Rev. Dr. John Judson
April 24, 2022
Psalm 130:1-8; Acts 1:1-14
I want to give you a word of warning this morning. If you are ever in a grocery store and you see me in a checkout line…do not get behind me. If you are ever traveling down Maple or Telegraph or any other road and see me driving. Get in another lane. If you ever see me at an ATM at the bank…go find another branch. I say this because I have been cursed with always being in the slow lane of everything. I say cursed because if anyone hates waiting it is me. I hate waiting for the microwave to finish. I hate waiting for water to boil. Now it may be that there are others here who dislike waiting as much as I do. So, let’s do a quick poll. How many of you here this morning enjoy waiting? Well, I see that I am not alone. I suppose there might have been a time when people didn’t mind waiting, but I am not sure when that was because both of our passages this morning show people’s impatience with waiting.
The Psalmist has been waiting for God to forgive and restore. Listen again to the words. “Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord; Lord, hear my voice. Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy. If you, Lord, kept a record of sins, Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, so that we can, with reverence, serve you. I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits, and in his word I put my hope. I wait for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning, more than watchmen wait for the morning. Israel, put your hope in the Lord, for with the Lord is unfailing love and with him is full redemption. He himself will redeem Israel from all their sins.” This is a person who desperately wants God to restore them but is forced to wait, and wait and wait. And the waiting is painful. The disciples are forced to wait as well. They want to know when Jesus is going to restore the kingdom…the answer is, wait. They want to know when Jesus is coming back…the answer is, wait. They want to know when the Spirit is to arrive…the answer is, wait. And I would guess that they are as happy with waiting as was the Psalmist and as are you and I.
I think one of the reasons we hate to wait is that waiting seems like a waste of time. When we have things we want to accomplish, places we want to go, personal transformations in which we want to engage, people we need to see…waiting appears to be stealing time from us; stealing time that we cannot get back. And yet, from a Biblical perspective, waiting can be some of the most productive time there is. To gain some insight into this idea, let’s return to the wilderness…the wilderness in which the people of God were sent when they fled from Egypt. They spent forty years waiting to leave the wilderness and enter the Land of Promise. That seems like a lot of waiting. Yet that period of waiting was one of discovery and discernment. It was a time of discovery because in their waiting they could receive the Torah, the Law of God. Because they were not busy building new lives and conquering new territory, they had time to listen and receive. In the same way, that time of waiting allowed them to discern that in following Torah they would find life and hope.
This is the same kind of moment in which I believe the disciples found themselves. They had followed Jesus for three years. He had been crucified and yet God raised him from the dead and he was with them for another forty days, appearing to them and to others. Now, however, Jesus was gone. His physical presence was no longer with them. The Spirit had not yet been fully manifested to instruct them. And so, the disciples…meaning not just the twelve, but many more, both men and women, were forced to confront a new reality. They were forced to confront the reality of a life of faith without Jesus. Did this mean returning to a whole hearted Judaism? Did this mean returning to their old jobs and businesses? Did this mean that they were to see themselves more as followers of Jesus, or Torah, or a combination of the two? Did this mean telling others about Jesus and if so, what ought they to tell them? What would they tell them about Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection? If the Spirit had arrived instantaneously, I don’t believe the disciples would have been able to discover and discern who they were supposed to be, what they were supposed to proclaim, or what it was they believed about Jesus and what he accomplished. Waiting gave them that chance. I say this because when Pentecost arrives, the disciples have their messaging prepared and ready to be revealed.
We are in a similar situation in that we at First Presbyterian Church are waiting. We are in that strange waiting time between the announcement of my retirement and the welcoming of a new senior pastor. For many this might seem like nothing more than a lame duck waiting period. Yet it is not. I say this because we have been about the business of discovery and discernment during these months. We invited everyone in the church to participate in the Holy Cow survey. This survey asked people’s attitudes about the church, its mission, its ministry, its direction, and its leadership. We then conducted listening sessions with a wide variety of individuals throughout the church. In those sessions we gained more insight into people’s views about the purpose and direction of the church…and tomorrow one of the members of the listening team is meeting with program staff to share some suggestions that came out of those meetings. And now we are engaging in a sermon series that will help us wrestle with not only the purpose of the church in general but of our church in particular. Thus, this time of waiting is an intentional time of discovery and discernment intended to help us continue to be the church that Jesus Christ has called us to be.
Finally, waiting can be a time of discovery and discernment for individuals as well. What I mean by that is that I believe that each of us is called to periods of waiting so that we can discover more and more who God desires us to be. Let me ask, how many of you have spent any significant time asking questions such as: what does it mean to be a follower of Jesus Christ? What does the resurrection and the possibility of new life mean for me? How does my life reflect the love and grace of God in Jesus? What does it mean for me to be a part of Everybody’s Church? How am I living out the commitments that I made to children and their parents who have been baptized in my presence? These questions are not about making any of us feel guilty or inadequate. They are instead questions that are intended to help us discover and discern who we are to be. What I am going to do then is challenge all of us to take one of these questions and wait on it. Spend time with it between now and Pentecost. Spend time reflecting on your chosen question; asking questions about it, reading about it, and seeing if this time of waiting that we share with the disciples can be a time of post-Easter growth.
Rev. Dr. John Judson
April 17, 2022
1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Luke 24:1-12
They had traveled millions of miles through space looking for the kind of peace that could not be found on earth. They finally arrived at a planet that they thought might suit them, but when they landed, the people of the plant who had seen the rocket ship land made no effort to come and greet them. The Captain of the ship was flummoxed. Why would the people whose civilization obviously had no space travel not want to come and greet him? He thought that the people might be afraid, yet a quick scan of the nearby city proved that to be untrue. People were going about their everyday lives. Irritated with being ignored, the Captain sent his subordinate into the city to discover the reason the people had not come out. When the subordinate returned, he told the Captain that the people had not come out because the landing was inconsequential. It was inconsequential because the week before the landing a man had arrived on the planet; a man for whom the people had been waiting perhaps a million years. This man had healed people, comforted the poor, and confronted the powers. The result was a world of peace. When the captain of the ship heard this story, he was shocked, stunned. “Could it be ‘him’?” he wondered. But no, that could not be. The Captain would not believe that man was the man unless there was proof. In his quest for proof the Captain first questioned the mayor of the town who verified the story. Undaunted, the Captain wanted proof of the healings. The mayor pointed to his son and told the Captain that his son had had a withered arm that was healed. That was not proof said the Captain. The mayor then had a painting brought out that showed the son with the withered arm…again not proof. Eventually the Captain interviewed thousands of people who told the same stories of healings, comfort, and peace. Regardless of their stories the Captain refused to believe until he had proof; until he had seen the man for himself. And so, the Captain entered his rocket ship once again, and headed to other planets convinced that one day he would find the man and gain the proof he desired.
This story is called “The Man” and it is a chapter in Ray Bradbury’s book “The Illustrated Man.” It was Bradbury’s way of wrestling with the struggle between proof and witness, between faith and proof. Bradbury understood that human beings are people who desire proof of things and yet often, must live by faith. Consider for a moment the COVID vaccines. How many of us, before there were vaccines, if met be a stranger on the corner saying, “Hey, listen, I have a cure for COVID in this bottle. Want some?” would have jumped at the chance to take it? Chances are not many of us would have done so because we wanted proof; the proof that comes from double blind studies and ongoing trials. We wanted proof that the vaccines were safe and effective. And desiring proof is not something new; something that only came about following the scientific revolution. Look at Peter in our morning’s story. He hears that the tomb is empty and yet he is not willing to believe the women and must go see for himself. He needs proof. And the other disciples are not even willing to go see because they very idea of an empty tomb is absurd. The question becomes then, if proof is so important, why doesn’t Luke give it to us? Why doesn’t he let us know that on that first Easter morning, someone saw the resurrected Jesus?
Let me explain. Let’s go back to Luke’s telling of the Easter story. As he tells the story there is no proof. There are simply the women who see the empty tomb and two men in white who ask the women, “Why are you looking for the living among the dead?” and declare that Jesus is risen. That’s it. There is no encounter with a physical Jesus. Granted, in Luke, encounters with the resurrected Jesus eventually come but the Easter morning story has no such meeting. This runs counter to Matthew’s and John’s telling of the tale where people meet the resurrected Jesus. Matthew has the two Marys meet Jesus as they leave the empty tomb…proof. John has Mary Magdalene meet Jesus in the garden and take hold of him…proof. Yet, Luke gives us none of that. He has the two men tell the two women, who then tell the disciples. There is no proof. Why would Luke do this? My response is that Luke tells the tale this way because this is where we are, and it is who we can become. Let me say that again. I believe Luke shapes his story in this way because we are where the women are, and we can become what the women became. Let me explain.
First, we are where the women are. We are those who have not seen, touched, or shared a meal with the physically risen Jesus. Like the women, we are dependent upon others who met the risen Christ and then told others, who told others, who told still others. We are those who are dependent on a chain of witnesses that has stretched across the last two thousand years. In that sense we are not alone. We are in the company of those for whom Luke wrote his Gospel. He wrote it for Gentiles, Greeks, who would not have seen the physically risen Jesus and were thus dependent upon other witnesses…just as the women were with the witness of the angels. We are also in the company of those Christians in Corinth to whom Paul wrote. None of them would have had any possible encounter with the resurrected Jesus and so, like us, are dependent upon the witness of those 500, and Peter, and Paul himself. And so, Luke’s telling to two witnesses, telling two more witnesses, who then tell others reminds those folks and us, that we are not alone in needing the witness of others to guide our faith. It allows us to be insiders to the story and not those thinking, “Boy if only I could have proof like Mary and the Marys.” At the same time this story is a reminder that we are not only where they are, but we can become who they are. We can become witnesses.
When I say that we are witnesses I mean more than we are those who tell the story of Jesus’ resurrection on Easter morning. What I mean is that we are witnesses to more than a story. We are witnesses to the active presence and power of the risen Jesus. In other words, because Jesus is risen and reigning, we can and do encounter him in ways that we cannot encounter other great teachers, prophets, and philosophers. Though Buddha, Confucius, Aristotle, and even Moses the Law-giver gave us insightful teaching and the Torah, none of them personally encounter and transform us as does Jesus. We have encountered the living Jesus in ways that have shaped and transformed who we are. We have encountered in the living Jesus in moments when we needed forgiveness and reconciliation and he offered it. We have encountered the living Jesus in the moments when those whom we loved took their last breath, and we knew that in Christ their lives were not over and there was a new chapter being written. And so, we become witnesses such that without having seen the physically risen Jesus, our encounters with him, like Paul’s on the road to Damascus, are real, powerful, and life transforming. We then, are witnesses not to an empty tomb, but to a risen Jesus.
At the end of the story “The Man” there is a short exchange between the mayor of the town and some of the starship crew members who stayed behind, rather than going with the captain in search of truth. This is how it goes. “Yes, poor man, he’s gone,” said the mayor. “And he’ll go on, planet after planet, seeking and seeking, and always he will be an hour late, or a half hour late, or ten minutes late, or a minute late. And finally he will miss out by only a few seconds. And when he has visited three hundred worlds and is seventy or eighty years old he will miss out by only a fraction of a second, and then a smaller fraction of a second. And he will go on and on, thinking to find that very thing which he left behind here, on this planet, in this city-” Martin looked steadily at the mayor. The mayor put out his hand. “Was there ever any doubt of it?” He beckoned to the others and turned. “Come along now. We mustn’t keep him waiting."
They walked into the city. This morning we are those who have walked into the city, who have experienced the man, the resurrected and risen one who loves, heals, forgives, and changes the world. The challenge for us then is to go and be witnesses to all we have heard and experienced of the risen Jesus.
Psalm 118:19-29; Luke 19:29-40
How many of you love Palm Sunday? I ask because it is one of my favorite Sundays of the year. I love it because the children get to fully participate, we get to sing some of my favorite hymns, there are palms being waved, and it reminds us that Spring is upon us and that Easter is only a week away. It is a wonderful Sunday. Yet, this love of Palm Sunday raises a question this morning, which is, what do we do with a palmless Palm Sunday? Meaning what do we do with a Palm Sunday story that has no palms? Or, no crowds chanting Jesus’ name? I ask because our story this morning has none of those elements. If we look at Luke’s retelling of Jesus’ entry into the city, we cannot find palms, or shouting crowds, though we do find a few people laying their cloaks on the road. The only people who are engaged in any sort of outcry are the disciples. Why no palms? Why no crowds? Why, in fact, if we are honest with the text is Jesus not the center of attention as he is in the other stories? The answer I would give you this morning is that what I believe Luke is doing is offering us a look at the disciples’ final exam before Jesus’ arrest and death. Let me explain.
Jesus has taken three years to train his followers. He has taught them. He has mentored them. He has sent them out to test their skills. He has quizzed them and challenged them. But now the hour has come and Jesus’ in-person ministry here on earth is coming to an end. And so, the question becomes, are the disciples ready? Can they do what Jesus desires them to do after he is gone? Thus, in Luke’s mind, Jesus sets the stage for a three-part exam…all of the parts of which are central not only to the coming ministry of the disciples and the church, but they have their roots in Jewish scriptures. In other words, the three parts of this exam have been given to God’s people from Genesis through Malachi; from creation to the coming of Christ. And here are the three parts: listening, acting, and professing. Jesus wants to know if the disciples are prepared to do these three things.
Jesus begins by testing the disciples on their listening skills. He offers them a series of commands which seem a bit complicated and convoluted. “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, “Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.” Even for Jesus who has said and done many strange things, this was a bit odd. Why did he need a donkey? Why one on which no one had ridden? How will we know which donkey is the right donkey? Will this all work or will we get arrested for stealing some guy’s donkey? The questions were endless. But the heart of this request was whether the disciples would listen with attentive ears making them capable of carrying out this series of requests; because if they could not remember this set of instructions, how could they remember all that Jesus had taught them? For you see, listening is key to the faith of God’s people. Throughout the Old Testament when God’s people listened; listened to the Torah, listened to the prophets, listened to God, things went well for them. They became capable of living lives filled with abundance and joy. When they failed to listen to Torah, the prophets, and God, they wandered away from life giving ways and towards death dealing ways. Jesus wanted to know if the disciples were listening.
Jesus continues the test by seeing if the disciples will act. Will they be faithful to the command that Jesus has given them? This was always the question because it is one thing to listen and take in information, but it is another to follow through on the information that is given. I’m not sure if any of you have noticed this about people who come to you for advice. They listen, but then they often simply go and do what they were always planning to do in the first place. We often see the same thing at school, or work, or in society, in that regardless of how much information is given and how much people listen to and take in this information, they never act on that information. This was the tendency of the people of God. In the book of Judges, the continuing line is that even though the people listened to God they would always then go and do what was “right in their own eyes.” So, would the disciples listen and act? The answer is yes. “So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, ‘Why are you untying the colt?’ They said, ‘The Lord needs it.’ Then they brought it to Jesus.” The disciples have now passed the first two parts of the exam: they listened, and they acted.
The third part of the exam will be the most difficult, at least in Luke’s telling of the tale, because to profess is a dangerous act. In the other stories there are crowds that celebrate Jesus’ coming into the city. It is as if there is this great groundswell of support for Jesus and his message of God’s love and Torah faithfulness. In a sense, in the other tellings the disciples sort of disappear into the crowds clamoring for a messiah. Yet here the disciples stand alone. If anyone is going to profess Jesus as king, it will be his followers and no one else. We know that this is dangerous because to pronounce anyone other than Caesar or Caesar’s appointed king as king, was to be in open rebellion against the powers of the moment. We know this is dangerous as well, because the Pharisees are worried and tell Jesus to still his followers. And by the way I think the Pharisees are worried about Jesus because they had earlier warned him not to go to Jerusalem because the Romans there were looking to do him in. Again, this has always been the struggle of the people of God. In the face of the principalities and powers of the world, would the people of God proclaim that YHWH was king? Would they be willing to publicly declare that that their first loyalty was to God and to God’s messiah, Jesus? How did the disciples do? “As Jesus was approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power they had seen, saying, Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord.” They professed. They passed.
So, what about us? How are we doing? Well, if this morning is any indication, I think we are passing as well. I say this because of Allison and her baptism. This morning we listened to Jesus call us to welcome children in his name and to the Apostle Peter who tells us that the promises of God’s love are for the children of those who believe. Then we acted. We came together as a community and baptized Allison. And as a reminder, baptism in the Presbyterian church is an act of the whole community which is why we don’t do private baptisms. But we acted on what we heard. Finally, we professed. We professed that this baptism was not simply an act of a secular community, or a rite of passage, but it was an act of a community that believes in the love and grace of God in Jesus Christ and that that love and grace has claimed Allison.
The challenge for us then as individuals is to put ourselves to the same three-part test as were the disciples, and as we are as a community. It is to ask ourselves, am I listening to God in Christ, am I acting on what I hear, and am I professing to others that my way of living and loving is because I am a follower of Jesus? That is my challenge for all of us this week and always.
Rev. Bethany Peerbolte