The Rev. Peter Faass
Many of you know I take issue with the way lectionary compilers edit the scripture. The passage from Acts begins by saying, “Peter addressed the people, “You Israelites, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we had made him walk?”
It begs the question, “made who walk?”
As we are in Easter season, my first inclination was to think that Peter and his companions were accused of making Jesus walk, of somehow resuscitated Jesus. This of course would’ve implied that Jesus was not dead. There was no shortage of people in those post-Easter days – like in our own day - working to undermine the authenticity of the Resurrection, so this fits with that pattern. But the one referred to as walking was not Jesus.
The lectionary compilers significantly omitted part of the story. In the preceding verses, Peter and his companion John entered the Jerusalem Temple and encountered “a man lame from birth.”
“People would lay him daily at the gate of the temple called the Beautiful Gate so that he could ask for alms from those entering the temple. When he saw Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked them for alms. Peter looked intently at him, as did John, and said, ‘Look at us.’ And he fixed his attention on them, expecting to receive something from them. But Peter said, ‘I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.’ And he took him by the right hand and raised him up; and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong. Jumping up, he stood and began to walk, and he entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God.” (Acts 3: 2-8)
Those who witnessed this healing were astonished. Peter explains that he and John haven’t done this healing. God of the Hebrew people, through Jesus, has empowered the disciples to perform acts of healing. Peter delivers a campaign speech to convince people not only of Jesus’ resurrection, but that he is the one, true Messiah of God.
This riles the religious authorities. “While Peter and John were speaking to the people, the priests, the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees came to them, much annoyed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming that in Jesus there is the resurrection of the dead. So, they arrested them and put them in custody until the next day, for it was already evening. But many of those who heard the word believed; and they numbered about five thousand.” (Acts 4:1-4)
The next day, the disciples are put on trial. Peter again speaks eloquently in witness to Jesus’ Messiahship. The previously lame man, now healed, shows up as a witness and it pulls the rug from underneath the religious authorities’ claim that the faith Peter and John proclaim in Jesus is a sham.
“[The authorities] ordered [Peter and John] to leave the council while they discussed the matter with one another. They said, ‘What will we do with them? For it is obvious to all who live in Jerusalem that a notable sign has been done through them; we cannot deny it. But to keep it from spreading further among the people, let us warn them to speak no more to anyone in this name.’ So they called them and ordered them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered them, ‘Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.’ After threatening them again, they let them go, finding no way to punish them because of the people, for all of them praised God for what had happened.”
This story is a first century version of George Orwell’s 1984. In 2018, we see this with governmental and political manipulation of the news media to control and silence news that threatens those in power.
In 1984, the authorities (known as the Inner Party) persecute individualism, independent thinking and any message dissenting from the official party line, which are regarded as "thought crimes." Currently, we have experienced this type of control over dissent by certain political leaders and operatives who label independent thought and thinking as being fake news, which to them is a thought crime.
This is what the authorities who arrest Peter and John are attempting to do; label the message of salvation being preached as a thought crime and fake news. It is a blatant attempt to control a message that threatens them and to prevent others from hearing it. The good news of Jesus’ resurrection, his being the Messiah, and the power he has given to his disciples are labeled fake news by the authorities. The Good News is powerful, and threatens those in power and their ability to control people.
How often do professed Christians, either actively or passively proclaim that the Good News is fake news? How about those alleged Christians who turn a blind eye when political or religious leaders they support commit adultery, lie, cheat, steal, abuse, and in other ways mock the message of Jesus? How about those alleged Christians who continue to enthusiastically support these leaders who are unrepentant and unremorseful about their behaviors? What these folks are actually saying is that the Good News is fake news, because the Good News proclaims that the Ten Commandments, Beatitudes and the New Commandment matter and are essential to a good and holy life. They are critical to being an authentic disciple of Jesus.
How about Christians who believe that Jews, Muslims, Hindus, people of color, and immigrants from Africa, Asia and Central and South America (basically anyone not white and Christian) are inferior human beings from worthless countries and cultures? They are declaring is that the Good News is fake news. In the reign of God Jesus proclaims, we are called to respect the dignity and worth of every human being, and to seek and serve Christ in all persons.
What about those who profess to follow Jesus believe that Christmas and Easter are just sweet children’s holidays and are best celebrated with trees, carols, Santa Claus, bunnies, eggs and candy? When we believe this, we are declaring that the Good News is fake news. The Good News proclaims that the Incarnation of God in Jesus, and the Resurrection of Jesus from the grave profoundly express a God who loves us more than we can imagine. Those two mighty acts of love are able to redeem all the sin-sick brokenness of the world, and to bring new life to all creation.
How often do our words and deeds proclaim the Good News as fake news?
When the risen Jesus appears to the disciples in the upper room, he affirms his authenticity by letting them touch his wounds and by eating real food. But his presence is validated by his words, “Peace be with you.” His message of peace calms their fears, eases their doubts, and gives them the strength and courage to proclaim without ambiguity the Good News is real and proclaims the truth.
Jesus tells them to go and be witnesses to these things that they have seen and heard to the world. My sisters and brothers, that is our task.
Like Peter and John, we are confronted daily by those who would try to sell the world fake news and engage in thought control because they fear and are threatened by God’s truth through Jesus. Like Jesus, Peter and John we are called to speak truth to the manipulative and malicious powers and principalities of the world that want to engage in undermining and destroying the truth of the Good News.
We do so confident that with God’s love, “we cannot” as Peter and John tell their accusers, “keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard” in the life-giving Resurrection of Jesus our Savior. We must persist in witnessing this truth. We do so because we know that truth will set us free.
Live Resurrection Lives of Love!
The Rev. Peter Faass
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
It’s an odd year my friends. It’s an odd year. We preachers have been confronted with two book-ended dilemmas for Lent and Easter in 2018:
As I noted in my Ash Wednesday sermon, we preachers have, with great angst, wrestled over whether to address the calendar oddities of these secular celebrations falling on Christian Holy Days, or to just ignore them all together. As I confronted my fears head-on on Ash Wednesday and spoke of Valentine’s Day, I feel compelled to do so again on Easter and speak about April Fool’s Day.
According to Wikipedia,” April Fools' Day, (sometimes called All Fools' Day) is an annual celebration in some European and Western countries commemorated on April 1 by playing practical jokes and spreading hoaxes. The jokes and their victims are called April fools. People playing April Fool jokes often expose their prank by shouting "April Fool" at the unfortunate victim(s). Some newspapers, magazines and other published media report fake stories, which are usually explained the next day or below the news section in smaller letters. Although popular since the 19th century, the day is not a public holiday in any country.”
I’m not really big on playing pranks, but I do like having fun with words and double entendres, and which limericks do well. In the spirit of April Fool’s Day, here’s an Easter limerick written by Christopher Brunelle:
“Here’s the question that Eastertide begs
Is it all about candy and eggs?
No, the point to be praised
Is that Christ has been raised
And death taken down a few pegs." 
As [the women]’ entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, 'Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here.'
"No, the point to be praised
Is that Christ has been raised
And death taken down a few pegs.”
Days prior to the discovery of the empty tomb on that first Good Friday, as Jesus’ beaten and bloodied body was taken down from the cross and laid in a tomb, it appeared to all who were involved (both Jesus’s followers and his adversaries) that death had won the victory. For his followers all hope was gone. This man whom they called Messiah, who had given them such hope as he proclaimed radical love for all people and a way of life so different, so full of hope from what the world had ever known, was dead. Despair, gloom and abject fear hung like a shroud over the remnant of Jesus’s disciples, who barricaded themselves behind locked doors in the upper room or had fled for their lives into the countryside.
Death, on the other hand, was doing a dance of joy as it once again celebrated that it had the last laugh in human life. As it danced, Death reveled in what it believed was the ultimate truth: that it and its minions of despair, cynicism, hopelessness, and fear were always the eventual victors in all things.
On that first Easter morn, this incomprehensible event of the empty tomb and the resurrection announced by the angel: “He has been raised. He is not here.”
In this very moment of the angel’s announcement at the empty tomb, Easter and April Fool’s Day meet. Based on this meeting I would postulate that the resurrection of Jesus from the grave is the greatest April Fool’s joke in the history of the world, a joke played by God on death itself. “Hey Death, “Easter proclaims, “You thought you won the battle? April Fool’s! Gotcha, the joke’s on you. He has been raised, he is not here! So much for your dancing that victory jig.”
As the second verse of that great Easter hymn, “The strife is o’er” proclaims, “The powers of death have done their worst, but Christ their legions hath dispersed.”
In the face of Death’s apparent victory of hopelessness, despair, and fear, God brings new life. April Fool’s, Death! Love and life win! Oh, what a grand prank that is!
Are you familiar with the BBC show Call the Midwife? This period drama series focuses on a group of nurse midwives working in London’s East End of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. This midwifery is a ministry of an order of Anglican nuns, (yes, Anglican nuns!) from the order of St. John the Divine, which was founded in 1849 as a nursing order. The program’s were comprised of life-professed nuns and lay women. Their home is St. Nonnatus House in the Poplar district of East London. By the way, Nonnatus is a saint from Catalonia in Spain. His name refers to his birth by Caesarean section, his mother having died while giving birth to him.
I love Call the Midwife for a number of reasons, especially the outstanding acting, character development and plot lines. This is not your run-of-the mill treacly British costume melodrama (although I like those too). The program depicts the day-to-day lives of the midwives and their neighbors in Poplar. The plot lines poignantly and honestly portray real-life situations: still-birth, thalidomide babies, pregnancy termination, infertility, Down’s syndrome, abusive relationships, abandoned mothers and babies, poverty, single motherhood, rape, a father left to care for children after his wife dies in childbirth, violence, serious illness, racism, bigotry, senility, loss of all kinds, and death.
Based on these topics Call the Midwife sounds like a real downer, right? Talk about depressing! “Gee, great way to the end the weekend on Sunday nights on PBS, Peter! What other scintillating recommendations do you have for us this lovely Easter morning?”
Death should be dancing a jig of joy in Call the Midwife as people’s lives are harshly impacted by these painful and heart-rending life-events. Only cynicism, despair and hopelessness can be the end-product of all this human misery, pain, loss and death. But the truth is, Call the Midwife is not a downer and not in the least bit depressing. In fact, Call the Midwife is filled with hope, optimism, joy, and new life. And it so filled because of one reason: Love.
The program’s midwives and other main characters are filled with Christ-like love. Whether all of them would describe it that way or not is not important. What is important is that they are filled with Jesus’ love. Despite the challenges and the burdens they encounter, they always bring gentle, compassionate, non-judgmental and hopeful love to every person they encounter, regardless of the circumstances. More often than not, they bring this radical love when they themselves are heavily burdened. Their faith in the value and dignity of every human being is palpable. They see Christ in all, loving all their neighbors as themselves.They live and breathe resurrection lives.
Like that first Easter morning, it’s as if the plot line of life gets to the point where you believe life is hopelessly irredeemable and where Death is ready to declare the victory. Your fear is so great that you want to go and barricade yourself in a room or flee for the hills. The Nonnatus sisters and midwives then come along and roll away the stone from the grave, shouting to Death, “April Fool’s, love and life win!”
This is exactly what Jesus’ Resurrection does for us.
After the Resurrection, the fear that initially gripped Jesus’ early followers was transformed into absolute and resolute faith that the new commandment that Jesus had given them to love one another as I have loved you, would yield resurrection new life. St. Paul states in his letter to the Romans that they were “convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)
We need to hold onto this truth in this current climate of apparent hopelessness and despair. There is resurrection life beyond our current dire circumstances regardless of what they may be. Easter guarantees that. No force was an obstacle to the disciples proclaiming this good news of Jesus’ love to give new life. And neither is there for us.
Call the Midwife models how the early disciples came to lead their lives with wanton love and how they gained new life in the midst of the worst that death could ever throw at them. Call the Midwife reminds us that when we live resurrection lives of love, resurrection happens.
My sisters and brothers, live resurrection lives of love. That’s our gift from Jesus this Easter and every day. In that certainty, when death seems to be ready to do a little two-step on us, we can shout “April Fool’s, Death. Life and love win!“
Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
 Brunelle, Christopher. The Church Year in Limericks, (MorningStar) Printed in the Christian Century, February 28, 2018, p. 3.
John 17: 1-11
Rev. Peter Faass
The opening words of the 17th chapter of John’s Gospel are the beginning of what is referred to as Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer: “Jesus looked up to heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you.”
The setting of the High Priestly Prayer is the upper room on the night before Jesus dies. He and the disciples have just finished foot washing and sharing their last supper. Jesus prays out loud so his disciples may hear him.
In this prayer, this man is about to sacrifice his life to complete the work he has been given – to inaugurate God’s reign. This prayer focuses on life, hope, and ultimate love.
On this Memorial Day weekend, this reading evokes images of the women and men who have served in the armed forces and died for this nation for the past 241 years. Like Jesus, they sacrificed their lives and completed a task for a greater cause - ensuring our nation’s freedoms and defending the sacred gifts of life and liberty. Their lives were and are a living prayer of love for this nation.
As we celebrate the beginning of summer this Memorial Weekend with barbeques, picnics, parades and relaxing, may we pause and give thanks to God for these sacrificial prayers of love given to us by these fallen soldiers and sailors. We do the same when we thank in our worship for the gift of love Jesus gave us in his sacrifice on the cross.
In his farewell prayer, Jesus spoke to God on behalf of the faith community. “I am asking on their behalf,” he prays to God. He asks, “Holy Father, protect them [the community of faith] in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”
With these words, Jesus entrusts the future of the faith community to God. We often forget this powerful theological statement. The future of the church is in God’s hands, not ours. This reminds me of the bumper sticker that states, “If God is your co-pilot, switch seats.”
In this era of institutional church decline, more churches struggle to pay bills, achieve balanced budgets, are challenged with membership growth and with using their building as an asset, etc., this message comes as a wake-up call and a huge relief. The future of the church is in God’s hands, not ours. While that doesn’t release us from proclaiming the Gospel and building God’s reign, it means we are not in control of what God desires the church to be into the future, or how it will get there. Regardless of church’s future, Jesus tells us God will protect us as we do God’s work in the world. That’s a cathartic message. It lightens the burden considerably when wardens, vestry members, other lay leaders and clergy accept that the church’s future is up to God. We just have to be faithful and trust in God’s protection.
At the heart of the High Priestly Prayer, we learn that the Father gave us Jesus, “to give [us] eternal life . . . And this is eternal life, that they [the faith community] may know you, the only true God.”
Christian theology often focuses on the idea of eternal life being the afterlife, i.e., heaven. The idea of eternal life as a future, other-worldly experience contradicts what Jesus preached, that “the kingdom of God is among you” (Luke 17: 21). In this prayer, eternal life comes from knowing God.
As Jesus prays, God is in him, and he is in God. We know Jesus as love. We gain eternal life by knowing God, who is love, and then we live with love.
Jesus’ life, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension reveal the extent and nature of the love that informs our knowledge of God. They reveal the character and identity of God revealed in Jesus, whose life so overflowed with love that he freely gave himself for the salvation of the entire cosmos. To know this God of love is to have eternal life.
If we are to become one with the Father and the Son, we must embody a giving sacrificial love in our lives by:
Every little thing we do, if it is done in love, reveals God within us – the members of the faith community - to others. It ALL matters.
A candidate for our music director’s position emailed me after he auditioned for us this past week. He wrote that he and his girlfriend “…agreed that [Christ Church] was one of the friendliest parishes they ever visited.” His comments remind me that every person and encounter matters, especially when we embody the love of Jesus as we meet them.
To love is lived prayer. The women and men in the armed forces we remember this weekend lived and died in love defending the values of our nation. Their lives were lived prayer. They knew eternal life in the here and now because of that, and I know they are safe in God’s protection.
Jesus, in his High Priestly Prayer, says our lives are in God’s protection, that God is in charge, and that with God ultimately “all will be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” This knowledge about God frees us to incarnate the love of God in all that we are and do. In his High Priestly Prayer, Jesus calls us to a life of living prayer by emulating the love of God within him. When we emulate this love we become one with them, and we come to know God. Eternal life will then be ours forever.
Seeing Through God's Eyes
Ezekiel 37:1-14; John 11:1-15
Rev. Peter Faass
The capture and destruction of Jerusalem and Solomon’s Temple in 587 BCE was an apocalyptic event for Israelites. Everything they valued, socially, religiously and culturally, had been assaulted and threatened. Many believed that the oppressive Babylonian empire would force them to commingle with foreign nations and exile, diminishing the Hebrews’ core identity to extinction.
The exiles despaired, lamenting that their bones were dried up and their hopes had perished. They felt cut off from the Promised Land, the holy city Jerusalem, and from God.
Amidst this dejected situation, God sends the prophet Ezekiel, who experiences a series of oracles including the vision of the valley of dry bones. Prior to seeing these oracles, God told Ezekiel of his desire to offer the House of Israel a new heart and spirit to revive and give them hope by relaying visions of Israel’s future.
In the opening verses, Ezekiel proclaims, “I was among the exiles by the river of Chebar, the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God” (Ezek. 1:1).
In this particular vision, Ezekiel sees an arid valley full of dry bones. The valley appears to be a former battle site, with unburied bodies of dead soldiers left to rot and be eaten by carrion birds and animals.
God asks the prophet, “Mortal, can these bones live?” Ezekiel answers, “O Lord God, you know.” God tells him to prophesy the bones. As he does, the bones slowly come together until they are covered with skin. God then breathes life-giving spirit into these bodies. “And the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.”
God says these bones are the people of the House of Israel. God tells them, “I am going to open your graves and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel . . . O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live.”
It’s an awe-inducing yet impossible vision to believe. For the Hebrews in exile, the good news was difficult to hear and more impossible to visualize.
By relaying his vision, Ezekiel challenges the Israelites to view their dire circumstances through God’s eyes rather than through their limited vision. With human eyes, can dry, desiccated bones live? Of course not!
If we see through God’s eyes, bone suddenly comes to bone. One commentary states, “Watch as ligaments bind them together, flesh blankets them, and skin seals them tight. Watch as God’s spirit, which heals hopelessness, infuses them, so that they rise up – a great army testifying to the power of God . . . [Through human eyes] can corpses be brought forth from graves and become living beings again? Absurd! But look through God’s eyes, and watch them come up, receive God’s spirit and return home.”
If God can restore the desiccated bones of a hopeless people back to life, then there are absolutely no limits to God’s power to do the same for us. If we can see through God’s eyes, envisioning His hope for this world and us, then there is no limit for our being revived from the most desperate and hopeless circumstances.
God’s opening the graves of the dead and putting His spirit back into them also occurs in the story of Lazarus. This story, in John’s Gospel, was written by a community of early Christians recently exiled – or if you will, excommunicated - from the Jewish faith. At its inception, this community considered themselves a Jewish sect.
By the turn of the first century, institutional Judaism determined that Jewish expectations of messiah had not been fulfilled by Jesus, whom the community of John proclaimed as the authentic Messiah. So they were cast out, no longer welcome as fellow brothers and sisters of the faith, even despised. They were considered as good as dead.
This caused considerable despair and hopelessness. In the context of this situation, the author of John tells the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the grave. Whether we believe this is an actual bodily resurrection or not misses the point. It does not matter if Jesus literally raised a corpse to life or not in the fourth decade of the first century, although he could have done so.
It does matter that for the despairing and entombed Johanine community that Jesus –who of course sees everything through God’s eyes - offers them hope and raises them from despair. That hope is centered in the statement Jesus made to Martha when he said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”
In that theological statement, we find that whether in literal or metaphorical death, God’s love for us and the world defeats death in all its insidious forms if we believe in the way and truth of Jesus, who saw everything with God’s eyes.
Ezekiel shared God’s optimistic vision for the defeated and “as-good-as-dead” people. Looking through the eyes of God, Israel would soon be freed from exile and restored to Judea, and the Temple and Jerusalem would be rebuilt. Bone came to bone. Sinew, flesh and skin grew, and God’s life-giving breath was breathed in them. God’s vision of salvation for the people materialized.
In the community of John, the death and entombment of excommunication was transformed by Lazarus’ resurrection. Jesus did this because he loved Lazarus and in that love he conveyed his love for the despondent Johanine community.
In both instances, God gave despondent communities a new heart and spirit. Love is resurrection and life; to love is to see with the eyes of God.
The entire purpose of Jesus’ life was to teach humanity how to see through God’s eyes, which are the eyes of love. The hymn, My Song is Love Unknown, states, “love to the loveless show[n] that they might lovely be.”
The incarnate God always gives us a new heart and spirit so that when our bones are dead and dry, we may find hope to live through that love-filled sight. When we see through Jesus’ eyes, we are released from the graves that entomb us, and he becomes for us resurrection and life.
In those times when we feel as if our bones are dried up and our spirits gone, when we feel like the tomb has been closed over us and the stench of death grows ever stronger, I can think of no greater life–giving message than this one. This is true for us individually and corporately as we encounter social and political shifts that threaten us.
If we do, we have hope and it will propel us to testify to God’s power, and resurrected life will be ours.
Rev. Rachel G. Hackenberg
What is the Church of the 21st century called to be, do and look like? In my work for the United Church of Christ National Offices, I have the frequent opportunity to travel in order to ask this question. The resulting conversations are fascinating, fruitful, continuously complex, and inevitably lacking consensus (which is the beauty of the Church, in some ways).
Because the work I do focuses on church order and organization, the answers to the questions about what the Church is called to be & to do & look like tend to sound legalistic. So I’ll be part of a room full of deeply faithful folks who pray together and worship together and ask each other, “If we say that the Church is called to be a certain way, then don’t we need to change the Constitution & Bylaws on lines 6, 12 & 25, deleting Paragraph 3 of Article 2 and adding an addendum to Section B?”
Not surprisingly, the organization of Church life as it is described in Acts 2 holds much more appeal to us than Constitution & Bylaw debates about Church order.
They devoted themselves to teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to praying. They held one another up in faith and in life – sharing their resources and their hearts. (Acts 2:42-47)
Who wouldn’t want to be part of such a Church! Who wouldn’t want to be part of such a Church where your name is known and your need is known, without shame for having need, where you are supported through seasons of crisis and lament, never lacking for signs of wonder to urge on your faith, never lacking for community who will struggle together for the sake of heaven.
Never lacking for bread, and it’s the rare Church that doesn’t eat well. Which is fabulous, because I like to eat, so the combination of food and God is always sound theological practice in my book.
How magnificent would it be if the 21st century Church broke bread with all people who were hungry! How beautiful would it be if the 21st century Church extended fellowship so that no one went through a crisis alone! How peaceful would it be if the 21st century Church called its own people to live with glad & generous hearts!
What is the 21st century Church called to be, called to do, called to look like?
Lest we pull our hair and gnash our teeth and groan with longing for the good old days when Church people prayed well and ate well and loved well, and never had to endure Constitution & Bylaw debates or spend an hour discussing the altar flower schedule…
Lest we believe too simply that the early Christians embodied Church better than the present-day Church…
The readings from John and 1 Peter this morning hint to us that the early Church shared some of our 21st century insecurities and imperfections.
Jesus’ admonitions and illustrations in John 10 suggest that his followers had a tendency to long for the kind of Good Shepherd who gathers the sheep into the fold, always in, always protected, always huddled together against fear, always wary of the stranger, always behind locked gates, always praying for the fence to be strong, for the wall to be high, for the green pastures to be a fortress, always suspicious of anyone who gets in by an unrecognized route, easily threatened by anyone who does not share their fears, quickly criminalizing anyone who dares to suggest that the still waters are abundant enough to share. Always in, never out. Sometimes the early Church found itself huddling in fear behind locked doors, praying for a Good Shepherd who would keep them safe, forgetting that Jesus in John 10 called himself the gate by which the Church was called not in but out.
Sometimes the 21st century Church resembles the early Church in its fears.
1 Peter encouraged the early Church to cast aside its fear and to set its eyes on salvation, to focus so exclusively on obtaining the resurrection that the experiences of earthly life almost don’t matter. “Be holy so that you can be saved. Do not hide in green pastures that will wither & fade anyway. Do not worry about the needs of the flesh, do not struggle against injustice or authority; even if you are beaten,” says 1 Peter, “let God have the glory.” The early Church of 1 Peter believed that the end of the world was quickly coming, too quickly to spend much time on worldly cares. Faithful behavior was expected of the early Church – hospitality, grace and love, support – as a way of passing the time well until the world ended. Any chaos and suffering were seen as inevitabilities of evil that should not be resisted since salvation was so near.
Like the early Church of 1 Peter, sometimes the 21st century Church has its eyes only set on heaven, not interested in embodying God’s kingdom on earth.
What is the 21st century Church called to be, called to do, called to look like?
If not a Church of fear that hides in green pastures, then who might we be? If not a Church of disengagement that only cares about heaven, then what might we look like?
And, of course, that ever-present question: Depending on how we are the Church, will it change our Constitution & Bylaws?
More accurately, will being the Church change our constitution? Will it change our being, our makeup? Are we – in our essence – any different because we are part of this body, because we are part of Christ’s body, because the work of Christ’s body in the world becomes our work, because the good news of Christ’s being is the good news at the heart of our beings?
I ask because the Church – and I mean the whole, global, ecumenical Body of Christ, with a capital C, which includes Christ Church but isn’t only Christ Church – the Church can be a Church of fear and still do the Acts 2 work of meeting one another’s needs. The Church of fear can say, “We’ll send meals when you’re sick, but we won’t advocate for your health insurance.” The Church of fear can be a Church that feeds people, but it will wring its hands over every penny and it will buy the cheap bread instead of the hearty artisan bread.
And the Church can be a disengaged kind of Church that sets its eyes so much on the prize of resurrection that it tells people just to endure and be good, and still the disengaged Church might know how to proclaim #BlackLivesMatter (although it will be an inconsistent ally at best). When a Black 15-year-old straight-A student athlete named Jordan Edwards is killed by a police officer, the disengaged Church knows how to lament. But when a Black 18-year-old boy on probation named Malik Carey is killed by a police officer, the disengaged Church only shakes its head and mourns that Malik didn’t behave better.
The 21st century Church can do well and still have a constitution of fear. The Church can love strongly and still hold its nose at the work of injustice. Who we are and will be as the Church is a matter of constitution – of being – of the faith that defines our core and becomes our every expression.
And so we strengthen and nurture our constitution with that familiar articulation of faith, the psalm that perhaps we whisper when all other words fail, and we let these images settle at our core and become our being:
The LORD is my shepherd;
I shall not be in want.
The LORD is my green pasture;
I shall not roam endlessly in search of something better.
The LORD is my oasis of still water;
I shall not be discontent.
The LORD is my portion at the table;
I shall not be selfish.
The LORD is my deepest sigh;
I shall not cry alone.
The LORD is my soul’s restoration;
I shall not be discouraged.
The LORD is my calling;
I am not my own.
We are not our own. We are part of the Body of Christ, and the being of Christ is the essence of us. So let us be constituted, let us be comprised of the knowledge that goodness is the character of God and mercy is the call of the Church. All day long, all the days of our lives, goodness and mercy are our confidence, our actions, and our being, as the Church together for the glory of God.
Courage: The Heart of the Resurrection
Rev. Peter Faass
Alleluia, Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!
Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!
Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!
Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!
One of my all-time favorite films is The Wizard of Oz, with Judy Garland, Bert Lahr, Ray Bolger and Jack Haley. The familiar mantra of “Lions and tigers and bears, oh my” occurs when Garland, playing Dorothy, Haley, as the Tin Man, and Bolger, as the Scarecrow, are deep in the forest. Night is falling and the enveloping darkness and sounds of hoots and howls of birds make the three friends very afraid. Dorothy says, “I don’t like this forest, it’s dark and creepy . . . do you suppose we’ll meet any wild animals?”
Scarecrow asks, “You means like ones that eat straw?”
The Tin Man remarks, “Some, but mostly lions and tigers and bears.”
The threesome repeatedly chant, “lions and tigers and bears, oh my,” as they hastily skip down the road. Moments later, they encounter a lion, played by Bert Lahr, who puts up a ferocious front of threatening behavior and roaring. When the lion begins to chase Toto, Dorothy comes to her little dog’s rescue and smacks the lion’s nose. Shocked, he cries, and reveals his true self; he’s a Fraidy cat in lions clothing. While a lion is supposed to be a fearless King of the Beasts, this one is not. Dorothy accuses the lion of being nothing more than a great big coward. To which lion replies, “You’re right, I am a coward.” “In fact,” he says, “I haven’t any courage at all.”
The three friends invite the Cowardly Lion to join them on their journey to see the Wizard at the Emerald City, from whom they hope to receive courage, a heart, a brain, and a return ticket to Kansas.
The Cowardly Lion believes that his fear makes him inadequate and prevents him from being courageous. He does not understand that courage means acting in the face of fear. When the Wizard of Oz gives the Cowardly Lion a medal of courage, it changes his attitude. The medal gives him courage, but more importantly, it gives him faith in himself so he no longer fears those things that threaten him.
“Do not be afraid,” the Wizard seems to telling the Lion, “you will get what you need, including courage, to do good things in the face of terrifying circumstances.
“But the angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, he has been raised from the dead. ’”
“Do not be afraid.” Angels and messengers say this phrase at key moments of tension and drama in the biblical story. “Do not be afraid” are the restorative and empowering words of courage that define the Gospel. Courage in the face of fear is the essence of the good news and lies at the heart of the Resurrection.
Words of courage were offered to the terrified women who came to Jesus’ tomb that first Easter morning. And there certainly is no shortage of fear-inducing events to be terrified by! First, there is a huge earthquake, followed by an angel swooping down from the heavens and rolling away the enormous stone that seals Jesus’ tomb. The angel’s appearance is described as being, “like lightning, and his clothing white as snow.” All that flashing white light the angel emits is fear inducing. So fearsome in fact that we are told, “for fear of him the guards [at the tomb] shook and became like dead men.” Which is a face saving way of saying that, like the Cowardly Lion, they fainted from fright.
And then the angel utters those words of empowerment and comfort, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” So the women left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy to tell his disciples.
Fear and great joy! The announcement of resurrection doesn’t take away their fear; it empowers them to keep faith amid their fear, and to do as the angel commanded them, sharing the good news in spite of their anxiety. They are given courage.
As with the Cowardly Lion, the two Marys discover that courage means acting in the face of fear. This is the very definition of courage. And for this reason, courage is precisely what Easter is about.
Believing in Jesus Christ’s resurrection from the grave is not some panacea that takes away life’s hardships. If that’s what you’re looking for, you will be disappointed. The Resurrection of Jesus gives us the courage to stay standing when life’s earthquakes strike. It enables us to persevere and flourish through adversity. The Resurrection gives us courage.
When the women encounter the risen Lord, he repeats the angel’s words and tells them, “Do not be afraid.” These words are not some saccharine, reality denying, alt-truth. They are the essence of the good news.
We all are aware that living a mortal life means encountering enormously fear-inducing things. Jesus, of all people, understands that.
Chronic and life-threatening illnesses occur, robbing our health and vigor. Family and friends die too soon. In a changing economy, we worry about our jobs, our financial security and retirements. We are fearful of aging and maintaining our physical agility and mental acuity. Crazed dictators, uninformed presidents, and callous governments threaten our security and way of life. The deteriorating environment and the havoc being wrought by global warming on “this fragile earth, our island home” terrifies us. We fear the world we are leaving to our children and their children. Human life is filled with fear.
As we witness the two Marys and the other disciples, the Resurrection of Christ creates the possibility of joy, hope and courage in the face of these fearsome things. Like the medal of courage the Wizard of Oz gave the lion, God in the Resurrection gives us the courage to face life’s hardships. In the Resurrection, we have God’s promise that life is stronger than death, that love is more powerful than hate, that compassion overcomes judgment, and that all the sufferings and difficulties of this life are transient. Sure, these challenges are real, palpable and painful, but because of Jesus’ Resurrection, they do not have the last word nor represent the final reality for us. Resurrection changes everything.
Winston Churchill understood this truth of the Christian faith. At his funeral (which he planned), Churchill arranged to have a trumpeter play Taps in the west end of the nave of St. Paul’s Cathedral. The sun sets on the west side of the church, where the architecture also signifies death. Taps signals the end of a day and is often played at military funerals. After a respectful silence, a second trumpeter played Reveille in the east end of the great nave. The east, of course, is where the sun rises, and in a church signifies Resurrection and new life.
Churchill exhibited great courage in the face of enormous fear, and understood that Christ’s resurrection tells us that God is a God of new life. The good news of Christ’s Resurrection does not take away our fear. It does offer us courage and hope with its promise that God will have the last word, and that word is one of light, life, grace, mercy and love.
Do not be afraid. He is not here, for he has been raised.
Alleluia, Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!
Every Step, Every Tear
The Rev. Rachel G. Hackenberg
The Rev. Rachel G. Hackenberg is an author, speaker, and ordained minister. Her new book, "Sacred Pause: A Creative Retreat for the Word-weary Christian," invites readers to savor familiar words of faith and thereby meet The Word afresh. Click here to read more about Rav. Hackenberg's writings.
I invite you to pause for a moment and breathe deeply. Relax your shoulders. Wiggle your toes. Test (and check) the busyness that is rattling around your brain. Tune in for a moment to your spirit.
How is your spirit? How is your living of these days? What stress did you check at the door when you came to church this morning, or did you bring it with you? What joy (or what chore) waits for you after worship? How present are you in this space?
How would you characterize your soul’s well-being? I don’t mean “What is the state of your soul for the afterlife,” because I trust that God’s grace will meet us fully there. I mean, “What is the state of your spirit – your inward self – in the mornings when you first wake, in the midday when time moves slowly, through the nights when you settle down to rest?”
I ask because the scripture readings this morning all point toward a spiritual healthiness (rolling pastures, miraculous healing, soaring praises), a state of blessedness and satisfaction that is inconsistent with the state of the world, inconsistent with the daily news, inconsistent with the bitter and vitriolic relationships between nations and groups, inconsistent even with our personal lives and our daily routines. The scripture readings paint a rosy picture of life and faith that we (or at least I) don’t perfectly embody or experience. In that juxtaposition between scripture and daily life, in that contrast between green pastures and modern war zones, between the new life that is breathed into Tabitha and the exhaustion that prompts you to hit the snooze button most mornings, it’s worth asking within that space: How are you? How is your spirit navigating its way between the assurance of God’s comfort and the tensions that demand your energy each day?
Consider your spirit through the lens of each scripture reading:
And if all of this morning’s scripture readings tell stories of spiritual satisfaction, let’s pause on Acts 9 for a moment to see that blessedness in greater detail. The story of Tabitha is filled with beautiful examples of all that we Christians say we value in the life of faith:
This is how Christians should live, individually and collectively. This is what our faith should look like: good works that speak louder to the world than our words, care in community to hold and sustain a friend through the very shadows of death.
That said, maybe it reveals something about the state of my spirit that I read the story of Tabitha, of her faithful labor, of her resuscitation and I think, “Would you please just let this tired woman sleep? She has worked herself sick but still you panic when she lays down for even a moment’s rest.”
In my own context of working with ministers and churches – I’m tempted to wonder, “Why couldn’t they let Tabitha go? When she died, why didn’t someone else among that community of Christians step up to set the example of serving others? Did they think that no one else could possibly lead them as Tabitha did? Did no one else know how to make and mend clothing?”
Even if the Christians in Joppa had allowed Tabitha to rest in peace, Acts 9 would still be a story of strong community and life-renewing love. We have a complete set of readings that together tell a story of the kind of faith that lives with deep confidence and peaceful satisfaction … and I simply want to offer the possibility that this confidence and satisfaction may not be how you’re doing. At the very least, it may not be the complete picture of how you’re doing, because God’s comfort does not guarantee that we will never encounter strain or stress, hardship or heartbreak in this life. Our spirits – our everyday lives – are constantly navigating green pastures and the compost pile, the banquet table and the crowd of enemies, blissful praise and sorrowful blues, satisfaction and anxiety, confidence and severe doubt, busyness and fatigue, and life and death.
While we may not feel completely at peace or at ease in that navigation, what we know and cling to is that Christ meets us in both. And not just meets us in both, but actively invites us to see and engage both to:
Christ invites us to root our spirits in an imagination that the world does not have. If your spirit is tired today, if your spirit is discouraged by the big picture of the world or by the daily minutiae in your own life, if your spirit is crying out to God for answers or weeping with pain that won’t ease, then it may seem that imagination is far off. But listen: The task of imagining something new is not your task. Your faith and your own inventiveness do not bear the burden of inspiring and generating something entirely new – that is God’s task. God’s imagination alone can look at death and see a way to new life, uproot evil and plant with a transformative blessing, hold a child’s cries, and create a day when there are no more tears.
God’s work is of holy imagination. Ours is the work of getting up and living into it.
If there are days when you feel too weary to show compassion, let the community surround you and nourish you back to life.
If there are days when you can’t get up, know that Christ sits with you where you are.
When doubt and disbelief seem to consume you, let a friend hold your hand as a reminder that you can never be snatched away from God’s hand.
Should the shadows of death surround you, trust Jesus to plant soft green grasses beneath your feet.
In those seasons when you lose your voice and your joy and your song, believe that the angels carry on the chorus until you can join in again, singing:
“Salvation belongs to God alone! Yes – salvation and glory
and wisdom and honor and power and might
be to God forever and ever,
for in the shadow of God’s throne we are sheltered,
in the sight of God’s glory there is no more hunger or thirst,
by the Lamb who is the Shepherd, we are led step by step to living water
and God will wipe every tear from every eye.”
May God’s imagination not be lost on us, and may our spirits be comforted and confident in the knowledge of it. Amen.
Encountering the Risen Jesus
Rev. Peter Faass
On the first Easter morning, a number of Jesus’ devoted female followers went to his tomb to properly prepare his body for burial. When they arrived, they were perplexed when they found it empty. Two men in dazzling clothes (whom we assume are angels) appeared and said, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, he is risen.”
The women rushed back to Jerusalem and told the apostles this astonishing news. According to Luke, when they relayed the news of Jesus’ resurrection to the apostles, “these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.”
Imagine the apostles sitting around the living room watching the basketball finals on a widescreen TV. The women rush in, breathless, and relay the events of the empty tomb and the angels. The apostles, barely paying attention, say, “Yeah, yeah, right. Say, while you’re up, would you mind grabbing another cold one from the fridge for me?”
An idle tale. The tomb is empty but the apostles do not believe the women’s report. How then would they believe the resurrection?
How many people throughout the centuries have considered the story Jesus’ resurrection an “idle tale?” How many of us do? How can we ever receive the gift of new life God offers us if we see the empty tomb and Jesus’ resurrection as:
If we’re too wise, too rational, too scientific, too savvy, too sophisticated and too enlightened to believe in the resurrection as anything more than an idle tale, how are we can going to truly live the new life that God gave us in that first Easter?
United Church of Christ minister and theologian Walter Bruggemann writes, “The force of the Easter drama cannot be accommodated to Enlightenment rationality. No use in even trying to make such an accommodation.”
He’s right, of course. It’s pointless to try and explain the empty tomb rationally as proof of the resurrection. It’s not persuasive evidence. After all, Jesus’ companions didn’t believe the empty tomb was evidence of his rising all that persuasive either, and they – unlike us - were not victims of the Enlightenment.
If we focus on the empty tomb, we’re focusing on the wrong place for evidence of Jesus’ resurrection. The two angels, perplexed on the women’s focus on the tomb, infer this when they tell the women, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?... He is not here, but has risen.”
The tomb is a place for the dead, not the living. To dwell there is to become dead yourself, or at least one of the living dead – a zombie – but nonetheless dead to receiving the gift of real life, which is the Resurrection’s ultimate gift. To believe in the resurrection, you need to get out of the tomb. The empty tomb alone never leads to Easter faith.
If the empty tomb doesn’t lead us to believe, what exactly does lead to Easter faith? Scripture is clear: Easter faith comes through personal encounters with the Risen Jesus.
“The Road to Emmaus” follows today’s encounter between the women and the angels. In this story about the first Easter, two of Jesus’ disciples talked about recent events as they walked toward the village of Emmaus. Jesus approached them and asked what they were discussing. Unable to recognize him, the disciples told Jesus about the events that recently occurred in Jerusalem.
As they walked, Jesus interpreted all the events of his passion, death and resurrection. When the group arrived at a village, the disciples invited Jesus to eat supper with them. As Jesus blessed the bread, the disciples suddenly recognized their rabbi:
“They said to each other, 'Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?'” (Luke 24:32) They were so excited that they leaped from the table and ran back to Jerusalem to tell the other disciples about their encounter with the Risen Savior. This personal encounter with Jesus convinces the disciples he is alive.
All four Gospels report personal encounters that provide evidence of the resurrection:
The resurrection is made real when we meet people who embody the loving ways of Jesus. It occurs when we are those people who embody his ways. When we preach good news to the poor, welcome the outcast, offer kindness to the lonely, embrace the marginalized and forgive the penitent, we proclaim, “He is risen!”
By raising Jesus from the dead, God is responding to his son’s hideous death and the powers that caused it. God’s vindication of Jesus is the resurrection. God validates Jesus’ preaching the fundamental qualities of His reign to all those outside the margins of society. By raising Jesus, God denies the power of those behaviors, attitudes and beliefs in the world that create broken people… that divide and separate us… that establish one group of people as being better than another. God’s response of resurrection to those who killed Jesus for proclaiming the message of God’s reign is no less profound for us today.
Let’s consider this concept in current events. The resurrection is the ultimate power that leads us to reject those hateful behaviors and beliefs embodied in the vitriolic political climate we are experiencing in government and the presidential campaign.
Ask yourself this:
How are we going to encounter the risen Christ if we:
How will we proclaim the risen Christ and the salvation he brings the world, when we live in such fear, bigotry and hatred? How will we proclaim the risen Christ if we don’t live with compassion, dignity and love?
Some people may think that kindness, compassion, respect for others, dignity and love are – like the empty tomb – not very convincing evidence of the risen Christ. I would argue the exact opposite. Look at the decline in civil discourse in our society. Look at the deplorable tenor in politics! Read the anonymous comments to articles posted on Cleveland.com. You only have to look at Syria, Brussels, Istanbul, Ferguson, the Ivory Coast, Hough and North Carolina. To say that there is a dearth – if not downright absence – of kindness, compassion, respect for others, dignity and love is to engage in gross understatement. These foundational qualities of God’s reign that Jesus proclaims are so disparaged by so many people, that when we do encounter them, it is nothing less than miraculous! Like the biblical encounters with Jesus, when we encounter these qualities, they are proof positive that Christ is risen.
Welcoming the stranger, loving the outcast, healing the broken and loving the unlovable all attest to the truth that God’s power for life is on the loose among us. They are proof that Jesus lives. When we encounter them in others and embody them ourselves, they get us out of the empty tombs, those places of death, and they give us life. Life like we never imagined. Life that is eternal.