Birthmarks

A sermon based on 1 Peter 1:3-10 and John 20:19-29 preached on April 23rd, 2017

Sermon audio

It’s Easter evening. The disciples are huddled together in a room too small for them. They’re sweating because the air is stagnant. They’re fearful for lack of courage or purpose. Three days ago, their courage and purpose had been crucified on a cross just outside Jerusalem. His name was Jesus.

Yes, there were rumors about. Earlier that morning, the two Marys had run back to the locked room they were huddled in. Out of breath from running, but also from whatever it is that happens to us when fear mixes with joy, they told the disciples that Jesus was alive. Walking, talking, breathing. Having conversations with them. But, for those first disciples, rumors and stories, conjecture and hearsay were good for nothing. How can anyone believe that Jesus is alive without first having seen Him? That’s the deep Easter question we have, isn’t it, friends?

Sometimes faith is easy. There are moments, perhaps many of them, when believing in that which we have not seen with our own two eyes comes effortlessly. But there are also moments when our faith lacks the strength to carry us very far—out of our own locked rooms.

There they were—Jesus’ disciples, who knows how many of them—certainly more than 11—hiding behind locked doors, whispering to each other out of fear of being discovered, certain that if they made too much noise or emerged out of the cubbyhole of a room they were in, they’d end up on a cross just like their Master had.

It’s a wonder that the Jesus movement was birthed at all. For their faith to take on life, those first disciples had to emerge from the grave of that small, locked room. In a sense, they had already buried themselves inside those 4 walls. They had barred the door shut—it was locked from the inside—that door was like a tombstone they had rolled in front of their own grave. All indications would lead us to think that they were calling it quits.

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Whenever we read this passage in worship or in Sunday School class, or a bible study, the word doubt inevitably becomes a part of our conversation.

But there’s something much more sinister at play here. Doubt we can handle. We can live with doubt. In fact, it’s hard for us not to. But hope. Hope is something that none of us can survive without. If all we see wherever we look are walls, barriers, locked doors that keep us in, that hold us prisoner—especially when those doors are locked from the inside—then we’ve given up hope. And what else is there if we do not have hope?

Whenever fear takes up more space in our lives than hope, death wins. Life grows smaller. The walls around us get thicker, they move in closer. And there we are, cramped with fear. As good as dead. We all know what it’s like to be stuck in place; it feels like dying—or at least a sort of smaller death.

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It is right in the middle of this cramped space, this room filled with fear and death and hopelessness, that we hear a voice we recognize:

Peace be with you!

Jesus says. Heads turn. Mouths fall open. The women were right! Jesus is standing among them. He speaks real words from His real mouth. Looking at the disciples through His real eyes. There He is standing among them in the middle of that cubbyhole of a room. And whether it actually happened or it just felt like it, the walls of that room retreated. The space inside grew bigger, fuller. And suddenly, the disciples could breathe again. In that tiny space, life quickly replaced death.

Peace be with you!

And after saying those words, Jesus breathed on them, inflating their lungs again, reviving their hopelessness, giving new energy—God-energy to their bodies worn down and failing, bringing new birth to their dying spirits. In that moment, everything seemed to expand. Walls. Eyes. Lungs.

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Let’s dive a little deeper.

Did you ever notice how many times Jesus’ hands and side are mentioned in this passage? Three. Three times in 11 short verses. This should get our attention.

The first and last time, it’s Jesus who brings up these scars of His. The second time Jesus’ scars are mentioned, it’s Thomas who brushes aside the witness of his fellow disciples. They have told him that they had seen the Lord, and in his stubbornness, the first thing that Thomas brings up is that he needs to see those scars—the nail marks in Jesus’ hands, the lash marks in his side. That’s a curious thing! Have we ever thought about that? What’s so important about Jesus’ marks—these scars He had—that they’re the first thing Thomas says he needs to see, the first thing Jesus shows to His disciples, and the first thing that Jesus shows to Thomas a week later?

There seems to be no question about it: Jesus’ disciples were waiting to see the marks. It’s the most important detail of Jesus’ identity now—that His body now has scars. If we ever had the notion that the body of the resurrected Jesus would be blemish-free—glowing in radiance, white with light, healed by God, then we are assuming too much. In fact, we’d be assuming the opposite of what those first disciples assumed. The resurrected Jesus—the One high and lifted up—the One who is with us now in the power of the Holy Spirit—is perfect, but even in His perfection, He has scars. And these scars aren’t just something left over from His life on earth; these marks He has make Him our Lord and our God.

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Our bodies bear witness to the brutalities of this all-too-human life of ours. They’re marked up all over. Our skin tells our stories for us. Our bodies are our best diaries. Written upon them is every bit of our past. Over the landscape of our own bodies we encounter the countless moments of our lives. Our bodies are living signposts marking where we have been and what we have accomplished. They remember where we have stumbled, but they insist on getting back up onto our feet to try again—which in a way is its own tiny resurrection, or if that’s too much, it’s at least resilience, our hope becoming stronger than our fear. Our bodies are living testaments to the God-filled conviction that says: no matter what this world throws at us, we have within us completely resilient spirits. Our marks—physical, spiritual, emotional—do not make us less than human; they are the very things that show forth God’s power to bring us to new birth.

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Friends, we belong to a Wounded Healer. Jesus’ scars—the ones in His hands and sides—are not incidental. They are the story He has to tell. They are God’s story.

Jesus isn’t our Lord without those wounds. What He endured for us on the cross shall not be erased. We do not forget his crucifixion, because without Good Friday, there is no Easter. Without the marks, we would not be here. Without the holes in His hands and sides, we would not be whole. The Church was birthed by those marks on Jesus’ resurrected body. And without them, the Church would have died before it ever came to life.

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Do you know what this means, friends? It means that our faith is birthed from Jesus’ marks. So, the only way to be Church—to live our lives authentically and in witness to the crucified and resurrected Christ—is to bear our marks. To go out from this place, and into all our places, and show the wounds in our hands and sides. By so doing, we show others that Jesus’ church is far from being a group of people who celebrate their own perfection or holiness. Instead, we are people who are willing to roll up our sleeves and show others the side of ourselves that’s filled with wounds—wounds of body, heart, spirit, and soul. They will know we are Christians by our marks. Our marks make us fully alive! God-alive, Jesus-alive, Easter-alive!

And if we do that—if we are willing to be as vulnerable as Jesus was when He entered into that room appearing to his people, wounds and all, then we will bring light to darkened hearts, hope to fear-filled souls, life to people living their lives half-dead, and maybe, hopefully, lead them to recognize Jesus in much the same way that Thomas did that evening.

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Thomas’ eyes were opened when he saw Jesus. And from his mouth came the most profound statement of faith that we have in any of the gospels:

My Lord and my God!

he said.

The Church was given birth that night with those words from Thomas. It is with that declaration of faith along with the breath that Jesus breathed into those disciples—both, bringing them to life—that the Church still has its life.

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Friends, we still have limited vision and blinding doubts. We’re often crippled by the same kind of fear that those first disciples had, and that fear causes us to do the same thing it did to them: to keep all held up inside, to keep our faith hidden by these four walls, to hesitate to take the Good News of Jesus-alive out with us—to share it and wear it. To live our days, hours, minutes in witness to our resurrected Lord. It is into our anxiety—that thing that tells us over and over again that our faith is a private thing—that Jesus speaks those same words He did to those first disciples:

Peace be with you.

Jesus says it over and over again. Three times in this passage, and many more times to us. And he’ll continue speaking peace to us until we finally understand what He’s trying to tell us. Christ’s peace is a whole lot more than something that calms our fears. This is Shalom. This is a peace that empowers us and drags us into maturity, wholeness, completeness. Jesus breathes this peace into us. With His breath, Jesus gives us life—He births the Church in the same way God brought creation to life when His Spirit swept over the waters and stirred the cosmos to life.

With this Shalom, we catch our breath and are made into new beings. This is the breath that marks us for second birth. And once we catch Jesus’ breath, once we’re birthed by the Holy Spirit—given our vitality and our mission—we go out from this place and bear witness to our Lord by bearing His marks in all we say, and in all we do.

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

Endings and Beginnings

A sermon based on Isaiah 61:10-62:3 and Luke 2:21-40 preached on January 1, 2017

Sermon audio

Simeon was a patient man. As patient as God has ever made them. He was observant, too. And faithful. He lived his years slowly, watching and waiting and learning. Above all, Simeon was a wise man. Even before his beard turned to grey, Simeon was wise. His eyes were deep. In that way, Simeon lived into his name. His name meant One who hears. Simeon’s ears had been covered by a mane of gray, wiry hair for most of his life, and a robe covered his head whenever he ventured out into the bright sunlight, but Simeon was always listening, observing, ears ready to hear, and always on the look-out.

It was hard for Simeon to explain it, but he was on a mission from God. Years ago, Simeon heard—or maybe felt—God speaking to him. It was impossible to explain, really, but somehow in some way, Simeon was met by God one memorable day, for one memorable moment, and he heard God whisper something into his ear. Something about a Son—a long-awaited message will be delivered to the world. An infant Messiah. And this Messiah would bring a new beginning. He would be a sign that God has started over. Begun again.

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Simeon looked around the temple. He was at the temple most days. He watched the people going in and out, day by day, year by year. He recognized most of them. Everyone was a regular at the Temple. By law, the Jewish people made routine visits where they made routine sacrifices. It was almost like the Temple had become a factory for forgiveness. People showed up in the same old way they always have, sacrificed the same old animals just like they had the year before.

It all seemed to Simeon like rote religion. Mindless. These Temple sacrifices had come to mean very little to the Jewish people. There was nothing worshipful about them. Simeon lamented this. This meaningless sense of duty. Isn’t God a person who wants most of all to be in relationship with His people?! All this business of Temple sacrifices was just that: business—a transaction made with an impersonal God. In comes a deposit of an animal sacrifice at the Temple; and for it, God withdrawals our sin. That’s not relationship. That’s a business deal—it’s dead religion. Simeon mourned that.

Simeon knew a different God, a God who speaks to His people. Who goes to endless lengths to make Himself known to us. Who has always and will forevermore pursue us. And as long as we listen, we can have a relationship with this living God. Simeon thought that religion was that smaller thing that people settle for because they didn’t have the time or the desire to listen up or look out for God. Religion, he thought, was that thing that too often replaces relationship with our living and breathing God. The Temple was a place that reminded Simeon of how hungry we all are for something more, but how difficult it is for us to name it—so instead, we settle for less. Less relationship. Less God.

Simeon feared that religion—all these mindless and repetitive activities done in an around the Temple—was a sign that the people’s story with God was coming to an end. The only hope He had was that whisper he heard years ago. He remembered it like it happened yesterday. It was certainly a Divine whisper. It spoke of a new beginning for God and His people. God was up to something new. But, Simeon knew not what. He didn’t dare to imagine what God might be up to, but Simeon couldn’t help but hope that God was coming to His people in a new way. That the long-awaited Messiah was on His way to His people in flesh and blood. That this Messiah would knock God’s people awake. No more rote religion, but a real relationship with a God-made-human-being who would lead the people out from their snow-blind, God-blind ways, and into a flesh-and-blood relationship.

Simeon knew God had promised him that all this would come about before he breathed his last breath. Simeon took God at his word, and every day, He hoped to see this long-awaited Messiah with his own eyes. Maybe he would even get a chance to hold this Christ. Stare into God’s eyes. One of these days. Whichever day that would be, it would be a strange and glorious one. It would be both an ending and a beginning of sorts. Simeon’s long life would come to an end the day He saw this Christ. God had told him so. But he also believed with every bit of who he was, that this Christ—this Messiah—was the beginning of new life. New life for the world. A Holy Spirit-infused beginning. God’s people could now rest in full relationship with their God. No more mechanical Temple religion. Through this Messiah, God was gonna chase after people’s hearts and lives. Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end. And, the way Simeon saw it, God’s exhausted people needed a new beginning.

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We’re at an ending and a beginning, too. We’ve come to worship this New Year’s Day. Some of us, like Simeon, come with the weight of our years piled upon our shoulders. For however wise those years have made us, they have also made us tired, weary.

Or maybe you’ve come to worship this morning hopeful. Like Simeon, you have a confidence that God is up to something big in your life. Maybe you know what that is, or maybe like Simeon, you’re not quite sure what it all means, but somehow or another, you know that God is awake and alive and that He’s up to something new. Maybe you’re like Anna, the prophetess that is mentioned at the end of our story this morning. Maybe you’ve come to church hoping to see God move among you—to show up one of these days and speak and breathe new life into old things. Maybe, just like Anna, you’ve had your share of suffering and now you’re hoping for redemption—for God to sweep in and revive what’s tired, or renew what’s worn out.

Maybe you’ve come this New Year’s Day not expecting to see much at all. Maybe today’s just another Sunday to come to the Temple just like you always have, to do something you’ve always done. Maybe you’re here out of rote habit because it sounded right to go to church simply because it’s Sunday morning. I bet that Simeon and Anna both came to the Temple like that—not expecting to encounter anything at all. We all have those days where we just do what we do because we’ve always done it that way. And in a sense, there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s power and meaning in the habits we create for ourselves. Most days Simeon and Anna spent all the daylight hours in and around the Temple in Jerusalem and saw and heard nothing. But they went anyway, because who knows, maybe this day would be the day they heard God’s voice speaking.

Maybe you’re one of those who expects much out of the New Year’s. It could be that once the calendar turns to 1-1 a whole new world of opportunity and chance opens up to you, and you’re ready and excited to live into it all. Maybe 2016 wasn’t so hot, so you’re gonna make effort to start 2017 off on the right foot.

We expect a lot out of endings and beginnings, don’t we? And it’s not because we’re superstitious. That’s not it, really. It’s more so because we’re hopeful. But no matter how it is you come this day or this year. No matter how it is you greet 2017, we all have something to learn from Simeon and Anna about how to live our days well. Simeon and Anna expected to encounter Jesus. They knew he was close. They knew that God would be born among them. That he was Emmanuel: God with us. So with ears and eyes peeled, they showed up expecting, anticipating something from God. And they got it.

If we go through our days expecting to see God at work, then we probably will. But we must have the patience, the tenacity, and the holy attention of Simeon. We must carry inside of us the hope that filled Anna—that kept her in that temple, hoping one day to find among all the busyness and business inside of it—that even in the middle of all that dead religion on display—that there was some small sign that God was still alive and among, still working in the world.

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Neither Simeon nor Anna lived long enough to see who this Jesus would grow up to become. Odds are, neither of them had a clue what kind of Messiah this Jesus would grow up to be.

But we, we stand here on the other side of history. We know the wonder and majesty of this baby. We know the strong and eternal hope that this weak and finite-looking infant would grow to become. And we too hope, even in the midst of our darkness and the darkness of the world all around us, that this Christ—this baby born into the world—is both ending and a beginning. An ending to the darkness and the beginning of a promise, that because of this Jesus, we have light and life and hope.

May we spend 2017 paying prayerful and holy attention to this Jesus, born among us to live and reign in our lives—in yours and mine—that we too, like Simeon and Anna, may keep our eyes peeled for, recognize and worship this Christ, hold onto and keep close to us this Christ, give ourselves over to, and put every bit of ourselves into devoting ourselves to finding and being in the presence of this Christ. And may we do so each and every one of our days.

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

A Rich Imagination

A sermon based on Psalm 119:105-112 and Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23 preached September 11th, 2016

Sermon audio

Whoever has ears, let them hear!

The first sentence of any story is the most important one of all. Every good storyteller knows this. A good first sentence either captivates and keeps us, or it bores and repulses us. A storyteller can lose her audience in a moment’s notice. We’re fickle that way. Bookstores are full of novels with half-bent covers because we open each one, and we turn to the first few pages and we decide what all the other pages hold based on that very first page. Forget judging books by their covers. We judge books by their first few paragraphs. The most enthralling novels there are have iconic first lines…

“Call me Ishmael.” – Herman Melville, Moby Dick

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. — Jane Austin’s’ Pride and Prejudice

“I am an invisible man.” – Ralph Ellison

“It was a bright, cold day in April, and the clocks were striking 13.” – George Orwell’s 1984

“It was a pleasure to burn.” – Ray Bradbury’s, Fahrenheit 451

“Once upon a time…”

“In the beginning…”

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Last week we looked at God the Artist. The Divine Potter, taking hand to clay and shaping all that has been and will be made—including us—over and over again. So is it any wonder that when God made footprints upon the earth, across the sandy surfaces of Galilee and Capernaum and Jerusalem, He came not with the sort of wisdom one can glean from textbooks or instruction manuals? He came not with lectures fit for college classrooms. No, Jesus came telling stories. Jesus was a story painter, a yarn spinner. He couldn’t tell a straight story. Ask any of his disciples! Everything Jesus had to say came in sideways. In parables.

The parable of the Sower and the Seeds is Jesus’ very first parable. A crowd was gathered around him. So big actually, that Jesus had to climb into a boat a few feet off shore to address everyone. He sat down, just like any good storyteller would do, and he tells his first story. Everything that Jesus has to say, everything he did (and still does), every act of healing, every act of defiance, and every parable he told, shares one message. It was his main message: The Kingdom of God. Jesus’ parables were meant to captivate. To draw us in. To make us wonder about greater things, ask bigger questions, ponder larger truths. The first line of the story Jesus told:

The Kingdom of God is like…

Whenever we hear those 6 words we know a parable’s coming. And at once, we should gather around—sit on the floor Indian-style—and stare up at the One who says those words because if we listen close, we might just get a glimpse of God!

I have to imagine that if what the Kingdom of God is like or what God himself is like could be explained to us mathematically, scientifically, methodically, Jesus would have done so. He would have gathered his disciples around a chalkboard—a chart, a graph. He would have given them a formula or a few bullet points to memorize. But he did no such thing, because that’s not the way God works, that’s not the nature of God. An infinite God cannot be understood by finite minds like ours through the memorizing of facts and formulas, textbooks or explanations, maps or models. All of that is way too small! If we want to come anywhere close to understanding who our God is, we need to summon the poets and the artists among us.

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I’m reminded of the scene from Dead Poet’s Society, where Robin Williams’ character Professor Keating, begins his career teaching English by asking all of his students to rip out the entire introduction from their poetry textbooks. It was good only for the trashcan because it encouraged the measuring of poetry. Every poem, it said, could be plotted on a graph based upon its degree of perfection on the X axis and its degree of importance on the Y axis. And by that, one could evaluate the measure of its greatness.

“Excrement!” Professor Keating, declares, to the surprise of his students. Poetry can never be reduced to plots on a graph. Art can never be reduced to arithmetic. It’s too large for that. What is made for the heart cannot be understood by the intellect. It can only be destroyed or belittled by it. Art, poetry, craft, gospel—these are the sorts of things we cannot understand. We merely behold them. And we must be okay with that.

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So, here we stand with the disciples, beholding the very first of Jesus’ parables. It would be best if we simply let the story of the Sower softly rest in our hands. Parables don’t like being gripped in our tight fists. All the life will be squeezed out of it if try to grasp it like that. Remember, this isn’t science. There’s no code to be broken, no answer key to consult. This is an image to ponder, a first sentence to wow us, a picture that Jesus paints, and the only right response is wonder.

It’s when we look at it that way that we will begin to see that the Parable of the Sower is about reception. If Jesus is the Sower, he’s gracious enough—even wasteful in his graciousness—to scatter seed on both the receptive and the non-receptive. Both on pavement and on good soil. But it’s only the receptive, those who have their hearts and lives, ears and eyes open, who will make good use of what Jesus has for them.

Whoever has ears, let them hear!

This parable is about how we hear. What kind of ears do we have? Do we have pavement ears? Ears full of rocks? Shallow soil ears where no seed can sink its roots? Thorny ears? Or do we have good soil ears? Those are the kind of ears we need. How good is your soil—the soil of your ears?

Good soil ears have room inside of them for new things to grow. They’re open enough for something new. They accommodate new growth. The roots can then sink in deep. Jesus wants us to be good soil.

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Once in a while, whenever the disciples had a hard time understanding what Jesus was talking about inside one or another of his parables, He went out to find the closest child, and he brought the child to them, and he said

Be like this little one. Listen like a child listens. Encounter everything like a child encounters everything. With astonishment! Wonder like a 4-year-old does! Re-grow your child-like imagination. Whoever told you to grow out of it in the first place?

These stories about what the kingdom of God is like—these parables—would be much easier for us to understand if we came to them with a childlike wonder!

The reason why Jesus’ stories have a hard time sinking in is because we’ve become wonder-blind. We’ve lost our ability to become enchanted. We’re trying to measure poetry, and poetry, by its very nature, refuses to be measured. Instead, we should come to Jesus’ parables ready to enter into their world and lose ourselves there. Just like the disciples, we try to understand our faith from the neck up when all the while God is trying to speak into our hearts.

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Jesus begrudgingly explains the meaning of his parable to his disciples. Anytime we have to explain anything to others—a joke or an anecdote, the magic of it fades away. And until we truly know the difference between head-faith and heart-faith, until we irrigate our stony ears and begin perceiving the story of God with the rich imagination of a child—from the shoulders-down—we will never see the Kingdom of God in the way Jesus wants us to. These things are not for us to comprehend or understand. They’re for us to be amazed by—to simply behold with the bright eyes, and open ears, and rich imagination of a child. We who call ourselves followers of Jesus should always be prepared to be astonished!

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So, what kind of soil are you?

This week, we began our Christian Education year. We started with our Squares and Circle Bible studies, and earlier this morning, our Sunday School classes met for the first time.

There are a few ways we can understand Christian Education. Some understandings are better than others. Sunday School has gotten a bad rap throughout the decades—maybe even throughout the centuries—for being a place where teachers download biblical information into people’s heads. Surely, that mistake has been made many times by many teachers and many churches. Children went to Sunday School for the sole purpose of memorizing bible verses and many other pieces of information.

These days, I hope, we’re growing our kids in the faith in much more imaginative ways. In fact, calling Sunday School, “school,” makes me kind of uneasy. I’d much rather call what we do together from 10 to 11 on Sunday mornings, “faith-building.” What we’re really there to do is expand faith’s imagination. We come ready to rework the soil of our faith, so that the seeds that God is always scattering among us have a better chance of falling on good soil. And when the soil is ready for the seeds, there will be growth. Abundant growth. We all grow stronger together and something wonderful and nourishing builds and builds, and in the words of our passage for today, that’s when we start yielding a hundred, sixty, or thirty times what was sown. I want to urge you to be a part of this growing. For, God does wonderful things inside of those who are ready and willing to behold, who are open and receptive to the scattered seeds of faith!

All praises to the One who spoke the first sentence of our story, and continues to speak our story—to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

Faith, Untangled

A sermon based on Isaiah 40:1-11 and Luke 13:10-17 preached on August 21, 2016

Sermon audio

Journalist and author Philip Yancey starts his book about the grace of God by sharing the story of a prostitute. She came to one of Yancey’s friends in a bad shape. She was homeless and sick, addicted to drugs, unable to afford food for her 2-year old daughter. Yancey’s friend said he had no idea what to do for her, no idea what to say.

Have you ever thought of going to a church for help?

he said.

Church!

she cried.

Why would I ever go there? I’m already feeling terrible about myself. They’d just make me feel worse!

A comment like that is a stunning indictment on the Church. When others look at us, they don’t see the love and mercy of Jesus Christ. They see a finger pointed and wagging at them in judgment. They see a bunch of people who couldn’t care less about the down and out, because we’re too busy convincing ourselves of how much God loves us. Instead of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable like Jesus did, there are far too many churches that further afflict the already afflicted, and further comfort the already comfortable.

It’s fair to look at the Church and ask, “Where has God’s grace gone?” Haven’t we overlooked it and focused more on improving our own efforts to live upright and moral lives? When did the Christian faith get so tangled up in rules? When did we start thinking that our own efforts and upright behavior bring us closer to God, and that grace is only the backup system we’ll use if our good behavior isn’t enough to get us there? All this is to say that there are many Christian who know of grace but do not know grace. Who do not want to rely upon it. As C.S. Lewis has written,

To some of us grace is only a word; a nice idea, the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, or news from a country we have not yet visited.

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Imagine what life was like for the woman in our story. For 18 years, she’s been hunched over, staring at the ground. Only able to look into the eyes of her son or daughter if they were kind enough to crouch down to her level or if she strained her neck upwards to meet their gaze. But most of the time she stared down at her own feet. Bent over—living on a lower level than anyone else around her. Everyone in her town knew of her, but because they never could see her eyes, what her face looked like, her smile, she quickly became invisible to them. And nobody ever looks in the direction of an invisible person.

For 18 years, her body has been tangled up and twisted in a knot—that’s at least what it felt like to her, and the words “crooked,” “crippled,” and “contorted” don’t just describe what her body felt like; they were also good words to describe how everybody else regarded her. And after almost 2 decades of that, it’s not hard to imagine how she began to regard herself the same way. As hard as it was to walk around in public this way, she braved the journey anyhow. It was the Sabbath, and she made her way slowly but surely to the Temple for worship. “Church!” We can imagine her crying, “Why would I ever go there? I’m already feeling terrible about myself. They’d just make me feel worse!” But she went anyway. That day, she hobbled into the Temple just as she did thousands of times before. And as she made her way into the crowd gathered there on that Sabbath day, there was a man teaching whom she had never seen before. Little did she know, she had staggered her way into the very presence of God.

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In the BBC movie, The Mission, Robert De Niro’s character, a mercenary and slave-catcher named Rodrigo Mendoza, makes his living kidnapping natives of the Guarani and other tribes who live along the Amazon River in South America in the 1750’s. Mendoza takes those he’s kidnapped to Spain and sells them to plantation owners. Mendoza comes home from one of these trips to find a man in bed with his fiancée, and kills him. Although acquitted for the murder, during the time Mendoza spends in prison, all the weight of his murderous ways catches up to him and he spirals into a deep despair. The only way Mendoza can see his way out of the darkness of his past is by changing his ways. A priest, whose name is Father Gabriel, visits Mendoza in prison and challenges him to undertake a suitable penance—a punishment to atone for his past. Father Gabriel takes Mendoza out to the Guarani tribe, the very tribe whom he killed and maimed and captured his last slaves from. But this time Mendoza would go the them as a missionary—to live life with them, to share meals with them, to understand their culture.

As a part of his penance, Mendoza has to make the long journey by boat and by foot carrying all of his old armor, artillery, and swords. He carries them in a net he drags behind him, the weight of it tied around his waist. He drags it up the side of huge waterfalls, literally bearing the heaviness of his past behind him with each and every step upwards. Mendoza does this for the 100’s of miles of their journey through the Amazon rainforests.

In a poignant scene in the movie, as the missionary team make their way into the territory of the Guarani tribe. They had just climbed up the rocks of a waterfall, and they are met by some of the tribes’ elders. Mendoza slowly hoists his way up onto dry ground, his net full of his past hanging over the side behind him. He recognizes the very natives whose family members he had stolen away from them.

One of the elders of the tribe comes up to Mendoza, who’s curled up on the ground in exhaustion. He holds a machete up to Mendoza—but instead of cutting him with it, the elder takes the rope tied around Mendoza’s waist, and slices through it, freeing Mendoza once and for all from the weight and burden he had been lugging around for all these miles and all these years. And once freed from that heaviness, Mendoza begins to weep.

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Friends, that’s grace.

Both Rodrigo Mendoza and the woman in our story from Luke 13 would tell you that grace is that amazing gift of having all of the weight of our own past—all that we’ve been dragging behind us for years and years, for miles and miles—suddenly cut away from us, and dropped for good. They and thousands of others like them would tell you from their own experience that God’s grace is that straightening of all that once bent us over or dragged along with us, so that we can be freed to walk forward, loosed from bondage, made it a new person—no more burdens crippling our journey.

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I wonder what the woman saw once Jesus placed His hands upon her back. It was at that moment that she could straighten up. Consider how her entire perspective changed. What did her first few breaths feel like now that her lungs could fully expand in her chest? For the first time in almost two decades, she could look straight into the eyes of a friend. She could hug her husband and her children. Imagine her staring up into the sky, taking in the clouds. Feeling the rain fall upon her face. Untangled, finally, standing tall and facing the world directly, this woman took the world in and enjoy it!

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I wonder, though, who are the ones in bondage here? Whose sight was really obscured? Wasn’t it really the Pharisees who are the ones bent out of shape? Weren’t they the ones unable to recognize Jesus for who he is? The ones unable to see what’s happening right in front of them?

The Pharisees had no notion of grace. According to them, God’s favor was all tangled up with their own efforts to make good with God. The way they saw it, it was up to them to impress God. Climb your way up the waterfall all on your own and God will notice how great you are and will reward you in spades for all the back-breaking work you do! The Pharisees thought holiness is what happens when you put rules of purity and goodness at the center. Jesus’ idea of holiness is what happens when God’s mercy comes first.

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Lest we think it’s those other people, like the Pharisees, who don’t understand grace, we need to turn our gaze inward and pay attention to our own tendencies. We get tangled up in this, too.

Today, it’s something called moralism that trips us up. Moralism is the notion—all too pervasive these days—that good Christian faith can be reduced to improvements in our behavior. Moralism says that God will love us if we behave, act right, and shape up. It’s the rigid obedience to rules that says above all else, our faith is about moral instruction and moral obedience, and as long as way behave, follow all the rules, we stay on God’s good side. Straighten up, fly right, be nice, and God will love and reward you for it.

We find this message in churches, we hear it in political rhetoric, on the radio, in advice columns of our newspapers. Moralism is so pervasive today that most people who call themselves Christian are actually moralists. We’ve traded in our Gospel faith for a lesser model. The apostle Paul said to the Christians in Galatia that He was amazed that they were so quickly deserting the God who called you by the grace of Christ for a different and lesser gospel. Moralism is one of those different and lesser Gospels. We should know by now, through Gospel stories like this one, that rigid obedience to rules blind us to God’s reign in the world.

Moralism isn’t Gospel; it’s just a new sort of Pharisaism; just another tangled mess of our own making that has us convinced that God is happy with us when we do all the right things. And it makes a mockery of the grace-filled message of Jesus Christ. God loves us not because of who we are or what we’ve done, but because of who God is and what God has done in Jesus Christ.

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It is only when we know—profoundly and deeply know—that the grace that God has brought to us is far more powerful than anything we could ever bring to God, that we can stand up straight in God’s presence, be unbound, untangled, and freed to celebrate all the extraordinary ways that Christ is moving in our midst and setting us free to live full lives!

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen!

Orders to the Morning

A sermon based on Psalm 104:1-15 and Job 38:1-13, 16-21, and 24-33 preached on May 29th, 2016

Sermon audio

Job wants answers. And he wants them now.

At the very center of the book of Job stands a man who pleads for explanations for all his troubles, and answers for all his questions. Job’s family, his wealth, really his entire being, has been taken away from him. His land and livestock, his wife and kids have suddenly and unfairly been snatched away from him.

Job had assumed, and continues to assume throughout most of the book, that as long people are good, God will be good to them. Why then has any of this happened? Job’s entire life has been ripped away from him. All he worked so hard to achieve, all that he was proud of seemed to disappear all at once, and Job stands a broken and lonely man standing in a heap of dust and ashes and with a mound full of questions. And as the story moves along, Job seems increasingly hell-bent on confronting God. Job demands a response from God. Surely there must be a reason for this slew of terrible things that has happened to him, and surely God must be held accountable for them!

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The Book of Job is the oldest book of the bible. It’s the most ancient thing we have, and it tackles the most ancient, persistent, and irritating question human beings have inside of them: Why do bad things happen to good people?

Throughout the first 37 chapters, Job contends with God. He shouts at the emptiness and silence of the heavens above, and he demands that God respond! Job uses legal language in his complaints to God throughout the story, and like a trial lawyer, he wants to take God to court, to sue God for all of this. And Job is not going to shut up until he receives a satisfying verdict that convicts God of His wrongdoing.

God better give me a good reason for all this,

Job says in one way or another throughout this story.

And then there are Job’s friends who think they know why he has suffered such misfortune. Surely Job must have sinned against God. There must be a good reason why Job had been met with such heartbreaking tragedy. Clearly, God took his wife and children, and land, and all the rest away as some sort of punishment for past sins. That wasn’t the case at all, and Job stands firm throughout the story that he has done nothing at all to deserve such treatment from God. There is something in our minds that has us think this way, isn’t there?

A man who has never smoked a day in his life is diagnosed with lung cancer and says aloud to all who will listen that he must have done something wrong in his past to deserve this.

A mother who sits helpless next to her son as the blood in his little body is somehow poisoning him. All the mother can do is blame herself for what is happening. She starts thinking about all the “what-if-I-just-had’s” and all the “what-did-I-do-wrongs.”

And all who look upon those who suffer have the same kind of thoughts Job’s friends had:

What could he have done to ever cause him to get this sick?

Even if they just ask the question in the silent reaches of their minds. We human beings have minds that crave answers to the unanswerable, explanations for the inexplicable. We want to understand why, and we first reach for low-hanging fruit in our explorations: there must be something or someone to blame for this! The word for that sort of thinking is karma, and there’s nothing in our biblical faith that supports it. That there might not be a cause for suffering seems like the most haunting discovery of all!

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Job cannot escape his need to have good answers to all of his questions. He refuses to settle for God’s silence. But what happens at the end of the Book of Job is not what he or anyone else could have ever anticipated or prepared for. God finally speaks up 38 chapters in.

Those of us who are rational and analytic, who like our answers clear-cut and our explanations as plain as day, will be completely frustrated by God’s response to Job. We have a longing to know what is often unknowable. We love to be certain. Certainty is treated as some sort of virtue, and its corollary, doubt, has long been seen as a weakness–something to get rid of, to grow out of. Sometimes doubt is cast as a sign of an immature or a lapsed faith.

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Job levies every one of his charges against God like a prosecuting lawyer. He wants to throw the book at God! But God refuses to stand trial. Instead of answering Job’s lawyerly questions, God waxes poetic. For 4 entire chapters, God engages Job, but He refuses to do so on Job’s terms. Job doesn’t get to ask any more questions. Whenever God speaks, God will do so on His own terms.

God’s words stretch on, and take Job, and all the rest of us, on a journey. God doesn’t speak in these last few chapters of the book of Job to teach Job a lesson or shove anything down his throat. But with these words, God wants Job to realize how small he is, and how big God is. God dazzles Job with things far beyond his or any of our imaginings. God takes Job on a lightning tour of the inner workings and wonders of the entire cosmos. God speaks to Job and challenges Job’s nice and tidy worldview with visions and mysteries of the expansive and majestic cosmos—the one that works in all of its awe-inspiring ways because God makes it happen, God oversees and orchestrates it all. And with each and every new example we hear of how God is sovereign over every little detail of our constantly moving and ever-majestic world, we can imagine Job shrinking back down to human size, and suddenly Job’s beef with God doesn’t seem so big anymore.

It’s as if God says to Job,

I have the whole universe in my hand and under my control…Now, you said you had a question for me?

And in that moment, every self-righteous argument that Job had prepared as his defense melted down like wax into nothing but a puddle, and all he can do is stand there speechless, beholding God’s glorious presence with his jaw dropped open, and after a long silence, all Job can muster is a stuttering confession:

I surely have spoken of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know. …My ears have heard of You, but now my eyes have seen You, therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.

Job now knows his place. God lets Job know that there is only one God, and Job isn’t it. Job realizes how puny and inadequate and simplistic his understanding of the world is. This is the God who gives orders to the morning, who spins the whirling planets, and who set it all into place, who continues to create and uphold all of it. And nothing at all can ever prepare us for an encounter with such a holy and sovereign God.

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Throughout the Old Testament, God is that Presence who everyone must turn their eyes away from. That’s because we are all unprepared to witness the radiance and glory and power of our living God! Encountering God is not for the fainthearted!

Even God’s name, first told to Moses in the third chapter of Exodus, refuses category. God’s name is Yahweh, which is even hardly translatable into English. The closest we can come to it is, I Am Who I Am. God is being itself.

Every measurement, conception, idea we have about God will always be proven woefully inadequate. God refuses to be known as a noun. God is the most elusive verb there is!

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And what of this universe that God has created? It too refuses to be understood. It too refuses to be tied down by any of our own tiny notions of it or plans for it. We certainly have never been able to control it! God’s creation is just as complex as God is, and that means chaos will always a part of it.

Job is confronted by the chaos of the world and the immensity of God, and realizes that God doesn’t owe him a thing! Having control of these things is only a delusion we have. God is the only One in control.

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Over the years, I have practiced the art of letting go. I’ve grown to accept the phrase “let go and let God.” For so long I hated that phrase. I’m still not all that comfortable with it, but I think there’s more truth to it than I’d like to admit.

There’s something to the fact that many of Jesus’ teachings are about loosening our grasp on things, and letting go of the anxieties we have about tomorrow, and living instead for today. This means living with less answers and with more questions. It means less grasping and more gratitude. It means less why? and more wonder.

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Job’s questions never get answered. Not a one of them. Job never got the best of God. There is no way to force God’s hand and eek some sort of divine answer or explanation out of God. That cannot and will not do.

We can search scripture high and low and we won’t find such a thing. The bible doesn’t provide us with those answers. Scripture is astonishingly void of neat little tidy resolutions to all of our gnawing and troublesome questions and concerns. So, we continue to speak them to the skies with faith that they are heard by a God who understands us, who walks with us through our days, and comforts us through our inexplicable sorrows.

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They say that the longer we live and the more we see, the less we know. I think that’s true. It certainly is the truth is Job’s case. God takes all the neat little categories that we like to arrange our lives with, and says to us,

They’re all too small and inadequate.

But that God speaks into our lives at all—not with expected words that we want to hear, but with surprising words that we need to hear—is a great comfort in and of itself.

This God who gives orders to the morning also reaches out and speaks to us.

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

Finding Emmaus

A sermon based on Psalm 116 and Luke 24:13-25 preached on April 3rd, 2016.

Sermon audio

It’s easy to get lost on your way to Emmaus. It’s a hard place to find because it’s really not a place you can find on a map anymore. People have their hunches where it used to be, but there’s a problem with that, too. Depending on what Christian tradition you come from or listen to, Emmaus could be one of more than five different points on your map, and each one is pretty far from the other. Some ancient copies of Luke’s gospel say that Emmaus is 160 stadia (or 31 kilometers) from Jerusalem and some others say it’s only 60 stadia. And in what precise direction? No one knows that either. It’s somewhere between Jerusalem and Galilee. The rest is up to you to figure out.

But let’s say you were on a trip to the Holy Land and you took a stab at it. The best guidebook on the market, one written by Jerome Murphy O’Connor, whittles the most likely spots down to four. You could start with any one of them—and in no particular order you could drive down each one. On one of them, you’d drive up a hill and you’d see a blue sign that says “Crusader Church” with a really helpful arrow pointing the way, but all you’d find ahead of you is a small cinderblock school house. Nobody would be there. It’s abandoned.

So at that point, you might decide to turn around thinking you’ve missed something, and before you recognized where you even started from, you’d find yourself at a dead end. And at that point, you’d figure out that all of the road signs were wrong. None of them are of any help at all. And if you weren’t frustrated out of your mind already, you’d try to find the next Emmaus. There’s three more to go. “Which Emmaus is real? Is there even an Emmaus at all?” Those are some of the questions you might start to wonder.

We had hoped.

Those three words should stand out to us in this passage. Along with “It is finished,” and “Jesus wept,” they’re some of the saddest words in all of scripture.

Two of Jesus’ disciples, Cleopas and an unnamed one, are walking away from Jerusalem. It’s a few days after the important people hung their Master from a tree. They may have seen Jesus take his last breath. They may have seen His head fall to His chest. They may have stuck around to see Joseph of Arimathea take Jesus’ body down from the cross, put Him in a tomb, sealing its entrance with a gigantic stone. And now they’re walking away from it all. It’s over. For 3 years, they followed this man. They loved Him. They invested themselves in Him. Dropped their jobs, left their families, gave it all up. And what’s left to show for it?

We had hoped,

they said.

All that’s left are the shards of things. The broken promises. The jagged edges of memory. Their crushed expectations. They had come all this way with Him—for Him—and the signs were all wrong! So, dejected, they made their way home along the Emmaus Road.

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It’s one thing to have faith in a person—someone who you can see, someone with eyes that look at you, and a mouth that speaks to you, and hands that reach out to touch yours. It’s another thing entirely to have faith in a resurrected Savior. That first kind of faith can prove itself well in lecture-rooms and science labs. It can be measured by observers and witnessed by companions. But faith in a resurrected Savior, that’s a different thing. That kind of faith takes a new sort of vision. A whole different sort of witnessing. Faith in a person who walks with you down all your dusty roads, yet doesn’t leave the footprints to prove it. That’s another matter entirely. With eyes of faith, we see Jesus walking beside us, or at least we hope that’s what He does, but sometimes we’re unsure about that. And most times, we’d never dare share such a thing aloud, lest everyone else think we’re out of our minds. But Jesus is our travel companion. Silent most of the time, but still somehow speaking. That’s what Cleopas and his fellow travel companion found out as they walked down the Emmaus Road. At some point along their journey, a third person walks up to them. They strike up a conversation. Jesus says nothing about Himself, he just asks questions and listens.

I wonder what prevented them from noticing that it was Jesus. Did Jesus have a hood over his face, or were all three of these men looking down at the ground as they walked along—too eager to get to their destination to notice anything along the way? It wasn’t until they stopped for the evening, set up camp, and sat down for a meal together that Cleopas and this other unnamed disciple notice that this whole time, it was Jesus who walked this long road with them. Until that moment, their eyes were kept from seeing. Think the Lord’s Supper. Think the feeding of the 5,000. How many times before has it taken food broken, blessed, and shared for people to recognize Jesus? We don’t have fingers enough to count!

Then at all once, their eyes were opened. Passive tense: they didn’t open their own eyes, something outside of them opened up something new in them and suddenly they saw! And just as quickly as they saw Jesus He vanished from their sight—who knows how or what that looked like—but all at once, Jesus disappeared.

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Imagine you’re speaking with a woman who has just given birth. Having never given birth before, you ask her,

What was it like?

What would she say? She might share with you how wonderful and joyful it was. Then in the next breath she might tell you about the pain, describing it as far beyond anything she’s ever felt before. She would probably tell you she felt frightened out of her mind. Then you might say to yourself,

How could anything be frightening and joyful at the same time. That makes no sense.

She might also tell you that she feels exhausted but at the same time also full of love. You’ve never experienced those two emotions together before, so you have a hard time imagining anything close to it, but you know she’s telling you the truth because she seems sincere, and who could make up anything like that anyway? Who would ever put those two emotions together that way? Other mothers can come along and hear that and say,

I know just what you mean!

So, how do you describe the greatest event in history: the resurrection of Jesus to someone who doesn’t know? At least there are plenty of mothers out there who understand what childbirth is like. But what if you’re a witness to this one point in history, along the road? The Risen Jesus walks with you, asks you questions about Himself, shares a meal with you, and then vanishes? Who’s ever going to believe a thing like that? And what words are there to convey that experience and all of its emotions to others who weren’t there to experience it for themselves? How would you share it with anyone? What words are big enough for that? And why should you expect anyone to believe you?

We all have personal experiences where we meet Jesus. We could open up the floor and have all of us share our encounters with the Risen Lord, and if 45 spoke, we’d have 45 different stories—not a one like the other, which adds to each story’s authenticity.

Luke is the only gospel to share this story of Cleopas and this other unnamed disciple encountering the Risen Christ as they walk along the Road to Emmaus. If all the other gospel writers wrote about a Jesus-sighting along this same road, in the exact same way, with identical words, that would make me think something was rigged. That would mean that the four gospel writers were swapping notes with one another, making sure that their stories matched up. And that would make me more skeptical. But that’s not what we have. What we have are four unique stories of encounters with the risen Jesus, told so differently that they must have been much more concerned about sharing what they experienced and saw and felt for themselves, because that’s what people do when they’re sharing their hearts with others—they get to the edge of language, not fully able to convey with words what they witnessed, so what we get is their clumsy attempt to give words to an experience that is really beyond words. That’s when we start listening with our ears perked up because we know that we’re hearing a lone witness doing their best to tell their Jesus story,—trying to describe what happened along the road to Emmaus with words big enough for us to find our way there, too.

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From my own vantage point, I see that there are much more than four ways to Emmaus. We are all Cleopas’ unnamed companion, and we walk down 10,000 wandering and winding, twisted and treacherous roads. Emmaus didn’t happen just once; and it doesn’t exist in one spot on a map. Emmaus happens whenever hope and mystery, joy and disappointment, doubt and faith commingle. Emmaus exists everywhere, and at every turn! Emmaus happens when a way is made out of no way; when God takes our closed hearts and minds and pries them open to show us glimpses of Jesus—even if just momentary ones before He vanishes from our sight.

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The visionary poet, Walt Whitman concluded in his sprawling poem Song of the Open Road with these words:

Camerado, I give you my hand!

I give you my love more precious than money,

I give you myself before preaching or law;

Will you give me yourself? will you come travel with me?

Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?

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If you’re traveling across the Holy Land, you may never find Emmaus. It’s one of those things where you might drive right passed it but never realize it. But it’s not so important to find it anyway. Emmaus isn’t somewhere. It’s everywhere. And it doesn’t so much matter where you walk as much as it matters who walks with you.

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

Make A Way

A sermon based on Psalm 41 and Luke 5:17-26 preached on February 28th, 2016

Sermon audio

Her house landed on top of a witch, and as she made her way out of her house, Dorothy found herself in the spectacular but strange land called Oz. We all know that moment in the movie when the dull sepia tones give way to technicolor. It was the first ever film made in color. Blue sky, yellow brick roads, red ruby slippers.

The movie Wizard of Oz came out in 1939, and to this day it gives all of us a new way of seeing the world. Watching it is an important, if not terrifying, rite of passage for every child. But no matter how much we’re frightened by it, we still fall in love with it. We walk right alongside of Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tinman, and the Cowardly Lion down the yellow brick road as they make their journey to the Emerald City. Each character in the movie is missing a part of who they are—or so they think. A way home, a brain, a heart, the nerve. We stare at the screen as each of them wind their way closer and closer to the all-powerful and all-knowing Wizard of Oz.

If you’ve read the book by Frank Baum, or if you know what concerned folks back in 1939, it’s easy to see that this children’s tale takes on many layers of meaning. There are way too many of these insights to mention, but there’s one that has something to do with today’s passage from Luke. Dorothy and the Scarecrow come across the Tin Man as they wind their way through the woods. He rusted up in the rain one day while chopping down trees. Stuck in place, an oil can by his side. And once they get him all oiled up—a couple squirts at the jaw, the knees, the elbows—he shares with them that he’s been frozen that way for years. Awake and aware, but unable to move an inch.

Back in 1939, it was something else made of iron that had 1,000’s of people stuck in place in much the same way. Polio, a debilitating disease that mainly affected children who were 5 years or younger. The early stages of polio made it hard for those children to breathe. The answer to that problem was the Iron Lung. Children would spend up to two weeks at a time inside of this iron contraption, stuck in place. Frozen inside a tin body. The Tin Man tells Dorothy and the Scarecrow what he’s missing.

No heart; all hollow,

he says.

Maybe we’d all feel that way too if we were stuck for weeks and weeks inside a rusty iron lung. As the movie unfolds, the question for each of them—Dorothy, Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and then the Cowardly Lion, becomes,

How do we gain what we don’t have, how can we get back what’s been taken away from us, and can we help each other find it?

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The crowds were swarming around Jesus. They had gathered all around the house where he was staying. Jesus was teaching, and people came from all over to hear from this new Rabbi everyone was talking about. The house was packed with people—peasants, Pharisees—all of them standing shoulder to shoulder. Every one of them stuck in place. The crowd even overflowed out the door and into the street. So, when these men approached the house carrying a cot with their paralyzed friend upon it, there was no easy way to get to Jesus. Imagine them politely asking for the crowd to clear a way, and when that didn’t work, pushing their way into the house—anything it takes to make a way, to get their friend inside. We can imagine them saying to each other:

Let’s just focus on getting him to Jesus. If we can manage to do that, Jesus will do the rest.

This man’s friends are faithful in more than one way. They take their time and their effort to pick their friend up and bring him to Jesus, but just as importantly, they also believed for him. They believed that Jesus might just be able to heal him. And even when the way proved hard—even impossible, they never stopped trying to bring him to Jesus.

We’ll even crack our way through the roof if we have to! If it means bringing this man into the presence of Jesus, then so be it. Roofs can be repaired by anyone. This man’s life can only be repaired by the healing touch of Jesus! So, let’s make a way!

Those are good friends! Good friends lift each up, or in this case, lower each other down, into the presence of Jesus. Friends walk along the road with one another, be it a yellow brick one or dusty country ones. Friends make a way for each other.

As he reaches out to heal this man, Jesus sees faith, not in the paralyzed man, but in his friends—those lowering him down inch by inch into Jesus’ presence.

Is it possible to have faith on behalf of another person? According to this story, the answer’s Yes. When we are strong, we can support the weak until they become strong again. When we are weak, there’s someone close by who can be our strength until we become strong again. That’s the amazing thing about church, we come together carrying each other into the presence of Jesus—lifting each other up and setting each other down in front of Jesus. And there’s no greater vocation for Christians than to place one another into the presence of Jesus! We get to carry each other.

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There are some people who think church is for perfect people. There are many out there who don’t go to worship on Sundays because some insensitive pastor once told them that they’re not the right kind of person for their church and it would be best if they didn’t come back. Some folks think that church is only for the beautiful people. But if we have our eyes on the Gospel, we know that church is much more a hospital for sinners than a museum for saints. It’s we, the un-whole, the unfinished, who gather here precisely because we know we’re un-whole, because we know we’re unfinished.

So maybe today, you’ve come to worship because something in you is missing. Maybe your faith has vanished. Something is incomplete, but you’ve come anyway because you hope to be lowered down into the presence of Jesus by a few friends, just on the off chance that Jesus might make a way for you. Some people stop coming to church because their faith has vanished, but that’s actually the greatest reason why we should come to church. Maybe here we can be placed in front of Jesus and have our faith restored, our bodies, minds, and hearts made whole again. That’s why we gather together. To hold each other up to Jesus, to help each other find our way. We’re here to do that over and over again, with and for each other.

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One of my favorite parts in the Wizard of Oz is that moment when Dorothy’s gaze makes its way from the yellow brick road and into the grass, and all the sudden, from the top-right side of the screen we see the Tin Man’s foot. And up the camera climbs until we can see all of him—this man stuck in place. His oil can—the very thing that can free him—is right by his side, but he could never reach it. And now, finally, someone has come along, notices him, and with a few squirts from his oil can, he’s now free to move again after years and years of being stuck in place. It’s a lonely experience being stuck in place.

No heart; all hollow,

the Tin Man says. Once his jaw is oiled, the first thing out of his mouth is,

I was standing over there rusting for the longest time!

And, it’s as he’s clanking and singing and whistling his way through his musical number that Dorothy and the Scarecrow get the idea to invite him in their journey to see the Wizard. Maybe there’s something he can do for the Tin Man, too.

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The truth is, we all rust up once in a while. Paralysis comes in many forms. Throughout our lives, we get stuck in so many different ways. Sometimes, all it takes is a friend to come along and notice us there, to bring us back to life again—with a few squirts of oil. Sometimes, of course, our problems are much more complicated than that. But as difficult as life can be, a good friend who isn’t afraid to sit beside us and bear the hard road with us, can make all the difference.

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The paralyzed man in our story today had friends who believed in him. They made a way when he could not make a way for himself. They spoke up for him when he had no voice. They got creative and tore the roof off just so a way could be made for him.

Just get him in front of Jesus,

they thought,

Jesus will do the rest.

Church works like that. At least when we’re at our best, church can work like that. We’re here to bring each other into the presence of Jesus. And when one of us is missing the strength to do that, there’s always someone else who can come along to help. The strong support the weak until the weak become strong again. Is it possible to have faith on behalf of another person? You bet there is.

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After Jesus told the paralyzed man to get up, to pick up his cot, and go home, he did. And all who saw it were astonished and said

We’ve seen unimaginable things today!

Lent is a journey like that. As we follow Jesus along the road to Jerusalem, toward the cross, our eyes will be open to see things that will astonish us, amaze us, and horrify us, and then amaze us again. So we follow. Because with God, all things are possible, and anything can happen!

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.