This afternoon, my daughter will join the other seven young women from Girl Scout Troop 1169 for the graduation ceremony she never dreamed of. It’s not her official graduation that her school is throwing online. Hopefully this one will be better. She will get to give a speech instead of sending in a 120 character tweet for her 10 second slide show graduation.
But let’s be real - we never really graduate. We just move forward, as Seth Godin notes, “experiencing incompetence on our way to mastery.” Today is also Ascension Sunday, the time in the church calendar when we commemorate Jesus’ return to heaven. As my friend Dawn said, “It’s the day Jesus started working from home”
Read: Acts 1:6-11
Since Christmas, we’ve moved from the womb through the tomb learning how God’s redemptive plan unfolds. We’ve learned new words, like koinonia and en Christo, and studied what it means to participate in the kingdom of God. As we come to the final week of the Easter season, it’s time for us to take what we’ve learned out into the world. It’s time for us to graduate.
Jesus believes his students have earned their degrees and are ready to hit the ground running. But before he can even bless them, or give them some parting words of advice, the disciples ask one last question; “Is this the time for the Messiah to finally return Israel to its former glory?”
It’s not the first time they’ve asked this question, but it will be the last time Jesus reprimands them for doing so. “It’s not up to you to decide when God acts.”
Despite all that they have learned, the disciples still can’t quite get their heads wrapped around the idea that God isn’t going to come riding in on the back of a warhorse but upon their shoulders. God is already hard at work, redeeming the world through the work of human hands and the journeys of human feet.
On this mountain stage, the disciples are tasked with a calling. They are not given the summer off before real life kicks in. Instead, they quickly exchange their caps and gowns for suits and ties as Jesus employs them to, “Go be my witness in Jerusalem and all of Judea and Samaria, and to the very ends of the earth.”
If we don’t let that sink in for a moment, we might miss a big point. You see Jesus isn’t just saying go knock on the doors of houses on your block. He’s saying leave your neighborhood and go to the other side of the tracks, the wrong side of town, the places you’ve always been told to avoid. Go love and serve your enemy, and care for people who do not look like you, or think like you, or talk like you. Some of these people will try to kill you, and others will succeed at doing it. Go there.
It’s so like Jesus, isn’t it, to push us out to the margins, to care for those whom society has deemed unworthy or unlovable. Go there, and show them what God’s love looks like and teach them what it means to be called children of God.
As I read this passage, I thought about my daughter who is about to go out into the world. On one hand, it terrifies me because, let’s face it, the world is still far removed from the kingdom of heaven Jesus spoke of. On the other hand, it excites me to know that she will go and do some amazing things that will make God’s kingdom come alive. It’s a risky choice we are all given. One that proves God’s faith in us.
In his classic book, Oh, The Places You’ll Go! Dr. Seuss reminds us:
“there’s a very good chance
you’ll meet things that scare you right out of your pants.
There are some, down the road between hither and yon,
that can scare you so much you won’t want to go on.
But on you will go, though the weather be foul.
On you will go, though your enemies prowl.
Onward up many a frightening creek,
though your arms may get sore and your sneakers may leak.
On and on you will hike.
And I know you’ll hike far
and face up to your problems, whatever they are.”
The disciples are given a choice. And oh, the places they go. From Jerusalem to Ireland, to the Middle East to the Far East, to Africa and beyond, they share the good news in all the things they do and say.
Filled with the Holy Spirit, the disciples become what we are today – the church, the visible body of Christ. They set out to go to the furthest corners of the world to love God, to love others and to serve both. Had they sat around waiting for Jesus to return, there’s a strong chance we would not be here today. I like to think Jesus envisioned New Church Sherman Oaks when he planted that little mustard seed on that Palestinian mountainside.
Just as it was then, we too are called to continue the mission of Christ – ushering in the Kingdom of God. We are to be “a society on earth,” as William Barclay wrote, “where God’s will would be as perfectly done as it is in Heaven;” ushering in a kingdom founded on divine “love and not on earthly power.”
Jesus isn’t calling us to take up arms against the world, but to take the world up in our arms through powerful acts of love, compassion and justice. We are to be both the Great Commandment people, loving God and our neighbors. And the Great Commission people who carry the love of God in Christ Jesus to the ends of the earth.
As their story unfolds, the disciples show us that life doesn’t just magically become easy once we get our diploma. Being the church is not a day job, it’s a lifelong calling – to be imitators of the One who has blessed us with the Holy Spirit, the very breath of God. Just as we inhale that Spirit into our lives, so too are we called to exhale it by bearing witness to God’s redemptive glory.
As Henri Nouwen once described the church, we are called to be “windows constantly offering each other new views on the mystery of God’s presence in our lives.” Nouwen sees this when we pray and worship together. But I also believe we do this when we share our joys and our burdens together, when we feed and care for one another, or stand united for justice for all.
These are just a few ways that we are made aware of the presence of the Spirit among us, ... and a few ways to allow God’s glory to shine through us.
We can look up to heaven and wait for Christ to re-appear. That’s okay. I faithfully believe one day he will. But what if that day is today? Jesus has called us to bring his love, mercy and grace into every village, every home, and place.
And so in closing I leave you with these parting words of advice
When it comes to love I hope you never think twice.
Brother’s and sisters, aunts, uncles, dads and mums
Open your hearts, there’s still work to be done
Be your name Fiona, CJ, Nicole or Shea
Run off to great places. Today is our day!
God’s kingdom awaits
Don’t doddle or stray
And always begin with bowed heads that pray:
Barclay, William. The Acts of the Apostles, Daily Study Bible Series. Philadelphia: Westminster PRess, 1955.
Bartlett, David L, Barbara Brown Taylor. Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol 2. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010.
Godin, Seth. seths.blog. May 23, 2020. https://seths.blog/2020/05/a-community-of-practice/ (accessed May 23, 2020).
Seuss, Dr. Oh, The Places You Will Go! New York: Random House, 1990.
Let’s face it suffering isn’t a new phenomenon. And we all react differently to it. In 1927 the wife of Scottish preacher Arthur Gossip died suddenly. When he returned to the pulpit, Gossip preached a sermon that compared life to watching a plane pass through the sky during wartime. “There you are,” he said, “lying on your back watching a plane fly gracefully across a brilliant sunlit blue sky when all of a sudden it is blown apart by gunfire and falls to earth a tumbling, tangled mess of metal.”
The gunfire was the tragically unexpected death of his beloved wife. Gossip went on to explain that while he didn’t understand why this happened, he knew he needed faith if he was going to survive the darkness he felt. He ended his sermon with this recognition of truth “You people in the sunshine may believe the faith, but we in the shadow mustbelieve it.”
We all have a story like his, where suffering and faith feed on one another. The death of a loved one, a loss of a job or all the events you planned for your senior year. It might have been an accusation that ruins your reputation, or a misunderstanding between friends. Suffering is unavoidable. And it’s going to happen to you at least once in your life.
This year’s high school seniors were born into the world after September 11th. They have lived their entire life in a country mired in an endless war. They’ve lived in fear of school shootings and endured countless lockdown exercises to prepare for when the next one occurs. They’ve watched their family and neighbors succumb to two global economic crisis, and now this pandemic that our nation’s leaders once insisted wasn’t that big of a deal. It’s safe to say that these young adults understand suffering like no other. And it sucks.
The question that keeps repeating over and over again is this: What are you going to do with all pain and anguish you are feeling? Are you going to wallow in self-pity? Or take control and change the world so this kind of stuff won’t affect future generations? Will you use this experience to fall apart? Or to tear down the structures that have kept people from being who God made us all to be? Beloved and blessed.
Peter knows that his readers are either going to face suffering or that they have already suffered because of their faith. This is what he had to say. Read: 1 Peter 3:13-17.
Peter’s advice seems simple enough - stand firm in faith by living a life above reproach. After all, he argues, “Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good?” Are you kidding me? Is that all the wisdom he has to impart on us? Be eager to do good and no one’s going to hurt you? In what world does this work? Certainly not ours where tweets are the new stones we throw.
I know Peter’s just asking a hopeful rhetorical question here, but his follow-up doesn’t seem to be the balm we want. “Oh yeah, and if you do suffer for doing good, don’t worry, you’re blessed.” Not the words of comfort we like to hear while enduring the pains of life.
Since suffering is unavoidable, and pretty much a guarantee, we are left with this question to ponder: exactly how do we to live into our blessedness – especially as we’re enduring the pain of suffering?
As Peter suggests, live in such a way that our hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Peter encourages his readers to not fear or bow to intimidation but keep their hearts ready and “in adoration of Christ, so when people throw mud at you, none of it will stick.” In other words, be imitators of Christ, who suffered greatly at the hands of his own people and yet was exalted in glory. This is our mission as a church and as students of Jesus. By being little Christs in the world we become both the blessed ones and the one’s who bless others.
The famous evangelist John Wesley understood this concept, and chose to live by this rule of life: “Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can.” Now that’s good advice. I’m sure Wesley would agree that doing good in the world doesn’t automatically translate into an easy life. People will try to take advantage of you.
Susanna Metz notes, “It’s not terribly reassuring to hear that when we suffer for doing good it’s a blessing. Suffering is not pleasant, whether it’s as simple as having our feelings hurt or it’s the ultimate price of losing our lives.” And yet it didn’t stop Dr. King from demanding justice and equality for all human beings. Or Oscar Romero, the Archbishop of San Salvador, who was eventually executed for caring for the poor.
It doesn’t seem right that we suffer for doing the right thing, does it? Metz poignantly asks, “What keeps us from just giving up and caring only for ourselves?” Her answer is simple: love. Specifically, God’s steadfast love for us. It’s a love that is so deep and so abiding that even death gets swallowed up by it.
Just as suffering is unavoidable, so to is God’s love for us. There is absolutely nothing you can do to stop God from loving you...whether you accept it or not doesn’t negate this truth.This is why living into our blessedness is so imperative - especially in times like what we’re experiencing today. We are called be little Christs, to be the visible presence of God’s love to the world like he was so that people will come to understand the love that God has placed in them
Through his words and deeds Jesus taught us that our best defense to suffering is in what we do, or don’t do, in life. Don’t get upset when someone betrays you. Don’t hit back when someone takes a swing at you. Bite your tongue when someone belittles or criticizes you. By imitating Christ, we are able to make visible the deep, abiding love of God that draws us in and wraps us in compassion even when the pain of suffering and persecution endures.
While this pandemic is causing many of us to suffer physical, mental or economic hardships and even deaths, God’s love remains with us and in us; often appearing in the goodness of others and ourselves. People are helping one another with grocery shopping, pet sitting, and mask making. You might see these as small acts of kindness, but really they are giant acts of Christness – people living into their blessedness by being little Christ, often to people they don’t even know.
Last week I vlog’d about the three families who showered my daughter Fiona with gifts through the Adopt a Senior program. One was a very dear friend and mentor to Fiona. But the other two were complete strangers. They didn’t know my daughter, yet they chose to suffer with her; to feel her pain of not being able to graduate with her friends.
One evening I watched a mom and her daughter drop off a bouquet of flowers and other little gifts at our door...it was all I could do to hold back the tears. I was in awe, witnessing on our front porch God’s love made manifest. In the faces of these strangers was the face of Christ, smiling and giggling, marking this space and time sacred and holy. This is just one of a million examples of God’s abiding love pouring out from person to person, heart to heart, moment to moment.
Mother Teresa, who was no stranger to suffering, made this observation: “There is a light in this world, a healing spirit more powerful than any darkness we may encounter. We sometimes lose sight of this force when there is suffering, too much pain. Then suddenly, the spirit will emerge through the lives of ordinary people who hear a call and answer in extraordinary ways."
It seems as if she is suggesting that God’s answer to our suffering is you and me. God gives us one another – gift after gift to help us deal with this life in good times and bad. As we continue through this time of uncertainty, a time when still so many people are afraid, anxious, and alone...
Remember this: The Spirit that empowered Jesus is the same Spirit that allowed his disciples, ordinary people like you and me, to do the extraordinary. That same Spirit is in us today...loving us, comforting us, and guiding us to do the same for one another.
We are God’s goodness. We are God’s blessedness. And we are called to be the Christness – the visible presence of God’s love that makes every space, every action, every emotion, everything sacred and holy. Will you join me today in accepting this gift by stepping into your blessedness and going out into the world to bless others with hearts that sanctify Christ as Lord.
Let us pray: Lord Christ, thank you for showing us the way to our blessedness, and for sharing with us your spirit to help us bless others. Send us now into the world to love as you love, forgive as you forgive and to be as you have always been...One with God, now and forever. Amen
Bartlett, David L and Barbara Brown Taylor. Feasting on the Word Year A, Vol. 2. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010.
Metz, Susanna. "Blessed Be God." episcopalchurch.org. May 11, 2020. (accessed May 14, 2020).
Even though breastfeeding is a natural way for many mother’s to feed their young, the act itself is often frowned upon when it’s practiced in church. In fact, in some churches it’s taboo to even talk about it. But since people around the world are celebrating the one who gave them their first taste of life, it only seems appropriate. Plus, it’s also part of today’s lectionary reading.
Read 1 Peter 2:2-5
In these few verses Peter gives us some wonderful analogies about our faith journey: Suckling babies, living stones, holy priesthoods.
Because it’s Mother’s Day I’m going to focus mostly on the suckling baby analogy. There are many people in our community who’d rather talk about breastfeeding than recall or honor their mothers. If you’ve had a bad childhood or have suffered the loss of a child or for one reason or another never had children, today can be a painful day.
Not to diminish their pain, it’s also worth noting that parenting is no simple task either. Just because you were handed a newborn and sent you off with some diapers, doesn’t mean you’ll step up to be a parent. Some don’t. And some do, knowing they will make mistakes along the way.
Christian faith is no different. Just because you claim the name Christian doesn’t mean you are instantly Christ like. There’s always going to be challenges that we will fail. Peter gives us a pep-talk of sorts; encouraging us to latch on to Christ. And live into his name as God’s beloved child. To be like suckling infants drinking in God’s pure kindness.
In her writing on this passage, Joy Douglas Strome understands “There is always some trial and error when a new mother learns to breast-feed her newborn.” She notes the mom has to be relaxed enough for the milk to flow. She has to be attentive enough to help the baby latch on. And she has to take care of herself nutritionally to produce the milk.
First of all, having faith doesn’t need to be an anxious endeavor. And it certainly doesn’t help to be stressed out over it. Yes, the world will try to make you doubt your faith. And culture will make it more difficult to live it faithfully. This is why it’s always important to focus on this one simple truth: That out of great love for you, God made you perfect. Even if you don’t get it right all the time, that does not negate your perfection.
We will make some mistakes. That’s how we learn, grow, become resilient and strong…living stones like Peter described. Jesus never said it was going to be easy, but showed us how to persevere. It is important to stay focused on Christ. Because faith requires you to be attentive and proactive in order to mature. As Peter knew first hand, one’s faith can be easily attack, or abandoned. Especially when it’s new or young.
We have to take care of our faith - making sure it gets spiritually nourish in God’s Word and love. It’s easy to fill up on the junk food of culture or become lazy. But Jesus is always calling us to get our soul food on. As Peter put it, to “taste the goodness of the Lord.” It was Christ who said, “I am the bread of life whoever comes to me will never hunger.” Like a nursing mom, Christ is always ready to feed us. But are we ready to feast on Christ?
Immediately after Sean was born, the doctor handed him to Kathleen. After a moment of being blessed with love and kisses, Kathleen attached him to her breast. She knew how important it was for mom and child to bond like this to work together right from the start.
In the same way, we work together with Christ. Like Strome notes, “A new Christian knows at some deep level that spiritual milk is what will nurture their life of faith. To be sustained for the risk and challenges of a long life of faith, we start as a newborn starts, with the raw material of Jesus’s teachings - the good milk that is specially designed to meet our most basic needs.”
You might recall Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It begins with the physiological ones – air, water, shelter, reproduction. That’s followed by the need for safety, then love and belonging, and self-esteem. At the top of Maslow’s pyramid is self-actualization – becoming your best self that you can be.
Whether it’s an individual or a new church, we all start out with the basics before we can grow into our true, divine selves. Nothing is more basic than God’s love for you and me. This was the good news Jesus brought. That we are loved by God, no matter what. Your past doesn’t define you; it only defines God’s love for you. Once we can latch onto that truth, we can live faithfully - sharing God’s love with others.
As Jesus demonstrated throughout his life, it’s in our giving of love that we grow into our blessedness. It’s our giving that becomes the building blocks of our faith – living stones constructing a sanctuary vibrant with life. And it’s in this sacred space we become holy – offering our lives to God as children of God in Christ.
It’s in our self-giving that we move from suckling infants to motherhood. For we are all destined to be mothers. To quote Meister Eckhart, “What good is it to me that Mary gave birth to the Son of God if I do not also give birth to the Son of God in my time and in my culture? We are all meant to be mothers of God. God is always needing to be born.”
You don’t have to be child bearer to be a life giver. Mother Teresa never experienced childbirth yet held the title by being a mother to all. She famously pray, “in all that I do, may other’s see Christ and not me.” What a good example she, and others like her have set for us.
God is calling you and me to be mother’s giving birth to love, grace, and peace every day. This is what it means to be a Christian, to follow the way of Christ.
By loving kindness as Jesus did, seeking justice and being humble like him, we keep his mission alive – become living stones that build a spiritual house whose corner stone is Christ himself. And whose identity is secure in the arms of a God who serves us spiritual milk like no other.
Therefore, if you haven’t already, I invite you to latch on to the bosom of God, and taste the goodness of true life which is Christ the Lord.
Let us pray:
Dear Jesus, help me to spread your fragrance everywhere I go. Flood my soul with your spirit and love. Penetrate and possess my whole being so utterly that all my life may only be a radiance of you. Shine through me and be so in me that every soul I come in contact with may feel your presence in my soul. Let them look up and see no longer me but only Jesus. Stay with us and then we shall begin to shine as you shine, so to shine as to be a light to others. Amen.
Strome, Joy Douglas. Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 2. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox; 2010) p. 462.
Prayer by St. Teresa of Calcutta
Sister Joan Chittister wrote, "The death of Jesus left a fledgling faith community bereft ... until they themselves rose out of his grave to begin life over again, wiser for what they knew, stronger for what he was, determined now to finish what had already been begun. All things end so that something else can begin."
Her words make me think about what will arise from this tragic situation we’re in today? For Peter and the other Apostles, the answer was simple. Preach the gospel and practice it daily. As a result of their actions, people followed suite, and the world was forever changed.
Imagine if we followed this blueprint of gospel living to relaunch the world’s economy.Imagine if everyone held to the word of God and lived in accordance with it. How wonderful would it be to live in harmony; lacking in nothing?
The early church had a word for this: koinonia, which in ancient Greek means “fellowship” or participation in a shared life. Think about the changes that could happen if we moved from isolation into intimate communities of care in the Spirit of koinonia?
Although today’s reading gives us a wonderful picture of what the church once was, I believe it gives us a vision of what it can be if we can all come together – with one heart and one soul – giving generously as an expression of Christian unity and love.
To borrow from Paul, we are a community of the Spirit, therefore let us agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends with our neighbors. Let us forget ourselves long enough to lend a helping hand to those in need (c.f. Phil. 2:1-4 MSG).
To be a community of the Spirit means to be united with one heart ... the heart of Christ... and to always treat others in loving and sacrificial ways that honor Christ! Sadly, I fear we’ve become unfamiliar with this concept in our divisive, winner takes all kind of world. We’ve been looking out for ourselves for so long that we forget how to love as God loves us. And to live into that love as Christ did.
It’s also worth pointing out that koinonia is noun. You see the early Christians didn’t occasionally fellowship. They were a fellowship, living a way of life that mirrored the way of Jesus. They didn’t just show up to church once a week to hear a good message. They were the church everyday – living the good news in word and deeds as Jesus did. Even with the fear of death looming over their heads (you see, their way of worship was illegal because it did not honor Caesar as god), they risked their lives for the sake of living out the truth. As a result, God added to their numbers.
Up until the stay at home order, few of us have experienced life together as the early Christians did – as a common, daily, material life of unity and sharing. Sure, most of us were good at reaching out to others on Instagram or texts, but overall we live lives that are very much our own. It’s safer that way. There’s very little risk involved when others aren’t in the mix.
The problem is, we were not meant to be alone but in community, in deep and vulnerable relationships with others. It didn’t surprise me that the one thing people want to keep going once this pandemic has passed is their community of family and friends.
watch message here
I don’t want to go back to the self-isolation that we already had in place before all this happened. Where we travel from our home to our job back to home again with little regard of our neighbors and their wellbeing. Is it wrong for me to think that maybe Covid is God’s way of bringing us together again – moving us from self-isolation to a life that is genuinely inter-dependent like we read in Acts.
One does not have look further than social media to see how a small flame of koinonia is lighting up the world again. Every day stories are being posted of folks pulling out lawn chairs on their driveways to share happy hour with neighbors whom they’ve never really socialized with until now. Like the first church, people are finding new ways to spend time together, sharing meals “with glad and generous hearts.” This is koinonia.
And what about the now infamous impromptu sing-a-long that happened on Italian balconies; inspiring cities around the world to do the same. In New York City, people are applauding medical personal and first responders from their windows as a signal of unity and support. Music and praises lifted up to God’s ears. This is koinonia.
I just saw on TV Subaru is partnering with Feeding America to help people who are struggling during this pandemic. Here in L.A., the Unified School District has vowed to use their resources to make sure their students (and their families) still get fed at least two meals a day. Volunteers have signed up and have served over 15 million meals to date. Pooling resources and working together to help all who are in need. That is koinonia.
In our neighborhood people are sharing fruit from their trees, bread from their ovens, and books from their homes. This is what the world is supposed to be like: sharing life together in harmony and peace. Recalling the words of Brian Tracy who said, "Love only grows by sharing. You can only have more for yourself by giving it away to others." This echos the ethics of Jesus, who showed us how to truly live by giving his love away freely.
Jesus knew that even the smallest act of kindness is powerful enough to transform people and communities. A conversation with a woman at the well, an dinner invitation for a sinner to sit and share the table with him, a gentle touch of compassion shown to a leper who by law had been excluded from his community. These are just a few signs and wonders of God at work in the world healing our wounds and leaving us in awe.
This is what I want to happen when the country opens up again. I want the entire world to constantly be in awe of the Spirit of God working in us and through us and all around us. I want love to be the power that drives our world’s economies and treaties. And I believe it can.
In this flicker of koinonia, I see hope growing and fears fading. I see bridges connecting people and walls disappearing. But who will stoke its flame with me? It’s not like hunger, poverty or health care needs will disappear once the pandemic has passed.
In giving us the Holy Spirit, Jesus empowers all of us to take these threads of good will and weave them into a new social order. As the church, the very body of Christ himself, we must be the positive jolt that moves the world towards new social habits that care to the wellbeing of all people. (Marty, 2020) By practicing koinonia the church can lead the way making positive changes in the world.
But in order to be the agents of change, we must be willing to first change ourselves. For far too long Christians have pushed people away instead of inviting them in. We spend more time playing church than actually being the church. We need to take a risk and be the gospel and good news in the world for transformation to happen.
We must set aside the church doctrines and political differences that separate us and live in unity and awe of the risen Christ who holds us all together in God’s grace and love. In Christ, we are the very heartbeat of God’s love that not only revives the soul of the world, but resurrects it to new life.
In closing, I want to leave you with a familiar saying of mine. I want you to know that: You are loved. And you are love. Go and be both – and you will be ready to truly embrace whatever today and tomorrow brings.
Marty, Peter W. "The Coronavirus Pandemic is Nurturing Neighborliness." christiancentury.org. April 24, 2020. https://www.christiancentury.org/article/editorpublisher/coronavirus-pandemic-nurturing-neighborliness (accessed May 1, 2020).
Three weeks after Easter, Jesus continues to surprise us. Only this time it’s not outside a tomb or locked inside a house, but along a seven-mile stretch between Jerusalem and Emmaus.
Two men, each filled with anxiety and discontent, return home, broken and defeated. Having heard the news from Mary Magdalene that morning, it’s safe to assume their conversation focused on trying to make sense of it all. Whatever is weighing on their hearts is heavier than any cargo they might be bringing back home from their Passover pilgrimage.
Along this boulevard of broken dreams, Jesus meets them ... incognito. It wasn’t like he was wearing a wig, or some kind of disguise but for whatever reason they could not recognize a guy they’d spent all this time with.
How is that possible? Had the salt of their tears blurred their vision? Maybe they were afraid to make eye-contact ... knowing they were probably wanted in conjunction with Jesus’ disappearance. How did they not recognize his voice or his disposition? This story echos that of Lois Lane who, for whatever ridiculous reason, never recognize Clark Kent was Superman. Why? Could it be because Superman didn’t wear glasses.
It is here, in their brokenness and confusion, Jesus comes ... butting into their conversation... wanting to know what they’re discussing. It’s as if he wants to hear them testify. And testify they do. Cleopas tells Jesus all about Jesus. “We had hoped he was the one to redeem Israel.” The One who was to lift up the lowly, save the righteous, and fill the hungry with good things. They even told him what they had learned from the women in their group, making themselves accomplices in his mysterious disappearance.
Jesus listens, and perhaps to comfort them he begins to interpret the scripture to reveal himself to them but from a different perspective. Still they could not see the forest through the trees. Now this is not to say they were blind. Their eyes might have been closed but their hearts were wide open.
They not only testified to the gospel with fearless passion but they lived their faith proudly and publicly - inviting this stranger into their community. They may not have recognized their Rabbi, but that’s not to say they didn’t see Christ in their midst. They did, in a stranger who was worthy of their story, their home, and their food.
It wasn’t until they sat at the table, and “Jesus took the bread, blessed it and broke it” that their eyes were opened. Really opened. And for one brief moment they saw with perfect clarity what discipleship was all about. Then just as quick as he first appeared, the stranger vanished from their sight. Leaving their hearts burning with this divine revelation.
What does this story say to us, today? How might we see Christ in the face of a stranger? How might the Christ in us help others see to see their place in God’s heart?
An ancient mystic once wrote, “The day of my spiritual awakening was the day I saw and knew I saw all things in God and God in all things.” [Rohr] When we are able to see Christ in others, we are given “glimpses into the universe as God sees it.” [Mabry] Such insight and awakening happens first in the heart. Jesus opens the eyes of his disciples by opening their hearts to those around them the hungry, the thirsty, the sick and dying.
Jesus wants to open your heart too. Not just so he can come in us, but so he can come out and live, fully alive. As his empty tomb revealed, Christ is not meant to be contained but to be shared. It’s in our testimony, our hospitality, and the way we care for and love others that God awakens us and transforms us from the inside out.
As Richard Rohr puts it, “When you are properly aligned with the love of God, you can’t help but to see Christ in ways that are not always obvious.” This is exactly why it’s so important for us to practice mindfulness, to be continually present wherever you are knowing that’s exactly where Christ is. This pandemic, this moment, this space is the most important place to be right now. Because this is where God comes to meet you and be with you.
We are always walking on a road to Emmaus. Sometimes we’re carrying heavy hearts, or suffering from a great loss, or experiencing a crisis of faith. That’s okay. In fact, that’s perfect. Because it’s here, on this familiar path, that God comes to meet you – seeking you out by connecting with the Christ in you – to change your perspective, so you can see through God’s heart and catch a glimpse of divine life in the ordinary.
I had a profound spiritual awakening about 25 years ago. I had just pulled money out of an ATM when I connected eyes with a man who had obviously fallen on tough times. His matted hair was as wild as his beard. But his eyes gentle and kind. His clothes were soiled and frayed, but his voice was strong when he greeted me. Though I responded in kind, secretly I didn’t want to engage. I just wanted to get in my car and get on with whatever it was i was going to do.
As I turned my eyes to avoid him, I felt his gaze upon my heart. And heard him ask, “Do you have anything to eat?” The way he phrased it sounded as if I were the one who needed to be fed. Sadly, I shrugged him off, believing in that moment he was just another beggar looking for a handout. His question didn’t make sense until I was driving away. He saw something in me that I couldn’t. As his gaze lingered on my heart, I realized who this man was.
I quickly pulled into KFC and grabbed a meal for the two of us. When I got back to the place where we met, he was gone. I drove around the block, down the alley, and through the neighborhood but couldn’t find him. He had vanished. This man was no vagrant or stranger. “He was the hungry one I did not feed, the thirsty one whose thirst I did not quench. He was Christ...incognito.”
In her book Bread of Angels, Barbara Brown Taylor calls Jesus “an elusive stranger.” Sometimes we can spot him before he gets away, but most of the time we don’t realize it’s him until he’s gone. Taylor said, Jesus “prefers traveling incognito.” And for good reason. “If we were always sure who he was and where he could be found, then we would stop looking for him in every face, in every place.” I believe through Christ, God transforms the way we see and love one another by often making us blind to the obvious.
Faith is never easy. It’s not supposed to be. Instead it’s a lifelong journey of seeing with open eyes eyes that changes the way we see God, others and ourselves.
Faith is a lifelong journey of seeing with an open heart that welcomes Christ within us, and the Christ around us, ...
Faith is a lifelong journey of seeing with open hands that reach out to Christ in every moment and down every road we go. Faith is a lifelong journey that begins at the empty tomb and walks with us until we are home where we belong...in the heart of God.
Let us pray:
Lord Christ we have wandered this life with blinders on for too long. We have not always done what you have asked us to do to love God, love others and serve both. By your Holy Spirit, open our eyes and change our perspective so we can participate with mindful hearts and see the world the way God does, so all that we do brings glory to thy name. Amen.
Bartlett, David L, and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word: Year A, Vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010) pp. 418-423.
Mabry, John. Growing into God: A Beginners Guide to Christian Mysticism (Wheaton, Il: Quest Books, 2012) pp. 13-14.
Rohr, Richard. The Universal Christ: How a forgotten reality can change everything we see, hope for, and believe. (New York: Convergent, 2019) pp.178; 203.
Taylor, Barbara Brown. Bread of Angels. (New York: Crowley, 1997) pp. 53-56.
Facts begin in the head. Faith begins in the heart where God's love is forever engraved.
In a letter written to the young churches in Asia Minor, Peter addresses suffering and faith with these words of comfort and assurance that we find in 1 Peter 1:3-9. When the author wrote this letter, Christianity was still in its infancy, and constantly under attack. Peter tells them to hold fast to their faith in Christ, because that’s what will vindicate them in the end.
The biblical definition of faith is found in only one very small sentence in the book of Hebrews, that states, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen" (Heb 11:1). In other words, faith is a firm belief in something for which there may be no tangible proof. “It’s a mystery of the heart that the mind wants to solve.” Only it can’t.
Easter season is a time we celebrate the biggest mystery of faith, the resurrection of Christ. This is hard for the human mind to comprehend. I mean let’s be real, nothing in life is more certain then death. The resurrection contradicts every instinct and scientific fact we know about life. I have friends who argue, “If it can’t be explained, it shouldn’t be believed.” But facts are not faith.
Facts begin in the head. Faith begins in the heart, where God’s love is forever engraved. When Jesus talks about faith, “he means first of all to trust unreservedly that you are loved by God.” Believing this allows us to abandon every false way of obtaining love and keep our faith focused where it belongs. On the faithfulness of God.
We see this in the story of Job. While we like to talk about how Job kept his faith in God despite the suffering he was enduring, the real story is about God’s faith in him. Job was only able to endure because he knew it’s impossible for God unfaithful. Peter’s letter encourages us to keep our faith in the one who remains faithful to us.
How then are we to keep this faith? By remembering this acronym: Fearless Action Inherits Trust and Hope.
First and foremost, faith requires us to be FEARLESS. I’m not talking about being dangerous or reckless, but confident and courageous – living out your faith in such a way that people can’t help but see Christ alive in you. Again, it’s not our faith per se, but God’s.
Think about it like this, we are made in God’s image, which means we’re connected somehow to the Divine source. What God has, we have. All of God is available for you and me. God’s love is your love. God’s patience is your patience. God’s forgiveness and mercy and grace are all connected to you too. That connection is Christ. We can face life’s challenges fearlessly because our faith is plugged into God. Through Christ
This isn’t to say we won’t be afraid at times, we will. After seeing the tomb empty, the disciples were so afraid that they lock themselves in a house “out of fear for the Jews.” They saw what their own people were capable of and were scared for their lives. Who could blame them? Fear is a natural instinct designed to save us from harm or getting hurt.
I see faith in the same way. As Paul always declared, “By faith we are saved” (Ephesians 2:8) Thus, we need to live it fearlessly – sharing God’s love with one another with boldness and confidence. After all, “Faith without works is dead” (James 2:17).
Faith is ACTION – a way of practicing heaven now by putting God’s love into motion. This is exactly what Jesus did everyday – loving the unlovable, touching the untouchable, forgiving the unforgivable. He blessed the weary, fed the hungry, healed sick and dying, and of course sacrificed all that he had so others might see God’s glory in their midst. And believe. He was the living proof of God’s faithfulness. Eventually the disciples will overcome their fear and faithfully live as Jesus did. God had faith in them. And God has faith in us.
By living into our Christlike selves, we not only give evidence to who God is but also to who God made us to be. As the Apostle John wrote in his epistle, “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them (1 John 4:16) and "everyone who loves is born of God" (1 John 4:7).
Peter calls this a new birth where we INHERIT God’s name.
A couple of years ago, I inherited a small amount of money from a friend after she passed away. It wasn’t a lot, but it did help to keep us going for a month or so. Inheriting money is great… while it last.
But Peter speaks of a different kind of inheritance one that is “imperishable, undefiled, and unfading.” To think that God’s faith in us is so great that God is willing to ante up all the treasures of Heaven to save us; including Christ himself, through whom we were adopted and named sons and daughters. For whatever reason, God has faith in us and has invested all of heaven to give us an everlasting, never fading, one size fits all love.
Like Jesus, Job, and all the saints before us we can TRUST God knowing God is forever faithful. The Greek word for “Faith” is pistis, which literally means “trust.” When Jesus tells someone he has healed, “Your faith has saved you,” he is saying that they have found new life because they have surrendered in complete trust to the love of God revealed in him [Nouwen]. Such trust not only saves us, but it allows us to live fearlessly into the true greatness of our inheritance.
Fearless Action Inherits Trust. This begs the question, where are we really putting our trust? In government or corporations? In religious doctrines, or ads that pop-up on Instagram? How ironic is it that “In God We Trust” is written on our money yet we put more faith in Wall Street.
Jesus showed us how to trust in the unconditional love of God by surrendering to it with his whole heart. Like Job, Jesus trusted the faithfulness of God even as he suffered rejection, betrayal, torture, and death. As we are all suffering in this pandemic, I invite you to ask yourself...what are you clinging to? And what are you hoping for?
Peter tells us in Christ we have HOPE. We know that no matter what the world throws at us, God does not give up on us. Christ is that proof we seek.
We spent a lot of time talking about hope during Lent. I described it as more than optimistic thinking, but a way to grow your faith and bring you closer to the very heartbeat of God’s love for you. That’s why Peter doesn’t just call it hope. But living hope. It’s living because Christ is alive.
Standing at the empty tomb, Peter didn’t understand this at first. His faith was shattered, and his hope squashed. It wasn’t until Jesus showed up where the disciples were hiding out that his faith and hope found new life.
I know most of us haven’t had the privilege to see our resurrected Lord in the flesh. Peter speaks to this, “Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy” (1 Peter 1:8). This is similar to what Jesus said to Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (John 20:29).
Despite their lack of faith and the loss of hope, God never gave up on them. Through Christ, God opened the eyes and hearts of the disciples in the most unbelievable way. The same is true for us. God is not done with us yet. Even in our suffering, when life seems bleak and dark, God shines the light of Christ for all to see. God’s faith is in us too so we can shine like Christ and bear witness to God’s glory to those around us who are struggling.
By living out our faith, the fullness God’s love can be seen, felt, touched, and heard. It allows others to trust God and feel hopeful in times of hopelessness. More importantly, when we recognize and accept the Christ in us, we are able to truly see Christ alive in others.
In closing I want to share something Mother Teresa used to say about her faith. Throughout her lifelong work in the slums of India, she would look at a person and say, “This is hungry Jesus, I must feed him. This is sick Jesus. This one has leprosy or gangrene; I must wash him and tend to him.”
Talk about fearless action inheriting trust and hope. If you ask me, this is why God doesn’t give up on us. I believe we all have the same faith as St. Theresa of Calcutta. That is, we all have the faith of God etched on our heart.
Let us pray:
Glory to you Lord Christ, glory that shines through the darkness...exposing our fears and worries in your blinding love. To you we give ourselves over to your care. We lay our burdens on your shoulder, and find peace in your heart.
As you kiss our wounds and heal our brokenness, we pray also for all who are suffering the physical and economic hardships from this global pandemic, Lord have mercy.
For those on the front line, leading the way under the strain of frustrated protestors, Lord have mercy.
For those who are alone, the widowed and the orphan, Lord have mercy.
For those who are out of work, and those who are overworked, for those who have no home, no food, no faith and no hope, Lord have mercy.
Fill us now with your Holy Spirit. And send us out into the world with hearts shining brightly to the glory of your name. Amen.
Nouwen, Henri J.M. Trust Unreservedly That You Are Loved, excerpt from You Are The Beloved: Daily Meditations For Spiritual Living (accessed on April 13, 2020).
USA Today. Is the Coronavirus an Act of God? Faith Leaders Tough Questions Among a Pandemic, April 2, 2020 (accessed on April 18, 2020). https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2020/04/02/coronavirus-god-christain-jewish-muslim-leaders-saying-deadly-plague/5101639002/
April 12, 2020 Easter Sunday
Isaiah 25:6-9; John 20:1-18
There was once a man who, through a new marriage, became the father to a young boy. Their relationship was neither alien nor affectionate. The only thing they had in common was their undying love for the woman who stood with them.
This man was gentle, kind and thoughtful. And the boy wanted to trust him but didn’t know how. The weeks passed and the months did too. The man wished to do something special for the boy. But what? The man observed the boy, and learned his heart. One day the answer came to him. On the night before Easter he placed a rabbit in a cage with a bow on top. And then set the gift under the table next to the seat where the boy ate breakfast.
When morning came, the man and wife woke the boy. And the boy jumped out of bed in search of an Easter treat. The boy rummaged about, looking in closets and under beds. He pulled back curtains and lifted cushions off the couch. He opened drawers and cupboards and explored every square inch of their humble home. The boy did not give up. Neither did the man.
Together they shared the joy, the thrill of anticipation as the boy looked high and low for his Easter surprise. All smiled as the boy’s face came alive in a way that had yet to be seen by the man. For the first time since the marriage, the two felt connected. In sync…their eyes moved, towards the bow that appeared from under the table where the boy sat. Then together, in tandem, their countenance fell.
The man looked at the wife. The wife looked at the man. And the boy looked under the table. For what was there the night before was now no longer. The cage was empty. The bunny was gone. The boy looked up. The man looked around. And the wife looked at the cage.
There was no sign of foul play. No tampered lock, no secret escape hatch. But yet, no bunny at all. Not in the kitchen. Not in the drawers or cupboards. Not behind the couch or curtains. There were no little bunny clues leading back to the messiness of the boy’s room. It was as if there had been no bunny at all. It felt like a cruel joke had been played on all of them.
The man tried to reason with the boy, but the boy refused to hear. The man tried to rationalize the mystery, but the boy doubted the man. Heartbroken they returned to that place where they had first begun, neither alien nor affectionate.
The next day turned to the next. The man sat in his chair, and the boy sat at his place at the table. The house was quiet as neither spoke. Still, something stirred in them both. More than seething or anger, their was the desire to be connected. It was in that moment, their hearts began to mysteriously beat - quietly, in sync.
Each at the same time felt a familiar presence the room, one that poked at the pain that was put upon their hearts. Unexpectedly and in one accord, the two lifted their heads and looked towards the patio door. Their curiosity connected as they watched the bunny hop across the patio into the light of the sun.
The man jumped from his chair and boy from his as they raced out the open door. Two heads, like two hearts - one of the boy and one of the man - came together. Together, in unison, they collided. Together, fell to the ground in laughter. The boy looked at the man. The man looked at the boy. Their smiles became one. From that moment onward, the cage remained empty to remind them of how full their hearts had become.
This is a story about a bunny, an Easter bunny if you will, that mysteriously goes missing, on Easter morning. As a result of the cage being empty, the man and the boy are given a new opportunity to pursuit what they desired – joy, together, as a family. Easter is a time when we gather together, as a family of believers, to celebrate the joy of the resurrection of God’s beloved Son.
John’s Easter story begins not with a rabbit, but with a woman. It’s early in the morning and Mary Magdalene is on her way to visit Jesus’ tomb. John doesn’t say what she’s doing there, all alone in the dark, but we know from the other gospels Mary is going to prepare Jesus’ body for burial.
But why so early? Did Mary have trouble sleeping? We all know how hard it is to sleep when your heart is broken, or when your mind is racing, trying to make sense of all that’s happened. Maybe she came before dawn because she knew what would happen if someone saw her there. Like a thief in the night she went to the graveyard, only to discover someone else beat her there. The stone to his tomb had been moved. And Jesus’ body was missing!
To the 21st century Christian, this is our Good News. The Easter present we long for. We’re not afraid of an empty tomb because we know God has raised Jesus from the dead. To us it’s like an empty rabbit cage, we know it’s not the end of the story. It’s the beginning of something greater.
We can celebrate today because we’ve had two thousand years to make sense of it all. But for Mary, it was just one more disappointment added to her weary heart. No wonder she runs away, to go be with someone who can relate to what she’s feeling. That person is Peter, who perhaps out of guilt or excitement, raced to the tomb with the other disciple. When they get there, they too are stupefied. Like Mary, they have no idea what to make of the emptiness that they were seeing and feeling.
According to John, they saw but didn’t understand what God was doing. They had no idea this is what the Kingdom of Heaven looks like. Who could blame them? The cross has robbed them of their joy. And now, the empty tomb has robbed them of what little hope they had left. When I put myself in their shoes, all I can think about is how empty I would feel without Christ in my life. Something would be missing for sure.
It’s safe to say Jesus, in more ways than one, has saved me from myself. He has taken on my burdens. And tended to my deepest wounds. He fills my darkest moments with his divine light. He continues to calm the storms around me and in me and gives me peace. How blessed are we to know that this empty tomb is just another way God is revealing to us who Jesus really is. Just as it was in a dirty stable, God comes to us in places we least expect.
Even though they have spent years traveling with Jesus, witnessing the Kingdom of Heaven firsthand the disciples can’t see that God’s finger prints are all over this place. That God is the mastermind behind it all. The one who robbed the tomb of death. In the coming days, Jesus will reveal himself to them and make sense of everything. But for now, Peter and the other disciples run and hide. They’re smart enough to know that you don’t want to be at the scene of a crime when the cops show up.
Yet Mary stayed behind. She wasn’t afraid, nor did she give up hope. Instead she poured out her heart out to God. When Jesus heard her weeping, he moved to comfort her. That is so much like Jesus isn’t it? Always there, putting the needs and wellbeing of others first. Still, it’s not until Mary heard him speak her name that she really got what’s going on. In one gesture of kindness Mary was able to see Jesus in a new light. And to comprehend what God was up to.
Easter is the dawning of a new day, where we wake up to a new reality. God is revealing God’s self once again to the world. A proclamation of God’s love for you and me. Jesus is the visible presence of God’s love and the empty tomb is the proof of how far God will go to love us...and to save us. Not from our sins per se, but from ourselves. Jesus is calling you by name so that you might recognize God’s love for you in him.
Moreover, Jesus comes to you, to show you how to be that love in the world.
Just as Jesus told Mary to go and tell others, He is calling on us to do the same. To go and proclaim God’s love in such a way that others will see and understand. And be comforted and cared for. Some call this salvation. Others call it healing. I call it Easter.
Because this tomb is empty, we live. And can proclaim the good news with a joy filled heart - without fear or worry. Because this tomb is empty, we can walk through the darkest nights, we can walk through the shadow of death, knowing Christ is illuminating our way.
Because this tomb is empty, our hearts can overflow with God’s love, and we can share that love knowing there is plenty to go around.
Because the tomb is empty all who mourn will be comforted; the merciful will receive mercy; and the hungry will be fed. Our pain and suffering, like the tears and anguish they bring, will be no more. Death has lost its sting! Christ has risen...and it is Christ who will raise us up.
This is what the kingdom of heaven is all about. Healing and restoration. Living in the fullness of God’s love. This is salvation. This is Easter. The tomb is empty. Christ is alive. Because he lives, so too can we.
Like the bunny, Christ cannot be contained to a cage. Instead he lives inside us, through us, and all around us. Once we see how God reveals himself to the world in him, then we can understand why God sent Christ in the first place. As it is written, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son so that those who believe will have life...everlasting.”
Easter is about living forever in Christ. Today is a day to turn our hearts and our whole being towards Christ the visible presence of God’s love and righteousness. It is Christ who calls out to us. And gives us the assurance that there is no boundary to God’s love for us…not even death. Easter is the day we are called to abandon our dark tombs. And run after the One who loves us unconditionally.
As you move from this day into a new week, I hope you will remember this. It’s not just an empty tomb that we celebrate, but the everlasting life that flows from it.
If you haven’t already done so, I invite you to open the cage of your heart and run free with Christ now and forever, Amen.
Let us pray:
Lord Christ, as we look at your empty tomb, we confess that we have not always been our best - often putting ourselves and our needs above others. We have hoarded our resources, been unkind to our neighbors and co-workers, we’ve allowed injustices to harm your children, and we have turned our back on those who cry out for help.
We have not loved as you have taught us to love. And we are truly sorry. By your tender mercy heal us from our brokenness. And redeem us from all our wrongdoings. Give us your Holy Spirit to guide us in your ways - so that we may always walk to the glory of your name bringing honor and meaning to your glorious resurrection. Amen.
Jesus and his followers come to Jerusalem for Passover a celebration which Shane Claigborne calls “an anti-imperial Jewish festival.” If you do not know, Passover commemorates God’s victory over the oppressive yoke Egypt placed on Israel. Even the waving palm branches was symbolic of God’s victory over the foreign occupation which sparked the Maccabean revolt some 150 years before Jesus was born.
By the time of this weird little parade, around the year 30 AD, Judea and its capital Jerusalem had been under Roman occupation for 90 years. God’s people weren’t happy by this. And Rome knew it. Yes, Caesar was the most powerful man in the world, but even he knew he couldn’t rule Jerusalem without incorporating the help of the Jews. He gives positions of power to wealthy Jewish families because Rome trusted wealth. And the wealthy trusted power. (Boy, how little we have changed.)
Rome made sure the rich were not just the secular rulers but also the chief priests, elders, and scribes who ran the Temple. This powerful new ruling class grew their coffers by exploiting the poor. And the religious people found loopholes to allow it.
If you’re familiar with Jesus’ ministry, you know that he had a generous heart for the poor and exploited. He goes after the religious elites for allowing it to happen. In fact, this particular parade will end with Jesus riding to the temple where he will chase out the money changers and loan sharks.
Despite the imbalance of power, both the rich and poor hated living under Roman rule. They longed for a King David-like figure, a messiah who could defeat Caesar and all his minions. In rides Jesus. A young prophet from the wrong side of the tracks who has garnered a great following.
All eyes are on him. Including those of Pontus Pilate and King Herod. They knew Passover was a volatile time, one that was often marked with riots and uprisings. But Rome had ways of making sure things didn’t get out of hand. Like the crosses that lined the hillsides, imperial military parades were used as a reminder of what will happen if you do not obey Caesar.
It’s believed that when Jesus entered the city, he did so on the heal of Pilate who had just marched through the streets with his cavalry, chariots, and foot soldiers in tow. Pilate rode on a warhorse, a symbol of peace through power. In contrast, Jesus came on a small donkey, a symbol of humility and humbleness. Pilate had a well-armed military. Jesus had a few fishermen armed with a heart full of love.
It’s been said that Jesus was mocking Pilate’s military parade. Certainly, Jesus must have known how dangerous that would have been. When the crowds shouted, “Hosanna,” an Aramaic word that means “Save us,” even Jesus would have known this was a subversive act. It was believed throughout the empire that salvation came from Caesar. To think any differently would get you nailed to a cross.
To those shouting, it was worth the risk. They knew Caesar or his minions wouldn’t come to their rescue. They believed God would. So they that is where they put their faith. For a day or two they were hopeful Jesus was the one God sent to save them. But by then end of the week, as they watched him being nailed to a cross, even his closest friends had lost all hope.
How lucky are we to know better? We know God hears our cries and saves us...not because Jesus died, but because he lives. Hope and resurrection. This is what it is all about.
In the movie, “The Shawshank Redemption,” a young prisoner named Andy is learning to survive in this new world. When the system tries to break him, Andy tells his friend Red, “There’s something inside us that they cannot touch.” When Red asks what that is, Andy whispers, “Hope.”
More than positive thinking or wishful optimism, hope is what keeps us going. We see it in prisons, hospitals, and on the battlefields of life. Hope is what we cling to when all else seems to have abandon us. Hope is what gives those battling CV-19 a fighting chance. During my own battle with cancer, I had hope that God wanted me to do something more meaningful with my life than to die.
We need hope. Without it, a vulnerable student can get discouraged and drop out of school. And a fragile addict easily returns to old habits. Without hope, loving parents give up on a child, married couples throw in the towel or worse, they stay in an abusive relationship. Without hope, the virus wins.
May we never forget that if the Roman cross couldn’t beat God, neither can a virus. This is not to say we don’t need to be smart and stay sequestered inside. We do if we want to stop the spread of CV-19. But we need not be afraid. We have hope. We always have because we have Christ. And because of Christ, we have Resurrection.
Resurrection is God’s promised grace coming full circle.
It wasn’t an after-thought. Or a loophole slipped in because God made a mistake. Resurrection was built into creation long before we were. We see it throughout life. A wave crashes and dies only to return to the water from which it was formed. A sunflower can only grow once its seed dies, and its shell destroyed.
Although we stop breathing, the molecules and energy that make up who we are continues to live. Because of resurrection, we live – changed and transformed by God’s undying love for us. God is a God of life. Life that comes through death and resurrection of Christ who rode into Jerusalem and turned the world upside down.
At the end of “The Shawshank Redemption,” Andy sends a letter to Red that says, “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.” This is a reminder of what Jesus’s death revealed to the world – the universal truth of God’s salvation. Life. And life everlasting.
Resurrection is God’s promise to us that no virus, war, or empirical fear can stop us from living into our Christ-like selves. Noting good ever dies. And so let us live, by bearing the fruit of God’s love with each other.
We know how to do this, because Christ showed us the way to our redemption and salvation. We must never lose sight of him but stay close to him, and learn from him how to live and love in the fullness of life.
When your cross seems too hard to bear, when the pressures of life are crushing you, and the world around looks dark and grim, there is the light of hope that radiates through Christ, who strengthens you and empowers you to get through whatever life hits you with. Even death. It is my hope that you will lean on Christ today, to open your heart and welcome him into every aspect of your life.
In Christ we know the solemnness of any cross we face is bookended with the triumphant arrival of Easter. An empty tomb is proof of God’s heart and intensions for creation. Viruses come and go like kings and their empires. But in Christ, God’s love for us remains.
It’s already been engrained and etched in every living thing throughout creation. Including you and me. As St Paul taught us, God’s love has been implanted in our hearts by the Holy Spirit that already dwells within us – just as it did in Jesus the Christ, the anointed King who rode into our lives with only the full power of God’s love in his arsenal.
To him we lift up our voices and shout our glorious “Hosanna!”
Even though we cannot line the streets right now, we can let our hearts sing this joyous refrain. “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest.”
Bartlett, David L and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 3. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2011).
Claigborne, Shane and Chris Haw. Jesus For President. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008) p. 122.
Gau, Terry Menefee. Shaken to the Core, April 9, 2017 (accessed on April 2, 2020) http://www.rageforexplaining.com/shaken-to-the-core
McAllister, Stuart. Cynicism and Hope. Slice of Infinity. Atlanta, July 7, 2017 (accessed on April 2, 2020).
Ramerman, Dale. Palm Sunday. April 13, 2014. (accessed on April 2, 2020). http://www.christchurchanacortes.org/info-for-members/sermons-2/rev-diane-ramerman-2/palm-sunday3.pdf
Rohr, Richard. The Universal Christ. (New York: Convergent, 2019) pp. 169-187.
As the story goes (Read Jeremiah 28), the Israelites are being held captive in Babylon where a wannabe prophet named Hananiah claimed their life would be back to normal within two years. The problem is, that’s not what God had in mind.
Instead, (Read Jeremiah 29) God told the prophet Jeremiah to write a letter to the captives and tell them it would be 70 years before relief would come. He instructed God’s people to settle in for the long haul – find work, buy houses, get married and buried there. In other words, “Buckle up, it’s going to be a long and bumpy ride.”
That’s not what any of us want to hear -especially not with what we’re going through right now. We want God to get rid of this pandemic quickly, so we can get back to doing what we’ve always done. We wanted corona will be a beer again. In his letter, Jeremiah adds these words of encouragement that we can take to heart. Words that will help us cling to hope when those emotions of hopelessness come around.
For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope." Jeremiah 29:11
How many times have you been faced with a bleak situation and someone tells you, “This must be part of God’s plan”? And how many times have you heard it and wanted to punch them in the throat for saying it... or scream B.S.?
This is not to say there isn’t hope in these words, there are. God’s not going to leave us out to dry. But when God’s plans doesn’t aligned with ours – who gets blamed? God does.
Nobody plans for a life altering pandemic any more than one pencils in their own funeral on a calendar. We plan weddings, vacations, graduations and holiday festivities. But things happen. Couples break up. Hurricanes close airports. And pandemics cancel important events. Are we to believe that this all part of God’s great plan?
It seem out of character for a loving God to have a “plan” that involves wiping out tens of thousands of people with a brutal virus. That’s Old Testament God, the one who killed first born males, and made it rain locus and fire. Maybe God had reasons for a massive flood, but it’s hard to believe it involved my brother in law getting cancer, or for a child to experience trauma and abuse. I once read “If every life event is being directed and controlled by God, then God is really bad at making plans.” (Cory 2016)
I do believe something bigger is going on. Whatever it is we just need to buckle up and be ready wherever we are. Jeremiah says hope is coming, but it’s not always going to come easy. God makes a promise for our welfare, but nowhere does the prophet say it will be comfortable all the time.
Is suffering part of the plan? Is that what God wants from us?
As Israel’s story reminds us, real hope often comes through a tremendous amount of pain and suffering; the hardest part of our faith. Maybe God planned it that way so we could experience life fully, ...with all the highs and lows and everything in between. I can’t pretend to know why there is suffering in our world. But I do know that our greatest strengths are often birthed from our darkest days.
Even when I can’t see it, I believe hope exists, living in the tension between my plans and God’s purpose for me. And I say God’s purpose because to be honest, I don’t see any of this as “a plan” per se. It’s way too messy and unpredictable. I think God has more of a desire and will for us then a plan. A way for everyone to live in the beauty of God’s grace and love.
Chris Blumhofer reminds us, “Whatever God wills and desires to bring into reality, is always beautiful.” Which tells me we need to look at the beauty of what’s happening in our live instead of looking for blame. So perhaps it’s not that we need to escape our suffering, but learn to search for God’s beauty in the midst of whatever it is we are going through.
What does God’s desire and will for us look like?
I think it’s safe to say it is to live in God’s love, and to be the love of God in the world. When we love others like God loves us then we don’t hoard toilet paper. Love is a great equalizer. A kind of virus that affects us all, and does not discriminate. It’s something none of should fear but should all catch.
But just because we have love us doesn’t mean our life will be absent of suffering. Whenever we love deeply, we will also suffer deeply because of that love. No one knows this better than Jesus, the perfect manifestation of God’s love in the world. For him to do God’s will would cost him his life. Yet, ironically, it is what gives us new life, new hope.
I’ll admit that this doesn’t explain why suffering is essential or necessary. But if we look to Jesus as our example, then we know we’re given the assurance that God does not abandon us in our suffering, but instead God’s love remains with us, in the tension, making the experience beautiful.watch the message here
So next time you’re tempted to tell someone who’s experiencing a great loss that this is God’s plan, think about this:
When you render someone’s suffering to a platitude that sounds good in a greeting card, you aren’t lessening their pain, you are merely diminishing the truth that our most fruitful growth comes while persevering through trials, not escaping them.
As Jesus demonstrated, real joy and peace can never be reached while bypassing suffering and death, but only by going right through them. Before the wondrous beauty of the resurrection there was the horrific brutality of the cross. In spite of all the darkness in our lives, we must never lose sight of that light of hope and bright future that shines far beyond the parameters of this life.
God is not winging it or making it up on the fly. The resurrection was not an afterthought, but was intentionally created for us, so that we could have hope in good times and bad. Yes, God is up to something, hard at work making life and love one in the same.
"This was the entire mission of Christ," writes Richard Rohr, “life morphing into love” until they become one with the One who gave us eternal life out of great love for us. To be in and like Christ is God’s purpose for us. Christ is the One through which God revealed the blueprint of all life, where hope and grace and love were already included.
In the ancient book of Lamentations, it’s written, "Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the Lord's great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning" (Lam. 3:21-23).
When everything is dark, and life seems hopeless or fearful, we can look to Christ and find salvation in God’s love which sustains us. We may not know when hope will come or how? But we can turn our eyes to the Cross of Christ and know what it looks like.
As the Christ, Jesus lived into love by submitting his will to do God’s will. His purpose was to show us the way to live into love faithfully and fearlessly; in times of certainty and uncertainty, through joy and through suffering, in life and in death. In Christ we come to see and realize that “love is who we are and who we are still becoming” (Rohr).
If God has a plan for us, I think it’s for love and life to become one with God. Love is the beginning and the end, the Alpha and Omega and everything in between. So buckle up and settle in. Life is going to be bumpy. And that you can plan on.
Bible: Jeremiah 29:10-14 (New Revised Standard Version).
Blumhofer, Chris. relevantmagazine.com. December 10, 2010. (accessed October 13, 2016).
Cory, Benjamin. patheos.com. May 24, 2016. (accessed October 13, 2016).
DeMuth, Mary. www.marydemuth.com . Sept 10, 2015. (accessed Oct 13, 2016).
Rohr, Richard. Yes, And. (Cincinnati: Franciscan, 2013 ) p. 128.
Today I’d like to begin with a question that I often like to ask people. If you could possess just one of Jesus’ miraculous powers, which one would you chose?
To heal the sick, cast out demons, make the lame walk or the blind to see? While it would be more profitable to possess the ability to change water into wine, I’d settle with having his patients and compassion. Yes, it’s not a miracle per se unless you're quarantined with teenagers during a pandemic.
I once asked this question to a group of ministers, and I was surprised no one chose resurrecting the dead. I couldn’t help but wonder why that was. Maybe no one wanted to initiate a zombie apocalypse. Or they just assumed God owns this power outright?
As we begin the fourth week of Lent and continue our series on Hope and Resurrection, I have selected one particular bible story that point us towards God’s power over life…and death. It comes from long ago, long before the Easter miracle, back when God led a faithful prophet named Ezekiel into a vast, desert wasteland.
Read: Ezekiel 37:1-14
Imagine for a moment the Spirit of God carrying you to a place where the land is withered and the air is dead. There are no trees, no shrubs, no signs of water or life anywhere, except for a life that once was. All around you are piles of dried up tibias and fibulas, rib cages, skulls, and vertebras. Bones upon bones, as if giants had fed on smaller humans and tossed the remnants to the ground like a bunch of chewed up hot wings. If that’s not weird enough, God tells you to prophecy over the bones. Convince them to take a deep breath and get up because God’s going to do something really cool, and they won’t want to miss it.
It’s one thing to talk to the dead. But commanding them to rise up is a whole other thing. It’s clear Ezekiel has never seen Night of the Living Dead, or any Rob Zombie movie, because like any prophet worth his salt, Ezekiel does what God asks his to do.
He begins to preach. And preach he does. As the words pour out of his mouth, the bones began to rattle and lock together; their muscle and flesh and skin returned as they once were. And the breath of God sweeps over them and resuscitates an entire valley of naked zombies.
The author of this story lets us know this is a metaphorical tale – a story of God’s promise to breath life back into the people of Israel who were being held captive in Babylon. After all those years imprisoned in a foreign land God’s people were spiritually dried up and parched like a desert wasteland. They felt as lifeless as dead bones.
But here’s the thing, God hears their cries, just as God hears ours. In one grace filled breath their hope returns, and so will ours. Just as God resurrects the life of his people, so too does God resurrect our lives even when the odds of that happening are stacked against us. As we progress through this pandemic, we will be faced with new and difficult challenges. We too will have to find a way to put life back together again. Especially when we feel as lifeless as a pile of old bones.
As daunting and overwhelming as life might seem right now, must not lose hope. But be on guard because it’s in these moments doubt, depression, fear and anxiety sneak in and drag us away to a dry wilderness of hopelessness and despair. Just as God didn’t give up on Israel, God does not give up on you or me. I recently read a pneumonic for the word faith that I think is worth sharing. It goes like this: Feeling Afraid I Trust Him. Ezekiel trusted God. Even when all the things that he loved the most were taken from him, he still believed the bones could rise again.
In the season of Lent, we are called into the wilderness not to wither and die, but to lean on God, to inhale the very breath of God deep into our soul. Wherever you are right now, faithful or faithless, God is asking you “Can these bones live?” In other words, do you believe God can restore us back together again? Our hope lies in the answer.
If I am to believe Jesus then I believe God’s promise of restoration is real. This life, with all its unknowns, pain, and suffering, is not the end of the story. God hears our cries and comes to us, to breath new life in us.
If I believe in the incarnation, the very breath of God becoming flesh and bone in the man Jesus, then I can believe in his resurrection, and the new life that comes through him because of it.
If you believe that God’s promise is real, that these bones can live again, then you will find your hope – hope that will grow your faith and bring you closer to the very heartbeat of God’s love for you. But if you believe these bones will live, then you must ask yourself, what am I going do with my bones today? Will I raise the dead? Make the blind see and the deaf hear?
If that seem impossible, remember it was Jesus who said, the person who believes will not only do what he did but even greater things.
In both Hebrew and Greek, the word for breath is also the word for spirit. God’s spirit is breathed into you for a purpose, not just so we can have life, but so we can live life abundantly, fearlessly, graciously – as one united people. Jesus gave us his final breath, the very Spirit of God, so that we could proclaim the truth of God’s love for all things. Like him, we are to take that Spirit and be the miracle God wants us to be.
With a single breath, we can heal the sick with compassion and care. We can feed thousands of people by sharing our resources with one another. We can forgive sins and bless people no matter what. With God’s breath, we can resurrect the dead by being resurrection people.
God is calling us to prophecy to others by being people who show compassion and seek those who have been pushed out to the fringes and love them back into society. This is what Jesus' miracles were all about… returning people back to God where we all belong. This is what resurrection looks like. This is how our dry bones come back together, how we as a community and as a human race come back stronger and healthier than ever before.
As we walk and live amid the painful and death-dealing realities that plague God’s creation, let us not lose the hope that God calls us out to the wilderness, just like Jesus was called out from the grave, to bring new life to those whose spirits are withered and dead.
And so I ask you, “Can these bones live?” If so, then let them know.
Let us pray: God of life, just as you have breathed us into being, so too does your breath push us out into the world to prophecy and proclaim the good news of Jesus the Christ, whose resurrection is the proof of you greatness and glory. Let us turn our eyes upon him, who taught us to pray saying:
has been blogging under the name: Jesus not Jesús: Looking for Christ in the face of strangers. You can read his posts and browse his archives by clicking here.
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