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.

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Wrestling With God

A sermon based on Genesis 32:1-13, and 32:22-31 preached on March 1st, 2105

 Sermon audio

When I was a resident chaplain at Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center, I was strolling the hallways of the 11th floor Neurosurgery unit one morning, just taking care of my daily rounds, moving from room to room, bed to bed, saying good morning to some of my regular patients and introducing myself to any new faces I saw.

It was not uncommon for patients to spend months, perhaps even years living on the Neurosurgery Unit. There were patients there who have had profound brain surgeries that left them needing intense monitoring for years on end, and patients with MS whose bodies were failing them more and more with each passing week.

That particular morning, I walked into the room of a man who was recovering from brain surgery. There was a scar that ran from then front of his head to the back. His hair was beginning to re-grow around it.

He and I exchanged small-talk that morning, nothing of note at all—in fact, I could tell from the way we was responding to my questions—his short, disinterested answers and his lack of eye contact, that he didn’t want me there at all. I got the message and I started walking out of the room. I had almost made my way to the door when he shouted at me,

Why do you walk with a limp?

he asked,

Is it an old sports injury?

Once he asked that, maybe I should have stopped and walked back to him and used his question to start up a conversation, but I didn’t. I just said

No, not a sports injury.

In my head, I had thought of a much more sarcastic response:

Yes, it’s a old football injury from my days as a college linebacker. If it wasn’t for this hip injury, I would have gone pro.

I thought that, but I’m glad I chose not to say it aloud.

I often wonder what got in the way of me turning around and having a conversation with him about why I walked with a limp. Maybe if I had taken the time to do so, he would have felt comfortable opening up to me about his brain injury and his recent surgery, and how he felt about it.

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Some of the best conversations I’ve ever had, have been with friends and mentors when we somehow began sharing with one another the stories of how we got our scars, and scabs, our birthmarks, and our limps.

I wonder if you’ve ever had a conversation like that, where suddenly everyone becomes comfortable enough to literally uncover their imperfections (as long as they’re in shareable places, of course), and they move from scab to scar telling the tales of each one, moving from top to toe on their bodies.

Every single one of our blemishes, stretch marks, and birthmarks has a sacred story behind it. We are each living, and moving, and breathing testimonies, aren’t we? And our very bodies tell the tale for us. And sharing those stories can be transformational, and sometimes even healing.

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Jacob’s story spans the last half of the book of Genesis. It’s way too long to read, or to even summarize, here in worship this morning. It is a story of a man moving from brokenness to healing.

Jacob, as you might recall, had a twin named Esau. Esau was older by just a couple seconds.

As the story goes, Jacob was born holding into his older brother’s ankle. In fact the name “Jacob” means “grabber.” And as Jacob grows up, things don’t change all that much. He becomes a greedy man with a shoddy character. He’s a scroundrel, a fraud, a liar, and a cheat. He’s easy to hate because he weasels his way through life and becomes rich and successful by duping others—grabbing everything for himself —ensuring his own wellbeing even if it’s at the expense of another’s.

But as we get to this point in the story, Jacob becomes intensely afraid that all his swindling has finally caught up to him, because the next morning he will see his brother Esau for the first time in 20 years. And there’s no one on earth who realizes just how much of a dishonest a person Jacob is than his brother Esau. And Jacob is terrified.

Take a look at the cover of your bulletin this morning.

Jacob Pleading by Charlie Mackesy-2

This is one artist’s take on Jacob wrestling with God—this mysterious presence that he tangled with all night long.

Jacob is alone at this point—his whole family, his servants, and all of his possessions have been sent ahead of him, to greet Esau and his family and servants—and Jacob is left to himself that night. He sets up camp at the River Jabbok.

It was that night that Jacob wrestled with God. All night long until dawn broke. Look at the chaos of each line in this drawing. Can you see the struggle that both figures are making as they fight one another? Can you see the anxiety of that night? The tension and confusion of it all. It’s there in the text too. This is the very first Wrestle Mania.

There’s a poem about this passage that I’d like to read. It’s by a man named Michael Dickel, and it’s called…

JACOB WRESTLING

They’ve all gone ahead, those I loved,

those I cared for but did not love—

arrayed and ranked, walking toward doom

or reunion. This bank, this river I have crossed before—

this creek, this life, this wreck on this shore—

all too familiar, all too fresh, all too unknown, all too new.

Now a shadow over the moon, or

perhaps my own doubt

forms as I ford the stream.

Now I wrestle with myself,

with this messenger,

this something of nothingness.

Now the moon fades—

darkness less dark—

what is my name?

Now I limp away

from this tangled life

of deception and counter-deception—

to losses, deaths, uncertainty,

a favorite son sold to the gypsies—

Who will redeem us?

Soon my brother and I will embrace

but keep our defended distance.

Soon nothing will be the same.

Now, I wrestle with God.

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Before the sun rose on that long, long night, Jacob and this mysterious presence, this divine messenger—perhaps even the very being of God—they confront one another, and they wrestle to a draw. There’s no clear winner—each gives up something of themselves before they part ways. On Jacob’s part, he refuses to let go until he can wrestle a blessing out of this divine presence. And his mysterious and divine opponent will not let him go unscathed. Before the night is through, God strikes Jacob on his hip—leaving him from that moment on, for the rest of his days, to walk with a limp. Permanently marked.

But a limp isn’t the only thing Jacob walks away with. He also walks away with a new name. Before God lets Jacob go, God gives him a brand new identity: Now, he’s “Israel,” which means “he who wrestles with God.”

See, there’s no way to meet God without being altogether changed. Whenever we have an experience with the divine, we become different people. Our very identities are changed. The hip, though, that’s the very center of our balance. When God strikes Jacob on his hip, God throws Jacob off his balance. Whenever we meet God, we get thrown off our center.

Encountering God permanently changes our stance. When we meet the living God, we will never walk the same way again. Encounters with God change the way we move through the world. This is how Israel is formed: the man, as well as the nation born from him. Israel comes into being by an assault from God.

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This Lent, we are being invited by God to explore the dark corners of ourselves, to do our part to wrestle with the dim places inside of us. Just like Jacob, that might mean wrestling with God Himself. That might mean confronting God, mixing it up with God.

This story, as well as the story of Israel throughout the Old Testament, is about a faithful people who, just like Jacob that night by the Jabbok River, stubbornly refuse to let go of God. The bible is filled with poetry and prayers and petitions that demand that God show up and do something, say something, change something in people’s lives.

I think that’s what faith is. Faith is the stubborn refusal to let go of God, to say to God,

I’m going to wrestle with you until you do something here, God—until you show me something new or until you bless me.

That might sound like a scary way to think about faith: confronting God and refusing to let go until God speaks, but that’s exactly what Jacob did that night by the Jabbok River, and if God wasn’t interested in wrestling with Jacob, He wouldn’t have done so in the first place.

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I think a healthy faith is one that dares things from God. I think a perfected faith is not about the pursuit of a perfected life. I think a perfected faith is one that dares to ask God, just like Jacob did, to meet us right where we are—in the midst of our chaotic, and blemished, and bruised lives—and bless us. A perfected faith is one that knows both the wrestle and the embrace inherent in loving God and loving one another.

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I would like to tell you that from that day on, Jacob’s life was turned around—that he started to act like less of a selfish idiot—but that wouldn’t be true. What is true is that he was changed, in small ways. What is also true is that from that point on Jacob never moved through life the same way. He walked away from his encounter with God with a permanent limp. But he also walked away with a deeper knowledge and a deeper relationship with God.

Most importantly though, Jacob walked away with a new name: Israel. And as he walked away, limp and scars and all—little did he know he would become the forefather of an entire nation of people: Israel: Those who refuse to let go of God.

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This lent, I urge you to wrestle your own blessing from God, and see what happens. God might change the very way you walk through this life!

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

Alleluia! Amen.