being “in control.”  Somebody coined the term “nature attention deficit” to describe a condition that most children grow up with these days that contributes to hyperactivity and a loss of inner calm.

The seductive pull of our digital devices is another reason for our lack of opportunity for wonder.

David Turner called my attention to a “20 20” segment on digital addiction. It featured a man so addicted to the video games he would watch in his basement that he totally neglected his wife and three children.  There was a fifteen year old girl addicted to social media staying up late into the night in order to induce the illusory sense of “being connected” that her smart phone provided her.

Most dramatic for me was a fourteen year old boy addicted to his violent video games, cutting school and staying up late, and erupting violently whenever his parents attempted to force him to get off line.   An intervention was made in which the boy was taken to the wilderness of Nevada to participate in a forty day supervised program with other similarly addicted teenage boys during which they lived without electricity, and learned skills for living off the land.  It took time, but gradually the boy’s soul was healed in the manner of which John Muir spoke.  His compulsive longing for the distraction of video games subsided and he came to experience the great affirmation of Genesis 1, that beyond all our addictions and distractions, there is a great goodness that awaits us.  Life is, in fact a good gift — one in which we are all connected at the deepest level.

Today in the liturgical calendar is the only Sunday devoted to a “doctrine” — in this case, the “Trinity”.  When I was in college, the study of theology could evoke in me a bit of wonder, but over time I realized there was only so far such study will take you.  “Doctrines” can seem at times like the anti-thesis of wonder – an attempt to nail down the mystery that is beyond the capacity of our intellect to grasp.  And that is often how I have viewed the Trinity.

Recently though I’ve come to see the idea of the Trinity as an expression of a great mystery – one that I think Edgar Mitchell and John Muir grasped in their experiences of wonder – that at the heart of reality – in the heart of God — there is interconnection – there is relationship.  We are made in the image and likeness of the God who is three persons – “Father”, “Son”, and “Holy Spirit” — eternally loving one another.  That is something to stand in wonder about.

The Gift of the Holy Spirit — Healing the Shame Within

Filed under: Pastor Jeff's Sermons — Pastor Jeff at 10:51 pm on Sunday, June 4, 2017

A sermon preached on June 4th, 2017 – Pentecost Sunday – based upon John 20:19 – 23.


John tells a quite different story from the one Luke tells about how the Holy Spirit was given to the first followers of Jesus.  John’s version lacks Luke’s pyrotechnics, the unmistakable display of power to transform lives that was witnessed by masses of people, overcoming the boundaries that keep people separated from one another.  John’s version is much more subdued and intimate.

It begins with the disciples still in a state of profound brokenness, a fact that makes the point that rather than the calm and ordered times in our lives, it is sometimes when our lives are broken open with pain that we may be most open to leading of the Holy Spirit.

They are gathered behind locked doors.  They have heard the testimony of Mary Magdalene that she had met Jesus alive, but whether they gave it any credibility is unclear — what is clear is that it hasn’t penetrated very deeply into their hearts and minds.  Their hearts are full of fear.

What goes unnamed in the story is another emotion closely related to fear, and that is shame. The last we heard of these disciples was when they abandoned Jesus when he needed their support, running for cover when the soldiers came to arrest him.  As Jesus was being interrogated inside the house of the High Priest, Peter tried to stay close by, sitting beside a charcoal fire out in the courtyard, but when questioned himself, Peter denied three times ever knowing Jesus.

So there they are, ashamed of themselves, staying put in that upper room, quite literally not wanting to be seen in public.   If Jesus has been raised from the dead, it isn’t altogether clear that this would be good news to these broken disciples, for they fear his condemnation.  In spite of having taught them that he hadn’t come to condemn the world, but because “God so loved the world”, the teachings they had absorbed in the course of a life time of a wrathful God set on punishing sinners is hard to let go of.   So perhaps the doors are locked not only to keep the religious authorities out, but Jesus as well, for should he appear, they imagine him piercing their hearts with a bitter, “Where were you when I needed you?”

Shame and guilt are not the same thing, though we often confuse them.  Guilt is the painful feeling that says, “I have done something that was bad.”  Shame runs deeper.  It says, “I myself am bad.  I am unworthy, unlovable.”  If it weren’t for the presence of shame, we would likely find the courage to confess our guilt where appropriate, for it wouldn’t strike at the core of our being.  But when we are ridden with shame, guilt becomes intolerable, for it opens up that deeper wound from which self-condemnation arises.

To some extent, all of us have a place within our hearts where shame dwells.  It is part of what it means to be human – a descendent of Adam and Eve.

Shame goes hand in hand with fear, creating the kind of paralysis expressed in this story where the disciples quite literally can’t think outside the box.  Shame leads to a constriction of our imagination, because the thought of trying something new and failing is intolerable for the further condemnation it would evoke.

So there they stay, trapped in that locked room.

But with his sudden appearance behind those locked doors Jesus immediately makes it clear that he has not come for condemnation.  The first thing he says is, “Peace be with you.”  He shows them his wounds to confirm that yes, it really is him.  And perhaps because it didn’t sink in the first time he said it, he says it again, “Peace be with you.” You may feel unworthy of peace, but I declare to you that you are.

He goes on to say, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  In other words, “it isn’t locked up behind closed doors where you are meant to be.  You belong out in this world which the Father and I so love, as a witness to my love.”

It is then that Jesus breathes on them the Holy Spirit, hearkening back to that story at the beginning of the Bible where God scooped up some dust from the ground and formed the shape of a human being, but it wasn’t a living being until God breathed into the nostrils of the human-shaped-pile-of-dust the breath of life.  Now Jesus breathes the Spirit into his walking dead disciples, making an altogether new creation.

Jesus’ wounds were there on his body for all to see.  He showed them freely, with no shame, even though the Jewish authorities believed that to die on the cross was indeed shameful. Our wounds, however tend to be unseen, hidden deep within us.

It is only the Holy Spirit that can heal the psychic wounds we carry on the inside.

Last week I spoke of the Emperor’s New Clothes in relation to our experience of anxiety.  We all feel anxious routinely, but we are loathe to admit it.  It’s the same with shame.  There are dark places in our hearts that if seen clearly we believe they would render us unlovable, so we strive to keep hidden from others – in fact, hidden from ourselves.

In our story, Jesus proceeds to give the apostles a singular task – to go into the world and release people from their burden of shame and guilt.  “If you forgive the sins of any,” he says, “they are forgiven.”  Forgiveness is at the heart of what we should be about – proclaiming to the world that deep down inside we are not unlovable as we suspect – that we are, in fact God’s beloved and treasured children.

The words Jesus went on to say can seem curious: “If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”  What does that mean?

It seems clear that a bunch of men who have just received the mercy and grace of Jesus’ sudden appearance among them would not be quick to withhold forgiveness to others.

It is true that in order to receive healing of the guilt and shame that is buried within us – if we have harmed others or ourselves and pushed God away – we must be willing to acknowledge the truth of our sin.  Otherwise the sins are retained – we continue to carry their burden around with us.

But maybe Jesus was pointing to how easy it is for us to fall back into a spirit of condemnation rather than grace.  If you ask a bunch of young people under the age of thirty what word comes to mind when they hear the word “Christian” the answer most often given is “judgmental.” How did this come to happen?

It is said that the best defense is a good offence, and in order to avoid looking at our own inner darkness and sin, the church has often chosen to point a finger at the darkness and sin of others.   But the compulsion to point the finger of condemnation at others isn’t necessary if we have experienced the grace of the Holy Spirit ministering to our own inner wounds.

As John proceeds to tell the story it is clear that although the apostles have received the Holy Spirit — having it breathed into them by Jesus — the inner healing of our shame is not a once and done deal, but rather an ongoing process.  You may remember how Thomas wasn’t with them that first Easter night, but where do we find Thomas and the other apostles the very next Sunday?  Still in that upper room.  Jesus sent them into the world to proclaim the forgiveness of sin, but here they remain behind locked doors.  In other words, it takes time for the Holy Spirit to do its work within us.

If you read to the end of the 20th chapter it is clear that John intends his Gospel to end there.  But apparently he found the need to go back and add another story, which became his 21st chapter.  We are told that “sometime later” the apostles were together and Peter says an peculiar thing:  “I’m going fishing,” and the others say, “We’ll go too.”  It’s odd because Jesus had specifically called them from their nets to go into the world to fish for people.  So Peter and the others seem stuck, expressed by a failure of imagination.  What do we do now?  Afraid to try something new for fear of failing, they fall back on what is most familiar to them, what they feel confident they won’t fail at.  They go fishing.

This isn’t what Jesus called them to do – it’s not where the Holy Spirit is leading – and so it doesn’t go well. Through the night of casting their nets into the sea, they catch nothing.

When we are following the guidance of the Holy Spirit there is a tendency to find doors opening to us; when we aren’t, the doors don’t open.

Jesus appears on the shore at daybreak, but they don’t recognize them.  He calls to them tenderly, “Children, have you caught any fish.”  No, they admit, we haven’t. He instructs them to cast their nets on the opposite side of their boat, and now their nets are filled to bursting with 153 fish.

Their eyes are opened, and the rush to shore where they find Jesus has breakfast cooking for them over a charcoal fire.

Now there is only one other reference to a charcoal fire in the Gospel, and that is in the one beside which Peter’s greatest stumbling took place, denying that he knew Jesus three times.

So now following breakfast, Jesus revisits that moment with Peter, which is clearly painful for Peter.  Why does Jesus do this?  He does it because he recognizes that Peter is still paralyzed by his shame, and although it is painful, the guilt has to be brought to the surface if the shame is to be healed.   Jesus gives Peter three opportunities to re-affirm his love for Jesus, and with each affirmation of his love the Holy Spirit penetrates more deeply with its wondrous love into his deep inner pool of unworthiness.  And as one who has first-hand experience of God’s saving grace, Jesus commissions Peter to be an instrument of God’s grace for others:  “Feed my lambs.  Tend my sheep.”

The “mainline church” has been in steady decline over the past fifty years.  It has become clear that if we keep doing what we have always done, at some point within the next century the mainline church as we know it will become extinct.  We can’t just continue to do what worked back in the fifties.  We have to open up our imaginations and take risks that might involve failure, trusting the Spirit to be with us to find new ways to be the Church in this world God loves so.

I believe the Holy Spirit has been giving me a vision lately, and I will be talking about it more in the weeks ahead.  It involves returning to the roots of Methodism – forming small groups that will experiment with meeting for four weeks with intentional confidentiality, creating a safe space where participants can “get real” about the burdens we carry – finding the courage to speak the truth of our lives.  They will be opportunities to care for one another as Jesus commissioned Peter to care for his sheep, and to intentionally engage the ongoing process of being healed of our shame, seeking together the guidance of the Holy Spirit to direct our lives.  When the opportunity comes, I hope you will accept the invitation to participate in one of these small groups.

It’s time to go forth from those locked upper rooms.


Filed under: Pastor Jeff's Sermons — Pastor Jeff at 6:26 pm on Sunday, May 28, 2017

Group hugA sermon delivered on May 28th, 2017 – Memorial Day weekend – based upon John 17:11; Acts 1:6-9; 1Peter 5:6-9.

Either explicitly or implicitly, all three of our scripture readings deal with the theme of anxiety.

In that upper room the night before Jesus died, the disciples were anxious about what would happen when Jesus is taken by death and all hell breaks loose.  In the story from Acts, Jesus is taking his leave once more, about to ascend to heaven, and the apostles want to know, “Jesus, are you going to bring your kingdom now, or do we have to continue to live in this broken violent world?”

Anxiety.  All of us struggle with anxiety, and yet there is an “Emperor’s New Clothes” quality to our experience of anxiety.  When we look at the people around us, it often doesn’t appear as though they are struggling with anxiety – they seem calm and collected. We conclude we must be the only ones feeling anxious, which makes the anxiety worse – an indication that there is something wrong with us.  So we share this charade of masking our anxiety.

So to begin, I want to be the little boy who cries, “The Emperor has no clothes!” and confess to you that anxiety is something I deal with a great deal of the time.  To a greater or lesser extent, daily, hourly.

But there is no shame in feeling anxious.  There could be some shame if we never felt anxiety, because scientists tell us the only people who don’t are sociopaths.

To be human is to feel anxiety.  It is part of what separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom, and here it is important to distinguish between fear and anxiety.  Like us, animals experience fear, which is located in the present moment.  There is that saber toothed tiger over there who wants to eat me, and my instinctual fear moves me to make an immediate decision to either flee or take up a stick and try to fight the tiger off.

But anxiety is less focused, and it’s not so much about the present as it is about the future.  It is about the threats that might be out there waiting for us in the future.

So we all struggle with anxiety, but there are good and bad ways to deal with it.

Peter is talking about the good way of dealing with anxiety when he says, “Cast all your anxiety on God.” Note that he doesn’t say, “Don’t have anxiety,” because that is impossible.  The question is how we respond to our anxiety.    And before I talk about what the good response would be, let’s talk about our most common response when anxiety arises within us.

One response is to anesthetize ourselves – the way of addiction – whether through alcohol or drugs or shopping overworking, we distract ourselves from addressing the anxiety that doesn’t going away – it simply get pushed down inside us.

But the more basic response to anxiety is to climb up on the bucking bronco of our imaginations, allowing it to take us for a wild ride.   We begin imagining all the possible scenarios of how things could go wrong in the future – running out of money, losing our job, our home – receiving a life-threatening diagnosis from the doctor – some rejection or abandonment – some harm to someone we love.  We obsess about all the worst possibilities.

There is a reason we do this, and it is the misguided notion that if we can anticipate something, then we can somehow head it off and keep it from happening.  In other words, we’re trying to gain a level of control where ultimately we aren’t in control.  Bad things will happen, and some of the worst are the ones we never imagine.   But we try to play God by letting our imagination run wild with our anxieties.  It renders us paralyzed – prisoners of our anxiety.

And two things happen:

First, we lose the present moment.  Lost in the future of “what ifs”, we don’t really live our lives, because life is really only lived in the present.

And second, we pull into ourselves.   We become self-absorbed, isolated.  Our own individual anxieties about the future seem like all we can deal with – there is no space left for others.

It is striking that our scripture lessons don’t say there is no danger out there.  Quite the contrary:  1Peter says, “Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour.”  And when Jesus prays for his disciples, he prays that the Father will “protect” them.

The scriptures are realistic about the dangers out there, but they make it clear that we miss the deeper danger.   Yes, we may lose our job, yes we will get sick and eventually die, yes, bad things will happen to people we love.  That is the way of life.   But these are not actually the worst danger.  The worst possibility is that the evil one gets a hold of us on the inside – the possibility that along the way we altogether harden our hearts and lose our capacity to love – which is what it means to lose our souls.

And connected to this is the temptation to try and go it alone.

Note, what it is Jesus specifically prayed to the Father on behalf of his disciples:  “Protect them, that they may be one, as we are one.”  He prays that the same loving connection that exists between Father, Son and Holy Spirit will exist between Jesus’ followers.  He’s praying that we won’t try and go it alone — that we stick together through thick and thin.

So let’s turn now to the advice given by Peter: “Cast all your anxiety on (God), because he cares for you.”

Casting our anxiety on God is an intentional act, which requires that we recognize when anxiety arises within us.  That may seem like a no brainer, but the fact of the matter is that usually when anxiety arises within us, our imaginations take off running, and we never stop to think to ourselves, “I’m feeling anxious.  I’m riding that wild horse again.”   We just ride it without thinking.

So Peter continues by write, “Discipline yourselves.  Keep alert.”  Keep alert so you can recognize anxiety when it occurs and name it as such. This requires discipline, which is to say it is a habit that needs to be developed over time through practice.  It means learning to say to ourselves, “I’m feeling anxious now.  How do I want to respond?”

And then comes the intentional act of giving our anxieties – our worries – to God, in prayer. Why?  “because God cares for you.”

When you get down to it, whether or not God cares for us is at the heart of our faith.  Either God exists and cares for us, or God doesn’t exist or doesn’t care for us, and if God doesn’t, we’re wasting our time here.  We gather here each week and say God does care.  But when the rubber hits the road, we are challenged to ask ourselves whether we really believe this or not.

I’m not saying this it is an easy thing to respond “yes” to this question, or that we can establish our confidence in God’s love for us once and for all, ridding ourselves forever of doubt.  What I am saying is that if we want to learn to tame the wild horse of our anxious imagination, reminding ourselves of what we profess to be true is helpful.

If God is for me, I can trust God to see me through whatever may come.

This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t plan appropriately regarding the problems we will face in the future, but it does mean we can get off that wild horse of obsessive anxiety knowing that even if we fail to plan properly, which will surely happen, God still has the capacity to see us through whatever will come.

After Peter talks about the evil one being like a roaring lion seeking to devour us, he goes on to write, “Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering.”

In other words, we’re in this inherently anxiety-producing existence together.  As the saying goes, everybody you meet is carrying a heavy burden, even when it may not look like it. So don’t try to go it alone.  Quit pretending that the Emperor’s has fine clothes on when he’s stark naked.

Part of what the story of the ascension of Jesus means is that although he has left this world in his individual, bodily form, he hasn’t abandoned it.  He remains close at hand, and one of the primary places Jesus is to be found is in the church – the body of Christ – this motley crew of you and me who gather to share our burdens, encourage one another, and strengthen one another’s faith.

This being Memorial Day weekend, I wanted to finish by talking about Vice Admiral James Stockdale who was shot down over North Vietnam, and ended up spening eight long years as the senior office in the prison camp known as the “Hanoi Hilton”.  He was tortured fifteen times and kept in solitary confinement for four years.  He endured the sort of horror that most of us can’t imagine surviving, but Stockdale and others did survive, and he wrote about it.

At the Annual Conference, the Bishop made reference to Stockdale saying there were three types of prisoners.  First, there were those who began their imprisonment with an unrealistic hope. “Our fellow soldiers know we are here, and any day now they will come rescue us.”

Second, there were those who from the outset were overcome by just how dire the situation was, and gave up hope of ever getting out of there.

These two groups didn’t survive the prison camps.  They lost the will to live.

And finally there some who were realistic about what they were up against and yet who held onto hope.  “This is a very difficult situation.  We won’t be getting out of here soon.  But we will be, eventually.  In the meantime, we have to endure — we have to discipline ourselves.”

Before the Bishop spoke of Stockdale, I had read an account where he described a basic choice that prisoners were confronted with in the prisons: whether to do all they could to stay connected to their fellow Americans, or give up trying. The choice to give up was quite understandable.  In order to break the will of the prisoners, the guards intentionally set out to isolate the prisoners from one another.

Though housed in adjoining prison cells, the prisoners were not allowed to make any attempt to speak or communicate in any way with his fellow prisoners would result in taking them out to be tortured.  Those tortured would be compelled not only to make false statements used by the Vietcong for propaganda purposes.

So to avoid the horror of torture, the choice of for isolation was understandable.

Those who made the choice to stay connected developed an elaborate tapping system – a secret language of taps by which they could communicate with one another between cells.  There were serious dangers involved in participating in the tap code communication network, because if the guards caught them engaged in the tapping, they would be taken out and tortured, forcing them to not only make the false propaganda statements, but also to betray their fellow prisoners in regards to who else was participating in the communications.

This in turn what lead to a heavy load of guilt in regard to betraying their fellow prisoners of war.

What to do?  Stockdale said that for those intent on staying connected, the answer became obvious.  There could be no secrets between them.   Once they were returned to their cells, as soon as possible they would get back on the network, and through taps, confess what they had given up under torture.  And because they each knew first hand the horror of being tortured, absolution for their betrayals was given readily.

Stockdale writes:  “Anybody who has been there knows that a neighbor in the cell block becomes the most precious thing on earth, a soul who deserves your care and cooperation not matter what the risk.”  Asked, “What kept you going?”  The answer was simple:  “The man next door.”

“Protect them,” prayed Jesus, “that they may be one as we are one.”

To walk the way of Jesus is to turn to God and to our brothers and sisters in those times when anxiety arises within us, rather than chose the path of going it alone.  It is to be vulnerable with one another, acknowledging our anxieties and our frailties.  We are the body of Christ together.

When Mothers’ Day Is Hard

Filed under: Pastor Jeff's Sermons — Pastor Jeff at 8:45 pm on Sunday, May 14, 2017

A sermon preached on May 14th — Mothers’ Day — based on John 14:1-3.


On Mothers’ Day, my usual strategy in my sermon is to make some passing reference to mothers, figuring that’s enough.  Generally I avoid devoting my whole sermon to motherhood, the reason being the subject is actually a very difficult one to address. But this morning I’m going to try to undertake the challenge.

The reason it is so difficult is that although all of us here have in common the fact that we each have a mother our relationships with our mothers vary dramatically.  We all come to Mothers’ Day from different experiences.  And therein lies the challenge.

Some of us have mothers who have been a consistent source of love and encouragement through the course of your lives, and this day what you’re feeling is gratitude for that mother, with plans for some sort of expression of that gratitude.  Some of us here today are mothers with appreciative families, so this is a day to enjoy because of some special treatment you have been — or will be given — before the day is through from children expressing their gratitude.

I could preach a sermon that simply sang the praises of motherhood, and that would probably work for those of you I’ve mentioned, but there are others of us here today who find painful feelings arising within on this day, and a sermon like that might not work for you – in fact it might leave you feeling worse than when you arrived here today.

There are various reasons for these darker feelings.

The first can simply be that for some of us — although we had mothers who loved us — they are no longer here on earth with us, and so while we feel gratitude for having had them in our lives, Mothers’ Day can be a day when our grief over their absence intensifies.

And some of you are mothers who like Mary the mother of Jesus have children who died way too early, and the day brings for you perhaps an even sharper form of grief.

I pray that this day you may hear the words Jesus spoke to his disciples as he was getting ready to leave this world, “Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.”

All mothers are imperfect – sinners saved by grace, just like the rest of us.  Sometimes, for a whole host of reasons a mother’s capacity to love her children can be seriously broken.  For some of us, Mothers’ Day may be painful because it is a reminder of wounds received because of our mothers’ woundedness.

My mother grew up in Mississippi, the second of her mother’s two children.  Like all mothers, my grandmother is owed a debt of gratitude for undergoing what might be the most severe physical pain possible — that of giving birth – in order to bring my mother into this world, a pain we men, gratefully will never be called upon to endure.  As all mothers who raise their children, my mother’s mother surely expended an incredible amount of energy feeding and clothing her, caring for her when she was sick, teaching her to speak and all the other basics required for surviving in this world. And for all this, gratitude is indeed the appropriate response.

But along with these blessings there were wounds my grandmother inflicted as well.  In my mother’s eyes, her mother often seemed to radiate unhappiness. My mother’s older brother would grow up to be a doctor and in the eyes of their mother he could do no wrong.  But my mother was left constantly feeling as though she was somehow a disappointment to her mother, a cause of her unhappiness. Her mother would dress her up and curl her hair, looking for her to be charming like Shirley Temple — wanting her to “sparkle” is how my mother put it — but my mother, being shy by nature would demure and retreat, and so growing up it never seemed she could be “sparkily” enough to please her mother.

My mother’s father died suddenly while she was away at college.  My mother rushed home to find her mother completely devastated, unable to function, and though my mother was heartbroken herself, she felt she could not allow herself the luxury of grieving, feeling compelled to hold it together for the sake of her mother.

A week after her father’s death my mother returned to college, taking her mother with her.  She moved out of the dorms and rented an apartment off campus so that her grief-stricken mother could live with her and my mother could look after her.   And so for the next several years her mother leaned heavily upon her, and so when seven years after her father’s death my mother received a wedding proposal from my father, she accepted it in large part because it provided a way to distance herself from her mother. (The marriage unfortunately was never really a happy one and would last only eighteen years.)

Although now married, my grandmother continued to hover near, and when my mother gave birth to her first born – my brother – for over a week she was too sick to care for Mark, and so her mother moved in to do so.  During that time a bond formed between my grandmother and my brother that would in some ways undermine my mother’s relationship with her son for the rest of her life.  Looking back, my mother realized she allowed this to happen in part because of the ongoing need she felt to try and make her mother happy.

My mother died five years ago, and I’ve been missing her, for in spite of the wounds she bore, she loved me well, and understood me deeply.  She was a part time writer, and I spent time this week reading some of her poems.    I came across a poem she wrote that is addressed to her mother, who at the time of the writing had long since passed from this world.  It contains this poignant verse of longing:

Did your ears hear the secret song I used to sing when disappointment with me darkened up your face? ‘Oh, Mama, like me.  Say you want me.  Keep me safe.’

But the poem doesn’t end there, and before I get to how it ends, I want to consider a New Testament lesson that was assigned for this morning that I didn’t have Bob read.  It comes from the Book of Acts, and it describes the death of Stephen, the first Christian martyr.

After preaching about the death and resurrection of Jesus, the crowd rose up in anger and proceeded to stone him to death.  But before Stephen died, he gazed up into heaven and received the comfort of seeing Jesus himself and the very glory of God.  In his dying breaths — his life conformed to one for whom he has given his life — Stephen cries, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them,” referring to those who were taking his life  – words that echo words Jesus himself spoke on the cross,“Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

One of the sayings that my wife Sarah often quotes from her mother is this:  “The first thing children need to do is forgive their parents.” Forgive them, because they really didn’t know what they were doing when they raised us.  Nobody gives you a manual to follow when you become a parent, and frankly, it is the hardest job in the world, and though we may set out to be the perfect parent (as I did) we invariably pass on some of our own wounds to our children without even realizing we’re doing it.

To return to my mother’s poem, it began with my mother talking about how when she was little she was terribly afraid of the dark, and when she would return home with her mother at night, she would cling to her mother as they walked from the carport to the house.  The fear of the dark was mixed in my mother’s mind with the fear of death.  And so even as she expressed her longing for her mother’s approval, she also pleas to her: Keep me safe.”

As the poem continues, my mother makes reference to some sort of momentary vision she received later in her life that reminded me a bit of the one given to Stephen.  She writes:

It’s almost half my lifetime since you’ve been gone.

Long since, the angels must have scrubbed that discontent clean off your face.

I glimpsed you once as you looked down on me through golden haze, approving of, delighting in that curled and costumed child who always balked and shrank and broke your heart by never being wonderful.

Since then I’m not so scared to walk in deepest dark, not since I’ve heard your ringing laughter from up there, not since I’ve seen your face shine down on me like God.

In the words Bob read for us, Jesus said to his disciples the night before his death, “Let not your hearts be troubled; neither let them be afraid.” It struck me in the words Jesus goes on to speak to his troubled and frightened disciples, he sounds rather like a mother.“In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?”

Preparing a place for someone, especially upon homecoming, is something in my experience that moms do.  Before Bobby comes home from college, Sarah spends significant time fixing up his room, making his bed just so — stuff like that.  Sometimes I say, “Why all the bother?  You know the room will just be a mess within a day.” And she will say, “I just want to make it nice for him.”

She wants him to feel welcomed home — like Jesus, preparing a place for his disciples in the household of God — that ultimate home we commonly refer to as “heaven”.

Because Christianity arose in a patriarchal society, God has traditionally been referred to as a Father.  But when Jesus spoke of God, the images he used were often ones that conveyed tender, nurturing care.   The point is simply that God is like a loving parent, and so God can just as easily be referred to as “Mother”.  Actually, Jesus spoke of calling God “Abba,” which means “Daddy,” so sometimes, when we need to – when we’re feeling afraid of the dark – if it feels right, go ahead and call God “Momma.”

When we move through the passageway that is death, all things are made new.  So we will get our Mommas back, and if our relationships with our mothers were troubled ones, know that these relationships are made new as well.  I think the glimpse given to my mother of her mother looking down on her from heaven was inspired by the Holy Spirit.  The “ringing laughter” she heard coming from what had been her often unhappy mother – the delight on the face of her mother at the sight of the daughter who had sometimes seemed to disappoint her – that was real.

In the end, love is the only thing that is eternal.  Everything else passes away.

Returning to Abundant Life — John 10:1-10

Filed under: Pastor Jeff's Sermons — Pastor Jeff at 12:17 pm on Monday, May 8, 2017

A sermon preached on May 7th, 2017 – Good Shepherd Sunday – based upon John 10:1-10.


In the original New Testament they were no numbered chapters and verses, so it is easy to overlook the context in which Jesus spoke the words we just heard.  They serve as a commentary on the long healing story that occurs immediately before it in chapter nine.  You may remember this story.  We had fun acting it out about six weeks ago in worship. It involves a man born blind — played by Liz – who gets his eyesight restored by Jesus — played by Sabitha.

The story plays with the metaphor of sight and blindness.  While the man born blind is getting his eyesight back, there are others – the Pharisees – who claim they can see but who are, in fact, spiritually blind. 

In our little play, Greg, Steve and Marissa played these people.  They are so determined to see themselves as right that they have lost the capacity to truly recognize the wonder of what has happened:  a man born blind has been given his sight back, and the natural response would be to celebrate.  But something has gone terribly wrong with these guys, but they just can’t admit it.

In commenting on this story, Jesus say, “I have come that you may have life, and have it abundantly.”

What does abundant life look like? The man who has been given back his sight is a good example. Not only has he been made whole physically, but in the course of the long story, he becomes spiritually whole as well.

He grows in strength as the story progresses, refusing to succumb to the pressure put on him by his community to deny the truth of what he has experienced — to live out their lie.  He clings to what he knows:  “I was blind, but now I see, and this guy Jesus is the one who made this happen.” And in the end Jesus comes to him, and the man bows down and worships him, standing in awe of Jesus and his great love.

So the character Liz played is an example of abundant life, but a more common place we can look to see what abundant life looks like – a place our eyes are irresistibly drawn to — is at a very young child. We can’t take our eyes off young children because there’s just so much life in them.

We were each created with abundant life – with a natural goodness – “in the image and likeness of God” is how the Bible puts it.  We come into this world with an innate sense of empathy and a capacity to connect — without prejudice, full of wonder and awe.

This is not to say we are all created exactly the same. We all have a unique self given to us by God, and that self is inherently good, and no two selves are precisely the same, but what we all do have in common is a God-given capacity for love and wonder.  We were created out of love, and at the deepest level of our being we are each of us, in our own utterly unique way an expression of God’s love.

But something happens as we grow up.  Over time we lose this “abundant life”.

To a greater or lesser extent, we lose our sense of wonder and we find ourselves often experiencing the miracle that is life as boring, tedious.  We lose our innate compassion and empathy — we take on prejudice and all manner of other things that get in the way of expressing the love that is within us.

In the symbolic story of our origins, we lose the Garden of Eden.  The power of sin and evil takes hold in our lives – the power that moves in the opposite direction of abundant life. It is this power that Jesus was referring to in today’s reading when he speaks of the thief who has come only “to steal and kill and destroy”. Instead of nurturing love, compassion, and wonder the thief promotes lies that do the very opposite.

How does this happen?  There is some mystery to this.  In part, we are given choices to make, and we choose wrongly. But like the serpent in the Garden, the “thief” is at work in this world encouraging us to make wrong choices.

We grow up in a sin-sick world that doesn’t value what God values – a world where human beings aren’t viewed as being of sacred worth, inherently worthy of love — instead placing greater value on success and money and power and status and “stuff” or the importance of being right.  When Jesus healed the man born blind, the sin sick Pharisees are so concerned with being right and morally superior that they can’t stand in awe and rejoice over the fact that this miracle of compassion and healing has occurred. Something is terribly broken inside them but they can’t admit it.

So, we grow up in a world of wounded people whose capacity for love is to some extent blocked, and we absorb their woundedness, becoming wounded ourselves.  We lose the fullness of abundant life that we once knew as little children.

The Road to Emmaus — Finding the Deeper Why

Filed under: Pastor Jeff's Sermons — Pastor Jeff at 10:36 pm on Sunday, April 30, 2017

A sermon preached on April 30th, 2017 based upon Luke 24:13 – 35

Jeff and kids

The most heart wrenching line of the story we just heard is when the two disciples walking the road to Emmaus say to the stranger who came to walk beside them, “We had hoped…”  For many people, the sense of hopelessness expressed here often characterizes how they experience life these days.  The recent presidential election turned on the hopelessness felt by poor white folks who perceive little in the way of opportunities in the rust belt, which isn’t really much different from the hopelessness felt by poor blacks – especially poor black young men — in the inner city.

But you don’t have to live in the rust belt or the impoverished inner city to feel hopelessness.  Here in the relative comfort of suburban middle class community the stunning number of people dealing with life threatening opiate addictions can be seen as “the canary in the mine” alerting us to an epidemic of despair hidden beneath the surface.  I suspect most of us have, at times, known something of that same hopelessness.  Perhaps some of us feel it now.

A psychiatrist named Viktor Frankl wrote a book in the 1950s entitled “Man’s Search for Meaning” in which he challenged the prevailing psychoanalytic theories of Freud and others who came before him that claimed our deepest drives as human beings are for pleasure or for power. No, Frankl argued, our deepest drive is for a sense of meaning to our life.   He quoted the philosopher Nietzsche, “The person who has a ‘why’ to live can bear almost any ‘how’.”  A why – a reason to live for, a purpose, a meaning.  Having a ‘why’ is directly related to having hope.  There is something I am living for that involves at least in part some hope for the future.

In the first half of our lives, the why of our life tends to revolve around ourselves.  Our purpose is to establish a place for ourselves in this world – to acquire an education, a vocation, a reputation, money, a home, a family, etc. — to acquire “happiness” in the usual sense of the word.   As time passes, we experience success or failure — or some combination of the two — in achieving our ‘why.’

It was Oscar Wilde who famously said, “There are only two tragedies in life:  one is to not getting what one wants; the other is getting it.” The point being, if we manage to get what we set out to achieve early on in life, we discover, strangely, that it isn’t enough.  Like the 1969 Peggy Lee song we ask: “Is that all there is?”  An emptiness arises — the “why” for which we had been living isn’t deep enough to hold up as time passes.

Part of this disillusionment involves our inherent vulnerability in life.  To be human is to be fragile, and stuff inevitably happens along the way that breaks our heart, or scares the living day lights out of us.  In the light of such occurrences, we ask, “What does it matter to have been a success in acquiring the things of this world if experiences like this can rock the very foundation of my very existence?”

We live in a culture that gives little support for the quest for a deeper “why” – the deeper meaning.   The why of life is assumed to be what is usually understood to be the “American dream” – to achieve a greater level of economic prosperity than that of our parents.  When the possibility or even the probability of that occurring seems to be reduced, what then?  A deeper “why” must be found.

So either way, in success or in failure, the quest for a deeper meaning to life arises as times passes, but for some it can occur very early on in life.

It is a bit of a clique to say, “Life is a journey,” but it is true.  In the course of our lives we move somewhere.  Life isn’t stationary, static.  But when we speak of life being a journey, what matters is not where we get to in a geographical sense, or in the end, how successful we are at that first stage of  fulfilling the first “why.”  The thing that matters is 1) What happens inside us along the way.  What kind of person do we become?  Do we become more capable of loving? And 2) the impact that our lives have on other people.  Do we make a positive difference?

So the story this morning lends itself to the “life is a journey” metaphor, because at the start of the story the two disciples are quite literally setting off on a journey.  They are beginning a seven mile hike to a little village known as Emmaus.  At the outset of their journey they find themselves in this place of deep despair and hopelessness.  They don’t seem to have been two of “the twelve”; one is named “Cleopas”, a name we haven’t heard before.  The other, curiously is never named.  It is almost as if Luke is inviting us to place ourselves in the story as Cleopas’ unnamed companion.

There hopelessness has to do with the fact that they thought they had found “the why” to which the rest of their lives would be devoted: to follow Jesus, who they had hoped would redeem Israel, throw off the Roman oppressors, and cast out the corrupt religious authorities.  But instead he got nailed to a cross.

So now they seem to be all about escaping.  We are experts in escapism in this country; an endless assortment of ways to distract our attention.  They want to go off on their own and get away from the place where their hearts were broken.

A stranger comes walking alongside them, and we know the stranger is actually Jesus, but they don’t recognize him.  At first he seems almost irritating:  how could he have been in Jerusalem these past few days and not know what has taken place there?  The stranger listens for a time as they pour out their disappointment to him – how they had thought Jesus was the messiah – the savior — but now it is obvious that he wasn’t. There’s some confusion too:  some of the women had come back from the tomb with a story about a vision of angels, but you know how carried away women can get with their imaginations.

At this point the stranger breaks in with a bit of a rebuke for their failure to pay attention to their Bibles, and he proceeds to teach them the scriptures they thought they knew — how it all pointed to a messiah who would suffer like this.

This part of the story always confused me, because apart from a passage in Isaiah speaking of a “suffering servant,” there isn’t much that explicitly refers to a savior who comes to suffer and die.  A great New Testament scholar named NT Wright helped me here, pointing to the freedom with which God created us.  He suggests Jesus said something like this to the two: “All through the Scriptures God allows God’s people to get into a real mess – slavery, defeat, despair, exile in Babylon in order to do new things.  Isn’t that what the prophets and the psalms were about as well?  Passage after passage in which Israel is promised that God will rescue them from slavery and sin, and sometimes even from death – but first they must go through it enough to get to the other side. Well, supposing that’s what had to happen to the messiah as well?”

Slowly over the course of their walk with this stranger the two begin to consider the possibility that there was a meaning to what has happened after all.  Later they will describe it as “their hearts began to burn within them,” which is to say that the “why” to their lives began to arise once more within them, albeit in a fragile form.    The dark cloud of hopelessness began to lift a bit.

They reach Emmaus and the house in which the two disciples intend to stay the night.  The sun is setting, but the stranger appears quite ready to just keep on heading down the road.  He will continue unless they choose to take some initiative.

Interesting:  they have been blessed by grace in the form of this grace-filled stranger who has come to walk beside them, who through his bible instruction has brought light into their darkness.  They did nothing to orchestrate this visitation of grace.   It just fell in their lap, so to speak.  A gift.  But now the question arises of what will they do in response to this gift?  There is a choice to be made, and to choose not to choose is to choose, which is to say, to let the stranger just head on down the road without considering the possibility that they could invite him in, is, in itself, a choice.

What would have happened if they hadn’t invited him to stay the night with them?  In all likelihood, the possibility arising within their hearts that there was a deeper “why” that made sense of what had happened would have gradually faded away.

Fortunately, they make the right choice – they invite him in, which is not only the right, “hospitable” thing to do but also an expression of gratitude for the grace they have received.

Then, as they sit down to the table to share supper, the guest suddenly takes over the role of host, taking bread which he blesses, breaks and offers them to eat – and the familiarity of this action suddenly opens their eyes, and they recognize Jesus, and then — he vanishes.  He’s gone!  But in that moment the possibility that had been arising within their hearts is permanently confirmed.

The why they now hold as their reason for living  is a very deep one indeed, because it is one that is undeterred by suffering — in fact, suffering is strangely connected to this “why” since the one who they now know to be alive is the very one who suffered in love for them.Recall the words quoted by Viktor Frankl.  “The one who has a why to live can endure any how.” Immediately the two do something that just a few moments earlier would have seemed a very difficult thing to do indeed.  They get up and run seven miles in the dark (where bandits often lay in wait) in order to share what they have experienced to their brothers and sisters back in Jerusalem.

In the “life is a journey” metaphor, the two have come full circle.  They end up where they started, and yet they are all together different inside, and they have made a real difference in the lives of the others to whom they have brought words of great encouragement.

Viktor Frankl’s psycho-analytic theory centered on the belief that a human’s deepest need is for meaning, and that psychotherapy that ignores this quest isn’t getting at the most important thing, would probably have gotten largely ignored, and his book never would have sold millions of copies, except for the story behind the theory.

In 1942 Frankl was a successful, respected young psychiatrist in Vienna, Austria.  He had succeeded in a very big way in the first “why of life.”   His specialty had involved working with people in despair and hopelessness – people who felt an inclination to take their own life — and it was out of this work that he developed his theory about the search for meaning as the centerpiece of psychotherapeutic healing.

And then the Nazis arrested him and his whole family – his parents, wife, and children — and took them to the concentration camp at Auschwitz.   Because he was a bright and physically strong young man he was useful to the Nazis in their brutal labor camp, but his family wasn’t.  So upon arrival at the camp Viktor was separated from his family.  He knew their fate — that they were to be taken to the gas chambers.

Frankl had managed to bring with him his thesis manuscript — the book that represented his life’s work, containing the psychotherapeutic theory he had worked to hard to develop – but now the book was taken from him and burned. — the defining work of his life destroyed.  Everything was taken from him, his family, the identity and profession he had worked so hard to build.  His head was shaved and he was given prison clothes to wear – clothes worn by a previous inmate, recently sent to the gas chamber.

He was at the point of utter despair; how could he go on?  He put his hand in the pocket of the jacket he had been given to wear, and there he found a scrap of paper.  Upon examination he saw that it was a page ripped from a Jewish prayer book, left there by the previous Jew to wear those clothes.  It contained the prayer that is at the very heart of Judaism: “Here O Israel:  The Lord Our God, the Lord Is One.”

The scrap of paper in his pocket was a kind of grace that pointed the way to God, the very source of all real meaning.  It was a gift that demanded a response from him — hat he would embrace his life in the concentration camp as an opportunity to live out the truths about which he had written.

At the core of his philosophy was this central affirmation about human freedom:  “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

It is in embracing this freedom that meaning – the why of life – is found.  He marveled at those few prisoners who, in the harshest of conditions, chose to live a life of service – encouraging his fellow prisoners, sharing their last scrap of bread. They had found a deeper why to live for.  Others, however became all the more self-absorbed.  Frankl wrote, “In the concentration camps, in that living laboratory, we saw some of our comrades behaving like pigs and others behaving like saints. Both alternatives are hidden in a person; and which will be realized depends on decisions and not on conditions”.

He goes on to write, “Our generation is a realistic generation because we have learned what a human being really is. When all is said and done, man is that same creature who invented the gas-chambers of Auschwitz; but he is also that being who walked upright into those chambers with the prayer, “Here O Israel:  The Lord Our God The Lord Is One,” on his lips.

For Frankl, the mysterious discovery of the scrap of prayer left behind from the man who had gone to the gas chambers clinging in his heart to the to what the verse of scripture pointed to, was a gift of grace.  And he chose in his freedom, to respond to that grace.

The two disciples on the road to Emmaus also were given such a grace – in the midst of the horror of what human beings are capable – the beloved Leader – nailed to the cross —  a stranger came alongside them, and in interpreting the Scriptures, gave them a new way of seeing their lives, a bit of hope.  And they said yes by inviting him into their homes, and then their hearts.

This is what I would leave you with.  Pay attention to the gifts of grace that fall unexpected in your lap.  They come in a myriad of forms, but however they come, they are a blessing.  And having taken note of this gifts of grace, consciously choose to say yes to this grace – to offer yourselves as an expression of God’s grace in this world to others.

We are about to sing the greatly popular hymn, “In the Garden.”  I have a love/hate relation to this hymn.  I love the tune – how easy it is to give yourself over to it in singing — and I enjoy the rich imagery.  But on the other hand, it has often struck me a little over the top in sentimentality.  I researched a little something about the author of the hymn.  His name is C. Austin Miles, and he was a druggist turned hymn writer from, of all places Pitman, New Jersey.  They hymn arose from a flight of imagination as he put himself back there at the garden of the tomb where Mary Magdalene came in her grief to be astonished by her risen Lord, calling her by name.  His granddaughter wrote that the song was written “in a cold, dreary and leaky basement in Pitman, New Jersey that didn’t even have a window in it let alone a view of a garden.”

For me, it is the final verse that redeems this hymn from sentimentality. “But He bids me go; through the voice of woe, His voice to me is calling.” The song acknowledges the powerful voice of woe in this world – the pervasive sense of hopelessness – and yet asserts a voice calling through the woe – the voice of Jesus calling us to follow him, to find our meaning in serving him in every person we meet.

John 20:19 – 31 Holding On with the Help of Others Until We Can See the Big Picture

Filed under: Pastor Jeff's Sermons — Pastor Jeff at 10:58 pm on Sunday, April 23, 2017

Jeff and Ryan

A sermon preached April 23rd, 2017 — the Second Sunday in Easter — based upon John 20:19 – 31.

I’ve mentioned in the past that one of my favorite authors is a wise old woman named Rachel Naomi Remen.  Rachel overcame a chronic illness — Crohn’s disease — that doctors told her would take her life by the age of  40.  She was determined to become a medical doctor, which she succeeded in becoming, but midway through her career, having become aware of what might be called the spiritual dimension of healing, she shifted her focus to counseling patients with life threatening disease, and working with doctors to recognize the mysterious dimensions of healing that aren’t given much attention in medical school.  She has written two books that are a collection of little stories with reflections that are some of my favorite books, and I want to begin this morning by telling a little story recorded in “Kitchen Table Wisdom” that was shared by a doctor she calls Tim at one of the conferences she holds for medical practitioners.

He said that his father had been diagnosed early on with Alzheimer’s disease, by early I mean when Tim was just a young boy.

Rachel writes, “Despite the devoted care of Tim’s mother, he had slowly deteriorated until he had become a sort of walking vegetable.  He was unable to speak and was fed, clothed, and cared for as if he were a very young child.  As Tim and his brother grew older, they would stay with their father for brief periods of time while their mother took care of the needs of the household.  One Sunday, while she was out doing the shopping, the boys, then fifteen and seventeen, watched football as their father sat nearby in a chair.  Suddenly, he slumped forward and fell to the floor.  Both sons realized immediately that something was terribly wrong.  His color was gray and his breath uneven and rasping.  Frightened, Tim’s older brother told him to call 911.  Before he could respond, a voice he had not heard in years, a voice he could barely remember, interrupted.  “Don’t call 911, son.  Tell your mother that I love her.  Tell her that I am all right.”  And Tim’s father died.

Tim, a cardiologist, looked around the room at the group of doctors mesmerized by this story.  “Because he died unexpectedly at home, the law required that we have an autopsy,” he told us quietly.  “My father’s brain was almost entirely destroyed by this disease.  For many years, I have asked, ‘Who spoke?’  I have never found even the slightest help from any medical textbook.  I am no closer to knowing this now than I was then, but carrying this question with me reminds me of something important, something I do not want to forget.  Much of life can never be explained but only witnessed.”

I begin with this story because when we speak of the Resurrection, what we are speaking of is a mystery – not something that can be explained, only witnessed.

One of the peculiarities of the story we just heard is the mystery of Jesus’ resurrected body. He has a body that can be touched, and yet it is also a body that is capable, as apparently it did in this morning’s two appearances, of passing through walls.  At certain moments he is easily recognized, at others not so at first, as was the case last week in the story with Mary Magdalene.

In 1Corinthians 15 the Apostle Paul speaks of this mystery when he writes of how in this life we possess a physical body, made of dust, subject to decay, but in death, our bodies are like seeds planted in the earth, which God raises up with new, spiritual bodies that are truly whole and can not die.

For the Jews from whom we inherit our faith, there is no true life except for “bodily” life.  The Jews in Jesus’ day seemed to have believed in what are referred to as “ghosts” – disembodied “spirits”— but from their point of view, being a “ghost” was a truly pathetic form of existence.  What kind of life is that?  To be alive is to have a body — one that can experience the goodness of creation.

Even the notion we are familiar with of the “immortal soul” made no sense to the Jews.  The “immortal soul” is a notion from Greek philosophy, not the ancient Hebrew faith.  To be alive, to be a person, was to inhabit a body.

It seems to me that the mysterious story that the doctor told of his father’s death points towards this mystery of what Paul called the “spiritual body.”  The story the doctor tells suggests that as his father came to the moment of his death, he was transitioning from his physical body with it’s decaying brain cells into his spiritual body, and it was his dad who had begun to inhabit his spiritual body that spoke to him — the dad that was finally being made truly whole — expressing his love for their mother, and his assurance that in death he truly was well.

I’ve heard other stories like this – and perhaps some of you could tell similar stories – of people holding vigil at the bedside of someone they love, when suddenly, just before the loved one died, they woke up from what had appeared to be a coma, opened their eyes, and with a lucidity they had not recently possessed spoke clearly, perhaps words expressing their love for you, or words describing what they were seeing from the realm of what we call “heaven”.

If you listen carefully to how John described Jesus’ appearance to those frightened disciples huddled together behind locked doors, there seems to be a moment of stunned silence when the disciples aren’t sure what it is they are seeing as Jesus appears to them and says, “Peace be with you.”  Is this some kind of ghost?

So John adds this:  “After (Jesus) said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.” It was as if Jesus were saying, “look – see — I really do have a body.  It’s really me, not just a ghost.”

One of the striking details of the story is that the marks of the crucifixion remain on the spiritual body of Jesus.  In showing them his hands and his side, he is showing the disciples (and later Thomas) the wounds where the nails pierced his hands, and the wound where the spear pierced his side.

This might seem odd – shouldn’t the resurrection body be whole, with all the wounds taken away?

And yet, in this case, the wounds have now become something beautiful.  Not only are they the proof that this is the same Jesus that they loved before — they are also signs of his love for them – reminders of his willingness to suffer and die on their behalf.

What was once horrific, has now become something beautiful.

So, for whatever reason, the disciple Thomas wasn’t present in that upper room when Jesus first appeared Easter night to his disciples.  The other disciples tell him what they have seen, but he won’t believe them, and who can blame him?

Thomas truly loved Jesus, and he is in the midst of what we might now call post traumatic stress disorder.  The horror of the wounds of Jesus that led to his death are still emblazoned in his mind, and it is going to take more than his friends telling him he no longer needs to be so traumatized for him to move from death to life.

Just a quick observation: there is room in the circle of the disciples’ fellowship for Thomas, even though he won’t believe what they believe.  They don’t tell him, “Oh, you won’t believe what we believe?  Then get out of here!”  No, he is fully welcomed in their fellowship.  They love him exactly where he is.  They don’t require him to be where they are on their journey.

Time passes.  Eight days.  Once more the disciples are together, and this time Thomas is with them.   And mysteriously Jesus appears once more to give Thomas what he needs – to move him from his state of trauma to the peace of faith.

One of my “go to” passages in the Bible is 1Corinthians 13, where the Apostle Paul talks about love being the most important thing — the only thing that never ends.  At the end of that chapter Paul writes these words:  “For we know only in part (that is in the present moment of this journey through life) but when the complete comes (that is, when we reach the end of our life) the partial will come to an end… For now we see in a mirror, dimly…” (In those days, mirrors weren’t what they are today.  They were just a polished piece of metal.  You looked into what they called mirrors and you could see only the dimmest reflection of your face) but then (again, when we reach the end of our lives and stand before God) we will see face to face.  Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

It is impossible to grasp the full meaning of our lives in any given moment along the way.  We cannot see “the big picture” – how the parts all fit together, like a tapestry of seemingly ill-fitting pieces which, when woven together create something extraordinarily beautiful.

When the other disciples tell Thomas that they have seen the Lord alive again, he isn’t there yet.  He sees not the “big picture,” but only the “smaller picture”, the one that begins and ends with the torture and death of the man he has loved and devoted his life to.

But sometimes in the course of our journey we reach a moment when we look back on where we’ve come from, and see a meaning we couldn’t grasp at the time.

(Another of Rachel’s stories that often refer to is of the middle aged woman who as a teenager had suffered through an eating disorder.  Little was understood in those days regarding this illness, and she remembers thinking that she wished she could meet someone who had gone through what she was suffering and made it to the other side.

She began attending a support group of mostly young, very thin women.  She said very little in the group, only that she had once suffered the same illness.  Mostly she just listened.  She was taken aback when at the end of a meeting a young woman came up to her with tears in her eyes and thanked her for being a part of the group.  She felt embarrassed – she didn’t even know the girl’s name and couldn’t remember having an individual interaction with her.  It was only later, with a profound sense of wonder that she realized:  “I have become the person I needed to meet.”

This past week I was given a moment to grasp something more of the big picture of my life.  I had the opportunity to go back to the place where I spent my first seven years in ministry after I graduated from seminary — two little country churches out in Hunterdon County. I was invited back by the family and the present pastor of a lovely woman named Ethel who had died after 95 years of life to share in the officiating of her funeral.

There had been a part of me that over the 28 years since I had left those churches that had been reluctant to return.  My seven years there were some of the most difficult of my life – not because of my congregations – but because of my own personal inner turmoil. When I arrived I had so wanted to feel like a real grown up, like I had it all together – but I didn’t have it all together, and often I felt like I was play acting – pretending to be what I thought a pastor was supposed to look like.

I’d never lived out in the country, and I arrived there single and quite lonely, and three years into my tenure my loneliness led me to enter an ill-conceived marriage after a courtship of just six month.  The whole community had gathered to pack one of the little country churches to celebrate the wedding.  Nineteen months after the wedding I was blessed by the birth of Andrew, my beloved first-born child, but just eight months after his birth my wife moved out of the parsonage, with the separation eventually leading to a divorce.

My parents had gotten divorced, and with some arrogance I had been determined that I would never do the same.  “Love… is not arrogant,” said the Apostle Paul, and I was humbled in my time out there in the country, and being humbled isn’t fun.

When the possibility arose in my mind that my marriage would end in divorce, the thought that arose alongside was that such an outcome would mean the end of my ministry — that it would expose me as a fraud and envelop me in shame.

For quite some time as my marriage deteriorated I had been quietly withdrawing from people.  But as the separation came to pass, people like Ethel reached out to me with unconditional love, and also practical help and support as I spent a great deal of time parenting my very young son, an exhausting and consuming task in itself.  I opened up to people, and loved in my brokenness, I experienced for the first time the true meaning of grace.

This is who you got 28 years ago when I arrived here.  I was grateful to move on – to start a new chapter so to speak.  And to a large extent I had avoided returning there, because I didn’t want to be reminded of the pain I experienced there.

As the years have passed, doubts I had about my vocation to be a pastor gave way to a deep sense of confidence as I grew into  my calling.  I am no longer a child trying to play a part, but a pastor with frailties easily acknowledged trusting in the power of God’s grace revealed in the crucified and risen Christ to work through my weaknesses.  I have become the pastor I needed when I was trying to play act the role of pastor.

So I spent Tuesday, which if you recall was an exquisitely beautiful day, back in the country community where I spent those painful seven years.  As I took in the beauty of the countryside, I also came to recognize something beautiful in the wounds I had endured in my time there. I saw a bit of the bigger picture of my life – the larger view that was pretty hard to see when I was back in the thick of it.   I sensed that as hard as that time was for me, it was an essential part of my journey; a time of humbling that allowed me to discover the true nature of my calling.

Sabitha interviewed Amy Gripp and I appreciated in the write up how Amy described my ministry.  “Jeff doesn’t preach at us; rather, he walks beside us.”  I like that. I know that my ministry is not based upon my somehow achieving a place above you on some moral ladder.  I am just another sinner, just like you, saved by grace. We’re in this together.

So we all know something of the crucifixion of Jesus in the crosses we are called to bear in this life, and hopefully, if we can hang in there, put one foot in front of another, walking by faith when we can’t see the signs of God’s grace, or letting others have faith for us when our faith seems to falters, we reach a day when we realize that it is the resurrection rather than the crucifixion that is the deeper reality.

John 20:1-19 It is in the Deep Darkness that Resurrection Occurs

Filed under: Pastor Jeff's Sermons — Pastor Jeff at 10:15 pm on Sunday, April 16, 2017

Jeff and Good NewsA sermon preached on April 16, 2017 – Easter Sunday – based upon John 20:1-19.

In the account of the first Easter that you just heard from John’s Gospel, there are three disciples who come to the tomb in the morning.  Mary Magdalene (and yes, Mary Magdalene was a disciple), Peter, and an unnamed third disciple, quote, “the one whom Jesus loved.”

I must admit, I find “the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved,” a little irritating. Didn’t Jesus love all his disciples?  Of course he did.

John’s Gospel is a truly profound witness to the good news, but even so, there is this favoritism that crops up from time to time regarding the so-called “beloved disciple”.  The reason — which the Gospel writer won’t come right out and say — is that the beloved disciple is John, and this Gospel arose out of the church associated with the Apostle John.  So there is a little PR work mixed in here, as in “we got the best Apostle around!”

This disciple can’t seem to do anything wrong.  He is there at the cross comforting Jesus’ mom when all the other male disciples have fled. In the story you just heard, this disciple comes running with Peter to check out the report of Mary – that the tomb is empty and Jesus’ body is gone — and of course we hear that this guy is a faster runner than Peter, so he gets to the tomb first.   Apparently he is younger than Peter and, out of respect for his elder – even his manners are impeccable! – he doesn’t enter, waiting instead for the older Peter to have the honor of being the first to enter.

Peter goes inside and John tells us what he saw.  Jesus’ body isn’t there, but the grave clothes in which Jesus had been wrapped are, and the cloth that had covered his head is rolled up nicely and placed apart from the rest of the grave clothes.  Peter sees all this but it doesn’t seem to mean anything to him.

The other disciple who is not only Jesus’ favorite and a better runner than Peter (and probably better looking too) apparently is also a better Sherlock Holmes.  He takes one glance at the supposed crime scene and recognizes something odd.  If someone stole the body, why would they go to the trouble of leaving behind the grave clothes?  And why would they bother to roll the head cover up so nicely?

John tells us that this is all it takes for the “other” disciple to “believe.” We aren’t told exactly what he believes, but the impression we’re left with is that the first flowers of faith have begun popping up in the fertile soil of his heart.

Apparently he’s not just Jesus’ favorite – younger, faster, and smarter — but faith comes more easily to him as well.  It’s like he’s the teacher’s pet or something.  He can do no wrong.

There are some of you here today for whom faith comes easily.  You’ve never really been plagued by doubts.  In life, you naturally see the cup half full.  You wake up each morning sensing the presence of God.  You manage to keep on the sunny-side, always on the sunny-side of life, even when it’s cloudy out.

Who knows, you might even be a fast runner.

We are very blessed to have you, because you make this church a lot brighter.

So maybe John is the guy you identify with in the story.

But I am personally grateful that the Gospel writer ultimately takes a lot more time with the other two characters, in large part because faith doesn’t come so easily for them.

There’s old Peter. Frankly, I identify more with Peter.   His frailty is familiar to me. (Earlier this week I had to do a little running in the first Old Guy Softball Game of the season and my legs hurt for three days afterwards.)

Peter’s far from perfect.  He’s so determined that he won’t desert Jesus, but he ends up doing so anyway, denying him three times when fear floods his heart.  (When Jesus got arrested, the “disciple who Jesus loved” fled just like all the rest of the male disciples, but we don’t get fair and balanced reporting on this particular fact.)

Peter has regrets. He knows the voice of self-condemnation.   Unlike, “the beloved disciple,” faith doesn’t seem to come so easily for Peter. We find him later that day in the very same upper room where Jesus had told him he would in fact deny him three times before that terrible night was through.  He’s huddled together with other male disciples, linked together not by a common faith but by mutual fear and self-condemnation, hiding behind locked doors.

We’ll return to Peter and the others in a little while, but first let’s consider the third character, Mary Magdalene.  She’s really the central character in this morning’s story (well, other than Jesus of course.) The Gospel takes some time and care in telling her Easter morning story.

The story begins, “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb.” The other Gospels that tell the story have it begin as the first daylight breaks, but here the story begins in darkness, both literally and symbolically.

The other Gospels have Mary accompanied by other women; here, though she is all alone – again both literally and symbolically.  So alone – in such deep darkness.

And unlike the other Gospels where the women have come to the tomb with a job to do – to anoint the body of Jesus – here Mary seems to be just wandering around in the darkness, just trying to get close to Jesus’ lifeless body.

So Mary somehow arrives at the tomb and all she can really see in the dark is that the big stone that had sealed the tomb shut has been rolled away.  You and I know that this is in fact the first sign of the good news – but for Mary the conclusion she quickly draws is that this even more bad news.  Somebody has stolen Jesus’ body! – just another sign of the cruelty and callousness of this world.

Mary runs to tell the male disciples, which brings Peter and John running, with Mary in a daze, trailing behind.  The sun is up by the time they reach the tomb.  Peter and John go inside to investigate, after which they depart.

Mary is left there outside the tomb, lost, alone, crying — like an abandoned pup sticking close to the last place she saw her master.

For the first time Mary bends down to look inside.  And what does she see?  Two angels sitting there, where once Jesus’ body lay.  You might think that seeing angels would trigger a spark of wonder, at least some tiny bit of hope.

But the sight doesn’t penetrate the darkness at all.

To Mary, it’s like she’s arrived too late to the hospital room of her loved one, and her beloved, having already died — has been taken away — down into the bowels of the hospital, to a morgue somewhere, and the angels are to her nothing more than a couple of hospital orderlies changing the bed sheets.  She is fixated on the hard truth she thinks she knows, and in response to their question of why she is crying, she answers, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”

She turns around.  There’s a man standing there.   Again you and I know it’s Jesus.  Shouldn’t this be the moment that the light breaks into the darkness?  He’s standing right there in front of her.

But Mary can’t recognize him, and her weeping does not abate.  She thinks he must be the gardener.  Jesus speaks to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?”

Mary knows the sound of Jesus’ voice – she’s heard it many, many times before — shouldn’t this be enough to awaken her from the horrible nightmare she’s living?  No, it isn’t.  The dark abyss is just too deep.

Mary wants this stranger to give her directions to the morgue: “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”

This is crazy talk.  Even if she could manage to locate the lifeless body of her Lord, does she think she is going to carry him away, all by herself?  And to where, exactly?

John has conjured up a seriously deep darkness — one Mary on her own is helpless to penetrate.

Finally the one word is spoken that breaks through the darkness.  Jesus calls her by name, “Mary!” and in hearing her name spoken by the one who loves her more than any other, Mary steps from death to life.  “Rabbouni!” she cries, claiming her identity as a disciple of the Lord.

Jesus says to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” ’ And so Mary runs off the proclaim the glad tidings, ‘I have seen the Lord!”

Mary, of all people, the one who had dwelt in such deep darkness becomes the first witness to the light of the resurrection – the first to testify the Good News – that Jesus and his love are more powerful that the powers of death and destruction.

It is with Mary that some of us here this morning will most readily identify with in the story.   You have known the deep darkness.  You’ve been there, maybe you’re there now.  This story is for you.

Curiously, it is when darkness returns later that evening, “on the first day of the week”, when Peter and other terrified disciples are huddled behind locked doors in darkness, that Jesus once more appears.  The locked doors can’t hold him out.  Suddenly he stands in the midst of them, saying, “Peace be with you.”

If we find ourselves at times walled in helplessly by a fear and despair we can’t escape, this story is for us.  It speaks of the power of God’s love to come to us in those places we feel powerless to escape.

Unlike our human love, God’s love can get to places we sometimes can’t reach — through locked doors and closed hearts, breathing peace and new life into frightened, paralyzed persons.

But here in the bright light of day – this beautiful Easter morning – let me say a good word about darkness.

We often overlook the fact that in all the Gospel accounts, the actual event is never described, by which I mean the resurrection itself.  We aren’t told of that moment when miraculously, Jesus’ dead body suddenly was filled once more with life – a life that cannot die.  It happens, unseen in the darkness of that tomb.

Consider some other places of darkness where mysteries of creation take place:

*the chrysalis, where the caterpillar retreats into darkness to be transformed into the beauty of a butterfly.

*a seed buried in the earth — one of Jesus’ favorite images – unseen in the darkness, where mysteriously it breaks open to sprout with the beginnings of a great harvest.

*the darkness of a womb – the place where each of us here today slowly grew towards that moment of our birth.

And consider the very first sentence of the Bible describing the first day of the week of creation itself – a sentence the Gospel writer intends to call to mind with his story of resurrection:

“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep.”

The first Creation came forth from darkness, and so does the new creation that is Easter morning.

So if you happen to find yourself in a time of darkness — take heart.  Christ has risen!  God is with you.  Darkness is where God gives birth to new life.

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