Wednesday, April 30, 2014

“Why We Pass the Peace” (John 20:19-31)

One of my favorite cartoons making the rounds during Holy Week was this one:

Oh how the disciples struggled with Jesus’ final days in Jerusalem! Oh how they disappointed him!  One minute they were the closest friends Jesus had, enjoying the popularity of the teacher from Nazareth---a few days later they were caught off guard by the turn of events—his humiliation and theirs---doubting whether they had followed the right messiah.

In fact this is what might be what’s really troubling Thomas in our story today.  Thomas doesn’t so much doubt the resurrection of Christ.  He witnessed the resurrection of Lazarus. What he’s struggling with was whether God had raised the right man—was a person who had lost the battle with the oppressive Roman Empire truly the Messiah?  Was a man who chose not to fight back the “son in whom God was pleased”?  

Thinking back to Moses, the Israelites had experienced a great show of God’s power—the plagues and a dramatic escape through the Red Sea which resulted in the death of many Egyptians.  The Egyptians were brought down, the Israelites lifted up.  Shouldn’t this be how things were with Jesus, or even more so?   As God’s right arm the Messiah would be successful in ushering God’s new world order, a world filled with compassion and equality. The Roman Empire—a world of domination and judgment-- would be humiliated—the Israelites, God’s chosen people--redeemed.  God would reign supreme and justice and equality would bless the Israelites! 

In an amazing turn of events the Roman Empire toppled Jesus, the supposed man of God.  Where were the plagues, the humiliation of the enemy?  Thomas was confused.

I am reminded of a high school pep rally I attended YEARS ago.  Our team, the Paris Greyhounds, were in the state basketball tournament.  Our men’s coach, Coach Randolph, said “I don’t want to come back with the second place trophy.  Do you know what second place says?  It says ‘loser.’”

Round one and round two with the Roman Empire made Jesus look like a loser.  The resurrection of Jesus made Jesus God’s winner.  But was it true?  Did Thomas hear correctly?  God had raised Jesus from the dead? 
Talk about affirmation!

The proof of God’s affirmation OF JESUS was in the resurrection of Jesus.  “Show me the scars,” Thomas says in today’s story, “So that I can believe.”   

But believe what?  Believe that God did indeed affirm the whole life of Christ by raising Jesus from the dead—all that he taught—all that he lived—including love, always love, forever love, no matter what or who LOVE. 

Patiently, lovingly, Jesus encourages Thomas to explore his scars.  What will be the outcome?  Thomas’ confession of faith—not in God’s ability to raise the dead---but of Jesus as the son of God “to whom we should listen.”   To listen to Jesus is to let Jesus shape us. 

“I believe,” says Thomas as he puts his finger in the pitted hand of Jesus, “I believe that God exalted YOU as the Messiah.”  This means that the whole life and loves of Jesus were now Thomas’ life and loves.  He was and would continue to be Jesus’ disciple, or student—he would continue to learn from Jesus and live like Jesus.

What might amaze us this morning is Jesus’ patience with Thomas—with ALL of his Disciples—given their vulnerability and denial and fearful-ness.  In today’s story he finds his friends hiding behind closed doors—AFRAID!  That’s not how Jesus taught them to live with God. Jesus was courageous.  During Jesus’ trial and crucifixion the disciples would disperse; bewildered, distant, denying the relationship ever existed. That’s not how Jesus was with them, either.  He had never given up on them.

So we DO wonder, why wasn’t Jesus angry at the disciples?  Why didn’t he have questions about their behavior---or lectures?  Why wasn’t the first words out of his mouth, “Where were you?” or “Why did you abandon me?” or even “Why are you afraid?”  I certainly have confronted persons who abandoned me in my darkest hour—haven’t you?

Instead Jesus offers his friends holy words; God words.  “Peace to you.  Peace be WITH you.”  Instead of passing  anger and disappointment, the HOSTILITY, Jesus passes the peace, God’s HOSPITALITY.  He was AFTER the crucifixion who he had been BEFORE the resurrection—an instrument of God’s peace; of God’s affirming love.  “Peace be with you,” says Jesus to his friends, “I come to you in love.”

As disciples of Christ today we are invited into the same life as Jesus, God’s life.  We are the bearers of God’s peace, we are  instruments of  God’s love.  And so we say to the people near us in worship, “Peace be with you.”  I come to you, my neighbor in the sanctuary, in love.

And the neighbor then says in return, “And also with you,” meaning “I come to you in love as well, as an instrument of God’s peace.”

In God’s sanctuary we offer one another God’s holy words. 

In a recent issue of the “Christian Century”, a Christian publication, a man by the name of John M. Buchanan writes about how this wonderful, holy moment called “Passing the Peace” has been lost in many congregations. It’s not that it’s not in print in the bulletin, it’s just that many people spend two seconds offering holy words and ten minutes offering secular words, the words we’d exchange at the grocery store should we happen upon one another. 

“I’ve come to dread this part of the service (the Passing of the Peace)” he laments, “It’s become quite chaotic.  People leave their seats, walk around and greet nearly everyone else in the room.  Robust conversations ensue.  There is laughter, sometime raucous, as two members share an inside joke.  People discuss the results of a football game or yesterday’s storm.  It’s a tentative venture for a visitor—I’ve experienced the fear. I’m on my own and not sure what to do.  I feel as if I’ve intruded in someone else’s family reunion.”

Since no one wants to create another person undo pain, Buchanan suggests that congregations make the passing of the peace work better by adding some instruction, such as:  
“When we greet one another in church we do it differently from greetings in the world around us.  Instead of saying ‘Good morning,” or catching up with a friend, or learning your neighbor’s name, we take this opportunity to give to one another the extraordinary gift that Jesus gave to his disciples all those year ago.  These are the words we use:  ‘Peace be with you.’ ‘And also with you.’”

If you look in your Sunday bulletin you’ll notice these instructions before the Passing of the Peace.

Pastor Laurel Dykstra instructs her street church participants in the Passing of the Peace this way:
Whenever I can in a worship service, but especially in street churches, before we “share the peace” I say:

“When Jesus appeared to his disciples, they were hiding upstairs in a locked room—the friends who knew him best, who had betrayed him, who had pretended they didn’t know him, who had run away when he was dying, who hid when he was arrested, who were frightened and ashamed. He appeared among them and greeted them. He didn’t say, ‘What happened?’ ‘Where were you?’ ‘You screwed up.’ He greeted them saying, ‘Peace.’

“No matter who you are, no matter what you’ve done or think you’ve done, whoever you have betrayed or let down, no matter how far you have gone from God, from Jesus, Jesus doesn’t say to you, ‘Where were you? You screwed up.’ Jesus greets you saying, ‘Peace.’ You are not accused, you are invited.”

The first time I used these words, a tiny woman who is addicted to heroin and an occasional prostitute whispered, “That was the first time in so many years that I felt like I was good enough to be part of this.” Over and over again, people shyly approach and let me know that I must keep saying this.

Whatever it is that churches are saying, what poor people and people who are marginalized hear from us is: You are not good enough, you are not welcome, the food bank entrance is around back.
Peace be with you. You are not accused, you are invited.

Another pastor instructs his church to turn to someone near them and ask, “Has anyone told you lately how beautiful you are?”

This is how God sees us, all of us, as “beautiful.” 

This is how God invites us to see each other.

To take this one step further, where we place the Passing of the Peace is just as important.  Over the past few months I’ve placed it where we used to “Greet our neighbor.”   I think this adds to our confusion, our temptation to leave our pews and visit.  Today I’ve moved it right before the Invitation to Communion.

Why?  In Matthew 5:23-24 Jesus instructs his disciples this way, “

The Message (MSG)
23-24 “This is how I want you to conduct yourself in these matters. If you enter your place of worship and, about to make an offering, you suddenly remember a grudge a friend has against you, abandon your offering, leave immediately, go to this friend and make things right. Then and only then, come back and work things out with God.”

By Passing the Peace before we gather at the Lord’s Table we enter God’s goodness offered to all.  We do what God asks us to—to make amends—to be reconciled with one another.

So Christian friends we are growing in our understanding of who we are in worship.  We are instruments of God’s peace—we are the source of God’s holy words—enabling those persons near us to remember that we are ALL beautiful because God says so. As the Apostle Paul says in the 10th chapter of Acts:  “I clearly see that God does not show favoritism.”

As it is with God…let it also be with us. Amen.  

(This sermon was preached by Reverend Dana Keener on April 27, 2014 at Central Christian Church in Billings, MT.)

Sunday, April 27, 2014

“Reach Out” (John 20:19-31)

It is one thing to believe . . . it is another to live as if you believe.  I am not sure of the year, but it is the summer of my 11th or 12th year of life.  We are living at the base of the mountains in Colorado in the small community of Palmer Lake.  There is a public lake down the road where families gather to splash, play, and swim in the lake.  There is a roped off area for the kids where the water is shallow, but further out there is a tall platform . . . a diving platform that goes into the much deeper water.  If you were tall enough you could easily wade out to the platform and hang out with your friends.

I was tall and skinny.  I also couldn’t swim . . . I never ventured out into the deep part of the lake on the other side of the platform.  But I never told anyone that I couldn’t swim . . . that is embarrassing to a 11 or 12 year old boy . . . so, I faked it.  I’d wade out to the platform, climb up the ladder, and hang out with all the other people out there.  Of course the difference was that they were running and cannon balling into the lake, swimming back around, climbing back up the platform, and doing it again and again . . . laughing the whole time over the pure thrill of it all. 

But, not me.  I just stood up there and acted like it was a thrill.  When chided to jump in, I said that I could do it anytime I wanted . . . I just didn’t want to.  The problem was . . . I was scared.  I couldn’t swim despite the bravado and confidence I displayed . . . I was scared to death that I would drown.  So I hung out and waited until no one was looking, climbed back down the ladder, and waded safely to the beach.

Then one day it happened.  It wasn’t by choice.  One moment I was just standing on the platform . . . hear the edge . . . when I suddenly got pushed.  Remember that scene in the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid . . . where they are trying to shake a posse and they come up to the edge of a canyon with a river way down at the bottom . . . and, they were cornered . . . trapped.  Their only escape was to jump and hope that they survived the jump into the river.  Do you remember what the Sundance Kid yelled as he jumped . . . shortly after confessing he couldn’t swim?  Yeah . . . it was that four-letter word that begins with an “S”.  I think they stole that from my life . . .

. . . that is pretty much all I remember as I hit the water with a great big splash . . . that and me thinking that I am going to die while sinking in the murky water.  But a few seconds later I came floating up with my arms and legs flailing . . . and, they kept flailing until I got the part of the lake where I could stand up.  Apparently I survived since I am here this morning.  Trying to catch my breath I was filled with both fear and adrenalin . . . it was actually fun . . . I hadn’t drowned . . . and, whatever I did somewhat resembled swimming.  Pretty ugly swimming, but swimming none the less.  So, what did I do next?  I went back out to the platform and jumped in again.  Amazingly the swimming part got easier each time.  What I said I believed eventually became a reality.

After defeating death, the resurrected Jesus started making appearances to those he loved.  In our reading this morning he appears to the disciples who were still in hiding . . . just shows up in the middle of all of them . . . probably scaring the living daylights out of them before calming them down with a few words of peace and letting them examine him.  But like any group of people it is difficult to get everyone together at the same time . . . one disciple, Thomas, is not there.

Now, if you had been sitting around mourning the death of your leader and the anchor of your life . . . what would you do if you suddenly met him and he was still alive?  Well, I think you would be talking it up.  That is what the disciples do . . . they yak it up about the living Jesus . . . and, they do it right in front of Thomas who missed it all.  He doesn’t believe it.  He wants proof before he is going to validate the words of the others and jump on the bandwagon.

Now I do not think that Thomas did not want to believe.  He respected his fellow disciples . . . they were good guys who wouldn’t pull his leg on something this serious . . . but, he just couldn’t allow himself to let go and fully believe.  He couldn’t set himself up for the pain once again . . . the pain of losing the one he loved so much.  He was scared . . . scared that maybe they were wrong.  As much as he wanted to believe . . . as much as he thought he believed . . . it was all in his mind.  He wouldn’t jump off the platform.

A week later, the disciples are gathered once again in a house—this time Thomas is with them.  Then suddenly Jesus appears among them like magic.  He again greets them with words of peace . . . and then he turns his attention to Thomas.  He tells Thomas to “reach out”.  Reach out and touch the wounds . . . reach out and touch him . . . reach out and know.  In that moment of “reaching out” Thomas moves from thinking “belief” to actually living “belief”—he jumps off the platform and it is either sink or swim.  Thomas swims.

Thus we are confronted in this reading this morning . . . confronted with having to choose . . . to choose between a faith that is lived in our minds or a faith that is lived in our daily lives.  Unfortunately we were not lucky enough to be around when all of these resurrection appearances were taking place . . . we were not privileged to encounter the resurrected and physical Jesus who had defeated death.  We do not have the physical evidence that these early followers got.  Yet, we are called to believe and live as if we had.  Easier said than done.

That is what Jesus wants.  Jesus wants us to live our lives as if we believe . . . and to do so we have to reach out and embrace life in Christ.  Note that I said, we have to reach out and embrace life in Christ.  Faith or belief cannot only be nice words that rattle around in our heads . . . no, they need to migrate further south to our hearts and then into the way that we live our lives.  That only happens if we reach out.  The reward?  Blessing.  Jesus said, “. . . blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

Despite most of us thinking that belief is a set of words that describe something, belief is more than words.  Belief is what drives our lives . . . makes us want to get up in the morning . . . makes us want to reach out and touch the lives of others . . . makes us to do whatever it takes to get closer and deeper in love with God.  Belief is not a set of words that reside in our minds . . . belief is how we live our lives.  It is reaching out . . . to others . . . to the world . . . to God.

I am not sure what it is that keeps us from truly living lives of belief . . . probably fear.  Kind of like standing on that platform telling everyone we know how to swim when the truth is we can’t swim a lick.  Scared to jump and scared to admit that our words don’t fit our actions.  And, so, we stand and inwardly shake with fear . . . wanting to jump, but too scared to jump.  But we have to jump if we really believe . . . we have to jump.  Sometimes  it doesn’t hurt to be shoved a little . . . but, it is something we all have to do to really believe. 

Wherever you are in your journey of faith all I can offer to you are the words of Jesus who said to “reach out”.  Reach out and keep on reaching out . . . live as if you believe . . . and, be blessed.  Amen.