Wednesday, April 19, 2006

SECOND SUNDAY OF EASTER: RCL texts for April 23, 2006

The Second Sunday of Easter
TEXT: John 20: 19-31
TITLE: Church Happens!

When you hear the word CHURCH, what picture comes to your mind?
Just close your eyes and try it with me. Ready? CHURCH!

What did you see? A large neo-gothic cathedral? A picture perfect
white frame building with arched windows and a high steeple?
Perhaps a sturdy brick building with a bell tower? Maybe something more modern; with soaring glass walls and sharp angles vaulting toward the sky? What do you see when you hear the word church?

I’d almost be willing to bet none you saw 15 to 20 scared and lonely people, huddled behind closed and locked doors, whispering among themselves, jumping out of their skins at every noise from the
outside. Whatever our image of church is, it usually doesn’t include
locked doors and frightened people.

Yet that is the picture John paints of the very first church.
First Church, Jerusalem: gathered together on that first Sunday after Jesus’ death, huddled and hiding, trembling and terrified, lonely and loveless. They’re not much of a church; no organ, no pews, no pulpit, no stained glass windows. Nothing but a room to meet in and memories to talk about.

What was it he said at Supper the other night? Something about the bread being his body and the wine his blood? Peter, what did he mean by that?

Did you hear what Mary Magdalene and the other women said? They said they went to the tomb this morning and Jesus’ body was missing, the stone was rolled away and the body was missing. And Mary Magdalene said she saw the Lord?

Well, sure, did anybody check her breath to see what SHE’D been drinking? She saw Jesus ALIVE this morning? Right!

And so on. They talked, they fretted, they worried themselves sick about what it all meant and what the Roman soldiers or the Chief Priests might be up to. And maybe, just maybe, somebody in the room was praying, but it’s not likely.

Doesn’t sound like much of a church does it? Dr. Tom Long of Princeton Seminary says they are a picture of the church at its worst, “scarred and scared, disheartened and defensive.”

Long wonders, What sort of advertisement might this church put in the Saturday paper to attract members? THE FRIENDLY CHURCH
WHERE ALL ARE WELCOME? Hardly. Locked doors are not a sign of hospitality. THE CHURCH WITH A WARM HEART AND A BOLD MISSION? Forget it. This is the church of sweaty palms and shaky knees and a firmly bolted front door.

Here is a church that has almost nothing going for it, has practically no claim to being church except. . . . . . . .except that when they gathered, the Risen Christ pushed through the locked door and stood among them.

That is what turned that little group of scarred and scared people into the church, the Presence of the Risen Christ in the room. It wasn’t anything they did or didn’t do, it wasn’t anything they said or didn’t say.
Church HAPPENS when the gathered community pays attention to the presence of the Risen Christ in the room.

AND, when that presence is ignored, nothing of any consequence can or does happen. It was the disciples’ awareness of and attention to the presence of the Risen Christ that made the difference then; and it is the awareness of and attention to the Presence of the Risen Christ that makes the difference now.

Jesus comes to us today, Jesus comes to us showing us his love for us by showing us the wounds he has suffered on our behalf.

Jesus comes to us offering us Peace and the fiery breath of the Holy Spirit.

Jesus comes to us, to tell us, I love you and I have great plans for you!

Are we paying attention?



Thursday, April 13, 2006

HOLY WEEK SERMONS: Maundy Thursday and Easter Sunday

Maundy Thursday
April 13, 2006

Texts: Exodus 12:1-4, 11-14
I Corinthians 11:23-26
John 13: 1-17, 31b-35

Title: Up the Down Staircase

One of my oldest friends in ministry is the Rev. Denny Camp. Denny and I have known each other over thirty years. He is a minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

Denny graduated from Cummings High School in Burlington, NC. It was an old building built in the early 1900’s, a long, brick, two-story building with staircases at each end of the central hall.

Some long ago principal had organized the class changing chaos by decreeing that the East End Staircase was UP and the West End Staircase was DOWN. This rule was strictly enforced, going the wrong way on a staircase was a serious offence!

One day Denny found himself at the bottom of the DOWN staircase a few minutes before classes changed. His next class was in a room directly over his head.

To PROPERLY, LEGALLY, LEGITIMATELY, go upstairs, he would need to walk all the way to the other end of the corridor, go up the UP staircase, and then walk all the way back to his class room. (Which would probably have been good exercise, but he was a 15 year old boy, exercise was not on his mind.)

Denny glanced at his watch, looked around and saw no teachers, and headed up the DOWN staircase.

When he was about halfway up, he first felt, then saw, then heard a presence above him. He glanced up and saw the Football Coach/Assistant Principal glaring down at him.
CAMP! Get up here!

At just that exact moment, the bell rang and a sea of teenage humanity started flowing down the DOWN staircase.

Denny couldn’t make any headway – he was stuck.

The Coach kept glaring – and shouting

He couldn’t go up, he couldn’t buck the tide,
He couldn’t go down, the coach was calling him up.

He was stuck, stuck going up the DOWN staircase.

Sometimes our lives feel like that,
like a constant struggle to push against the tide,

Henry David Thoreau said it best in the 1830’s
Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.

We start out with great hopes and grand plans; our way is clear and the sailing looks easy. Then suddenly – we look around – and we’re stuck. Nothing is working out the way we thought.

Marriage is complicated, jobs are uncertain, the economy is shaky, the world is a place full of danger and trouble and here we stand: unable to go forward, unwilling to back down.

It is when one finds oneself stuck,
immobile on the staircase of life,
that one must re-evaluate the very meaning of life,
re-define one’s goals,
re-calculate what “going up” means,
re-focus on loving and serving God
which means:
loving and serving others.

That is the point of Jesus’ footwashing ritual,
His “object lesson” his “children’s sermon”
for his spiritual children, his disciples.

Listen again to the words of our Gospel lesson:

Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him . . ..

After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord-and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.

In this act of humility, servanthood and love; Jesus has lived out a radical reversal of the way things normally are; and he has called us to do the same.

Jesus has invited to embark on a journey up the DOWN
staircase, swimming against the tide of the world’s values of self-interest and personal privilege.

In Jesus’ new way of being,
the meaning of life is found in the cross.

When we embrace this new way of being
our life’s agenda becomes discipleship and service.

And our struggle is transformed from an effort to succeed
into a journey of obedience to the Gospel.

This transforms the image of going up the DOWN
staircase from one of frustration and failure
to one of spiritual pilgrimage and virtue.

The people flowing down the stairs are the material and cultural forces hindering us in our efforts to ascend.

And though it’s difficult to imagine God as a red-faced football coach, we can at least envision a Higher Power calling to us from above, encouraging us,
calling us to “go up higher.”

The Spiritual life is a struggle, a struggle to live a life of love and service to God and neighbor in a world which constantly pushes us in the opposite direction.

And the GOOD NEWS is, we don’t fight this fight alone,
God sent Jesus to lead the way, to teach, guide, show, and yes, carry us if necessary, Up the DOWN staircase.

Easter Sunday
April 16, 2006

TEXTS: Acts 10:34-43
I Corinthians 15:1-11
John 20:1-18

TITLE: But God,

“They put him to death by hanging Him on a tree, but God raised him on the third day. . . “

2005 was a year filled with death for me. Even a partial list is daunting.

Jack English was my college room-mate. He has been my life-long friend. Barbara was his wife. Jack was in my wedding in 1974, I was in his wedding in 1975. His now-grown kids are my god-children. We visited each other often over the years, and the four of us got into hour long conversations on the phone every other month or so. Barbara died of cancer last year. She was 51.

Rene’ Teems was the mother of one of Joseph’s team-mates on the Hayesville High School basketball team. We saw them at all the games,
ate with them at fast-food places all over the mountains. Rene’ died of an aneurysm last summer. She was 48.

Dick Morton was my English Professor at Guilford College. But he was more than that. He worked with me, he saw within me something I could not see in myself. Without him I would have dropped out of college and gone back to the farm and the mill. He went to the hospital for surgery, he got a staph infection, he died. He was 69.

Richard Wallace was an African-American Lutheran Theologian and pastor. He was also my friend. We met in the early 90’s when I was on the board of the Lutheran Theological Center in Atlanta. We worked together in teaching racial awareness to Lutheran teen-agers in the South. He taught for me in my Spirituality Programs at Hinton Center.

The last time I saw him was at the Mexican Restaurant in Arden, across from Nativity Church. We ate lunch and I took him to the airport. A few months later he was dead of a heart attack. He was 53.

Yes, 2005 was a year filled with death in my life. And the only thing that gives me any hope is to remember two little words from Acts: BUT GOD!

They put him to death on a tree, BUT GOD raised him. .

Those words, BUT GOD, are the church’s real,
and ultimately only, answer
to the temptations and trials the world offers.

Trying to reason our way through grief and loss,
trying to make sense of the senseless,
trying to convince a world gone crazy
with the desire for more of everything and anything
that that desire is deadly of both body and soul;
these things are, at the end of the day, pointless.

There is no reason which can assuage our grief,
there is no sense to be made
of the raging evil we see around us,
there is no way to divert the addicted and bloated
from seeking their fix, be it oil or drugs.

The only answer we have to offer to these things,
which Luther summed up as
Sin, Death and the Devil,
is these two words, BUT GOD!

Beginning with Adam and Eve and the Apple,
the Devil tempts, people Sin, Death ensues,
and God intervenes with another chance.

It is the golden thread running through the Bible;

This story of God’s
redeeming and forgiving love,

This story of God’s willingness to act
in response to the world’s evil.

This story summed up in the words BUT GOD.
Today we celebrate the ultimate BUT GOD moment, the raising of Jesus from the tomb.
It is both the proof and the promise of our faith.

It reminds us of what God HAS done in the past while promising to us what God will do in the future.

With Jesus, the world, Luther’s tri-logy of
had done their best to do their worst.

Good Friday had appeared to be
a complete victory for those forces of destruction which assail all of us,

Evil had reared its ugly head and roared;
and Good had stood by idly and done nothing.

When Mary went to the tomb,
she went in deep sadness and despair,
she went into a place of coldness and death, she went to a place
with no hope and no happiness,

she went to prepare a body for burial,
she went to put Jesus in his grave.

But when she got there,
she discovered that things had changed,
the tomb was empty,
the body was missing,
and angels were lurking about.

Mary had come upon the greatest
BUT GOD! moment of all.

Our lives are full of difficulty.
Hurricanes come, friends die,
relatives get sick, jobs don’t pan out,

politicians and teachers and yes,
even preachers,
turn out to be less than they seem.

All of life is subject to the painful realities
of decline and decay.
But Easter reminds us
that the church has an answer
and that answer is God’s.

God’s love, God’s forgiveness, God’s power,
God’s calling, God’s actions in the world.

Easter is more than a promise of life beyond the grave, of happiness in heaven with our loved ones.

Easter is a promise that life is good now, that God’s power is active in this moment, in this place, in our lives.

Easter tells us that our eternal life begins now and goes with us through death into God’s future.

Easter tells us that whatever may happen to us in this world there is an answer, and the answer is BUT GOD.

The world says; seek success and glory and material well-being above all else,

BUT GOD says; “Seek ye first the Kingdom of Heaven and all these things shall be added unto you.”

The world says; It’s a dog eat dog world, it’s a rat race. It’s every man (person) for himself.

BUT GOD says; Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

The world says, Find your self, your bliss. Do that thing which makes you feel most fulfilled.

BUT GOD says; You shall love the LORD your God, with all your heart, mind and soul; and the second is just like it; love your neighbor as yourself.

The World says, Stave off death at whatever cost. The worst thing that can happen is to die and any action that you take to avoid it is good.

BUT GOD says, Those who would save their life will lose it, but those who lose their life for my sake and the sake of the Gospel will save it.

The world’s way leads to the death of the soul and eventually the death of the body, with no hope for tomorrow and no joy for today.

BUT GOD’S way leads to life, both now and forever; life full of the joy of loving and serving God and neighbor with reckless abandon and total trust in God’s will and way.

Which is why we cry out today:

Christ is risen!

Monday, April 10, 2006


Rather than comment on the specific texts, (of which there are a lot this week) I am going to give some ideas about Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter preaching without a lot of reference to particular texts.

This past Sunday's Asheville Citizen-Times had a column by a local high school student, extolling the study of Latin. In the course of her essay, she made the point that one cannot translate directly from one language to another; words are not "signs" which stand for the exact equivalent universal truths. Languages are symbol systems; words are symbols, that's why we say "something was lost in translation," symbols are more complex than signs.

It seems to me that way too often we try way too hard to turn Biblical symbols into Theological signs that can be translated into our current experience. Starting with the fact that the original stories are in languages other than English, and they are from a culture of 2000 years ago, and going through those 2000 years of mutation and translation and mangling, and new cultures and other interpretations; it is, I think, almost impossible to get at a one-to-one correlation between the "signs" of the Biblical Talk and the signs of our Modern/post-modern "dialectic."

Which is why I think taking the biblical stories as symbols is a more productive way to go, particularly in preaching. The important thing is to find a way to hear and experience the "symbolic" language of the story and to pay attention to the ways those symbols intercect with our lives and our language.

And the way to do this is to experience the Biblical stories as just that: stories, indeed the whole Biblical account as a story, a story which sucks us in and translates us, and creates in us a new way of seeing and being in the world.

For example, on Maundy Thursday, one should experience the washing of feet without a lot of explaining, the same with the supper and the stripping of the Altar. Any attempt to create a "sign" from ancient experience to this moment in time is misplaced. It is important to let the symbols, the drama and rituals, so their own work in each heart.

Proclamation on this night is accent, nuance, poetry rather than prose. Stories of hospitality, servanthood and/or betrayal. A meditation on meals and rewembrance,
these are the stuff of preaching on this night.

For Good Friday, Tennebrae or a Soluemn Good Friday Liturgy, with A long prayer Litany and the reading of the Passion Narrative, slammed books, and dimmed lights and preocessions of crosses; these things do not so much need to be expalined as they need to be highlighted, touched upon, augmented. A reflection on despair and darkness or lost hope is the theme here, deepening the mystery, not explaining or relieving it.

Easter is all about JOY, inexplicable JOY, and if it is inexplicable, why do we try so hard to explain it? Proclaim the joy. Announce the victory. Again, tell the story, and let the story do its work on us.



Wednesday, April 05, 2006


FIRST READING: Isaih 50:4-9a,verse 4: "The LORD God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word."
Dr. Richard Lischer's Beecher Lectures on Preaching have been published as "The End of Words: the Language of Reconciliation in a Culture of Violence." A couple of quotes are appropriate here:

"Preaching bears the impossible weight of its own message, which is God's willingness to be pushed out of the world and onto a cross. Preaching has to conjure with its own apparent irrelevance. God (and the preacher) can relate to the world only via the great symbol of marginalization, the cross and by means of the hidden presence of God's chosen instruemnt, the marginalized Man for Others."(p.8)

"We preach God's love to those who are staggering through loveless relationships. We preach forgiveness to injured parties who possess a moral right to say "Never again." Worst of all, we preach reconciliation to those who, either consciously or unconsciously, seize upon our words as permission for continued sin. Of them, the Scripture says, "They crucify the Son of God afresh." No where do you see the vulnerability of the church more clearly than when it gathers up its authority and announces the forgiveness of sins." (p.144)

"The End of Words", Richard Lischer, Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2005

SECOND READING: Phillipians 2:5-11: verse 5: "Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus"

A Quote from T.S. Eliot: "People are only influenced in the direction in which they want to go, and influence consists largely in making them conscious of their wishes to proceed in that direction." (cited in AARP Magazine, May/June 2006 by Sallie Foley, M.S.W. p.38)

If this is true, (and my 30 years of experience as a parish pastor teaches me it is) and if we are called to follow Jesus to the cross (which we are) and if, as preachers, we are supposed to issue this call to the cross to our parishioners (again, which we are), so how do we get people to put self-interest aside and want to go to the cross? How do we make cross-living the direction they want to go.
How do we "make them conscious of their wishes to proceed in that direction?

About ten years ago, I was standing at the sink washing dishes with my oldest son David, who will be 23 this summer. David was then taking cooking classes and he was talking about his plans to be a gourmet cook for about 20 years and then run for the US Senate. As gently as I could, I pointed out to him that though I was sure he was capable of both those things, it might be very difficult to convince millions of voters that gourmet cooking was good experience for becoming a Senator. He said, "Well, I'll just get them to change their minds." Then I said, "That could be very difficult. Look how hard it is for me to get a couple of hundred people at the church to change their minds." To which David replied, "You're not called to get them to change their minds. You're called to preach the Gospel. The Holy Spirit changes their minds." (Hmm. Boy must of had a good catechism teacher. Thank you Pr. Laura)

THE GOSPEL: Mark 15:1-39 - verse 1 - "As soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council. They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate."

It's reading week. This from Carl Jung, "Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding about ourselves." (Sally Folie, AARP, p.38)

I remember that same thought from a counseling seminar as "That which we dislike most in others is that which we dislike most in ourselves."

Either way, it raises up some interesting reflections about the crucifixion of Jesus.

1) What was it about Jesus that irritated others? What does that irritation say about them?

2) More to the point, what about Jesus irritates us? And what does that irritation say about us?

To go one more step, though we do not cry out "Crucify him," for we are much too polite or indifferent for that, how do we "crucify him" again, and again, and again, in our lives? In what ways to we speak his praise with our lips and drive more nails into his hands with our lives?

If we take Jung's thought seriously, we might think of Jesus' story as a mirror held up to our lives. It is only as we look at Christ that we begin to see ourselves clearly.

I noticed it again the other day, one of the creations of modern technology that I simply do not understand. Nothing real significant, just something that puzzles me. Passenger side rear-view mirrors. They say, "Objects in mirror are closer than they appear." Whose bright idea was that? The only thing I use that mirror for is to change lanes to the right, and believe you me, I want to know EXACTLY where that car back there is. So WHY???? does the mirror show it further away than it really is, thus making moving right more dangerous?

But you know what, there is emotional, spiritual truth in those words, "Objects in mirror are closer than they appear" That is the point of Jung's observation. The irritation we feel at others is not over there with them, it's in here, with us.

The reactions we have to Jesus, the cross and the gospel are not over there, or back there 2000 years; they are right here and right now. They are indeed "Closer than they appear."