Sunday, April 25, 2010

Wipe Away Every Tear

Wipe Away Every Tear

© copyright 2010 Robert J. Elder
Fourth Sunday of Easter, April 25, 2010
Revelation 7:9-17

Here we are, in the middle of that strange and wonderful book of the Bible, the Revelation of John, with its strange and wonderful and baffling imagery providing scriptural foundation for our service. What are we to make of all the numbers, the hundred and forty-four thousand sealed, followed by an even greater number that could not be counted? If we wanted to look backward, we’d find John’s words about the “slain Lamb” in Revelation 5, which came as a surprising image of a Messiah to a people more accustomed to the image of the Lion of Judah as the symbol of their Messianic hope. In today’s reading we find other references to the Lamb and its strangely cleansing blood. And there is the familiar image of living water, which we will recognize as a connection to the fourth chapter of John’s gospel, where Jesus offered living water to the woman at the well. It is followed by the promise of the gospel – almost tossed off here as though it were of much less significance than it truly is – that “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

Are you aware of anything that can readily bring tears to your eyes? The answer is likely to differ greatly from person to person. There are so many human reasons for tears. And when John promised that there would come a time when God will “wipe away every tear from their eyes,” it was a pretty big promise. There have been so many tears shed since the beginning of time, and so many reasons for shedding them.

There are the tears of a little child when the new toy breaks. Small potatoes to adults – we are accustomed to shedding tears over much bigger issues than a child’s small tragedies. But in the imaginal world of a child, a broken toy can mean a broken fantasy, a broken dream. Even strong men cry over broken dreams if they are dreams that were dearly cherished. The magnitude of any tragedy depends in no small part on the perspective of the person who experiences it.

Humanity is continually provided with opportunities to feast on tears, if the word feast can be used for such things. Anonymous killers make airplanes explode and fall from the sky, shattering dreams of thousands in an instant; famine, infant mortality claims thousands every single day of the world.

The Bible knows about tears. The Psalmist groaned in the 6th Psalm, “I am weary ... I water my couch with my tears.” The unnamed woman with the unspecified grief in the 7th chapter of Luke’s gospel washed Jesus’ feet with her very own tears.

Tears are part of the human landscape, inescapably. They have been, and they will continue to be. And our responses to the tears of others, as well as to our own tears, can vary tremendously.

One general response to human tears could be simply to shrug one’s shoulders and say, “What more can you expect from life in a world where we are born so that one day we will die?” Many have advocated the adoption of a Stoic attitude toward human misery and pain, acknowledging that complaining will not ease the pain, and will only give tormentors the pleasure of knowing their work is having its intended effect.

But John was writing his words to the seven churches of Asia minor, not as a philosopher – pondering in the luxury of a detached life the problem of human misery – but as a general rapping out marching orders to an army of Christian gospel-soldiers, many of whom he knew, if they followed his direction, would be signing themselves up for intense suffering, even death.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer – German theologian executed by the Nazis for crimes arising from his faithfulness to the gospel – once wrote, “When Jesus calls a man, he bids him come and die.” While that is theologically true, Bonhoeffer also knew it is not the whole story. John’s vision in Revelation was the engine that powered his exhortation to the Christians of Asia Minor: that they stand firm in the face of the persecution which he knew was certain to overtake them.

As he told them to stand firm in the faith even in the face of persecution by the mightiest empire the world had ever known, someone was bound to ask why, to demand to know what could possibly be worth the suffering they would voluntarily endure.

John recognized that the gospel we preach does not deny that tears are in store for those who believe. However, something of great significance lies beyond those tears, something to which it is well worth giving our very lives. Jesus may, in calling us, bid us come and die, but not senselessly, like sheep led to the slaughter. A profound aspect of John’s vision is that there is a purpose to be found in human suffering. It is a purpose spoken in our reading for today in poetic and metaphorical terms, for that is how the profoundest truths are often expressed.

John’s vision was of a multitude – uncountable – like the innumerable descendants God promised to Abraham; people from every nation, every tribe, every tongue. Not a single person in this great thronging fellowship of the saved was to be ruled out of this picture of what is to be because of color, nationality, language, or custom. Paul, writing to the Hebrews, put it a bit differently. He said, “We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.” A witness is someone who watches, among other things. Inasmuch as we are amid a great cloud of witnesses, we are watched-over. To be watched over means no one is overlooked, no one left out of the lineup because they are too short, too tall, can’t play shortstop or hit a basket from the free throw line. In heaven, at the center of the life of God, “we are watched and watched over forever, but never overlooked.”

A friend of mine, preaching on this passage, once invited listeners to ask an obvious question of a reading that speaks of an uncountable multitude of people standing before the throne in heaven. Who are these people? He invited us to consider another – related – question. “Which of the following names should appear in the membership directory of a Presbyterian church? Abdul, Dubois, Goldberg, Gronowski, Johnson, Juarez, Sun Yung Kim, McDowell, Konomoto, Monteverdi, Martinez, Nielsen, Kouvalong, Phoumy, Phan Hoa Quoc, Rashad, Schmidt, Thorensen, Ying, Yellowbird.”

A heavenly party the size of which John envisioned, has to include many people beyond the limited vision of the church that we may have had. To those who pray for the coming of God’s kingdom so that the evil of others may be avenged, God seems to answer, saying, “Wait a while longer; you may be surprised to discover who else belongs to me.”

What a marvelous way of saying that you belong here. The good news of the gospel is for you... and you, and you, and for me. No one is excluded. If we’ve lived a life of being left out, left over, left alone, we can reach into John’s vision and see that God’s kingdom is the place where that is no longer the case. You belong. We belong – all of us.

This whole company of the elect were standing, in John’s vision, in white robes –which is what triumphant Roman generals wore when celebrating their victories. Imagine how such a vision would strike a runaway slave waiting to be executed for his faith. Beyond all the suffering lies the tremendous victory such as all the generals of all the armies that ever marched have never known.

In John’s vision, the whole company was singing. We may never have thought of the singing of hymns as such a revolutionary activity. But imagine the power of such a vision of triumphant singing for a church that had to post a guard at the door of every meeting to be certain they were not discovered. The vision of a singing throng would have sounded like – well, like heaven itself. Expression of praise, free and full. It should make us ashamed for any pale and lifeless singing that takes place in God’s house.

The multitude of John’s vision were beyond tears at last, were enjoying the ultimate glory, having doggedly persisted and outlasted their tears. William Barclay says that for many, this final verse is the passage for which the whole of the Revelation of John exists: “And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” There are no tears in our world which God does not see; no sorrowing hearts to which his compassion does not reach out. What John promised here for those who could persevere through the great persecutions of his time, is the final fulfillment of the hunger and thirst of the human soul.

It is often not popular to speak much of eternity as a reason motivating our actions in this life. If we mention it we are bound to be told that such future promises minimize the extent of worldly suffering in the present. But the opposite is true for John. His vision of a blessed eternity takes most seriously the suffering of this world in a way that is impossible for those who have no hope of eternity. We need the illumination of eternity if we are to have faith for living life in a land of many tears. The vision of a tearless land is both hope for the future and the beginning of the end of our present tear-filled landscape – a tearless future means we can no longer be satisfied with the world as it is. Seeing the secure reign of God makes temporary all our sorrow and puts it in the perspective of a Time greater than the little time we can know. Just as a child’s tears, put in the perspective of an adult’s view of time, are wiped away.

This is God’s profound promise to us. That what we must suffer in this life – if suffer we must – is one day to be seen in a whole new way; that the purpose of this life will become increasingly clear to us, and God will wipe away our tears to set us free for praise.

Copyright © 2010 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

Sunday, April 18, 2010

It’s Not About Me?

It’s Not About Me?

© copyright 2010 Robert J. Elder, Pastor

Third Sunday of Easter: April 18, 2010

Romans 14:7-9

We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves.
If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord;
so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.
For to this end Christ died and lived again,
so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.

Three verses of scripture as the entire Bible reading for the day: this might seem odd. It might seem odd to us – in this day of the churches’ broad attachment across denominational lines to lectionary preaching – to schedule a sermon on such a very small section of a letter from the Bible, and from only one of the four passages which lectionaries offer for the day, one each from the Old Testament, Psalms, Gospels, and Letters.

Yet there have been times in the history of preaching ministry when scripture was expounded in sermons verse by verse, and even word by word. I remember worship services in my childhood during which the preacher took a whole sermon to work through one verse, or sometimes a single word in a verse.

While today’s Epistle (or Letter) reading is comprised of only 3 verses, it contains what some teachers of preaching have called “verbal hand grenades, ” words so high in their impact value that if we hear them right, they might just stop us in our tracks by their concussive effect.

One such explosive handful of words is here in Romans 14:7, the very first verse of our short reading, indeed, the very first phrase of the very first verse:

We do not live to ourselves

Think about these six words for a moment (only five words in Paul’s Greek).

In a world where there are hundreds of automobile brands and styles to choose from – not to mention the number of brands of tires or fuels for them; hundreds of breakfast cereals; dozens upon dozens of pain killers in pill form, gel caps, liquid, or tablet; walls filled with televisions of every conceivable type in every discount store ... you can add to this list ... couldn’t it more accurately be said that “we live almost entirely to ourselves” and our own personal choices about everything from underwear to frozen foods? Hasn’t personal choice become something of an idol of our age? And of course, even dying has about it aspects of personal choice. “What would father have wanted?” families ask themselves when choosing cremation or in-ground burial, pine box or enameled casket, simple grave or extravagant tomb ... as if, even after death, loved ones might be thought to continue to worship at the feet of the idol of personal choice in all matters. “You should be able to have the bridesmaids stand where you want them, it’s your wedding,” says the maid of honor in the middle of the pastor’s harried attempts to organize the choreography of wedding attendants at the rehearsal. “I have told the worship committee several times that all the flowers in the church should be no taller than 24 inches, and still nothing has been done about it!” says the liturgical critic, fully expecting that his word should result in instant action to satisfy his solitary, and hopelessly futile demand.

“We do not live to ourselves.” In order to see how radical Paul’s simple words are in our culture today, stand them alongside common – and popular – cultural fascinations such as, for instance, so-called “reality” shows. I am no expert on these shows, I have tuned in to some a few times but confess they are not my cup of tea. Yet I am clearly in the minority in this. The genre includes shows like – and I’ll see if I can do this in one breath – “Survivor,” “The Amazing Race,” “American Idol,” “America’s Next Top Model,” Donald Trump’s “The Apprentice,” “The Bachelor,” “Wife Swap,” “Laguna Beach,” “The Biggest Loser,” “Extreme Makeover,” “Beauty and the Geek,” and my favorite name, because of its sheer presumption: MTV’s “The Real World.” There are lots more, these are just some I have heard of or read about. A quick internet search yields over 300 such shows when each season of each one is counted separately. They just keep multiplying, and there can only be one reason, it is because people tune in by the millions to watch them.

One of my preaching friends declared in a sermon once, several years ago now, that he thought what we have come to call reality television would peak soon; yet now, about 5 years later, his follow-up observation remains pertinent: “Peak is the wrong word. Hit bottom is more like it.”[1] When I was in Italy a couple of summers ago, I discovered an Italian version of one of these programs on my hotel room television, and noted in the couple of minutes that I watched that their program had most of the familiar ingredients that are present in virtually all of these shows in the USA: some young, exceptionally attractive twenty-somethings (occasionally, there may be an “older” person as ancient as 34 or 35 in the group), voluntarily join in some kind of living space or quasi-athletic activity, and agree before the cameras start rolling, to allow every single moment of their waking and sleeping and eating and dressing and relating – especially the relating – with others to be taped and broadcast to the wide world. And it generally isn’t very long before the hoped-for conflicts and arguments and romantic liaisons and outright combat emerge among the participants.

Once, when I was visiting one of my daughters, MTV’s “The Real World” came on. This “real world” group was holed up in a huge, completely tricked-out, beautiful apartment with numerous bedrooms, an immense living area with entertainment systems to die for, a huge kitchen, money to burn on evening outings together – by now I was thinking to myself, whatever else this may be, it is clearly not the “real world,” – I remember hearing, in about a ten minute period before I couldn’t take it any more, the beginnings of arguments over “my space,” “my laundry,” “where’s my soda?” “I can’t sleep because you keep the TV on half the night,” “she is just a spoiled so-and-so,” “he is a two-timing blankety-blank blank.” You get the picture, if you haven’t gotten it already.

The commonplace conclusion, which anyone who is half-awake during one of these programs could make, is that people are, by nature, often selfish, immature, ruthless, tiresome, even wicked, but especially selfish. This would not have been news to Paul as he set about writing his lengthy letter to the Christians in Rome. He had experienced the fact that life together in community for Christians in Ephesus, Corinth, Philippi, Thessalonica, and other places was anything but a bed of roses, and had seen enough to surmise that life together for Christians in Rome might not be all that different. As a rule, human beings do long for community, but – to put an opposite spin on Paul’s words – our seemingly innate desire to “live to ourselves” stands as the single most difficult obstacle to life in community together. Televised spats on shows such as “The Real World” demonstrate that the natural human willingness to forgive and forbear one another pales in comparison to our drive to put self first: my tastes, my opinions, my moralizing, my ego, so that commitment to the community, rather than a search for “what’s in it for me?” fails to characterize human community more often than not. And, sadly, down through the centuries “living to ourselves” has often characterized life in the church as well.

My friend Michael Lindvall, who preaches at Brick Presbyterian Church in New York City, once wrote in one of his published short stories, “Life together is hard. There are no perfect husbands, no perfect wives, no perfect children, no perfect mothers-in-law. Life in family – life in any community is both our sorest test and our sweetest joy... the only thing harder than getting along with other people is getting along without them...”[2]

So what was Paul’s prescription for this state of affairs? What were the doctor’s orders to cure this common ailment among communities of faith?

We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves.
If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord;
so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.

The answer, the apostle’s prescription, so simple to state and clearly so difficult to live, is that we do not belong to ourselves, though we most often live as though we do. We live, not to ourselves, but to the Lord to whom we belong. It’s a shame that catechisms have fallen out of favor as tools for teaching and building faith in recent decades, for if we recalled the ancient catechism first inspired by Martin Luther, we would remember this all-important very first question and answer:
Q. 1. What is your only comfort, in life and in death?
A. That I belong–body and soul, in life and in death–not to myself but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ, who at the cost of his own blood has fully paid for all my sins and has completely freed me from the dominion of the devil; that he protects me so well that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, that everything must fit his purpose for my salvation. Therefore, by his Holy Spirit, he also assures me of eternal life, and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.[3]
When we are in Christ, our calling is not a life lived “to ourselves,” as Paul puts it, but “to the Lord.” “According to the Scriptures ... at one crucial point, there is no distinction between life and death. Living or dying, living and dying, we belong to the Lord; there is no difference about that whatever our state.”[4]

Now this may be the hardest part of these three short verses: “If we die, we die to the Lord.” As often as we may speak with hope and even longing of Christ as the source of our eternal salvation, few of us are in any hurry to experience that eternal portion. For the most part, we limit our view to Christ as Lord of life, and think as seldom as possible about Christ as Lord of death. But here, Paul places it right on the middle of the table, in full view of everyone of us as we scurry about our daily lives as though this life we know will just go on forever.

It’s no fun to dwell on this. Preachers who talk about the glories of life under Christ are always many percentage points more popular than those who speak of Christ as Lord of death. But the reality, as Paul puts it, is that Christ must be Lord of the one to be Lord of the other. And so he goes on to say, in the final verse of our tiny passage,

For to this end Christ died and lived again,
so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.

That word “end” is tricky, but it is more akin to words like purpose, or objective, than to “finish.” As in “He wanted to be an ornithologist, and to that end, he spent seven years in graduate study...” To this end... to the purpose of saving us in ways we could never possibly save ourselves, even save us from ourselves, to this end Christ died and lived again.

Our best and only hope in this world and the next is that we live and die to the Lord, we throw ourselves on the mercy of God in Christ in our living as well as our dying as we join with others in humility in our fellowship together, like a beleaguered ship full of sailors for whom the only hope is the Lord who calms the sea for them and leads them safely home.

Copyright © 2010 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved
Sermons are made available in print and online for readers only.
Any further publication or use of sermons must be with written permission of the author.
Unless otherwise noted, all scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989,
Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.
Used by permission. All rights reserved

[1] “The Real Real World,” by Michael Lindvall, preached at Brick Presbyterian Church, New York City, 9-11-05.
[2] Ibid.
[3] The Heidelberg Catechism, 1563-1963. 400th Anniversary Edition, © 1962, United Church Press.
[4] “We Are the Lord’s,” by Patrick D. Miller, in The Princeton Seminary Bulletin, Vol. XXIV, #2, New series 2003.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Where Love Lives

Where Love Lives

© copyright 2010 Robert J. Elder, Pastor
Second Sunday of Easter April 11, 2010

I John 3:11-18

Little children, let us love,
not in word or speech but in truth and action.NRSV

Thomas Andrew Dorsey has often been called the “Father of Gospel Music – this is the African American musician Thomas Dorsey1 – not to be confused with Swing era band leader Tommy Dorsey. Thomas was called “Georgia Tom” in his early years as a blues pianist. It is said that gospel music was the result of a combination of Christian praise with the rhythms of jazz and blues music. And Dorsey was there at the very beginning, in fact, many people believe he was the beginning of what we have come to think of as “Gospel Music.”

Before he found his way to the beginnings of gospel music he recorded a popular, raunchy jazz tune in 1928 that sold 7 million copies, an enormous success in those days, by any standard. The son of a Georgia preacher, Dorsey drifted away from God for a time. Then, in 1932, during a revival meeting in St. Louis, he received a telegram that would change his life. In the clinical way that telegrams used to bring news, he read that he had lost his wife and newborn son in childbirth. He was bereft: “God, you aren’t worth a dime to me right now!” Dorsey cried out, in his despair.

Then, living in the midst of that despair, he began to make a different response. Sitting at the piano, he created the lines of the first true gospel song, the song that Christine sang for us just a few minutes ago: “Take, My Hand, Precious Lord.” He fit the lyrics to what was already a familiar tune. The following Sunday, the choir of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in South Chicago, Illinois, sang it, with Dorsey playing the accompaniment.

Dorsey later described his process of writing this well-loved song:
“After putting my wife and baby away in the same casket, I began to feel that God had done me an injustice. I didn’t want to serve him anymore or write any more gospel songs. I wanted to return back to the jazz world that I once knew so well before. Then a voice spoke to me and said: ‘You are not alone.’ Everyone was so kind to me in these sad hours.

The next week ... in my solitude, I began to browse over the keys like a gentle herd pasturing on tender turf. Something happened to me there. I had a strange feeling inside. A sudden calm, a quiet stillness. As my fingers began to manipulate over the keys, words began to fall in place on the melody like drops of water falling from the crevice of a rock.”2
That song, which has been recorded by countless artists, from Elvis Presley to Roy Rogers, was Martin Luther King Jr’s favorite gospel song, and was requested by President Lyndon Johnson for his funeral service. Dorsey eventually wrote more than 250 gospel songs. He once said, “My business is to try to bring people to Christ instead of leaving them where they are. I write for all of God’s people. All people are my people. What I share with people is love. I try to lift their spirits and let them know that God still loves them. He’s still saving, and He can still give that power.”

Precious Lord, take my hand,
Lead me on, let me stand,
I am tired, I am weak, I am worn;
Through the storm, through the night,
Lead me on to the light:
Take my hand, precious Lord,
Lead me home.

Lifting spirits ... letting people know God loves them: Such places are places where love lives.

In an old story, a revered teacher from the old country asked his students, “How can you determine the hour of dawn, when the night ends and the day begins?” What is the difference between darkness and light?

One student replied, “When from a distance you can distinguish between a sheep and a dog?”
“No,” says the rabbi.
“Is it when you can distinguish between a fig tree and a grapevine?”another suggested.
Again the wise teacher responded, “I’m afraid not,” and then revealed the answer:
“The hour of dawn is when you have enough light to look human beings in the face and recognize them as your brothers and sisters. Until then the darkness is still with us.”

This goes to the heart of our passage from I John. John wrote, “We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. Whoever does not love abides in death.” This is the reason that the idea of love’s lack brought to John’s mind the Old Testament story of Cain, who murdered his brother Able. Absence of concern for others is not benign, it is a toxic, death-dealing way to live. Even Jesus said as much in Matthew 5:21-22:
“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment...”
The heart does not mark the difference between hating a brother or sister in the faith, and murdering, they are both born of the same seed. To hate is to cut off relationship, to despise, and murder amounts to the completion of that idea.

When John writes “We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another,” he is clearly not referring only or even mainly to life beyond the grave. In I John, eternal life is something in the present tense, something that comes to life every time a child of God, a brother or sister in Christ, is loved. This is not the stuff of sweet bye and bye, but of the right now.

Filmmaker Woody Allen, whose memory, like Ben Franklin or Oscar Wilde, will surely live on far past his death because of his many quirky observations on the world, once said, “I’m not afraid of dying; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” But of course, Allen is thinking of biology, not theology. When John says, “Whoever does not love abides in death,” he is writing theology, declaring that where love has gone missing in action, where there remains hostility within the family of faith among people God intended to be brothers and sisters in faith, where community is disregarded and only the will of individuals is taken into consideration, that is death. Death of community, death of the self-giving love communities established in Christ’s name are supposed to emulate, death of what Christ himself died to bring to birth. Just as when brothers and sisters in Christ love each other heaven and life eternal are already breaking in to our world, so when we do not live in love, we are dead already, dancing the Dance Macabre with death itself, without even realizing it.

Perhaps some of you will recall the now-classic novel by Thornton Wilder, The Bridge of San Luis Rey. In 1714 a rope bridge across a rocky gorge in the Andes Mountains collapsed, and five people on the bridge plunged to their common deaths. In the novel, a monk, ready to start across the bridge, saw the whole thing happen before him, as “he saw the bridge divide and fling five gesticulating ants into the valley below.” Brother Juniper sets out to discover who these people were and to see if there is any common link, any observable purpose in what happened to them. In the end, he declares,
“Soon we shall die, and all memory of those five will have left the Earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”
If we ask most people about it, love is understood as a fragile emotion at best, here one moment, gone the next. You can lose it. You can fall into or out of it. It can abandon you as quickly as you find it. But we know our own faith is not characterized by such fragility when we describe it as the love of God. One friend of mine said that it may appear as gossamer-thin as a spider’s web, but in reality it – like a spider’s web – it has astounding strength.3 Paul said as much about the sort of love which John declares in this letter, when he said that nothing “can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”4

The great East Indian Christian convert and missionary, Sadhu Sundar Singh, once walked with a companion through a high pass in the Himalayas, when they came upon the figure of a nearly frozen man lying unconscious in the snow. Singh began trying to revive the stranger, but his companion protested, saying, “We will lose our own lives if we burden ourselves with him.” Still, Singh insisted they pause to help the man. Convinced that this idea was futile, even dangerous, Singh’s companion abandoned him and walked on.

Though he was alone with his charge, Singh was resolute. He managed to get the man’s nearly frozen body on his shoulders and began to continue his journey, carrying his heavy burden. Before long the physical exertion not only warmed Singh, it also warmed the stricken man, reviving him. Soon the two men were able to continue their walk side by side.

A day or two later they came upon Singh’s original companion, who had chosen to go on alone, discovering his frozen body in a heap in the snow.

How do we know that love lives and brings us into the presence of something that is eternal? John declares that love takes on this sturdy, eternal character…
  • When all God’s people are seen as gifts to be celebrated and not burdens to be borne.
  • When we can say, with meaning, “He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother, she’s my sister.”
  • When, despite our native reluctance, we follow the apostle’s advice when he wrote:
Brothers and sisters in Christ, “Let us love, not in word or speech but in truth and action.”

Copyright © 2010 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

1 http://www.npr,org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1069272

2 From sermon materials for "the Bridge Is Love," by Carl Wilton, September 4, 2004.
3 Ibid.

4 Romans 8

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Why Do You Look?

Why Do You Look?1

© copyright 2010 Robert J. Elder, Pastor
Easter Day, April 4, 2010

Luke 24:1-12

Why do you look for the living
among the dead? NRSV

Brothers and sisters in Christ, grace and peace to you all in the name of our risen Lord, and in the name of all who continue to live in amazement at what had happened on that first day of the week at early dawn. The world is always baffled at the power of that empty tomb. “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” That was the question of the two messengers at the tomb. And that is the way Easter began, not on a note of triumph and hope, but with a graveyard death-watch of the faithful at early dawn. “When the women came back from the cemetery on Easter morning, they brought with them word of an empty tomb and astonishing news: ‘He is not here but has risen!’ All Christian preaching begins here.”2

Burial spices in hand, the women came to the graveyard at early dawn – the Greek modifier translated as “early” literally means “deep” – “deep dawn,” that opaque and mysterious time in the crack between night and day. They came to observe the traditional practice of anointing the lifeless, decaying body of someone they loved to keep it from smelling bad. It isn't a very pretty image. Death never is. No one expected the tomb to be empty. No one expected that oblique promises of a resurrection would be real. Surely not the disciples, who stayed in hiding that morning, back at the Jerusalem bed and breakfast. Like the Emmaus Road travelers in the story immediately following this one in Luke’s gospel, the disciples were “slow of heart to believe.” There was no trumpet fanfare to sound a note of triumph over death when the women came upon the tomb, no chorus of heavenly angels heralding the event and calling nearby shepherds to come and take note. Just that haunting question – from two men standing beside them in day-glow outfits in the graveyard – to the women who came, anticipating no miracle, no surprises: “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” Why do you? Why do we?

“History,” it’s often been said, “is just news from a graveyard.” That’s a rather cynical way of putting it, of course, and it does capture a jaded world’s willful and death-denying blindness to the past, reflecting the myopia of those who live as though the world began when they were born and will cease to exist when they are gone. But the phrase is also a memorable description of Easter. And, odd as it often strikes us, this is what you and I have to proclaim to the world on Easter: News from a graveyard.

He is not here, but has risen. Risen as he said! While there follows no immediate, joyful exclamation, no hallelujahs, no angel trumpeters, there is something with which you and I – modern people that we are – can relate: surprise, fear, skepticism, and doubt. But as inheritors of the memory of this promise, believers are granted new eyes with which to see the world. You and I will always be among those who seek the living among the dead; because of our life in Christ we simply see the world differently than those for whom the world remains stuck on Good Friday. Most often we see the world differently because we want to change what we see. And by the grace of God, we do.

A little over twenty years ago now a book was published that carried the title Morning-Glory Babies3. It contained the story of a community of Christians who took up a ministry with babies infected with the AIDS virus. The author wrote, “From the perspective of the media, death is the essence of the story about our children. ‘A Moment of Sunshine in the Shadow of Death,’ was a typical headline from newspaper stories about us. Upon finishing a story about the arrival of a baby girl named Melissa, one television producer asked if his network could have an exclusive on ‘The End of the Story.’”

The end of the story. That is the way the world sees it, when they bother to look. But the founder of that AIDS ministry saw things through Easter-eyes. And he wrote of his deep frustration: “For me, ‘the story’ is that Melissa is beginning to walk, or that she sings duets with little David in an unknown language only babies understand.” That is the story for those who seek the living among the dead. He is not here, but has risen. Risen as he said! And it is the memory of that promise that gives us new eyes to see the world, even if what we do see is profoundly disturbing.

And it is. The intention of Easter is not to help us repress and suppress all the tragic and bad things that can overwhelm us, the purpose of Easter is to give us courage to face them. We may face them, we may enter the darkness, because we do not have to face them alone. The darkness is inhabited now. That is what those faithful women discovered at the empty tomb. And they left the tomb enabled to see the world through new eyes. Because, all appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, the one who is really in charge of the drama of history is that same one who is now One with the victims of history: the despised and rejected, the cast-off and neglected, the undervalued and ignored, which, in the final analysis, includes all of us in one way or another, whether we perceive it or not.

What you and I know of the world, what you and I see in the world is often profoundly disturbing. But what we see in the cross of Christ is God’s abiding commitment to this world; a cross that invites everyone of us to be just as committed to it. But beyond the cross, and confronted with the resurrection, you and I live with God’s determination to change the world as it is.

This is where the faith of Easter departs from mere optimism: that every cloud has a silver lining or our culture’s sentimental substitute of flowers that bloom every spring for the Bible’s declarations about resurrection from something really and truly dead. That is not what we are about at Easter, because there is a resounding presupposition behind what we proclaim when we say: “Jesus Christ is risen.” And the presupposition is this: that the work of that One who revealed his purpose in his first sermon at Nazareth, quoting words from the Old Testament prophets about healing and liberation, that work continues unabated from that time to this. It has not been silenced by the powers of death; it is going on. The resurrection is about God’s determination to change the world, as it is.

And the reason that’s the best news the world has ever heard is because you and I have been drawn into it. There is a job for us to do in a business that has no unemployment index. Maybe you’re not sure you can do the job if you take it. But I can promise you that you will be granted what you do not, by nature, possess: the determination, imagination and daring to participate in that work; to become stewards of life in the kingdom of death. Why else do you look for the living among the dead?

And we know it is that, don’t we? When the lilies are distributed all over town to shut-ins and grieving people, when carillons stop ringing the tune to “Jesus Christ is Risen Today,” when Easter day is done, racism will still be rampant in our world. The poor will still suffer. Assault rifles will still be selling like hotcakes. The homeless will still be without shelter. The emergency rooms will continue on as beehives of activity. Children will carry on breaking their parents’ hearts, and parents will persist in letting their children down. Healing and liberation will still be needed, because God is still determined to change the world as it is. And if we decide to be employed in this work, we will be found among those who seek the living among the dead, because God’s determination to change the world doesn’t go anywhere unless we do.

You and I don't have to produce blueprints for an ideal world in order to know where God’s life-giving energies need to be directed for healing and liberation. We simply need to look at the world as it is and see this world of ours through the lens of Easter; see the world as stewards of life in a kingdom of death. And when we do, we know where God’s compassion and commitment to change direct us.

Henri Nouwen, spiritual father to a whole generation of preachers, once wrote,

“The resurrection is God’s way of revealing to us that nothing that belongs to God will ever go to waste. What belongs to God will never get lost. The resurrection doesn’t answer any of our common questions about life after death such as: “How will it be? How will it look?” But it does reveal to us that love is stronger than death. God’s love for us, our love for each other, and our love for those who lived before and will live after us is not just a quickly passing experience, but a reality transcending all time and space.”4

Possibly you have seen or read these figures that tell us if the entire world population consisted of only 100 people:

67 would be poor
55 of them would have an annual income of less than $600.00
50 of them would be homeless or live in substandard housing
50 would be without adequate, safe drinking water
47 would be illiterate
35 would be hungry or malnourished
6 would be Americans, and would hold 33% of the world's income
1 would have a college education

More often than not, figures like these are mentioned to make some sort of case for our guilt by association. But in God’s eyes, it isn’t a matter of guilt. It’s a matter of grace. They are merely a cross-index for liberation and healing; directing the resources of healing where they are needed. Deploying the energy and love that is essential for liberation ... where it will make a difference, where “nothing that belongs to God will ever go to waste.”

And you and I are drawn into that work because the best news in the world is always news from a graveyard; good news about the universe, and about God. And as we find ourselves drawn to seek the living in this world of ours, we come to know something unique about who God has created and loved in this world.

For this world is not an orphan asylum hurled through endless space. We are travelers here, knocking on the door of the universe, asking, “Is anybody there?” And our Easter faith answers that question. “There is somebody there. The darkness is inhabited. Now... and forever.”

My sisters and brothers in Christ, grace and peace to you all from our risen Lord. For he is not here, but has risen. Risen as he said!

Copyright © 2010 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

I owe a debt of gratitude to Dr. George Chorba for seminal ideas in this sermon.
“Empty Tomb, Empty Talk,” by Tom Long, Christian Century, April 4, 2001, p. 11.
Morning-Glory Babies: Children with Aids and the Celebration of Life, by Tolbert McCarroll, St. Martins Press, 1988.
Our Greatest Gift, by Henri Nouwen.

I Don’t Know Why You Say Goodbye, I Say Hello

I Don’t Know Why You Say Goodbye, I Say Hello

Maundy Thursday, April 1, 2010

© copyright 2010 Robert J. Elder

John 13:1-17, 31b-35

About 40 years ago now, a musical group from England popularized a song that has been running through my mind ever since I first began reading over tonight’s New Testament text in preparation for this service. Some of you will recognize the words, others won’t, but they seem to me to be pertinent to the celebration of the Last Supper that Jesus celebrated with his disciples when he sat with them one Passover evening centuries ago. The words go like this:

You say “Yes,” and I say “No,”
You say “Stop,” and I say, “Go, go, go!”
I don’t know why you say, “Goodbye,"
I say, “Hello.”
Hello, hello!
I don’t know why you say, “Goodbye,”
I say, “Hello!”

Even if it sounds a little befuddling, as much of the later music of the Beatles did, it seems to me that that song perfectly describes what often goes on in human relationships. We say one thing, our friend hears another. We want this, they hope for that. I want to work, you want to go fishing. You want to eat out, I want to cook hamburgers at home. While you expect this, I am planning for that, so no matter what you say, I will never hear you just right, because what I want you to be saying is playing so much louder in my mind than what you actually are saying.

The disciples, fresh back from the grand entry into Jerusalem, flushed with the reflected glory of the great man to whom they had attached their lives, for whom they had given up everything to follow, these folks were ready to hear a word of triumph. Their long treks over the barren northern provinces of Palestine could finally bear fruit; having “paid their dues,” as they say in the entertainment business, they were ready now for some truly big successes. Instead, what they heard from their master were unbelievable words, words of his impending death. No wonder he knew one of their number would betray him. Surely some of them must have felt themselves to have been betrayed! How could Jesus bring them all this way only to see him die? What was to have been a victory celebration turned out to be a retirement party. I don’t know why you say “goodbye,” I say “hello."

"One of you will betray me...” Goodbye.

"...that day when I shall drink it new in the kingdom of God.” Hello.

A passage which began by preparing Jesus’ disciples for his death – at least partially through their own betrayal, denial, or falling away, saying goodbye when they meant to say hello – ends with an equally shocking surprise when Jesus anticipated a glorious kingdom to come: saying hello when they have not even begun to accustom themselves to his goodbye! It’s confusing to us. It must have been confounding to them.

There are present day hellos and goodbyes in this passage. Here we have the foundation for one of the two holiest actions of the worship of the church, the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. From Jesus’ own words, “Drink of it, all of you...,” it was clearly an action intended to bring Christians together in the future beyond Jesus’ death and resurrection. And yet, this holy hello has been one of the single most tragic occasions for division among believers. How ironic that as we despair over Jesus’ death tomorrow on the cross, tonight in different denominations – another word for the exclusion of one believer from another – we continue to tear his body asunder throughout the universal church, by our failure and refusal to even attempt to agree on this critically important act of worship. In this one great sacrament, meant to be God’s loving ‘hello’ to us, we continue to turn our backs on each other, on fellow believers. An occasion for a holy ‘hello’ has become another goodbye.

I don’t know why you say “goodbye,” I say “Hello.”

Even within our own church we individualize this sacrament to the point of eliminating any awareness of others during its celebration. The sacrament which Jesus instituted nourished each disciple individually, but it also bound them together as they were bound to him. In many of our celebrations, seated in our pews, we may have privatized it to the point that if anyone were to say “thank-you” or even clear their throat too loudly upon being handed a portion of bread, it would cause a stir, probably accompanied by raised eyebrows. “Don’t bother me now, I am having my moment alone with Jesus!” An occasion surely meant to be a ‘hello’ among believers, the New Testament version of a potluck dinner, this sacrament has become another ‘goodbye’ as we ignore one another’s presence during the serving of the holy meal.

Tonight, let me invite you to recall the fellowship aspect of the sacrament and feel free to speak to one another as you come forward to partake of the bread and wine. Nothing fancy, nothing threatening, not even anything too loud or boisterous. As the bread is offered to you, try saying a simple word of thanks. Likewise with the wine. Use one another’s names as you greet each other along the aisles. What kind of hello, holy or otherwise, fails to call us by name? No one shares a meal with another human being anonymously. Names have to be attached. “Rob, this is the body of Christ for you.” “Brenda, Jane, Tom, Pete, this is the blood of Christ for you.”

We search the gospel passage in vain for the familiar communion words from I Corinthians, “Do this in remembrance of me.” This meal, tonight especially, is not a jazzed up memorial service. Instead, probably more than on any other occasion of the church year, it is a time to participate in our oneness with Christ, a time to appreciate his living presence and our unity with each other; we are one in him, we who – sometimes at great personal cost – have chosen to follow Jesus, we are tonight declaring once again our discipleship by eating from the loaf and drinking from the cup. This requires our participation with one another as we partake of the bread and wine. We are disciples together. Speak to one another, exchange the words of life as the bread of life passes among you. I don’t know why you say “goodbye,” I say “hello."

Finally, Jesus closed this meal with a promise. The goodbye in anticipation of his death had been spoken, yet he closed their Passover meal with an unexpected word of hello: “I shall not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of heaven.” The Lord’s Supper, on this night of all nights, is not only a memorial, an occasion for fond goodbyes, but an anticipation, a divine hello on which we may rely. For very soon, Jesus will come again to claim those who are his own. Just when things may look the bleakest, just around the corner will be our Friend and Master to say to us, “I don’t know why you say ‘goodbye,’ I say ‘hello.’”

© copyright 2010 Robert J. Elder

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