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.

The Whole Truth

A sermon based on Psalm 130 and Mark 5:21-43 preached on June 28th, 2015

The Whole Truth – audio

It was April 23rd, 1910 when Theodore Roosevelt found himself on the steps of the Sorbonne in Paris, France. It was on that day that he delivered one of the greatest speeches ever made, the famous “Man in the Arena.” In it, Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed these words:

It’s not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.

The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly, who errs, who comes up short again and again, because there’s not effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at best know in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.

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Today, we’re continuing with our series using Brené Brown’s book The Gifts of Imperfection, and we’re talking about resiliency, authenticity, and showing up—each one of those is daring practice we must undertake in order to live a wholehearted life.

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I’ve told this story to some of you in a bible study not too long ago, but it’s a good one, and it’s worth hearing more than once.

Brené Brown tells the story of her time at a TED Conference. TED Conferences are gatherings of highly sophisticated and professional people who get together and listen to speakers for 3 or 4 days. The people who come to these TED Talks are typically high-expectation kinda folks and the talks given by their peers hardly ever disappoint.

Brené Brown was asked to speak at one of these TED Conferences, and she said that as each speaker walked off stage after their talk, she slumped a little lower in her chair. She thought that she didn’t have anything to bring to the audience that was on par with the other speakers, and as she thought about how her talk might “work,” she realized that she would have to give up on the idea of doing it in the same way that all the others did theirs. Instead, she realized she would have to connect with the audience in a different way. Where all speakers so far had gotten up on stage and proudly proclaimed—maybe even bragged—about their own successes and how much they’ve accomplished in their field, and how their work was changing the world, Brené Brown realized she didn’t have a story like that. It dawned on her that when it was her time, she would have to get up their and risk something that none of the others speakers were willing to risk—she would have to stand up their on that stage and just be herself. As she describes it, she would have to be naked, vulnerable. And, like most of us, she hates naked and vulnerable.

When she finally walked on stage, she asked the stage managers to bring up the houselights so she could see her audience—she didn’t want to talk to an anonymous people, she wanted to connect with people. She stood there in a moment of silence with the lights up just making eye contact with many of those who looked right back at her. Then she asked her question:

How many of you struggle to be vulnerable because you think that vulnerability is weakness?

Hands shot up all over the place. Then she asked,

Throughout this conference, as you watched people on this stage being vulnerable, how many of you thought their vulnerability was courageous?

Again, hands shot up across the room.

We want to experience vulnerability in others, but the last thing we want to do is be vulnerable right back. Vulnerability is strength in others, but it’s weakness in me—that’s the way we all think. So, when we dare to show up like Brené Brown did in her TED Talk and go all in, taking the risk to connect to others by sharing our vulnerabilities, we open up a brand new space for everyone else around us to share in. Vulnerability isn’t weakness. Not at all. It’s the greatest dare of all. Our willingness to tell the whole truth about ourselves in front of others—or even to ourselves—is the very definition of courage.

Brené Brown has a vulnerability prayer, and it’s so short, you can memorize it. It goes like this:

Give me the courage to show up and let myself be seen.

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Jairus was a synagogue leader. He was an important and well-regarded man with a high profile job. Everyone in the area knew him, and Jairus knew that wherever he went, he had a reputation to uphold. He was a priest, and priests are leaders, especially back in that day—so it was important for him to convey strength and a certain have-it-togetherness. But here in this moment, this noble priest comes to Jesus not as a powerful dignitary but in a puddle of himself. He’s a leader made needy because it’s his daughter, she’s about to die.

Jairus seems like the kind of father who could do just about anything for his daughter, but in her sickness, he’s made powerless, so he turns to Jesus and he asks him, “Please!” This isn’t a command—the kind any temple leader would give to peasants like Jesus. This is a plea for help.

Please, come and place your hands on her so that she can be healed and live!

So Jesus followed him back to his house. And on the way to see Jairus’ daughter, Jesus is confronted by this unnamed woman who is just one more person lost in a sea of people scrounging to see Jesus. The confusion of this passage with the disciples saying to Jesus, “How can you say ‘Who touched me?!’” speaks to the chaos of these scene. But even as the crowd pressed in on him, Jesus knew of the woman’s touch—even though with her reach, she only managed to brush his clothes with her fingertips.

Over the least 12 years, this woman had been everywhere, seen every doctor there was to see, spent every dime she had, all in an attempt to be made well, and still she came up short. She must have been exasperated, exhausted, despairing after all these years of suffering. But on this day, her private and desperate search for healing had led her to Jesus. She thought,

If only, if only I’m able to reach out to Jesus, just to touch his clothing—that’s all I need.

Even after all these years, she still had that hope.

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Brené Brown says that part of living a wholehearted life is to cultivate a resilient spirit. She says that hope is learned. We have this cultural belief that everything should come fast and easy and be fun, which she says is inconsistent with hopeful thinking—thinking this way actually sets us up for hopelessness. The heart of hope includes tolerance for disappointment and a strong determination that, one day, change is possible.

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Jesus knows about the woman’s tenacity. He feels it. He seeks her out from among the crowd of people—actually, she speaks up for herself.

Think of what she could have done when Jesus asked aloud, “Who touched me?!” She could have taken that as accusation and chose to stay silent. For years and years, her hemorrhaging had made her silent, forgotten, dismissed, and invisible. She could have slinked back into the crowd and remained that way: forgotten and invisible. She could have touched and run. But she didn’t. She spoke up. Finally, after 12 years, it was time for her to walk into the light and make herself known to others, to tell the whole truth about herself right then and there—to bring it all into the open. And that she did. She did it with fear and trembling, but she did it.

Speak up. Even if you’re your voice shakes, speak up and tell the whole truth about yourself. Jesus invites us to. Jesus listens to us as we risk that—as we come to him and into his church community and share all of who we are. Jesus wants authenticity—he wants us to show up and let ourselves be seen no matter how broken or whole we feel we are, no matter if we think we have it all together or if everything about us just seems to be unraveling.

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Both Jairus and this unnamed woman fall apart in the presence of Jesus. But sometimes the greatest thing we can do for ourselves is to fall apart so that God can put us back together again.

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After Jesus healed the woman’s hemorrhaging, she would have shown herself to the local priest, and after he deemed her well, she could return to her family, her husband, her children. After 12 years of forced isolation and alienation, she would be able to have her life back—and that’s the real healing. The same thing happened for Jairus’ daughter. Jesus took her hand and said to her “Little lamb, get up.” She began to walk around, and then Jesus told her family to give her something to eat, restoring her back to her family through the sharing of food.

Restoration back to community—maybe that’s what healing really is. It’s shedding all that stuff about our lives that seeks to shame us, cut us off from others around us, making us feel small and forgettable and forgotten. The power of healing is in our renewed ability to walk out into the light and share the whole truth about ourselves—to take the chance, like Jairus and the unnamed woman, to dare greatly and show ourselves—our real selves—for those around us to see. To come to Jesus and admit our need—to admit to him that there are things we can’t do for ourselves that only he can do for us.

Sometimes, the most courageous thing we can do is show up and let ourselves been seen, to fall down before him, to reach for him—touch just a piece of him, and tell him the whole truth.

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

Alleluia! Amen.