Rise: A Sermon on Everyday Resurrections – June 9, 2013

nain - tissot-resurrection-nain777x561When I was a kid, I knew exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up: I really wanted to be a pilot. I was convinced that I was going to go to one of the service academies and then I was going to learn to fly. My bedroom had pictures of airplanes on the walls, and I even was a Civil Air Patrol cadet. I knew that flying was going to be my life.

But one day, when I was about 12, I went to the eye doctor. And he was asking me about school and what I wanted to do when I grew up, and I told him that I wanted to be a pilot. And he immediately said, “But you can’t be a pilot…you don’t have 20/20 eyesight!”

I was heartbroken. It sounds so trivial now, but at age 12, I really thought my life was over. And in a way, it was…not my actual life, but the life that I had always seen myself living.

Today’s reading from the Gospel is about something more serious. It’s about a young man whose life, to everyone who knew him, literally seemed to be over. He is walking into a town and he runs into a funeral procession. A young man has died, and he’s being carried out of town.

And the man’s mother, who is also a widow, is weeping. And Jesus sees her and he says “don’t cry”. He goes and touches the platform they are carrying the body on and he says “young man, I say to you, rise”. And the man sat up, and started to talk.

Scripture says the crowd was “seized with fear”. That’s fair. If I saw that at a funeral I’d probably be a little afraid too. But then, when the shock wore off, they all began to praise God and to understand who Jesus was and what he was capable of doing. And slowly the news about Jesus began to spread.

The Christian faith is centered around the concept of resurrection. It’s why Easter is the most important day of the church year for Christians. Jesus himself defeats the grave, and lives again. And we tend to think that resurrection is something that happened only to Jesus.

But then there are stories like this, where resurrection happens to someone else. It’s still because of Jesus, but it’s not Jesus. And someone whose life was over, rises again. There are a few examples of this in Scripture, where Jesus brings new life where it seemed like there was no hope.

But the really good news for you and I is that resurrection doesn’t have to be so dramatic or literal as someone rising again from the dead. Most often, resurrection happens when we think that there is no hope. It happens when we feel like our lives are over. It happens when we think, “I’m as good as dead”.

But this is such a huge part of what it means to know Christ. It means that when our life feels like it’s over, God’s love and grace somehow get the last word, and we find that we somehow live again.

Sometimes that’s in small ways. I told you that story about how I wanted to be a pilot as a kid and one eye exam crushed those dreams. I look back now, and am thankful that’s not the route I took. It’s clear that, though my 12 year old self thought my life was over, God had other plans. And, frankly, better plans.

(And, to tell you the truth, now as an adult I don’t really like flying. I hate running into turbulence on a airliner, so being a military pilot probably wouldn’t have worked out so well.)

But there are more serious examples of resurrection too. When I lived in Nashville I learned about a ministry founded by an Episcopal priest there. They reached out to women who had been sex workers. Some had begun to be trafficked when they were only 11, 12, or 13 years old. They had known unspeakable violence, dehumanization and abuse, and many had turned to alcohol or drugs as the only way to deal with that trauma. Some had as many as ninety arrests. Most had come to believe that there was no other life they could live, and there was no hope.

But this priest said to them “there’s a way out. There was no judgement, no condemnation. Just hope. And the women moved into community together, and they got sober, and then they started working together on building a business called Thistle Farms. They made candles, bath soaps, lotions, and more. And they were able to learn a new way to support themselves, and to give back to the other women in the community. And the program has something like a 90% success rate, which is unheard of in recovery programs.

In the eyes of society, in the eyes of everyone who saw them, even in their own eyes, these women were as good as dead. And yet, what has happened to them is nothing short of a resurrection. What has happened to them is what happens when Jesus says “rise”, and you can do no other.

Maybe you’re hearing this story and you’re thinking “that’s pretty incredible, but my life isn’t that dramatic”. And maybe you’re also thinking one of two things: first, that you don’t have any need for resurrection. Or, second, that you do but for whatever reason resurrection can’t happen to you.

To the first point, I’m convinced that at some point in all of our lives we will need resurrection. Whether it’s fighting back from being sick, or getting out of a relationship that’s not good for us, or climbing back after losing a job or a business, or living again after grief, or recovering from addiction, or just finding hope when it feels like we are as good as dead…we will all need resurrection at some point. And if you haven’t needed it yet, or if you’re not needing it now, I hope you never will. But my guess is that at some level, at some point, we all do.

And the second issue is that you might think it can’t happen to you. You might look around and see other people climbing back from something. You might think that things change for them, but not for you. And you might think that you are too far gone to deserve the grace and the hope that others are receiving.

But grace and hope come regardless of whether or not we deserve them. They come because God loves us, and because God is capable of bringing resurrection to us no matter what. And sometimes, it’s just a matter of recognizing that resurrection when it comes.

Sometimes that’s hard to do. When the young man first sits back up, Scripture tells us that the people all around him are “seized with fear”. That’s fair. If I went to a funeral and the guy I was there to remember sat back up I’d probably be seized with fear too. But then they realize what happened and who did it and slowly they begin to glorify God, and to tell everyone that they know.

When resurrection happens in our own lives, it’s often less dramatic than a guy sitting up at his own funeral. But that doesn’t mean that it scares us any less. It’s pretty easy to be “seized with fear” when we suddenly see signs of new life.

Maybe that’s happened to you too. Maybe you have seen something start to turn around, and it has scared you to death. Maybe you weren’t expecting it, and now that things are changing it means that you actually have to respond and get involved and get excited. And maybe you have found that resurrection is sometimes both wonderful and highly inconvenient.

A friend of mine was diagnosed with HIV in the “bad old days” when anyone who was given that diagnosis was not expected to survive for long. And so he did what a lot of others he knew were doing at the time: he prepared to die. He quit his job, moved away, spent all his money, drank heavily, and got ready for the end. He didn’t think it would take long.

But then something happened. His doctor had him try out a mix of new medications. It was called a cocktail. And he started to get better. He still had the virus, but he was not as sick. And then he started to get to a place where it became clear he wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon. And then the virus became virtually undetectable.

He realized he was going to live. Resurrection was happening. But almost in the same breath he realized that that meant he had change the way he was living. He’d been so busy preparing for death that now he had to go back out and get a job, and save some money, and stop drinking, and start making plans for what was now clearly a long future. And it terrified him. He was “seized with fear”. But slowly, with God’s grace, he started to rebuild. And he worked to create his own resurrection. And I look at his life now, and it’s pretty incredible. It’s as though Jesus has been standing there, saying “rise”, and he could do no other.

When resurrection comes to you, my guess is that at first it will look mighty inconvenient. And it is. Because you haven’t been expecting it. And you might be “seized with fear”. That’s okay. Feel the fear, and then participate in your own resurrection, building something new with God. You may have thought your life was over, that you were as good as dead, but God has other plans.

They might surprise you, or frustrate you, or throw everything you expected off, but in the end, you may find yourself praising God’s love and grace in ways you never expected. Resurrection is real. I know, because I’ve heard about it, I’ve seen it, and I’ve lived it. And it’s frightening. And it changes everything. But it is always worth it. Always.

Jesus once said, and he says to us still: Rise. Amen.

The Second Part of the Christmas Story: A sermon for Christmas Eve, 2012

603196_10151146235676787_1936348159_nEvery year, on Christmas eve, we tell the same story. We read a passage from the Bible, usually the one I just read from Luke, and we remember what happened one night over 2,000 years ago. You can probably tell it with me:

A census was being taken. And there was an unmarried couple named Joseph and Mary who were about to give birth. They had to go and be counted, and so they journeyed to Bethlehem. But when they got there, there was no room in the inn. And so Mary had the baby out in a manger. Not long after, the angels went to the shepherds and announced the birth, and they came and saw the baby there. And the baby was named Jesus.

We know this story. But every year we read it anyway. And, not to take away the suspense, but if you come back here a year from tonight, we’ll be reading it again.

Part of the reason is that it’s the only one we have. A lot of people have asked me during the course of ministry, why does the Bible end when it does? We have the New Testament with all these books written back in the first and second centuries, but then we have nothing. It’s almost as if the story ends. We don’t get an update each Christmas on what’s going on. We don’t get a Christmas letter filled with news from Jesus. We don’t get a new version of the Bible delivered every December. And so every year we read this story again.

You might be wondering, what’s the point? The story never changes. And if you’re talking about the words found here in the Gospel that we read every year, you’re right. But if you’re talking about the real story, the bigger story, the story about Christ’s birth and what came next, then that’s different. Because the Christmas story does change from year to year, and I’ll tell you why: The Christmas story changes, because we, you and I, change.

You know that question about why the printed story ends in this book? I think it’s because of this. I think it’s because this book tells the story of Christ’s first followers, back when there were only a few. But not long after this, a lot of other people got to know about Christ, and got to know the story of the first Christmas. And if we told the stories of all the people who have come to understand what the baby born that night was all about, if we tried to write them all down, one book would not contain them.

The national denomination this church is a part of, the United Church of Christ, has a motto that we use. We say, “God is still speaking…” And by that we mean that God did not stop being active in our world and in our lives 2,000 years ago. We mean that God still is working in this world. God still is transforming it, and transforming us. God isn’t just in the past. God is here now.

And we, the people of a still speaking God, are still listening. And we are still hearing the stories, not just ones written so long ago, but also ones all around us. And even if this story we hear on Christmas eve every year isn’t changing, we are. And the most miraculous part of it is this: If we are really changing, if we are really being transformed by God’s love for us, then we are becoming people who not only listen to the Christmas story but who also become a part of it ourselves.

If you are truly want to get to know that baby who was born 2,000 years ago, if you truly want to follow the person he grew up to become, then you cannot help being changed. And you cannot help becoming a part of his story. And that means you cannot avoid becoming part of the greater Christmas story, a story of hope, and peace, and joy, and love.

And that’s a good thing. Because the world needs all of those things in abundance right now. The past few weeks, we’ve seen that so clearly. One of the reasons that I believe the Christmas story still matters for us is that I believe God cannot be done with us if we are still inflicting pain on each other. God cannot be done with this world. And that means that God’s people cannot be done working to transform it either.

And that means that you and I, the people who come to celebrate the birth of a child so long ago, have some work to do. And we have a story waiting for us to become a part of it. The child born tonight grew up to be a man who told us to live lives of peace. Who told us to love our neighbors as ourselves. Who told us to turn away from things that ultimately mean little, and instead turn to what really matters; to turn our hearts towards God and towards one another.

This time of the year, we sing a lot of carols about that child. We celebrate in ways we don’t the rest of the year. And we talk about things like peace, and joy, and hope. But if we really mean it, if we really want to be a part of this Christmas story, then we can’t pack those things away next week along with the wrapping paper and the ornaments. We have to be a part of this story every day, and not just every December.

If we are truly doing that, then we will have incredible stories to share ourselves. Stories of kindness and compassion where they were totally unexpected. Stories of generosity in times of scarcity. Stories of peace in a time of violence. Stories of hope in our darkest hours.

What if you were to tell the second part of the Christmas story tonight? What if you were to read this passage we read tonight, and then you were to say, and here’s my second part. Here’s my story about what happened next. Here’s my story about how the love and life of this child born tonight has changed me. Here’s what happened when this Gospel story and my life’s story intersected, and everything changed. The story is the starting point. But you are what happens next.

Christmas is not just about the story of Christ being born in a manger 2,000 years ago. Christmas is about the story of Christ’s love being born in our hearts everyday. And it’s the story of how you respond. Not just tonight, and not just tomorrow, but everyday.

Next December 24th, I invite you to all join us back here once again. Here’s a spoiler: We’ll be reading the same story. But it’s just the start of the story, and between this year and next year, your Christmas story will have changed. And the more that you open your hearts up to Christ’s love this year, the more you let it be born inside of you, the better that story, your story, will be next year. May Christ’s light shine in your hearts brightly this Christmas eve, and may it shine ever brighter in your lives, and in our world, all through the year.  Amen.

“You Are My Witnesses” – Sermon for April 22, 2012

When you hear the word “witness”, what’s the first thing you think about? For most of us it’s about some sort of a trial. The witness for the prosecution. The witness for the defense. Or maybe someone quoted in a newspaper as the witness to some news-worthy event. Witness is generally just a term for us that means, “someone who saw what happened”.

 

I had to be a witness once. It wasn’t for a criminal trial or anything that serious. I had stopped to help someone after I saw a fairly minor car accident. No one was hurt, but the two drivers disagreed about who was at fault and the police asked me exactly what happened. I stood there trying to remember every little detail. I didn’t want to give the wrong information and then let the wrong people be at fault.

 

It’s a hard job. You know that you have the responsibility to tell the truth about what happened, and you want to make sure you’re doing it right.

 

What’s true for minor traffic accidents is even more true when it comes to our faith. Last week we read one account of what happened when Jesus appeared to his disciples. We read about how he appeared to them and showed his wounds, and they all believed. Except for poor Thomas who showed up late.

 

That was John’s account. This morning we read Luke’s, who mercifully let’s Thomas off the hook. Instead he talks about how Jesus came and, far from the instant belief the disciples professed last week, they were terrified. They acted like they had seen a ghost. And Jesus asks them, “Why are you frightened?” He reassures them that he is not a ghost and he even has them give him some fish so that he can eat and prove it.

 

And then, when they’ve started to believe it’s really him, he goes back to doing what he had done the whole time he knew them. He teaches. He tells them why what happened happened, and how his life and death fulfilled the Scriptures. And he tells them that he is the Messiah and is risen, and that now forgiveness should be proclaimed to all.

 

And then he tells them one last thing: “You are witnesses of these things.”

 

Now being a witness the way the disciples were asked to be a witness is a little different than the witness I was. The police officer came and I gave the report of what happened, and she asked how they could call me if the case went to trial. I gave my number, but I never heard from them again. That day I got back in my car and went about my way, and I assume it all worked out. I haven’t really thought about it since.

 

But for the disciples, when Jesus told them that day that they were witnesses, something else happened. They couldn’t walk away. They couldn’t forget. They couldn’t just give their police report and wait for a call to testify that may or may not come. Witnesses couldn’t be passive. They were now a part of the story.

 

The Biblical word for witnesses, the word in the original Greek, is “martureo”. It’s the same word that we know today as “martyr”. Originally to be a “martyr” was to be a “witness”. And through the centuries we’ve come to associate the word with dying for a cause, usually dying for the faith.

 

There’s a reason for that. So many of the early Christians, including many of these disciples, ended up dying for their witness, literally dying for their belief. And so when we hear martyr now we think of someone who paid the ultimate price.

 

But this isn’t about being killed for your belief. Thankfully we live in a country where we have freedom of belief and no one is going to kill us for being Christians. But that doesn’t mean this isn’t still hard. Because this is about you or I dying. Not in the literal sense. But it is about a death of another kind. This is about dying to our own selfishness, our own passiveness, our own pursuit for lives of comfort instead of lives of meaning. This is about dying to the worse parts of ourselves and instead finding life in Christ.

 

This is about choosing to live your life as a witness. Not the kind of witness who can go home and forget about it after the police report is filed, but the kind of witness that the disciples were called to be. The kind that not only sees what happened, not only tells what happened, but who is so transformed by what happened that they can’t help but become a new person because of it. They can’t help but act like a person who has seen this risen Lord. And their lives and actions reflect it.

 

When you think of witnesses to Christ, who do you think of? Are they the early disciples? Are they figures from church history like Martin Luther? Are they Christians from the last hundred years who have done great things like Mother Theresa or Martin Luther King?

 

Those are all witnesses to the risen Christ. No doubt. But they aren’t the only ones.

 

You don’t have to get front page headlines to be a good witness to Christ. In fact, in most cases those might work against you. Instead, you just have to do this: you have to live your life in such a way that others look at you and see God’s grace and love at work  in you.

 

You don’t have to do something great in the sense of feeding a nation or winning civil rights or starting the Protestant Reformation. You just need to do the small things with a great love for Christ.

 

Your purpose in life, in everything you do, is to remember Christ’s call to the disciples, and to you: you are witnesses. You are the ones who tell the story of Christ’s grace and love.

 

That’s true in the way you raise your kids, and the way you love your family. That’s true in the way you work, and the way you volunteer. That’s true in how you treat your neighbors. That’s true in the way you decide to use the things God has given you. How you use your talents. How you spend your money. How you share your excess. That’s true in every choice that you make.

 

It’s going to look different for each of us. Growing up I’d hear about classmates of mine in more fundamentalist churches who would go “witnessing for Christ” door to door. They’d knock on doors and try to convert whoever answered, usually by preaching fire and brimstone That wasn’t the kind of witness I wanted to be.

 

Later I come to understand that being a witness to Christ seldom involved words, but always involved actions. I understood that being a witness to Christ meant living into the greatest commandments: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.

 

It means that in this world that so often feels like Good Friday, I’m supposed to witness to Easter with my life. I’m supposed to witness that the destruction and hate and fear of the world do not win, and that God has created new life where there was no hope, and grace where there was none.

 

That’s my calling. And that’s yours too. Because that’s the calling, that’s the job, of every Christian.

 

The other night the deacons met and we talked about how we could be witnesses to Christ’s resurrection in our community. We talked about how we want to be a church that exists not just for ourselves, but for everyone here in the valley, whether they worship with us or not. We talked about mission. Mission is at the heart of every church and those that do it well usually thrive spiritually. No church has ever thrived by focusing only inwardly. And they shouldn’t because those aren’t churches. Those aren’t communities of witnesses to Christ.

 

The good news is we have a heart for mission here. We financially support the food pantry, Habitat for Humanity, and others. We donate books to Kurn Hattin. We open our doors to 12 Step Groups and youth activities. We volunteer our time locally. We do a lot.

 

And we can do more. The other night we talked about what it would look like to offer a free meal here at the church once a month or so. A meal that would feed our community both in body and spirit. One that would fill both those who don’t have quite enough to eat and those who feel isolated. One where we would join our neighbors at the table as well. I think it’s a great idea. And I think there are probably dozens more just like it.

 

We are about to enter this visioning process. One of the core areas we will be looking at is mission, and how to do it well. And really, mission is about telling the story. It’s about Christ appearing to us and telling us to spread the news with our lives.

 

As Christ said, “you are my witnesses”. That’s true for us all. And that is good news, because when we put our hands and voices together, Christ’s love can be heard and felt through this whole valley. I’m ready. Witnesses, are you? Amen.