Family. It’s such a beautiful word. It speaks of love, and tenderness, and connection, and responsibility. It speaks of milestones like the first step and the last day of school senior year. It is seen in pictures of smiling people leaning together and also in inside-jokes that leave those in the know in stitches. It’s a beautiful thing—or, it can be.
Family. It’s such a loaded word. Whose family? Yours or mine? A family in which the parents are married or not? In which the parents are of the same sex or opposite sexes? A family with children or without? A family in which the primary caregivers for children are parents, or one in which they are grandparents, or aunts, or uncles, or folks in the foster system?
Here’s a family story…
Welcome to the only day in the church calendar that is entirely devoted to a theological claim. It’s Trinity Sunday! Today we do not commemorate something specific that happened, as we did last Sunday with the story of Pentecost—the sending of the Spirit in wind and fire, the miracle of communication as the story of Jesus was shared, the birth of the church among Jesus’ followers. Nothing like that. Instead, the Consultation on Church Union—an ecumenical body that created the Revised Common Lectionary I generally use for preaching—that body invites us to join together with churches all around the world in pondering the mystery of the Trinity, an understanding of the nature of God that arose in first centuries of the church, and which was declared orthodox doctrine at the Council of Nicaea in the year 325 AD.
Many pastors like to call this “Heresy Sunday,” because, let’s be frank, everyone is on thin ice trying to describe something that scripture fails to name or define….
Image: Jesus healing the paralytic in Capernaum, Church of Santa Appolinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
All these layers are present in this moment when a mighty wind sweeps through the place where Jesus’ friends and followers are gathered, when fire seems to fall on them, when they are moved to go out into the city, out amongst the thousands and thousands of pilgrims, and speak out, speak the word, stand up and tell the story of Jesus.
Something astonishing happens out there. Something unexpected, and unequalled. Jesus and his friends and followers are all Galileans. That means their native tongue is Aramaic, and they are no doubt preaching in their native tongue. But people are gathered from all over the world… Parthians, Medes, Elamites and so forth. I’ll use the modern names for the countries all these empires stretched across 1,988 years ago. There were people from the places we know as Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Asia Minor, Anatolia, Turkey, Greece, Egypt, and Libya. People who had traveled from all these places heard the friends and followers of Jesus speaking, and they understood them, just as if they were speaking their very own languages…
Image Courtesy of Clipart-Libary.com.
magine with me, living in the days when Jesus lived, and moved, and had his being firmly planted in the world, and also, turned it upside down. But imagine you are not one of the followers of Jesus, but, instead a friend of theirs. A relative. You’re the mother of Matthew the tax collector. You’re the son of Simon Peter. You’re a neighbor of Mary Magdalene. You’re a cousin of James the lesser.
And one day, you are cleaning your nets, or kneading dough to bake bread, or standing deliberating at the gates of the city, or waiting by the well for your turn to draw water, and your loved one comes rushing up to you.
“We saw Jesus again today! And this time, we saw him lifted up into the sky! Yes, I know I’ve told you he was raised from the dead, and he’s been around for more than a month, but now he’s gone again… he just rose into heaven, in a cloud, and then he was gone.”
And what do you think you would have said to this loved one of yours?
Image: “Ascension” by Javanese artist Bagong Kussudiardja
Jesus the Resurrection and the Life (John 11:17-26)
When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ Jesus said to her, ‘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. Do you believe this?’
Guest Pastor: Rev. Lea Harding
Guest Pastor: Rev. Dr. Bob White
Old Testament Scripture: A paraphrase of the Genesis Creation narrative, taken from Chapters 1 & 2:
“In the beginning, when God created the universe, the earth was formless and void. By the seventh day God’s work in creating the universe was finished, and it came to life, ever moving and ever to be expanding . . . by then it was time for God to rest. God blessed that day of rest and set it apart. That was the day God’s creation was complete, and that is how the universe was created.”
New Testament Scripture: This Epistle reads more like a sermon than a letter, and was most likely written to third-generation Christians in the Church in Ephesus, Greece. 1 John 1:1-4:
“We write to you about the Word of life, which has existed from the very beginning. We have heard it, and we have seen it with our eyes; yes, we have seen it, and our hands have touched it. When this life became visible, we saw it; so we speak of it and tell you about the eternal life which was with the Father and was made known to us. What we have seen and heard we announce to you also, so that you will join with us in the fellowship that we have with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ. We write this in order that your joy may be complete.”
It was a cold, October day. I was standing over a large iron grate in the dining room of my grandparent’s farm house. The furnace rumbled and groaned in the dark abyss below, releasing a trickle of heat that warmed me.
My mother had been called to her father’s deathbed in Danbury, Connecticut, a little over an hour drive from where we lived in White Plains. I was about to be exposed to a dying person for the first time, and didn’t quite know what to make of it. I could hear voices through the wall behind me, when suddenly I heard my mother’s cries burst forth as she came out the bedroom. Tears streamed down her face. “He’s gone,” she sobbed. “I saw his soul rise up to heaven.”
SOUL? RISE UP? My mother had made sure my brother and I were raised with a proper Episcopalian background. We had all the smells and bells, but without the Pope and Rosary Beads – and yet, this would be my first serious lesson in practical theology. I was thirteen! What was I to say? I had a lot of things on my mind at thirteen! The first thing that came to mind and out of my mouth, was, “How’d he get through the ceiling?”
What comes to your mind when YOU hear soul, spirit? I know Pat uses those words from this pulpit. Do they mean Invisibility? Immortality? . . . that element of death which leaves the human body and lives on? Is that really what the Bible teaches us about life after death? For thousands of years, scholars and theologians have struggled with this issue.
More than a hundred years ago, Henry Scott Holland, an Anglican priest and Professor of Divinity at Oxford University, preached a sermon on Death at St. Paul’s Cathedral, in the City of London. An excerpt from his sermon has become a funeral poem. It reads:
“Death is nothing at all. It does not count. I have only slipped away into the next room. Nothing has happened. Everything remains exactly as it was . . . What is this death but a negligible accident? Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight? I am waiting for you, for an interval, somewhere very near, just around the corner. How we shall laugh at the trouble of parting, when we meet again! All is well.”
After the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been stabbed by a disturbed person, and was within a sneeze of dying, he stated his view of death and eternal life: “I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land.”
Earlier this year, there was a NOVA show on PBS in which a Harvard astrophysicist, an expert on black holes, described what it would be like if we were able to be sucked into the gravitational vortex of a black hole. With a strained look on her face, she concluded by saying, “That would be it!” I thought she was going to burst into tears. It was all very dramatic, leaving me to realize that was not only her scientific view, but her spiritual view as well – of death and of no hereafter. “That would be it!”
I felt as though I was back standing over that black grate in my grandparent’s house, except I was seventy-years older, and still puzzled by all that this could mean. What about soul and spirit, I wanted to ask this professor? What about the Empty Tomb? What about the Resurrection? What would Professor Holland or Dr. King have to say, if they were alive?
More questions than answers, and then I had a flash-back to over five years ago: A young doctor was standing at the foot of my hospital bed, bearing a smile and holding a long sheet of graph paper up for me to see. On it were traces of my beating heart, until the line became flat – “That’s when you weren’t here,” he said, in a cheery voice.
I wasn’t here? Where was I? I stared at the graph paper. When he left my bedside, I closed my eyes and went into a drug-induced sleep. The image of a city sidewalk came into mind. I was alone, until suddenly there were others and I became swept along with them toward a revolving door. We squeezed into a quarter section of the door and shuffled around. When the door reached the half-way point my fellow travelers disappeared into a distant unknown. I was left alone to shuffle around in the revolving door, before being popped back out onto the sidewalk.
What happened to me in that short space of time? Where was I? What part of me was caught up in that door – was it my soul, my spirit? I don’t know, but this I do believe: Half-way along that flat line was a large blip on the graph paper, and the line went flat again. Was that a blip of life, half-way around that revolving door? In that twinkle of a moment, had I eluded the heavenly embrace of eternal life? Last year, astronomers with the European Space Agency spotted a star in our galaxy, racing around a black hole at breakneck speed. They said the black hole was three times more massive than the sun, or one-hundred times larger than the star.
Black holes are known to vary in size from being very small to very large, with an unbelievably, powerful gravitational force. There are thought to be 100 million black holes in our universe, and at the center of each galaxy is a super massive black hole around which all else rotates – like a fly wheel on an engine . . . take a peek at the galaxy on the front page of this morning’s bulletin . . . do you see the circulation; the vortex of the black hole in the center? Black holes have an insatiable appetite and will swallow a star that comes too close, taking up to perhaps thousands of years to completely absorb the star, bit-by-bit, with each passing rotation.
Is that what happened to me? Was a bit of me absorbed by the heavenly unknown? Did my soul, my spirit, evade the central pull of a black hole in that single blip, only to be popped out into life again? Astrophysicist, Stephen Hawking, who died last month, well past his due date, says that the reason “They’re named black holes (is) because they are related to (our) human fears, of being destroyed or gobbled up.”
A few weeks ago, it was announced that astronomers had discovered the most distant star ever observed. They named it Icarus, after the mythological character who flew too close to the sun. They said the star was 9 billion light years away – an infinite distance, virtually beyond our comprehension. Yet, with next year’s launch of the James Webb telescope, more jaw-dropping information about the foundations of life and science will be revealed, and it too will no doubt confront and threaten our theological and spiritual beliefs, as perhaps, some of what I have said today might have done for you. Frankly, my religious beliefs are challenged by this new information, and I have to confess, my beliefs have been expanded; sometimes it feels, almost as fast as our universe is expanding.
And that’s okay! That’s what we want to do as Christians, otherwise why would Pat spend any time to preach and teach, other than to challenge, expand and grow. I want to climb further up that spiritual mountain and I want to continue to grow, as a Christian believer – to experience the Word of God, more as a Living Word than I ever have before. God continues to be a revealing God to me, and that revelation comes in the weirdest of ways – through the ceiling of an old farm house, from a blip on a piece of graph paper, from satellites and space telescopes – from the Empty Tomb, the Resurrection – and from Jesus of Nazareth, who through it all, was transformed into the Christ, and the Savior of the world.
For that I believe . . . and I am convinced, that ALL WILL BE WELL. Amen.
Every year during the Easter season we sing the hymns and speak the language of resurrection. We proclaim the “Alleluia’s” that will never run our. Our praise is filled with words describing the risen Christ as exalted—Christ is King, and God is Lord over all the earth. We rejoice in God’s great victory over sin and death—a victory over the laws of nature, if we really think about it. We use the language of power. We use the language of majesty. We use the language of glory. “Sing, O heavens, and earth reply,” we sing. “Alleluia!”
And then, on the fourth Sunday of the Easter season, the earth does, indeed, reply. Today we sing and speak, not of the heavens, but of the earth. Today, our worship contains images of green pastures, of still waters and dark valleys and meandering paths. Today we sing, not about a monarch, but about a shepherd.
Image: MAFA Jesus, the Good Shepherd, Cameroon.
They were just regular people, two individuals of the great crowds of the unknown faithful. There’s no story about Jesus finding him in a fishing boat, or coaching him on hauling in the nets, or teasing him by inviting himself to his house to dine. We don’t know that Jesus healed her, or cast demons out of her or brought her precious child back to life.
But they show up twice. At least, this name does. Spelled differently—a difference of one letter—but too similar to mean another person. His name is Cleopas, and we meet him, by name, here, in Luke’s gospel, on the road to Emmaus. And we meet his wife—a less well-known Mary—when she shows up in John’s gospel, at the foot of the cross. And, I believe, we meet her again, here...
Image: "Emmaus," oil on canvas, 2001, by Mary Donnelle Ramsay.
We have two different scenes in today’s passage from John’s gospel, and they take place one week apart. The first takes place on that first day: the day the Christian church marks as the day of resurrection. It is evening now, and Jesus’ closest and dearest have heard the reports from Peter and the disciple Jesus loved about the empty tomb. They have heard Mary Magdalene’s breathless announcement, “I have seen the Lord.” It is still the first Easter!
But here they are: holed up in the upper room, behind locked doors. The passage says they are afraid of “the Jews,” but that doesn’t make sense, because everyone in that room is a Jew. Maybe they are still afraid of the Romans who, after all, executed Jesus just a few days earlier. Maybe they are afraid of those religious leaders who seemed to encourage the Romans. Maybe they have heard the resurrection story, but just can’t quite believe it. Resurrection or no, they are afraid.
Image: "The Incredulity of Saint Thomas," by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610), 1602. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
It’s a strange story we are hearing this morning. In fact, it’s a little different than the story you may have been expecting. You may have been hoping for that version that has Mary Magdalene weeping, and an encounter with a mysterious gardener who turned out to be the risen Jesus, and joy! A face-to-face encounter. A joyful reunion. You may have been expecting more joy this morning.
But that doesn’t seem to be what we have. This is the resurrection story we have today.
Image: An Open Tomb: He is not here. Grave in Israel, by photographer Peter van der Sluijs, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
On Thursday of Holy Week, we Christians enter into the most sacred time of our year. On this night we gather to share a meal, remembering another meal, and another gathering at night of Jesus and everyone who was closest to him. And having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end...
Stained Glass from the Church of Saint Michael the Archangel, Findlay, OH, courtesy of Wikimeedia Commons.
Back when the Temple still stood in Jerusalem, before the year 70 CE, when Rome put down an uprising by turning it into a pile of rubble, it was the Jews’ sacred duty to make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem every year at the time of the Passover. Imagine a main road into the city, into which paths from all the villages between Galilee and Jerusalem fed, so that, at first, it is a trickle of people… you might see the same numbers any day people went from one place to another to go to market. But the nearer to Jerusalem the road winded, the thicker the crowds became, as villagers met with other villagers on their pilgrim way. As they neared the city, the mood became festive—this was, after all, their great festival week! It was then the pilgrims began to sing psalms of celebration, and one of the psalms they sang together was Psalm 118: “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
“Hosanna!” the people cry, a Hebrew word meaning, “God save us! Save us, Lord!”
Image: Zirl / Holy Cross Parish Church, Tyrol, Austria. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
This week I tried to think of my own personal experience of caves. I didn’t come up with much, but there was that one trip to Howe Caverns when my children were small. I remember how cold it got as we descended in the elevator, and how oddly thrilling it was to climb into a boat so far, it seemed, underground. I also remember how utter and complete the darkness was when the tour guide actually turned out the lights—the kind of darkness that makes you say, “I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face.” But the truth was, at no time during that visit did I feel even a tiny bit unsafe, at no time was I frightened. It was all completely controlled, and there was no opportunity to get into even a little mischief.
It didn’t take too long to realize that the most vivid experience I’ve had of caves has been in reading about them. Specifically, that time I was in the seventh grade, and our English textbook consisted of excerpts from novels, and one of those was the chapter called “Riddles in the Dark,” from The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien.
Jesus goes to the Temple early in the morning. He sits down—the classic position for a Rabbi teaching—and begins to share his wisdom with the people. But his teaching is abruptly interrupted by the appearance of religious leaders, who are dragging with them a woman whose name we never learn. She has been caught in the act of adultery. We don’t know anything about the woman except this: if she is being charged with adultery, it means she was having sexual relations with a man other than her husband. If she is being charged with adultery, she must have a husband, because, at this point in history, adultery is fundamentally a crime against a husband’s rights. His property rights. The woman was considered one man’s property, and she and another man have violated his rights.
Image: Pietr Breughel II, Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery, (1565); courtey of Wikimedia Commons.
And that’s it! A man who had lost his sight has had it restored—after one false start, perfect sight.
And that should be it: a miracle, a sign of God’s power working in and through Jesus, pure and simple. A man who had been walking in the darkness can once again walk in the light. No one has to lead him anywhere, ever again.
And that would be it, if the story weren’t located where it is in Mark’s gospel: immediately after two stories about people who can’t see who Jesus really is, and immediately before a story about Jesus’ disciples refusing to see what his mission is, that he is on the road to the cross.
Image: Christ and the pauper, Artist A.N. Mironov, oil on canvas, 2009. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Let’s talk about this passage from John’s gospel, a section that contains what is easily the most memorized verse in the New Testament, John 3:16.
Let’s talk about this conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, a conversation that gets very complicated very quickly, and, frankly, some days, leaves my head spinning.
But first, let’s talk about Pharisees.
Image: Henry Ossawa Tanner, "Study for Jesus and Nicodemus" (1899), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
I was seventeen years old, a freshman at Boston College, a school I loved, in a great city. I’d been accepted into the University Chorale, and was rehearsing solos for the Vivaldi “Gloria.” My biology major didn’t yet feel like a huge mistake. I had great roommates, people I love and good friends still.
And yet, one fall night as I was walking from lower campus to upper, past beautiful grey stone buildings, crunching through crisp fall leaves, I abruptly felt a little like you do after the roller coaster passes over the crest of the mountain and starts to fall. Something inside of me dropped. Dropped away… some mental, emotional, spiritual thing I had been standing on, and which I’d thought was a big solid rock, turned out to be just a trap door, like the ones the condemned man is standing on with the hangman’s noose around his neck. And in that moment, everything I’d been sure of simply… fell away.
God is also speaking to the people, directly, intimately. God doesn’t say, “I am God, the all-powerful!” like that man behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz. Instead, God says, “I am the Lord, your God.”
The law of the Lord is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the decrees of the Lord are sure,
making wise the simple…
Barbara Brown Taylor, who wrote Learning to Walk in the Dark, notes that this understanding seems coded into our faith, too. She says, “From earliest times, Christians have used ‘darkness’ as a synonym for sin, ignorance, spiritual blindness, and death." Taylor observes that the dominant expectation for most Christians is that we are part of something she calls “full solar spirituality,” and we are strongly encouraged to stay “in the light of God around the clock, both absorbing and reflecting the sunny side of faith.” That means: lots of certainty, lots of optimism, and not much space for complexity, nuance, or the grey tones we find between the black letters on the white pages of our bibles.
But things are a little more complicated than that. And if we read a little further into the stories and the songs that make up our sacred texts, we find something that may surprise us: God is there in the darkness, too...