Elaine, Jordan, and Nadine (and Lilly from afar),
In our scripture reading this morning, Abram is called by God to leave his country, his kindred, and his father's house, and to venture into an unknown land. It’s a leap of faith, a journey into the unfamiliar. Maybe you can identify somewhat with how Abram must have felt—some combination of excitement and fear.
Graduates, like Abram, you are now standing on the threshold of a new beginning. You have completed one stage of your journey, and before you lies a vast expanse of possibility. Just as Abram left his comfort zone, you too are stepping out of the familiar and embracing the unknown. The future may seem daunting, but remember that God is with you every step of the way.
Now, as Abram journeyed through the land of Canaan, he paused at significant locations and built altars to God. These altars were physical reminders of his encounters and his relationship with God, symbols of worship and devotion. They marked sacred moments in his life and represented his commitment to God's plan.
When you were born, your parents brought you into church (I think this church for all of you, right?) and we baptized you. You were too small to build altars for yourselves, so we built this first one for you. Not a physical structure, of course, but a spiritual marker that we prayed would stand out on the horizon of your identity and always remind you of God’s love for you, God’s acceptance of you, God’s presence in your life. When you were confirmed, we asked you to begin to participate in this spiritual altar-raising, as we guided you through the process of becoming members of the church.
So, seniors, this is my simple charge to you this morning. As you transition from high school to the next phase of your lives, do not forget to continue to build altars to God. Again, not literal structures but spiritual markers—do not let this senior recognition be the final marker of your spiritual lives. Continue to journey with God and build altars of worship, build altars of spiritual growth, build altars of gratitude and of service to others, and build altars of love. Let the life ahead of you be a life filled with the Spirit and a life in which you remember to mark God’s presence in your journey.
A literal reading of the creation story doesn’t really work for me. If you prefer to read this or any other part of your Bible literally, I won’t try to talk you out of it. I will always try to remind you that there are other faithful ways of reading and interpreting holy scripture. It’s OK to read your Bible literally, that is one option. But it’s not OK to try to make everybody else read the Bible literally, or to proclaim that a literal reading of the Bible is the only legitimate way of reading the Bible, or for that matter to claim that reading the Bible literally is not itself quite an impressive interpretive feat—trying to ignore the fact that a literal reading of the Bible requires just as many (if not more) sermons, and books, and explanations to fully understand it as the more open, or spiritual, or poetic readings of the Bible do.
Also, the fact of the matter is that no one reads their Bible entirely literally or entirely metaphorically. Everyone reads it both ways, the issue is which parts do you read which way. In a Boston-area town in Massachusetts there’s a great story told by the local clergy group. A Baptist minister in town was well-known for calling all the local phone numbers in his area, and whoever picked up the phone he would introduce himself and invite them to come to church. So, going through all the local numbers like this, he eventually called the priest at the town’s Catholic church. Being a good evangelical Baptist, the minister decided to evangelize his Catholic colleague a little, and he advised him to start reading his Bible literally. “Oh, I do!” said the priest. “You do?” “Sure, I do. Like when Jesus said at the last supper, ‘this is my body, this is my blood,’ I take that literally.” Now, Baptists, of course, unlike Catholics, believe that communion is just a symbolical observance—no real body and no real blood involved. And so the Baptist minister said, “Well, Father it’s been nice talking to you,” and hung up the phone. Nobody reads their Bible just one way. It’s all a mix.
The phenomenon of the exclusively literal reading of scripture is really a modern phenomenon. You could be forgiven for thinking that way back when everybody read their Bible literally and then we let faith slip and we started to read scripture metaphorically just so we could get rid of the parts we don’t like or something like that. But it was always a mix until we get to modernity.
And in modernity our culture has come to believe that the only truth, or the supreme truth, is the literal truth. We want to know what happened. Just the facts, please. Don’t tell me what it means, OK? Meaning isn’t truth. Meaning is subjective. Meaning is an illusion. Meaning is nothing more than a way of constructing oppressive narratives that benefit the powerful and the privileged. The universe, everything around us, the light, the water, the sky, the sun and the moon and the stars, life itself, human existence—there’s no magic there. No spirit. No meaning. If you want the truth of any of these things, you need to get a scalpel and a microscope out. And if you break the universe, and even human beings down to their smallest constituent parts, they’re all just a sort of chaos of dead atoms (which are mostly just empty space) bouncing around—nothing more. And that is the literal truth in modernity.
There’s a new theory in philosophy and science right now that’s getting a lot of attention that argues it is statistically likely that we’re not even living in a “real world” at all. Instead, we’re all living in a simulation in somebody else’s supercomputer. And all we really are in that case is math. Dead numbers being crunched in the bowels of a computer.
The problem with a literalistic reading of scripture is that it basically assents to modernity’s worldview. It says that the only truth that can stand up to modernity and nihilism is literal truth. Meaning won’t cut it. Mystery won’t cut it. Poetry and spirituality won’t get the job done… But demanding a literal reading of the Bible limits the spiritual imagination. And it is only a resurgence of spiritual imagination that can save us from the dead, spiritless, meaningless, simulated (literally unreal) universe of modernity’s materialism and physicalism.
So, no, I don’t read Genesis literally, but that doesn’t mean I don’t read it faithfully. What’s that old saying? “We take our Bibles seriously, not literally.” Here’s something neat to know about the Genesis creation myth. The original community who told and wrote this myth down didn’t think that they were telling a literal, scientific, nuts-and-bolts story. It was for them an act of spiritual imagination.
There is an older creation myth, the Babylonian Enuma Elish, which is strikingly similar to the Genesis creation myth. There’s not time to go into all the similarities between the two, and what really matters is the big difference. In the Enuma Elish a pantheon of related gods are all flighting and vying for power. Marduk, the sun god, triumphantly cuts his grandmother, the sea goddess Tiamat in half. Half her body becomes the earth and the other half becomes the sky.
It is a blood-soaked, dominating, almost warmongering understanding of how the universe works. And the ancient Israelites had first-hand, tragic experience of the Babylonian empire’s violence, their drive to dominate, and their warmongering. So, when it came time for the ancient Israelites to tell the story of the beginning of everything, they were not lamely attempting to produce a sort of pseudo-scientific account. They were producing a cultural commentary, perhaps an act of political and spiritual resistance to empire, and a theological improvement on the Babylonian story.
God didn’t kill the dark chaotic waters, instead God’s spirit hovered or swept over them. And instead of a blood-soaked, hypermasculine, dominating creation energy, we have a story of a God who forms the universe with restraint, with nurture, with care, with blessings, with rest, and with this refrain throughout, “And God saw that it was good.” It was good. It was good. It was good.
That is what our ancient spiritual ancestors wanted us to know. That is what they wanted us to carry in our hearts and in our imaginations, “It is good. It is good. It is good.” It is good to be alive! It is good to be a part of this spirit-filled universe. Yes, that beauty you see is real. Yes, that meaning you feel in life is real. It was there in the beginning. And I hope we don’t lose the ability to see it, to feel it. But that will depend on our ability to nurture in ourselves and in our culture a spiritual imagination that doesn’t deny the facts, but that—I don’t know?—hovers over them, sweeps over them and fills them with life again.
In 1620, the Pilgrims boarded the Mayflower to come to the New World. One of their most influential leaders was their pastor, John Robinson. Without him it’s unlikely the Mayflower would have ever set sail. These precursors to the Congregational Church were living in exile in the Netherlands and they came to believe that their best bet at survival as a community would be to emigrate to the New World. Before the small group of Pilgrims left their community in the Netherlands, the whole community came together for a farewell worship service. In his sermon that day John Robinson said, “…the Lord hath more light and truth yet to break forth out of His Holy Word. For my part, I cannot sufficiently bewail the condition of those reformed churches which…will go, at present, no further than the instruments of their reformation. The Lutherans cannot be drawn to go beyond what Luther saw; whatever part of His will our God had revealed to Calvin, [the Lutherans] will rather die than embrace it; and the Calvinists, you see, stick fast where they were left by that great man of God, who yet saw not all things. This is a misery much to be lamented…”
It might be hard to hear why, but this is an astounding and history-altering statement: There is yet more light and truth to break forth from God’s Holy Word. These words have come to define a great deal of how we, in the Reformed Tradition, in the Congregational Church, and in the United Church of Christ have come to understand ourselves.
It’s a bit ironic, actually, because even in his day John Robinson was a radical conservative. But in articulating his vision for the reform of the Church, he becomes in a real way, (to put it contemporary lingo) not a liberal but a progressive—someone who believes that “the way things have always been done” is not the best indicator of the way they ought to be done. Instead, the way things should be done is still being revealed to us. To get to God’s vision for the Church we must look to our past, of course, but that vision will only be fulfilled in a future we have not yet seen. And to get to that future will require faithfulness, risk, sacrifice, and a heart and mind open to the fullness of the truth that is being revealed to us.
“There is yet more light and truth to break forth from God’s Holy Word,” is essentially a Pentecost statement. By faith and by the power of the Holy Spirit EVERYBODY—young and old, male and female, slave and free—EVERYBODY—Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—will be empowered to speak and to be heard.
The problem, according to John Robinson, was not that people were reading their personal Bibles wrong. Read your Bible any way you like. The problem was that people were being exclusive rather than inclusive—so the Lutherans couldn’t stand the Calvinists, and the Calvinists couldn’t stand anybody else, and on and on.
John Robinson and the early Congregationalists were separatists, but not by choice. They were living in exile as a means of survival, and their pastor longed for a future for them in which even the minority voice of his little (and at the time, radical) flock could be heard and understood, could participate in the life of the Church. It’s not your size, it’s not your power, it’s not even your specific beliefs or your interpretation of scripture that makes you a part of the Church—it’s the power of the Holy Spirit giving you a voice to be heard, and ears to hear others, even if you are speaking two radically different languages.
Whenever we exclude from the life of the church any group or any community that seeks to be a part of it, we are denying the power of the Holy Spirit to work through them. We are silencing voices that have the potential to bring new perspectives, new understandings, and new revelations of God's truth.
As many of you have heard through the eNews, through a special email sent out on Friday, and by the notice posted on the doors of the church, our Church Council has unanimously approved an “Open & Affirming” statement to be voted on by our members on Sunday, June 11. It’s a wonderful statement, produced over the past year through discussions in our Open & Affirming process and with the special attention of John Dobbs and Nikki Ramirez, and I’ll read it to you in case you haven’t seen it yet:
“Glen Ridge Congregational Church believes in Christ’s central message of love, justice, and inclusion. In promising to keep this message at the center of all we do, we declare ourselves to be an Open and Affirming congregation.
“We invite and welcome people of all economic backgrounds, ages, abilities, gender identities, ethnicities, races, sexual orientations, cultures, and marital statuses to participate fully in the life, worship, fellowship, sacraments, ministries, leadership and joys of our church.
“We commit to being a respectful and safe community for all people to explore their faith. Honoring and embracing the rich diversity of God’s world, we celebrate the opportunities within our church family to share in both our similarities and differences on our faith journey.”
As we consider the opportunity to add this statement to our bylaws and to then officially become an Open and Affirming congregation of the United Church of Christ, let’s remember the words of John Robinson: "There is more light and truth yet to break forth out of God’s Holy Word." We can never forget that our journey as a church is far from over. It will never be over. Because, as the famous UCC tagline put it, “God is still speaking,” It is our responsibility to seek the truth that we have not yet seen and to seek it through a Holy-Spirit-inspired inclusion that doesn’t leave anyone out.
Becoming an Open and Affirming congregation means that we are committing ourselves to a more inclusive vision of the Church. It means that we’re opening our doors wider, embracing the diversity of God's creation, and affirming the sacred worth and dignity of every individual.
It means that we are ready to welcome and celebrate our LGBTQ+ siblings as full members of our community, without judgment or discrimination, and that we’re willing to go public on that invitation. I think we all know that if an LGBTQ-identified individual or family were to show up at our church, we’d treat them no differently than anybody else. Becoming an ONA congregation means making that invitation public, so the wider community knows before stepping through the door what kind of welcome and treatment and theology they will discover here.
So, the statement incorporates LGBTQ+ inclusion, but it goes beyond it as well. “We invite and welcome people of all economic backgrounds, ages, abilities, gender identities, ethnicities, races, sexual orientations, cultures, and marital statuses.” This invitation is not a departure from our tradition; it’s a continuation of the progressive spirit that has defined our history. Just as John Robinson challenged the status quo of his time, we’re called to challenge the norms and prejudices that still persist in our world. We are called to be a beacon of love, acceptance, and justice. But even more foundational than that, we are called to include, to learn to speak our neighbor’s language, to learn to understand our neighbor’s speech, no matter how different we may be.
The journey towards becoming an Open and Affirming congregation for us today is nothing like the decision the Pilgrims must have wrestled with to leave the Old World behind forever and travel to the New World. But still it will require of us faithfulness, risk, and sacrifice. We may encounter resistance from within and outside our community. We may face difficult conversations and disagreements. Yet, it is precisely in these moments that we must remember the power of the Holy Spirit IS at work within us.
The story of Pentecost reminds us that the Holy Spirit transcends boundaries and empowers all people to speak and to be heard. It is a reminder that the Church is not defined by its size, power, or uniformity of belief, but by the inclusivity and love it embodies. By embracing EVERYBODY, we are affirming the transformative power of the Holy Spirit to break down barriers and create a community where all are welcome.
The decision to become an Open and Affirming congregation is not just a statement or a label; it is a commitment to love, justice, and equality. It is a step towards building a more inclusive and compassionate world. May we embrace this opportunity with courage and humility, knowing that we are not alone on this journey. There are more than 1,800 ONA churches in the UCC and thousands more churches with similar designations in other denominations. There are 13 UCC churches within about 7.5 miles of us. Eight of them are already ONA—some for decades. We have the full support of our Association and the Conference. And we have the Holy Spirit inspiring us to remember that there is more light and truth to break forth from God’s word, and the only way to discover it is to draw the circle as wide as possible, to listen to all of our neighbors, and to see the light, hear the truth they bring.
As we move forward, let’s remember that the light and truth we seek are not confined to the past. They are still being revealed to us, as we listen to the whispers of the Holy Spirit and open our hearts to the voices that have been marginalized and silenced. May our actions reflect the radical love of Christ, as we strive to create a church where everyone can find a home, a community, and a place to belong.
On Friday, January 12, 2007, one of the world’s greatest musicians, Joshua Bell, arrived in a downtown Washington, D.C. subway station just in time for the morning rush hour. He took out his $3.5 million Stradivarius violin, he laid the open case at his feet in case anyone wanted to drop in some money, and he began to play for the morning commuters. Bell is a virtuoso and around this time was voted America’s best classical musician. For 45 minutes he played the greatest music ever composed for violin. He performed it on a 300-year-old instrument which is even more famous than he is. A hidden camera captured the performance. What do you think happened?
That morning only seven people stopped to listen for one minute or more. Another 27 people dropped money into Bell’s case as they ran past. (He made 32 dollars and change for the performance, 20 dollars of which was from a guy who recognized him because he has been at his concert at the Library of Congress the night before.) That leaves 1,070 people who streamed past without the slightest idea that they were encountering something extraordinary and beautiful—something worth seeing. “This is the Spirit of truth,” Jesus said in our scripture reading this morning, “whom the world cannot receive because it neither sees him nor knows him.”
Some of you may want to call foul here, and I understand why. Is it really fair to judge people while they’re on their morning commute, rushing through a crowd, just trying to get to work? Bell probably would have done better in the middle of the day or on a Saturday afternoon or above ground in a nice public park. And you’re probably right. But while rushing around and getting annoyed with anyone in our way and not having time for any nonsense that isn’t on our work dominated to-do list might not describe us perfectly, it maybe describes our culture and our lives on average. It may be that we’re more of a rush-hour, move-it-or-lose-it people than we are a Sunday-stroll-in-the-park-looking-for-magic people. And I think that’s what this piece of performance art, masquerading as an experiment, is trying to get across to us. Are we losing the cultural, psychological, spiritual capacity to SEE, and thereby to RECEIVE, what is most real?
On the other end of the spectrum from all this we have Fountain. In 1917 the artist Marcel DuChamp bought a perfectly ordinary urinal—the kind you could find in any men’s restroom—from a hardware store. He laid it on its back, signed it (with a fake name) and dated it, titled it Fountain and entered it into an art contest. Don’t worry, it didn’t win any prizes, in fact, it was rejected from the contest, and you could understand why the contest’s organizers thought someone might be making fun of them. But that didn’t stop Fountain from becoming one of the most famous and influential artworks of the 20th century. In the 1950s and 60s DuChamp made 17 copies of the original work—urinal—most of which were purchased by great museums around the world. Perhaps millions of people every year stand in front of one of them somewhere, gaze into it deeply, and search for something—for beauty, for truth, for meaning, dare I say for a certain kind of Spirit or inspiration—where (I think it’s safe to say) no one had ever thought to look before.
Jesus says to his disciples, “In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live.”
I’m not comparing Jesus to a urinal, but what I am thinking about this morning is our human capacity for SEEING. Vision and sight seem to take on a special spiritual significance in Jesus’ ministry. It’s about more than being sighted or being blind, it’s about more than healing and miracles. SEEING in Jesus’ ministry becomes a metaphor or a symbol for our capacity to perceive the truth or to perceive the movement of the Spirit in our lives and world, to see what God is doing and intending in the present moment, to see another person—perhaps even a stranger, perhaps even an enemy—not as an outsider, or a threat, or a means to an end an IT—but to see them as a Thou, to see them not according to our prejudice and our expectation and our need, but to see them as God sees them—as a child of God, as the image of God—and to love them as you love your own self. Jesus teaches us that whether we are sighted or blind, we all have “eyes to see and ears to hear” this spiritual truth, and yet we do not SEE.
One of the mistakes of modernity, in my personal opinion, is the overconfidence we have developed in our powers of observation. We have come to believe as a culture that we have an ability to perceive reality as it actually is. By taking all the magic out of the universe and describing it mathematically and scientifically as basically dead material with no soul or spirit, and by positing that human individuals can be reduced down to nothing more than the atoms and the biological processes of their brains, we have come to believe that we have finally cleared out all of the hallucinations distorting our understanding of the universe, and we’ve now opened a window into objective reality.
I don’t think that’s true at any level. And it’s certainly not true at the level of the individual. 21st century neuroscience is actually catching up to this realization. Whatever objective, independent reality may or may not actually exist out there, we ain’t seeing it. Our brains just don’t work that way. Our brains are the most complicated things we know of in the universe, but they are not infinite and they’re not omnipotent. In fact, perhaps the greatest accomplishment of our brains is their efficiency. Sense data comes in and our brains give us what they think we need to know, what they have learned is important, and they edit out the bits that they have learned are boring or unimportant or that they just haven’t learned to see at all yet.
We don’t ever see things objectively, which is actually an opportunity. It means that SEEING is an art, not a science. It is a spiritual practice, not a video camera attached to your objective brain. It is an opportunity through the power of faith and imagination to attempt to allow the Truth of God and love to break through “objective reality” into our dull lives at any moment.
I might walk past a miracle without seeing it simply because I’m not used to the idea of miracles. I might honk my horn at somebody driving five miles under the speed limit because I’m in a rush. Do I have any idea what’s happening in the car in front of me, who’s driving, who they are, where they’re going, what they’re going through. No! And I don’t care! BEEP BEEP! Move it! Right? I’ve got places to be!
At the same time, I can walk into a museum like I did this weekend and stand before a piece of art that I would have just walked past if I saw it on a table at the rummage sale. Something ugly. Something I’m not particularly drawn to. But because I’m in a museum, in this sort of temple of art, I can go through the ritual of trying to SEE what I don’t expect to SEE, to let the artwork inside of me, let down my defenses, and let it speak. And I can do the same thing when someone approaches me on the subway to ask for change. Whether I am giving change or not, I can allow myself to interact with that person as if I were interacting with Jesus, as if I were interacting with myself from another universe, as if I were this person’s mother.
This is one of the great qualities of a great mother. Right? Mom doesn’t see us objectively, does she? No way. She always sees the best in us, encourages the best in us, tries to bring out the best in us. She believes in us, sometimes despite all the evidence. She sees things in us that we don’t or don’t yet see in ourselves. Not everybody gets a mom like that, of course, but those of us who have, see ourselves differently when we see ourselves through her eyes.
A good way to misread our scripture lesson this morning would be to say that the good people get rewarded for being good by getting to see the Holy Spirit and the bad people don’t get to see Her because they are bad. The disciples get to see Jesus because they are holy and chosen and everyone else doesn’t get to see him because they are lousy. But that’s not it at all. Receiving the Spirit, seeing Jesus, is not the reward, it is the process, the means, the way. The disciples, remember, are not a particularly impressive group. They’re average. They’re me and you. But they’re committed to Jesus’ path of love, to his way of SEEING the world, of SEEING other people, of SEEING God.
If you want to feel the presence of God more fully in your life, if you want a life that feels more purposeful and meaningful, if you want to feel loved and supported by your neighbors and your community, this is way: Quiet your eyes. Don’t rush past the world, don’t rush past people, allow yourself to imagine that the tree in your yard may be a message from God to you, allow yourself to imagine that the boring 45 minute train ride into NYC that you do five days a week is an oasis of time and space where the Spirit of God is alive and active and jumping up and down trying to get your attention. I believe that wherever we are, whatever we face, God shows up, Jesus can be seen, the Holy Spirit can be received, if only you and I are ready to SEE it.
Our scripture reading this morning—in which Jesus tries to convince us to serve only God and advises us not to worry about tomorrow’s problems today—leaves many of us feeling deeply conflicted. If only Jesus has just kept it simple. If only Jesus had just said to us, “You must serve only God, and do your best not to worry too much because it’s no good for you.” If he’d just said that, it would have been easier. But Jesus always goes right for the heart of the matter.
Jesus doesn’t just say to us, “You must serve only God,” he also says to us, “And that means you must stop serving money, and wealth, and stuff,” which makes him seem like he’s either a sort of spiritual idealist with no practical experience in the real world or he’s something like a communist. And Jesus doesn’t just say to us, “Don’t worry,” he also says to us, “Don’t worry even about the most basic necessities—food, water, clothing. Don’t arrange your life to provide for these things. Live like the birds and the grass! Seek the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness, and everything else will be provided,” which makes it seem like either Jesus is much more naïve than we are or that he's got a much higher tolerance for risk and discomfort than we do.
So, we love this passage. We want to serve God more faithfully. We want to live simplified lives. We don’t want all this worry and anxiety we’re plagued with. But we also despair at this passage: How can I serve God if I don’t have money? Not having a job or a plan for a financial emergency might cause me even more anxiety than I currently have!
One of the problems I think we have is what I’m doing right now—preaching. Usually, the Gospel is preached as if Jesus did want to make it really simple for all of us, as if there is a really simple, straightforward answer to every one of the weird things that Jesus said to us, but somehow it just got lost in translation. So, in one pulpit on a Sunday the preacher will tell you in fifteen or twenty minutes that the answer is obviously that Jesus wants you to have a job and work hard, he just doesn’t want you to become too greedy. This sermon explains away almost all of the challenge in Jesus’ words and probably reassures you that you’re already on the right side of the line. Good for you. Nothing to see here, move along.
In another pulpit the preacher will tell you that this is just one more example of how Jesus hates money and empire and the inherently exploitative nature of markets and economic systems, and that if we’re to disciple ourselves to him, we must radically excise all that worldly stuff from our lives to fulfill God’s mandate for love and justice on the earth. No one, especially not the preacher, has ever lived up to this sermon. You could quit your job on Monday morning, burn your house down, abandon your family, join the revolution, and MAYBE that will make the world a better place in a better way than any compromise would, but you would still find yourself lacking. What about finding balance and peace and letting God provide for us wherever we may find ourselves in life?
The problem is that the sermon has to explain something, so it’s always looking to make improvements. But what if every weird thing that Jesus ever said to confuse you was done intentionally? What if Jesus knew that what he was saying was weird and hard, and comforting and challenging, and impossible and motivating? What if Jesus intended for you to wrestle with this teaching through all the phases of your life? What if Jesus intended you to come to it today for comfort in trouble, and tomorrow for the motivation to start a revolution of values?
The philosopher Montaigne who famously said, “What do I know?” (which sums up for me a proper and reverent approach to scripture) once said that philosophy is the art of learning to die. This was sort of a play on words for all those who have said that philosophy is about discovering the best and most virtuous way to live. It’s actually quite brilliant. It asks us to imagine the end of life and, from that perspective, to imagine how we would have wanted to live NOW.
What if we took that perspective with this piece of scripture? Imagine that you’ve come close to a non-anxiety inducing end. You’re 101 years old and you’ve decided to enter hospice. You’ve got a few weeks left to finalize everything. And lying comfortably in your hospice bed you read this passage (our reading this morning) and begin to review your life. From that perspective, how would you have wanted to apply the comfort and the challenge of these words to your life now?
Over Lent I reread Bronnie Ware’s book, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing. Ware was a hospice nurse and she found that there were certain regrets that came up over and over again in her dying patients’ final days. One of the top five regrets was “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.”
Ware said that she heard this regret from every single male patient she was ever a nurse to. Every single one, fellas. Think about that. She said she heard it from some women too but attributed the difference to a generational difference that demanded work outside the home from men and highly discouraged it for women. People regretted everything they had missed by working too hard—especially precious time with family. And all of us know it’s not just about how many hours you work. It’s about how you work. It’s the stress you carry around with you when you leave the office, the irritability that puts a wall up between you and your loved ones, the worry that follows you home and doesn’t let you rest, doesn’t let you appreciate the simple, divine joy of just being you.
Ware writes, “By simplifying your lifestyle and making conscious choices along the way, it is possible to not need the income that you think you do. And by creating more space in your life, you become happier and more open to new opportunities, ones more suited to your new lifestyle.” So, imagine yourself in your hospice bed one day, with no anxiety or worries. You'll probably think about how much you worked and how you could have lived differently if you weren't so focused on maintaining a certain income and lifestyle. You’ll probably know then that those things were less important than you thought. So, now, let's consider making a resolution in reverse. How can you change your life now in response to the wisdom you will have then with your Bible lying open in your lap to this morning's scripture lesson. What steps can you take today to prioritize what truly matters?
One of the reasons, I think, that Jesus gives us these hard teachings—like don’t worry, like turn the other cheek, like forgive your enemy—is because Jesus knows that these anxiety, and violence, and anger and the desire for revenge—they change us in ways that we don’t want to be changed. I may feel justified in my anger today, but I don’t realize I’m lowering my threshold for losing my temper tomorrow. I may feel like worrying about today’s problem is completely reasonable, but I don’t realize that I’m ratcheting up my emotional capacity for and propensity for a lifetime of anxiety. Work is a similar sort of thing. The more work is demanded of us, the less we know how to really take a break, to rest, to restore ourselves, to be present to our family, to know just how to be. Some of us don’t retire because we don’t know what we would do with ourselves, for example. Now remember, there’s nothing wrong with working or with enjoying your work. But if work is the only thing you can imagine that could occupy your time productively, it might be really good for you to sit in the discomfort of just being and just relating and just loving, and letting God do the providing for you for a time.
What are the most important Christian values? What do you think? What comes to mind? If you ask the average person out on the street, I think you’d get answers like faith, loving God, not sinning all the time, forgiveness, kindness, generosity maybe. None of these answers are wrong, but one of the most important Christian values often gets forgotten about—and that’s friendship.
One of the most unique parts of the Christian religion is our focus on our connection not just to God but to other people. This connection is so important that when Jesus is asked what is the most important value?, he answers as people would have expected him to answer, that it’s to love God with everything you’ve got. But unexpectedly he then adds a second value which he says is connected to the first—to love our neighbors as ourselves. This is Christianity’s unique interpretation of religion—and one of our most fundamental and defining values—that the love of God cannot be separated from the love of other people. If you love God and not other people, you’ve gotten something fundamentally wrong. And when you love other people, perhaps even without knowing that you’re doing it, you are also loving God.
In our scripture reading this morning, the 23rd Psalm displays two big values of the psalmist (which tradition says was the Biblical King David). Number 1: God is a personal refuge from the difficulties of this world, and God is an escape from other people. And Number 2: Once you’ve taken refuge in God, God is gonna stick it to your enemies.
Jesus was a part of an ancient Jewish tradition, which becomes incorporated into Christianity, which pushes at the boundaries of this kind of theology. Jesus teaches us that God is not a personal refuge from trouble, but a universal refuge from trouble. When we turn to God, we do not turn away from our neighbors, we turn toward them even more profoundly. And we do not pray for revenge on our enemies, we love even our enemies as our neighbors, as ourselves.
Now, you can’t be friends with everybody, of course. We know that. It’s not just that there are some people you would really rather not hang out with, it’s that true friendships take time and energy, and time and energy are limited resources, so the number of friendships we can make and sustain is finite. However, a society that fundamentally believes in the value of friendship—that fundamentally believes that love of neighbor is not just an obligation, but is actually just the best way to live, a society that believes that human connection and kindness and relationship are important and which lives out those values by each member of that society putting time and energy into healthy, flourishing friendships will look very different from a society that has grown suspicious of its neighbors, that has pulled back from the public square, that has devalued the importance of friendship, and become cold, and distant, and isolated. Yes, you can only have so many friendships. But when you hold those friendships as a sacred value and when your culture holds the value of friendship as an ideal, it benefits everybody.
Over the last couple of weeks, we have seen the devasting consequences of living in a society that has come to believe that isolation is somehow safer than other people. Ralph Yarl, a 16-year-old boy, was shot in the head for ringing the doorbell at the wrong house. Kaylin Gillis, a 20-year-old young woman, was shot and killed for being a passenger in car that went up the wrong driveway. Two cheerleaders were shot in a grocery store parking lot when one of them accidentally got into the wrong car. These “wrong place” stories took the news by storm, but they are not unique, stories like this happen almost every day across the country.
The world is a scary place. In the United States there are more guns than people. Over the last two decades mass shootings have terrified us. At the same time, we’ve become more and more culturally and politically polarized. And the rhetoric of these culture wars and this political strife is driving us further apart and making us more afraid of one another. Social media has changed the way we think of human interaction. It has made us more connected, but it has also made us WAY more toxic. And the data shows that Americans have fewer friends, belong to fewer community groups that meet in person, spend less time with family and friends, and go out of the house into public for work, for entertainment, and for shopping less often than ever before. And this trend was happening decades before the pandemic separated us even further.
When the world goes kind of crazy we might just want to get away from everyone. We might want to buy a few more guns. It might feel safer to isolate ourselves in a bunker. I think it’s normal to feel that way. But isolation, it turns out, is a symptom of and not a solution to our cultural problems. And this I believe with all my heart—isolation makes all of us LESS SAFE than community and cooperation. You are LESS SAFE when you are alone than when you have a community. You are MORE DANGEROUS to innocent people when you are alone than when you have a community.
So, Friendship Sunday is not just a gimmick to get you to come to church. It’s a gimmick to hopefully connect you to people who truly love and care about you. Because we fundamentally believe as a church that your friendship makes our lives and our world a better place. We believe that what was good for the early Church (as we read in the Acts of the Apostles) is also good for us today—spending time together, worshiping together, getting to know one another deeply, learning about one another’s needs, and providing for those needs, sitting down and eating meals together, praying together—holding all things in common. Friendship is a Christian value and is a value that we need now more than ever.
Over Lent I reread Bronnie Ware’s book, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing. Ware was a hospice nurse and she found that there were certain regrets that came up over and over again in her dying patients’ final days. One of the top five regrets was “I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.” It’s sometimes friends that someone lost touch with decades and decades ago that they most want to see with when they’re dying. Let this be a lesson for all of us who are not yet dying—do not undervalue the power and the importance of your friendships. It doesn’t matter if it’s been 50 years or more. Reach out to that old friend. This is one thing that Facebook is good for—finding old friends. Old friends are a part of your soul. Reconnect to them and you will give yourself (and them) spiritual healing. In the end, says Ware, it all comes own to love and relationships. Yes, people might want to try to get the will in order, fix up the finances, get this or that detail wrapped up, but in those final weeks all that is really left is love and relationships.
Friendship is a fundamental Christian value. In a time of mistrust and violence in our culture, friendship is the value which can bring us back into healthy relationships with all our neighbors. Friendships are a part of our very souls. And in the end friendship, love, relationship is all we really have. So, friends (old and new!) thank you for being here at our first annual Friendship Sunday, we love you, we appreciate you, you are a part of us, and we’re here for you.
One of my great dissatisfactions with our religion and with Christian tradition is how we and that tradition tend to deal with the physical world and our physical bodies. Typically, at best, our bodies and our physicality, they are neglected or they are ignored. And at worst, they are depicted as sources of temptation and lust and appetite and sin, which are blamed for being less than perfect, for being less than spiritual and are often mistreated. Sometimes that mistreatment is considered to be a virtue.
And of course, one of the things that puts the lie to this entire theology of the mistreatment of the body is that we can see very clearly that different bodies have been treated differently. So we know throughout all of history, and Christian history included, women's bodies have been treated worse than men's bodies. They have been seen as a greater source of affliction and sin than the bodies of men in Western civilization. Almost all of Western civilization, certainly continuing right into our culture to this day, the bodies of people of color, the bodies of black people are seen as a greater source of fear and suspicion than the bodies of white people. The bodies of LGBTQ people are seen as a greater source of sin and lust than are the bodies of straight and cisgender people.
The result is a religion and churches that often feel disembodied to me. What I wouldn't give just for a little more physicality, a little more movement in the church, for Christian spiritual practices that look just a little bit less like prayer and look something more like yoga. I don't know, something where we can move and we'd recognize that that movement is itself sacred because God is inside of it. I consider all of this to be a serious failing of the way that Christians have interpreted what bodies are and what they mean and how we should think of them. By my reading, the real Christian message is that the physical world that we live in that was created for us is good, good, good. And that having a body and being a creature is in and of itself holy and a miracle. A sunset, by my reading, is an act of God. It is the universe engaging in art. It is intentional, it is purposeful, it is meaningful, and God makes it so. And taking a jog around the block is an exhilarating act of praise to the one who made and formed that body and whose spirit fills it and blesses it.
My reading of Christian tradition is that in the beginning, God created the world and God saw that it was good and God got down—God, GOD—got down in the dirt of the garden of Eden. Can you imagine that? It's really hard to imagine. I think we like to think that it's just a children's story, that the God of heaven and the universe got down on God's knees in the dirt of the earth. And because of that action, you and I have bodies. Isn't that incredible? Oh, and what does that mean?
We were formed not by accident, and God wasn't just twirling a finger around and then we just popped out. No, we were formed in the very image of God. And as Christians, we believe that God became a human being in an act that didn't make God less perfect, as some people claimed it had to do, but that elevated our creatureliness, our human existence to become that much closer to the image of God and to God's divinity and to all the potential that God sees in us.
It is the Easter season. Of course, Jesus Christ, after dying on the cross was resurrected. And that resurrection is scripture's promise to all of us. It didn't just happen to Jesus. It's going to happen to all of us. We are not promised in the Bible a disembodied life for eternity in heaven, as many of us think is going to be our fate. No, we are promised a resurrected life in a resurrected body, in a resurrected world, a physical, eternal existence.
And look at the way that Jesus ministered to us in this world. He ministered to us with touch, with healing of our physical ailments, with food at a table, and with the waters of baptism. Jesus rarely in the Gospels cares for a person spiritually without simultaneously caring for them physically. And in fact, it is often an act of physical care that is the act of spiritual care. So how can we separate them in our churches and in our theology today to say that the physical is one thing and the spiritual is another? To raise the spiritual up above the physical when the spiritual is given to all of us in the form of a physical? And in fact, every spiritual act that has ever been experienced by any human being on this planet has been mediated to them through their physical body, through their physical senses, through their embodiment.
And I already spoke this morning about the sacraments of our worship life, right? I do not believe that there are only two sacraments, as we say in the church. We say we have two—baptism and communion, but I wouldn't limit them so authoritatively, so certainly. There are just two sacraments that we human beings can perform in church. But the whole physical universe, including our wonderfully and fearfully made bodies are full of the fire of God's creation. Because as Christians, we are not materialists. We believe in material of course, but I do not believe in dead material. I do not believe in a dead universe. Everything, everything physical is full of the presence of God.
So it's strange and painful to me that we the people of the incarnation, the people of the table, and of the waters of baptism, the people of the resurrection, the people of the body—the people of the BODY of Christ so often live and worship in a disembodied way, and that we are so spiritually suspicious of the physical world and our physical selves.
Our culture is now saturated by pornography and violence and consumerism. Our culture treats the physical world like an IT, like something that only has value if we can turn it into money rather than something that has value because God gives it value. And we treat other people like ITS rather than like people. And a religion that can only say bad things about the physical world and about the human body cannot counteract or heal this poisoned way of living and thinking. Because if the world is just lousy and the body is just lousy and we're just waiting for them to disappear and to live a spiritual unspoiled existence, why not objectify everything in this world? The physical doesn't mean anything. It doesn't have any value. Why not treat everything like a commodity that will only be good if we can transform it into some sort of economic value, right? So a forest is only good if it can be made into paper. An ocean is only good if it can be fished. If our children are going to live healthily on this planet, if they're going to live in healthy relationship to their neighbors, and if they're going to have a healthy existence inside of their own skin, we need to give them a positive theology of creation and of incarnation, not a negative one. Our children do not need to be forbidden from the potential problems of their bodies. They need to be taught just how sacred the experience of being God's physical creature truly is, and how deeply connected their spiritual wellbeing is to their physical wellbeing.
I am convinced that our disconnection from our bodies and our cultural objectification of our bodies is one of the causes of our disconnection from our earth and from our environment. If we cannot love the miraculous skin that we are inside of, how can we truly love the incredible life-giving miracle of the planet that we are inside of? A Christianity that does not sing the full-throated praises of God's earth and of the miracle of being alive and a body on that earth will always struggle theologically and practically to connect to the movement for ecological care and for the environment.
Early Christian worship took place not seated in pews upright in a sanctuary. Early Christian worship took place reclining on cushioned benches at a table eating. How I long for that kind of worship. Because there at the table, we Christians declare that we are physical eating creatures, that our bodies matter, that our God is not divorced from the physical world or from our physical concerns, and that our savior, our Messiah, gave us bread and wine and sat at the table with us and served us and ate with us. In our scripture reading this morning, the truth of the resurrection is mysteriously and weirdly and powerfully revealed. Not in a spiritual display, not in some sermon or theological discourse, but in a physical display—in the breaking of bread. We are a people, a religion of the breaking of bread, of eating and of sharing food.
Yesterday was Earth Day, as I'm sure many of you are aware. So here's one wild idea for Earth Day in 2023. Sustainable farming is an important part of environmental stewardship, and supporting small local farmers is important as well. As is making sure that everyone in our communities has access to healthy, fresh, and nutritious food. And we seem to get this as a congregation. We support very well our local food pantry. We have a little community garden on our south lawn. We seem to have the beginnings of a spiritual understanding here that food deeply matters and that the care that food provides is not merely physical, that it is also spiritual. Could something as simple as starting a CSA—you know, a community supported agriculture, building a relationship with a local farmer to bring fresh produce into our local community—could that be another way to further remind ourselves as Christians and to demonstrate to our entire community what we believe? That we live as though food is sacred, it is good, and growing it sustainably must be important to any community who claims to be a people of the table.
Beloved, it's time to open our eyes. Our planet needs help. Our culture needs help. Our kids need help. In the season of resurrection, let's consider the ways that we can show the world that we are a religion that knows how to treat our bodies, knows how to treat other people's bodies, and knows how to treat our planet with the sacred and dedicated care that they deserve.
This Lent I reread a bestseller from 2012--The Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing, by Bronnie Ware. Ware worked for many years as a palliative care nurse in hospice and got to know her dying patients very well. She noticed that all of them, in dying, were going through a process of transformation. And in that process of life review, they would speak to her about their lives—their memories, their joys, and (almost always) their regrets. According to Ware, the five most common regrets of the dying were:
This Easter season I’m going to preach through these regrets. This is the season of resurrection after all—a resurrection which we all share in—not just in some distant future, but in our lives now. And so Easter is the perfect season to live as though death were already behind us, as though we were free to tackle life again without regrets. This week I’ll be preaching about regret number 3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
That’s a wonderful way of putting things, especially to religious people like us. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings. Religious people like us are sometimes referred to by our more charismatic brothers and sisters in the faith as “The Frozen Chosen.” It’s a little mean, but we’re still smiling because we recognize that it’s also a little bit true. Religious people like us often think the most important part about faith is believing in something. But I think the most important part about faith is expressing something—something deep, and real, and true, and unique to each one of us. And yeah, sure, you’ve got to believe in it to do that. But if you don’t express your faith, if you don’t express yourself and who you truly are to the world, what does it matter what you do or don’t believe? Faith matters most when it is expressed! Faith loses its aliveness when it’s locked up inside of us with no outlet.
So, in order to talk about finding the courage to express ourselves in life, I think we first need to discuss one of the things I think is most responsible for locking faith up inside of us—our fear of our own doubts. You all know that Thomas, from our scripture reading this morning is remembered as “Doubting Thomas.” And we’ve come to believe that being a “doubting Thomas” is a very bad thing. We think that doubts are the opposite of faith. Not from my perspective. The opposite of faith, from my perspective, isn’t doubt, it’s certainty. Every person of faith has doubt. Doubt is humble, it's self-aware, it’s fully human. At our best, we doubt. It’s the people who have no doubts whatsoever that we need to be wary of, isn’t it? People who have no doubts whatsoever can be dangerous to others and to themselves. I say this recognizing that tomorrow we will be commemorating with our Jewish neighbors and other interfaith allies, Yom HoShoa (Holocaust Remembrance Day). What is a conscience if it’s not a still, small voice of doubt?
I was speaking to my father-in-law this week, who is a very deep and sensitive guy, a man of faith, and as I was telling him about some struggles I’m having in life and ministry (nothing too special—just, ya know, life!) and he asked me, “With everything you’re going through have you ever doubted God?” And I laughed and said, “Oh, that’s what I’m preaching about on Sunday!” And I said that some people are very intimidated by doubt because they believe it’s antithetical to faith, that it destroys faith, but I believe it’s an integral part of faith. If you’re going to be so bold as to believe in truth, beauty, meaning, purpose, love, justice, and resurrection in a world that it is so often dominated by power, greed, conflict, lies, tragedy, exploitation, oppression, hatred, fear, sin, and death, then doubting could just be thought of as paying your dues to faith.
Doubt doesn’t have to be an unhealthy part of your life. Doubt is a challenge. But a life without challenges is often dull. And life that meets those challenges head on can be very fulfilling—not easy, not fair, but fulfilling, meaningful. I told my father-in-law that because we’re taught that doubt is bad, most of us only allow ourselves to feel doubt when something bad happens. So, the earthquake knocks my house down and in my pain and mourning and anger my defenses come down and I indulge myself in doubting God’s power, or love, or existence.
But when we recognize that doubt isn’t bad, we can feel it even when everything is going great. Then it doesn’t feel like our doubts are connected to tragedy. They’re really not. They’re connected to our faith. So, I told my father-in-law, I doubt God way before things get hard, which allows me the luxury of not being overwhelmed by doubt when I’m at my most spiritually and emotionally vulnerable. I have already expressed my doubts. I haven’t overcome them, but I am in a healthy relationship with them, and so they have become integrated into my faith, rather than undermining my faith. This is the place, I think, we all want to get to. Everything going well in your life? Congratulations! Now may be the right time to look more deeply into your doubts.
Jesus’ final word in our reading this morning is “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have come to believe” NOT “Blessed are those who have not doubted, and yet have come to believe.” NOBODY believes without first having doubted. If there was nothing to doubt, there would be nothing to believe in.
So, we’re becoming friends with doubt. Doubt’s not so intimidating. In fact, some doubt is far healthier, spiritually, than no doubt. And maybe we’d like to EXPRESS ourselves a little more. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings. In her book, Bronnie Ware says, “Many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others. As a result, they settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were truly capable of becoming. Many developed illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carried as a result.” Ware’s advice to the living who want to avoid this regret, is to live courageously in relationship to one another.
Peace without honesty in our relationships or in a community is not true peace. The potential turmoil and pain is just held by you alone. That’s not peaceful. Because instead of expressing your feelings, you just have to stuff them down into the toe of your sock—repress them. Just as faith and doubt are not opposites, peace and conflict are not opposites. Peace is wholly positive, not negative. So peace is not the absence of something—the absence of conflict, for example. Peace is a state of being, a way of dealing with the ever-present conflict. Repressing our true feelings and the conflict that we know will arise when we do express those difficult feelings cannot honestly be called “keeping the peace.” It’s just “keeping the lack of peace to myself.” And if you do that enough, it will prevent you from being your best self, it will prevent your community from being the best it can be, and you will regret it.
So, instead of calling him Doubting Thomas, what if we called him Thomas-with-the-Courage-to-Express-His-Feelings? So often Thomas’ story is interpreted in a way so that the emotional take away is just, “Keep your mouth shut.” Don’t talk about your deepest feelings and needs (as Thomas does). Join the Frozen Chosen. We all have doubts, and we keep them to ourselves. By extension we keep a lot of our faith to ourselves as well because we’re so intimidated by our repressed doubts, it’s hard to trust our faith.
But is that really what happens in Thomas’ story? No way! Thomas walks into the upper room, the disciples share the good news with him, and he expresses the doubt that almost all of us would have felt, when almost all of us probably would have held our tongues. He expresses his vulnerability and his need. “If it’s true, I need to see him. No. No! If it’s true, I need to touch him.” Wow. Bold. But faith has to be bold.
And what does Thomas receive—for his “doubt”? This isn’t a fairytale, right? Doubting Thomas isn’t struck down by lightning for his lack of faith. The moral of the story isn’t that because Thomas expressed his doubts, he never experienced Christ’s resurrection and lived an empty existence until he died full of regret. No, Thomas is invited into an intimate embrace with Jesus—a communion with his risen body that the other disciples weren’t offered—to touch him and put his fingers and hands inside the wounds of his resurrection body. Wowser.
There is no more intimate act in the gospels than this one, and it came about because Thomas expressed his feelings, his doubt, and his need. I’m sure it was a long, difficult, dark week for Thomas, struggling out loud with his doubt. But on the other side of that challenge, comes this reward—a moment of transcendence far greater than our own meager ability to simply cast doubt out of our lives, a relationship that is transformed for the greater, and a faith that by honestly facing a challenge has become deeper, fuller, and more real.
Jesus’ final word in our reading this morning is “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have come to believe” NOT “Blessed are those who have not doubted, and yet have come to believe.” NOBODY believes without first having doubted. If there was nothing to doubt, there would be nothing to believe in. And without expressing himself, there never would have been an invitation to something far greater than he could have achieved by keeping his mouth shut. And without feelings being expressed and dealt with, without the conflict that arises being dealt with, there can be no peace; we cannot be our best selves, only repressed versions of ourselves; there can be no peace, only regret.
So, beloved, this Easter I recommend to you to follow Thomas’ example. Don’t let your doubts or your fear of conflict intimidate you into not expressing your feelings, into not expressing your faith.
Matthew 28: 1–10
I woke up this morning feeling pretty lousy. Part of the reason is that I have strep throat. (This is why I’m wearing a mask and why I’m going to be keeping my distance from all of you this morning.) This is the third time in two months that we’ve had strep in the house, but this one is really special because all five of us are taking antibiotics at the same time, which is a new and unbeatable record.
But also (I’ll be honest with you) as a minister, Easter can be pretty intimidating. Expectations among the flock are high. Lots of visitors coming in. Everybody, of course, hoping to feel that spark of Easter joy. And I want to deliver. I do! But on Easter Sunday especially I find myself waking up in the morning feeling inadequate to such a great task. Ministers, after all, are not saints. We don’t perform miracles. All we can do, all we can do is point out the miracles, dress the miracles up in some fancy words, and hope that that plus a bunch of flowers and outstanding music and an Easter egg hunt will somehow be enough. Ministers can’t MAKE a holiday holy for anyone. Sometimes I feel like a traffic cop at a busy intersection frantically waving my arms around and blowing my whistle like a maniac in the hope, in the hope that the drivers will get the message and not just speed by blowing their horns.
I left the house this morning just before sunrise to walk down to Starbucks for some Easter fuel. And as soon as I stepped out the door resurrection erupted all around me. The birds in my backyard were going crazy with singing: Squeaky robins, wild chirping sparrows, crying doves, a whole bunch of beautiful songs I couldn’t identify, even in the distance the cawing of the crows was echoing. “Nice try,” I said to God, “But thanks to you I have a very busy morning of trying to work miracles, and I have no time for your little show!” And I marched through my backyard.
Walking down Clark Street, I looked up in the sky and the almost-full moon was still bright just above the rooftops and there ahead of me, tracing the pink ribbon of the sunrise, was the elusive and beautiful Great Blue Heron in flight, perhaps just returning from the Caribbean or further south to come home to its breeding grounds. And I thought, “Is every spring morning just as beautiful as this? Or is it special just because I’m desperately looking for a little inspiration for my Easter sermon—desperate to point out life and miracles to a world speeding by blowing their horns at me.
And then I got the lot behind Starbucks, the resurrection chorus of the birds following me the whole way down, and then I heard way off in the distance a very unmusical honking. Like two car horns battling it out on the street. And then, right above my head, two Canada geese come dropping, honking down out the sky and they splash themselves down right in the middle of the Glen Ridge Community Pool, looking very pleased with themselves.
And now it felt like Easter was just taking over the whole world. And that’s when I remembered that even though no minister has the power to work miracles on Easter morning, God does. There is a special power on display on Easter morning (and for all I know every morning). And I know it works best if you’re paying attention to it, if you’re looking for it. But even if you’re just speeding by, sometimes God reaches out and grabs you with the power of that wild goose the Holy Spirit. And maybe on this Easter morning, whether you’re looking for it or not, God will grab you with the power of resurrection. Do you think that’s a possibility?
The title of my sermon this morning is Resurrection NOW. Because for Christians resurrection has never been just about what happened to Jesus 2000 years ago. It has never just been about the future resurrection that scripture and tradition promise will come to all of us around the final judgment. Resurrection—as a miraculous power of life and transformation—has always been about how we are living our lives right now. The Apostle Paul tells us that in baptism all of us have come to share in Jesus’ death and Jesus’ resurrection. It’s strange to think of ourselves as having died already. It’s strange to think of living like we were already resurrected, but that’s what Paul says our faith life should be like—live like you’re already dead and like (through the grace and power of God) you’re already on the other side of resurrection.
This Lent I reread a bestseller from about a decade ago--The Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing, by Bronnie Ware. Ware worked for many years as a palliative care nurse in hospice and got to know her dying patients very well. She noticed that all of them, in dying, were going through a process of transformation. And in that process of life review, they would speak to her about their lives—their memories, their joys, and (almost always) their regrets. According to Ware, the five most common regrets of the dying were:
As I was reading the book, I started thinking: If we Christians really share in Jesus’ death and resurrection, then what better time than the Easter season, to seize resurrection NOW, and flip these regrets on their heads. If these are the top five regrets of the dying and if we’re living in faith by the power of resurrection, then let’s live NOW in a way that won’t leave us with so many regrets when our time comes. So, throughout the season of Easter I’m going to be coming back to regrets 2 through 5 preaching about work-life balance, expressing our deepest feelings to one another, the importance of friendship, and how to be truly happy. But to kick us off on this Easter Sunday, I want to touch on the biggest regret of all: I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life that others expected of me.
Ware says that this one is the most common regret of all. That when people realize that life is coming to a close and they look back, they see clearly all of the unfulfilled dreams, all of the values left unlived, the stories that they had hoped to write for themselves but never did. She says that when the dying look back they often see that they have not honored even half of their dreams and they die knowing that this is most often due to choices they made or failed to make in their lives.
Ware recommends to us that we try to live out our dreams before it’s too late. She says that we often don’t recognize how precious the days of our lives are. On Tim Urban’s fascinating blog, Wait But Why, there’s a 2014 post called “Your Life in Weeks” in which a very generous 90-year human life was graphed out in weeks. And when you see a human life reduced to a mere 4,680 little weeks, it strikes you just how little time we have to be or to become the people we most want to be. Urban graphs our weeks out as little squares, and plots out all kinds of interesting things in the post, but what astounded me most was the fact that 4,680 squares is just two sheets of standard graph paper.
What better day than Easter to begin to plot out your dreams on the squares of your life. What is it that you want to do? Who do you want to be? What do you want to achieve? If nothing comes to mind, God bless you. You are a saint and a true spiritual genius. You need nothing from me. But I think most of us when asked these questions feel that there is something we long to do, someone we long to be that we just haven’t had the time or the opportunity or the resources or the courage to make happen yet. If that’s the case, you and I have a limited number of weeks left to live those dreams. So, what better time to start than right now, on a day that is full of God’s miraculous resurrection power?
And I will leave you with one resurrection recommendation. Whatever your dreams are, don’t forget what resurrection tells us about ourselves and about our purpose as human beings: God came to us in human form in Jesus Christ. This was a very strange thing for God to do. How could God, who is holy and perfect, take on physical form, which is unholy and imperfect? But the early Church told us that God did this out of love for us. And don’t worry. Doing it didn’t make God less holy or less perfect. It made being human more holy and more perfect than it had ever been before.
And God came to us in human form to love us and relate to us in ways God had not been able to before. Moses could only look upon God’s back with his eyes closed. If he had looked at God’s face he would have died. But Jesus lived with us face to face, touching us, teaching us, feeding us, healing us, embracing us as only another creature can. Drawing us more closely and intimately into communion with God. And Jesus died for us in total forgiveness of our unavoidable sins and human imperfections. And then Jesus was resurrected, not just because he wanted to be alive again, but in order that all of us might become a part of his body, and in becoming a part of his body that we might share in his resurrection life starting now.
Pursue your dreams this Easter. And never forget that one of your destinies as a human being, one of the reasons you exist, and one of the great joys of being alive, is to be united to God through Jesus Christ. Whatever other dreams you pursue—and please do pursue them—may they lead you closer to that great purpose—relationship, love, and even union between you and the one who made you, came to earth for you, died for you, and rose for you. Beloved, Christ is risen, and by the power of Christ, so are we.
The title of my sermon this morning is The Power of Grief. As you heard, my uncle died this past week. And it's been hard on me and on my family. We have a small little family. We only had four baby boomers in our family. And we've lost my aunt and my uncle in less than a year. And then my mom just about two and a half years ago. So it's been a lot for little family. A lot of loss and a lot of grief.
And I think in order to begin to understand what I would like to try to say this morning, I have to define a difference between mourning and grief. Mourning is a period of pain and an experience of pain over a great loss. Grief is not just the experience of pain over a specific loss. Grief is a confrontation with the power and the reality of death and suffering in our world at a much larger scale than one particular loss or one particular death. Grief is bigger than mourning in the sense that we're asked to confront the whole reality of pain and loss in our world. And I want to talk to you about the power of that confrontation and what it can do for us once we’re on the other side of it.
I will never forget the moment that I was sitting with my mom in her hospital room—she had been admitted to the hospital because the tumor in her abdomen, the largest tumor in her abdomen, had sucked up all the blood in her body so that she had no blood left anywhere else for all the things that blood needs to do. And so she went into the emergency room on the verge of death, and they pumped her full of liters and liters of new blood. And she was admitted to the hospital for a number of days as the doctors were trying to stabilize her and figure out what they could do for her. And I went to visit her and we had a long conversation about life and death and our relationship. And at the end, she said to me, “You know, I think that I would be better off in hospice than here in the hospital. I think I'm ready to die.” And what a heartrending thing that is for a son to hear his mother say! And at the same time, I felt so much relief because I knew in that moment that my mom was going to have a good death. Not a painless death, not a griefless death, not a death without any kind of resistance or fear But it was a good death because in that moment, she had confronted the reality of what had to come. She accepted it. She was willing to live with it. And I think that our scripture reading this morning is not a story of resurrection—not primarily, not fundamentally. That is the end of the story, but it is a long scripture reading that is primarily about the confrontation with death, the acceptance of death, the wrestling with grief that must come before the miracle can come, before the resurrection can come.
The story of Lazarus’ resurrection, it doesn't pull any punches at all, does it? One of my favorite depictions of the raising of Lazarus in art is a painting from the 1400s by Nicholas Froment. And if you want to Google Froment and Lazarus, this painting will certainly pop up on your phone. You can see it, you'll see a picture of Lazarus rising from the grave. And it is so clear that this is the resurrection not of a happy body, but of a cadaver that's been in the ground for four days. And you see Martha over on the left hand side of the painting, and she's got a handkerchief over her mouth, and she is swooning because of the smell that she had warn to Jesus about. And Lazarus rises, stiffly from the grave, absolutely stiff. His face is held by a death rigor. He's smiling like a corpse. And no one in the crowd who is watching this looks happy at all about what they're witnessing. Many of them have averted their eyes. They can't look at it directly, and it looks much more like a scene from a haunted house or from a horror movie than it does like a miracle story from the Bible. Because I believe that Froment understands that the story is a meditation on death as much as it is a meditation on resurrection. I think that this is a story about Jesus' own struggle in his life and journey to face death so that he can live more fully to be the person he has been called to be, to live that fearless, selfless life of service to others that he's been called to.
So I want to just talk a little bit, trace that out, this struggle with death in the text—it is not an easy resurrection; it is not an easy journey. When Jesus receives the word that Lazarus is ill, he says to the disciples, “This illness does not lead to death.” Well, he was wrong about that, wasn't he? He says it's for God's glory so that the Son of God may be glorified through it. Well, that may be the end of the story, but Jesus is not being realistic about the fact that he is actually going to have to confront death, really confront death. And we'll see that in a moment—that he does that. This illness does lead to death, and it is only by leading to death and to dealing with that death and that grief that we get to whatever may come beyond it, the glory, as Jesus calls it. So Jesus, in fact, is maybe fooling himself a little bit here, and he ends up, it says, staying two days longer in the place where he was, even after hearing that Lazarus is ill. And we'll talk a little bit more about that delay in a moment here and what that was all about.
Then Jesus, after two days of delay, he begins to talk to the disciples about the need to go and visit Bethany. And he says, our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep. And that's an interesting euphemism for death. And it makes me wonder about the fact that Jesus can't say right away that Lazarus has died, that he has to that he has to use a euphemism, that he has to say he's passed, he's fallen asleep. He can't quite get all the way to death. And he does it in such a way that it even confuses the disciples, and they don't know what he's talking about. What do you mean he's fallen asleep? And Jesus says, “No, all right, fine. I'm trying to tell you that he's dead. And let me tell you something else for your sakes (for your sakes!) disciples, I'm glad I wasn't there. But I'm not so sure that it was for the disciples’ sakes. I wonder if it's for Jesus' sake—Jesus' own nervousness, his own fear about the process and the prospect of facing this grief. And the disciples seem to understand that Jesus is struggling with something here that is bigger than just Lazarus and Lazarus's death, that Jesus is in some way facing his own death. They're saying, “Oh, please don't go back to Judea. Everybody in Judea was just trying to stone you, the temple authorities and the Pharisees. Please don't go there.” And he says, “No, I've got to go.” And so the disciples say, “All right, we're going to go too, so that we may die with him.”
Now we get to this interesting note here that Jesus arrives, and Lazarus has already been in the tomb for four days now. Jesus delayed for two days before heading to Bethany, and he seems to suggest that he does it because he doesn't want to get there while Lazarus is just sick, he wants to make sure he’s good and dead for the miracle Jesus wants to perform. But the math says that that can't possibly be true because when Jesus arrives, Lazarus has already been in the tomb for four days. And that means that if Jesus hadn't delayed for two days, when he arrived in Bethany Lazarus would've been in the tomb still for two days, which is plenty dead to perform a resurrection. So we begin to see that Jesus's resistance here is not about the miracle that he is going to perform. It's about his own fear of facing that tomb, that reality and that grief.
And so when Martha runs out of the house, she says to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” And Jesus has a very logical, composed conversation with her about the fact that “I am the resurrection in the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live.” It's a little cold. And then Mary runs out of the house and Mary, of course, is the one who is most distraught. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” The same phrase. And this time, Jesus doesn't give her a theological response. This time, Jesus gives her an emotional response. He sees all the mourners weeping around her, and he, it says, “was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, where have you laid him? They said, Lord, come and see. Jesus began to weep.” Then Jesus again, “greatly disturbed, came to the tomb.” This is the confrontation that Jesus has been avoiding, the one that he was afraid to speak of, the one that he was afraid to feel. It is only now that he is ready at the tomb to roll away the stone, to face the death that's inside, and to call Lazarus out.
Some biblical scholars have written that Mark and Matthew and Luke leave the story of Lazarus out altogether perhaps because they may have felt that it took away from the impact of Jesus's own resurrection story which follows so closely on the story of Lazarus's resurrection. Because it's a really big story, so why would those three gospels leave it out entirely? Such an enormous miracle, such a big moment in Jesus' life? But I would argue that John includes the story of Lazarus, not as a foreshadowing or a distraction from the resurrection to come, but as a confrontation with the pain of death before Jesus' own coming crucifixion. The point here is that even Jesus must face death. And even for Jesus, it's difficult to do. And as Christians, I think we need to accept the full lesson of the text—that Jesus is, yes, the resurrection and the life. And yes, those who believe in him will never die. And that to really live into that reality and to one day die a death that surely rests in that faith we (just like Jesus) have to get uncomfortably close to death: to see it, to feel it, to grieve it. We must accept it, and we must not think that we can do that without paying a price, without a struggle of some kind. And that struggle is grief.
Jesus says, blessed are those who mourn. And I've come to believe in my own confrontations with death and in my own grief and mourning, that the truest Christian is the one who most deeply mourns the pain and the suffering in this world. Because it is only from the perspective of mourning and from deep grief that the veil of this world is pulled back and we see life in it’s the truest reality of it’s fragility and vulnerability—the deep, deep pain that we've all felt and that we all know. It is only from the perspective of mourning that we can really hear (emotionally) the calling to serve this world and all of its deepest needs. When we grieve, we begin to learn how to live. That's the gospel message. If we want to experience and participate in God's greatest power, then (just like Jesus) we need to travel physically and emotionally into grief to get to the place where death is. Now, this has been the theme of many of my sermons this Lent, because it's a theme of Lent. I think it's certainly the theme of Holy Week and Good Friday. If we want to experience God's power, most fully, we need to get close enough to the suffering places of our world so that we can feel it for ourselves. Instead of avoiding the hardest realities of existence, we need to pick a fight with them, wrestle with them, heal them, and accept them.
Those who do not follow Jesus' command, to heal the sick, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, and to visit the prisoners, I don't think that they don't do it because they're just lazy. We don't do it because we're afraid. But when we get close enough to heal and to comfort, and to feed, and to clothe, when we come to the tomb, we have come to the place where God's power and activity is most visible. If we're unwilling to deal with death, we can get stuck in a life that is way too safe, way too small to ever act out these incredible words of faith and triumph, “Unbind him and let him go.” Avoiding death, not knowing grief, limits our lives. But faith facing death frees us not only to a good death, but to a fearless life of love and service. So blessed be those who mourn. They will get so close to God's power that they may be comforted.
Jesus the Imagination
Thoughts and dreams, musings and meditations